Monday, December 31, 2007

Thoughts on the New Year

"New Year's eve is like every other night; there is no pause in the march of the universe, no breathless moment of silence among created things that the passage of another twelve months may be noted; and yet no man has quite the same thoughts this evening that come with the coming of darkness on other nights."

~Hamilton Wright Mabie

"New Year's Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."

~Mark Twain

"The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective."

~G.K. Chesterton

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Speaking of Old . . .

I don't know why I suggested that my idol Mary Tyler Moore was old, because today is my birthday, and I am not exactly a spring chicken, nor am I as glamorous as MTM, which is why I chose this symbolic "moving down the road" picture which I took last spring. It seems like an appropriate visual for a December birthday.

My sons have chosen to spend the day fighting, so like any survivor, I am trying to stick to lowland ditches and the occasional lean-to in order to avoid being drawn into the fray. :)

But my mom and sister rescued me at one point and took me out to lunch, and that was a nice distraction for us all. People with boys will understand that Christmas vacation is about two weeks too long . . .

But happy birthday to me anyway.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Want to Feel Old?

The beautiful and talented Mary Tyler Moore turns seventy-one today. How did that happen?

Gosh, it doesn't seem that long ago that I was snug in my childhood living room, watching the double feature of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, which at the time was the best stuff on tv (and still is, if you watch the re-runs).

And it doesn't seem long before that I was watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, where a doe-eyed Mary was eternally sweet and supportive and slender as a teen in her 1950s fashions. I did prefer her as the 1970s Mary, though, the Mary who got her own job and her own apartment and threw her hat right up into the air to show how happy she was with that state of affairs.

There are some stars who just never grow old in my mind, and MTM is one of those--sort of eternally youthful but with the wisdom and grace of age.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Disposing of Ourselves

As mystery readers and writers, we spend some time thinking about how to dispose of bodies, those convenient plot devices that really have very little to do with actual death and very much to do with puzzles.

We've had a death in the family, and we've spent some time verifying the desires of my mother-in-law in regard to her burial. She requested cremation, and it was decided that her ashes would be placed near her parents' graves.

However, as we made these arrangements we all got to talking, naturally, about what we ourselves will want when that time comes--when we move forward into the ultimate mystery. We discussed how we wanted to dispose of ourselves.

My husband has a sort of glorious vision of being launched into outer space. Who knows--maybe there's a company somewhere that will actually do that for people. Or he might change his mind as time goes on.

His sister heard of a place that will put one's ashes inside a sphere and drop it into the ocean where new coral reefs are being formed. She would like that.

My father says he would like his ashes sprinkled in the Michigan woods. I lean toward that myself. I am not particularly fond of airplane travel or of sea travel, and I think my ashes should be just as earthbound as my mortal frame has been.

Talking about this is almost a necessity when someone has died; it allows us to ally ourselves with that person, to admit that we will all share the same fate. But it also admits a slightly more positive view of death--a way to imagine something spectacular or beautiful to offset what is unfamiliar or frightening.

This Christmas had its special joys, just like Christmases past, but they were somehow more beautiful because of their fragility, and because of the recent reminder of that great unknown beyond momentary life.

The picture above was created when I snapped a shot of my parents' Christmas tree. Somehow it's all out of focus and you can't see the actual ornaments I was trying to capture--but it's almost more beautiful this way. The particular magic of life is the potential of another life beyond it, one that is now out of focus but which may one day become clear.

And in thinking about that moment when we might cross the bar, we are trying to bring that potential beauty into focus.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

From A Child's Christmas in Wales

From A Child’s Christmas in Wales
Dylan Thomas

“Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like pure and grandfather moss, minutely white ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb numb thunderstorm of white torn Christmas cards.

‘Were there postmen then too?’

‘With sprinkling eyes and wind cherried noses, on spread frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was the ringing of bells.’

‘You mean the postman went rat-a-tat tat and the doors rang?’

‘I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Very Best To You

Back in high school I learned a Christmas song that pretty much sums up everything one could say as a seasonal wish:

Have a very happy holiday
May your home be filled with happiness;
May your Christmas be a jolly day
For every one you love and bless--
May your troubles all be tiny ones,
And your faults be not worth mentioning--
May your new year be the very best it possibly could be!

Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Mystery of Loss

We heard yesterday that my husband's mother had died, after years of suffering with Alzheimer's Disease. It would be inappropriate to say she "battled" the illness, because any weapons one might use against that gradual decline are taken from the beginning, along with memory and the particular dignity that memory brings.

My mother-in-law had early onset Alzheimer's; she was only in her early sixties when she began to show signs of forgetfulness, of repeating herself, of putting things in odd places, or losing things entirely. But she had always been smart, a sharp mind, and she found all sorts of elaborate ways to "cover" for the fact that she would forget things--even, sometimes, her children's names. She was a happy person who loved to laugh, who loved babies, particularly her three grandchildren. The cruelest trick of this disease was that it convinced her, eventually, that she did not know them when they came to see her: she, who had loved them so passionately all their lives, would look at them quizzically and say, "These little boys think I'm their grandmother."

Alzheimer's is the thief who takes everything: one's disposition, one's memory, one's sense of self. At the end, it even takes one's awareness of her own existence. In this case, it was life that was cruel and death which was a mercy. Even the evils of cancer might allow one the luxury of goodbyes at death. Alzheimer's makes a person drift away day by day, year by year, until nothing of them is left but the frail shell that breathes delicately in the bed.

At that moment of death, then, that moment when the soul is freed from the cage of the body, from the useless mind, there is a certain beauty. But for the family, there is that rush of grief that has been held suspended in a five-year death. Grief for loss, anger at what was endured.

And then the memories, cobwebbed, come drifting down. They are exquisitely painful, but someday they will be beautiful, comforting. And they are the only revenge: that her memory was taken, but ours was not. We will remember her.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Cookies and Holiday Exhaustion

My son reminded me when I got home today that he needed thirty gingerbread men cookies for his birthday treat the following day--the last day before Christmas (his birthday is the 23rd). "Oh, wow, I forgot about that," I said. "Would they settle for chocolate chip?"

He drooped. "It's sort of a tradition." This was true. I've been making them for him since he was a little tike.

"Okay," I said, feeling sentimental. So off to the store I went, only to find that two different stores didn't have the dough-in-a-tube that I was counting on. I looked for a box mix. No going. Apparently no one who worked there had ever heard of gingerbread--and this was a giant store! I called Ian at home and told him to find me the from-scratch recipe and read me the ingredients. He did so, and I packed them all into the cart, until I got to "Molasses." There was none on the shelf. A trip to the service desk, a page to the grocery department, and I was told that they were out of molasses. Of course.

I finally did find a box mix and dragged back home to start making it. While I was rolling the dough, I heard sounds of a typical boy argument: one taunting, one reacting. Then I heard a little voice: "Mom! Ian's being a jerk right by Christmas!"

"Stop it," I said. Cookies in the oven and more rolling. Finally I had a batch cooled and ready to write names on. I held my frosting tube ready, prepared to make fat letters on each tiny man. "Ian," I said. "Start reading me names." Ian floated in with his class list.

"Okay. The first one is Stephanie."

"You're joking," I said.

"You can call her Steph," he offered. It ended up looking more like Step, but how could they complain? I was attempting to validate their identities in frosting. They'd cut me some slack, right?

"There. Next?"


I sighed. They were all like that. His classmates have the longest names in the world, and apparently they actually call each other by these formal monikers like Mary Katherine and Benjamin. I did the best I could with each cookie while my nine-year-old continually crept in to steal dough. Soon, I knew, he would tell me he had a stomach ache.

