Best Sellers

I read In The Market for Murder by T. E. Kinsey and really enjoyed visiting Lady Hardcastle and her kung-fu maid, Florence, a second time.  Humor permeates these books.  This one takes place in 1909, but Lady Hardcastle is way ahead of her times, always pushing the boundaries and solving crimes.  The mysteries–three in this book that seem separate but are all connected–are solid.  I like it when I read a mystery and the mystery is a decent part of the plot and well thought out.  These are.

I bought the first book in this series because I looked at the top 100 mysteries for some category and noticed not one or two, but FIVE of T. E. Kinsey’s mysteries listed.  And they were historical.  Always a plus for me.  So I decided to try one.  And I found it extremely entertaining.  Which surprised me.  In my mind, I had decided that best-selling books had to be weighty and serious.  Lady Hardcastle is NOT serious.  Neither is her maid, Florence.  They take potshots at each other and enjoy it tremendously.  Lady Hardcastle enjoys brandy…often.  And when stressed or bored, Florence fills the kitchen with so many cakes, they have to give most away.

In this particular Lady Hardcastle mystery, sleights of hand play a big part.  There’s a séance that might or might not be legit.  Trophies disappear from a case but the thief didn’t leave the premises.  All clever.  All fun.  And the books are hugely popular.  As they should be.

My theory that bestsellers have to involve angst, character growth, and a certain amount of suffering hasn’t proven true in this case.  The stakes didn’t make me lose sleep.  I fell asleep smiling.  And I love it!

I hope whatever you’re working on is going well, and enjoy this LAST week of May.  I can’t believe it.  It’s almost June–which I love.  But where did the time go?  Again?

 

 

Mystery Musings

My thoughts are muddled and cobbled together this Monday.  As so often happens to me, I’ve ended up with more questions than answers, and they’re all sort of blending together, and I’m letting them.  I finished reading In The Market for Murder by T.E. Kinsey last night.  On the cover, there’s a lady in a long coat with a maid in a long black dress and white apron.  I’ve read so many Regency mysteries and romances lately that my mind went right to that period of history.  But I was wrong.  The first book in the series takes place in 1908, and this–the second book–is shortly after.  For whatever reason, that date caught me off guard.  Lady Hardcastle and her husband were spies, and when her husband was killed, she retired to the English countryside with her maid–who traveled with her before she made it safely home.  The maid knows martial arts, and both ladies are quite capable of taking care of themselves.  But men constantly worry about their delicate sensibilities.

For me, the time period in this book feels a lot like the social niceties of the Regencies and Lady Darby mysteries that I read.  Except in this book, Lady Hardcastle decides to buy an automobile.  And that scene, in itself, made for an amusing read.  The salesman couldn’t fathom a woman buying a car by herself, with no husband, no chauffeur, and no mechanic.

For some reason, I read that scene and it triggered thoughts about my grandmother–how many changes she saw in her lifetime.  She grew up on a farm and lived through World War I.  When the men came home from fighting, she went to barn dances by horse and buggy.  She met and married my grandfather sometime during the Roaring Twenties.  Men whistled at her legs when she wore her flapper dresses, and she cut her hair in a bob.  Grandpa became a truck driver, and they moved to Chicago.  A gangster tried to hire him to run alcohol from Canada to a bar, but Grandpa turned him down.  One of his friends took the job and was shot dead on one of his trips.  Then came the Great Depression, and they lost everything, including their home.  They had to move back to live in a small worker’s shack near her mom.  And then came World War II and both of her sons were drafted.  Thankfully, both of them returned.

All of those memories, along with the books I’ve read lately, made me think about war and wars since today’s Memorial Day.  My husband put out the flag on our front porch.  Usually, a small neighborhood parade goes down our street, so loud you can’t sleep through it even if you wanted to.  Which we don’t.  We like seeing our neighbors and former neighbors who often return to see the high school band, an old train engine changed over to celebrate veterans, and all of the other groups that participate in the parade.  We visit on the side of the street and people marching by throw candy to the kids.  We linger for a while once it’s over, and then we all retreat to our homes and whatever our plans are for the day.  But not this year.  Covid19 put a stop to the celebration.  Maybe it will return next year.  Maybe not.  Things have changed.

