Friday, January 30, 2009

Good Books and Great

I've read several good books lately, and they have made me very contented with January. Sometimes, though, I read books that remind me that there is a difference between good writing and great writing. The great writing has me asking "Why would I ever bother to try to write when I can never achieve the artistry that this person has?" I felt that way the first time I read Steinbeck, and Dostoevsky, and Wharton. I feel that way when I read certain suspense and mystery novels that seem to take the genre to new and daring heights.

This week I read two great books simultaneously.

The first is I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. (Knopf 2005). Zusak is an Australian novelist in the Young Adult genre, although Messenger read like an adult novel and its theme is for all ages. The delight of this book, aside from Zusak's distinctive and enjoyable first-person style, is the narrator, Ed Kennedy, a 19-year-old cab driver who sees himself as a well-meaning loser. The book begins with a bank robbery and some truly comical dialogue. Ed inadvertently intercepts the robber and achieves some fame in his town for a day or two.

The fame dies down, but someone remembers Ed, because a couple of days later he gets a playing card in his mailbox, and on it are three addresses. It is at this point, whether Ed knows it or not, that he becomes The Messenger . . .

You only have to read the first couple of pages of this book to realize its appeal, and only a couple of chapters to see the traces of genius. There is much suspense, which is why I think Messenger could be classified as a mystery, although I think it is shelved in fiction.

I have great admiration for this young Australian author, and I am now a fan.

The other great book is The Fate of Katherine Carr by Thomas H. Cook. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, coming soon).

After one chapter of this book I realized that I didn't care if the plot ever really developed, as long as I could keep reading sentences, paragraphs, pages by this writer. Cook's narrator, George Gates, has lost a child to a murderer who got away with it, and he lives with an existential mixture of guilt, detachment and hatred that makes every thought he has, every word he says, seem measured and philosophical. Perhaps this resonated with me especially because I am the mother of sons, and it is a son--an only son--that Gates lost years before. His pain, seven years later, is fresh and unresolved, and he struggles with a Hamlet-like despair that forces him to continually contemplate whether the next step, the next day, is even worth it.

But then an old acquaintance tells him the story of a woman who disappeared twenty years before. Her disappearance has never been solved. George is a travel writer and reporter, and he is mildly intrigued by Katherine Carr's disappearance. For various reasons he begins to investigate it; the more he does, the more her story seems linked to his own. . .

This is compelling and heartbreaking, and I will be going back to find the other titles of Thomas H. Cook (I've always meant to read Red Leaves, so I'll start there).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ice Flowers

"Adversity draws men together and produces beauty and harmony in life's relationships, just as the cold of winter produces ice-flowers on the window-panes, which vanish with the warmth."

--Soren Kierkegaard

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Paradise of Books

Last week I was reading three good books (about which I blogged earlier). I've finished one, but suddenly three MORE books have landed in my lap, and they all look fascinating. Now I have a bit of a book paralysis--which one to read next? Finish one? Start one?

But what a terrific problem to have. Too many good books.

I'll take one to bed tonight and do my best to make some headway, but the reading in bed problem worsens each year. No matter how great the literature, I can't get beyond a chapter or two before my face is smashed on the page. Sometimes it's only a word or two.

But I will soldier on! Reading is worth it, and shall always be.

Art link here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Slammed Again

A couple of years ago someone managed to get my Debit Card number; they went on a spree and spent 700 dollars before I noticed it online; by then the damage was done and I had to spend weeks on the phone with my bank, begging not to be held accountable for the charges.

Today I saw that someone used my number to download Napster music. I managed to see it just 20 minutes after whoever it was had done their purchasing, so I called the bank instantly. Now I have no card--I was instructed to cut it up and await a new one.

Thanks to this anonymous thief, I have restricted access to my own bank account, my own funds, until this is sorted out. It's for my own protection--I guess.

