Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pick up a New England cozy mystery; add a cup of tea!

Go ahead: pick a comfortable chair in a warm, well-lighted corner. Settle down with your favorite beverage. Open to the first page.
It may be about a cat. Even a talking cat.
It may be set in a library, or at a vacation location you crave. It may center around a favorite holiday. Count on it: There's a whole lot of baking going on.
You've entered the slime-free zone: no vicious murders and body parts here; no flagrant language; no terrifying presences. Perhaps, though, you'll find a good recipe.
This is the world of cozy mysteries, where you'll likely be amused, puzzled and left happy. Isn't that what cozy conveys: comfortable, inviting return visits to a feel-good space inhabited by people you actually like and understand? Think of death—by chocolate Lab. Sneaky Pie Brown, the curious crime-solving cat. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who solves mysteries without pausing in her knitting.
Cozy mysteries, a sub-genre of detective stories and other traditional mysteries, developed during the late 20th century, through writers like Charlotte MacLeod (Professor Peter Shandy of Balaclava Agricultural College), Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series (though Christie in not, per se, a "cozy" writer), and Lilian Jackson Braun ("The Cat Who ..." series of detective novels). There are even television shows based on cozies, such as "Murder, She Wrote."
Today, hundreds of cozy authors type away in their favorite mystery settings as their fan base expands, thanks to the online universe of books. Don't make the mistake of thinking they're simplistic or poorly executed; some are very well-written. As in everything, the options vary in strength.
Several New England authors are among those hard at work on cozy series. Barbara Ross bases her stories in the Maine coastal area where she lives part of the year; J.A. Hennrikus of Somerville, aka Julianne Holmes, sets mysteries in the Berkshires; Leslie Meier lives seasonally on Cape Cod and writes holiday-themed series centering on Lucy Stone, a mother of three with a phone sales job and a penchant for discovering bodies. Sherry Harris writes about a fictional Air Force Base in the Concord/Bedford-area. Gardener-writer Edith Maxwell of Amesbury writes historical mysteries and cozy mysteries like "When the Grits Hit the Fan," "Mulch Ado About Love" and "Murder on Cape Cod."
Some of them will attend the April 29 Agatha Awards ceremony, hoping their nominated books win. There are dozens more out there, specializing in different regional or interest areas.
The cozy's setting is enticing: characters are normal folks and the mysteries revolve around homespun themes like cooking, animals, coffee shops and travel. The aforementioned "Death by Chocolate Lab" is a real book, in the Lucky Paws Petsitting series.
They're not all available in print; some are audio and e-books; the lucky ones are in all mediums. E-books have allowed the volume to escalate, adding self-published writers, so if you're new to the field, research authors (or use word of mouth and online book talk sites) before ordering. Some are good; others more run-of-the-mill. The variety is rich, from "bad hair days" mysteries to country stores and "a cat in the library stacks." A lot of the wry hangs about these books and some are very, very good.
The name for this sub-genre originated in an essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," by the gifted mystery writer Ray Chander. Writer Barbara Ross explains.
"In it, he savages the British detectives of the Golden Age as unrealistic. At one point, he refers to one of the protagonists as 'an insouciant gent named Antony Gillingham, a nice lad with a cheery eye, a cozy little flat in London, and that airy manner.' So the term cozy began as a pejorative, but now many of us in the field have embraced it."
To some degree, cozy mysteries are a balm for the weary. Ross has heard from many readers who like the books as a sort of comfort food for the tired or sorrowing soul.
To be marketable these days, labeling is necessary—a book can disappear into the unknown otherwise. "In the age of Amazon, it's become very necessary for books to be categorized by genres and subgenres, so that people can find them," Ross said. "In days past, it wasn't necessary to know what you'd call yours—an agent or publisher would figure that out, and to some degree that's still true."
Kensington Publishing Corp., an independent traditional publishing house in New York, handles Ross's books, along with those of Fern Michaels, Lisa Jackson, Joanne Fluke and others. They are not a one-genre publisher, releasing 500 fiction and nonfiction titles each year, only about 50 of which are cozies. Publicist Karen Auerbach says she's excited about writer Edith Maxwell's organic farming series debuts soon with "Mulch Ado About Murder."
She also praises Ross. "Barbara's terrific because she's a member of the New England Mystery Writers ... she has a great blog, called maineclambakemysteries.com. She attends Sleuthfest and Malice Domestic (book conventions). She's very active, doing marketing for her books, which is part of the key of selling these books. Her agent, John (Talcott), knows she's tailor-made for the program. He knew it would be a good fit (for us). Her books have been very strong; they're getting terrific reviews in Suspense magazine, the Library Journal, etc. Her fans are really embracing the series."

