Friday, January 2, 2015

The 'who' and 'dunnit' of mysteries

While there are clubs dedicated to one genre—sci fi, mystery, history, biography, etc.—most clubs vary choices, and members may be flummoxed in evaluating a who-dunnit. New England writers Barbara Ross, Hank Philippi Ryan and Kate Flora provide guidance.
The rules of good writing are not suspended for a mystery, but there are different considerations a reader may want to use, they say.
It's more than plot. "In a fully formed novel of suspense, or a thriller, there should be much more to chew over than just who the bad guy is," said Hank Phillippi Ryan, multi-award winner for serial mysteries, most recently "Truth Be Told."
"One of the things I enjoy creating in my books is understanding what people's motivation is, and how far a person would go to get what  they want or need," she said. "When I was beginning to write, I had a big discussion with my husband (lawyer Jonathan Shapiro) about murder: What kind of emotion would a person have to be feeling to kill someone? What could drive you to take another person's life? There are a few things—power, money, love and revenge ... when you take out the psychopath, who isn't very interesting, understanding the motivation of a killer is a fascinating topic.
"Book clubs can discuss: whether you would make the same decisions the bad guy did; how else could the situation have been handled; is the motivation believable; is it understandable? Are the bad guy's actions reasonable—because a bad guy doesn't wake up in the morning and decide to be bad. The antagonist, if fully developed, is doing what they do for a reason that seems logical to them: they've been frustrated, or disappointed, or upset that they've been dealt with unfairly; they're the hero in their own life and they feel they're doing the right thing. So for a book group, talking about the motivation of an antagonist can be pretty revealing:
What would you do?
How far would you go?
How does the main character's life compare to your own?
What did you learn about what someone else might do, the decisions they might make and the life they have?
How do you see your life now, having had a taste of someone else's?
"A good book lingers," says Ryan, "and the characters' lives remain in your head after you close the book, so what will you remember about this book, or not?"
Kate Flora is the author of fiction including "And Grant You Peace" (her latest Joe Burgess mystery) and the Theo Kozak series, as well as non-fiction such as "Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice."
She lists several suggestions.
1. Did the main character(s) seem believable to me? Did they hold my interest? Did the author make me care about them and what happens to them?

2. Was the plot disclosed in a way that kept me guessing? Did I need to keep reading to know what happened? Was I surprised by the ending? Was I satisfied?

3. If I was reading a series mystery, was the plot wrapped up well at the end? Was I left eager to read another book about these characters and interested in seeing where their lives will go?

4. Did the book teach me something that I didn't know before? Did I feel like I was in a real world and the situations faced by the characters were real? Did the author write generic cops or bad guys or were they complex and dimensioned?

5. Sense of place: My ancient Thrall and Hibbard copy of "A Handbook to Literatures" defines setting as: “the physical, and sometimes spiritual, background against which the action of a narrative takes place." How well did the author handle setting? Did it feel authentic? Could you see the places, and did their cultural, religious or social backgrounds play a role in deepening the characters for you?

6. Dialogue: Did the writer make you feel like real people were talking? Did the characters have distinctive voices?

7. What do you think the author wanted you to take away from this book? Did the story give you something to think about? Change the way you look at the world? Make you feel nervous or unsafe, or conversely, comfort you at the end by the way that order was restored? Did events in the book scare you or make you wonder? Will the characters live on in your imagination even after the book is done?

Barbara Ross, author of the Maine Clambake mystery series (whimsically titled "Clammed Up," "Boiled Over" and the upcoming "Musseled Out," is co-publisher/editor at Level Best Books, an anthology of crime and mystery stories by New England authors, and blogs on mysteries at

"Mysteries are full of relationships, the same mother-daughter, sister-sister, parent-child connections that you’d dissect in any book club discussion. In a mystery, almost every character has a secret, so it would be fruitful to mine this vein. Which secrets did you believe? Which did you guess?

"Literary mysteries are roughly defined as books you can read more than once and get something out of it every time—i.e. the treatment of character, theme, etc. transcends the “puzzle.” It doesn’t wreck the book for you if you know the solution. These mysteries can contain many weighty subjects for book club discussion. For example, Malla Nunn’s Emanual Cooper Mysteries, about a white policeman in South Africa during apartheid, ask the question, “How can a moral man enforce the law when half the laws are immoral?”
"Mysteries have themes. In fact, some people believe that while literary fiction today can tend to get a little preachy, crime fiction can treat serious subjects—like PTSD or the abuse of painkillers, or the damage caused by prolonged unemployment—more adeptly.
"Finally, you can dissect the mystery itself. Did you guess the solution before the end? When and why? Or why not? Did the author “play fair”—i.e. once you knew the solution, were all the clues in the manuscript? Could you have guessed if you’d wanted to?"
"I've never been a member of a book club, but I have been a guest at several when they were reading one of my books" Ross said. "My observation is that book clubs approach crime fiction in two ways. Some choose 'literary' crime fiction, which is as well-written, well-rounded and affecting as anything else they read during the year. Others may choose a 'lighter' mystery as a good book for members during busy times, such as the holidays, or over the summer, when everyone wants a great beach book."

