Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review and Interview: Kaye George's Choke

The cover of Kaye George's Agatha-nominated mystery, Choke


Review: Choke: An Imogene Duckworthy Mystery. Kaye George. Mainly Murder Press. 2011. Paper. $14.95. ISBN: 978-09827952-7-9. Nominated for an Agatha as First Best Traditional Mystery Novel, 2012.

Immy abandons her job in the family diner in Salt Lick, Texas, primarily because of a craving to be a private detective. Her excuse is that Uncle Huey is expecting too much, making her work long hours. His turning up dead after she leaves jumpstarts her new career. Her mastery of all the vocabulary of the private eye doesn’t help, however, when people don’t understand what she’s talking about.

No one in her life is supportive of her career change. Since Immy’s father was a police detective killed on the job, her mother Hortense doesn’t want her anywhere near criminals, plus they need the money from Immy’s diner job to support them and Immy’s pre-school daughter, Nancy Drew. When Hortense is suspected of killing Uncle Huey, Immy’s help becomes more acceptable to her mother, but Immy’s tendency for things to go wrong because of her clumsiness and her inability to grab the right end of the stick leads to one humorous disaster after another. Curiously, she does solve problems with her wrong-footed approach. I’m not sure that that works for most of us. But Immy is a master at pulling a solution out of the chaos she sets off.

One of Immy’s stumbling blocks is Baxter Killroy, a busboy to whom she’s attracted, though he’s older, has the air of wily fox, and the reader knows he can’t be trusted.

Kaye George knows her villages. The world over village people are interested in everybody else’s up and downs. There is a comfortable and a not so comfortable side to this. It can definitely make you want to escape to the wider world. Having lived in Oklahoma some years growing up, Immy’s West Texas world is believable to me, her desire to break free of a limited life working for minimum wage and to live the exciting life of a Private Eye, understandable. Her determination in the face of difficulties that would discourage most folks is both fascinating and admirable.


Kaye George Interview.

1. When did you begin writing? Why?

As soon as I could spell things. I made up stories before then. My mother saved a couple crayon drawings I did at 5 or so. I remember one of the stories that went with one. In my teens and early twenties I wrote what I thought of as literary stories and sent them to magazines. They were all rejected.

2. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

For some reason, I decided, a little over ten years ago, that I really wanted to be published. Since my favorite reading was mystery, that's what I started writing.

3. Are you writing a series or a stand-alone? Explain your basic idea for your series.

I intend my Imogene Duckworthy Mysteries to continue as a series. Immy wants nothing more than to be a detective, but she's young and naive and doesn't always go about it like anyone else would. She somehow manages to solve a lot of crimes, though--some of them unintentional.

4. Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

I had queried hundreds of agents with other mysteries I've written. I started querying agents with this book, too, and after about 65 rejects, just couldn't do it anymore. Especially when I knew alternatives were opening up all around me. I queried two publishers. Mainly Murder Press replied first with an acceptance and I jumped at it.

5. Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?

This is a light-hearted, humorous series. It's a reaction to the book I had just finished before this, which was a heavy, serious work. I set it in the Wichita Falls area where we lived for a few years because I thought it lent itself to humor. The town is named after a waterfall that disappeared years ago, shortly after its founding. To compensate, the city leaders built a fake waterfall. It has to be turned off when the water level gets too low and the water is too silty.

6. How have you found it to be published? Share that experience.

It's made a world of difference. This has been a goal for so many years, that I still can't believe I've achieved that. It opens up a whole new world that I know nothing about, but am learning as fast as I can--promotion. Not a natural thing for me, or for most writers, I think.

7. Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

I love the review that compared my character to Stephanie Plum, and another that likened my work to a combination of Lucille Ball and Inspector Clouseau.

8. What other books have you published and where, when?

While I was seeking an agent all those years, I broke out in occasional short stories. I saw markets around me and started submitting them. I was intensely pleased when they started getting accepted, and even winning prizes (one was $150!). When it became obvious that I would be doing my own ebook for CHOKE, I self-published a collection of my published stories. I did it partly to learn how to do ebooks, and partly to collect my stories in one place, since some of the magazines and ezines had gone out of business. I have stories now in several anthologies also, by various publishers. I also self-published a small booklet about how to self-publish, to try to save other writers some time and frustration.

9. Do you have a work in progress now? Is it part of a series?

I'm now finishing up the first draft of my third Imogene Duckworthy mystery. Number two is ready to go in a few months. I still love my characters as much as I did when they first came into my life. On days when I can't get to them, it bothers me no end.

10. If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful? How?

I've belonged to local Sisters groups in Dallas and now in Austin and have made many friends there and found critique partners. When we moved to the Wichita Falls area, there was no Sisters in Crime group and I thought I might die. That's when I found the Guppies, and they saved my sanity. I was so grateful to the group that I volunteered to be the treasurer when they needed one. Then, somehow, I became the president and am serving a two year term which will finish in 2013. Some of my best friends are in that group. And some of them are people I've never actually met in person.

11. What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

Networking has been the most important thing about going to conferences for me. My two nominations for Agathas have given me such a boost, I could go on writing for another twenty years on the fumes of those.

12. What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?

The second Immy book is called SMOKE. Here's an unperfected teaser for it.

Imogene Duckworthy, who yearns to be a PI, has landed a job assisting a real PI in Wymee Falls, Texas. During a sidetrip while bringing home a pot-bellied pig as a birthday gift for her daughter, Nancy Drew Duckworthy, Immy discovers the owner of the local jerky shop dead, hanging from a meathook in his own smokehouse. The pig breeder, Amy JoBeth, is implicated, so Immy feels compelled to try to find the real killer. That gentle, somewhat depressed swineherd couldn't have killed Rusty Bucket. Could she?


