Friday, August 26, 2016

Where Did Summer (and Summer Reading) Go?

By Art Taylor

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda has written before about his preferences for winter reading (the long nights perfect for history, as he says in one of the capsule reviews here, and for mystery, as he says here, and for ghost stories too, as he said in a column I can't find to link); for summer, he seems to like an equally wide range, though maybe still with a lean toward genre fiction, as he shows here.

For me, summer is distinct from the other seasons in a different but significant way: During the school year, I'm mostly reading texts for class, while in the summer I mostly have more freedom in my reading.

I should emphasize that word mostly in both cases. During the school year, I'm always sneaking in some reading of my own (often short stories), and as this summer proved, it's sometimes tough to break cleanly from the academic world.

After posting grades at the end of spring semester, the first book I read —and greatly enjoyed—brought me fully back onto the college campus: Cynthia Kuhn's The Semester of Our Discontent. And a collection I picked up next, B.K. Stevens' Her Infinite Variety, featured a great story about adjuncts—more university life! (I actually wrote about both of these books in a column at the Washington Independent Review of Books, along with some other academic mysteries.)

By the second half of the summer, I was already gearing up for the next school year (starting this Monday!)—reading and research specifically into 19th-century detective fiction by women writers for a course called "Women of Mystery" I'll be teaching for the first time. It was great fun to revisit or to read for the first time works by Harriet Prescott Spofford, Mary Fortune, C.L. Pirkis, Anna Katherine Green, and Baroness Orczy, among others. (And if you want links to some free reads by several of these writers, check out my column on this topic, also at the Washington Independent Review of Books.)

Was there anything I read that didn't circle in one way or another back to academia?

Yes. I read Iain Reid's twisty, edgy thriller I'm Thinking of Ending Things (which I wrote about here at my other group blog, SleuthSayers).

I reread Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man (which I also wrote about at SleuthSayers).

And I finally read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (maybe the last person I know to do so, and while I don't have plans to write about anywhere, I will say I really admired least until the final sections).

All these links to other newspapers and magazines and blogs.... Any chance of showing some love to the blog at hand?

Yes, again! Here past the half-year mark, I'm also happy to report that I've stayed completely on track with my chapter-a-day goal to read War and Peace this year—a new year's resolution I wrote about in my first post of 2016 here at Criminal Minds.

As for the other resolutions... well, that's for another post toward the end of the year, I guess.


As usual, a quick bit of news here at column's end. This Sunday, August 28, I'll be joining my wife, Tara Laskowski, and our good friend David Olimpio for this month's edition of the Reston Readings series at Reston's Used Book Shop in Reston, Virginia.

Did I write Reston enough?

The reading starts at 5:30 p.m., and full information is available at the event's Facebook page here. Folks in the DC area, hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Take Me to Your Roomba

by Alan

Summer's almost done! Share a favorite book from your summer reading. And do you seek out different books depending on the season?

To me, summertime is ideal for re-reading. A relaxed time when you can pick up an old favorite and leisurely revisit some favorite characters or return to a cherished place, in time or space.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I tried to reread THE HOBBIT and the LOTR trilogy every summer. (I think I actually managed to devour the whole thing once or twice!) Yes, I still skimmed the overlong descriptions and the passages of poetry (who am I kidding? I skipped the poetry altogether), but I followed Bilbo and Frodo on their adventures. (Talking trees? ENTirely plausible!)

godwulfmanuscriptWhen I got older, I would, during certain summers, set a goal of rereading an entire series, right from the start, in order. Usually, I’d only get a few books in before getting sidetracked by something else (I mean, do you have any idea how many NEW books there are? Just waiting to be read?). I can’t even count how many times I read Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser book, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT. The fifth book? Not so many.

Of course, re-reading isn’t all sparkly unicorns and freshly-baked chocolate chip muffins. Read this post for a sordid tale.

Don’t be misled; for me, summers weren’t exclusively for re-reading. As a teenager, summertime meant more time to read. No school, no homework, and there was only so much time I could spend outside running around. I read mostly science fiction back then, so I associate summertime reading with space operas and alien invasions and robots becoming sentient and taking over the world (I’m telling you, watch out for the Roomba Revolt!).

