Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen: Reading Room Review


The jacket description of The Wife Between us reads:
"When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous wife and her obsession with her replacement.
You will assume you are reading about a woman about to enter a new marriage with the man she loves.
You will assume the first wife was a disaster and that the husband was well rid of her.
You will assume you know the motives, the history, the anatomy of the relationships.
Assume nothing."

I think that description says about all one can safely say about this book without giving away too much.  I know that all I had assumed in Part One of the book got smacked down hard in Part Two.  I even went back and read some of Part One again to try and clear up the confusion I was feeling.  It didn't help.  I had to keep on plunging deeper and deeper into the second part to find my way out.  Lights do finally begin to brighten, and Nellie's relationship with Richard and others starts to make sense.  It's not going to spoil the story to state that Richard, the husband at the center of all the turmoil, is a control freak and things are spinning out of control.  Nellie's past is a beast that has haunted her for years, and secrets will be spilled, more secrets than even Nellie is aware of.  Richard will do anything to obtain his happy-ever-after, but Nellie is slowly putting pieces together that are leading to a horrific awakening. 

The twists and turns of this novel are part of its buzz and part of its success.  You just have to keep reading to see what's around the next corner.  And, just when you think the denouement is taking its bow, there's another lovely little twist to enjoy.  The authors employed another twist, a different sort of unreliable narrator, the surprise narrator.  It was rather like having a blindfold on trying to pin the tail on the donkey, and when you raised the cloth from over your eyes, you were indeed surprised.  You assume you know where you're going, but as the book description warns, you will be wrong.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Stone's Throw by James Ziskin: Reading Room Review

We’re off to the races in the sixth installment of the Ellie Stone series, and the excitement of the horse racing world mixed with the element of murder is thrilling.  As a life-long resident of Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, this book takes me down a familiar track that has me longing for a mint julep or a shot of bourbon.  Through his exceptional writing and captivating storytelling,  James Ziskin brings the spine-tingling rush of the starting gate to life as Ellie navigates her way through an unfamiliar race to reach the finish line alive and in possession of a murderer most ruthless. 

Due to a sleepless August night and listening to the police scanner, Ellie shows up at the early morning hours fire that destroys an abandoned foaling barn at Tempesta Farm, a former horse stud operation.  Located between Ellie’s home beat of New Holland, New York and Saratoga Springs, the authorities consider it just another accidental fire of the dilapidated old buildings left to rot at the farm.  But, ever the investigative reporter, Ellie convinces one of the deputies at the scene to walk with her through the ruins of the barn, and when Ellie pulls on what looks like a silk scarf in the ashes, it leads to two dead bodies.  And, it is Ellie who, when the charred remains are first thought to be a woman and a boy, points out that the silk scarf resembling a racing silk jockeys wear might indicate that the boy victim is instead a jockey.  With the proximity of Saratoga Racetrack and it being racing season at the track, it’s more than a good guess.  With part of the property being in the county of Ellie’s good friend Sheriff Frank Olney and part being in the jurisdiction of another sheriff, Sheriff Henry Pryor, who doesn’t hold her in the same fond regards, it will be more challenging for Ellie to investigate, but being underestimated hasn’t stopped her from finding answers before.  The main challenge is understanding the racing world and navigating it.  Ellie turns to her best friend, Fadge, who is a dedicated follower of the Saratoga circuit and who has been working on perfecting his betting system for years.

Accompanying Fadge to the racetrack helps Ellie learn the lingo and rhythm of this new world where it takes a village to get a horse ready to run one mile.  Betting successfully on the outcome of that one mile race requires a knowledge about the horses and jockeys and track conditions and how it all interacts.  Gaining much insight by watching and listening to Fadge, it is still up to Ellie to infiltrate the inner workings of the horse racing business by interviewing and researching the people involved, and as with most businesses where money is at the heart of it, there are some dangerous people in its orbit.  Of course, Elly has never shied away from the perils that relentless pursuit of a story and justice bring.  Her immersion into this foreign world will take Elly into contact with both the beauty and the ugliness of the horse scene, both on and off the track. Although searching for a killer, Ellie uncovers the chilling existence of bigotry and prejudice among the elite of the scene.  There are meetings and on-scene snooping that put Ellie in the cross-hairs of a desperate killer.  And, the twist I didn’t see coming is a gobsmacking delight.

As I've stated in my reviews before, but which bears repeating each time, James Ziskin gives a dead-on depiction of the 60s, smoothly integrating that world into the story of murder.  Since I grew up in the sixties, it is especially important to me that Ziskin gets it right, and he does, every time.  From the mandatory white gloves worn at the appropriate times to the historical events, such as the Russian cosmonauts and the death of Marilyn Monroe, the author makes it real.  The challenges that Elly faces as a single woman in a journalistic career are ever present in the existence of the publisher’s no-talent, lazy son-in-law who is a constant threat to Elly’s job and some of the assignments she receives.  In this book, the prejudices against Elly belonging to the Jewish faith are also brought to light.  In fact, none of the social ills or prejudices extant in the 60s are sugar coated in this series.  They serve as a cautionary tale of sorts, as to what we could return to if we aren’t vigilant.

James Ziskin has created in Ellie Stone a woman of the emerging 60s, who is independent thinking and acting, breaking down barriers in the job market, determined, and still compassionate and with a great sense of humor.  Of course, she isn’t perfect, and she’s the first to admit it.  She still drinks too much and doesn’t always make the best choices in her romantic connections, but she is showing growth here, a learning from past mistakes.  I was happy to see more of Ellie’s best friend Fadge in this book, and the proven assertion that men and women can be friends during a time period where female/male friendships weren’t as ordinary as today.  In short, Ellie Stone is the perfect female character to guide us through the 60s (and beyond).  I can’t wait to see this changing world through Ellie’s eyes again in the next installment of this series.