Finally the cookies were labeled, packed, and carefully stowed away until tomorrow's delivery. I had earned my mother's stripes for another year. But I was strangely exhausted; making cookies is not an arduous task, but one would think I'd just run a marathon.

The good news is that after tomorrow I'll be on a holiday break. Sure, I'll have to bring papers and journals and projects home with me, unwelcome as they might be in my holiday relaxation plans. But there should be plenty of put-up-your-feet-and-read time, and no "Mom I need this tomorrow" emergencies for a blessed two weeks.

On the other hand, there will be fighting--lots of fighting. So I'll have to polish off my referee shirt and accept the idea: there's no vacation from being a mom--not even at Christmas. :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mysterious Phenomena

My dad, who gets all sorts of cool e-mail from sources unknown, forwarded me some pictures of a recent freak of nature on the Sydney coast: foam, light as the froth on your cappucino, formed by churning water and a combination of salt and impurities in its depths, created an interesting dilemma for those who wanted to swim or surf.

Just when you thought you'd seen everything Nature had to offer . . .

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Poisons

In doing some research on the Christmas Rose, I have found that the entire plant is extremely toxic, despite its beauty and its availability as a seasonal decoration. This would make an interesting plot point in a holiday mystery, I suppose.

Paradoxically, this same flower, in my dictionary of flower symbols, stands for "relief from anxiety." Is this because poison relieves us of our anxiety by killing us? Or is it perhaps simply that looking at something beautiful can lessen our anxious thoughts?

In any case, I've never run across this particular flower, but botanists on the Cornell website warn that one should be careful in placing it near cats, dogs, or children, who can be the more "playful" members of our family--that is, the ones in danger of eating a plant. :)

I guess I'll stick with the pointsettia--oh, wait . . . that's poisonous, too.

Plastic flowers it shall be!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Midwestern Maelstrom

It doesn't seem that long since I was posting about last year's snows (ou sont les neiges d'antan?), yet here we are again, watching the white flakes come hurtling from the sky. Last night all I could see to photograph were the darkness and the droplets coming down. The only things visible were our brave little Christmas lights.
Today, though, we are left with sun and at least two feet of snow, which I just attempted to shovel. Now I know why people are stricken with heart attacks when shoveling stuff like this. It's heavy, cement-like, and I was exerting myself as much as a hay-baler out there.

Still, this is my Midwestern weather, and I love it. That's the paradox of life around here. :)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Karen Harper Chats About History, Mystery, and the Lonely Act of Writing

Karen Harper is a bestselling author in a variety of genres, including historical mysteries. She consented to a quick Q and A during this busy holiday season.

Thanks for chatting with me, Karen, and Merry Christmas. You write all sorts of things: mysteries, romances, historical novels. Do you have a favorite genre?
I have written mysteries, suspense, romance and historical novels. I love the variety of writing in all those genres. I've been having great fun with romantic suspense the last ten years; my first love, which I have returned to recently, is historical novels. Two of my very early historicals have recently been rereleased: THE LAST BOLEYN and THE FIRST PRINCESS OF WALES, some of my "emotional favorites." Settings are very important to me and Tudor or Medieval are my favorite eras. I also have favorite contemporary settings: SW Florida, where I live part of the year; Amish Ohio; and Appalachia. I have written more than one book set in these places.

You have taught both high school and college English. Do you write full time now? If so, do you ever miss teaching?
I do miss some aspects of teaching, since I've been writing full-time for almost twenty-two years. I miss high school and college age kids--knowing "what's happening." I miss the act of teaching, and having colleagues, since writing can be lonely and I don't see my author friends daily. However, there is so much more freedom in what I do now. I don't miss a daily commute, lesson plans, etc.

I must say that does sound attractive. You’ve written more than twenty books; that’s a lot! Do you write quickly? How long does it take you to write a novel?
I have written forty-four novels since 1982. I can usually write a book in 4-5 months, if I have all the research and planning done before I begin. However, getting ready to write a book can take years of thinking and planning and reading.

Your biography says that you love the British Isles, where your “Scottish and English roots run deep.” How far have you traced your ancestry?
My husband and I have traced our Scottish ancestry through the usual hard work, but also by going to Scotland and visiting places to do the research. That is more fun than fun. My Scottish family are Bentons (clan Forbes) from near Aberdeen; the Harpers are Buchanens from near Stirling. My husband plays the bagpipes, and I did Scottish Highland dancing for years, so we really got into the culture.

That is wonderful! You taught at Ohio State University. Are you a native Ohioan?

I am a native Ohioan, born in Toledo, did undergrad work in English at Ohio University in Athens; grad work at Ohio State in Columbus. I met my husband in Columbus and have lived there for thirty-five years. We spend some time in Florida each year, so I consider that a second home.

Do you ever find time to read? If so, what are you reading now?
I binge read between my own research books and writing. I am just about to begin JANE BOLEYN: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford. This is the woman who married George Boleyn, brother to Anne. I do read a great variety of things.

Newsday said of your book The Tidal Poole, “Elizabethan history has never been this appealing.” How do you make history so appealing?
I strive to make history appealing by pulling the reader into the lives of the characters. One of my favorite compliments goes something like this: "I used to hate history, but when I read your books, I find it really intriguing."

You’re a bestselling writer. What was your reaction the first time one of your books hit the bestseller list? How did you find out?
I have been fortunate to make both the USA TODAY and the NY Times lists. When I made the Times list I was on a book tour in Seattle and came in to the hotel room to find a message from my agent. I must have replayed that about 10 times before I could believe it. I had no one to celebrate with, so I started calling people, my husband, my mother. The next day, my author friend Susan Wiggs, who lives out there, took the ferry over to the mainland and we celebrated with lunch and a lot of laughter.

Do you have any favorite hobbies, aside from writing?
Hobbies aside from writing: I grow African violets and help to "grow" and babysit my 8-year-old grandson, who--thank heavens--loves to read and has a great imagination. He has advised me to write a book about dinosaurs and make the T-Rex the star. I used to do a lot of needlepoint, but that has gone by the way in a time crunch.

You and I were chatting about some of the great mystery and suspense writers from the 50s and 60s. Who were some of your favorites, and how did they influence you?
My favorite and most influential writers from the 60s were Jan Wescott, Jan Cox Speas, and Anya Seton. These brilliant women are long dead, but their books still hold the test of time--beautiful blends of romance and history. Of course, the Jean Plaidy books are in this category also. (My first passion, as with many American girls, was Nancy Drew.)

Will you be attending any writers’ conferences this year?

I love to attend writers conferences to see friends and editors, to teach, and to learn. In 2008, I'm going to the Romance Writers national conference in San Francisco and to SleuthFest in South Florida, a Mystery Writers of American gathering. Last year I attended ThrillerFest in NYC and Malice Domestic in Washington D.C.

Are you working on a book now?

I am currently between books. Actually, I just handed in (which in this day and age means e-mailed) a romantic suspense to my editor at Mira Books, THE HIDING PLACE, which will be out in Nov. '08, 9 months after BELOW THE SURFACE, which is out Feb. '08. Beginning in January, I will begin another suspense for Mira. Meanwhile, I am hatching an idea for another Tudor-era historical novel. I recently sold MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE to Penguin/Putnam, the story of the true love of William Shakespeare's life. It won't be out until Jan. of 2009, however.

What are your plans for the holidays?
My plans for the holidays are to be with our two daughters and their families on Christmas Eve, then with our son and his wife who live in St. Augustine, FL shortly after. We have already celebrated with my 86 years old mother, who lives about 3 hours from here; she will be with my brother and his family on Christmas. It's a busy, but blessed season of the year.

How can readers find out more about you and your books?
Readers can find out more about me and my books at my website or by visiting or Crown books. There are links to these publishers' sites on my website.

Happy reading to everyone.