What books make you think of summer?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Summer Reads

 By Tracy Kiely
This has been a crazy summer. Normally, I look forward to being able to grab a few books and read them when we head to the beach. But this year, as I think I’ve mentioned to you before, my Muse took her vacation a bit early. And then didn’t return for four months. When she finally dragged her ass back to me, reeking of tequila and stale cigarettes, I could barely tolerate her. But, my deadline called, and so I forgave her. Sort of. The books I’d hoped to read were put aside – I had my own book to write. Vacation time came and I dutifully packed my laptop and yellow memo pad I’d scribbled various “brilliant” Muse inspired notes on. No books were packed. On the ride up, I wrote for a good six hours. I wrote the next day too. Then I did something stupid. I read a review in The Washington Post of Delia Ephron’s latest novel Siracusa. Here’s a segment:

“The story centers on two couples vacationing together in Italy. The four of them take turns telling the story, and their views of events rarely coincide. One couple is playwright Michael and magazine writer Lizzie, who live in Manhattan. The other consists of Finn, who owns a restaurant in Portland, Maine, and wife Taylor, who works for the city government there. They are accompanied by their 10-year-old daughter, Snow, so named because she was born during a blizzard.”

Okay. So, this sounds fun. But wait, there’s more:

“The couples are not close friends, but Lizzie and Finn had a brief affair 14 years earlier, when she was 29, and have kept in touch; this led to the ill-fated vacation that unfolds before us. We learn at the outset that both men, Michael and Finn, are having affairs with women back home. Michael, who has a large ego and a novel he’s struggling to finish, is bored with Lizzie. Lizzie, bright, good-hearted and sexy, is trying to keep their marriage afloat. In Italy, her ex-lover Finn pursues her, but she insists on being faithful to Michael. Neither man likes the other, and the same is true of the two women.”

Right??? Oh, yeah. There’s more. Someone dies. So, yes. I was a gonner. I downloaded the book (oh, damn you Kindle!) and read it cover to cover in maybe 12 hours. I loved it. I told all my friends to read it, so I can talk to someone about it. None of them have so far and it’s a little frustrating.

But now I’m back with my Muse and we are plugging away. The end is in sight. I figure that I’ll be done in time to read my usual autumnal selection.  Barbara Michaels’ Ammie, Come Home.  Set in Georgetown in the late 1960s, it’s a story of a haunted house, a possession, and a tragic murder. Here’s the description from Amazon:
Sooo Good!
“It begins as a lark -- a harmless diversion initiated by Washington, D.C., hostess Ruth Bennett as a means of entertaining her visiting niece, Sara. But the séance conducted in Ruth's elegant Georgetown home calls something back; something unwelcome ... and palpably evil. Suddenly Sara is speaking in a voice not her own, transformed into a miserable, whimpering creature so unlike her normal, sensible self. No tricks or talismans will dispel the malevolence that now plagues the inhabitants of this haunted place -- until a dark history of treachery, lust, and violence is exposed. But the cost might well be the sanity and the lives of the living.”

I’ve read it perhaps twenty times, and it still manages to scares the crap out of me. Barbara Michaels herself said that she’d stay up late into the night when she was writing it, and then would end up scaring herself.  But she is a master spooky storyteller. She hooks you into her supernatural web, slowly building the tension and the story, and, all the while, making it all very believable.
So, if your like a ghost (or two) on Halloween, I would highly recommend this book.
Just make sure you leave the lights on.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Maybe A Double Consonant Will Do It

By R.J. Harlick

Summer's almost done! Share a favorite book from your summer reading. And do you seek out different books depending on the season?

Yup. Summer’s almost done. I have a fire on this morning to keep the autumnal chill at bay. Waaahhh….It’s too early to be reminded that winter is only a few short months away.

Now onto more happy thoughts….books!

I had a couple of interesting and unusual reads this summer, unusual for me that is. Best sellers. Normally I avoid best sellers like the plague. Don’t ask me why. Something in my DNA that says if the rest of the world is gorging on this book, I won’t. Call it perverse or just being a rebel. I suppose it’s all about not wanting to be told that I have to read this book because everyone else is.

