Category : Reading

Irritating Reads

What good is a rant if you can’t reuse it?

Here’s my latest, on The LadyKillers blog a couple of weeks ago.

One of my biggest pet peeves in crime fiction is HEAD-HOPPING. You know what I mean – the practice of switching point of view within a scene.

I spend a good deal of time discussing POV with my writing students, and invariably one will point out a best-selling author who does this willy nilly (at random, every which way, here and there, all over the place, in no apparent order).

After I ungrit my teeth, I try to explain. And I try to find good articles on the topic. Here are a couple of favorites.

Head-hopping is common and acceptable in the romance genre:

As Billy Bob and Sally Jo danced, he felt he was in heaven and she couldn’t wait for the last chord.

But in a romance, it’s the relationship that’s the main character, the romance matters more than either Billy Bob or Sally Jo.

Head-hopping in a mystery, however, is detrimental to the story. The best-selling author (I’ll call her P. L.) who invaded my class most recently at least plays “fair,” in that she gets into the head of every principal character except one—the killer’s, of course. So, after four or five head-hopping chapters, you can identify the killer.  He’s the one whose thoughts you’re not privy to. Booo.

Another best-selling author (I’ll call him S. J.) cheats! You get into the head of every character, including the killer, but while you’re in the killer’s head, he “acts” as innocent as all the others, wondering what the killer’s motive was, how the killer managed to escape, and so on.

Both the cheating and the non-cheating versions are IRRITATING. (Yes, I’m shouting.)

Now—your turn!

Does head-hopping bother you? What does?

Best of 2016

In case you missed this on the LadyKillers Blog. It’s the time for “Best Ofs”.

My favorite book of 2016 came to me by way of a swag bag shared by Ann Parker.
She knew I was mad about Malcolm Mackay’s trilogy THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE, HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE, AND THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER. If you love a good hit man story, as I do, these books are for you.

So I was ready for Mackay’s newest offering, THE NIGHT THE RICH MEN BURNED. Here’s how the Prologue opens:

He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.

I look for three things when rating a book: character, story, and writing. Mackay is a 10 on all counts. In the first lines (above) you know this character: You know what he values, and what he will do to get it. You have arrived in the middle of a story: the man is unconscious, penniless, and alone. And you have great writing: not a wasted word (also not a gerund or an -ly adverb!).

I’m in a few book clubs, one of which is a mystery reading group at a library. We begin each meeting by rating the book, from 10

I’m almost always amazed at ratings.
“I’d give this an 8 or a 9,” Edna might say.
“But the story was weak and there were 3 subplots that weren’t wrapped up.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Edna will say with a shrug. “But I liked the woman.”


“I’d give this story an 8 or a 9,” Ralph might say.
“But the writing was terrible. It could have been written by a third grader.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Ralph will say. “But the story was good.”

and so on.

Apparently, I’m the fussy one, demanding all three criteria are met. I’m curious about you and your rating policies. What does it take for you to give a book a 10? a 1?

Classic Thrills

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to include a short piece on classic crime stories in the MWA NorCal newsletter. Here it is, reproduced with my permission.

You always remember your firsts.

The first time words on a page brought me to tears was when Beth March died in “Little Women.” The first time words frightened me to death occurred when an arrogant, drunken Fortunato was lured into the vault in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Imagine my thrill when I realized how much more excitement and suspense awaited me in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Next I read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the dark guilt of a murderer is his undoing: I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! (Poe was not one to stint on exclamation points!) “The Pit and the Pendulum” gave me the most meticulous description of a torture chamber: Any death but that of the pit! And surely no character descriptions in literature can match those in “The Man of the Crowd,” the art of following a stranger who captures your fancy.

Still, “The Cask of Amontillado” remains my favorite: I plastered it up. Surely one of the most chilling lines in crime fiction.

A place to curl up with a good thriller

•  Care to share your reading “firsts?”

Bloody Stories

A recent blog site topic invited us to compare American and British writers. Here is my response, reproduced.

Wouldn’t it be considered unpatriotic if I said I prefer British mysteries, as if I wished we had lost the Revolutionary War? From a native Bostonian yet, where it all began?