Thanks, Karen!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Coming Soon

Coming Soon To This Blog:

--An interview with mystery writer Karen Harper.

--More of my patented "nostalgic story" entries.

--Deconstructing the holidays through the lens of mystery.

--A holiday surprise.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Nine-Year-Old Re-Vamps WHITE CHRISTMAS

My son made me a generous pledge, in the spirit of Christmas: that he would watch any movie with me that I might choose, even if it was a movie he didn't like. This offer would last, he assured me, all through Christmas break. This is quite a sacrifice if you take into account how boring both of my boys find my movie choices.

He started off by joining me in the viewing of one of my holiday favorites, White Christmas. (Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen). He watched intently enough, asking "Who is this guy? Is he a main character? Will we see him again?"

Then, when Wallace and Davis (Crosby and Kaye's characters) were packing to take a train to New York but also maintaining a snappy patter, Graham furrowed his brows. "Why do they keep throwing things to each other?" he asked.

"They're packing," I said. But he was right: they were doing a lot of throwing.

And the dancing was problematic: little boys aren't thrilled with the dancing--at least not this little boy.

"Why is she taking such giant steps?" he asked during the "Mandy" number.

"It's part of the dance."

"It isn't a good part," he said.

Later still, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen had a wonderful romantic dance to the song "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing." Vera's lovely ethereal dress flipped and floated, and she and Kaye seemed to defy gravity before he dipped her, her blonde hair floating downward, in a romantic embrace near the moonlit water.

"Wouldn't it be funny if he threw her into the pool?" Graham asked.

Now I was the one frowning. "That wouldn't be romantic, Graham."

"It would be better, though."

Maybe he's right. I like White Christmas for many reasons, but several of them are related to nostalgia. As a modern movie, it wouldn't last long unless there was a kidnapping or a bikini scene or a car chase.

Or if someone threw Vera Ellen into a pool.

In any case, by the end of the movie he had practically lost interest. "So that's it?" he said. "He ends up with the girl?"

"And it snows. And they made the general happy."

"Yeah, okay," said my son. I wonder if he's re-thinking his former generosity. But too late now. A gift is a gift, and I'm not returning it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Parties Have Started

I enjoyed a lovely Christmas celebration today with many of the members of MWA Midwest at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore.

For more on this auspicious event, check out Poe's Deadly Daughters today.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Devil Reinterpreted

Since I've been telling some nostalgic stories, I'll tell another that will lead into some literary recommendations.

When my older son was about five, he saw some tv commercial which comically depicted a stereotypical devil waiting in line for food. He said "Who's that?"

"That's the devil," I answered.

"Who does he fight?" asked my super-hero oriented son.

"Um, he doesn't really fight anyone. He supposedly lives in a place called hell, and they say if you are mean and bad during your life you have to go live with the devil in hell."

"And then who does he fight?" he asked.

Obviously kids aren't being raised with much fear of the devil these days, although I did occasionally stoop to a "liars go to hell" sermon when I thought the boys were dishonest. It was only half-hearted, though, because I have a very uncertain notion of the devil. But that's not for lack of reading about him.

Three of my favorite novels which offer an interpretation of the devil are Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (which is dominated by a theme of good versus evil), C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, which suggests that there are many demons in hell and that Screwtape, a "senior demon," wrote a series of letters to advise a younger one. Then there's Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, which contains all sorts of bitterly ironic definitions.

Maybe once my sons start reading this in school they'll add to their understanding of the devil's history; even in the Catholic schools they don't put much emphasis on Lucifer these days.

C.S. Lewis, though, did believe in the existence of demons and the notion of evil, and he was disturbed by the idea that people would popularized or parody the devil as a way of ignoring a real threat.

Art link here.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Snows Have Started

This is my parents' back yard; my dad sent the image to me the other day, when the first of the Midwest winter storms hit, December 1st on the dot, as though Mother Nature were following our calendar. Everything was transformed; all of the trees were cloaked in magical white.

Here at home, the boys went bravely out into the snow without the proper clothing; I couldn't find the snow pants, which at some point I had put into a box and carefully labeled. Box and pants are AWOL, gone into that Bermuda Triangle that is my attic. But I wanted to show you this picture which captures the major distinction between children and adults: my son, taking a snowball square in the face, and laughing.

I think there was a time, in the distant past, when I might have laughed about snow in the face, cold water dripping down under my clothes and onto my bare neck and chest--but those days are gone. Still, it's amusing to see somone love snow so much, love winter so much, when all I can think about is the driving, and wondering how hazardous it will be. Where did the child in me go? Is she, too, in my attic? Perhaps I'll make it my goal, this Christmas, to reclaim her before I forget who she is.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Happy St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas comes tonight. My boys are too old for him, really, but he kindly fills their boots anyway (and those are some jumbo boots these days).

He is the spirit of generosity that heralds the holidays, and he is a part of my tradition. My German mother ushered him into our lives, and we always woke to boots full of big brown walnuts and huge red apples, as well as little German chocolates and tiny gifties. In thirty years St. Nick hasn't changed all that much, although some of the wee toys are quite techno and modern.

Speaking of holidays, I believe my friend BILL CAMERON has some holiday give-aways going on. Check him out and win a free Christmas present.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Defending the Dumb

I read a poem once which addressed that great mystery of why some living creatures are given a voice and some are not. Added to that, we were discussing insects in class the other day and the majority of students attested that bugs and spiders gave them "the creeps," and that they killed them instantly. But one girl insisted that no insects should be killed, and that she had a "bug vacuum" which gently pulled in the creatures so that she could safely deposit them outside.

I had never heard of a bug vacuum, but it did make me wonder again about that great cosmic question: in killing a bug, am I taking a life I was not supposed to take? If one of the commandments forbids killing, does that include bugs?

In honor of this theme, I present a poem by Christina Rossetti, who was born on this day in 1830. Rossetti, I fear, would be an advocate for the bugs.

A Word For The Dumb

"Pity the sorrows of a poor old Dog
Who wags his tail a-begging in his need:
Despise not even the sorrows of a Frog,
God’s creature too, and that’s enough to plead:
Spare Puss who trusts us purring on our hearth:
Spare Bunny once so frisky and so free:
Spare all the harmless tenants of the earth:
Spare, and be spared:—or who shall plead for thee?"

--Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Christmas Sans Pants

One of the reasons I write child characters into my mysteries is that my sons give me so much material, it would be a shame not to write about it. Because the holidays have made me nostalgic, I'll share one with you now, in what I am calling CHRISTMAS ANECDOTE NUMBER ONE. :)

When my youngest son was about two or three, he was quite vocal and didn't even really speak in "baby talk," but in sophisticated sentences. However, he didn't always know the proper word for things, and he called Santa Claus "Christmas."

One day we were at a restaurant with a sort of French decor, and on one wall was a large painting of a Harlequin-like figure with a red hat, a tunic, and tights. Graham looked up from some rather aggressive coloring of his children's menu and said, "Look, Mom! It's Christmas without pants!"

I know that's how I like to spend Christmas, especially after a big meal. :)

(art link here).

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Cozy Chat With Diana Vickery

Diana Vickery is a Chicago-area writer who created the popular Cozy Library.

Diana, you created the Cozy Library Site, and you describe it as “a place for readers to connect with authors they might not have read ... and to learn more about their favorite authors.” What made you want to do this? Did you feel that people didn’t have enough reading options?
Readers have lots of options – that’s the problem. There are so many books to sort through and that’s where the Cozy Library, I believe, can help.

I spent much of my professional life as a writer. My last job before retirement was writing and editing two monthly internal newsletters for a Fortune 500 company. The Cozy Library was my way to continue writing (which I love) once I decided my days of working for pay were over. I asked myself, “What do I want to write about now that I can choose?”