Bottom line, says Ryan:
"I want readers to be entertained and educated a little bit in a timely topical subject. The wonderful thing about a good mystery is that it's a fantastic story, a riveting page turner. My main character is a reporter. I want readers to get a deeper understanding of the high stress, stakes and relentless deadlines of being a reporter, and the pressure for getting a story on the air—the necessity of getting everything absolutely correct. Every day, some sort of moral issue arises that you have to solve. It's critical for a reader to be engaged with the main character, on their team somehow. A reader is living the main character's life for 400 pages, and has to be invested in that."

Mystery masters

Hank Phillippi Ryan, Barbara Ross and Kate Flora suggest these writers, some of their favorites.
Ryan: John Lescroart (SP), Lisa Scottoline, Linwood Barclay ("Trust Your Eyes" is quite astonishing), William Landay ("Defending Jacob"), Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger.
Flora: Michael Connelly, Kathy Lynn Emerson (Lady Appleton/"Face Down.." series), Kaitlyn Dunnett (Liss MacCrimmon series), Nancy Picard.
Ross: Any of Louise Penny’s fantastic Armand Gamache series, set in rural Quebec, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, which take place in the Adirondacks, Paul Doiron’s  Mike Bowditch Mysteries about a Maine game warden, Craig Johnson’s Longmire Mysteries about a sheriff in Wyoming. If you don’t want a series, try William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, which won all the major mystery awards this year. Or B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, which is on its way to becoming a classic.
"If your book club is looking for something lighter, try a cozy mystery. The sleuth is usually an amateur who has another interest or profession, and is propelled into solving the mystery by a personal stake. They’re always light on the descriptive gore (and the descriptive sex) and you can be virtually certain no child or pet will be harmed. These books make a nice break from a heavier reading schedule, and will still leave your group plenty to discuss. Consider one of Cleo Coyle’s Coffee House Mysteries, set in Greenwich Village, Jessie Crockett’s Sugar Grove Mysteries, which follow a multi-generational syrup-making family in New Hampshire, Sheila Connolly’s Orchard Mysteries set in Western Massachusetts or my Maine Clambake Mysteries.

Book group meetings

Northborough Library's Friday Morning Book Group will meet at 10 a.m., Jan. 9, to discuss Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander," a historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars.

The next meeting of the Douglas Library Book Group will consider Slavomir Rawicz’s "The Long Walk" at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 13.  The book recounts the harrowing true tale of seven escaped Soviet prisoners’ desperate 4,000 mile march out of Siberia, through China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and over the Himalayas to British India. Call the Library 508-476-2695 for a copy of the book. New members welcome.
Heywood Library's book group has slated T.C. Boyle II—his second collection of short stories—for its 4:30 p.m. Jan. 8 meeting.
The Worcester-based Women's Issues Book Group will discuss "From A to X: A Story in Letters" by John Berger at its Jan. 12 meeting. Meeting is held at 7 p.m. in Barnes & Noble, 541 Lincoln St.
Brookfield Library book group will meet Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. to discuss "Spirit of Steamboat" by Craig Johnson.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will meet Jan. 8 to discuss "The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Authors and readers share gift-giving suggestions

At the end of this column, there's information about the Wall St. Journal's online book club, moderated by well-known authors. It's pretty cool.
First, however, a bit of gift-giving advice.
This is easily the busiest time of year, I know. So a few Santa book suggestions wouldn't be out of order, right?
That's what I thought.

So I contacted a few writers, along with librarians and book group members, to seek suggestions for holiday gift giving.
Here they are, along with my own, which has to be Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Timeless, beautiful (and abundantly retold on film), this book is one I try to read every Christmas. I love its reminders of mean-spiritedness, poverty, regrets, joy and generosity, as told within the well-known scenes between Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. There are many beautiful editions, and I've collected them over the years—it's worth looking them up through book dealers or online services. My favorite is a Harcourt, Brace edition illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, an Italian artist. There's also a more recent book, illustrated by P.J. Lynch and published by Candlewick, that is beautifully drawn.