As I thought about the nationalities of writers I love, it turns out I have favorites from many countries. Karin Fossim from Norway. Pierre Lemaitre from France (How can I resist a male cop named Camille?) The recently deceased Umberto Eco from Italy. An American or two, like Thomas H. Cook and John Verdon. I thought I had a few British favorites, too, but it turns out Peter Robinson is Canadian and Peter May is a Scot. I’m one of the few readers unimpressed by the work of Denise Mina or Val Mcdermid, but Brit Mo Hayder makes up for them.

A couple of years ago, I became a British writer. Well, to be exact, a UK magazine asked me to write a short story. I was (and am) thrilled. The story, Majesty in Miniature, was published in parts over 3 months in The Dolls House Magazine.

I set the story at Windsor, the home of Queen Mary’s famous dolls house, sending my protagonists Gerry Porter and her granddaughter, Maddie, on a tour of the majestic house.

Although I’ve never seen the house in person, I knew all about it from books and videos. I knew about its running water (the cisterns housed in the basement), electric lighting, and working lifts, its miniature crown jewels and special tea services.

I was sure I could capture the essence of the dolls house; what I worried about was the language of the British characters, especially the British docent. I agonized over using “bloody”—too mild? too wild?—and finally checked in with my friend Simon Wood, who agreed to vet the story.

There was only one language problem that neither Simon nor I could have predicted.

“Docent?” a UK contact from the magazine asked me. “We’re not sure what that is.”

What? I’d been concerned about the docent’s dialogue, not the definition of the word. And isn’t the UK the home of the OED?

I figured the person was too young for an old word, or she was a foreign intern serving across the pond.

In the end, we settled on changing “docent” to “guide” and the story made it through the rest of the process.

A Postmistress Speaks

Few jobs or services have the bad press accorded the USPS. Post office employees have the singular honor of having an unflattering term that refers to their behavior. “Going postal” has come to signify becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, and usually in a workplace environment. The term originates from the series of incidents beginning in the late ’80s, in which employees or former employees of the post office committed acts of murder.

I think it’s time for my favorite postmistress, Cassie Miller, of the Postmistress Mysteries, to convey a more positive view.

The calm, welcoming post office of my childhood

From Cassie

As you can see from the badge on my regulation blue USPS jacket, I’m CASSIE MILLER, POSTMISTRESS. I’ve just come in from one of my favorite duties, hoisting the American flag outside my post office. After many years working in Boston’s main postal facility, I recently returned to my home town of North Ashcot, Massachusetts.

Nothing makes me more nervous than writing an essay. Except possibly public speaking. I’m feeling that old classroom anxiety all over again. I remember those awful Compare and Contrast questions. The State the Theme of challenge. The Prove Your Point with Examples dare. Old Mr. Warren required a minimum of 500 words. Didn’t he realize how many that was? A typical thank-you note, a task forced on me by my mother, runs about 15 words. Thanks very much for the pretty green sweater, Aunt Tess. I wear it very often. That’s my speed.

But to please my mentor, Jean Flowers, I’ve agreed to write about my life running my one-woman post office in a small town. So here goes.

I love my job. I think of all USPS workers as the greatest couriers in the world. I’m honored that my customers trust me with their most important communications. Whether they’re paying a bill, sending an invitation, or dropping a Get Well line to a friend, they count on me to deliver.

Even though I’m only one person in a long chain of people on the way to your addressee, I take my responsibility very seriously. I imagine I might be handling a life-changing missive. A love letter, or its opposite. A job offer, or its opposite. An acceptance. A rejection. Every one of the approximately one billion Valentine’s Day cards that are sent annually is important.

Lately I’ve had some unusual experiences. I didn’t expect to become involved in solving murders, for example! But I’ve been exposed to many aspects of USPS employment, from sorter to letter carrier to counter service, plus brief stints with the inspection arm and what we used to call the Dead Letter Office, but now refer to in a more positive way as the MRC (Mail Recovery Center).

My training has served me well. Not that I’m skilled with weapons (although guns sometimes arrive at the MRC) or forensics, but a postal worker has to be a problem solver. Like all the times the USPS receives letters addressed to God, or Santa, or the tooth fairy. Or when the mailbox on the corner yields not only envelopes but keys, eyeglasses, gloves, and the occasional roast beef sandwich.

