Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wait for Signs - Craig Johnson

Wait for Signs is a collection of Craig Johnson's 12 Longmire short stories. And I want back and forth about the first line to share in this review, so I decided you're getting 3 first lines: the acknowledgements, the introduction (written by Lou Diamond Phillips) and the first story, so here you go.

First line (Acknowledgements): "After I was fortunate enough to win the Cowboys & Indians Tony Hillerman Award with 'Old Indian Trick,' the first story in this collection and the first short story I had ever written, I got the bright idea that I'd send it to the folks who subscribed to my newsletter as a free gift for the holidays."

First line (Introduction): "Tightrope."

First line (First Story--"Old Indian Trick"): "It's hard to argue with an old Indian or his tricks."

I picked up this little book with the intention of skimming through it to remind myself of these stories I've read before and read-read the couple that were new to me. But when I sat down and started the skimming part, I said, "oh, I'll just re-read this one because it was so fun." Well, I re-read them all because they are ALL so much fun. And with them came the realization that this is a book that I'll re-read many times because the stories don't lose anything on the second, third, fourth....reads. In fact, they seem to become richer.

As mentioned in the first line of the acknowledgements, the stories kick of with "Old Indian Trick," featuring Walt and Lonnie Little Bird. This story has a mystery element to it, but they don't all. What they all contain is some wisdom of humanity, some insight into the characters we love in the series, and of course, a lot of humor.

"The Ministerial Aid," the book's second story continues to leave me a bit teary-eyed when I read it, needing to go out and do something extra kind for someone. I always feel like this is the story that reminds each of us we're capable of performing miracles--regardless of our faith or lack thereof--we have that power. There are plenty of chuckles in this one, but even more food for thought.

"The Slick-Tongued Devil" follows up "The Ministerial Aid" and they have much of the same effect. Johnson, confined to the limited length of a short story, still manages to bring the Wyoming setting to life in these yarns: "A few granules of snowy sleet had swept across the ridges along the Bighorn Mountains and collected in the low spots and windward sides of the European blue sage, and on one of the escaped structural limbs of the sweat lodge, a great horned owl sat with his back to me."

If you haven't read the series yet, these stories are so enjoyable and heart-warming.  If you have read the series, you get some background we don't read about in the novels. These two stories bring us a bit closer to Walt and the relationship he had with his wife, Martha.

The fourth story "Fire Bird" features one of my series favorites, Lucien Connally, while "Unbalanced" introduces a nameless young woman who never appears in the novels. Both stories remind us a little about the value of family...and friends.

The sixth and seventh stories, "Several Stations" and "High Holidays," show our fearless sheriff dealing with motorists in his kindly--and intuitive--manners. We see the beauty of Johnson's language at work with descriptions like, "The highway patrol had closed the interstate and the driver of the big eighteen-wheeler had negotiated the off-ramp but had only gotten as far as the first turn on the Durant county road before he slid off and slowly rolled the truck over like an apatosaurus looking to make a giant snow angel."

"Toys for Tots" is still probably my all-time favorite of the Longmire short stories. The relationship between Walt and Cady plays out; Walt's extra-large sized compassion is front and center; and Johnson is in top form with the humor. The stories often contain little trivia facts, much like the ones Walt can rattle off in odd situations, and this one provides a little background on the Toys for Tots organization.

"Divorce Horse" takes readers to Memorial Day and a missing sorrel while Walt and Cady play out a friendly, gender-based wager. Johnson's gift for creating vivid images comes alive as he describes an Indian relay race: "The men were painted and so were their mounts. One of the beauties of the sport was the pageantry--some of the riders were in full warbonnets, some in shaman headdresses, the riders and their ponies resplendent in team colors, the designs reflecting the lines, spots, handprints, and lightning bolts recorded in the old Indian ledger drawings."

While Henry Standing Bear appears in several stories, he is prominently featured in "Thankstaking." This story is so rich in meaning, it probably requires several readings to truly grasp it all. The implications of the past, the possibilities of the future and the importance of the present all converge on relationships in this tale of cultures.

