Not Quite Cozy

by Jackie Houchin

(I’m early this month with my post, because I switched with the “other” Jackie – Jackie Vick  – who will be posting on Self Publishing on August 18th.)

I’ve recently read two books which are billed as “cozies” but have none of the more modern sewing, crafting, cooking, library/bookstore, tea shoppe/coffee house, or pet themes that we’ve grown accustomed to. (There’s nothing wrong with these if they are what you like to read!)

No, these were the “old fashioned” style mysteries, that are super-plotted, character-strong mysteries like Agatha Christie wrote. Clean, as far as no on-the-page sex, vulgarity, profanity, or excessive violence. Just good, captivating, complicated mysteries, sometimes in unique settings. 

Here are reviews of the two  books I read.

BLACK JADE, a Daiyu Wu Mystery by Gloria Oliver

What a fascinating book! It’s very different from the usual historical cozy mysteries out today. It has a main character who is unique and amazing in her disability, living in a disguised house with her once royal parents and a pair of staff who love and protect on her.

Black Jade, A Daiyu Wu Mystery by Gloria Oliver, is set in Texas in the early 1900’s, when the race issue is prominent against Asians, specifically Chinese, who are considered to be the “Yellow Menace.” Even more of a bias however in this story, is the rich vs commoner distinction. So when the second son of a British Earl comes to America and falls for a ‘common’ girl who is a waitress in a speakeasy, his hoity-toity relatives across the Pond rush to the first ship heading west to try and stop him marrying her. The means they use is macabra and horrific, but only the blind, Chinese Miss Wu, working in her family’s laundry is able to discover it.

The rest of the book takes us on a detailed and fascinating investigation to find and identify, first the victim, then the villain. (My guesses hopped from one to another of the book’s characters: all in vain.) But Miss Wu, accompanied by Jacques, her handsome companion and chauffeur (who also narrates the story), along with her new friends, a female forensic doctor and a millionaire playboy, moves along as surely as a bloodhound following an invisible scent (burnt garlic?) to the killer. She meets obstacles at every turn, but this gal is persistant and clever, and inspires those around her to not give up no matter what. The climax scene is a nail biter!  FIVE STARS

PS: I totally loved Miss Wu’s little dog, who goes everywhere with her. He has a strange name – Prince Razor. When you read this book, you’ll find out why.

 

GHOST DAUGHTER, An Alice MacDonald Greer mystery by Helen Currie Foster 

This is an amazing, sometimes jaw-dropping, mystery-adventure in which the heroine, Texas lawyer Alice Greer, risks life and limb to fulfill the last wishes of her friend Ellie. In Ghost Daughter, the newly widowed Ellie has discovered her long-lost daughter, conceived at age 17 and given up for adoption decades earlier. She wants to include her somehow in her estate and asks Alice to be executor if/when she dies.

Sooner than either expected, Alice finds her friend’s bloodied body in her own ranch house, along with a rearing, kicking, squealing horse! Yes, IN her house. LOCKED in. Huh? Instantly my mind tried to come up with suitable scenarios, but failed. There was nothing to do, but keep turning the pages.

And that was just the beginning of this fast-paced story with multiple complications and misdirections.

And what was so special in Ellie’s Santa Fe vacation house that could elicit murder? Alice tries to find out, but meets with “baddies” at each attempt. There are car chases through the mountains, unexplained  assination attempts, theivery of extremely valuable art right under Alice’s nose. And, if that isn’t enough, Ellie’s warring sons threaten to drive her up the wall with their arguing about who gets what. And the police can’t find the murder weapon or any evidence at all pointing to a suspect. 

There are no giveaways in the plot. To the literal last pages I couldn’t guess how, why, and by whom the murder of Alice’s friend was done. Thankfully the author ties everything together in a grand scene at the end.  FIVE STARS

I enjoyed Ghost Daughter so much, that I purchased Ghost Cave, the first of Greer’s six  books in the series!

Oh, and by the way, there is nothing “paranormal” in her Ghost books.  

#

I hope that in the future more of these new/old style cozy mystery books will be published. Books that challenge the reader to get out of her rocking chair and trudge the mean streets with the protagonist. 

PS: I just noticed that both of these books were set in Texas. 

 

 

Cruises Can Be Murder**

by Jackie Houchin

(**See disclaimer at the end)

Ahoy there Maties! Have ye sailed the Seven Seas yet?  What’s stoppin’ ye?  Oh… murder!  That!

In January my Hubby and I went on the most amazing 15-day cruise from Florida to Los Angeles by way of the Panama Canal.

What made it amazing?