So far, I’ve been able to help our Chief of Police, my friend Sunni Smargon, as she works to bring the bad guys to justice. But what I like to talk about best is post office history. Did you know, for example, that:

• The first woman featured on a U.S. postage stamp was Queen Isabella in 1893.

• The first American woman featured was Martha Washington in 1902.

• The USPS has more than 200,000 vehicles, one of the largest civilian fleets in the world.

• The USPS handles 47% of the world’s mail volume.

You can imagine the fun postal workers have when we get together and exchange trivia!

Funny post office stories are also high on the list when my best friend Linda and I chat. Linda still works at the main post office in Boston and not a day goes by without at least one laugh. Today Linda told me about finding an unorthodox envelope in the outgoing mail slot—the customer had taped 1 quarter, two dimes, and 4 pennies across the top.

The best story might be the one about the elderly woman who addressed a letter to God, asking for $100 to cover her food and drug needs for the month. She had no one else to turn to, she said. A kind postal employee took up a collection and managed to pull together $90 and send it to the old lady. A few days later, a note in the same handwriting appeared, again addressed to God. “Thanks a lot for your attention,” the woman wrote. “But you should know that those corrupt postal workers stole $10.”

Not every good deed is rewarded, but here at the post office we do our best all the same.


The 9th miniature mystery is set for release next week. For once I can tell you the ending without being a spoiler — the title says it all: MATRIMONY IN MINIATURE.

Of course, things go wrong; otherwise, it wouldn’t be under “Crime Fiction” in bookstores and libraries.

Here’s how amazon describes it:

When murder happens in the small town of Lincoln Point CA, there aren’t many degrees of separation between the victim and retired teacher Gerry Porter. How can she stay away from the investigation when the crime scene is the venue for her marriage to Henry Baker? But this time, nephew Detective Skip Gowen tries to discourage Gerry’s and granddaughter Maddie’s efforts to solve “The Case.” He couldn’t live with himself if the murderer learns of their efforts and comes after them.


Beach Reads: A popular term as we begin the summer. But not for me. (If you’ve ever read The Real Me, you’re not surprised.)

I don’t like beach reads because I don’t like beaches for more than 5 minutes.

Early in my California residency, I decided to try the beaches west-coasters always talked about. The ones in Hawaii.

First, why not? They were so close. Just off the coast of Los Angeles, right? At least that’s what all the maps pictured.

Imagine my surprise!

After a loooooong plane ride, which could have taken me to Coney Island instead if I’d made a quick U-turn, we were on a serious island. Maui. One with no skyscrapers nearby. No Edward Hoppers as far as the eye could see. Unlike Manhattan, which is an isle of joy.

The “vacation” turned out to be the longest 2 weeks of my life. Several times, I  thought of leaving early, but we’d paid in advance, and maybe it would get better.

There was no bookstore (not then, anyway, early 1980’s) in case I did want a “beach read.” There wasn’t an activity in the tour book where you could wear a decent pair of pumps.

Beach reads? Nah, I’ll take subway reads any day. Or, maybe the term should be Bleacher reads. Picture this: the bleachers in Times Square. Now there’s a comfy reading corner.

A perfect place to read.

Your friendly local newspaper

Famous blogger, Lisa A. Kelley, shared a great idea with cozy authors: why don’t we “publish” newspapers from our fictional towns? I’m in!

The first issue of The Lincolnite was published by Lisa on June 1. Here are some of the sections of the newspaper, in case the link is not active by now. It’s worth a look to scroll down on Lisa’s site to see her great graphics.


Lincoln Point, California              Forever 50 cents


Picketers lined Springfield Boulevard on Monday, protesting the newly offered lunch menu at Sadie’s Ice Cream Shop. “NOT FAIR TO WILLIE” read the signs, referring to Willie’s Bagels, only 2 doors down from Sadie’s and a popular lunch spot for many years.

“People don’t want to have to get up and trudge outside between lunch and dessert,” a spokesperson for Sadie’s said. Regular customer Mabel Foster said, “It’s hard when it’s raining,” while her companion, who wished to remain anonymous, asked “When is it ever raining?” The two businesses have agreed to arbitration, which will be facilitated by retired English teacher, Geraldine Porter.