"Messenger" came out last year as an ebook story centered around a port-a-john and an owl. With Walt, Vic, Henry and a group of bears, you know you're in for a wild ride.  Vic's wit is in high form--when the trio comes across a ranger sitting on top of a port-a-john with a family of bears rustling around it, she asks the ranger, "Hey, Chuck, what were you doing, looking for a Porta Potty that was just right?" And the madcap adventure contained in this story's 30 pages is one you can only fathom in Absaroka County. And contrasting the humorous element is the respect of Indian lore.

The book concludes on a new story, "Petunia, Bandit Queen of the Bighorns." Santiago Saizarbitoria features prominently in this story of a renegade sheep. The presence of Saizarbitoria opens up the opportunity for Walt to share some factoids about the Basque, to which Santiago wants to know, "'Do you really sit around and memorize that stuff?'"

This beautiful little book is a gem. The pages inside are priceless stories of love, relationships, humanity and nature. They are stories to read again and again--especially when you need your faith in people renewed or if you just need a good laugh. I can see this collection as a great introduction to the series for new-comers, and devout fans will definitely want this jewel of the Bighorns for their libraries. As for me, I'm going to make it a yearly holiday tradition to revisit the stories. Re-reading them brought me a warm, fuzzy feeling, which is always a plus in the cold NE Ohio winters.

It's extremely rare for me to suggest to people, "you should definitely sign up for this author's newsletter." But I do that regularly with Craig Johnson. The reason? Each newsletter includes a little anecdote with Craig's wisdom and humor. It's like a smidgeon story and a ray of sunshine in my email box. And then of course, there's the annual Christmas short story. So I encourage you to check out his website, and on the Contact tab, you'll find directions for how to receive his updates...his Post-its!

Wait for Signs is available today in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0525427919)--it's a small book, like Spirit of Steamboat (which comes out in paperback this week, too, by the way), so it would make a nice stocking stuffer if you want to share the Longmire love this holiday season. But for all my fellow audiobook fans who know how AMAZING George Guidall is at narrating this series, there's an audiobook version as well from Recorded Books! I really can't wait to hear him read these stories. Regardless of your preferred format, I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did, whether it's your first time reading them or your fourth, fifth, sixth....

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Organized Mind - Daniel J. Levitin

This one got by me. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload ran in Shelf Awareness awhile back and I'm reposting it here today with their permission. I found this one very fascinating. It's long and there are sections that could have been tightened up a bit, but I've put a lot of these ideas into practice for myself and have seen a marked difference, so I don't want to leave it off the blog. Hope you enjoy it.

First line: "We humans have a long history of pursuing neural enhancement--ways to improve the brains that evolution gave us."

With the constant barrage of information, coupled with the infinite distractions of technology, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music) says it’s no wonder people regularly lose their keys or forget appointments. The information isn’t going to slow, so what’s the solution? Understand your brain.

The brain’s natural tendency is to sort all incoming information, a tendency that served humans well until the current information explosion. Now the brain takes in an overwhelming amount of data, experiences and knowledge and organizes it in such a way that memories are difficult to retrieve or are altered to the point of unreliability. To battle this phenomenon, Levitin says people need to move some of the brain’s systems outside the body.

He examines how these external systems can work to organize the human environment, everything from the physical—homes—to the theoretical—time.

The Organized Mind is jam packed with ideas readers can immediately put into action, but it also contains concepts readers may struggle to accept. It challenges the value of multi-tasking and asks readers to make rational decisions about life-changing events, like cancer surgery. In theory, the rational choice is obvious; when confronted with the actuality, an emotional component comes into play. However, Levitin does an excellent job of showing different perspectives and driving home the idea that an organized mind can have more control over emotion because it has control over the information.

Anyone who’s ever asked themselves, “now, where’d I put those keys?” will find The Organized Mind an invaluable, life-altering resource.

The Organized Mind is available in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0525954187) from Dutton. There is also an unabridged audiobook version, narrated by Luke Daniels, from Penguin Audio.

Monday, October 13, 2014

All the Truth is Out - Matt Bai

My review today for non-crime Monday is All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. My review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and I am reposting it here today with their permission. I wasn't old enough to vote when the Gary Hart scandal occurred but I remember it well. What a different journalistic world we live in since this happened....