Auerbach calls cozies "a guilty pleasure."

"I think they've been increasing in popularity because they're exciting; they're escapism," she said. "There are a lot of stresses in the world today and this is a refuge of interest—intrigue that takes you out of what's going on in the world."

J.A. Hennrikus/Julianne Holmes
Hennrikus, as Holmes, writes books based out of a clock shop, while her Hennrikus-penned series, launching in the fall, will revolve around a theater cop. Berkley-Random House launched her books, and a new publisher has commissioned the second group.
She began writing mysteries after a fellow writing class student suggested she "drop a body" within the first three chapters of her book, to attract readers. It worked, so she stuck with it.
She reads cozies as well. "I like the puzzle, and there's a justice component," she said. "Injustice is righted."
Working in theater, as she does, provides plenty of reality for her backgrounds. Also helpful, she says, is having a good publisher. "You write, you build up readership; slowly, more and more of your books sell. Chances are, you're gonna keep doing your day job, then figure it out." It's not a get-rich-quick scheme for most writers, she warns.
First, there's the writing, then the editing, rewriting; she follows a process. "I am a huge plotter; my process is to sit down, come up with an idea and plot it out, scene by scene. I put them on note cards, decide what will happen and who will do it. I create 60 to 70 scenes, then wrestle with the cards and move them around. Then, I put them into Scribner's—a wonderful writers' tool. Then I edit, and maybe edit again with an editor."
Typically, an author is working with the publisher's editor on more revises before it's final. Then, the writer helps proof the pages. For marketing, the writer is often involved. "With a mainstream publisher, they do some of it," said Hennrikus. She shares the Wicked Cozy authors blog, uses Amazon,  Goodreads website giveaways, co-markets on social media. "We're starting to play with Facebook ads, to see if they are useful. Publishers all have marketing teams, but writers these days have to do a lot themselves. We all celebrate when somebody has a new book out."