At that time, I had been writing reviews for Mystery News for about four years and really enjoying it. I thought maybe I could just do more of that type of writing in retirement. Although I have always read both cozy and non-cozy books, my favorites are of the feel-good variety, so that’s why I decided on the cozy niche – fiction, non-fiction and mystery. I also discovered that many reviewers won’t touch anything that’s cozy – too lightweight in their view, I guess -- so, as a consequence, they’re reviewed less than harder-edged books. I’d like to help remedy that.

Has there been a large response to the Cozy Library?
I’ve got nothing to compare the statistics with, but I believe that having an average of 250-350 daily visitors is pretty good, especially considering I haven’t done much PR for the site. My website guru, Kim Washetas of Scout Computer Resources, Inc., is very impressed with the visitor loyalty. According to the statistics her company subscribes to, Cozy Library visitors are incredibly loyal – many visiting multiple days each month and spending considerable time viewing different pages. (She’s going to be writing an article for the next issue of Cozy Times newsletter about that very topic.)

What I really love is hearing from readers. They write with suggestions for new authors to include on the site (Deborah Grabien comes to mind) or with their thanks for the site’s helping locate a new author they love. One woman wrote that she was going through a tough patch and a book she found on the site was just what she needed to help her through it. It doesn’t get much better than that!

I’ve also received a great response from authors. Even before the site was live, the authors I contacted were extremely generous with their time, support and advice. Among the early cheerleaders were Gail R. Fraser, Joan Medlicott and Susan Wittig Albert (one mention on her blog generated 250 new subscribers to the Cozy Times). Elaine Viets helped spread the word about the Cozy Library among her fellow authors and Katherine Hall Page regularly expresses her appreciation of the Cozy Times newsletter. I almost hate to start mentioning names because many more authors have been so wonderful and I hate to miss anyone!

What a terrific response. How long have you been a book lover?
According to my mom’s notes in my baby book, I was a book lover before I reached my second birthday. (I’m attaching the relevant page.) By the time I was twelve, I had devoured every book in the bookmobile and was chomping at the bit to move upstairs into the adult section of the library in downtown Aurora, Illinois. My pleasure reading abated while I was in high school and college (although I read everything James Michener and John Hersey wrote back then). I started regularly reading fiction and mysteries in 1976 and haven’t stopped since. I estimate I’ve read 2-3 thousand of them. (If you’re wondering, I DO have a life outside books, too. I read pretty fast – although I don’t consider myself a speed reader because I read every word and seldom skim.)

That is impressive, though. On your site you link to a variety of blogs, and you cite the staggering statistic that there are more than 50 million blogs online. Wow! Are you surprised that so many people want to express themselves in blogular form?
Throughout history humans have had a burning desire to express themselves – I believe it’s a way of living on forever. That desire is demonstrated by cave paintings, diaries, journals, personal essays, etc. Blogs are just the latest thing. My degrees are in journalism and I’m quite disappointed in the quality of corporate-owned mass media today. But blogs are one way to carry on the true duty of journalism: “to print the news and raise hell” as Wilbur F. Storey said. Granted, many blogs have quite small audiences but more and more are generating huge followings and making a difference.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Lye in Wait, a fun cozy mystery by a new author, Cricket McRae. I’m also reading Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub for my non-fiction readers’ group. I’ve just started Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly by Robert Dalby. It’s the first in a new fiction series set in Second Creek, Mississippi – which is like Mitford on caffeine.

What a great description!

You have a link on your site called the “Holiday Page” in which you reference articles, recipes, and gift ideas. It’s terrific! Do you always think of new things to add to the library?

The Cozy Library is very personal – I put things on the site that I find interesting or entertaining. It’s not like I need to base my content decisions on whether I can make a profit – or that I need to run it by a committee to get someone’s approval. I just need to please me. (That sounds pretty decadent, doesn’t it?)

Yes, but wonderful. You are sponsoring a big event next year at your local library. What’s it all about?
When I started my site in Feb 2006, Debbie, the librarian who plans author visits, said, “We’re going to throw you a party to launch it.” So, she planned the Cozy Library Extravaganza for October that year. I invited authors featured in the Cozy Library to participate – and five of them did: Charlene Ann Baumbich, Rhys Bowen, Sharon Fiffer, Suzanne Strempek Shea and Denise Swanson. Dozens more sent materials for us to pass out at the event and an independent bookstore brought in the five authors’ books to sell. Debbie is planning another event for October 2008 – and we’re certain to have at least five authors attending. I can’t say who right now because not all the commitments are firm. It’s quite appropriate that the event is at a library because public libraries all over the country are great referrers to the Cozy Library site – many have a link to it on their sites.

You have retired, but you strike me as a very busy person. How much time do you devote to library things, both Cozy and otherwise?
If I count the hours spent reading books for review, I’d have to say I average 2-3 hours per day. As I mentioned earlier, I do have a life outside books. My husband and I sail on Lake Michigan and are getting more and more into genealogy. We love to hike nearby trails and do some traveling. Since my husband retired this summer, I spend less time on the site. With more than 500 pages of content, I can rest on my laurels, right?

What are some of your holiday traditions? Do you drive to downtown Chicago to see the lights?

We’re not big on holiday celebrations. Some years we don’t even put up a Christmas tree. But I do love Christmas media – I collect Christmas books, movies and music. My family has one traditional holiday dish, a French-Canadian recipe my mother learned from her mother. It’s called “creton,” a cold pork pate we spread on doughy white bread (Rainbo was the childhood choice), put on a little salt and pepper, and eat open-faced with a side of Jay’s Potato Chips. The recipe is published in the current issue of Ancestry’s online magazine here.

There’s a picture of you at age eight on the CL site. You look quite mischievous. Is this a word that describes you?

I don’t recall ever being called mischievous to my face, but I wouldn’t disagree.

What’s happening with you and Cozy Library in the coming year?
I won’t make any predictions about the Cozy Library – but whatever happens, I guarantee it will be cozy!

Thanks very much for chatting, Diana. Have a great New Year.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

It's That Time of Year . . .

It's that time of year. Yes, when the world falls in love, but also when I am grading research papers. This is a solemn and noble duty, and, as Inspector Clouseau once said, "A part of life's rich pageant." :)

Based on what I've read so far, I can assure anyone reading this that young people can still think like scholars and write intelligently--that wasn't exclusive to our generation, although I have chatted with some adults who believe it was.

I say, if an eighteen-year-old can push away the cell phone and the text messaging, the computer, the television, and sit down to write a paper which assures me that Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov and Camus' Meursault share an existential isolation, and can proceed with a lucid argument supported by examples, then the world of scholarship is in good shape.

So I am grateful for my scholars, even if I am not grateful for the pile of papers that seems never to grow smaller. Maybe I am the one in existential isolation . . .

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Songs of Experience

On this day in 1757, British poet, printmaker, and painter William Blake was born. Blake was considered great for many things, but I am fond particularly of his poetry; in Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, Blake did as his title promised. The first book celebrates moments of innocence, happiness, and joy in the world. The second examines the loss of innocence from a variety of causes, including the material world. One of my favorites from the latter is a companion piece to a poem from Book One called "The Lamb." This one, naturally, examines the lamb's natural predator.


By William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand forged thy dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


In Blake's poem is the examination of another kind of mystery--the one at the heart of creation, and the question of how "evil" can exist next to goodness, and what sort of world, what sort of Creator, would put them together.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ancient Mysteries: The Sator Square

While looking on the W.W.Web for something else, I ran across something really interesting. It's called the Sator Square; it's an ancient Latin palindrome. Its meaning, though, is subject to interpretation. The phrase reads "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas" in every direction, frontward and backward, up and down.

