Wild Rose Review: Murder Undetected

After her husband runs off with the girl next door, psychologist Britt Thornton decides to blow off some steam by accompanying her friend Arielle to France where Arielle is planning on purchasing a cheese shop.

Once in France, Britt immediately realizes her accounts have been frozen. Not only has her husband been unfaithful, he’s been embezzling funds and is now being tracked down by the FBI. They also track Britt down overseas.

Viane Thibaudet is a young, ambitious chef whose great aims lay far beyond her town of Chevalier. She wants to buy a restaurant in Paris with her husband’s money, only Jean-Luc isn’t willing to do it.

When Jean-Luc collapses after eating something his wife made for him, Britt is there to give him CPR. It is after all Viane’s cheese shop her friend Arielle is trying to buy.

This was a solid mystery with a delightful setting. Like the author, I am also a bit of a Francophile and it made me long to visit this fictional village. The only thing that didn’t connect for me was a B-plot or C-plot about a troubled teen named “Thirteen.” Britt receives steadily more unsettling text messages from him back in the states, but the tension never really rose for me. It is a very minor thread, however, and didn’t take anything away from the read.

Fans of cozy mysteries, especially those set in international locations, and epicureans will find much to enjoy about these characters and their strife.

Amazon

Review: Standard Deviation

Graham Cavanaugh is on the twelfth year of his second marriage, Audra is his beyond-outgoing wife who works as a graphic designer part-time and may or may not be having an affair, Matthew is their middle-school-aged son with Asperger’s and an obsession with origami, and Elspeth is Graham’s ex-wife, a successful attorney who Audra is convinced they should become friends with. The characters of this novel are richly imagined, unique yet believable. The story itself is just as new and real as the people. Just when you think you know what’s happening or what’s coming, the story takes a hard left.

I have read a lot of funny books, but Katherine Heiny hangs with the best of them. Like very few authors–Dave Barry, Steve Martin, Nora Ephron–she is able to deliver real laughs almost every page. I was impressed and also wildly discouraged as a writer. Like all great books, this made me want to work a whole lot harder at my craft.

I just finished reading Standard Deviations and wrote this review immediately, because you have to read it!

Recent Events

I decided to start promoting my debut mystery novel, How Everything Turns Away, at the local library and coffee shop. Here are some highlights!

A full house – for a fiction class in Southwest Kansas, that is
What’s the difference between a crime novel and a cozy? I’m glad you asked!
They even let me sell a book or two
A cozy reading at Patrick Dugan’s in downtown Garden City

Overall, it has been a successful launch for the book. In-person sales are steadily trickling in, a few each day, and my rankings at the online book sellers are moving up and down mysteriously, so that’s exciting. If you know of a coffee shop, book store, or library that would like to have me put on a reading or workshop, let me know!

The Wild Rose Press: Scarlet at Crystal River

After history teacher Darrell Henshaw has his bachelor party crashed by a cake-inhabiting medium, he knows he’s going to have one interesting honeymoon. In a strange Slavic accent, she whispers, “Ven you go to Crystal River, you vill have…two visitors from the other side, two visitors vaiting for you.” These visitors quickly turn out to be Daniel and Mia, the children of migrant workers. Through the course of the novel, Darrell and his new wife Erin must work with translator Luis to get to the bottom of what happened—all while simultaneously having a honeymoon.

This is my first paranormal mystery. It has a lot in common with traditional mysteries. For instance, the detective conducts interviews, gathers clues, and faces personal peril. However, much of what drives his investigation, as the genre suggests, comes from otherworldly agents. A medium tells him about the victims, visions of phantoms and a weeping painting help him ID children, and then eerie Christmas carols haunt a crucial scene.

The setting, Florida in the late 90s, appeals to me as I lived in Florida in the late 90s. I remember bringing in the new millennium in Tangerine, Florida at my aunt’s house as I was living in Orlando at the time. Overbeck portrays this strange time and place accurately, dropping in several fun Easter eggs, such as swimming with manatees and the approaching Bush-Gore election, which would become big drama in Florida politics.

If you’re a fan of paranormal mysteries or 90s paranormal film, you’re sure to enjoy Scarlet at Crystal River.