I suppose if I have to be robbed, I would prefer it to be done online rather than at gunpoint, but either way there is a sense of violation that grows and grows. The problem with the online robbery is that the perpetrator probably types in a number without any twinge of conscience. Who are they hurting? All they're doing is typing a number. I'll bet it's very easy to rationalize that type of theft. I'm guessing it will be very difficult to catch them, too--although the person who robbed me two years ago was, in fact, caught.

Either way, the robber can talk him or herself into the idea that they need money, and if other people have it, they can take it. But let's face it: they're not buying groceries with my money--they're downloading music from Napster.

I love the convenience of internet shopping, but this is my morality tale for the month: beware of the convenience of online theft.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Presidential Mystery

After the grand inauguration yesterday, it's tempting to see a more positive horizon for America. President Obama, however, will have to solve a mystery as complex as any found in detective novels. His riddle: our inconceivable national deficit and failing economy. I'm pinning my hopes on the idea that Obama will be the hero of this story.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Carnival of Books

As an extension of the Carnival I'd like to share the links to some great things I'm reading. Right now I have a book in my reading chair, one at my bedside, and one in the dining room. As the mood takes me I am reading three different stories in a delightful variety of settings.

First, there is Pat Browning's re-release of her California cozy Absinthe of Malice. I'm only on page 35, but it has the wonderful tone of evil-beneath-the-surface in a small former gold-mining town. Penny Mackenzie works for the small town paper, and must investigate the death of her friend and fellow reporter. Things are not what they seem in the little town of Pearl, and that's just the way I like it. :)

I'm also reading Marcus Sakey's Good People. It's a compelling read, reminiscent of A Simple Plan, in that two "good people" unexpectedly find a huge amount of cash and are faced with a moral dilemma and some very bad guys who would like to reclaim that money. As usual, Sakey's writing is compelling and hard to set down.

I have to mention something interesting that I found on page 80 of this mystery. Two characters are reminiscing about their first sexual conquests. One of them says "I remember the first time perfectly. Julia Buckley. I was fifteen, she was fourteen, in her parents' basement. They had this orange shag rug . . . "

Huh. A coincidence? Or an homage to my fortyish beauty? :)

Also enjoyable and fascinating in its historical depth is Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin. The story revolves around railway detective Jim Stringer. As the publicity material puts it, "It is winter 1909, and Jim desperately needs his anticipated New Year’s promotion in order to pay for a nurse for his ailing son. Jumping at any opportunity to impress his supervisor, Jim agrees to investigate a standard assault in a nearby town. But when his train home hits a snowdrift and a body is discovered buried in the snow, Jim finds himself tracking another dangerous killer."

What I like about this tale, aside from its British-ness and its unique tone, is the notion that I have been carried back to 1909, and that the thoughts of this narrator seem authentically like those a person could have had as he contemplated the vast progress that steam locomotives brought to the world. There are some amazing descriptions of trains and the labrynthine underground metalworks where men toiled to make them run.

And, of course, it's just a plain good old detective story.

I may add even more to this carnival of mystery fun . . . but right now I have to grade finals.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Revisiting the Carnival

Barbara Fister, that ringmaster extraordinaire, has brought the blog carnival back to the U.S. and placed it into my hands for the remainder of January. I have ventured onto some fun and heart-warming mystery blogs that will bring cheer to your spirits even as the ice pelts your windowpanes.

First, though, a couple quick references to non-American things: one can always get up-to-date mystery news at The Rap Sheet. Today's post celebrates Stieg Larson's number one position on the British bestseller list.

This has to be good news to Peter Rogovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders, whose blog reminds us that the world of mystery is an infinite one, and that every nation has its wonderful way with the genre. On Peter's blog you can find a link to Tulsa City-County Library's Mysteries Around the World, where you can window shop for that next great read.

And one more thing, before we return to American mystery: Martin Edwards' Wednesday post celebrates the fact that one of his favorite writers, Andrew Taylor, has been awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger Crime Writing Award. Edwards, a fine writer himself, credits Taylor as "a star of the genre."

