Category Archives: Favorite Stuff I Read

Conan Doyle For The Defense by Margalit Fox

I just finished this fascinating true crime story involving none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.

Over the years I’d heard that people would write to Conan Doyle and ask his help on various legal or criminal matters but I thought that was anecdotal, since people also thought Sherlock Holmes was a real person.

But this is one of those actual cases.

A man named Oscar Slater was jailed for the murder of an elderly woman in Scotland in 1908. But the investigation was a sham and it was clear that Slater was railroaded. Slater was a convenient person to nab … Jewish, foreign, poor, held dodgy jobs. He checked all the easy boxes and was sent to a brutal place, Peterhead Prison, just north of Aberdeen on the northeast coast of Scotland. He was there for eighteen years.

The author very adeptly travels back and forth between Slater’s case and the investigation, the history of law and police procedures in general and in Scotland in particular, and how Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes. It’s pretty clear Sherlock was based on Joseph Bell who was a doctor at a teaching hospital. As a second year medical student, Conan Doyle was chosen to be his clerk. Bell diagnosed illnesses exactly as Sherlock solved crimes.

The influence of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle led to new ideas we still use today in police work, but fair warning, the things they did to Oscar Slater will make your blood boil.

This book was a delightful combination of police procedural, biography, history, and plain ‘ol mystery. It also taught me the difference between deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning.

Sherlock would be proud.

What are you reading?

 

I’m reading Nancy Pickard this week

I’m a proud, dedicated member of Sisters in Crime, an organization whose mission it is to support women mystery writers. (Misters do this too, in case you were wondering!) I helped start our Colorado chapter a few years back. It has been by far one of the best things I’ve ever done, personally and professionally.

Members get lots of benefits from the national organization of SinC, but I’m wiggly with excitement about something coming up in a couple of weeks. National has created a Speaker’s Bureau of prominent and prolific Sisters in Crime members. At no cost to the chapter, they pay for these speakers to come and present workshops and other events for us.

The board of our chapter requested that Nancy Pickard come to speak to us so I’m fully immersing myself in her mysteries.

I started with THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS, which hooked me from the first few pages.

Here’s the blurb about it…

Small Plains, Kansas, January 23, 1987: In the midst of a deadly blizzard, eighteen-year-old Rex Shellenberger scours his father’s pasture, looking for helpless newborn calves. Then he makes a shocking discovery: the naked, frozen body of a teenage girl, her skin as white as the snow around her. Even dead, she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. It is a moment that will forever change his life and the lives of everyone around him. The mysterious dead girl–the “Virgin of Small Plains”–inspires local reverence. In the two decades following her death, strange miracles visit those who faithfully tend to her grave; some even believe that her spirit can cure deadly illnesses. Slowly, word of the legend spreads.

But what really happened in that snow-covered field? Why did young Mitch Newquist disappear the day after the Virgin’s body was found, leaving behind his distraught girlfriend, Abby Reynolds? Why do the town’s three most powerful men–Dr. Quentin Reynolds, former sheriff Nathan Shellenberger, and Judge, Tom Newquist–all seem to be hiding the details of that night?

Seventeen years later, when Mitch suddenly returns to Small Plains, simmering tensions come to a head, ghosts that had long slumbered whisper anew, and the secrets that some wish would stay buried rise again from the grave of the Virgin. Abby–never having resolved her feelings for Mitch–is now determined to uncover exactly what happened so many years ago to tear their lives apart.

Three families and three friends, their worlds inexorably altered in the course of one night, must confront the ever-unfolding consequences in award-winning author Nancy Pickard’s remarkable novel of suspense. Wonderfully written and utterly absorbing, The Virgin of Small Plains is about the loss of faith, trust, and innocence . . . and the possibility of redemption.

As soon as I finished that one, I cleansed my palate with the last three short stories from an anthology by one author that was disappointing so I won’t mention it. It was touted in a national magazine, and as I’ve been trying to write a short story, I thought it would be wise to read really good ones. Alas, these I did not find “really good.” The search continues, however.

Then I picked up Nancy Pickard’s THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING.

Here’s the blurb for it…

One beautiful summer afternoon, Jody Linder receives shocking news: The man convicted of murdering her father is being released from prison and returning to the small town of Rose, Kansas. It has been twenty-three years since that stormy night when her father was shot and killed and her mother disappeared, presumed dead. Neither the protective embrace of Jody’s three uncles nor the safe haven of her grandparents’ ranch could erase the pain caused by Billy Crosby on that catastrophic night.