First line: "To get to the tiny village of Kittredge, Colorado, which for five days in 1987 became the unlikely center of the political solar system, you have to take the interstate about ten miles west of Denver and then follow Bear Creek Avenue as it winds its way up the mountain."

In 1987 Gary Hart enjoyed a substantial lead not only for the Democratic nomination but also in the overall Presidential race. Then an altogether unprecedented journalistic earthquake shattered the foundation of his bid for the nation’s highest office and forever changed the landscape of American politics. Matt Bai (The Argument) examines Hart’s campaign and the world of journalism to illuminate why this promising presidential hopeful ended up disgraced unlike any before him and any since.

Bai details the impact Nixon and Watergate had on the news world. Writers vowed never to be embarrassed by a politician’s deceit to that degree again. Add the tantalizing celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein’s success, and when Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald received an anonymous tip Hart was having an illicit affair, he set out to catch Hart in the act and uncover a scandal.

The story, familiar to most Americans over the age of 40, hasn’t been recorded quite the way it happened. Bai lays out a timeline contradicting the widely held course of events, and questions the rationale reporters used to justify their then-unheard of behavior. Bai says, “the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted, from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods.”

Bai narrates Gary Hart’s story from a new perspective, one that is haunting in the shadows of America’s current state of affairs, and one that will leave readers wondering just how much would be different today if the scandal never happened.

All the Truth is Out is available in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0307273383) from Alfred A. Knopf. There is also an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 978-0553399851), narrated by Rob Shapiro, from Random House Audio.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Five on Friday - Hank Phillippi Ryan

Happy, happy Friday all! I hope you've had a great week. It's been a little crazy here, so I'm looking forward to a calmer weekend.

A couple odds and ends to share with you before we welcome our special guest. First is this month's Nerdy Special List. Pop Culture Nerd has that up over at her blog. Both of my recommendations are non-fiction books, but both great, great reads. I think crime readers will especially appreciate Just Mercy.

Not really book related, but worthy of a mention none the less is this flash mob project I have every intention of participating in tomorrow. Join me?

Susan Goldstein is a xuni.com client and I just added this story to her website this week. I now want to go to Paris more than ever. A library of exclusively crime writings. How cool?

Sadly I'm not going to be able to make it this year, but the Murder & Mayhem conference has relocated from Muskego to Milwaukee and will take place November 1st, so if you're in the Milwaukee area, check it out!

And of course some contests, right?

FridayReads is in tune with us because they are giving away Hank Phillippi Ryan's newest Jane Ryland novel, Truth Be Told.

And Criminal Element has the Second Paper Capers Sweepstakes still going on.

O.k. that's it for my jibber jabber today. Now let's get on with the show because today we are investigating the investigator...investigative reporter that is. Hank Phillippi Ryan has been a TV investigative reporter long enough to snag herself 32 Emmys. How she can juggle that job and write books is a wonder. But write them she does. She has a series of novels about Charlotte McNally, an investigative reporter (fancy that!) and most recently she's written a series about Jane Ryland, a former TV investigator turned newspaper reporter.  Hank has been snatching up every award possible with this new series and book number three, Truth Be Told, hit stores this week.

Anyone who has had a chance to meet Hank in person knows about the kind, generous person that she is. She's smart and funny and could give those fashionistas a run for their money. I am so very pleased to welcome her back to the blog (this isn't her first visit of course) to join us for Five on Friday. Friends...Hank Phillippi Ryan!

Hank Phillippi Ryan Hank Phillippi Ryan

1. My favorite place to read is: Bed. It’s so cozy, and such a nice way to end a day. However. It’s difficult, because there are two things that happen, neither one optimal, but I persist.

One, if I am really tired, I wind up reading one page, and then I think—I have no idea what I just read, I’ll start again tomorrow. Which is so unfair to the author! (My husband does the same thing. “You’re asleep,” I say, poking him as his head nods over the pages. “No, I’m not,” he insists. “What did you just read?” I ask. Pause, pause. NO idea.)

The other problem is the book-is-too-good problem. When there’s a book that’s fantastic, whether I’m tired or not, I cannot put it down. I’ll look at the clock, and it’s 2 am! And I am doomed.

