Dark and Complex: Lisa Alber’s Lyrical Irish Mysteries

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Like Chris Knopf, Lisa Alber is one of the Mysterious Eight, a contributor to Eight Mystery Writers You Should Be Reading Now. She lives in Portland, Oregon, but  she sets her mysteries in Ireland, a country she’s come to love. Although Kilmoon, her debut novel and the first of her County Clare mystery series, was nominated for the Rosebud Award of Best First Novel, Alber insists she’s no overnight success.

Lisa Alber, Author of the County Clare Mysteries“I’m one of those writers who took years to get my first novel published,” she says, when asked about her writing journey. “I started writing my first novel in 1999, and got my debut novel published (which was actually my second written novel) in 2o14. That’s almost tragic–but perseverance paid off in the end.”

This extended timeline was partially due to hard knocks and setbacks, including the 2008 recession and a literary agent who quit the business to become a stay-at-home mom, and partly due to distraction (“Wait! What would it be like to write women’s fiction instead of crime fiction?”).

Her second novel, Whispers in the Mist, has been called “rich, dark, and complex,” “ingenious,” and “a first-rate crime novel,” while her writing in general has been described as lyrical and atmospheric. There’s a poetry to Alber’s language that enriches her story lines.
This extended timeline was partially due to hard knocks and setbacks, including the 2008 recession and a literary agent who quit the business to become a stay-at-home mom, and partly due to distraction (“Wait! What would it be like to write women’s fiction instead of crime fiction?”).Whispers in the Mist, Lisa Alber's County Clare Mystery #2

Her second novel, Whispers in the Mist, has been called “rich, dark, and complex,” “ingenious,” and “a first-rate crime novel,” while her writing in general has been described as lyrical and atmospheric. There’s a poetry to Alber’s language that enriches her story lines.

Asked how she achieves this effect, she says, “Aaaah…Good question. I don’t know. My brain works the way it  works, you know? I’m a moody kind of person and I’m pragmatic by nature, rather than the optimistic sort. In fact, I’m prone to depression. I suspect there’s something in my neurological wiring that tends toward the writing style that folks have described as lyrical and atmospheric. My first writing endeavors a zillion years ago were poetry–so that might say something too.”

It helps that Alber does plenty of on-site research, which leads to the occasional interesting encounter. Asked to share one such adventure, she says, “One of the main subplot characters in the series is a matchmaker named Liam. His daughter, Merrit, is the series star along with Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. The matchmaking world that Merrit inhabits is always part of her story. Anyhow, so the idea to include a matchmaker came from a real matchmaker named Willie Daly. This past spring I traveled to Ireland for the fourth time for fiction research. One day, I was lucky enough to happen on a horse fair (you would have loved it, Jaden!) I stopped to pet a Connemara pony and got to talking to its owner. He introduced himself–Willie Daly! It was the craziest thing. I pulled out Kilmoon and showed it to him–See, see, your fictional counterpart lives in this book! He was surprised to say the least, and maybe a little wary. I assured him that my rendition of the matchmaker, matchmaking, and the annual matchmaking festival was 100% fictionalized. He was touched when I signed my copy and gave it to him. We ended up meeting for coffee the next week, after he’d read the book. (I’m not sure what he thought about it–he said that ‘at least’ I knew how to write. Hah!)”

Lisa Alber with Horse_5942We all have our writing bugaboos, though. For some, it’s character. For others, it’s description. For Alber, it’s plot. “I struggle with keeping my plots straight, especially through the muddled middle,” she says. “They tend to get complicated, and since I write in multiple third person point of view, AND I love my characters to all have their issues and problems…well, let’s say I sometimes lose track of things. Complicating that is the fact that I’m not an outliner either…”
As a “pantser,” someone who writes by seat of her pants, it’s easy to write herself into corners, but the beauty of writing is that by the time it goes to print, everything comes together, including complex, carefully crafted plots.