Now Billy Crosby is free, thanks to the efforts of his son, Collin, a lawyer who has spent most of his life trying to prove his father’s innocence. Despite their long history of carefully avoiding each other in such an insular community, Jody and Collin find that they share an exclusive sense of loss.

As Jody revisits old wounds, startling truths emerge about her family’s tragic past. But even through struggle and hardship, she still dares to hope for a better future—and maybe even love.

Again, as with Pickard’s other book, I was immediately captivated. She has a distinctive way with language, and her descriptions are so spot-on, you could swear you’ve already been wherever she’s describing.

Here’s how it opens …

Pickard has tantalizing mysteries and story questions that I can’t wait to learn. I raced through 100 pages of it on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I’m only halfway through, but I suspect I’ll continue to be surprised and engrossed through the last word.

Are you a Nancy Pickard fan? In addition to these two books, she has 16 others. Have you read any others?

 

Fiction Can Be Murder

Launch Day is finally here!

In case you haven’t heard enough about FICTION CAN BE MURDER, here’s an interview I did with Deborah Kalb … here’s where the main character Charlee Russo drops in at Dru’s Book Musings for a bit … here’s my book trailer … here are some cool tidbits you might not have known about the book …

And because you’ve been so patient, here is a picture of my adorable dog, Nala eating a MilkBone as big as her head.

And her boudoir shot …

You can buy the book, but not the dog, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores everywhere. And if you don’t want to buy it, ask your favorite librarian to order it. (Because then they’d be MY favorite librarian too!)

And remember … when you subscribe to my “So Seldom It’s Shameful” newsletter, you get the chance to win books and other cool stuff. Do it now because — SURPRISE — this month you can win FICTION CAN BE MURDER!

Good luck!

Redeployment by Phil Klay

RedeploymentI saw Phil Klay interviewed about his book of short stories. Interesting, but no thank you.

More war? I’ve had so much war. What could he possibly have to say that I haven’t heard already? I had more than a few reservations about reading it.

But then I kept hearing about him and this book.

He’s a Dartmouth graduate. He’s a Marine Corps veteran. His book was short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. He was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.”

And then the book won the National Book Award for fiction.

So I read it. It’s utterly and quite literally breathtaking. I found myself not breathing for long passages.

I think every American should read it, no matter what you think you know about the war(s), no matter your opinion, no matter if you’d rather not. There’s a disconnect for Americans, I think, that’s different today than for wars past. In World War II, for example, most households had someone fighting, and 100% of the population had to contend with rationing and availability of goods. I’ve heard that less than 0.5% of Americans serve in the military today. How many people do you know personally who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan? How has your personal economy been disrupted? For me, I can’t think of anyone who fought or anything I’ve done differently. Americans were in it together, this time we’re not.

The stories in “Redeployment” are written from the POVs of every kind of person you can imagine deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, in every kind of situation. Ben Fountain’s back cover blurb on my copy sums it up: “If you want to know the real cost of war for those who do the fighting, read Redeployment. These stories say it all, with an eloquence and rare humanity that will simultaneously break your heart and give you reasons to hope.”

This is the section I was going to quote, but here’s Phil Klay reading it …

Here’s something you might not know. Marines don’t have a medical unit of their own. They use Navy Corpsmen. My son was a Navy Corpsman. Every time Klay mentions corpsmen in a story, I think of him.

I think of how I didn’t know Navy Corpsmen followed Marines. I didn’t know how the Navy worked.

I didn’t know anything.

But now I know we were lucky. He stayed on the “blue side,” the Navy side, and he’s home now, a Navy veteran, going to school to continue his medical studies.

Lucky. So very lucky.

boots

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

will graysonI’m a huge fan of John Green so I can’t imagine what took me so long to read this book. But I’m sure glad I did. And now I’m a David Levithan fan too. They have that rare talent to make you laugh and cry at the same time.

But mostly laugh.

“If I were to stand on a scale fully dressed, sopping wet, holding ten-pound dumbbells in each hand and balancing a stack of hardcover books on my head, I’d weigh about 180 pounds, which is approximately equal to the weight of Tiny Cooper’s left tricep. But in this moment, I could beat the holy living shit out of Tiny Cooper. And I would, I swear to God, except I’m too busy trying to disappear.”

“And you know how no one ever listens to [their parents’] advice, because even if it’s true it’s so annoying and condescending that it just makes you want to go, like, develop a meth addiction and have unprotected sex with eighty-seven thousand anonymous partners? Well, I listen to my parents. They know what’s good for me. I’ll listen to anyone, frankly. Almost everyone knows better than I do.”