IMG_5504The Canal transit, of course!! (#1 on Hubby’s bucket list), But the perfect sunny weather, the deep blue sea(s), the small, uncrowded ship (just 670 passengers), the funny and very personable Captain, the amenities (food, lounges,  gorgeous library, spa, pool, Internet café, crafts & games, casino, theater), our beautiful cabin with a balcony (oh, the views!), breakfast in bed, the lack of crowds and lines, the cool excursions in Aruba, Costa Rica, and Chiapas and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico were all definitely fantastic.

IMG_5214(Yes, we are in our 70’s, but we had a blast zip-lining in the Rain Forest!)

If EVER you go on a sea cruise, be sure to book passage on a small ship (unless you have kids). The Princess line has only one, and the Oceania Line has just three. And yes, they can and do travel around the world in 111-195 days. (I’m still dreaming of that!)

 

IMG_5638Imagine, if you will, 4-6 months in luxury, with everything taken care of for you, the occasional excursion ashore, time spent in one of several lounges or the library or your room, even out on the balcony with a laptop, with a bunch of characters eager to do malice, and a twisted mystery plot to direct them!

Yep, I could write a book on a World Cruise.*  (sigh)  Oh, yeah, writing and books, that’s what this blog is about…

 

Since we’ve come home, I have noticed the abundance of mysteries aboard ships.  There are the dark ones like The Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico, Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys, The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, Birds of Pray by J.A. Jance, and Death on The Nile by Agatha Christie.  (Perhaps you’ve read a few.)

On Goodreads, there is a list of 47 Cruise Ship mysteries/adventures for Young Adults and Kids, including some with the new Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, and the Boxcar Kids.

And of course, the cozy and humorous mysteries; Killer Cruise by Laura Levine, Cruising for Love by Tami Cowden, Princess Charming by Jane Haller, and Murder on the Oceana by Elizabeth Martin.  Whew!!  With all that written murder, mystery, and danger, I can see why you might be hesitant to walk up a ship’s gangway.

 

IMG_5146But what about on OUR cruise ship, the Pacific Princess?  I asked the Capitan Paolo Ariggo several questions during our two weeks, but one of them was about this topic.

“I’m a part-time mystery writer, and I want to know, does the ship have a morgue and a brig?”

He grinned and in a very soft voice said, “Ahhh, yes. There are two refrigerators that could be used for that…” then in a normal voice, “but a brig, what is this?”

“A jail,” I said.

“No-o-o,” he said with that Italian accent and a quick shake of his head.

“So where would you keep a prisoner until the ship docks?”

Silence, then, with a laugh, “In the Captain’s quarters!”

(Yeah, right.)

 

The seasoned passengers were more forthright. One related this story.

“On the world cruise we took two years ago, there was a murder. Late one night on the pool deck (#10), a man and a woman, obviously drinking, had a loud argument. The man (he was quite large) back-handed the woman.  She fell to the deck and lay still.  He thought she was dead! (she wasn’t). So he picked her up and threw her overboard.  BUT she landed on top of one of the life boats. She did die that time.  They found her body the next day.

“They searched the ship. Everyone was called to their muster stations.  We had to wait there until he was found. It was two hours!  And when we docked in Aruba no one was allowed off the ship until the police had come and taken him away.”

Wow.

Another told of a husband being poisoned to death. They thought it was the wife.

I bet you writers are thinking of possible crimes now that could be set aboard a cruise ship. What would be YOUR angle?  How would it happen? Would it lead to other murders? Would a passenger become the sleuth, or would there be a retired/recovering detective aboard? And… who would be the killer?

 

Bonbon voyageRight now, I’m reading an ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) of a cozy mystery for review, Bonbon Voyage by Katherine H. Brown about the Chef being murdered. (Oh, no!!)

And I’ve recently reviewed Death on the Danube by Jennifer S. Alderson which you can read here.  Review on my Here’s How It Happened blog This one was a river cruise.

After the BonBon book, I’m looking forward to reading The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper by Sally Carpenter, and the humorous “geezer-lit” mystery,  Cruising in Your Eighties is Murder by Mike Befeler.

How about you? What is on your TBR pile? Have you got a mystery or memoir set on a cruise ship?  Or… perhaps you know a dark true tale that could be made into a short story or book?

Well, dive right in!  Launch that story! All aboard!

 

(Disclaimer: First of all, this seems like a very untimely post. I am so sorry about the unfortunate cruise ship in Asia and the number of sick people on it. I pray all those among the 3,500 passengers plus crew will recover soon. But please don’t let that stop you from an ocean voyage in the future!)

*A 111-day cruise on the Pacific Princes in a balcony cabin like ours begins at $60,000 double-occupancy.

 

 

 

My Book Reviewing Agony!