According to a 2003 article by Rose Mary Sheldon in Cryptologia, "The sator square is one of the oldest, unsolved word puzzles in the world. Examples of the square and numerous variations on it, have been found in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Examples date from first-century Rome to the nineteenth century. Many questions have plagued scholars: Who composed it? What do the words mean? How has it been used in magic, religion, medicine and superstition ever since? Does the solution lie with mathematicians, philologists or theologians? All these questions remain unsolved, but the number of attempts by scholars to answer them grows yearly."

I found that there are endless websites dedicated to solving the mystery of this square and its meaning. One source, here, suggests that there are several possible interpretations:

"The usual translation is as follows:

'Sower', 'planter'
Likely an invented proper name; its similarity with arrepo, from ad repo, 'I creep towards', is coincidental
'he holds'
'(with) work', '(with care)', '(with) effort'
Two possible translations of the phrase are 'The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort' and 'The sower Arepo leads with his hand (work) the plough (wheels).' C. W. Ceram read the square boustrophedon (in alternating directions), with tenet repeated. This produces Sator opera tenet; tenet opera sator, translated: 'The Great Sower holds in his hand all works; all works the Great Sower holds in his hand.' (Ceram 1958, p. 30)

The word arepo is enigmatic, appearing nowhere else in Latin literature. Most of those who have studied the Sator Square agree that it is a proper name, either an adaptation of a non-Latin word or a name invented specifically for this sentence. Jerome Carcopino thought that it came from a Celtic, specifically Gaulish, word for plough. David Daube argued that it represented a Hebrew or Aramaic rendition of the Greek Αλφα ω, or "Alpha-Omega" (cf. Revelation 1:8) by early Christians. J. Gwyn Griffiths contended that it came, via Alexandria, from the attested Egyptian name Ḥr-Ḥp, which he took to mean "the face of Apis"."

I find the whole thing fascinating; as one of the articles pointed out, though, this is a mystery that can never be solved--only analyzed. And those, to me, are the most compelling mysteries of all.

(Photo image:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

CHAT 100: Crime Writer Martin Edwards on The Lure of Ciphers, The Beauty of Venice, and The Stories That Linger

I'm celebrating my 100th blog interview by chatting with Martin Edwards, a British crime writer who has won international accolades and whose style, according to Crime Time, blends "the style of the traditional English detective story with a darker noir sensibility."

Hello, Martin! I’ve been investigating your site and there’s a lot to see. I was struck by Ed Gorman’s words: “Martin Edwards is one of the finest stylists and most perceptive crime writers of his generation.” Other critics have similar praise. How did you get started writing crime novels?
As a child, I loved reading and always wanted to tell my own stories. When I was nine, I saw the film Murder Most Foul based (loosely, I later realized) on an Agatha Christie novel, and that led me to her books. I was immediately hooked and decided I wanted to become a detective novelist. However, my debut novel, All the Lonely People, which featured Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin, didn’t appear for another twenty six years, so I can’t claim overnight success! But it was an ambition fulfilled, and after that first novel came out, there really was no stopping me…

And we're lucky! You have a degree in law. Are you still a practicing solicitor?
Yes, I’ve been a partner in a firm based in Liverpool and Manchester for over twenty years. I’m the head of the labor law department and my first book to be published (when I was in my mid-twenties) was about the legal side of buying a business computer. I continue to write legal books, mainly about employment issues such as race, sex and age discrimination, but crime writing is my first love. If I ever feel weary, I remind myself I’m very lucky to have not one fascinating occupation, but two.

You went to Balliol College, Oxford. Wasn’t this the college of Lord Peter Wimsey?
It certainly was. I once wrote an essay about Balliol’s crime writers – there are over thirty of us, and they include present day writers such as Robert Barnard and Tim Heald as well as the late WJ Burley. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Balliol, and as a bonus, at a party there one night, I met a fellow student who eventually became my wife.

How fitting. You were born in Cheshire. Do they ever reference Lewis Carroll’s famous cat there?
Yes. I live a few miles from Daresbury, where Carroll grew up, and the church there is full of mementoes. We have an Alice trail in our garden and I was delighted when, for an anthology I edited, Edward D. Hoch wrote a Carroll-related story which later won an award.

In your blog you admit to being fascinated by codes and ciphers. Was this something that you enjoyed even in childhood? What’s the most fascinating cipher story, real or fictional?
I’ll overlook Dan Brown and my own The Cipher Garden and vote for Dorothy L Sayers’ Have His Carcase. In a very different way, Robert Harris’ Enigma is also very enjoyable. Ed Hoch and the late Michael Gilbert wrote some good short cipher stories.

Have His Carcase is my favorite!

You have written many books—both fictional mysteries and non-fiction legal books. You’ve edited anthologies and written more than 600 articles. How do you find the time to do all this writing? Would you say you’re an obsessive writer?

I’ll admit to that. I tend to think life is short, so it’s important not to waste it. And what I want to do is write. I tend to explain my prolific record by reference to determination and self-discipline, but my wife is probably closer to the mark when she says it’s because I’m lazy about ironing and washing-up.

Tell us about your Lake District mysteries and your protagonists, DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind. How did these characters come into being? Did they begin talking in your head, or were they born of careful construction?

I’d written seven Liverpool books, and Take My Breath Away, set in London, when my publishers asked me to consider a new rural series with a male protagonist. The Lakes was an obvious choice – I know the area, and it’s not been over-used in crime fiction. I had the idea of a historian who became involved with crimes of the past, and at first Hannah was a subordinate character. But the more I wrote about her, the more fascinated I became. I like the challenge of writing from a female perspective and she rapidly grew in importance. When my old friend Peter Robinson read the ms, he said that Hannah’s character was key to the story. And he was right.

You completed a novel begun by the late Bill Knox entitled The Lazarus Widow. How did you happen to be chosen for this collaboration?

I’d edited a couple of anthologies published by his publisher, and the editor knew I’m as much of a fan of other people’s crime fiction as I am a writer. It struck me as a real test of my craft to write in Bill’s style so that readers could not ‘spot the join’. What I hadn’t bargained for was that nobody knew how Bill meant to finish the story. So I had to solve his final mystery. What detective fan could resist such an offer? Incidentally, an unexpected bonus was that, although I never met Bill, I became – and remain – friendly with his family.

I often like to ask people what they consider to be the most beautiful place in the world. I’m guessing that you’ve traveled a great deal—have you discovered a place that exceeds the beauty of England, or would you say your home turf is the loveliest place you know? If it’s the latter, what parts of England are particularly beautiful?
For me, Venice is the most beautiful city. [That's Martin on a gondola in the top picture] As for countryside, the Lake District is very special, not least because there is such astonishing diversity within such a small area. The ruggedness of Wasdale, the more obvious delights of Windermere and Derwent Water; I could go on and on. I’m lucky to live within an hour’s drive of Kendal, gateway to the Lakes. And to live in a house overlooking a lake of its own and classic English woodland and countryside. I’m admiring the scenery as I type these words!

Are your family members also mystery fans?
My wife’s keen, and the children have accompanied us to Crime Writers’ Association weekends since their earliest days. My son organizes my website and blog, and my daughter makes posters for book sales and helps with other marketing efforts. So I owe them all a lot. Most of our friends are involved with writing in some way and I must say that, from the time I joined the CWA twenty years ago, I’ve found the kindness and generosity of people in the crime world to be extraordinary. The same’s true when I attend conventions in the US.

Is there a mystery you’ve read that has stayed in your mind long afterward?

Plenty; here a just a few. Psychological suspense: Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, and Thomas H Cook’s Red Leaves, plus an oldie, Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought. Golden Age whodunit: Christie’s And Then There Were None, Anthony Berkeley’s Trial and Error, and Francis Beeding’s Death Walks In Eastrepps. Eurocrime: Boileau and Narcejac’s The Prisoner. Modern mysteries: Reg Hill’s Dialogues of the Dead. Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue. One-offs: Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand, Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting Room Floor. Race against time: Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock and Cornell Woolrich’s Phantom Lady.