I left Lisa with a final question: What’s something few people know about you as a writer? Her answer?

“Few people know that sometimes I need red wine to write. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? But it’s not, not really at least. It goes like this: I prefer revision to first-draft writing, so there comes a point towards the end of the first draft (that has no doubt taken too long to write) when I’m desperate to get it done. But after months of being rigid with my schedule, by this point I’m also restless and itchy. The only remedy is taking myself out of the house to my friendly neighborhood bistro to write. Red wine helps in those moments–maybe because it mellows out the restlessness so I can focus. Now I’m finally in revisions for County Clare #3(title coming soon!), so I haven’t been to the bistro in about a month. :o)”

That novel is scheduled for release by Midnight Ink in August 2017. She tried to balance writing it with gardening, dog-walking, and goofing off. Because everyone needs a little goofing off time, right?

You can find Lisa at: website | Facebook | Twitter | blog.
And if you’d like to learn more and order your own copy of Whispers in the Mist, go here.

 

 

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Pirates, Sunken Treasure, and Romance: Stacy Allen’s EXPEDITION INDIGO

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expeditionindigoebookcover

If you like an adventure tale spiced with romance, history, sunken treasure, world travel, and modern-day pirates, look no further than Stacy Allen‘s debut romantic suspense novel, Expedition Indigo.The book opens with a compelling prologue about a shipwreck in the Mediterranean in 808 A.D. In fact, I was so drawn into the story of 12-year-old Lazio that, at first, I was a little disappointed when the present-day story began.

Soon, though, protagonist Riley Cooper, won me over. Riley is intelligent and highly moral. In addition she has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a condition rarely (if ever) seen in adventure heroines and which Allen writes about with sensitivity. Riley’s rituals, along with her conflicting desires for safety and adventure provide another layer of depth to the novel. Perhaps because of my background in special ed and a longstanding interest in psychology, Riley’s OCD was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me. It gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to live with the disorder. And, of course, from a structural perspective, it provides an additional challenge for Riley, who has to manage her compulsions even while fighting for her life–and the life of the man she loves.

Allen is a world traveler whose adventure-lust has taken her across six continents to more than 50 countries. Her websiteStacy  cites some examples of her exploits:

Preferring the exotic to the mundane, her adventures have included…hot air ballooning in Egypt; hiking Maccu Piccu; Riding in the Sahara atop a camel named Cinderella; diving with manatees; riding horseback in the national forest above Barcelona; hiking up the Parthenon in Athens; climbing the mountain in  Delphi, Greece; walking on the great wall of China; hiking to 12,000 feet up to Tiger’s Nest in the Himalayas; cruising up the Nile River; exploring the Galapagos islands; floating in gondolas in Venice; standing on top of the Eiffel Tower; climbing down into the Red Pyramid in Dashur, Egypt; attending cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris; camping in the Serengeti; touring the island of Zanzibar; studying Italian in Castleraimondo, Italy; and crossing the Atlantic on four different ships.

Oh yes, and she holds an Advanced Open Water Diver certificate, with specialties in wreck diving and night diving.

It should come as no surprise that she writes about Italy, archaeology, and scuba diving with the voice of one who’s been there. As someone whose travels outside the U.S. has been limited to two two months in Toronto when I was seven and four weeks with my sister at a Tijuana cancer clinic, I enjoyed the vicarious thrill of exploring the world through Riley’s eyes.

Allen ties up the loose ends neatly enough to satisfy the reader but not so neatly that as to strain credulity. And yes, she does reveal what happened to Lazio. If you like romantic adventures, especially those served with a side of sunken treasure, I highly recommend Expedition Indigo.