And still, I read in bed.

2. The most famous person I ever met was: Oh, the most famous? Hunter Thompson? Who I worked with at Rolling Stone. The coolest, nicest, funniest guy ever. Brilliant. I interviewed Dustin Hoffman when I did a radio show called Rolling Stone Radio News—very memorable interview, since my tape recorder broke and we had to do it all again. BIG lesson in checking the tape. Walter Cronkite? Bill Cosby? President Carter? Harry Belafonte? Richard Avedon? I went on tour with him for a project. Oh, I know! Prince Charles! Does that do it? I interviewed him briefly when he came to Boston, and he told me the inside scoop on the signet ring he wears.

3. My favorite kind of cookie is: I am not a big cookie person, and it’s not difficult for me to say no. However! A just-out-of-the-oven homemade chocolate chip is ridiculous to resists, tight? They are crispy and gooey and lovely. I am also fond of Lorna Doones, do you know those? Shortbread, and everyone thinks they taste like cardboard, but I love them. I say: they taste like buttery cardboard. I also love Girl Scout thin mints, and those sugar wafer you can snap apart. Do they still make those?

4. My favorite brand of athletic shoe is: Ah, athletic shoes. Do I have any? I guess my black flats from J Crew that I use for travel—hey, they’re really good for running through airports right? That’s athletic.

5. #1 item on my bucket list right now is: Oh, it makes me sad to think about bucket list, you know? Because it makes my life—which I am enjoying so completely—seem to have a visible ending. So I have to admit, I’ve never thought: gee, I can’t wait to…whatever. But things I’d love to do? Grab my dear husband and go live in Paris for six months, exploring and writing and learning perfect French. Move to Rome, to the same thing. London. Break the most important life-changing news story ever. Have a New York Times Bestseller, or two. Have a terrific wonderful idea. Tell a unique and memorable story. I know this isn’t typical. But I just don’t think of life that way!

Well gracious, yes, I think Prince Charles qualifies for the most famous. I guess if I had to answer my own questions I'd have to say Hank is the most famous person I know, right? ;-)

And we'll have to find out from Hank if those flats are good for chasing down her investigation suspects, too.

Today was so fun. Hank is so fun, and I'm just thrilled that she was able to take time with us today. She's busy as a beaver out on her tour for Truth Be Told. Let me tell you, she is making a lot of stops, so check out her schedule and see if she'll be near you. She'll be working at the Bouchercon auction again this year, so you can be assured to see her there as well! And you can always connect with her through her website, her Facebook or her Twitter. She must do some of it in her sleep--how else can she possibly do it all!? However she does it, we're glad she does.

Thanks for stoppin' by today friends and have a lovely, lovely weekend filled with good books and happiness.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

To Dwell in Darkness - Deborah Crombie

First line: "In the first moment of waking, he had no idea who he was."

In her sixteenth go round with the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James duo, Deborah Crombie packs an explosive punch, both literally and figuratively.

Melody Talbot, Gemma's detective sergeant is in  St. Pancras concourse to watch her boyfriend, Andy, perform a live concert when a great explosion rocks the entire concourse. Melody reacts with officer instincts and moves toward the explosion while everyone else is stampeding away. As she breaks through the mob with the help of a good samaritan, she discovers a man burning to death as a result of the white phosphorus grenade he was holding. The individual who ignited the bomb is beyond help--and beyond recognition, but others in the area have been hurt so the authorities and medical personnel are summoned.

St. Pancras is now part of Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid's patch in his new assignment at Holborn Police Station. So when a young woman comes in to declare a friend missing since the explosion, Kincaid's the man she must talk to. The young woman along with her friends were protesting that day and Ryan Marsh, one of their group, was supposed to ignite a smoke bomb in order to attract the attention of the media present for the music concert. Ryan hasn't been seen since just before the chaos ensued.

Ryan Marsh poses a new mystery for Kincaid, there doesn't seem to be any trace of him anywhere. On the QT, Kincaid's friend and former colleague Doug starts digging into the possibility that Marsh is an undercover cop.