But we’ll always honor the men and women who served our country and lost their lives to protect us and our freedom.  And that led me to think about the nature of war.  It’s always been with us.  All you have to do is read the history books we were taught growing up.  We jump from the The French and Indian War to the Revolution to the War of 1812 and so on.  History is full of wars.  Every country fought them, all the way back to the Romans, the Egyptians, even the cavemen.  And wars changed mindsets and attitudes.  They brought back new ideas and products.  But at such a high cost.  Are we forever destined to fight them?  Maybe.  There’s always someone who wants to dominate, plunder, or subjugate.  Maybe it’s part of the human condition.

When I was young and idealistic, and wondered if we’d ever get tired of wars, I read The Devil and the Good Lord by Jean-Paul Sartre.  And it made me think that wars will always be with us, that if you’re too idealistic, you’re vulnerable.  But there will always be strong, honorable people who do the right thing, who respect one another.  And I can’t help but hope that there will always be more of them than angry, disgruntled people who are willing to trample their fellow man to get what they want.

See?  I warned you that my mind was rambling today.  And I might be able to add up clues to solve mysteries, but I can’t begin to fathom the mystery of Destiny or mankind.  I hope you had a wonderful three-day weekend, and happy Memorial Day.

 

Jazzi & Ansel

In THE BODY FROM THE PAST, available on NetGalley and due out in September, https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/191452   Jazzi finds a girl’s treasure chest when she, Ansel, and Jerod are clearing a house to fix up.  The girl died shortly before high school graduation.  Jerod calls her family but they don’t want it.  Jazzi doesn’t feel right, throwing away all of Jessica’s memories, so she wants to take the chest home to look through it.  Ansel’s not so thrilled about that, and here’s why:

Ansel closeup

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Ansel pinched off a small bite of his sandwich to share with George, who’d come to beg. “I don’t want to get involved in whatever happened. It couldn’t have been good if the family had to run from it.”

“I can’t throw away her treasure chest.” Jazzi raised her chin, digging in. “I’m taking it home with us and looking through it.”

Ansel closed his eyes and counted to ten. “And what if someone murdered her? What then?”

“They’re probably in prison, and I won’t visit them.”

He sighed. “And you’ll leave it alone? Even if the case wasn’t solved?”

“I don’t know Jessica. I’ll feel sorry for her, but we’re not involved with her past. It’s not as if it’s one of our friends or family.”

His shoulders relaxed and he fed George another pinch of food. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Fine. But it will drive me nuts if I don’t dig around inside that chest.”

He nodded, and Jerod shook his head. “I was a witness to this whole conversation. Ansel can use me as backup, cuz.”

“First of all, you’re my cousin, and I’m the one who cooks for you. But if you want to be like that, you two can be bosom buddies and do your thing.”

Jerod rolled his eyes. “I’m not choosing Ansel over you. But the man has a point. You don’t need to get involved in every murder that falls into your lap.”

Pressing her lips tight, she raised an eyebrow at him. “Fine.”

“When women say fine, it’s always a red flag.” Jerod stood to throw away his paper plate. “If it comes to sticking up for you, Ansel, or choosing Jazzi’s minestrone soup, she wins.”

Ansel let out a puff of aggravation.

How Much Tension Do You Want?

I’ve been yakking about Ilona Andrews’s SAPPHIRE FLAMES since I finished reading it.  The book and the writing have stayed me with a while.  It made me think about a lot of different things.  And tension is one of them.

Since I’ve been writing cozies for a while now, I’ve been working on making page turns rely on different dynamics than fighting terrible odds, supernatural monsters, serial killers, or ticking clocks.  Cozies have a quieter tension–discovering clues and adding them up, ignoring red herrings, and discovering the killer before the protagonist does.  Every story has to have conflict, but in cozies, it could be trying to worm a secret out of someone you’re questioning, trying to add up evidence to get closer to finding the killer.

One of the reasons I like writing Muddy River is because the tension is about trying to survive or help someone else survive.  It’s about life and death.  Ilona Andrews uses that kind of conflict in her novels, only she ratchets it up to almost every scene.  And that’s the fun of reading her.  I can’t turn the pages fast enough to see how her protagonists are going to survive another battle against an even stronger opponent.  Muddy River doesn’t do that.  There are battles, yes, but there “down” scenes, too, because I like the people and their lives and their dynamics together.