One last note about A Stone’s Throw.  It is published by Seventh Street Books, which happens to publish other favorite authors of mine.  James Ziskin has a bit of fun with the last names of some of his fellow Seventh St. authors, and as in finding a murderer, it’s all in the details.  Enjoy the hunt. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Author Guest Post: James Ziskin

      “The Same Thing…only Different”      
James W. Ziskin

I write a series of traditional/noirish mysteries set in the early 1960s, starring “girl reporter,” Ellie Stone. I like to think of Ellie as a sparkling, tenacious, sharp-witted protagonist. The last thing I want is for her to grow stale and prompt readers to start looking for an exit. Instead, I’d like to to see Ellie carry on through the sixties, seventies, eighties, up to the present day. Why not? I’ve got six or seven good “Stone” titles left. (Turn to Stone, Blood from a Stone, Two Birds with One Stone, Sink Like a Stone, Etched in Stone, Made of Stone, Cold as Any Stone. Maybe even Stone Cold Sober…) When those run out, perhaps I’ll have to settle for less-compelling titles. “Like a Rolling Stone” has strong connotations with Dylan, but maybe that could work in my sixties setting. Finally, I want to limit the titles to common expressions containing the word “stone,” not simple word phrases such as “Stone Face” or “Stone Wall.”

Close parentheses and back to keeping things fresh. Readers enjoy familiarity, of course, but nobody wants to read the same book over and over. So to ensure (or at least attempt to ensure) that my books don’t become predictable, I try to change things up. Here’s where I’m concentrating my energies.

1.     Location
I’m determined to avoid Cabot Cove Syndrome (i.e. staging too many murders in a small town), as it’s known in the crime-writing community. In my case that’s the fictional city of New Holland, NY, where Ellie Stone lives and works. In 1962, the time of my series, New Holland counts about 30,000 souls. To date, I’ve murdered two people there, one in NO STONE UNTURNED and another in STONE COLD DEAD. To complicate matters, the two homicides took place within five weeks of each other. And while I can explain away two murders as a coincidence, any more would strain credulity.

So let’s take stock of my body count. In my first book, STYX & STONE, Ellie investigates two deaths in New York City. No problem there. New York is a big pond with plenty of room for murder and mayhem. The second and third books, cited above, are set in New Holland. Fourth, HEART OF STONE, takes place on an Adirondack Mountain lake in August. Not too far from New Holland, but far enough. In book five, CAST THE FIRST STONE, Ellie travels to Los Angeles, where she finds a dead movie producer at the bottom of a Hollywood Hills ravine. And now, book six, A STONE’S THROW, is set in Saratoga Springs, NY, near New Holland, but like the mountain lake, it’s far enough away to dispel comparisons to Jessica Fletcher.

And while we’re at it, let’s consider who the victims are. In my books, I want to steer clear of killing off only beautiful young women. So I feel a sense of pride that my male victims outnumber females eight to five through the first six Ellie Stone mysteries.

2.     Plot/structure
By this I mean not only the story, but how it is presented, both narratively and structurally. All my Ellie Stone mysteries are told in the first person past tense. The first person narration allows me to tell the story from up close, all the while showing Ellie’s mindset and development in a sneaky way. Every word she chooses as narrator—even the jabs she throws at the condescending men she encounters—gives us more information about her as a character.

But I also like to try something new in the structure of the each story. Not to the point of telling the story backward or using multiple narrators, perhaps, but I do strive for some kind of novelty each time. That may be the location, the characters, or the general setting I write about. For example, through six books, I’ve sent Ellie headlong into the worlds of academia, teenage angst, Cold War politics, wife-swapping, closeted gay Hollywood, and Thoroughbred horse racing. Even the murders, clues, and procedures should vary in each book. With that in mind, I’ve dropped the body in the first paragraph, at end of the first chapter, and even three-quarters of the way into the book. Someday I might write a locked-door mystery, a cat-and-mouse game between Ellie and the murderer from page one, or a straight procedural investigation. No two cases should be the same, so I enjoy playing with different set-ups for her to deal with. I joke that one day I’ll write a mystery novel where no crime at all is committed. Of course the reader won’t realize that until the last page.

3.     Theme
My books are set in the 1960s, an era rife with myriad social and political changes that swept the world. Those upheavals provide me with an embarrassment of riches, theme-wise. To date, Ellie has found herself wading into issues such as child abuse, oppression of gays, anti-Semitism, sexual liberation and libertinism, and juvenile delinquency.The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, the Summer of Love, and the Vietnam War all await Ellie in future installments.

4.     Time
Some mystery series are written “out of time,” meaning we never know the exact month or year they are set. The action takes place in an unspecified period—perhaps the present or the recent past. This provides several advantages, including not worrying about keeping the calendar straight, having to deal with current events, or aging of your characters. The Ellie Stone series, on the other hand, moves through time. The first book, STYX & STONE, opens in January 1960. With the sixth installment, A STONE’S THROW, I’ve reached August 1962. TURN TO STONE is up next and takes place in Florence, Italy, in August 1963. So I have to keep days and dates straight, as well as make sure Ellie grows older and develops. On the plus side, however, I can use real world events and cultural themes to illuminate and flesh out my stories (see point 3 above). This way I hope Ellie will continue to entertain readers, maybe even surprise them as she sometimes surprises me.

I’ve often said that writing a novel is an exercise in putting off the ending for as long as possible, all the while keeping your readers entertained. The same is true for the story and character arcs of a series. Which is why I am constantly looking for different ways to distinguish one Ellie Stone mystery from the others. Look for A STONE’S THROW June 5, 2018, and TURN TO STONE in June 2019, both from Seventh Street Books.