What are you writing now?
I’ve just finished the new Harry Devlin, Waterloo Sunset, a book that was truly exciting to write, so I am now starting work on the synopsis for the next Lake District Mystery and wondering what Fate has in store for the relationship developing between Hannah and Daniel.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Martin!
Thanks for the conversation!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Blog Hurrah!

The forthcoming chat with English crime writer Martin Edwards will be my 100th blog interview! Hurrah! Confetti! Fireworks! Etcetera!

Please join me in a glass of virtual champagne. Y Y Y Y Y Y

Friday, November 23, 2007

Seasonal Etchings

We took a walk today and I noticed that the leaves had made an imprint on the cement, creating an almost fossilized appearance. It was rather lovely, and it reminded me of the work I saw recently in a print-making class. First the students created a pattern, then they made templates and produced their own prints with their design.

Here nature has done that, echoing its own art.

These are the little details I love to see in fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

With Gratitude

May you all enjoy this holiday of gratitude knowing that while you are being grateful, others are being grateful for you.

I share a reflection from Kahlil Gibran's THE PROPHET:

"There are those who give little of the much which they have - and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.

And there are those who have little and give it all.

These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.

And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;

They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space."

(Photo link here).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Roberta Isleib on Mystery Writing, Good Food, and Sound Advice

Roberta, you are a clinical psychologist, and you have likened a detective’s work to a psychologist’s. Can you expand on this?
Of course! For about 13 years I had a private practice in clinical psychology. When a patient would come to see me, I’d start with this question: How can I help? Usually they would describe the problems and symptoms that led them to consider professional help. In the psychologist/detective analogy, this would be the so-called “crime.” As often happens with the crime in mystery fiction, the obvious facts often turn out to be much more complex than originally presented.

Next I would ask lots of questions about what exactly was happening in their life and relationships, and explore their history, going all the way back to nuclear family. This would be the “investigation,” as we looked for clues to their distress and tried to bring old feelings and conflicts to consciousness.

Then with the patient’s help, I would try on possible theories, looking for ways they might be bound up in old patterns and carrying dysfunctional history forward into the present: “the solutions.” Of course, no one goes to jail in psychotherapy—more likely, they’re cut loose of historical baggage and end up feeling a lot freer.

Very interesting! On another note, you were just elected president of Sisters in Crime. Congratulations! This sounds like a big job. What tasks will you perform for that organization?
It is a big job, but also exciting and a great honor! Over the last two years, we’ve been focused on celebrating our 20th anniversary with library and bookstore displays, the SISTERS ON THE CASE anthology, and many other projects. Now it’s time to look ahead. The publishing world is changing and our goal is to figure out how to continue to support women crime writers even as publishing gets more challenging. We will be thinking of ways to strengthen our chapters, help our published authors get the most out of their books, and educate our pre-published writers.

You do many public appearances. Did you have a great deal of experience in public speaking before you became a writer?
I had very little experience with public speaking before I became a writer. Ditto, promotion. My husband is astonished at how vigorously I’ve taken all this on—he calls me the marketing juggernaut. When I had my own therapy practice, I needed to market my services but I was horrible at it! At any rate, I’ve grown to love speaking about writing.

That gives hope to the rest of us. Your book Deadly Advice came out in March. What’s it about?

When Dr. Rebecca Butterman returns home to find her neighbor an apparent suicide, she's wracked with guilt. As a psychologist and advice columnist, she should have been able to help the young woman. But the girl's mother suspects foul play, and soon persuades Rebecca to investigate. Before long, the newly single Rebecca wishes she had someone to advise her as she navigates the world of speed-dating and web-blogging, where no one is who they claim to be. As she uncovers the family secrets that tormented her neighbor, she's forced to confront her own personal tragedies. In the conclusion, Rebecca's quick wits and psychological training help her to capture a killer whose public face masks a twisted mind.

Will your upcoming novel, Preaching to the Corpse, continue the series?
Yes, it picks up at the holidays a couple of months after Deadly Advice. Dr. Butterman gets a call in the middle of night from the minister at her church. He's being questioned by the police after going to a parishioner's home and finding her dead. The murdered woman was the leader of a search committee charged with finding a new assistant pastor after the previous assistant left in a rush. Rebecca learns that the committee was divided and has to wonder if someone tried to eliminate the competition.

I’m turning book three of the series into my editor this week, and I believe it will be out next September. Right now it’s called Line in the Sand, though titles are always subject to change!

Sounds good! I just started Preaching, and I'm really enjoying it.

Since you are well versed in both psychology and detective fiction, I have to ask you if you’ve read Crime and Punishment, and if so, what you think of Dostoevsky’s famous psychological portrait of a murderer?

I have to admit I haven’t read C and P :).

Oh, you have a five hundred page treat waiting for you! But I'm guessing you won't get to that in the near future.

It says on your blog that you are hanging a “Go Away” sign on your door because you will be so busy in coming weeks. Still, I’ll be sending you these questions like the most annoying of reporters. :) Is it overwhelming to have so many deadlines? Or are you a person who thrives on a tight schedule?

I guess I must thrive on it because I surely should do something to change it otherwise, right? It’s a very exciting time for me, writing this series, heading up SinC, working on the steering committee for the New England Crime Bake, promoting my books. I feel very fortunate to be doing something I love, and I feel it’s my responsibility to give back to the community that has been so supportive. I also want to give my work the best possible chance to succeed and so I work at it constantly—both the writing and the promoting. I will look forward to a slightly slower time after the holidays. But knowing me, I’ll fill that time up with more projects!

Your fictional protagonist, Rebecca, likes food (as do I) and your blog contains some recipes that look so good, I was actually fatter after I read them. Do you cook for your family? Do you enjoy cooking?
Let me first assure you that these books are no-calorie reading! I like to cook, but I really love to eat. And eat good, but not fancy, food. And I enjoy reading about food and cooking—I love the descriptions of cooking in Diane Mott Davidson’s series. Since my last protagonist was a junk food junkie and never cooked anything, Dr. Butterman is fun to write about. And she uses her cooking time as a way of processing problems. I do cook for my family, but not the way she does! I also love to bake when I have time. Especially cakes. I make a chocolate cake to die for. Or there’s the yellow sponge with whipped cream frosting and strawberries…

Oh, yum. You were at Bouchercon in Alaska. Was it your first time in that state? What did you think of the Alaskan scenery?
I had never been to Alaska and found it to be just amazing. As my friend Lori Avocato says, you can’t take a bad picture in Alaska. I was so lucky to have the opportunity to see the Kenai peninsula through the authors to the bush program. Gorgeous scenery and lovely people! I don’t envy them the long dark winter however…

I have never met you, but in your photos you look like a person with great energy. Is this something people have noted about you?
My sister told me just this morning that I’m an overachiever! I recognize that I’m very determined, and if I get involved in a group, I’m likely to end up running it.

Well, we all rely on leaders. What drew you to psychology?
I wandered through a number of possible fields after college—my degree in French literature seemed more like a process than a destination. My first job was in a bookstore in New Jersey. Then I went to the University of Tennessee to get a master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation. After working at that for a couple of years, I realized that I enjoyed the psychological part of the job most of all. So back to school I went for a doctorate in clinical psychology. My father couldn’t believe I was giving up all those years of school to write mysteries! I tell him it’s all being put to good use…

Your last name sounds German; I could not find it in my German/American dictionary, but I did find that “leib” means “body,” and the German idiom “Mit Leib und Seele” means “With heart and soul.” Are you a person who does things with heart and soul? Are you in fact German?
Oh, oh you’ve stumbled into my husband’s favorite teasing story! I do have both German and Swiss ancestors. At first we thought the name must mean “is stomach.” All of my family enjoys eating and relaxing, while his family has to always be busy, usually engaging in as many sports as they can fit into the day. At a family celebration a couple years ago, he was talking about all the athletic equipment you’d need for a reunion with his family. My cousin noted that Isleibs need only bring a knife and fork. From there my husband determined that the true translation of Isleib is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

That's a great translation!