Meanwhile, a new possibility for the explosion victim arises when another young woman--also a part of the group of young protesters--comes in to declare her boyfriend also missing. Kincaid's responsibilities in the case continue to pile up: identify the victim, locate the missing individual who is not the victim, find out how and why a wp grenade was mistaken for a smoke bomb. And do it all while adjusting to a new detective sergeant who doesn't seem to like Kincaid much.

While Kincaid is up to his neck in questions surrounding his case, Gemma is certain she knows who committed the rape and murder of young girl, but there's no forensic evidence to support her. She struggles to find an overlooked clue or a new angle, so they can arrest the monster responsible.

On the homefront, Toby and Kit discover a frail mother cat in the garden shed who has just given birth to a litter of kittens. The Kincaid/James household just got a little bigger.

Deborah Crombie has a stellar talent for weaving a complex story together in about 300 pages. She manages to tell two mysteries and develop infinite interpersonal relationships without losing her readers. Instead she pulls them deeper into the world of her British duo and interlocks all the pieces so that a complete image is created when the puzzle comes together.

The dynamics of character relationships are as engrossing as the who-dunnit. The Kincaid/James children offer an element of innocence and hope that opposes the darkness and despair they adults most often see in their career world. The children's dialogue is authentic and unguarded, offering insight only young minds can provide.

But as I gush over the character relationships in the book, I don't want to neglect the strength of the plot. The suspense is well developed with aptly placed plot twists, red herrings and a limited narrator; this all works to keep the pace swift. The psychological elements of Crombie's novels heighten the intensity for a thrilling crime novel.

A few little extra details I feel are worth mentioning include the map on the end papers. It's a great resource to understand the geography, especially for a reader like me who has no working knowledge of London. The other is Crombie's attention to detail down to the pets. As an animal lover, I'm acutely aware of their role in novels. In this particular one, Erika, an elderly friend of the family makes a choice about kittens that is so well considered. It's probably a small detail that most will glance over, but for me I was moved by Crombie's thoughtfulness in its inclusion.

While there are elements that weave through the books in the series, To Dwell in Darkness, can easily be read and enjoyed without any background, with some background or of course with all the background. I came to this series late, but am very glad I finally made it. I thoroughly enjoy these books.

To Dwell in Darkness is available in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0062271600) from William Morrow. It is also available as an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 978-1482992434), narrated by Gerard Doyle, from Blackstone Audio.

My review of To Dwell in Darkness is part of the TLC blog tour. You can find the entire list of blogs participating in this tour on their site. And you can find Deborah Crombie at her website, blogging at Jungle Red Writers or on Facebook and Twitter. She was also a Five on Friday guest here awhile back. If you missed that, be sure to check it out.

Disclosure: I do some contractual work for one of the owners of TLC Blog Tours. My work does not involve this tour or any other tour I would agree to be a part of here at the blog. Nor does my work with them obligate me to a specific kind of review. The reviews are still my own opinions and reflect only my thoughts on the novels. If you care to read more, you can find more information on my Disclosure page.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Seven Bad Ideas - Jeff Madrick

I don't typically read books about economics; it's not a subject that usually keeps my attention. However, the subtitle to this book, "How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World" did pique my interest. I'm very glad it did. No matter what "kind" of reader you are, you're still a human in this world and this book speaks to an economy that is affecting us all--we can all benefit from the knowledge inside it. My review of Seven Bad Ideas first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers. It is appearing here on my non-crime Monday with their permission.

First line: "Economists' most fundamental ideas contributed centrally to the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed--the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression."

In the introduction to his new book, Jeff Madrick (Age of Greed) says that economists could benefit from advice Henry James once gave his students: “Any point of view is interesting that is a direct impression of life. You should consider life directly and closely.” Madrick’s stance is that mainstream economists rely too heavily on theory that doesn’t hold up in practice. To illustrate and support his stance, he explains seven economic ideas that have driven policy since the 1970s and offers evidence of how they have failed not only the American people but the entire world. And if politicians continue to follow these ideas they could hold the United States back for decades.