Barbara Ross
Hennrikus, who loves to read cozy mysteries, calls Barbara Ross a favorite. "She writes wonderful stories, and she's up for a best contemporary book this year." ("Fogged In" is up for Best Contemporary Novel in the mystery-related Agatha awards—winners to be named in April). Ross's second book, "Clammed Up," was twice nominated for mystery awards and made the short list of Maine Literary Award nominees for crime fiction. "Boiled Over" received an award nomination as well.
Ross summers in Maine. She's a good writer and her mysteries keep one reading until the end. Dubbed Maine Clambake mysteries, "Clammed Up," "Fogged In," "Boiled Over" and "Mussled Out" have attracted a growing audience. The latest, "Iced Under," is for anyone who wants to vicariously experience Maine in winter, from the safety of a warm house.
She and her husband, Bill Carito, own the former Seafarer Inn in Boothbay Harbor, and she can be found on its porch some summer days, writing away. Winters, she's either at Key West or home in Hingham. She worked for three decades, co-founding two successful start-ups in educational technology, before seriously following her muse.
"I'd been member of a writers group since 1996," she said. "That had kept me writing through the years of jobs, kids, etc. I mostly wrote short stories during that period—it was all I could keep in my head, quite honestly. In 2010, my company was bought by a competitor. I committed myself to writing full time at that point."
From her early days of reading Nancy Drew mysteries she was a mystery fan, and her first novel, "Death of an Ambitious Woman," was more traditional.
"I wasn't interested in writing cozy mysteries. In our society, books written by women, for women, are always at the bottom of the barrel. I pictured gray-haired women with knitting needles in their hair—that wasn't me. I've since learned cozy is a much broader category that I ever thought. I always read what are called 'traditional' mysteries—P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Louise Penney and Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George." In an additional twist, she's begun to accrue male readers since the inception of e-books.
Her agent, John Talbot, urged her to try one, certain it would find readership. The publisher (Kendall) took "Clammed Up" and the next books she created in what became a series. Think lobster, summer waves, local history, likeable people. When her agent asked for recipes, however, Ross balked. "I don't cook, and I don't grocery shop." She gets help from her husband. "I tell Bill the setting, the character cooking, etc., and he puts together a menu. He experiments until he can create a couple of recipes. Some, like lasagna, are her own, although, she admits, "I'm kind of the family baker."
"Typically," Ross said, "a cozy will have an amateur sleuth—not always, but very often, the sleuth is not a policeman or a private investigator, but will have some other profession. The murder takes place within a community; it's not a vast conspiracy. And, typically, justice will prevail in the end: The world is a pretty nice and orderly place, then something terrible happens and story is about restoring justice and order. There's not a lot of graphic violence, sex or swearing. You don't typically linger on the entrails."

Just for fun, here's a partial list of cozy subjects:

Bad hair day mysteries
Country store mystery series
Paws and claws mystery series
Cat in the stacks mystery series (about librarians)
Dangerous Type mystery series (Bookman Dead Style)
Cat Rescue Mystery Series

There's a plethora of food-related cozy mysteries:

The bread shop mysteries ("Kneaded to Death")
Chocolate covered mystery series
Georgia Peach mystery series
Gourmet Popcorn Shop mystery series
Charmed Pie Shoppe mystery series
Memphis bbq mystery series
Soup lovers mystery series

The character-driven:
Aunt Dimity mystery series by Nancy Atherton
Casebook of Dr. McKenzie Mystery Series by Claudia Bishop
Zoe Donovan mystery series by Kathi Daley
Scarpetta's Winter Table by Patricia Cornwall - recipes from the kitchen of her famous character Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
Place focus:
 Martha's Vineyard mystery series
Irish Village mystery series
Key West food critic mystery series (combines food and locale)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Very different books for a winter's reading

It's been a cool week of reading for me, an entry into two worlds I had little experience with, and a rewarding venture once taken.
Pressed for time, and always somewhat eclectic in my reading choices, I've gone back and forth through several selections, and two of them merit mention here. The first I read for my own reasons, the second relates to an article I'm preparing for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester.
The first, Lawrence Hill's "The Book of Negroes," was published in Great Britain and Canada during the early 2000s (first published in the U.S. as "Someone Knows my Name").Hill's story is astonishing--a classic I'd put on a favorites shelf alongside such greats as "Gone With the Wind" and "East of Eden."
Aminata Diallo's fictional account of being kidnapped from a tiny African town and transported into slavery in the United States, with her subsequent journey toward freedom, is riveting, and reveals much of the drive an enslaved people have to be free. The story differs considerably from much that I've read about slavery and the events befalling slaves here, in Nova Scotia, Great Britain and the African coast (all true, although fictionalized).
Aminata's stamina and refusal to submit are truly heroic and likely to leave a lasting imprint on the reader.
Hill did a lot of research to recreate the world Aminata encountered after her capture at the age of 11, focusing on the losses, mistreatment and battered hopes of both Africans and Americans born into slavery on plantations (or in northern states). By the time she reaches London, she has become a figurehead for the abolitionist movement.
Aminata is an amazingly personal narrator, a young woman who bears all sorts of punishments and grief as she pursues her single-minded goal: escape to freedom.
This is not a book to be missed, and book clubs will find much to debate. While it's a long read, it's very absorbing; you won't want it to end.