Do your friends ask for psychological advice? Sort of like Charlie Brown asked Lucy van Pelt? What do you think of Lucy’s advice to Charlie Brown? Was it psychologically sound?

Gosh I hope neither Dr. Butterman nor I are like Lucy! She was a crabby character with a sadistic streak, from what I remember. But I’ve always enjoyed reading advice columns—still do. My character’s advice is pretty much common sense—she says people usually have a sense of the best path even as they ask for help. She simply shines a light on the path.

In a related question, you have an “Ask Dr. Aster” feature on your website, but you warn people that “advice should not be considered a substitute for therapy!” Do many people take advantage of this feature?
Very few! With the proliferation of blogs, everyone’s an advice columnist. So Dr. Aster doesn’t get a lot of business!

Well, I just may send her a question, then. Thanks for chatting with me, Roberta!
Thank you very much for hosting me Julia. You do a wonderful job with your interviews and I’m honored to be included.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

November Mood

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, captured much about November's mood in the poem below, but I disagree in one respect: I like November even when I'm not depressed. :)


by Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

(from A Boy's Will. Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Author Chats

I got away from the housecleaning last night to go see my pal Tim Maleeny at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore. Tim's on the West Coast, but he's been to Chicagoland a few times now promoting his mystery series, the latest of which is entitled Beating the Babushka.

After the signing, we went to a very smoky bar (Tim pointed out that smoking's not allowed now in California and New York bars--something I hadn't known), and we dished about writing and publishing until the smoke got to my contact lenses and they started to peel off of my eyes. :)

Today Tim was off to Minneapolis to promote at a bookstore there, and then he was winging back to the coast to be home for the holidays.

It got me thinking about the whole notion of writers and promotion. It's a huge job, and as far as I can tell, it falls largely on the writer's shoulders these days. If a writer has the misfortune of not having thousands of disposable dollars to spend on touting his or her work, they may just be out of luck.

This seems like an odd way to celebrate talent.

Tim is someone I've interviewed before; you can see the whole conversation here.

Now I have some terrific things to read over the holidays: Tim's new novel and the new mystery that I just received from my friend John Dandola, whose work I also recommend.

Okay, back to the cleaning and the grading. (And yet, nothing is ever entirely clean or completely graded. There's an existential problem for you.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Good News for Mary Stewart Fans

Chicago Review Press
has reissued two classic Stewart suspense novels: The Ivy Tree and Nine Coaches Waiting, with moody new covers and trade paperback formats.

While I wouldn't re-read most books simply because I saw them with different covers, Stewart's books are an exception. The cool new covers are just an excuse to read her books again, so one or both of these are going on my Christmas list.

I'm also glad to see Stewart in the trade size, since the old books I have, which may well be relics from the 60s or 70s, are hard to read in mass market size with the extremely tiny print that many books had back then.

Nine Coaches Waiting is a book with a Gothic feel, and this new cover captures that with its mysterious dark look and red lettering. Kudos to whomever decided to re-imagine the cover for this classic tale.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Monet Birthday

I blogged about this great artist's birthday and about the irony of Impressionism on the Inkspot today. Check it out and celebrate the birthday of Claude Monet, the father of the Impressionist Movement.

This famous painting is Study of a Figure Outdoors (1886). Photo link here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

November Reflection

The weather has been so unseasonable and balmy that it almost belies one of my favorite November poems by John Clare; then again, this warm weather may eventually become what is "seasonal" for this time of year. I hope not. Anyway, here's that lovely poem:

So dull and dark are the November days.
The lazy mist high up the evening curled,
And now the morn quite hides in smoke and haze;
The place we occupy seems all the world.

John Clare

(photo link here.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Birthday Girl

Happy Birthday to my sister Linda. I'm lucky to have her in my life.

To quote the words of Jane Austen (from Emma), "Where shall we see a better daughter, or kinder sister, or a truer friend?"

Have a wonderful day, kind sister.

The Mystery of Bloated Holidays

Nancy Gibbs wrote an interesting essay for TIME Magazine this week, in which she examines our tendency to extend holidays:

"It's as though we've supersized our holidays, so that they start sooner, last longer and cost more, until the calendar pages pull and tear, and we don't know which one we are meant to be celebrating."

I couldn't agree with Gibbs more. Aside from my horror at the radio station that started playing Christmas songs BEFORE Halloween, I have been jarred to note Christmas items for sale in stores long before I am contemplating Christmas. As ever, our consciousness is dictated by our merchants, which of course means what we're really celebrating is a culture of money.

The mystery, though, is why we go along with it--why we don't rebel and demand that the merchants allow us our space in the interim--space to think and reflect and be at peace between holidays which, while happy, are stressful as well. The stress itself is a mystery--who are we trying to please when we attempt to have a Rachael Ray Thanksgiving or a Martha Stewart Christmas when we don't possess the energy of Ray or Stewart?

Are we trying to please ourselves? If that were true, at least some of us would be ordering a Thanksgiving pizza and just enjoying the time with our families. Is it tradition we cling to, then? Do we feel we must do exactly what our parents did? What our grandparents did? What the pilgrims did?

Our behavior is a mystery, and that makes our culture mysterious, especially at the holidays. Gibbs points out the irony of demanding too much holiday and therefore too much pleasure:

"As meals and sleep and work and recess pace the days, so do holidays pace the year. Clump them together, and they lose their fizz and juice, the useful little monthly boosts turned into a pileup of duties and lists. When every day is a holiday--or more precisely, part of the holiday season--none really are."

Inspired by Gibbs, I'm going to resist the retail lure as long as possible and try to live the holidays more closely to what is on the calendar, thereby rendering nothing so big a deal that I can't handle it. And I might enjoy myself more in the process of simplification.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Susan Wittig Albert's Blog Tour

In honor of Susan's blog tour this week, I'm re-running a previous interview that I did with her. Susan's new book is The Tale of Hawthorn House. Susan is also sponsoring a free book drawing; find the link here. You may enter this drawing any time between Nov. 8 and noon on Nov. 11, when we'll draw three winners. Your name will be automatically entered for the grand prize drawing.

Hi, Susan! Thanks for chatting with me.

You are a writer who seems to have followed her heart into all sorts of writing. Your popular mystery series featuring China Bayles and Robin Paige have brought you great acclaim and made you a best-selling author.

Your newest series features as its protagonist the author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. Why did you want to write about Potter? How did you happen to conceive of The Cottage Tales, as your series is called?

I learned to read with Beatrix Potter. My mother read her little books aloud to me so often that I memorized them, and then “read” them to myself. (Who knows what kind of influence that had on my writing style!) I didn’t know much about her, though, until my husband Bill suggested that we use her as a character in the second book of our Robin Paige series, Death at Gallows Green, which is set in 1896. I began doing the research, and simply fell in love with her, and with the place she created in the Lake District. We visited there, and I knew I had to write about it, and about her. And since I’m a mystery writer, I naturally thought of writing mysteries—British cottage/village mysteries. Natalee Rosenstein, my Berkley editor, was encouraging, and we took it from there.