I like low-key tension as much as I like nail-biters.  Literary tension might be the one I struggle with most.  Inner conflict doesn’t grip me as much as it does my daughters.  My younger daughter says it’s her favorite.  Anyway, I’ve spent some time thinking about how to develop conflict and tension lately.  And these are just a few of my random thoughts, nothing deep or momentous, just ponderings:

  1.  Personal Stakes:  In literary reads, the entire plot might revolve around a person getting to know who they are and what they want of themselves and life and struggling to get that.  That internal struggle is what builds tension.  For example, a book could be about an alcoholic who’s trying to stop drinking.  No easy thing to do.  It could be about an abused child who’s trying to live an ordinary life as an adult and overcome the fears and defense mechanisms she developed to cope.  The emotional toll is high, and the stakes for finding happiness or even normalcy are high.  But they aren’t life or death.  The country won’t go into chaos if the hero doesn’t succeed.  There’s no ticking clock.  That’s why it’s personal, but we can all relate to them.
  2.   Low Stakes:  In romances, again, the stakes are personal.  The tension is driven by emotions, people hoping to find love.  Girl meets boy.  Attraction flares, but obstacles get in the way.  Can the two people overcome those obstacles and get together?  Stakes are low in cozies, too.  There’s a murder.  There’s a good reason the amateur sleuth gets involved in solving that murder.  He or she interviews people, looks for clues, and won’t be satisfied until he finds the truth.  In both of these types of books, the tension ebbs and flows.  It peaks when failure looms on the horizon, then dips when something new happens to advance the plot.  These books have rhythms and often revolve around four turning points in the story.  The protagonist might be in danger of failing to achieve his goal, but his life is rarely at risk.  There are “soft spots” for the reader to land before the next push forward.
  3. Medium Stakes:  I’d put straight mysteries in this category, adventure stories, some thrillers, and maybe most paranormals.  There’s more action.  There’s more possibility for physical harm.  The cost of failure isn’t just emotional, but maybe getting beat up, stabbed, or shot, too.  The person a cop or hero is trying to protect might die if the hero can’t stay a step ahead of the antagonist.  The hero might die trying to protect him.
  4.  High Stakes:  Every chapter brings a new danger.  There’s not one murder at the beginning of the book and maybe a second or third one later to keep up the pace.  High stakes is when the protagonist and the antagonist fight it out from the beginning of the book to the end, and the protagonist’s life is almost always in danger.  Often, there’s a ticking clock.  Sometimes, the battle starts small–like in women in jeopardy novels–and escalates to the end.  Always, the tension builds from the first chapter to the last.  Everything intensifies.  Often, the protagonist loses someone he’s close to or cares about.  The stakes have to be high.
  5.   Ilona Andrews’s Urban Fantasies:  The stakes are off the chart.  The opponents take off their gloves at the beginning of the book and duke it out over and over again until the stakes are so high, you’re wrung out by the time you finish the last page.  And everything in the stories create tension:  a.  almost every conversation is fraught with tension.  People disagree, argue, threaten each other, try to outmaneuver each other, and try to worm information from one another.   b.  romantic tension:  the attraction between the protagonist and her love interest almost feels like sparring; the physical attraction is off the charts, but one or both of them resist it  c. the clashes build bigger and more dangerous from the first to the final, BIG do-or-die battle.

No matter what kind of book you write, the stakes have to keep getting higher.  The protagonist has to have more to lose.  Unless you write humor.  And in all honesty, I’ve never done it, don’t read much of it, and I just don’t know:)  (Except I did read Mae Clair’s IN SEARCH OF McDOODLE and loved it).  But whatever you’re working on now, good luck and happy writing!

