Thursday, June 30, 2016

My Favorite Reads for First Half 2016

I usually wait until the end of the year and list my favorites for the entire year, but a couple of my fellow bloggers and friends posted a mid-year favorites list, and I decided to join in.  Kaye Wilkinson Barley posted her half year favorites at Meanderings and Musings and Lesa Holstine posted hers at Lesa's Book Critiques  Be sure and check out their great choices.  

I've had an incredible year so far in my reading, and some of it has been catching up on some books from 2015 and some series reading.  So, my favorites for the first half of 2016 include some newly published books of 2016 and a few published in 2015.  I have noted the publication year at the end of the jacket description of each book.  For my reviews of these favorite books, check out my Reviews page on the blog or my Goodreads reviews.

On a rainy afternoon, a mother's life is shattered as her son slips from her grip and runs into the street . . .
I Let You Go follows Jenna Gray as she moves to a ramshackle cottage on the remote Welsh coast, trying to escape the memory of the car accident that plays again and again in her mind and desperate to heal from the loss of her child and the rest of her painful past.

At the same time, the novel tracks the pair of Bristol police investigators trying to get to the bottom of this hit-and-run. As they chase down one hopeless lead after another, they find themselves as drawn to each other as they are to the frustrating, twist-filled case before them.   (2016)

Known as England’s Nazareth, the medieval town of Little Walsingham is famous for religious apparitions. So when Ruth Galloway’s druid friend Cathbad sees a woman in a white dress and a dark blue cloak standing alone in the local cemetery one night, he takes her as a vision of the Virgin Mary. But then a woman wrapped in blue cloth is found dead the next day, and Ruth’s old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, receives a series of hateful, threatening letters. Could these crimes be connected? When one of Hilary’s fellow female priests is murdered just before Little Walsingham’s annual Good Friday Passion Play, Ruth, Cathbad, and DCI Harry Nelson must team up to find the killer before he strikes again.   (2016)

San Francisco Bay Area reporter Gabriella Giovanni has finally got it all together: a devoted and loving boyfriend, Detective Sean Donovan; a beautiful little girl with him; and her dream job as the cops' reporter for the Bay Herald. But her success has been hard-won and has left her with debilitating paranoia. When a string of young co-eds starts to show up dead with suspicious Biblical verses left on their bodies--the same verses that the man she suspects kidnapped and murdered her sister twenty years ago had sent to her--she begins to question if the killer is trying to send her a message.
It is not until evil strikes Gabriella's own family that her worst fears are confirmed. As the clock begins to tick, every passing hour means the difference between life and death to those Gabriella loves...   (2015)

Mary Russell is used to dark secrets—her own, and those of her famous partner and husband, Sherlock Holmes. Trust is a thing slowly given, but over the course of a decade together, the two have forged an indissoluble bond.

And what of the other person to whom Mary Russell has opened her heart: the couple’s longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson? Russell’s faith and affection are suddenly shattered when a man arrives on the doorstep claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s son.

What Samuel Hudson tells Russell cannot possibly be true, yet she believes him—as surely as she believes the threat of the gun in his hand. In a devastating instant, everything changes. And when the scene is discovered—a pool of blood on the floor, the smell of gunpowder in the air—the most shocking revelation of all is that the grim clues point directly to Clara Hudson.

Or rather to Clarissa, the woman she was before Baker Street.

The key to Russell’s sacrifice lies in Mrs. Hudson’s past. To uncover the truth, a frantic Sherlock Holmes must put aside his anguish and push deep into his housekeeper’s secrets—to a time before her disguise was assumed, before her crimes were buried away.

There is death here, and murder, and trust betrayed.