Read the book or had a Riley-esque adventure of your own? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)

Riveting Romantic Suspense Delivers a Serious Message: Nancy Sartor’s BONES ALONG THE HILL

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Bones Along the Hill Cover

There’s a tendency for people to think of romantic suspense as a “slight” genre–entertaining but not very deep. In truth, the best of the genre, like the best of all genres, is anything but slight. Nancy Sartor’s debut novel, Bones Along the Hill, is a perfect example. Yes, there’s a love story–the relationship between Neva and Davis is both touching and complex–but there is much more to it than that. Set in modern-day Nashville, the novel explores love, friendship, loyalty, grief, homelessness, human trafficking, and both the worst and the best of humankind.

Sartor says:

“[A] novel should enlarge understanding, raise awareness, plead for the less fortunate, define a better way of life, and provide a personal story so poignant it brings tears to every eye, contributing something of substance to the reader.”

nancyThe opening of the book sets the tone. It’s a sensitively written description of the protagonist, who works at a funeral home, using putty to reconstruct the face of an infant killed during a savage attack on his mother. Sartor writes beautifully, approaching the subject matter with compassion and drawing the reader deeply into Neva’s story.

Neva is still mourning the loss of her first love, high school sweetheart Gray Ledbetter, whose suicide has haunted Neva for a decade. Her current paramour, Davis, is good man equally haunted by his past–the unsolved disappearance of his younger brother Stephen. When Neva and her best friends, Moya and Zan, run afoul of human traffickers, Neva and Davis are drawn into an ever-tightening web of danger and destruction.

According to her website, the Nashville-born Sartor is “an enthusiastic graduate of Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop, Maass’s Micro Tension Workshop, and the Writer’s Police Academy.” Clearly, Sartor has taken Maass’s mantra, “Tension on every page!” to heart. The pacing of the book is excellent, and the author’s attention to her craft is evident.

But her bio only hints at the long path to publication and the formidable perseverance Sartor showed along the way. On her blog, Horrors and Hurrahs, her post on “the weird world of writers” explains the blend of soul-crushing disappointment and indomitable hope that come with this odd career we’ve chosen. There are some who would say Sartor should have given up on the book, or perhaps published it herself once it was “good enough,” but having read the final version, I’m grateful that Sartor never settled for good enough.

Read the book? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)

 

 

 

 

Masterful Bangkok Thrillers & More: Timothy Hallinan and The Hot Countries

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Author Timothy Hallinan working at his computerIf Timothy Hallinan wrote only his masterful Bankok thrillers, he would still be one of the top crime fiction writers working today. Add to that his laugh-out-loud Junior Bender mysteries and his traditional PI novels, and you have a guy who can write pretty much anything and knock it out of the park.

I discovered Timothy Hallinan when I noticed one of his books in the bargain bin at my local Barnes & Noble (sorry, Tim). The cover caught my eye, and the title–A Nail Through the Heart–piqued my interest. Then I saw the author’s name.

I’d just read a post on the DorothyL newslist by a guy named Timothy Hallinan. It was articulate and insightful, and I remembered thinking at the time, I like the way way this guy thinks. So I picked it up and read the first page and fell in love with Poke Rafferty, the “rough travel writer” who came to Bangkok and discovered he had what the Asians call “a yellow heart.” From the very beginning, he was home.

Poke is a bundle of contradictions–a gentle man who is ruthless when he has to be; a smart, thoughtful man with a foolhardy, impulsive streak; a man with a wounded heart who helps heal the hearts of others. He’s interesting, complex, and very very real. I followed Poke and his cobbled-together family for five more books, each time thinking This is it. No way he can top this one. But somehow he always did. And in his latest, Poke Rafferty number seven, he’s topped himself again.

The Hot Countries is a literary thriller and one of the richest and most touching novels it’s been my pleasure to read. More than once,  I The Hot Countries by Timothy Hallinanfound myself wiping tears from my eyes.  From the sensitivity with which he handles an aging ex-pat with dementia to his compassionate portrayal of traumatized street children, every note is pitch-perfect. You can read my review of the book here, but suffice it to say that nobody writes about redemption and grace like Hallinan.

