Thursday, March 29, 2012

E-mail vs. Letters

I spent most of the morning yesterday writing letters. Letters on real stationary that fit into real envelopes and required real postage stamps.

Actual handwritten letters.

I admit this isn’t an every-day occurrence. Most of my family members have e-mail, and we communicate via that or phone. The same is true for most of my friends.

But I have some friends and relatives who, for one reason or another, don’t or can’t use computers. Like an older cousin who lives in a nursing home. And a friend whose health problems make it difficult for her to type. These folks are my U.S. Postal Service buddies, people who enjoy getting my occasional card or letter.

Letter writing was important back when I was a kid. My grandparents on my father’s side lived out-of-state. Like most men, my dad wasn’t fond of letter writing, but twice a month my mom would sit down with him at the kitchen table and dictate a letter to his parents, which he dutifully posted in his own handwriting before tossing it in the mailbox. My grandmother may have suspected the truth, but I think she appreciated her son’s efforts anyway.

While in school, I’d sent cards to my grandparents for their birthdays and holidays, but that was about it. It wasn’t until after I married that I wrote more regularly to them. And it was all because Fred and I had bought a house, and my love affair with gardening was well under way.

You see, my grandmother’s garden was something to behold, a veritable paradise of roses and lilies and all sorts of other flowering plants she’d received for birthdays and anniversaries and had transplanted into her backyard. Everything seemed to flourish for her, and I wondered how she did it. My first gardening questions to her were quickly answered in a long letter penned with a firm hand. Over the years her handwriting became shakier and her letters shorter, but her mind remained clear to the end. She’s been gone many years now, but her good advice can be seen in the results of my own gardening efforts.

More importantly to me, it was through those letters that I learned to appreciate a person I’d never really liked as a child. You see, when I was a kid, I only got to see my dad’s parents once a year, during summer when we made what I called the “annual pilgrimage” to Kansas City. In my eyes, they were ancient even back then. I recall my grandfather as being a gentle and rather quiet old man who rarely moved out of his easy chair and always smelled of the fragrant cherry tobacco he packed in his burnished briar pipe.

I remember my grandmother quite differently. A short woman, she walked with a decided limp and wore a perpetual scowl that, quite frankly, scared me into silence any time I was around her. She wasn’t unkind, but she was definitely not the hugging type of grandma boasted of by other kids my age.

It was only when I was much older that I learned she’d suffered a hip fracture as a young woman, a hip fracture that never healed properly and left her in constant pain. That scowl on her face was actually a grimace of pain that accompanied every step she took.

She might not have had the sunniest disposition in the world, but my grandmother wasn’t trying to be scary. She was just hurting all the time. Through her letters I met the woman I never knew as a child, a woman I came to understand over time.

Maybe the result would have been the same if we’d had email back then. Maybe we could have communicated just as fully via computer as through our handwritten letters. But somehow I think it would have been different. I wouldn’t have caught the shakiness of her handwriting as she grew frailer with age. I wouldn’t have seen the little ink blots and scratched out words that frequented her last few letters. And I wouldn’t have felt her as I did each time I held a newly delivered envelope with her name in the corner.

And so even though I mainly use email today, there are times when only an honest-to-goodness handwritten letter works for me. How about you?


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review Friday

Once again I am happy to feature several book reviews by author, photographer, and all around good guy Carl Brookins. Carl reviews an oldie but goodie with Claudia Bishop's Puree of Poison. The other three reviews are of more recent titles. Hope you enjoy reading Carl's take on these fabulous books.

A Puree of Poison
By Claudia Bishop
ISBN: 0425193314
Publisher, Berkley Prime Crime
December, 2003, 260 pgs.

This small-town cozy comes with two squabbling sisters, one a gourmand cook, the other an established painter. They collide in a little upstate New York town called Hemlock Falls. Aptly named. Together the sisters Sarah, called Quill, and Meg, own and operate an inn on a perfect plot of property overlooking the namesake falls. The novel comes with a list of the huge number of characters at the front and an unremarkable recipe at the back.