Anyways, for the last few years every time I looked at a best seller list. Yup, I will admit I do look at them, but its wishful thinking, really more like faint, faint hope, that one of my books would end up on one of these lists. Anyway, every time I glanced at one of these lists one book seemed to dominate them and never left, not for months. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I kept noticing the title because I like birds. I have several feeders around my cabin that I watch year round and one of the more popular visitors are goldfinches. I love their flick of brilliant yellow in the summer sun and their scurry of activity on a cold winter’s day.

So every time I would see this title mentioned, I would tell myself that I should read it. But I never did….until one day I get an e-message from KOBO offering it for a very good discounted price. Yup. I couldn’t resist. I bought it.

Which is something else that goes against my grain. We authors get little enough as it is for our long hours spent in writing these books, so I normally avoid buying discounted books particularly ebooks, because the poor author will see almost nothing from the transaction, not after all the publisher, book seller and so on and so forth costs are deducted. But with The Goldfinch, I figured Donna Tartt had already made a bundle on this book, so I clicked yes and I bought it.

I loved it. Tartt reeled me in from the first magical page. Fabulous writing. The art angle reeled me in too. I’m a sucker for a good painting. Though there were times when I wanted to yell at Theo for being so bloody stupid and I did, I couldn’t put the book down, all 1000 or so pages of it.

When Kobo sent me a message about another deep discounted, best selling book that I had also noticed on the best seller lists, one whose title had intrigued me, I jumped. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. He has done a good job of reeling me in too. Another fabulously written book.

I marvel at the imagination of both authors to create such intriguing and unusual stories.

I’ve also noticed one other thing about these two best sellers…both authors’ last names end in a double consonant. Now, maybe if I add another ‘k’, one of my books might….

So what about you, what fabulous books have your read this summer?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

Summer's almost done! Share a favorite book from your summer reading. And do you seek out different books depending on the season?

by Meredith Cole

I always feel like I get more reading done in the summertime than any other time of the year. I pack large stacks of books on each weekend adventure or week away. I have high hopes of getting to the bottom of the pile of books next to my bed. But in the end I often turn away from the more serious tomes I tackle in the wintertime, and turn back to old favorites or comfort reads and magazines. My brain seems to want some time off in the summertime.

In June, I went on a Dorothy Sayers/Agatha Christie kick. Reading all of the Peter Wimsey novels never takes very long, but I always find something new in them. And then I set out to read some of the Agatha Christie's that I hadn't read before, some good... some not so much. It's good to know that even great writers fail sometimes.

Here are a few of the books I read this summer by authors I'd never read before:

"An Available Man" by Hilma Wolitzer (The perils of dating over fifty. Sweet and funny)
"This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" by Jonathan Evison (Jumping forward and back in time in an elderly woman's life. Funny and sad)
"The Past" by Tessa Hadley (Interesting, but not particularly funny. Made me happy I wasn't trapped with my extended family in a house for a week)

And what am I reading now? I was just down in North Carolina and got to visit Malaprop's in Asheville. I knew just what I wanted to buy when I went in, and I was relieved to see that they had a copy of "You Will Know Me," by Megan Abbott. So that's up next on the TBR list!

Now onto the fall reading list...

Friday, August 19, 2016

Writing Tics: The ‘Comfort Food’ of Writing

Do you have any writing tics (habits or problems which you repeat in your prose)? How do you deal with them?

by Paul D. Marks

“Go to hell,” I said with a Jack Nicholson grin. I jammed outta there, jumping in the car, slamming my foot down on the gas. The blood spread across my shirt like a Rorschach blot. I smiled. Shot out of there like a bat out of hell (hey, I made that one up, didn’t I?).

The above graph is from nothing I’ve written before today. But it could be a taken-to-extreme example of my writing tics. I do have certain words or expressions I fall back on, the “comfort food” of writing.

My characters tend to grin and smile. Not only guns shoot, but people shoot out of places, shoot here or there. They jam here and slam there and jump all over the place. So I definitely repeat certain words or phrases. Sometimes intentionally (hey, that’s my style, man), sometimes not so intentionally. And I do use Word’s Navigation feature (I think that’s what it’s called) to see how many times I might use a particular word or phrase. And I often cut them or rephrase them. And I also often start sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’ but that is a stylistic choice. A voice choice, if you will, as I think it makes my narrators sound more natural and casual, which I like.