Now back to American mysteries. I recently interviewed Cricket McRae, whose successful crafting series highlights the popularity of cozy or crafty mystery novels. Two blogs address this, as well: The Cozy Chicks, on which Maggie Sefton discusses the love affair one has with his or her first car; and the Killer Hobbies blog, on which Linda O. Johnston chats about pet safety. The women who write these blogs are the names behind some very popular mysteries about dolls, scrapbooking, quilting, crocheting, pets, miniatures, and more. Check out the phenomenon and the talented writers behind it.

Raymond Chandler fans (and what mystery reader isn't a Raymond Chandler fan?) will be interested by Mark Coggins' latest post on Riordan's Desk. Apparently Chandler had a cameo in a Billy Wilder classic. By the way, you can read my interview with Mark Coggins, who himself is rather Chandleresque, here.

After that nod to the hard-boiled, I must make one to the classical. I was perusing some Dorothy Sayers websites, and I found that there is an entire page with links to Sayers-related information, including how to join the Dorothy Sayers Society, which was formed "to promote the study of the life, works and thoughts of this great scholar and writer."

Off to a meeting now, but more to come in this carnival!

A Mantra From Camus

"In the midst of winter I discovered that there was within me an eternal spring."

--Albert Camus

Ah, Albair, thank you for arming me with a philosophy that will ease me through this day and through this relentless snow!

My car has died. It sits forlornly in a 7-11 parking lot, awaiting its fate (a tow truck). Now the future is uncertain--rides to work, to school. Meetings on the calendar. And the coldest weather on record predicted for the week.

Thanks to Camus I have achieved a certain resignation--a philosophical distance from my transportation problem that makes it rather funny. How long, really, did I expect my ten-year-old caravan to last? This long? :)

I know that however it is resolved I will be able to rely on that eternal spring of which Camus wrote so poetically. His words are my comfort on this cold winter day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

This is Great Mystery Weather!

The winter storm warnings are back: 2-6 inches expected, with blowing and drifting snow AND dangerously cold temperatures. Thursday the high will be four degrees.

At times like this there is only one sane response: a pile of mysteries and a pot of tea. If school is cancelled, I will hole up in my house, watch the whiteness swirling past the windows, and read. Ahhh.

I'm still finishing my bedtime book, Jill McGown's PICTURE OF INNOCENCE. Then, on the recommendation of Sandra Parshall, I'll venture out of the mystery world long enough to read the slim COLD COMFORT FARM. I'm expecting a couple of fresh mysteries in the mail, and hopefully I'll be writing about those purchases in the near future.

Life's biggest tragedy is that there isn't enough time to read. But Mother Nature sometimes provides it. :)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Snows of Yesteryear Today

I guess it was the fifteenth-century French poet Francois Villon who famously wrote "But Where are the Snows of Yesteryear?" (Où sont les neiges d'antan?) I actually remember it from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The Midwest has been so inundated with snow these last many weeks that I think of that question often. These really are the snows of my youth, except that in my youth--when all I had to do was play and build snowmen--I loved them more. Now I must drive through these snows, and they've lost some of their pearly luster.

But I have found out who does love snow--both today's and yesterday's: dogs. My beagle and the neighbor's beagle/lab both pranced through the snow all morning while I tried to shovel the heavy stuff. (Note to self: shoveling is way harder than you thought it was). They sniffed one another. Xavi, the lab, was polite and quiet, while my dog barked for no apparent reason.
Then, snow-covered, they bounded back and forth along the boundary fence, daring each other to race through the cold, white, high-piled stuff. This provided endless possibilities for snow fun.
A bit of a chat at the fence, just to double check that they were still the same canines underneath the powdery disguises. Simon is torn between resenting the neighbor's dog and wanting to play with him, so this causes some tension. But today, in the paradise of whiteness--an invitation to dogs everywhere--he couldn't resist a truce. It was time to play, play, play.