The 133rd anniversary of a minor Civil War skirmish is approaching and the town is planning big doings. Things get rapidly complicated. Re-enactors are arriving to stage the battle, a poisonous couple of independent film-makers appear, and Quill, who cannot manage a business to save her soul, is trying out various practices on the Inn’s employees she is picking up from a business course at Cornell. Cornell ought to sue.

Then people start dying. They are old and not exactly in the best of health, but they weren’t at death’s door, either. The one thing they had in common was the Inn. All three victims had had meals at the Inn on the same day. The town doctor, who’s in love with Meg, the aforementioned sister, is mightily distressed. He asks Meg’s sister, Quill, to investigate. This of course adds to the number of subjects over which the two sisters can disagree. As one might imagine, there’s a great amount of shouting, stomping about and door slamming.

Quill, of course, agrees to look into the deaths, if only to protect the reputation of the Inn and her sister. It isn’t like she hasn’t enough to occupy her. She has to deal with a twit of a receptionist who’s trying to finish a PhD and her own inept efforts to force worrisome new business practices on her employees without any preparation.

All of this is handled with a light touch and there are several clever scenes, helped by some imaginative and interesting characters, but it all never quite comes off. The sisters’ constant squabbling, the irritating front office receptionist who should have been fired for insubordination, and half a dozen other offenses, overshadow some strong writing and clever plotting.

Tomb With A View
By Casey Daniels
ISBN: 9780425235515
2010 mass market release
from Berkley Prime Crime

Pair one of our less interesting presidents, James A. Garfield, with a cute slender, sexually aware private detective, cum medium, and what do you get? You get this delightful cozy mystery, one of several in Casey Daniel’s series of Pepper Martin adventures.

But be warned. If you don’t like a bad pun or two, several tongue-in-cheek jokes and a huge riff on one of the presidents of these United States, this delightful novel isn’t your cup of tea.

On the other hand, if your humor runs to the mildly risqué, you don’t mind a self-aware sexy cemetery tour guide(!) who happens to be reluctantly channeling the dead President, and you enjoy fast-paced well-conceived criminally artful plots, this latest adventure of Pepper Martin is definitely a winner.

Around every prominent figure in history there swirls scandal and scandal attracts the greedy. If this author is to be believed, an incredibly audacious land swap plan was under way when anarchist Charles Guiteau fired the bullet that cut short what might have been a sterling presidential career.

That’s all in the past. What’s here and now, is a well-managed funny, and twisty story peopled with interesting characters, not the least of whom is one well-named, Pepper Martin.

The Cruel Ever After
by Ellen Hart
A Minotar (St. Martin’s Press)
2010 release. Hard cover, 320 pgs.
ISBN: 9780312624768

This, Hart’s nineteenth Jane Lawless mystery, is probably the darkest and most shocking of the series. Difficult to read it is chock full of, painful, difficult relationships and actions. The extensive cast of characters, many of whom fans will have met before, are almost all revealed to have seriously dangerous dark sides. And even when those troublesome and even illegal dimensions of their characters are revealed and confronted by other individuals in the book, they persist in their ways, ways that sometimes tread close to the abyss.

The shocks begin very early when Lawless’s former husband, a man she hasn’t seen for twenty years, appears in Minneapolis. Not only are we more than a little surprised to discover that Jane was married many years ago, she is upset by his appearance, supposedly ‘simply for old times sake.’ It becomes quickly apparent that Chester Garrity, one of the most facile liars and con men you’ll ever meet, has a specific personal agenda. Garrity is a user of anybody and everybody within reach. That he is such, should, it seems to this reader, to be more apparent to Jane than appears to be the case.