A monument unveiled at a ceremony this week at Lincoln Point Park, Civic Center, honored the K-9s that serve alongside the city’s police officers. Civilian volunteer, Bev Gowen, arranged the privately funded dedication. “In the coming year we plan to honor the human officers in the unit,” said Gowen, the mother of Detective Eino “Skip” Gowen. The younger Gowen was unavailable for comment.


The Mary Todd Gym has issued swag bags to all lifetime members. Featured is a red logo travel mug with I’D RATHER BE READING in white letters.


Local middle school children showed off their projects this week at the annual Science Fair. Heading the judges panel was a visiting physicist from the Boston area, Dr. Gloria Lamerino, who is responsible for the nationally recognized Cannoli Method of awarding prizes. “I’ve never seen so many 5-Cannoli projects,” Lamerino said. First prize, a 1-inch mini Austrian crystal cannoli went to Maddie Porter, 12, for her working model of a waste water recycling plant.


After a string of more than a dozen murders in the last 8 years, the Lincoln Point Police Department is pleased to announce that the only crime committed so far this year is the theft of a small fountain from a lawn on Gettysburg Avenue. The thief left a note reminding the homeowner that it was drought season in California and that he should stop being “a water waster.” The homeowner has decided not to pursue the matter.


Abraham Lincoln High School home economics teacher CHEF CAMILLE offers a special recipe for Father’s Day: an Honest Abe top hat cake.


Start with your favorite basic cake—white, yellow, or chocolate—and bake THREE 8-inch rounds. Split the rounds, giving you six layers. Mix black food coloring into enough frosting to spread between layers and around the top and circumference of the cake. Use the last of it to spread around the edge of the cake plate, to make the brim of the hat. Add a BEST FATHER figure as pictured, and let the celebration begin!

A Thrilling Reading Scene

A recent question on a panel: what do your characters read?

My answer: Not much.

I’m what you might call a heavy reader—3 book clubs and always a Kindle full of books. I’m not sure why no one in my gallery of characters is even a light reader. They confine themselves to literature that’s pertinent to their jobs or interests, almost never including fiction or reading for relaxation. Nor do they ever discuss books, a favorite pastime of mine.

Here’s the lineup and their reading habits:

• Dr. Gloria Lamerino, retired physicist, reads Physics Today, Scientific American, and the New Yorker cartoons. That’s it.

• Gerry Porter, retired English teacher and miniaturist, often quotes Shakespeare, but not once in nine books has she picked up a volume and had a quiet read. She does occasionally leaf through a miniatures or crafts magazine.

• Professor Sophie Knowles, college math teacher, reads and contributes to mathematics journals and puzzle magazines. No fiction.

Finally, with my 4th series, I might have a reader.

• Cassie Miller (DEATH TAKES PRIORITY debuted November 2015), postmaster in a small Massachusetts town, reads crime fiction. Though I don’t give specific titles, I do have Cassie commenting on certain plot devices, and actually trying to read crime novels or watch crime dramas before bedtime. Granted she’s quickly distracted and turns to focusing on “the case” at hand.

One reason my amateur sleuths don’t read: they’re very busy people! In general, they solve a murder case in a week or so, sometimes sooner. That’s pretty quick, considering real cops sometimes take months, often years. Also, reading is very passive, as opposed to, say, a car chase, a shoot-out, or even a quiet stalking scene. It’s hard to make a reading scene exciting.

She stretched out on the couch, put on her reading glasses, picked up a book, found the bookmark, opened the book,  . . .

See what I mean?

My book on TV – A story I never tire of telling!

Latest edition for Kindle

A few years ago, Hallmark produced a TV movie based on Citizen Jane, a true crime book by Bay Area screenwriter James Dalessandro. In one scene, Jane’s aunt is pictured sitting comfortably, reading. Her book: my first, The Hydrogen Murder! She holds it up, the cover plain as day.

And then an intruder breaks in and murders her!

The book falls out of her hands and onto the floor, the original cover side up, immortalized as a part of the crime scene.

So, although my characters aren’t reading, someone is reading my characters!