The thing is, everything this guy writes is terrific. His first series, featuring PI Simeon Grist, proves he burst straight out of the box writing like a pro. His Junior Bender series makes me laugh out loud. Once, he gave himself a challenge to write a blog post every day for a year, and darned if they weren’t brilliant too. (This one, about a handpainted sombrero his mother made for a school play, still makes me laugh when I think about it.)

sombrero-300x163The only consolation, when I look at guys like Timothy Hallinan and William Kent Krueger and think I’ll never in a million years be that good, is that they seem to have those same insecurities. For you all you aspiring writers out there, take some comfort in this blog post Hallinan wrote back in 2014.

I realize I’ve been pretty effusive. Maybe I should tone it down a notch. On the other hand, maybe not. If you can’t rave about an author you love on a blog about authors you love, what’s the point? So here’s the takeaway. If you’ve read any of Timothy Hallinan’s work, please take a minute to share your thoughts in the comments. And if you haven’t read him, do yourself a favor and start now.

 

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William Kent Krueger: A Writer of Extraordinary Grace

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I don’WKKrueger-Photo-2012t remember when I first read William Kent Krueger‘s debut mystery, Iron Lake, (published in 1999 and followed by an Edgar award for Best First Novel), but I do remember being captivated from the first page. The language is beautiful, even poetic, but it never pulls the reader out of the story. The descriptions of the Minnesota winter are so vivid, you can feel the chill even in the heart of a simmering Tennessee summer.

The first of Krueger’s Corcoran (Cork) O’Connor series, it’s also one of the first books I recommend to friends. The rest of the series holds up well, following CoIronLake_TP_200rk through personal growth and family crises. While each book in the series stands alone, Iron Lake sets the tone and lays the foundation for the others. You can pick up the series anywhere, but I recommend starting at the beginning, where we meet Cork as the former sheriff of a small Minnesota town. Half Ojibwe and half Irish, Cork is a complex character who seems flesh-and-blood real, a nice guy who is sometimes plagued by self-doubt, is often stubborn, is torn between two cultures and sometimes feels he belongs to neither, and whose fiercely protective love for his family is tempered by wisdom and tenderness. In Iron Lake, Krueger weaves Native American culture and spirituality seamlessly into a rich and complex story about loss, guilt, and the reclamation of self. As a reader, I loved it. As a writer, I closed the cover torn between the urge to analyze Krueger’s techniques, the desire to simply savor the language, and a sense of utter despair of ever writing anything this good.
WKKrueger-Photo-2012Ordinary Grace, is a departure from the series. There’s a mystery in it, but don’t go into it expecting a whodunnit puzzle or thriller. At its heart, this is a literary coming-of-age novel in which the (slight but necessary) mystery provides the backdrop for the real story, which is the effect of the novel’s events on 13-year-old Frank Drum and his family. It’s a rich, beautiful novel about hope, despair, unrealized dreams, faith, and yes, grace. It haunted me for days.

No matter how blessed we are, if we live long enough, we all experience tragedy and disappointment. Some of us stoically move forward and ignore the pain in our hearts and the cracks in our facades. Some of us find solace in faith or in the support of friends. Some of us shut out the world and succumb to bitterness. Some of us rail against God, or simply turn our backs on Him. Some of us do all of the above at different times. I read once that that tragedy doesn’t change us; it reveals us. This book explores that idea and the choices we make in the face of despair. At one point, following a devastating loss, Frank’s father, the local pastor, gives a sermon. I started to share part of it with you because it’s one of the most profound and moving things I’ve ever read, but then I thought it might do Kent–and you–a disservice. It’s a powerful quote all on its own, but it might be best discovered for the first time within the context of the story.

If you like thought-provoking novels with rich language and complex themes, look no further than William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)

 

Carolyn Haines: Writer, Teacher, Animal Lover, Prankster

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I met Carolyn Haines Carolyn with Horseat an MWA-University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was immediately charmed by her humor, her down-to-earth attitude, and her huge heart. She runs an animal rescue and, when she’s not writing and teaching university classes, spends most of her time (and money) caring for needy dogs, cats, and horses. And she’s a heck of a writing instructor.