And nothing will ever be the same.     (2016)

When outspoken radio talk show host Philip Long is kidnapped and murdered, Detective Macy Greeley leaves her young son in the care of her mother and heads up to remote Walleye Junction, Montana to take charge of the investigation. It is initially believed that Long’s murder is the result of a controversial radio show he’s done on the rise of far right militias in the state. Within days the two kidnappers are found dead following a massive heroin overdose, and the authorities are hopeful the investigation is finished. But there are too many discrepancies for Macy to settle for obvious answers. The kidnapper’s bodies have been moved, their son is on the run and a series of anonymous emails point investigators toward the murky world of prescription painkiller abuse. Macy soon finds herself immersed in small town intrigues as she races to find who’s really responsible for Philip Long’s murder.

Meanwhile, Philip Long’s daughter Emma is dealing with her own problems. It’s been twelve years since she left Walleye Junction after her best friend died from a drug overdose. Emma finds that little in Walleye Junction has changed in her absence. She is also becoming increasingly uneasy as the familiar surroundings stir up memories that are best forgotten.

With Walleye Junction, a taut, propulsive mystery, Karin Salvalaggio will once again grip readers from the opening page to the stunning conclusion.   (2016)

How well do we know our children? Natalie Falcone would say she knows her daughter, Arden, very well. Despite the challenges of running a restaurant and raising six-year-old twin boys, she’s not too worried as she sends her daughter off to college—until she gets the call that Arden’s been in a terrible fire, along with her best friend and cousin, Rory. Both girls are critically injured and another student has died. The police suspect arson.

Arden and Rory have always been close, but they have secrets they’ve never shared, secrets that reel all the way back to their childhoods, and which led them to that tragic night. Who set the fire, and why? As the police dig deep into both the present and the past, Natalie realizes that in order to protect her daughter, she’ll first have to find out who Arden really is, even if it means risking everything—and everyone—she loves most.   (2016)

In the waning days of a lazy August holiday, Ellie Stone is enjoying a bright Adirondack-lake morning. Nearby, two men plummet to their deaths on the rocks below, just a few feet short of the water of a dangerous diving pool. A tragic accident, it seems. But the state police quickly establish that the two victims--one, a stranger to the lake and, the other, a teenaged boy from a nearby music camp--surely didn't know each other. That anomaly is strange enough, but what really perplexes Ellie is the out-of-place station wagon parked twenty yards from the edge of the cliff.

Wading into a slippery morass of fellow travelers, free-love intellectuals, rabid John Birchers, and charismatic evangelicals, Ellie must navigate old grudges and Cold War passions, lost ideals and betrayed loves. She sticks her nose where it's unwanted, rattling nerves and putting herself in jeopardy. But this time, it's her heart that's at risk.   (2016)

Nonie Blake is back home from a mental institution where she has spent the last twenty years, and people in Jarrett Creek are worried. Maybe too worried, for within a week of her return, Nonie is murdered.
Chief Samuel Craddock thinks the only possible suspects are members of her tight-lipped family. Ever since Nonie tried to kill her sister when she was fourteen and was sent away to the institution, the family has kept to itself.
Clues are scarce and Craddock is stumped. So he checks with therapists at the mental hospital to see whether they can add anything useful to his investigation. But he discovers that she has not been there for ten years. Now Craddock has to find out where Nonie has been all this time.
Soon Craddock finds himself dealing not only with murder, but layers of deception and secrets, and in the midst of it all—a new deputy, one Maria Trevino, sent by the sheriff to beef up security in the small Texas town.  (2016)

With the compelling narrative tension and psychological complexity of the works of Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, and Michael Connelly, Edgar Award-nominee Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone is a smart, fiercely compassionate crime story that explores the mysteries of memory and the impact of violence on survivors—and the lengths they will go to find the painful truth of the events that scarred their lives.
In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved.

Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives. A private investigator in Vegas, Wyatt’s latest inquiry takes him back to a past he’s tried to escape—and drags him deeper into the harrowing mystery of the movie house robbery that left six of his friends dead.
Like Wyatt, Julianna struggles with the past—with the day her beautiful older sister Genevieve disappeared. When Julianna discovers that one of the original suspects has resurfaced, she’ll stop at nothing to find answers.