Mystery and police procedural author Kate Flora, whose own latest books are "Death Dealer" and "And Grant You Peace," offers Roxana Robinson's "Sparta." "It's at the top of my list," she says, "not an easy read but an engrossing one, and truly brilliant in the way she reveals the central character, Conrad, a young returned Iraq vet with PTSD. It's on my desert island short list." Flora also recommends these:
"For lovers of Boston history and memoir, both the lore and the warmth of The Family Business, by John DiNatale, written with Roland Merullo, make this story of a family PI (private investigation) business a delightful read.
"For anyone looking for a cookbook, Yottam Ottolenghi's vegetarian cookbook, 'Plenty' is a fabulous choice. The photographs are amazing and the food delicious. Even those who scorn their vegetables will be seduced by these recipes." Thanks, Kate.

Suspense writer Hallie Ephron ("There Was an Old Woman," "Night Night, Sleep Tight") recommends "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes", which she calls "great fun for anyone who loves crime fiction, a compendium of Holmes-inspired stories, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. King and Klinger are the experts on Sherlock Holmes, fresh off winning their lawsuit enabling authors to freely write stories inspired by the Holmes cannon without having to pay a fee to Doyle’s estate. In 15 stories, an array of today’s most talented and successful authors deliver modern and period tales inspired by Sherlock. In Sara Paretsky’s, a gobsmacked Holmes meets his match in a middle-aged spinster. Michael Connelly’s modern Harry Bosch encounters a Sherlockian medical examiner. Michael Sims’s tells a version of “The Silver Blaze” narrated by the horse. The collection is diverting, delightful, and best taken with a cup of hot tea."

Chris Bohjalian, whose many novels include "Skeletons at the Feast" and "The Sandcastle Girls," recently released "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." He is traveling like a furious wind this month—to the White House, Manhatten, and points between his Vermont residence and Russia—but took a moment to recommend two books: "My favorite new book? 'The Zone of Interest' by Martin Amis," he said. Another book that's a good gift is "Dana Walrath's powerful young adult novel in verse, 'Like Water on Stone.' It's a poignant introduction to the Armenian Genocide, published this month."

Author Anne Packer recommends "The Girls from Corona del Mar" by Rufi Thorpe.
Betsy Johnson, of the Holden book group, recommends Anthony Doerr's "All the Light You Cannot See." She calls it "a rare number one that I really like. He is a writer to follow." If you, like me, enjoy books about people and events during World War II, this is a good one. It's about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as they try to survive the devastation of war.

Writer Paula Castner of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster, suggests holiday book sets, including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Jan Karon's Mitford series (an upbeat series about the small-town life of a minister and his artist wife) or Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" quintet, good for all ages. It's a sci-fi/fantasy series of stories about the Murry children, a classic series of books.

Castner also recommends several children's books, including: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," by Barbara Robinson, "a wonderful classic which is just delightful for a family read." Also, she says, try "The Christmas Troll" by Eugene Peterson, a picture book; "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" by Susan Wojciechowski, about a widower being drawn back to living by a little boy and a nativity scene, and "The Littlest Tree," by Charles Tazewell, "a wonderful story set during the war about orphaned children who bring the true meaning of Christmas to a toddler in the midst of a horrible time period."

Ann Young, of Heywood Library, is giving her 12-year-old grand niece (performing in Peter Pan this year) a copy of "Tiger Lily" by Jodi Lynn Anderson. It's a story about the relationship between Tiger Lily and Peter Pan. For adult readers, she recommends Sue Monk Kidd's "The Invention of Wings." "The story is about the Grimke sisters and Handful, their family slave," says Young. "The sisters were abolitionists and feminists."

Red Rock Readers member Jane Stoughton recommends Eowyn Ivy's "The Snow Girl." It's part-fairy tale magic and part-real living, a story of homesteading in Alaska during the early 20th century, but also, she says "the wonder of life and the world in which we live."