I’d read several of her Mississippi Delta Mystery novels, a series of cozy mysteries featuring Sarah Booth Delaney. Cozies are often too light for my taste, but I enjoyed these very much. (Ham Bone was one of my favorites, probably because of my own experiences with community theatre.) The series is charming and witty, with engaging characters and a sassy, charismatic ghost named Jitty who counsels Sara Booth. I’ve seen many authors use this device unsuccessfully (the ghost seems to know everything except when the author needs them not to, so they end up giving vague clues that just make them seem to be playing games with the oBone to be Wildther characters’ lives), but Carolyn manages to avoid this pitfall. Jitty is intuitive but not omniscient, and her advice helps Sara Booth use her own strengths to find solutions. It never feels like Jitty knows who the killer is but refuses to tell because of some plot-convenient, other-worldly rules.

For those who like to read a series from the very beginning, it starts with Them Bones, in which Sarah Booth is “flat broke and about to lose the family plantation.” You can see the whole list on the Bookshelf tab on Carolyn’s website.

There’s even a cookbook based on the serBoneAFiedDelicious Cookbookies. Bone-a-Fied Delicious contains more than 700 recipes compiled by 13 cookbook “directors,” each of whom assumes the voice of a character in the series to comment on recipes, life, relationships, sex, and each other. According to the catalog copy, “The comments range from serious, to humorous, to ribald—and the recipes cover the gamut of fabulous to so-sinful-and-delicious-you-will-die-happy.” I ordered this today and can’t wait to dive into it.

Carolyn has a darker muse as well and has written several horror novels and short stories under the pseudonym R.B. Chesterton. As you might imagine, the tone is notably different in these stories–heavier, more somber–but the writing is as skilled and polished. Her short story, “The Hanged Man,” begins with a couple at odds about returning to New Orleans, where their 9-year-old daughter disappeared. The wife wants to go back, saying she needs to heal. The narrator, the husband, is appalled and infuriated by the idea. It’s a tender, terrifying story.

Apparently, Carolyn channels her dark side into her horror writing, because in real life, she’s a fun-loving prankster. The Hanged ManWhen she first began teaching writing at the university level, she gave her freshmen a long, serious spiel about the importance of literature as a gateway to truth. Each day, before class began, they would have to strike their chest twice with a closed fist and then extend the right arm and say, “Truth and valor.” It took them most of the semester to realize that their genre-writing professor’s tongue was tucked firmly in her cheek.

I asked her about the best prank she’d ever played. After a thoughtful moment, she said, “One dark and foggy night, I was telling ghost stories to my niece, Jennifer, and her friend, Heidi. They were about 12. For a bit of atmosphere, I drove them to Magnolia Cemetery, a huge old cemetery in Mobile with a lot of wonderful gravestones. We were riding in the thick fog and I told them a suitably creepy cemetery ghost story.  I stopped the car and said, ‘Oh, no, I think I have a flat. Would you girls check it for me?’ The got out to look and I drove off. But I didn’t go far. I would let them almost catch me and then spurt ahead a little. They were so mad and I was so tickled. Trust me, Jennifer got me back a number of times.”

In many ways, Carolyn Haines seems bigger than life. She’s generous, not only with her animal rescue and her mentoring of other writers, but with her readers, giving every book her best.