Mystery Musings

I recently finished reading Ilona Andrews’s SAPPHIRE FLAMES.  And when her protagonist, Catalina, was stressed, she cooked.  She made wonderful food for her family–her mother, grandmother, sister, cousins, and whoever else was around.  I really enjoyed those scenes because I often do the same thing in my books.  In the Jazzi series, Jazzi cooks for her family and friends every Sunday, and Ansel helps her.  Her cousin, Jerod, and his family are always the first to arrive.  But by the time Jazzi and Ansel load food on their kitchen island for people to serve themselves, buffet-style, twenty people circle the table.  And usually, Jazzi is knee-deep in a mystery to solve, and they talk about the suspects and witnesses and often come up with a new clue for Jazzi to follow.  Jazzi’s Gran has the gift of “sight” and occasionally “sees” something significant for Jazzi to look into.  And of course, Jerod teases her as often as possible.

To me, meals are a time for people who care about each other to come together.  Just like there’s a difference between cooks and chefs, there’s a difference between people who enjoy food.  Gourmands concentrate on the food itself.  But mostly, in my family, we enjoy the food, but we also enjoy each other.  The food’s just part of the meal.

In my Muddy River series, even though the protagonist is a witch and her mate is a fire demon, the same thing happens.  Hester often invites her coven and their families to her house for meals.  That’s when they catch up with each other and discuss whatever enemy they’re fighting at the moment.  It’s a time to talk strategy and bond together.

In SAPPHIRE FLAMES, Catalina was a sophisticated cook.  She made a dessert I’d never heard of.  It’s kind of fun to glimpse a little more about a character by the food she chooses to serve.  A guy who throws a burger on the grill makes an entirely different impression from Catalina who made roasted lemon chicken, rosemary potatoes, and a shaved Brussel sprouts and kale salad, besides the dessert.  So many little things can be telling about characters.  Food’s just one of them.

Even Better Than I Expected

I stayed up longer than usual to finish reading SAPPHIRE FLAMES by Ilona Andrews.  I hardly ever do that anymore, so it takes a really good book that I can’t put down to keep me up into the wee hours.

When I want a book with wild imagination, lots of action, and even more battles, my go to is Ilona Andrews.  The same can be said for tons of other readers.  She’s a New York Times best-selling author, because she delivers.  When I want shivers but no horror, she delivers that, too.  Time after time, in every book, her protagonists (female and her romantic interest) look like there’s no way they can survive their newest threat.  The odds always seem impossible.  And of course, they somehow manage to scrape through alive.  They face mages who can shred minds, reach into another sphere to pull out monsters, or amass armies.  It’s wonderful fun.

In the first set of three books featuring Catalina’s family–starting with BURN FOR ME–the books revolve around Nevada and Rogan.  Nevada’s the oldest sister in the family, who’s struggling to keep the family’s detective agency solvent after her father dies and to keep food on the table.  When she takes on her latest case, she runs smack into “Mad” Rogan.  She and Rogan got three books before their HEA, and they were great together.

SAPPHIRE FLAMES is the first book in the second part of the series, featuring Nevada’s sister Catalina and her romantic interest, Alessandro.  There are references to the first books in the series, but I think there’s enough information that you could read this set without reading the first.  And this set has a different feel.  I can’t remember reading a more dashing hero than Alessandro.  He’s gorgeous.  He’s sexy.  He’s Italian and a count.  And he’s deadly.  Plus, he really, really wants Catalina.

The especially fun part about Alessandro is that his magic negates anyone else’s magic he’s close enough to.  AND if there’s any kind of weapon close enough, he can have a copy of it in his hand to use.  When he battles, he can go through weapons one after another until he finds the right one to finish his opponent.  My favorite example of this is when he and Catalina are battling a mage who can change into a huge killing beast, and he shoots her over and over again at a building site and finally ends up with a chain saw in his hand while Catalina hacks at her head with a sword.  Nice family fun.

Catalina’s magic struck me as more subtle, but it’s every bit as deadly.  She can wrap her magic around anyone and make them love her to the point that they’ll do anything she asks to make her happy.  She’s VERY careful of her magic and has to hold it in so that it doesn’t affect innocent people.  She uses her magic in really surprising ways, and I enjoyed watching her get out of deadly situations by being so clever.

And when you put Catalina and Alessandro together…sparks fly.  Chemistry explodes.  I knew they wouldn’t get together at the end of the book (since it’s book one in what I assume will be three), but oh, I wanted them together!  I should mention quickly that Catalina’s family and friends are all wonderful in their own ways, as well.  And as you can tell by this long, gushing review, I absolutely loved this book.