The second book relates to an article I'm preparing about cozy mysteries.
Cozies, for those who aren't familiar, are lighter fare, easy to read and absent the horror, graphic violence and dark viewpoint of thrillers and modern mysteries. They are meant as a break from the day, a relaxing read that entertains, puzzles and rewards the reader with something at the end: often, recipes or knitting patterns!
Barbara Ross's "Iced Under" is part of a series Ross has entitled the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her heroine in each is Julia Snowden, member of a family that has long operated a seafood restaurant at Busman's Harbor (think loosely of Boothbay Harbor, fictionalized).
Ross is skillful at constructing plots that don't give anything away and keep readers going. She is also good at creating characters we like. Fortunately for us, Julia is at the head of that line.
There's much of the flavor of Maine (and lobsters) to this mysteries series that will appeal to readers who are familiar with coastal New England, and love Maine's intricate coastline. But others will learn to love the state, too, through Ross's writing.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Field trips for book fans

On these beautiful winter days, when there is snow on the ground and cold in the air, there are few sources of entertainment or relief: bake, ski, shop or read. I'll take the latter, being fonder of soft lights and cozy nooks than I am of more calories, banged-up shins or binge shopping. Not to say they aren't all worthy pursuits. Quite fortunate that I do not have to go anywhere to work.
I don't know who out there shares my fondness for visiting book stores, near and far. I love the different set-ups inside stores and the pleasant collision of reading materials. Some have sofas and soft chairs, others offer tables and hard chairs. Some have coffee corners (which I love) and cookies. All have an unpredictable collection of literature. You just don't know what you'll find.
Out near Springdale, Utah—the town at the exit to Zion National Park—there's an odd little book joint called the Virgin Goods Book Store (and Community Post Office), where I found a nice collection of literary journals for about 50 cents each. I have to browse quickly, as there is much to do and my companions are always thinking about that, but I always find something good. It's likely that passing tourists on Route 9 stop to trade in their books for something new.
The beauty of these stops is not just in finding books, but in connecting with local people who can give you tips to restaurants, inns, nearby sites worth checking out.
Closer to home, there are quite a few spots for return visits—the Barrow Bookstore and the Concord Book Shop (open seven days), both in Concord, bring in local authors and offer signed first editions, books by regional authors and more; Bearly Read Books, Route 20 in Sudbury (closed Mondays), offers rare books as well, meeting space and collections of various genres that may interest your book club, ranging from classics and mysteries to fantasy, history and special interests.
Another seven-day store is the Book Bear in West Brookfield, which has used, rare and out-of-print books, buys and sells, priding itself on a diverse, ever-changing selection. It's on Route 9.
Booklovers' Gourmet in Webster (open Tuesday-Saturday) offers books, pastries and brews at 55 E. Main St., with cozy seating and occasional author visits/signings. A book group and a writers group meet here. Deb Horan aims to provide a literary home here for readers.
Taproot is another interesting place to find an unusual book. Rock collectors will enjoy browsing crystals of all kinds. Open seven days a week, it's a small, somewhat eclectic book and gift shop at 1200 W. Boylston St. (Route 12, near O'Connors), Worcester. Irene Evory and Richard Barca are the owners. Being community-minded, they will match customer donations to several charities: Abby's House, Worcester County Food Bank, the Heifer Project and the Jimmy Fund.
There's a new store in Marlborough as well, mentioned in the last column: Stax Discount Books, owned by Michael Joachim, is at 193A Boston Post Road (20 West), offering new, discounted books.
Tatnuck, on Lyman Street, Worcester, has added a large amount of gift items, but the coffee and sandwich cafe is a good one, and there are easy chairs in the back for wifi use or reading, with at least half the store dedicated to new books and magazines, often discounted. I still pop in regularly, finding goodies in both sides of the store.
I have not visited the Montague Bookmill in years, and I have it in mind to get there next time I'm in the territory. It's west on Route 2, just before Greenfield. Plan to allocate time for a visit to 440 Greenfield Road. Dubbed: "Books you don't need, in a place you can't find," the bookshop has rooms to explore in an old mill building along a hefty river. There's coffee too. It's an outing by itself, with a nearby arts center.
If you're out and about, the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough at 12 Depot Square is a must-visit. With frequent author visits, and new and used book sections, the bookstore is vital and active (toadstool.com). There's a second store in Keene, recently moved to Main and Emerald streets.
One thing I really like about bookstore visits is the assortment of nice people who work there. There's usually time for a book consult or just a casual bookish conversation—about the weather and such. Many provide space for wifi users to stop awhile and work or entertain themselves.
A number of independents have teamed up with large distributors like Amazon to speed their books to customers by mail, etc., and some operate solely online—but I'm not so interested in that; I like spending some quality time in a new place, soaking up the words and the spirits of the place.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Searching out collector books