Throughout the country, most colleges teach the same conservative economic ideas, passing their theories along to the future economists, and almost none includes a course on the history of their ideas. Madrick says, “history is rarely a cherished discipline among economists, and case studies are too often neglected.” So Madrick uses case studies and data to show government’s leading role in innovation, results of deregulation, flaws in low inflation and austerity economics, as well as the need for community-mindedness in a successful economy.

Readers don’t need to be finance specialists to understand Seven Bad Ideas. Economic jargon, when used, is clearly explained and Madrick often offers vivid analogies to make the concepts even more accessible. In addition, Madrick serves up more than blunt criticism; he offers alternative ideas. The eighth bad idea would be missing this book.

Seven Bad Ideas is available in hardcover (ISBN: 9780307961181) from Alfred A. Knopf. There is also an unabridged audiobook version, narrated by Adam Grupper, available from Recorded Books.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Horrorstör - Grady Hendrix

Hi all, happy Friday. I have to regroup on the Five on Friday, so please pardon this short hiatus while I line up some more fun authors. In the meantime, my review of the creative and fun Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix first appeared this week as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers. It's appearing here today with their permission.

First line: "It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the far end."

It’s something out of a whacky dream, jolting the sleeper awake with a racing heart and sweaty palms—being trapped in a mammoth furniture retail store after closing when all the lights go out. Not being able to find your way in the maze of home furnishings and storage solutions. And then creepy things start happening…

In Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix’s debut novel, the nightmare happens in the Cleveland, Ohio, Orsk furniture super-store. A building that has the unfortunate location of the old Cuyahoga Panopticon.

Each morning the employees come in to find bizarre damage not present when they left the night before. The employee entrance is broken, the escalator runs the wrong direction and employees receive text messages from an unknown caller, simply reading, “help.”

Basil, the deputy store manager, is determined to solve the mystery of the nightly vandalism. He’s recruited Amy and Ruth Anne to work an overnight shift with him, making regular rounds of the store in hopes of nabbing the culprit before he—or she—can strike again.

Hendrix’s parody offers social commentary on retail structure in a satirically humorous tone. Horrorstör is bound like a catalog: each chapter is a piece of creatively named furniture accompanied by an image of the flat-pack item, and the book includes a map of the store with directions on how to visit Orsk’s labyrinthine showroom.

In the vein of a classic Scooby Doo ghost story but set inside a modern retail environment, Hendrix brings nightmares to life with wildly fun and outrageously inventive style.

Horrorstör is available in paperback (ISBN: 9781594745263) from Quirk Books. There is an unabridged audio version (ISBN: 9781483049809), narrated by Tai Sammons and Bronson Pinchot, from Blackstone Audio. But I honestly have to advocate for the print version in this case because the packaging of the book is so much fun and that can't be recreated in an audio. If you want to listen, get the print book and follow along!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chit-chatting with Steve Hockensmith

O.k. this interview is mega overdue. Steve was so prompt about getting it back to me and I've just run into one delay after another. But I'm determined not to leave my computer tonight until it is all ready for you guys to enjoy.

Regular readers know that Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range mystery series. I've reviewed many of Steve's books in this series as well as some of his short story collections. All of his work is smart, funny and enjoyable. Since the Amlingmeyer Brothers had their last hoorah with Minotaur books in The World's Greatest Sleuth, Steve's been up to some other fun writing. He wrote a couple of Jane Austen zombie stories (Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After)--and landed on the New York Times bestseller list, wrote a handful of kids books (the Nick & Tesla series)--the fourth of which comes out October 7th, and now he's dipping into the tarot world with the Tarot Mystery series.

Awhile back I reviewed (and loved) Steve's first book in the Tarot Mystery series, The White Magic Five and Dime. The whole concept of the tarot cards was fascinating to me, and especially the view the book takes. So, I had to ask questions. I think it's in my DNA.