Hello. My name is Jackie Houchin and I’m a book review addict.
Yes, I know. There are lots of blog posts and articles on Book Reviewing: How to Do It, How Not to Do It, How to Get Someone Else to Do It (for your book). Here’s my take.
But first a word on “blurbs.” They fall into this “reviewing” category too. You think they are easier to write because, well, hey, they’re only a sentence or two long, or occasionally an ecstatic 5-word blast that lands on the front cover with your name right there beneath the author’s! Granted, much smaller, but nevertheless, there.
But blurbs are not easier. As with book reviews, I read the entire book (not just the first and last chapters with a breeze-flip through the middle) and then I actually write a complete review from which I can extract that blurb. Upside is, I now have a review that I can peddle or post somewhere. 


There are many blogs that would love to have your reviews for free and to give your name a boost. Also, you will be BFF with authors if you spread your love for their books around. (Result: A definite “feel good” if not lucrative, opportunity.)

Back to book reviewing. How about remuneration? Authors don’t like to pay you – and they probably shouldn’t because it might look like bribery or worse – but they do offer you a free book, ARC, or digital file.
Personally, I like hard copies because they are easier on my eyes, and I like to underline and write notes on the pages. I sometimes use the blank space after the chapter ends to write a brief synopsis.
With a digital file I have to print out the pages, using MY paper, MY ink, and MY electricity, which is costly even if I print gray scale (which is also hard on eyes), and use the backside of previously printed paper.
So, how DO you get paid for reviews?One way is to write for a magazine or online newsletter. I have written for Mystery Scene Magazine ($15 per review) and The Strand Magazine ($10), plus a few for Crimespree Magazine when I first started, which pays zero but you get clips.
If you are a prolific reader/writer and the paying magazines like your stuff, you can earn a fairly decent check every quarter…to cover your Starbucks habit. Okay, $60 or $75 doesn’t seem like much, but what have you invested? A couple days of (hopefully) enjoyable reading and some time at your computer. Plus the free book.
By the way, you should never sell ARCs on Amazon, etc. It’s nice to get that extra cash, but it’s not fair to the author, especially if you list them BEFORE the book is launched. No-no-no!
Naively, I used to take on four or five books to review in one issue! Now I’m lucky to manage two, and in most issues only one. True, Mystery Scene Magazine gives me books by well-known authors to review – Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, Susan Wittig Albert – but that adds to my stress level.  But why, you may ask.

Well, for me, book reviewing is a perilous journey, fraught (like that word?) with doubts, delusions, and ulcers. For one thing, I am a self-doubting, paranoid perfectionist. For another, I have a very professional magazine editor. She examines my reviews for clarity, accuracy, and word counts (as she should), then lets me know – gently but firmly – where they need work. Eek!
So, consider my cycle of “Book Reviewing Agony” before accepting YOUR first book for review.

  • Request – “I know you like books by — do you want to review this one?” says my editor. Or sometimes, “Choose a book(s) you’d like from this list.” (I feel magnanimous and agree/choose.)
  • Arrival – I’m excited to get a first look at the ARC. I check page numbers, and divide the amount into the days she gave me to leisurely read the book, allowing 3 days for writing the review.
  • Reading – I love this part best, getting into a good story. I use a pencil as a book mark so I can make notes on the rough newsprint.
  • Winding down – My anxiety mounts as I anticipate finishing and having to actually WRITE a review. Often I slow down my reading here, although the climax is approaching.
  • The PC screen – I’m frozen (yes me, not the screen). That first sentence is murder! I write and rewrite it 50 times, then leave it and skip to the end (author style evaluation) which is easier. Finally disgusted I save the file and go to bed.
  • Reading my review – After a horrible night’s sleep I reluctantly read what I’ve written. OH NO! It’s horrible! I rewrite, massage, delete, cut & paste, edit out, add in. Oh, why did I ever agree to review books? After a day of misery I punch “SEND.”
  • JOY! – I’m done! Relief! Freedom! The euphoria of having completed it makes me dance around the house.
  • Editor email – Down the roller coaster of despondency I plunge. I have to look at this thing again? I pull out the ARC (which fortunately I haven’t tossed in my elation over the previous bullet point). I go over my notes and mini-synopses. I struggle to wrangle those words into submission and try to cut 75 words. At last it’s done (again) and I am exhausted. Weakly I hit “SEND” and make a solemn self-promise. “I will never accept another book to review.”
  • The 60-day wait – The magazine finally arrives. I grab it and flip immediately to the “Reviews” section, and look for my name. I read the review. I WROTE THAT? Seriously? Wow? It’s amazingly good! (Okay, she’s tweaked a couple words, but that’s okay because she made me look great!) I display the magazine prominently on the coffee table with a Post-a-note marking “my” page.
  • Another 60 day wait – The check arrives. I smile smugly, feeling cocky at having earned a couple “Star” bucks. Hey, this reviewing isn’t so bad. I could probably do another one….  
And so, I fall off the wagon again.
Q: Do book authors have a similar cycle of agony?