What books do you collect, thinking maybe one day to discover their value or sell them at a high price? I know; I do too. Unless you really know your books, however, chances are you're wasting bookshelf space. You may make money on the genuine item, but most rare book dealers will tell you they're the exception, not the rule. I keep some books out of nostalgia—for instance, various editions of "A Christmas Carol"—and that's as good a reason as any. There's also a shelf of 19th and early 20th-century novels from my grandparents' house, probably with little value to anyone else. But I like them.
Some people, not so many these days though, like the look of old books around the house, and collect them for that reason. They're fun for others to browse, so if you have the room, go for it.  
Would-be collectors may search for the publication date of an old book when they come across a valuable-looking specimen in a thrift shop or bookstore. Maybe they buy it for a few dollars, thinking they've perhaps found a priceless edition of Dickens or Melville. Don't count on it. You can end up a hoarder that way. I suggest buying books that truly appeal to you as a reader, out of love, not greed.
A book's value depends greatly on its condition, content, scarcity and author. Is it a first edition? So much the better. There has to be customer demand for it, as well. And, remember: Not all valuable books are old. You really have to find out what's in demand. To familiarize yourself with what goes into a book's value, stop in at a rare book dealer, such as Brattle Book Shop in Boston. Ken Gloss presides over the store's collection of rare and unusual books. Gloss often speaks at libraries and clubs across the region—I saw him in Lancaster's Thayer Memorial Library last year—to better inform the public about what makes a book valuable. He also looks over the books his listeners bring in. Most aren't worth much, but once in awhile there's a good result. Similar antiquarian book stores are scattered about the region.
For a current listing of individual book dealers, check the Southern New England Antiquarian Booksellers, which maintains a listing of its members, many of whom are in this area and deal in special interests areas; often they operate out of their homes. Members of SNEAB hold an annual book sale is April 17 in Lexington.
Most libraries try to vet the books donated to them for resale, in the hope of not selling a rare book for $2. They may use online services, or set up a connection to a collector. But since there really aren't enough volunteers at most libraries to research book value, the good books sometimes go right through to the book sale piles—and your chance to pick up a winner.
Some booksellers maintain web sites to help you determine if your books are worth anything (abebooks.com is one such site).
Money, anyone?
I'm just weird enough to wish that I had the funds and time to visit bookstores all over the country. What fun that would be—were it not for writing groups, grandchildren and volunteer obligations. But here at home you can be a bookstore fan as well. I always find peace with a cup of coffee and a book. Here's a chance to win a gift card AND a $3,000 contribution to your favorite book store. Indie publisher www.landmark/sourcebooks.com is conducting a "recommend your bookstore sweepstakes." Frankly, it's easier to locate the sweepstakes by doing a Google search for sourcebooks. The contest closes on Friday, Feb. 19. Their site also offers an annual review of book choices for the year, which may interest clubs hoping to preview what's coming up.
In a similar vein, www.readinggroupchoices is offering a gift certificate for books to readers who nominate their favorite recent books. What the heck? Give it a try.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gifting the Voracious Reader