Q. Why tarot? What initiated the idea to integrate it into your new series?
Steve: White Magic Five & Dime has travelled a long and very winding road. Seven or eight years ago, my friend Lisa Falco – who’s a very talented amateur tarot reader – told me about an idea she had for a book. It would be about a professional tarot reader and her relationships with her clients and how the cards affect their lives. I immediately said, “Make it a mystery and you’ve got yourself a cozy series!” A few years later, Jason Rekulak, the publisher of Quirk Books, asked me if I had any ideas I wanted to pitch him. I always have lots of ideas, so I pulled together a list for him. I think I had nine originally, and being a guy who likes nice round numbers I thought 10 would be even better. So I went to Lisa and said, “Do you ever think you’d do anything with that tarot idea? Because if not, maybe we could do it together.” Lisa said sure, I threw the idea on the list and of course that was the one Jason liked best. Once Jason and I started kicking the premise around, it gained a lot of new flavor – that’s how the back story about con artists got pulled in – and the book took on a slightly grittier, less-cozy vibe. Quirk is really strong on design and packaging, so it was clear that the cards themselves would be integrated into the look of the book somehow. Everyone was super-excited about the concept. Then…well, “creative differences,” as they say. Jason and I reached an impasse. After a lot of back and forth, we accepted that we couldn’t get around it, and Quirk cancelled the contract. Which left me and Lisa with a high-concept, design-heavy, cozy-ish but not really cozy, occult-ish but not really occult mystery. Tough sell. I kind of drifted around with the project for a while, and at one point I was even thinking of self-publishing it. But then Terri Bischoff at Midnight Ink rode to the rescue, and this summer the book was finally published looking and feeling exactly like what I’d envisioned.

(My aside: what Steve comments on here--"high-concept, design-heavy, cozy-ish but not really cozy, occult-ish but not really occult mystery"--is part of what made it so appealing to me. It may not be easily packaged and labeled, but it's different. It's not the same old-same old. And for me, as a read, that's fun!)

Q. Have you had a tarot reading done yourself?
Steve: Back in the day (meaning “when I was young” – sigh), I would go to tarot readers from time to time as a gag. It was a fun thing to do in New Orleans, which I used to visit a lot. The readers were usually flamboyant people who said ridiculous things with the utmost sincerity, which can be a pretty entertaining combination. I only did one reading in Chicago, where I lived at the time, but it was an eye-opening experience. Some friends and I went into this dinky, dark little fortune-telling place on Belmont Avenue, and the vibe was totally different than what I’d experienced in New Orleans. The woman who ran the place was just obviously, unabashedly evil. One by one, she took us to the back room and gave us each the same reading. Your girlfriend’s not to be trusted. You’re going to have money problems. You need to come back and let me guide you through the dark times ahead. Oh – and don’t tell your friends what I said. This is just between you and me. So for a long time, it’s safe to say, I didn’t have the highest opinion of tarot reading. But Lisa changed that. She’s the furthest thing you could get from a flighty or manipulative person. She’s very down to earth, very genuine, very intelligent. I’d known her for years before I had any idea she did tarot readings. Because she is who she is, when she first offered to read for me I said yes with an open mind. And thanks to that – and Lisa – I’ve developed a new respect for the tarot. Or its potential in the right hands, anyway. I’m a skeptical, scientifically minded person by nature, but ...well, there’s something there.

Q. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from the fictional Infinite Roads to Knowing. There’s a combination of humor and wisdom in those sections. Do they reflect your own beliefs about tarot?
Steve: Absolutely. In those parts of the book you see the collision that’s happening not just in the story but in my mind: spiritualism and cynicism smashing into each other.

Here's an example of the opening of a chapter. The Magician card opens the second chapter:

It reads:

"'He's called the Magician,' you say, 'but what the heck is he doing? Where's the rabbit coming out of the hat? Where's the MAGIC?' Hey, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. Are powers surrounding you right now, influencing and perhaps even controlling you, that YOU can't see? Well, duh."

Q. What’s the most fascinating thing you learned about tarot in the process of writing the book?
Steve: The most fascinating and surprising thing I learned is that tarot cards actually aren’t that old. They’ve only been used for fortune telling for something like 300 years. Certain folks seem to assume (or like to pretend) that the cards are tied into some kind of ancient mystical tradition, but that’s not the case. The cards have been used to play pinochle longer than they’ve been used for divination.