The Wall Street Journal launched a book club led by authors several months back, and it has taken off online. Each month, a guest host/author selects a book by another author and provides guidance and feedback to readers on both Twitter (#WSJbookclub) and Facebook (WSJ Book Club).
Participants can ask questions about the selected book, participate in a live chat, read excerpts or reviews, and exchange information. There are archived webcasts on Google for some books. Guest hosts have included Elizabeth Gilbert, Gillian Flynn, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Husseini, Lee Child, and Margaret Atwood.  You'll find lots of feedback, with several hundred members. They talk about the writing style, the characters and plot, the authors. Books they've discussed include "Sophie's Choice," "The Love of a Good Woman," "The 13 Clocks," "Deep Water," "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," and "Wolf Hall." All were featured in live chats with the author's who chose them for discussion. Last month, Atwood led a discussion of fantasy books, specifically Ursula LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea."
One reader posted a quote from LeGuin's writing; another shared an article about LeGuin's essay collection, "The Wave in the Mind."  Still another shared a way of looking at the book that changed the reading experience for her. It's a very focused group, with little of the unrelated drivel one finds on so many sites these days; I find it an excellent source of information about specific authors. There's a lot of lively conversation and info about books not on the list, but liked by participants. Up next is author Carl Hiaasen, who will direct discussion of Martin Amis's "Money: A Suicide Note."
Area book group meetings:
Brenda Metterville, at Brookfield Library, says that group will discuss "Spirit of Steamboat" by Craig Johnson at 7 p.m., Jan. 6. The group will not meet in December.
Worcester area women poets will read during the 7 p.m., Dec. 8 meeting of the NOW Women's Issues Book Club at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Worcester, 90 Holden St. Worcester-area women are welcome. There's no book to read; just come to listen.
The next meeting of the Douglas Library Book Group will revolve around Lisa See’s "China Dolls" on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 6:30 p.m. It's the story of three women navigating the so-called "Chop Suey Circuit," America's all-Asian revues of the 1930s and '40s. Call the library 508-476-2695, for a copy of the book. New members welcome.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will discuss "Cascade" by Maryann O'Hara.
Ann Connery Frantz writes about authors and books for the Telegram & Gazette and on her blog "Read It and Reap." She is a freelance writer and editor, writing fiction. Contact her at

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Authors ready and willing to Skype, visit book clubs

New England reading fans travel to bookstores, cafes and auditoriums (Jodi Picoult pretty much filled the Worcester Hanover Theater when she spoke there) to absorb words of wisdom from visiting writers.
The region is rife with them.
Steve Almond lives in Arlington; David McCullough has a home on Cape Cod; Anita Shreve, raised in Dedham, lives in western Massachusetts. Gregory Maguire is in Concord and R.A. Salvatore lives in Leominster. Kate Flora lives in Maine and in Concord (she cofounded New England Crime Bake, whose mystery writers appear at libraries throughout the region); Julia Glass lives in Marblehead; Brunonia Barry is based in Salem; Picoult lives in New Hampshire. Anne Leary lives in Connecticut, Matthew Quick in Holden. Andre Dubus III teaches in Lowell, near where he grew up.
Dozens of dedicated, published writers would like to meet with your group. Check their web pages (and publishers' websites) for information. Many have Facebook pages as well. They're willing to visit or use Skype to visit via computer. Most of them are Grub Street writers center members.
Here's the list:

Michelle Hoover ( ) published her first novel, "The Quickening," in 2010; her second is slated for 2016.
Henriette Lazaridis Power ( wrote "The Clover House," a novel about Greek-American heritage and a World War II tragedy published in 2013, a Boston Globe best-seller. A literature instructor at Harvard for 10 years, she is a prolific writer. She is interested in visits or Skype talks.
Angeli Mitter Duva ( has released a debut novel, "Faint Praise of Rain," with She Writes Press. She's glad to Skype or visit clubs near her Arlington home.
Lisa Borders' second novel, "The Fifty-First State," was published in 2013 to positive reviews. Her first, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," was a Massachusetts Book Awards honoree. She enjoys in-person, Facetime or Skype visits. Contact is
Laura Van den berg (, author of two well-received and awarded collections of short stories, has a novel, "Find Me," coming out in February.
Random House children's author Jan Kohuth of Holliston ( is affiliated with Skype and Penguin Classroom. Check her website. A 15 to 20 minute program for children is also available by Skype.
Áine Greaney ( lives north of Boston and in Ireland. A Pushcart honoree, she wrote "The Big House," "Dance Lessons" and "Snow." She does lots of in-person and Skype visits.
Simon & Schuster published Grub Street instructor Rita Zoey Chin's memoir, "Let the Tornado Come." Discussion questions are on the publisher's website. To Skype, see
Edgar-nominated author of 14 books, Kate Flora ( has two books being published this fall. She makes frequent bookstore and library appearances, often with fellow mystery writers. She hasn't used Skype, but says she'll try it. A popular mystery and police procedural writer, she recently wrote "Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice," and a fourth Joe Burgess mystery, "And Grant You Peace."
Manchester, N.H., teacher and short story writer Tim Horvath ( has won kudos on NPR and Salon, and won a New Hampshire Literary Award, for his imaginative collection, "Understories." He offers to Skype.
Award-winning author Tara L. Masih ("The Chalk Circle") will visit via Skype or conference call. Her nonfiction anthology assembles voices from disparate cultures and times in a groundbreaking collection. Learn more at
Ursula DeYoung of Cambridge ( wrote "Shorecliff," a novel published by Little, Brown about a large Maine family during the summer of 1928. She is interested in Skype or in-person visits.
Lynne Griffin (, author of "Sea Escape" and "Life Without Summer," lives in Boston but grew up in Worcester (her father was director of advertising for the Telegram & Gazette) and in Holden. Find her on Facebook or at
Author James Scott ( does phone and Skype interviews related to his novel, "The Kept," a dark, moody narrative of revenge set in upstate New York.
There are others, but this is a good start. Many are accomplished, excellent speakers who will make your book club session a good one. If your group does an author meeting, let me know.
Hear writers at Open Mic
Tatnuck Bookseller, 18 Lyman St. (Westbourgh Shopping Center), sponsors a Literary Arts Open Mic every second and fourth Thursday, monthly, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Author Jan Krause Greene ("I Call Myself Earthgirl") will now host the session; Greene is a former English teacher and newspaper columnist. For info on participation, contact Zorina Frey, owner of IWA Publishing Services, at
Author notes:
Channel 7 investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan will sign her new Jane Ryland mystery, "Truth Be Told," at Booklovers' Gourmet, 55 E. Main St., Webster on Saturday, Nov. 1, from 1-3 p.m. Call (508) 949-6932 for information. Ryan followed up the award-winning "The Wrong Girl" with her newest mystery. It's fast-moving, brimming with characters and peppered with the funny asides and insider knowledge of a veteran journalist. The book was released this month—surrounding fraudulent mortgage activities and evictions, a self-confessed killer, and the interplay between Ryland and her boyfriend, Detective Jake Brogan. See my blog for a review.
Michael F. Bisceglia, Jr., who grew up in Worcester, has written and published a novel about life in an Irish-Italian family, "Gaelic and Garlic." The book, set in mid-20th century Worcester, is the fictional memoir of a young man's early years among first-generational Italian and Irish clans of Worcester. The story comes from the persona of a youngster who grew up on Worcester streets, delivered the Gazette faithfully, and navigated Italian and Irish family rules daily, acquiring some bruises in the process. The book is full of entertaining bits—it's clever, though a bit overfull of tiresome witticisms and stereotyped ethnic descriptions. Still, it has laughs and some local connections readers may enjoy. I've reviewed it at The book is available through Amazon.
Book groups:
Haston Library's book group, meeting at North Brookfield Library, will discuss Kenneth Winters' "The Lost Crown of Colonnade" at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Leominster's Reading, Sharing and Laughing book group meets at 7 p.m., Thursday at Chaibo in Fitchburg to discuss something a bit macabre for Halloween: "Rebecca" by Daphne DuMaurier.
The Northborough Free Library hosts Friday Morning Book Club on Nov. 14 at 10 a.m., to discuss "Ex Libris," by Anne Fadiman.
Heywood Library Reading group meets Nov. 19 to discuss "Anthill" by Edward G. Wilson.
Worcester Public Library's book club will meet at 6 p.m., Nov. 18 to discuss "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini. There will be no December meeting.
Brookfield Public Library hosts the Nov. 25, 7 p.m. meeting in the main room. Topic is "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline.
The Douglas Library Book Group will focus on Patry Francis’s Cape Cod murder-mystery, "The Orphans of Race Point," at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18. Call to reserve a copy of the book. New members welcome. Homemade refreshments, inspired by the title, will be served—in which case I advise that you eat cautiously.
Speaking Volume's audio book group will discuss "For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind" by Rosemary Mahoney at 8 p.m. Nov. 4. The Dec. 2 selection is Geraldine Brooks' "Caleb's Crossing." To participate, call 508-752-0557.
Books, Brews & Banter meets at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 19 in O'Connor's Restaurant, Worcester, to discuss Ken Follett's "Fall of Giants."
A Book Between Friends, Sturbridge, has slated "White Oleander" for its 10 a.m., Nov. 15 meeting.
New Earth Book Club's Nov. 30 topic is "Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs and Sugar," by David Perlmutter.
Ann Connery Frantz, freelance writer/editor and cofounder of Lancaster's Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative, blogs at (two e’s is correct). Send news of upcoming meetings to by mid-month.