As Wyatt's case becomes more complicated and dangerous, and Julianna seeks answers from a ghost, their obsessive quests not only stir memories of youth and first love, but also begin to illuminate dark secrets of the past. But will their shared passion and obsession heal them, or push them closer to the edge? Even if they find the truth, will it help them understand what happened, that long and faraway gone summer? Will it set them free—or ultimately destroy them?   (2015)

On a fine summer’s day in June, 1914, Ian Rutledge pays little notice to the assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo. An Inspector at Scotland Yard, he is planning to propose to the woman whom he deeply loves, despite intimations from friends and family that she may not be the wisest choice.

To the north on this warm and gentle day, another man in love—a Scottish Highlander—shows his own dear girl the house he will build for her in September. While back in England, a son awaits the undertaker in the wake of his widowed mother’s death. This death will set off a series of murders across England, seemingly unconnected, that Rutledge will race to solve in the weeks before the fateful declaration in August that will forever transform his world.

As the clouds of war gather on the horizon, all of Britain wonders and waits. With every moment at stake, Rutledge sets out to right a wrong—an odyssey that will eventually force him to choose between the Yard and his country, between love and duty, and between honor and truth.   (2015)

Timid and shy, Juno Payne has lived an uneventful life growing up in Calcutta--her father's home port during those rare times when he wasn't at sea, trading for the East India Company. But news of her father's death--and the cloud of scandal surrounding it--has suddenly made Juno the center of attention, as various factions attempt to seize her supposed bridegift--a fabulous cache of diamonds. In vain, Juno protests that she knows nothing about a bridegift, and that her father had no such fortune, but England's enemies are not convinced, and Juno is forced to escape with an unlikely ally--a Barbary pirate. Can she believe his extraordinary tale about her father, or is he only another one who is looking to steal her bridegift? Find out, as Juno plumbs depths of courage she never knew she had, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.   (2016)

Molly Murphy Sullivan's husband Daniel, a police captain in turn-of-the-century New York City, is in a precarious position. The new police commissioner wants him off the force altogether. So when Daniel’s offered an assignment from John Wilkie, head of the secret service, he’s eager to accept. Molly can’t draw any details of the assignment out of him, even where he’ll be working. But when she spots him in San Francisco during a movie news segment, she starts to wonder if he’s in even more danger than she had first believed. And then she receives a strange and cryptic letter from him, leading her to conclude that he wants her to join him in San Francisco. Molly knows that if Daniel’s turning to her rather than John Wilkie or his contacts in the police force, something must have gone terribly wrong. What can she do for him that the police can’t? Especially when she doesn’t even know what his assignment is? Embarking on a cross-country journey with her young son, Molly can’t fathom what’s in store for her, but she knows it might be dangerous―in fact, it might put all of their lives at risk, in Rhys Bowen's Time of Fog and Fire.     (2016)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Interview with James Ziskin

From my review of James Ziskin's Heart of Stone on the blog yesterday, it should be no secret that I love this Ellie Stone series he writes.  James is such an interesting person, not to mention kind and generous, that I am delighted to be able to offer readers an interview I've just completed with him.  First, to introduce this amazing author to those who might not know the basics about him, there is a short bio from his Web site.  Then, we get into the interview where James and I discuss some aspects of this latest Ellie Stone book in particular, some aspects of the series in general, and learn how we could have lost James Ziskin to a completely different career.


James Ziskin is the author of the Anthony-, Barry-, and Lefty-nominated Ellie Stone Mysteries. A linguist by training, James studied Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. After completing his graduate degree, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as Director of NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. He has since spent fifteen years in the Hollywood post production industry, running large international operations in the subtitling/localization and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French.


Reading Room:  The 1960s setting of the Ellie Stone books is so seamlessly entwined in the stories, never appearing forced or gratuitous.  I was amazed at the inclusion of so many 60s connections, both large and small, such as the building of the Berlin Wall; the John Bircher; types of clothing, like blue seersucker dress.  How do you go about deciding what to include and achieving this natural flow of authenticity?  What forms of research help you become ensconced in this time period?