Q.  You are also writing a female protagonist in this series. Have you had to make adjustments for that or do you feel it’s no different from writing male characters?
Steve: This was a big part of my disagreement with Jason, actually. He thought that the first-person narration in the book didn’t feel female enough. It was too sardonic and jokey. To him, it just sounded like a variation on me. Which was fair, because it is a variation on me. A female variation. I know that there are world-weary, wise-cracking women out there, because I’ve met a bunch and they’ve been some of my favorite people in the world. When I was trying to find another publisher for the book, I was told more than once that the narrator wasn’t likable enough. But to be honest, whenever someone said “likable,” in my head I heard “bland.” Alanis is an edgy broad. Hurrah for edgy broads!

(Again, my aside: of course I'm not a professional acquiring editor, but I completely disagreed with the notion that Alanis wasn't likable enough. I adored Alanis, felt she was a fresh face in mystery. I also thought she was very authentic. Had she been different, she would have been a harder sell for me. Maybe not impossible, but as I learned her back story, I couldn't imagine her being anything else.)

Q. You have a co-writer for this series—Lisa Falco—and you’re also co-writing a middle grade series with Bob Pflugfelder. How do the two experiences compare?
Steve: On the surface, the collaborations seem similar. In both cases, my partner provides the expertise – on tarot reading in Lisa’s case and on building homemade gadgets in Science Bob’s case – while I’ve done all the writing. But the process for the two series is actually quite different because the projects Science Bob comes up with determine the flow of the plot while the tarot readings Lisa supplies don’t. There’s a ton of back and forth with Science Bob (and our editor, Rick Chillot) while I’m trying to map out a new Nick and Tesla book. It can be an immensely frustrating process because it’s so hard to identify strong gadget ideas that can be woven gracefully (or even not-so-gracefully) into a storyline. With The White Magic Five & Dime, I just outlined a mystery (which is challenging enough already), then told Lisa about the readings in the book and what I needed them to reflect. Easy! There’s been an interesting shift, however, in that Lisa’s taken over more of the writing on the second tarot novel and she’s going to do even more on the third. I’ll have to watch out, because if I let that trend continue I’m going to make myself redundant!

Q. And building on that question, how does writing with someone else compare to writing solo?
Steve: It’s funny. I’m suddenly doing all these tag-team series – there’s yet another that’s being pitched at the moment that might or might not see the light of day – but in the past I always swore I wouldn’t do a collaboration. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it. And to be completely honest, it doesn’t always make things easier. But it has made some really fun projects possible, so I’m happy to stick with it for now. A part of me is really itching to do something solo again, though….

Q. Shifting gears a bit here to your middle grade books, Nick and Tesla, how has the experience been writing for kids?
Steve: Great! Once we get beyond planning the books and I can simply write them, they’re a blast. I’m really lucky, because the series simply fell into my lap one day. A few months after Quirk cancelled the contract for The White Magic Five & Dime, Jason Rekulak came back to me and said, “We’ve got an idea for a series of kids’ books, and I think you’d be the perfect writer for it.” Which was one of the nicest, most gracious things anyone’s ever done for me in this crazy biz. I’d taken a few stabs at writing middle-grade novels before that, but the results hadn’t been very satisfying. Once I started writing Nick and Tesla, though, it was just easy breezy cream-cheesy all the way.

Q. And whereto from here? More Alanis, correct?
Steve: Indeedy! The sequel to The White Magic Five & Dime, Fool Me Once, should be out next summer. Then there’ll be a third book a year after that. I’m also wrapping up a fifth Nick and Tesla book, and there might be more. Plus there’s that other project in development – it’s another series for kids – and I’m also anxious to write a sixth Holmes on the Range novel (which I’ll probably self publish) and I want to play around with some short stories, too. I’ve never been so busy. I keep trying to squeeze in a nervous breakdown, but I just don’t have the time anymore.

Many thanks to Steve for taking time to answer my questions and quell my curiosity. I know he's super busy these days, so his time is at a premium. I hope you've enjoyed today's chat and if you haven't read Steve's work yet, make haste. You have plenty to choose from and they're all superb.

Oh and a quick reminder, this is Banned Books Week. Show your support and speak out against banning and challenging books.

Happy reading, my friends!

**Steve's author photo taken by Cecily Hunt


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