Asked if she has anything else she’d like to say to her readers, Carolyn says, “I love to tell stories, and I appreciate my wonderful audience for allowing me to tell stories in different genres. It doesn’t matter what label is put on a book–a label is a marketing tool. The only thing that matters is if the story is engaging and satisfying. Broaden your reading habits and try a little bit of everything.”
Do you have a favorite Carolyn Haines book or a favorite prank to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)

Chris Knopf: A Writer for All Seasons

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According to his wChrist Knopfebsite bio, Chris Knopf has been “writing himself out of trouble since he talked a teacher into accepting a short story in lieu of an essay, and an essay in lieu of a multiple choice exam.” Even then, he must have had an old-school charm, which shines through in his public appearances and on the pages of his mysteries, which remind me of two of his favorites–Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Knopf has three mystery series now: the Sam Acquillo series, featuring a crusty detective who loves to sail and has a personable mutt named Eddie; the Jackie Swaitkowski series, a spinoff of the Sam Acquillo series featuring Sam’s quirky, outside-the-box attorney; and the Arthur Cathcart series, featuring a market researcher who, after his wife’s murder and his own near-fatal head wound (in fact, he’s believed to be dead) leaves him living off the grid and grappling to recover his old skills and memories from his badly injured brain.

Chris is remarkably versatile. Each of these characters has a unique and authentic voice. Swaitkowski is believably female, Cathcart believably wounded. Sam is an experienced sailor, and Chris portrays the sailing life so authentically that even this landlubber can appreciate and understand it. Like Sam Acquillo, he’s a dog-loving sailor himself, sailing the Little Peconic Bay in Southampton, NY.

Asked about the most memorable thing that’s ever happened to him, he said, “When I was in graduate school in London, I was recruited to help one of my professors publish a book of poetry written by poets imprisoned in the Soviet Union.  The work had been smuggled out of the country by a group of other writers and publishers, though a chain of custody that began with a Nobel Prize winner.  During this effort, we had one of the principal conspirators hiding in our flat, and were warned that foreign intelligence agents might be watching. I wrote a thriller inspired by this, which didn’t go anywhere, but it helped connect me with the agent who eventually placed my first book.”

He was kind enough to answer a few more questions for this blog. So, thanks, Chris–and welcome to a Killer Conversation.

Let’s start with your latest release. What was the inspiration for your new bookA Billion Ways to Die?

The underlying inspiration was promising that I’d make this series at least a trilogy.  The first book, Dead Anyway, was intended to be a standalone.  Then we thought maybe there could be a second (Cries of the Lost), and now here were are with A Billion Ways to Die.

Can you tell us a little about it?

Arthur Cathcart and Natsumi Fitzgerald, his girlfriend/partner in crime, have been hanging out on a sailboat in the Caribbean, assuming they’re still safely off the grid and below the radar of the various gangsters, terrorists and government officials who could be chasing them.  Unfortunately, this was a false sense of security, proven by the midnight arrival of guys in combat gear and night vision.  It goes downhill from there.

At its heart, it’s an international thriller with a focus on cybercrime, greed and corruption, and the legal netherworld  caused by ambiguous rules of engagement by governments and private interests alike.

What was the most challenging thing about writing it?

Arthur and Natsumi have a very complicated challenge – avoid the notice of law enforcement, maintain false identities, chase down and defeat the bad guys, through means both physical and virtual, since that’s the world we now live in.  None of that stuff is easy to do, and thus, very difficult to write.

Especially if you want to be reasonably accurate and true to the possible with all the technology   Without losing non-technical readers.

What do you hope readers will take away from it?

I just hope they like the story, and maybe gain an appreciation for how much the digital revolution has changed the world, in particular, the world of crime and punishment.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

That first book was published when I was 53 years old, and now I have twelve in print.  The best advice, I believe, is to keep writing, never give up and never get discouraged.

What do you wish someone would ask you about, but which no one ever has?

One of my books riffs on the basic structure of western aesthetic tradition and is full of literary references, puns and jokes.  No one got any of it.  Though they did like the mystery, so what the heck.

Which book was this? I bet a bunch of people are going to want to go back and read it now to see what they missed!

It’s Two Time.  Inspired by Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae.

I’m off to buy a copy. Thanks for the interview, Chris! 

Want to read more about Chris and his books? Check out his website, his Amazon author page, and this interview on AbeBooks.Com.

Read any of Chris’s books? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)