JWZ: Everything in good measure. I think the key to setting the scene properly is to do huge amounts of research, then use only a tiny fraction in the actual story. The effort that goes into research should be felt by the author, never by the reader. As a writer, I have to know which details to use in the book. It's tempting to add every historical nugget you unearth, but the danger is that you'll create a book that stinks of research.

When I'm preparing a new Ellie Stone novel, I study old newspapers, television shows, movies, and popular music. I also find great details in period advertising. Some of the clothing I describe comes from the 1959 Sears Catalog or print ads from women's magazines. But the best way to create that nostalgic impression is to sprinkle the story lightly with normal, everyday objects that communicate the time period succinctly and believably. For example, in STONE COLD DEAD, there's a scene where Ellie is forced to wait to make phone call until the woman hogging the party line hangs up. Maybe I'll put a skate key in some future book. And who remembers pipe cleaners, Vitalis, telegrams, horizontal hold, and shortwave radios? Today, most people don't even know what those things are, but they were in wide use in 1960 when the Ellie Stone books take place. Recreating people's attitudes and mores is a little trickier, of course. But it comes from copious preparation and judicious use of what you find.

Reading Room:  Of course, the elephant in the room has to be that you are a male writing from a female perspective.  How do you pull that off so brilliantly?

JWZ: First of all, thank you. It's hard work. From the time I first started planning this series, I've tried to imagine a fully developed character in Ellie. I've asked myself what does she think, what are her aspirations, loves, hates. What brings her joy? What breaks her heart? I imagine how she would feel and react in certain situations. And I challenge my ideas over and over. Would she keep her mouth shut, offer a witty retort, or feel defeated? What would she say to a man dismissing her as "just a girl"? What if he pinched her rear end? What does she like to do in her spare time? If you're truly going to write three-dimensional characters, you need more than just a dress size and some idiosyncrasies. I believe it's about true empathy. You've got to want to understand your characters, or they won't ring true.

Reading Room:  Speaking of your female protagonist, how did you decide on this particular character as the focus of a mystery series?  Is there anything about Ellie is drawn from your own life?  What do you like most about her?

JWZ: I set out to create a likable, "modern" woman who wants a turn at the table at a time when women weren't usually welcome at the table. I envisioned Ellie as the smartest person in any room, but the one who gets the least respect due to her gender. That situation fuels drama and conflict at every turn. And that makes for interesting stories.
On the surface, it wouldn't seem that Ellie shares a lot of traits with me. She's in her midtwenties, I'm... well, I'm a little older. She's a woman, and I'm a man. But I believe we share what's most important in a person: values. We're both idealists and cynics at the same time. We both care for those less fortunate than ourselves. And we both love Dewar's Scotch whiskey.
What I like most about Ellie is her moral fortitude. Despite her "modern" behavior, Ellie is an uncompromisingly moral person. She's good. I'm fond of saying that she's a nice person; she's just not a "nice girl."

Reading Room:  Something that comes up about Ellies character is her often heavy drinking and her sexual freedom.  Unlike some readers, I dont find the drinking aspect of her life that unusual for the times.  Many women of the fifties and sixties were drinkers, as were the men, as aptly portrayed in the TV series Mad Men.  Ellies enjoyment of sex is also in character with her being in the forefront of the sixtieswomens freedom revolution.  How important was it to you to include these parts of Ellies character that seem to be potential trouble for her?

JWZ: If readers are looking for Miss Goody-two-shoes, they won't like Ellie. But if you want multifaceted, imperfect characters who sometimes are brilliant, sometimes maddeningly intemperate, then Ellie's for you. I wanted to create a character whom readers would care about. That doesn't mean they always have to approve. Think of friends and family. We love them for their good qualities, but we don't disown them for falling short of an ideal. At least we shouldn't. People get up to all kinds of naughtiness behind closed doors, Ellie included. She's normal that way. I hope readers will cut her some slack and wish the best for her even when she misbehaves.