The series is lauded as one for “adult and young adult readers.” Was this something you thought about when writing the books?
I think about it often, and try to design and craft the books so that they are appealing to younger readers. I’ve created some younger characters, both girls and boys, and although the animals weren’t created specifically for young readers (grownups like talking animals, too!), I think the animal plots appeal to youngsters. The books are being read by homeschoolers (I know, because I get email from them!), in part because a teacher/mom/dad can build a unit around them, focusing on the setting, on Beatrix’s life, on the history of the time, and so on. And I love it when I hear from a family—mom, dad, kids—reading the books aloud together.

In your first book, according to your website, Potter “gradually moves away from her London life as a dutiful Victorian-age daughter, and into an independent life that offers new hopes, new love, and the possibility of self-determination.” Was it challenging to write from the perspective of a woman in 1905 England?
Bill and I were writing the Robin Paige books at the time I began the Cottage Tales. The Paige series is set from 1895-1903, and features quite a number of women, both fictional and real. So quite a lot of the background research had been done, and I’d already begun to feel rather like a woman of 1905 myself! When I’d finished the first book, I learned that Linda Lear was writing a new biography of Potter. We connected via email and became close friends. Linda was good enough to share her research with me, and I read the manuscript of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature as it developed. So I was living with Beatrix in a variety of ways.

Booklist calls your first cottage tale, The Tale of Hill Top Farm,
“perfectly charming,” and many other noted reviewers had similar responses. Have you always gotten good reviews?

Print reviews, yes. PW gave the second book, The Tale of Holly How, a starred review. But when you read the Amazon reader “reviews,” you’ll see that there are people who don’t like talking animals, on principle. And there are people who would like a more intense mystery and stronger dramatic action. I’m delighted to say that they appear to be in the minority. I hear every day from people who remember Beatrix fondly from their own childhood reading and who are pleased to be able to read a “charming” book that gives them a pleasant introduction to a world in which life was slower, quieter, and (from our perspective, anyway), much simpler.

You write the Robin Paige mysteries with your husband, Bill Albert. How did you decide that you would collaborate?
Big smile here. Actually, we figured that out when we were still dating (this was in 1986). I was writing one of the “new” Nancy Drew mysteries, and asked him for some plot advice. He told me what I needed to know, and I thought, “Hey, this is the guy for me!” We collaborated on over 60 young adult novels, from 1986-1992, including books in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. (There’s a list on our website). After I started the China Bayles series (on my own, although he reads every book and gives me valuable feedback and suggestions), we wanted to continue to write together, and chose England in the Victorian/Edwardian period because both of us loved the time/setting.

Neat! What a great way to stay in touch with your spouse. :)

Back to the Cottage Tales for a moment. In these stories, the reader is given insight into both the animal and the human world. When the animals “speak” to each other, it is written in italics. Did this ever become difficult, merging these animal dialogues with the human ones?

It’s a kind of crazy thing, but in these books, I can think through the animals more easily than I can through the people. I wouldn’t have predicted this when I started the books, but what did I know? I had never done anything like this before. I was helped by going back and rereading Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, which became something like benchmarks for me. I was aiming for that kind of tone, that kind of native naturalism. And of course, Bill and I talk to and with our own cats, dogs, chickens, cows, etc. (don’t you?), so it feels very good to me.

I do, but I'm afraid I'm often saying "You naughty dog! I can't believe you did that! :)

You grew up in Illinois and now live in Texas. What difficulties did that present when you wanted to set a book in England, especially when that book was partly based on true events?

I grew up reading Dickens and Thackeray and Jane Austen and have always loved Victorian English—-so the language of the period comes pretty easily. We’ve traveled extensively in England, and have a very large library, so setting hasn’t been as much of a problem as it might seem. But I’m writing about the past, which is (all by itself) a whole other country. A lot of my research is necessarily done in books. I use primary material when I can (books, newspapers written at the time); I use secondary materials when that’s all I can find. Until the Internet came along, my biggest challenge was finding the library that held a particular book I needed. Now, the Internet makes historical/foreign research much, much easier.

The Magical Web. All of your books fit into the “cozy” category. Have you ever aspired to write something edgier?

Not really. I feel that we live on the edge as it is, given the uncertainties and challenges of our real lives: wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, political storms. And there’s already enough torqued-up fiction out there to satisfy readers who want something that’s harder-core. I’ll keep on writing what I like to read, which is easier on the heart, a little closer to the spirit.

Your cottage tales contain maps, a cast of characters (as in a drama), a glossary of terms like “betimes” and “nawt,” and recipes that relate to the story. When did you decide to incorporate all of these neat details? Did you conceive of all of these extras when you wrote the first book?
The extras were all part of the original design of the series (which, maybe we should mention, is a limited series: eight books, spanning the years 1905-1913). I love maps, and since the village is real (and many readers have visited there) I coveted them. I use the recipes to give readers a glimpse into the history of that particular regional cookery. The glossary is necessary, if I’m going to use dialect—although I don’t use as much as I’d like because it’s too confusing to the eye. The historical note is really important, since it gives the actual background against which the fiction is created.

Did you aspire to be a writer as a child?
Yes, I did. I wrote my first “novel” at nine, sold my first short story at 19, to a magazine called Jack and Jill. Wrote lots of poetry, too.

Your website is quite elaborate. Do you maintain it yourself?
I have a wonderful webmistress who maintains the sites (there are now actually three). But I’ve designed (and re-re-re-designed) them. They are a work in progress!

Susan, you’ve written, by my count, 35 books. When do you find the time to write, and what inspires you?
Actually, that’s just the work since 1992, when China Bayles solved her first case. There were 60+ kids’ books before then (1984-1992) and my academic writing before that (5 or 6 books, lots of articles, etc). I’m the original “woman who spilled words all over her life.” I am privileged (and oh! how lucky I feel about that!) to be able to write full time, and prefer to write without a break (no weekends off) when I’m working on a project. Life inspires me, and this wild, wonderful world in which we live it. I read something, see something on TV, and imagine it as a piece of a book.

I admire the fact that your life has taken many turns as you explored your interests. I’m especially interested by the part of your bio that says, after earning a Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley, you taught and held administrative positions at the university level for fifteen years, at which point you quit, because you were “fed up with academic politics.”

Good for you! Was there a “last straw” sort of moment? Had you already started writing at this time?

Oh, wow, yes. Too many last-straw moments, mostly having to do with faculty politics. I think the thing that tipped it, though, was the realization, one Monday morning, that I had put in a 60-hour week the week before, all on university stuff, and that the coming week promised more of the same, and the week after that and the week after that. There had to be a better way! I began thinking about what I might do if I weren’t at the university, and consciously made the decision to try writing YA novels. I hit with my first effort, wrote several more (writing evenings and weekends). Buoyed by that, I turned in my resignation. I have never regretted it, not one single moment.

I'm reminded of a Johnny Paycheck song . . . :)

Your bio says that “Susan and Bill live on 32 acres in the Texas hill country, 60 miles northwest of Austin, with two black Labradors named Zach and Lady, a matching black cat named Shadow, and an ever-changing assortment of ducks and geese who flock together under the watchful eye of Major Gander, a Toulouse goose of outstanding merit.” This sounds idyllic. Is it?

Well, we’ve had a heckuva lot of rain this summer, the road’s a wreck, the garden’s a mess, we can’t do the mowing because it’s too wet, and yesterday’s high temperature was 99. (Life in the country is a great deal of work—-if you want somebody else to take care of the potholes, you probably want to stay in town). Other than that, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m writing a book about it, in fact. It’ll be out from the University of Texas Press in 2009.

You are a dynamo! How can your readers find out more about you and your newest mystery series?
That’s easy! Go to and sign up for our eletter. While you’re there, sign up for China’s herbal eletter, too. Sorry—Beatrix doesn’t have one. :)

Thanks for chatting, Susan.
You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it!