I also tend to use the word just maybe just a little too much. But it’s just because I just like the justness of it. Now, even I think that’s just too much of a good thing.

Even Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, says “I'm trying to wean myself off my very Gen X abuse of the word 'literally. Gone Girl contains at least 33 uses of the word, which is 32 more times than any single novel needs.” This is where using Word’s Navigation feature can really come in handy and help you weed out those overused words.

And sometimes my characters use clichés—like ‘bat out of hell’—but that’s the way people talk. I also set things off in dashes a lot, so sometimes I try to cut down on that. If you read something of mine with a lot of that—well, you should see the earlier drafts. I use run on sentences, so I sometimes change them to two shorter sentences. And from the opposite side, I sometimes combine two short, choppy sentences into one sentence.

But I try to do better. I really do. I try to change things so they’re not so repetitive. I look things up in the thesaurus. Uh oh!

Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I find that sophomoric—and yes I got sophomoric from the thesaurus when I really wanted to say absurd. But it’s not a word I would generally use. The thesaurus is a great help, despite what Mr. King says. And how many of us eschew them? Of course—I also tend to use ‘of course’ a lot—you don’t want to get those hundred dollar words when a two dollar word will do. But the thesaurus is extremely useful in helping you see things a little differently and pick just the right word for the job.

As I said, my characters smile or grin a lot. Sometimes it’s good to break that up with a different way of saying it. The thesaurus helps. And what’s wrong with that? Sometimes you just need something to help you get out of the rut of using the same words all the time. It’s not to use highfalutin words, but to the find the right word to express what you want to say. Sometimes your brain just needs a reminder of what other words are out there, begging to be a star for a moment.

One person’s tic is another person’s style. But you have to be conscious of what you’re doing and don’t overdo favorite things or lean on too many crutches. So, I do try to look for those weaknesses and repetition in my writing. And remember, it can all be fixed in the editing/rewriting.


I just heard that my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” will be coming out in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, last issue of Ellery Queen’s 75th anniversary year. Totally jazzed about that! – Bunker Hill (Los Angeles) was LA’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. Lots of film noirs were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me, Deadly and many others). It’s where John Fante lived when he wrote “Ask the Dust.” It got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people. And in the late 1960s it was all torn down and redeveloped. The fabulous Victorian houses were either destroyed or moved. They even flattened the hills. You can see the contrast of the old and new in the pic below. The insert is a Newell post that I copped from one of the Victorian homes on Bunker Hill before it was to be moved or torn down. It’s an artifact from Bunker Hill and the logo for my Bunker Hill stories and a prized possession.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Witch and A Sherriff walk into A Blog

Catriona writes: you have to try quite hard to find a mystery writer who's dull, selfish or nasty. They are a pretty stand-up bunch overall. But even among such rich pickings a few shine extra bright. And two of the shiniest buttons in the American crimewriting box are my guests here at Casa Criminal today. Jess Lourey and Shannon Baker are stopping off on their mammoth blog tour to chew the fat and offer competition prizes and giveaways. 

And now: Jessie and Shannon.

Hey, thanks for reading. There’s a lot of other things you could be doing right now, and Shannon Baker and I appreciate that you’re hanging out with us today on Criminal Minds, a squatter’s home for some of our favorite writers!

Jess Lourey
Shannon and I are 11 stops into a 25-stop blog tour, an idea that seemed genius when we realized our next books both release on September 6. Shannon’s is Stripped Bare. It’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife and is about a woman sheriff in the Nebraska Sandhills. Shannon’s writing is wry, darkly funny, with setting as beautiful and immersive as an O’Keefe painting. She can drop you into a story like no one I’ve ever read. My book is Salem’s Cipher, a breakneck thriller about a race to save the first viable U.S. female presidential candidate from assassination. Both books are available for preorder, but that’s not what we want to talk about today.


[But I want to a little bit. I’ve read the first three chapters of both books in manuscript form and am panting for the rest – CMcP]

We want to swap conference stories. What you’re about to read is a copy of what your ears would stumble on if you were seated next to Shannon and me at a bar, her drinking microbrew and me whiskey, as we share the good, the bad, and the funny of our combined 20 years in the writing business. With Bouchercon just around the corner, it seems like a good time to air this dirty laundry.

Shannon, what’s the worst panel you’ve ever been on?