Reading Room:  One of these booksoutstanding attributes is the beautiful flow of language, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering your background.  However, you are especially adept at describing without belaboring and making the reader identify with a feeling.  I thought that nowhere has anyone ever captured more perfectly the ambivalent feelings of both serenity and terror of the woods than you did in HEART OF STONE.  The opening page of this book had me completely hooked.  Did you already have a familiarity with the woods or should I imagine you taking hikes through the Adirondacks for this book?  Also, Im curious if you write descriptions as you go, or if you perhaps write descriptions separate to be used in certain areas of the books?

JWZ: Wow. Thank you, Kathy. It's interesting that you cite that passage at the opening of HEART OF STONE. My editor told me that he loved it but didn't know where to put it. Should it be a prologue? Should it open chapter one? Should we kill it despite our affection for it? I'm not generally partial to prologues, though I'm not rabidly opposed to them either. But I thought that bit about the woods was short enough to stand on its own with no heading just before chapter one. I'm fortunate that my editor, the incomparable Dan Mayer, ultimately left the decision to me. That is he didn't overrule me. That kind of trust is comforting to a writer. And I think it might be rare.
I grew up just south of the Adirondack park in upstate New York, and I vacationed there several summers. So I know and love the north woods, even if I'm not very outdoorsy. Today I refer myself as a "great indoorsman." I relied on my memories of the Adirondacks for the descriptions in HEART OF STONE.
As for the descriptive passages, I write linearly, from the beginning of the story to the end. So I create these passages in the normal course of the writing.

Reading Room:  The titles of the books in this series are all so cleverly related to Ellies Stone last name.  Can you tell us what the next one is and what others you have names for so far?  Do you ever envision a book in this series without Stone in the title?

JWZ: Next up for Ellie in summer of 2017 is CAST THE FIRST STONE. It will be set in February 1962. Ellie is dispatched to Los Angeles to write a feature on local boy Tony Eberle who's landed a role in a Hollywood movie. But when she arrives on set the first day of shooting to meet him, he's nowhere to be found. The film's director is furious, Tony's agent is speechless, and the producer is dead...
After CAST THE FIRST STONE, I've got A STONE'S THROW, set in the thoroughbred racing world of Saratoga in August. Then BLOOD FROM A STONE, ETCHED IN STONE, SINK LIKE A STONE, and perhaps TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE. The titles get a little thin after that. So if readers still want more of Ellie, I may need to try a different tack for the titles.

Reading Room:  James, you have some impressive credentials in the linguistic world, as outlined in the bio above.  You seem like the perfect Renaissance man, and yet, you chose a genre of mystery and crime in which to write your stories, not poetry or tomes on histories of language.  What got you interested in this wonderful world of mystery, which does seem to draw so many intellectuals to it.

JWZ: I'm no Renaissance man, though I do speak Italian. I suppose what drew me to mysteries is that I find them entertaining. There's no excuse for books to be boring. They can be intelligent, dense, and beautifully written, all the while entertaining their audience. Graham Greene, one of my all-time favorite writers, used to call his thrillers "entertainments," as opposed to his more "serious" works. I see no shame in describing a book as entertainment. Those are amazing books he wrote. I'm proud to write mysteries, crime fiction, thrillers, whatever you want to call them. But I strive to make them intelligent and interesting to read at the same time.

Reading Room:  The particular setting in HEART OF STONE in which there is a large Jewish community presence reminded me of a question I had in the beginning of the series.  There isnt often an emphasis on a characters religion in the mystery/crime genre, although there does seem to be more atheists, if anything, mentioned, and there is atheism in Heart of Stone.  Not that Ellie is deeply religious or observant of her Jewish faith or heritage, but why did you choose this particular characteristic to assign to her?  It hasnt seemed to be much of a problem for her, not like being a woman reporter has, but it cant have been easy for a Jewish woman either in the early sixties.   