Perhaps when he is an old dog with arthritic limbs he'll remember this winter as the fond winter of his youth. I doubt that Simon thinks in French or, frankly, at all, but somehow this mammoth snow seems to speak to him and resurrect the puppy within.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Wise Words About Death

"Get out of here and leave me alone. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough already."

--Last words (allegedly) of Karl Marx (1818-1883).

"The wages of sin are death, but after taxes are taken out, it's just sort of a tired feeling."

--Paula Poundstone

(cited from THE FOURTH 637 BEST THINGS ANYBODY EVER SAID by Robert Byrne).

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Cricket McRae on What Makes a Master Crafter, Why The Ides of March Can Be Lucky, and How Philosophy Teaches Thought

Cricket! Thanks for chatting with me on the blog about your homecrafting mysteries.

Are you yourself a master crafter?

Hardly. Master crafters spend years honing their skills, and generally focus in one or two areas. I’m all over the board, a devoted amateur. There’s always something new to learn. However some things I’ve been doing for so long that they’re second nature by now. For example, I began crocheting when I was six and started baking bread when I was eleven.

So far you’ve written mysteries set in the craft worlds of soap making, canning, and spinning. Are these all areas in which you have some experience?
I sold handmade soaps and toiletries online for a couple of years, and still make soap, basic lotions, etc. The first preserves I “put up” were in college, starting with my great-grandmother’s recipe for chokecherry jelly, and at least a few jars (and sometimes a lot) of my favorites go into the pantry each fall. In 1999 I learned how to spin much the same way my protagonist, Sophie Mae Reynolds, learns in Spin a Wicked Web. In fact, I learned from a fiber artist who lives in the same town on which I base my fictional Cadyville.

What makes crafting a good backdrop for mystery?

Well, there’s some inherent danger in a lot of the old time pioneer crafts. Lye is extremely caustic, and botulism is one of the most deadly toxins around. I mean, we’re talking biological warfare deadly. On the other hand, the idea of “crafting” can also provide a gentle feel for my contemporary cozies. Plus, as a reader I enjoy learning about new things when reading fiction, and the crafting backdrop offers plenty of that.

Cricket: that’s a neat name. Is it a real name, a nickname, or a nom de plume? Or am I missing an option?

I’m often asked at signings whether Cricket is my real name. My usual answer is a smiling “no,” and I leave it at that. It’s a nickname, and also my writing pseudonym because it’s light, like my mysteries, and far more memorable and easier to spell than my real name. I used to try to explain to people about both names, but it always seemed to confuse the issue more than clarify it. Since so many people already call me Cricket, including at home, I decided to just stick with that.

What made you start writing mysteries?

I grew up reading a lot of different things, but mysteries have always been my first love. As soon as I realized I wanted to write novels, I knew they’d be mysteries.

Will the homecrafting series continue beyond book three, or will you be starting other projects?

I’m working on the fourth in the Home Crafting Mystery Series, tentatively titled Something Borrowed, Something Bleu -- about artisan cheese making. My local dairy’s weekly milk deliveries have increased lately, and we’ve been enjoying the fruits of my “research.”

What’s a day like for Cricket McRae?

Oh, gosh. I guess in a word: flexible. Most days I devote at least six hours to writing, editing and marketing. I’m also pretty good about fitting in daily exercise. But my working hours might be in the morning one day, and the next tucked in around events and appointments and house renovations. Over the week I seek balance, including time with friends and family, and time devoted to other pursuits like crafts, cooking, and gardening as well as spending some time out in nature, usually hiking or biking.

How’s the weather in Colorado?

Cold, snowy and dry! For now, at least. I love the distinct seasons here. Just when I’m getting tired of one, along comes something new – in the gardens, in my activities, in my attitude. It’s like weather ADD.

You majored in English and Philosophy in college. Bravo. The two continuously intertwine, wouldn’t you say?