Readers are often happy to receive a bookstore gift certificate, but if you'd like to choose the genuine item as a Hanukkah or Christmas gift, these are some newer possibilities.
Die-hard Harry Potter fans are probably alone in continuing to read everything J.K. Rowlings publishes (two e-books of short stories about Hogwarts and a hardcover "rehearsal script" for the first Potter play, all during 2016). But if your older fan read the first seven, then number eight may be the right gift. Titled "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," this play takes readers into the grown-up world of Harry Potter, father of three. I haven't read it, and don't know what to expect, but hey—it's out there, and shouldn't be ignored.
Readers with a social change interest may want to delve into a book I've mentioned before, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a memoir from former Marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance about his impoverished upbringing in Appalachia, outlining the struggles of a white, working class family. An engaging history, this memoir has humor, but also a deeply researched portrayal of what it's like to be a member of the disappearing "hillbilly" community.
Jodi Picoult has a facility for choosing hot news issues and turning them into fiction. She's right on track this year with "Small Great Things," the story of an African American woman who is rejected as a hospital nurse for their baby by a white supremacist couple. But that, of course, becomes complicated during a medical crisis, leading to troubles for the nurse's whole family. Picoult is a strong writer, a born storyteller, and a dedicated researcher. Get it for book club members and people with an interest in Picoult's writing.
Millions of readers love Jane Austen. The Austen Project asked six authors to write a new take on one of her famous novels: "Sense and Sensibility," "Northanger Abbey," Pride and Prejudice," "Emma, "Persusasion" and "Mansfield Park." They are being published as finished—number four, released this year, promises to be a very enjoyable read. "Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, centers around the famous Bennet family and Mr. Darcy, transformed into a modern era.
Along the same "project" vein, a series of fictional retellings of Shakespeare this year featured "Shylock is My Name" by Howard Jacobson. His  version of "The Merchant of Venice" includes Nazi football players, in a dramatic reflection on the grasping power of anti-Semitism. Vital for the times we're in.
On my would-be Christmas list is Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad." Whitehead was keynote speaker at this year's Boston Book Festival. For this book alone, he's won more than a dozen top awards—an impressive accomplishment. In the book, a young couple attempts to escape slavery aboard the Underground Railroad—this time a real, functioning transportation system. But it's far from a fantasy, as readers will discover. There's adventure and high tension, with richly drawn characters.
Epic series fans are likely to enjoy a newly released, photo-infused book, "The Making of Outlander—a good gift for fans of the series. Though the lush Diane Garabaldon series has a ways to go in production segments, all the books are available, starting with "Outlander."
Those who have loved either version of the series "Poldark" may enjoy Robin Ellis's "Making Poldark," a newly released, updated version of his memoir about the original 1970s series (Author Winston Graham hated the slutty Demelza portrayal in the first). Gifts of an entire series are always fantastic to receive, if a little pricey to provide.
Thriller fans may enjoy a book that mesmerized Sue Grafton: Sheri Lapena's "The Couple Next Door." With a dozen unexpected plot twists and taut writing, Lapena's mystery—surrounding a couple who leave their baby at home while attending a party next door—is called riveting. Writers like Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Lisa Gardner are recommending it.
Finally, for lovers of symphonic music, comes "Absolutely on Music," released in November. It's a special book of conversations between author Haruki Mirakami and his friend, former Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa. From recorded conversations, their discussions of music and writing cover everything between the adored classicists to more contemporary greats, like Bernstein and Glenn Gould. Look to this for insights into the broader world of music.