Postmodern American Fiction

I first began reading this anthology (or perhaps I should say “attempted to read”) a little over a year ago. I thought it would be a good book to breeze through while teaching from home because of COVID. I was wrong. About the breezing, at least. While I was immediately met with authors I have loved and, for the most part, understood: Pynchon, Burroughs, Barthelme, I soon felt as if I were reading something in a foreign language. Robert Coover’s “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and Mark Leyner’s “The Making of ‘Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog’ ” were two places that had to take considerable breaks, reading other stories or novels, sometimes in actual foreign languages.

One trouble I think I have with postmodernism or rather have had with it stems from the fact that I have been raised in it. In school, “postmodern” has often carried the same weighty context as “calculus.” We will cross that bridge when we get to it. However, all of the art I have loved from that last thirty-plus years has been influenced by it. Some of my earliest memories of movie watching include Star Wars and Indian Jones (pastiche of 30s-50s American serials); Back to the Future (a sci-fi head-trip of multiple timelines); and Edward Scissorhands (and all of its cross-genre, ironic, temporal distorted, and magical realist glory).

The point at which I achievement my long-awaited aha moment came after reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” a short story about, among other things, a couple’s trip to the sight of a Civil War battle: Shiloh, Tennessee. After finishing the story, I asked myself, “Okay, so what was postmodern about that?” It took a little research to realize that the gender roles and national identity the story questions are things society has questioned and reformed my entire life. While some aspects of postmodernism feel “other,” most aspects have been adopted whole-hock and incorporated seamlessly. I noticed this most recently while watching Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. The film is at once a straightforward story about Fern (Frances McDormand) who is driven to live in her van and travel the country as an itinerant worker. It’s also a scathing attack of consumer society, which at one point destroys Fern’s entire town and at other times abandons countless characters who only want to work. It also functions as a circular anti-narrative, beginning with the Christmas-rush at an Amazon distribution center during the Great Recession and ending a year later with Fern’s situation unchanged, still showing up to Amazon to work for a month, still traveling in her van, still precariously outside of house-dwelling society. Fern even serves a stint at Wall Drug, the amusement-park-like store outside the Badlands in central South Dakota. I could not help being reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Disneyland in his seminal work, Simulacra and Simulation. Yet if I did not have this anthology at my finger tips, so recently submitted to my short-term memory, I don’t know that I would’ve noticed any of these elements. Rather I might’ve thought, “Well, that story never really got going.”

And that is the very point. If nothing else, Postmodern American Fiction has let me into some of the secrets that have been all around me as I’ve read, watched, and listened. I won’t go so far as to say I have a complete understanding of this ever-evolving art movement, but this anthology has certainly given me a more solid foundation than I had before I set out.

The Wild Rose Press: Good Lookin’

Today, I have the honor of reviewing a book by a fellow mystery writer at my publisher. T. L. Bequette, when he isn’t writing mystery novels, is a criminal defense attorney in California who serves on an annual faculty clinic at Stanford Law School.

Joe Turner, Bequette’s protagonist and narrator, is an Oakland defense attorney as well. When we first meet Turner, he is meeting with a current client, Leonard Dunigan, who is accused of killing a man by “squeezing his skull until it caved in.” From this very first scene we are thrust into Turner’s world in all its dangerous ambiguity.

Ricocheting from this hopeless case, Turner meets with Darnell Moore, a nineteen-year-old black youth who has become entangled with an Oakland gang, the IceBoyz. Moore stands accused of killing a rival Cashtown Killer gangster, the high-school aged Cleveland Barlow. The case seems open and shut. Turner could reduce the charges with a guilty plea. The only problem is, when Moore says he didn’t do it, Turner believes him.

With his southern-accented private eye, Chuck Argenal, Turner races to assembly the clues and the testimony needed to ensure Moore’s freedom. Unfortunately, thanks to a web of nefarious influences posed by the IceBoys and Cashtown gangs, witnesses are reticent to speak. Including Darnell Moore himself. What does he know, and why won’t he tell Turner?