JWZ: Ellie comes from a very humanistic, cultured Jewish family with a long history of secularism. I thought it would be normal or logical that she would be raised "godless" by her parents. But she definitely identifies as Jewish culturally, which makes her more of an outsider. Not a member of the majority.
Despite her own atheism, Ellie leaves God and religion to others to decide for themselves. There's a great argument about God and religion in HEART OF STONE among the residents of the Jewish community you mention. And Ellie very determinedly stays out of it.
I would add that Ellie occasionally encounters anti-Semitism in these books. It's a fairly strong theme in STYX & STONE and rears its head in some of the local populace of New Holland, New York, in NO STONE UNTURNED and STONE COLD DEAD. And then there's Chief "Tiny" Terwillger's less-than-enlightened views on Jews in HEART OF STONE. But you're right, Ellie doesn't spend much time dwelling on this prejudice. I believe she feels the bigotry is more a problem for the bigot than for her, at least in 1960s America. She would have felt otherwise had she lived in Europe in 1930s and '40s.

Reading Room:  Ive already read that the reason you chose to take Ellie on the road somewhere is that you didnt think the small town of New Holland, New York, where she is a newspaper reporter would sustain murder after murder.  Does this move indicate that Ellie will be travelling to other locations as well?

JWZ: Yes and no. As I mentioned, CAST THE FIRST STONE will take place in Los Angeles. But others can be nearby. Saratoga, Albany, or Schenectady are all close enough to supply some opportunities for murder. I just can't picture New Holland as Murder Capital USA.

Reading Room:   With #4, HEART OF STONE, coming out on June 7th, and your previous books in this series having been nominated (and still being nominated) for awards, can you breathe a sigh of relief that your series is a success?  At what point did you feel like Ellie Stone had a substantial fan base, which, of course, it does?

JWZ: I can confidently say that I have not yet reached the point where I consider myself a successful writer. It's a lifelong journey. The best career I can imagine, but I know that it's an ever-evolving process. Yes, I do believe I'm improving as a writer with each book, but that doesn't mean any of the recognition is expected. The nominations are amazing! There are so many wonderful, deserving writers and books in our field. It's so hard to get noticed, so I know I've been lucky. Each one of my four nominations has sent me over the moon. But I still have self-doubt and sometimes wonder what the hell people are thinking when they vote for my books.

Reading Room:  And, there are the fantastic covers for the Ellie Stone series, with my favorite being this last one for HEART OF STONE.  Not every author has input concerning this aspect of their books, but you do.  Can you tell us a bit about how that works?

JWZ: My publisher, Prometheus/Seventh Street Books, doesn't exactly let us choose our covers, but they do consult us. They ask if we have ideas for the cover, then they show us some options that they've come up with. The decision is ultimately theirs (by contract.) But at least we get to give some input.
The case of the HEART OF STONE cover was different. For some reason, the publisher just wasn't finding that perfect image for the cover. They tried several ideas that didn't quite work. Then we found an image of a dock on a mountain lake. There was an empty woman's bathing suit discarded on the planks and a splash in the water at the end of the dock. All of that fit the storyline of HEART OF STONE, including the nude bathing. With a few tweaks in Photoshop (quite a lot of work, actually) by the art department, we had a beautiful cover.

Reading Room:  I always like to know what my favorite authors are reading, besides their own manuscripts.  So, whats on your nightstand for pleasure reading these days, James?

JWZ: My TBR pile is huge. It's hard to find the time to read when you're on deadline. And it seems you're either on deadline for the next book or promoting the last one. I recently finished GUILTY MINDS by Joseph Finder, whose Nick Heller is a great character. I'm also reading DECANTING A MURDER by Nadine Nettmann. Wine and murder. What could be a better pairing? And THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney. He's a brilliant writer. Did I mention that he's been nominated in the same category with me for the Anthony, Barry, and Lefty awards this year? Why am I plugging his book???

Reading Room:   And now, for one of my favorite questions I ask authors.  What would you like your readers to know about you that isnt in your bio information?  Besides your obvious writing talent, any special interests or talents, quirky or not, youd like to share?

JWZ: I'd rather remain an enigma... But, okay. I was recruited to play football at the University of Pennsylvania, but I quit the team after one week because "I wanted to have fun in college."