That Garrity is also fairly incompetent also becomes obvious. Part of the tragedy is that his incompetence visits appalling harm on the people around him. Almost immediately plans go awry and spiral out of control. Murder results. Garrity demonstrates such a high level of impotence in the face of disaster that it is hard to believe he has managed to stay alive and out of prison for this long.
At roughly the same time that Garrity begins his ill-managed plan to sell antiquities of questionable provenance, a lethal cabal of shadowy vigilantes makes its presence known by murdering a popular gallery owner.

Is there a link here? Of course there is, but readers will require almost infinite patience to figure out the links and resolve the tangle of threads and relationships. Patience is particularly important in the first half of the book. After that, with the background and setup in place, the action and the pace pick up. Logic takes firm hold and as the complications and resolutions of the many plot lines become clearer, the author’s grip on her story becomes firmer. The second half of the novel as revelation bangs in on top of revelation and explanation explodes, is all vintage Hart, an excellent writer who is almost always in full command of her work.

There were times however, when I wanted to scream at Jane Lawless, and wondered who was really managing that usually incisive and clever mind.

Too Many Clients
By David Walker
ISBN: 9780727869302
Published by Severn House,
2010, 214 pgs.

Another sparkling crime novel in the Wild Onion series. It’s always a pleasure to open a book knowing you are in the hands of an experienced storyteller. Author David Walker has been around the block a few times and he has the accolades to show for it. His latest does not disappoint. Here we have a pair of wise and witty practitioners who are married to each other. In less sure hands, the marriage of two characters often lets a lot of steam out of a relationship and sends readers searching for other divertissements.
Not this time.

Private investigator Kirsten, married to uber-relaxed lawyer Dugan, takes on her husband as a client, after a bad cop is found murdered. Dugan, never a careful person, has blundered into the thing in such a way he becomes a suspect. And while Dugan can act odd at times, almost the antithesis of the hard-driving lawyer of many crime fiction novels, he is far from the only character. There’s Larry. Larry Candle is a partner in Dugan’s office. He just doesn’t come off as someone whom you’d want to represent you in court for anything more serious than a mistaken parking ticket. Yet Larry manages to get the job done all the while irritating nearly everyone around him.

As the days pass, Dugan and Kirsten continue to collect new clients who somehow all want them to locate the killer of this bad cop. To Kirsten and Dugan’s collective thinking these new clients don’t seem to be entirely above suspicion, either. Meanwhile the cops continue to zero in on Dugan. Gradually, as Kirsten digs deeper into the people who knew or knew about the dead cop, the story takes on wider and wider implications, tangling mob figures with international activities, a prominent churchman and….well, you get the idea. Twists on top of fascinating complications.

The novel is well-paced, complicated, and a truly fun read. I look for more cheeky stories in Walker’s wild Onion series.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Devils Island, Bloody Halls, Reunion, Red Sky
more at Kindle, Smashwords & OmniLit!


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Divorce: A Hypothetical Story

In the hands of a mystery writer, divorce can serve as a source of conflict between characters and give credence to motives for crimes as diverse as fraud, kidnapping, and murder. Smart writers will give readers insight into the personalities and backgrounds of their characters if divorce is used as a criminal motive. And because divorce procedures can be drastically different from state to state and from one country to another, careful writers will explore the laws governing the setting of their story before putting pen to paper.

This latter point is very important considering the fact that, if a crime occurs, police can establish motive by examining the wording of a divorce decree. Animosity between a couple generally grows in proportion to the time it takes to complete the divorce process. Contested child custody matters and disagreement over division of property can prolong a divorce, increasing the financial burden on both parties and turning normally reasonable people into hated enemies. These same problems can turn a person against his/her lawyer, especially a lawyer who's given imprudent advice to his client.

As an example of how individual state divorce laws can affect a story, let's look at a hypothetical case set in the state of Illinois where I live. Let's say a woman with two underage children decides to divorce her husband. The lawyer she chooses urges her to apply for sole custody of her children, failing to tell her that, in Illinois, sole custody is seldom granted. He advises against shared custody, where children live for alternating periods of time with each parent, but fails to explain that shared custody is not the same as joint custody in Illinois. The lawyer gives this advice knowing that prolonged disagreement by the parents over custody of their children will inevitably increase his time on the case and thus his bill to the wife.