Book Clubs — the more the merrier

In case you missed this post on TheLadyKillers . . .

I never met a book club I didn’t like.

The Past.

I started my first book club when I was teaching physics at a college in Boston. I’d noticed many of my students were reading science fiction: Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein), Dune (Frank Herbert), Childhood’s End (Arthur Clarke), More Than Human (Theodore Sturgeon). These books seemed to engage them more than the text for my class: Eisberg’s Fundamentals of Modern Physics.

So I formed a book club to discuss science fiction novels and their relation to physics. I chose books that would illustrate the four forces—gravitational, electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear. Students in other majors joined us as we met informally, one evening a week, in the student lounge. After about 3 years of these regular meetings, I was able to convince the administration that “Physics Through SciFi” was worth academic credit.

Since then, I can’t remember not being in a book club.

The Castro Valley Library Mystery Book Club c. 2015

The Present

Currently, I’m involved in two clubs. One is a nonfiction group that has been meeting since the early nineties. When two members moved to Houston, we set up a laptop dedicated to Skyping them in. I’ve read books I never would have chosen if it weren’t for this group—for example: The Big Roads, The Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway, by Earl Swift; and most recently, One Nation Under God, How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin Cruse.

The second group is a mystery group that now meets at our local library. There are members in the group who date back to a club that met at an indie book store 30+ years ago, then in our homes when the store closed. Some of them agreed to pose tonight just so you could see them at work! You can tell who are the shy ones.

Coming up, in case you’re in the neighborhood, the book for March is Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale. It’s always fascinating to see what nuggets the various members pick out to discuss, even from a book may not be well-liked. As I writer, I’m always curious about what works and what doesn’t work for readers. One woman might say I didn’t like the plot, but the characters were great, so I’ll give it a 9. And the next person might say, The characters were great, but the plot was lame, so I’ll give it a 2. Fascinating!


I thought I share a little how-to, as if facilitating a book club is a craft, like beading or writing!

1. Collect data. At the first meeting, we discuss who likes what and choose the books for a few months ahead, making sure everyone has a say in some way. We try to be egalitarian with respect to the authors’ gender and ethnicity, the range of subgenres, a variety of settings, and any other group preferences.

2. Set out ranking rules. We use a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is “best book I’ve read since Poe’s “Telltale Heart,” and 1 means “I threw it across the room.” One member recently added a 0, which means “I burned it.”

In the middle is “I would (or would not) recommend it.” Ranking is based for the most part on three factors: characters, plot, writing.

3. Rank. At the beginning of each meeting, each member gives a ranking with a one liner: “I rated this a 10 because I didn’t yawn once while reading it.” This gives everyone, even the shyest, a chance to express an opinion before things get out of hand.

4. Discuss. I usually start with those who ranked the book the farthest off the average. “How come everyone else gave this book a 2, Oscar, and you gave it a 10?” or “Isabel, you’re the only one who claimed to have taken a match to the book and gave it a 1. How come?”

5. Be prepared. The facilitator needs to be ready:

• with questions that encourage discussion

• with familiarity of the author’s other work to give the current book context

• with insights that get people talking about deeper issues in the book

• with specific passages marked as examples, in support of her/his own opinion or those of others.

Some book clubs fall into disrepair when the talk is 80% social; others prefer it that way. I prefer clubs where the discussion is about the book of the month first, with chatting about shoes and kids a very distant second (okay, you caught us going out for ice cream last night, but that was after the meeting).

I spent many years of my life doing physics and math—very social careers. No one does science out of her garage any more; it’s a team endeavor. My concern when I turned to writing was that I’d never last, that it was too solitary a profession. I’m so glad to have been wrong!

While critique groups (I’m in three of those) satisfy the need to share writing, book clubs are a great way to share what I’ve read, to meet and bring together others who love to read and are eager to talk about their discoveries. Often I’ve given a book a 5 to start with and changed to an 8 after hearing from the group about things I missed.

With critique groups, writers’ organizations, conferences, and book clubs, I have enough interaction to last through the days when it’s just me and Word for the Mac, and, of course, the casts of characters in my series.

If you’re interested having me visit your club, gather around the monitor and Skype me in! Email address on my website.