Shannon Baker

Shannon: The very first panel I’d ever been on at a big conference. The moderator asked one question and went down the line to create the world’s most boring panel. But that’s not the bad part. At the last minute a self-pubbed first-timer was added to the line-up. She had some sad personal story, which I don’t remember, but what I do remember is her bursting into tears and sobbing up there on the podium. You can ask my kids about my compassion quotient and they’ll verify it is in the negative numbers. While I struggled with whether to pat her on the back or tell her to get over it, the rest of the room sat in uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t all bad, though. It was the panel where I met Terry Shames, whose first book hadn’t yet been released. You can ask her about the panel experience. It wasn’t pretty. Top that, Lourey…

Don’t throw down that gauntlet, Baker. My worst panel is hands down the Malice Domestic where the author next to me slipped into a diabetic coma. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the precursor to a diabetic coma looks very much like the person is drunk. When this writer started slurring her words and repeating how much she loved animals, we all assumed she had knocked back a few before the panel. Oy. The ambulance was there within 5 minutes of us realizing what was going on, and I shared a signing table with her the next day (she looked great!), but that was the most uncomfortable Writing Funny panel I’ve ever participated in. 

Shannon here: Near death vs. emotional breakdown. You win.

Jess: YES. I like to win. Shannon, for you, what are some conference no-nos? For me, it’s writers who hog the panel time, or who try to sell books like a Shaklee salesman with a habit. Other than that, I don’t think there’s much you can do wrong at a conference. We’re all there to have a good time, a whole bunch of goofy shut-ins who get to hang out with their tribe a couple weekends a year if we’re lucky.

Shannon here. Damn it, Jess. This addresses my most embarrassing moment(s). I like to drink. I am not an amateur. But for some reason, I had not one, but two back-to-back disasters at conferences. I don’t know if it was the excitement, that I’d forgotten to eat, or a bad combination. Sure, too much to drink, but not way more than what I’ve handled previously. Anyway, horrendous hangovers are not a way to get the most from a conference or to impress people. This leads to my steadfast Two-Drink rule. Listen to my words, children.

Jess: This is good advice. Shannon, do you bring any swag to give away? My first conference, Madison Bouchercon in 2006, I hauled along a gross of bookmarks splashed with the cover for May Day, my first mystery, as well as mood pens (they changed color when you touched them). My favorite swag was a flashlight with a B & E kit hidden inside of it. I handed that out with June Bug.

Here’s the thing, though. I have never picked up a piece of someone else’s swag and thought to myself, “I must buy any book associated with this.” Do you swag?

Shannon here. I have business cards to hand out and, because I feel like I should, I have bookmarks. But I’m with you. I’ve never bought a book based on swag, even though my favorite signing pen is another writer’s swag. I bought her book, not because of the pen, but because it’s good. I’ve enjoyed good swag, though. Hank Phillippi Ryan gave away lip balm and I scored a really cool pen light from Gin Malliet.

Jess: I have some of that Ryan chapstick! It’s the best. I always hope that when I use it, I’ll turn elegant and gorgeous, like her. Still trying…All right, let’s close with our best conference tip. Shannon?

Shannon: If you can, take a power nap in the afternoon so you can stay up late with the cool kids.

Jess here. Mine is to stay hydrated. I recommend red wine.

Join us tomorrow as we slide on over to Stuff and Nonsense and talk about our protagonists’ sidekicks. In the meanwhile, post your favorite conference story or advice or leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Salem’s Cipher or a copy of Stripped Bare.

To add more fun to the mix:
If you order Salem's Cipher before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!
If you order Stripped Bare before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.

You’re welcome to preorder both to enter both contests.

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship, and leads interactive writing workshops all over the world. Salem’s Cipher, the first in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016. You can find out more at, or find Jess on Facebook or Twitter.
Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink, a fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder set in western landscapes of Flagstaff, AZ, Boulder, CO, and Moab, UT. Seconds before quitting writing forever and taking up competitive drinking, Shannon was nominated for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 Writer of the Year. Buoyed with that confidence, she acquired an agent who secured a multi-book contract with Tor/Forge. The first in the Kate Fox Mystery Series, Stripped Bare will release in hardcover September 2016.  Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, it’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife. Visit Shannon at