The husband hires his own lawyer, who explains that in 1985 the Illinois state legislature passed a law providing for joint custody of children in divorce proceedings. The statute adopted by the legislature requires a Joint Parenting Agreement that spells out "each parent's powers, rights, and responsibilities for their personal care of the child and for parity in major decisions such as education, health care, and religious training." The lawyer advises the husband to apply for joint custody since sole custody in Illinois would leave all those major decisions in the hands of his wife, effectively cutting him out of any determinations made regarding the welfare of his children. The husband agrees to the lawyer's suggestion. He also agrees to his wife being named primary physical residential parent in the Joint Parenting Agreement, which means his children will live with their mother while he retains visitation rights.

The wife's lawyer knows that if the husband counter-sues for joint custody, and the couple fails to produce a Joint Parenting Agreement, the court may enter its own Joint Parenting Agreement based on the couple's ability to cooperate with each other. The court could also order the couple to attend sessions with a court-appointed mediator who would then make recommendations to the judge regarding child custody. Extending the custody battle is in the best interest of the lawyer, not the parents. Once again, the lawyer can pad his bill for time spent counseling his client.

If I were writing this story as a murder mystery set in Illinois, I'd kill off the wife's lawyer, then have the police treat the divorcing couple as suspects. What would be their motive, you ask. Well, that's easy. The husband and wife have spent mucho dollars on lawyers' fees for an ill-advised custody battle. Both of them are now deeply in debt and regretting the fact that they didn't know Illinois law and didn't cooperate in signing a Joint Parenting Agreement. While aiming some of their anger at each other, the police can show they mainly blame the wife's lawyer for their troubles.

While custody battles happen all the time, the laws and procedures governing those battles can be drastically different given the place where they occur. An author who knows his state's or country's divorce laws can lend credibility to his story while building a suspenseful plot.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Reviews by Carl Brookins

The weekend is here, so what better way to spend it than with some great book reviews by my good friend Carl Brookins. I think you'll enjoy these four.

Some Like It Red Hot
By Robin Merrill
Acacia Publishing, Inc
ISBN: 978-0-9774-306-4-2
2008, Trade Paper, 276 pages

Lotsimina Hannon (Lotsi to her intimates) is forced by an evil corporate empire to retire before her time. Lotsi, for want of something else to do, decides to start a whole new life. What better way to do so than buy an old RV and a new motorcycle and hit the road? The fact that she’s never in her life driven either a large recreational vehicle or a high-powered motorcycle is no deterrent.

Since she’s looking for a little excitement in her new life, she heads to Las Vegas, home of opulent RV parks, saunas and hot tubs. And men. Oh yes. Older and retired, but far from sedentary, Lotsi has the heart and the attitudes of a much younger woman. You might say the fires are low but still burning. All it takes is a delectable hunk with the wit and the knowledge of the desires of the more mature woman, and a certain level of experience, to bring those embers to a raging inferno. It also may be said that starting a relationship in a hot tub can get things off to a quick start.

Then of course, murder and associated chicanery intrudes and Lotsi is forced into a game of clues, a game that soon turns deadly. What’s worse, Lotsi becomes a target of the killers even while desperately learning to ride the motorcycle and speed out of trouble.

Smartly written, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, author Merrill presents a romp through the RV culture with pokes at aging baby boomers that is just askew enough to keep you reading and chuckling all the way along. While the story is realistically presented with enough straight and freaky characters to keep readers guessing, this frank romantic mystery is not aimed at fans of the realistic or the noir. A fun read. I hope the author is able to bring us further adventures of the mature.

Swift Edge
by Laura DiSilverio
ISBN: 978-0-312-62444-6
2011 release from St. Martins/
Minotaur, 291 pages.