“And then he hugs me. Imagine being hugged by a sofa. That’s what it feels like.”

“Tiny doesn’t just sing these words — he belts them. It’s like a parade coming out of his mouth. I have no doubt the words travel over Lake Michigan to most of Canada and on to the North Pole. The farmers of Saskatchewan are crying. Santa is turning to Mrs Claus and saying ‘what the fuck is that?’ I am completely mortified, but then Tiny opens his eyes and looks at me with such obvious caring that I have no idea what to do. No one’s tried to give me something like this in ages.”

“And, since they are theater people, they are all talking. All of them. Simultaneously. They do not need to be heard; they only need to be speaking.”

“How have I ended up dating this sprinkled donut of a person?”

Sigh. I heart John Green and David Levithan. They not only make me want to be a better writer, they also make me want to be a better person.

How ’bout you? Are you a fan of John Green and/or David Levithan? Which is your favorite book?

Birdsong — A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks

birdsong I read this for my book club and while I found it hard to read at times — mostly during the in-your-face WWI scenes from the trenches — it did have some excellent passages that grabbed me by the eyeballs and forced me to read them again.

“The pressure of Madame Azaire’s foot against his leg slowly increased until most of her calf rested against him. The simple frisson this touch had earlier given to his charged senses now seemed complicated; the sensation of desire seemed indistinguishable from an impulse toward death.”

Faulks is a master of description, which is probably why I had trouble with the gruesome war scenes.

“An aroma of cress and sorrel was just discernible when the swing doors pushed open to reveal the waiters in their black waistcoats and long white aprons carrying trays of coffee and cognac to the tables at the front and shouting back orders to the bar. At the end farthest from the kitchen was a tall cash desk at which a grey-haired woman was making careful entries in a ledger with a steel-nibbed pen.”

“… she seemed no more really than a pale version of what womanhood could achieve. Stephen viewed all women in this way. He felt sorry for men who were married to creatures who were so obviously inferior; even the men who were happy and proud of the imagined beauty of their wives had, in his eyes, made a desperate compromise. He even pitied the women themselves: their vanity, their looks, their lives were poor things in his eyes, so far short of what could exist.”

In the modern day section, the character had a one-night stand. She was neither happy nor guilt-ridden by it.

“She felt a little tenderness toward him. She wondered what function the episode had served in his life and in his mythology of himself.”

That passage made me close the book and stare into space. I wondered, too, about all the brief encounters — non-sexual, in my case — throughout my life that meant very little to me, but might have been much more important to the other person. And vice versa.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my grown daughter. I’d remembered something  I’d done during her childhood that jumped to the top of the Things That Make Me A Bad Mother list. When I explained and offered my most sincere mea culpa, she laughed and said she didn’t even remember the incident.

My relief, of course, was immediate and overwhelming because I’d just whittled that list down to a more managable 999,999 things.

What about you?  Have you ever wondered what function an episode had served in someone’s life and mythology?

 

(4) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

One of the Harry Potter movies was to be shown to all the kids near the end of term, until one of the fundamentalist missionaries took exception. The “compromise” was that only one class was allowed to watch it, so the author had to make a Sophie’s Choice between her classes. I had just read a review of the movie Jupiter Ascending, about how delightfully bad it was, which made me desperate to watch it. And I could.

There’s a parallel to be drawn here between the scared North Korean Party trying to control the minds of their citizens and these missionaries trying to do the exact same thing.

(3) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

It was at moments like these that I could not help but think that they — my beloved students — were insane. Either they were so terrified that they felt compelled to lie and boast of the greatness of their Leader, or they sincerely believed everything they were telling me. I could not decide which was worse.

While the author was there, they were told all the other colleges had closed except theirs. They were teaching the sons of the elite. All the other kids from the closed colleges would be sent off to work on infrastructure projects, in anticipation of Kim Jun-Un’s ascenscion, she speculated. The missionaries fully funded this particular school, which is why it was tolerated. She was pretending to be a missionary, but she really wasn’t a believer.

I sang along, but I could not help noticing that if you replaced the word ‘Jesus’ with ‘Great Leader,’ the content was not so different from some of the North Korean songs my students chanted several times each day.

(2) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

For the first time, thinking was dangerous to my survival.

I share a birthday with Kim Jong-il. Today, in fact. All the kids in North Korea receive gifts from the Party today. Sometimes my birthday coincided with a day off school, thanks to a President’s birthday, but I always pretended it had something to do with me.

I wonder what a North Korean kid thinks who shares our birthday.