Whew! The steam…

I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries, back to back.  Some cozy, some thrillers, some historical, but I was in the mood for something different, and then I read a fun review on Goodreads for a romance:  HOTSHOT DOC, by R.S. Grey.  A grumpy, dedicated-to-his-job surgeon scares away one assistant after another until he meets Bailey, a cute blonde who knows her stuff.  I don’t read romance often, but this sounded like the kind where sparks fly, so I decided to give it a try.  And I really enjoyed it.  The story has a lot of heart.  It also has some steaming  hot sex.  If you’ve recently decided to become celibate, this isn’t the book for you.  It could make you change your mind.

When I choose a book to read, I don’t LOOK for sex, but I sure don’t mind it, either.  I admire good writing when I find it, whether the author’s describing a Regency social gathering, a tense suspense scene, or two bodies that can’t resist being together.  (I can’t handle too much gore or torture, though, even when they’re well done.  I’ve gone soft in my old age).

When I first started writing urban fantasy as Judith Post, I tried to write hot sex scenes, and I was only so-so at it.  They’re hard to write.  It’s not just about body parts fitting together.  It’s about emotion and passion, too.  Desire.  Need.  When I signed a contract to write clean romances and cozies, it was a blessing.  I could focus on my strengths.  Passion seems to be one of my weak points.

A wonderful woman who used to insist on editing my early books told me to get past my hang ups, that sex is a natural thing between two people who love each other.  And then she analyzed my handwriting.  That was a revelation.  When there are no lines on the paper, my words start at one end of a line and go higher by the time I reach the other end–the sign of an optimist.  I cross my t’s higher than usual–I enjoy work.  And my a’s, e’s, and o’s are closed–the sign of a person who likes her privacy.  She said that’s why I didn’t open up when I wrote steamy scenes.  She told me if I’d open my vowels, my writing would follow.  I’ve tried.  I really have.  It hasn’t worked.  What happens behind closed doors, stays behind closed doors.

Whatever.  In HOTSHOT DOC, I sure enjoyed reading it, but it was because the characters were so RIGHT for each other.  And I liked each of them so much.  They fit together in every way, not just in bed.  And now that I’ve kicked up my reading heels a little, I’m ready to go back to murders and clues.  Happy reading and writing to you!

 

#19

I just finished Jenna Bennett’s latest mystery, Collateral Damage:  A Savannah Martin Mystery.  I love this series.  It started out as equal parts romance, equal parts mystery, but it’s evolved into a strong family and marriage.  I was curious how the author would handle having Savannah solve crimes and care for a baby, but it works.  Admittedly, I had one fussy baby who cried more than she cooed and one easy-going baby, but even then, I don’t know anyone whose baby is as good as Savannah’s.  Still, it works.

I particularly liked this book because it felt like Rafe and Savannah were a married team, with both of them showing their strengths and supporting each other.  For a long time, they loved each other but they each did their own thing.  Now, they work together.  The thing that keeps surprising me is that this is the NINETEENTH book, and I still look forward to the next one.  The stories haven’t grown stale because the characters keep growing–all of them.  Savannah’s mother, who was a spoiled southern belle at the beginning of the series, has changed a lot book by book.

I’m turning in my 6th Jazzi Zanders mystery this weekend, and I’ve worried about keeping each book fresh, not falling into a pattern, a rut, but Jenna Bennett proves it’s possible.  I think COLLATERAL DAMAGE is one of her best.  I’ve followed some authors for a long time, and some of my favorites hit a point where their books sagged.  It felt like they were just tired of them.  And I worried that that might be a common pitfall, something that was hard to avoid.  Eventually, they pulled out of it, and their books flexed their muscles again.  But so far, for me, that hasn’t happened with this series.  And I’m glad.  It gives me hope.

Does Your Preferred Genre Affect How You Read?

I’ve been thinking about reviews lately.  I’ve been lucky to have had some that lifted my spirits and encouraged me to write more.  And it’s interesting what some readers look for while others notice different things.  I have to admit, I noticed this more when I chose a few books by OTHER writers I admired and read THEIR reviews.  I could be more objective:)  And the things that hooked me in a book didn’t always matter to other readers.  They focused on something else.  So it made me wonder.  If you prefer a certain genre, does it affect what you look for when you read?