One surprising element of this novel that I really enjoyed was a parallel story told in short inter chapters. Set in 2006, these chapters tell the story of twin boys shuffled around the foster system. When their too-good-to-be-true foster father turns out to be Iago-level evil, they only have one shot to escape. At first I wondered how this would all come to bear on the Moore case, but it kept my attention regardless. All I’ll say is that it does come to bear—in a big way.

All legal dramas will forever remind me of John Grisham, and this one is no exception. For anyone in search of some legalistic suspense or wanting to get an inside view of how criminal defense lawyers approach a case, look no further. The protagonist also reminds me of Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser. Something about Turner’s wit and the playful relationship he has with the love interest, Edna “Eddy” Busier, a distinguished archeologist, smacks of Spenser. For this reason, fans of Spenser novels and other rye private eyes will find much to enjoy in Joe Turner.

Buy now!

Saunders Takes on the Russians

American short story master George Saunders takes on four Russian masters, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol in his new book. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is part story collection, part master class, and part meditation on the writing life.

I’ve always struggled with the short story form, which is ironic, at least to me. I’ve read hundreds of novels with relative ease, written several of my own—the most recent one of which is in the process of being published—and I’ve taught a dozen or so to my high school and college students over the last few years. One would think the novel, with its length and grandeur would be less approachable than the humble short story, yet I have found these narratives in miniature nearly incomprehensible at times. The more straight-forward the story, the less I’m able to grasp it.

So, the publication of George Saunders’ new book sent my writer’s antennae straight up. I purchased it immediately and devoured it.

The book tackles four of the greats, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, one story each from Gogol and Turgenev, two from Tolstoy, and three from Chekhov. I think we can see the clear winner in Saunders’ mind. After reading the stories, I’d have to agree. While Gogol appeals to my absurdist bent—Donald Barthelme might be the first short story writer I ever really connected with or understood—and Tolstoy has a command of epic narration, Chekhov writes with a subtle complexity I find most enviable.

Saunders approaches Chekhov first with “In the Cart.” Rather than merely discuss it or present the story and then analyze it, he opts for an imitation of a genuine class. I often stop my students every few paragraphs to check for understanding. Here, Saunders stops every page. We receive a page of Chekhov and then several pages of analysis, breaking down what the master is doing. “In the Cart” is eleven pages long but, with the interruptions, it reaches 46 pages! If your goal is to read these seven stories as quickly as possible, this is not the book for you. If, however, you’ve read Anna Karenina with no problem but stumbled through “Gooseberries,” you must read this book. What the analysis and brief afterthought (three more pages) offers is a key to unlocking Chekhov’s nuance and purpose, which in my mind is well worth the time.

“What makes Saunders such an authority on these texts?” you might ask. While he’s not Russian or a reknown literary scholar, he is a master of the short story form and has been teaching a class on Russian literature in translation for twenty years. Furthermore, he’s consulted numerous Russian scholars and translators over the years. Also, and this is the most important aspect, he genuine gained insight as a writer from these very stories. We have all read literary scholarship about the symbolism of color scheme or bilingual word play or cultural/historical/religious significance in a body of work. These may expand our body of knowledge and ignite interest in other literature or literary scholarship, but I don’t know how helpful they are to the writer in their pursuit of developing the craft. Here Saunders does not break the stories down as Russians or because they’re Russian or the in the context of that culture or language, but merely because they represent a sampling of great stories.

For example, in his thoughts on Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” he mentions the author’s involvement in a Christian-anarchist religious movement and then drops it almost entirely, turning his focus instead to Tolstoy’s use of factual narration, as opposed to authorial opinion, to create an believable reality. He then dissects the plot point by point to explain how the author achieves what he calls “cinematic propulsion.” Reading the story, we are thrust forward, but only afterward through Saunders’ expert analysis do we see how each action and reaction propelled the story to its unforgettable conclusion.

This book, for me, has been a Godsend. Before I was halfway through, I began gathering all my Russian short story collections and searching the local libraries for more. Susan and I took a trip to Kansas City to visit her sister and I made it my mission to find a collection by Gogol, the only author I didn’t own and couldn’t locate (his short stories, that is). I read that almost as rapidly as I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and thanks to Saunders, I actually understood it.