I would indeed, especially as my focus was on philosophy of language. I’d also argue that philosophy intertwines with everything else in life because in many ways it teaches you how to think.

An interesting point!

Do you have a favorite work of fiction?

Nope. There are books I go back to – A Confederacy of Dunces comes to mind –and authors I seek out, but I like far too many books to commit to just one as a favorite.

Do you read mysteries, or just write them?

Mysteries are definitely my go-to reads, with some nonfiction – cookbooks, natural history, and biography, mostly -- thrown in for good measure.

Since you formerly had your own soap-making company, do you tend to give soaps as Christmas gifts?

I used to, but after a while my gifts got a little, er … predictable. So now when I make a batch of soap I tend to give it away as soon as it’s cured, rather than wait for Christmas. Same with pickles and jams, etc.

Well, if you ever feel like sending samples, I'll pay the shipping. :)

What were some of your favorite products?

My favorite products end up at the end of my books in the recipe section. They tend to be on the simple side; having a gazillion ingredients doesn’t always mean a product is better. So far I’ve provided recipes for lip balm, lotion bars, oatmeal milk bath salts, gel air fresheners, watermelon rind pickles, wine jelly, and bath teabags.

Your next book, Spin a Wicked Web, comes out in March. What’s the plot?

Sophie Mae joins the Cadyville Regional Artists’ Co-op and learns how to spin, but her first full hank of yarn is used to strangle a young woman well known for her predatory dating practices. Sophie Mae’s detective boyfriend, Barr Ambrose, asks her to find out more about the numerous suspects, most of whom are fellow members of CRAC. Add in the sudden appearance of Barr’s ex-wife – a younger and prettier version of Sophie Mae – the death of a policeman, sabotaged brake lines, a large inheritance and the usual antics of her housemates, and Sophie Mae has plenty to juggle along with her soap making business.

Sounds great! You’re the first Musings interview of 2009: do you have some big things happening this year with the new book’s arrival?

The book is due out around the Ides of March, which I choose to see as a good omen. I’ll be speaking and signing in the Seattle area in mid-April, and will making the rounds of several venues in Colorado and Wyoming in March, April and May. I’m also looking forward to attending Malice Domestic in Arlington in early May.

The Ides wasn't a good omen for Caesar, but it will be for you. :)

Thanks for playing, Cricket, and good luck with your series!

Thanks you, Julia. It was a pleasure!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Why I Still Miss Jill

Mystery writer Jill McGown died last year. It still makes me sad to think about it, especially because I haven't heard whether or not her publisher will put out one last Lloyd and Hill mystery.

I was reminded of McGown's greatness again this Christmas break. It saddens me to say that because of a stack of papers I had to grade, I didn't have one moment to read a mystery. I had to steal a few minutes in bed each night, but you know how that is--no matter how fascinating the material, the eyes droop, and Boom. Out.

I went through the books in my headboard, but for several nights I couldn't get into the books I selected. One just didn't capture my attention. Another had dialogue that I simply didn't understand--and I'm normally good with dialects.

Last night I grabbed a McGown hardback called Picture of Innocence, which sat on my shelf with her other beloved titles. Within two pages I had experienced the old McGown magic--a seemingly sedate beginning that bubbled with subterranean tensions. The question isn't "Who Will Get Killed," but "Who Will Kill Him and When?"

McGown created complex characters, but then only revealed them bits at a time, manipulating her readers into making assumptions without actually misleading them.

I love it when I can't remember the ending of a book I'm re-reading--that means I get the pleasure of revelation twice. :)

So my first read for the New Year is a Jill McGown novel, and for once I will stay awake at bedtime.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Coming Soon . . .

An interview with Cricket McRae, author of the homecrafting mysteries Lye in Wait, Heaven Preserve Us, and the soon-to-be Spin a Wicked Web.

Also an update on the My Loser Friends Weight Loss Challenge. :)