I’m at heart a mystery fan.  I want clues that add up to something that’s coming.  When I read a romance, I look for subtle signs of how the relationship is changing and what’s going to get it in trouble.  I know it’s going to end in HEA, but what hurdles does it have to overcome?  Same goes for fantasy.  Urban fantasy and paranormal anything would be a close second on my list of favorites, but I still want to see cause and effects that add up to the big showdown near the end of the book.  Characters hook me and keep me reading, but I still want a solid plot with inner motivations that lead to actions.

That made me consider what readers of other genres might look for.  I’m guessing romance readers take relationships seriously.  And they probably hope for a HEA.  In the last book I finished, I was hoping for one, too, but it didn’t happen.  The ending was pretty darn realistic.  In the book before that in the series, the relationship went bust at the end of the book, too.  Would that bother a romance reader, or would she take that in her stride and look forward to the next book?

Do fantasy/sci-fi readers focus more on world building than I do?  Probably.  I read C.S. Boyack’s GRINDERS, and a lot of readers commented on his vision of a future San Francisco.  And he did a great job on that, but what I focused on was the two cops trying to find the grinder who was experimenting on and using rats to find a cure for his wife.  That plot hung me up more than the cops themselves, who were also well done.

And what about horror fans?  What do they focus on?  I really doubt they’d ever read a cozy.  I’m thinking they want a story with emotional impact and lots of tension.  Tone and mood play a big part in setting things up.  And then I’d guess they need that adrenaline rush when a good guy is about to meet his end.

Thriller fans?  They need a lot of tension, too.  Good guy versus bad guy often leads to a ticking clock.  Will the protagonist save the (whatever) in time?  A few dead bodies usually pave the way to the end.  But let’s face it, in lots of mystery fiction…and sometimes a few other stories…there’s nothing like a dead body to pick up the pace of the story.

What do you think?  Do you have a favorite genre?  Are there things that make you like one book more than another?  Great characters can hook all of us, but what else keeps you turning pages?

 

 

 

Mystery Musings

I just finished reading PAINT IT BLACK by PJ Parrish.  I’ve just started the series, so as usual, I’m behind everyone else.  This is the second full book, and I really liked the first one, but I loved this one.  I loved it so much, I decided to do more than a review and to write about it here.

It’s gritty, but for me, it never went too far.  It’s violent, but we hear the violent acts but don’t have to watch them.  I can only take so much these days.  When I was young, bring on the horror and gory!  Show me a new serial killer.  But those days are behind me.  Which is odd.  Because I can write about them with more ease than I can read them.  Maybe because I put myself in the killer’s mind and what he’s doing feels like what he would really do?  Not sure.  But hinting at things off screen works better for me these days.

The Louis Kincaid stories are thrillers, and this one revolves around a serial killer.  His psychology fascinated me.  And the farther I read, the more I knew that eventually, Louis Kincaid would be high on his list of victims.  That made for great tension.  To the point, (and, sorry, because this might be a spoiler that ruins some of the tension when it happens). that he kidnaps one person but doesn’t kill her because she doesn’t fit his profile.  It’s such an insight into the killer’s motives, I thought it was brilliant.

Besides the mystery and motives, I enjoyed how the characters in this book were fleshed out.  And it was all done in such an understated way with so few words and deep conversations, I was impressed.  Each character is mindful and respectful of each other’s space.  They all have past histories, and some of those histories are painful, so they tiptoe around them, never prying, never pushing too hard.  That made it so that when I learned a little about them, a peek into what happened that they avoid, it made it all the more meaningful.

The end was a fight to the finish.  Well done.  The protagonist didn’t just walk into an obvious trap, even though I do think he could have figured out who the last victim was sooner.  But that aside, the end delivered a strong, emotional impact.  It worked.  And the wrap-up wasn’t exactly what I expected but realistic, so actually better in its way.

This book had complex, private characters; a great villain; strong teamwork between the good guys; and plenty of tension for a thriller.  It’s going high on my list of favorite reads.