Judicious blending of two quite different characters as private investigators carries this story of murder and identity theft on a roller coaster of humor and tension. Gigi Goldman, one half of the investigator team of Swift Investigations is inept at best. I mean, how about trying a surveillance gig from a yellow Hummer? Charlie Swift is the more competent partner with background and experience and she carries the bulk of the serious investigation that is at the core of this slickly written, well-laid out story.

A world class figure skater disappears on the eve of national trials. Charlie Swift is up for the challenge of finding the guy, but she keeps stumbling over her partner Gigi and Gigi’s petulant teen-aged daughter. Then the client, another figure skater, disappears, a world-renowned coach is attacked, and almost everywhere she goes, somebody is shooting at Charlie. If that isn’t enough trouble, almost every male she encounters seems to be after Charlie’s body in a less destructive way. But maybe that’s just Charlie Swift’s take on the situations.

The action is constant, often funny and requires the occasional suspension of disbelief. The characters are well-drawn and consistent. This is a sometimes zany, very enjoyable addition to what appears to be a swiftly growing series of light to medium crime novels.

Under The Dog Star
by Sandra Parshall
ISBN: 978-1-59058-878-9
a 2011 Poisoned Pen release,
303 pages

The story is already in full-bore action when you open the book. “In the silver moonlight, the dogs appear as a dark mass moving down the hill and across the pasture.” Contrast of light and dark. Questions immediately arise. Are these dangerous dogs? Feral dogs? Where are we and who is observing this? Why should we care?

In the hands of this careful, experienced writer, you know you are in for a wild ride. Veterinarian Rachel Goddard runs an animal clinic in the mountains of Virginia, a place where people are used to taking care of their problems in direct fashion. Wild dogs threatening livestock? Never mind they are or were somebody’s pet, shoot ‘em. This is anathema to Rachel and she mounts a county-wide attempt to trap and rescue the dogs before they are shot. The county is thrown into an uproar and her competence is questioned when a prominent physician is discovered with his throat torn out and plenty of evidence that a dog was the culprit.

Rachel’s lover Tom Bridger, a deputy sheriff in the county, is worried about Rachel’s safety as he struggles to understand the crime. Both Rachel and Bridger come up against one of the most dysfunctional families I have ever read about. There are other complications and false trails that have to be dealt with. The author handles dog fighting and other crimes in a forthright yet sympathetic manner. Readers will get the vivid pictures the author draws, but won’t have to wallow in the degradation. Parshall makes her points cleanly and evocatively, just as she illuminates the settings both by contrast and depiction.

There were times when I wanted to grab Rachel and inject a little backbone into her, and Bridger is sometimes entirely too controlling. Nevertheless, this is a strong, well-written chiller with crackling dialogue, great characters and a powerful resolution.

How to Survive A Killer Séance
By Penny Warner
Mass Market release in 2011
by Obsidian, 290 pages.

Party planner Presley Parker is back. In another delightfully cozy murder mystery, she’s got herself enmeshed with some high-roller, high energy, digital silicon-valley types who are nothing if not focused. The problem is they seem to have left everything resembling human values back at the starting gate. Compassion? Nowhere to be found. Fidelity? It is to laugh at.

The women are sexy and high energy, the guys are bright and energetic, if often ill-tempered, and poor Presley is caught between some over-stressed corporate types, her own urges and career needs, and her flakey mother. It’s easy to see where Penny gets some of her idiosyncrasies.

A wide range of characters? You bet. Unusual ideas and offbeat characters? Absolutely. This author fully understands what her readers are looking for, and in spite of having already produced a huge number of enjoyable books, she continues to plumb her creative muse to write stories that satisfy a certain risibility and belief in the quirkiness of human nature.

A fast read, well-plotted, with a setting to die for, and characters that are distinct. This is yet another of Penny Warner’s diverting, novels. Here there is no gloom or doom, just a murder or two in dark rooms, secret passageways, unreal emanations and a fast romp to a perfectly designed conclusion.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Devils Island, Bloody Halls, Reunion, Red Sky
more at Kindle, Smashwords & OmniLit!