Kaye George is a novelist and short story writer whose Agatha-nominated tale Handbaskets, Drawers, and a Killer Cold can be found in her collection. A Patchwork of Stories is available in either paperback or ebook formats.

Kaye does reviews for Suspense magazine and also writes articles for newsletters and booklets.

She, her husband, and a cat named Agamemnon live together near Austin, Texas.

For more information visit, or catch her at, her solo blog. She joins other writers at

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: Racing from Death, a new Nikki Latrelle Racing Mystery

Cover of Sasscer Hill's second Nikki Latrelle racing mystery


This is a major new talent and the comparisons to Dick Francis are not hyperbole.–Margaret Maron, New York Times Best-Selling Author

Wildside Press, Paper. Feb 2012. ISBN: 978-1-4344-4040-2.


Sasscer Hill claims her Nikki Latrelle racing mysteries fit into a niche sub-genre. True, for horse-racing enthusiasts, they satisfy a known appetite, but you don’t have to know a thing about horses to enjoy Nikki’s trials and tribulations and eventual crossing the finish line in a lively, breath-taking mystery.

I was eager to read the second novel. The first, Full Mortality (Wildside, 2010), an Agatha and Mccavity nominee for first best mystery, I thoroughly enjoyed (see my blog post of May 8, 2011).

Nikki takes six of the horses in the stable of her trainer, Jim Ravinsky, to the Colonial Downs track in Virginia. With her go her friend Lorna Doone, a former addict, who can only keep her exercise riders license if she stays clean, and an old black man, Mello Pinkney, who has a sixth sense both about people and horses. He is especially close to Hellish, the horse Nikki saved form the glue factory in Full Mortality. Right before she left, a jockey named Paco Martinez died at the Laurel Park track, apparently from a drug he took to keep his weight down.

Greeting her soon after she arrives at the Virginia track is Jay Cormack, the Chief Investigator for the Virginia Racing Commission. He pressures her to spy for him, as he suspects drugs are behind the jockey’s death. She refuses, but he won’t give up. He trusts her and threatens that, if she doesn’t help him, he could throw her off the track because of Hellish’s disruptive behavior and an old felony conviction of Mello’s.

Reluctantly Nikki takes his card. At the cottage arranged for them, Nikki’s cat, Slippers, picks up her own sidekick, a rooster which Lorna dubs McNuggett. Lorna is drawn to a local wild rich boy named Bobby Duvayne, like a moth to a candle. Nikki understands her attraction because she feels similarly beguiled by Bobby, and she warns Lorna to stay away from him, to no avail. Then Lorna comes back from her night with Bobby hopelessly enamored, and stoned.

To top it off, two new horses arrive from Ravinsky’s training stable, Stinger and Daffodil. Their spoiled, imperious, insensitive owner, Amarilla Chaquette, whom Nikki likens to a yellow jacket, has not one whit of understanding about how to treat and race her horses, and she is contemptuous of Nikki’s savvy and attempts to help her horses win races.

Creepy and inexplicable things begin to happen until it’s very clear that something is terribly wrong at this track, and Nikki is drawn into the middle of it.

As in Dick Francis’s novels, Nikki’s life and circumstances as a jockey and an exercise rider, pull us into the racing pace of Hill’s books. I love the off-beat characters like Lorna and Mello, including the cat and the rooster. I learn about a world unfamiliar to me, one thing I look for in a good mystery. I easily identify with Nikki, who doesn’t want to rat on anyone but has a strong sense of justice and an impulse to help those human and animal beings who need a lift up. She’s also a fierce fighter, once aroused.

A favorite scene of mine in this book takes place when Nikki attends a very posh party among the rich owners and powers that be in this Virginia setting, all in honor of Chaquette. The contrast between Nikki’s unpretentiousness and the inflated sense of their importance among these rich folks adds a rich humor to the book.

May Sasscer Hill’s books continue to win all the nominations and awards they deserve.


Sasscer Hill

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Radical Equations by Robert Spiller

Cover of Robert Spiller's Mystery Novel, Radical Equations


Interview with Robert Spiller, Member of my Academic Mysteries Panel at Malice Domestic 24, April 29, 2012.
When did you begin writing? Why?
I'd always wanted to be a writer – grade school, high school (poetry and short stories), college (Creative Writing Major for two semesters, until I switched over to Mathematics), and even when I was a middle school teacher. The tipping point came when my second marriage evaporated. I took to the road on my bicycle and eventually went for a three week bike ride into the Four Corners area of southern Colorado to grieve. I brought along five spiral notebooks and wrote what amounted to my first novel. This Sci-fi masterpiece would win second place at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference Contest…but unfortunately would never see the light of day. Well, not yet.

When and why did you begin writing mysteries?
After two failed attempts at writing the Sci-fi Novel of the Century, I took a long look at where I was teaching (on the plains of Colorado) and at a fellow teacher (an amazing woman with a truly remarkable memory and more dogs than a person should have) and decided the world was ready for Bonnie Pinkwater, my female math teacher sleuth.

Thus was born The Witch of Agnesi, the first Bonnie Pinkwater novel. This would be picked up by Medallion Press in the Spring of 2005. What followed were four more East Plains mysteries (the latest Radical Equations was released in e-book form in December 2011).

Are you writing a series or a stand-alone? Explain your basic idea for your series.
The Bonnie Pinkwater mystery series: The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, Irrational Numbers, and Radical Equations (I am working on the fifth Napier's Bones) features a widowed high school math teacher, who uses her knowledge of Mathematics and expertise in historical mathematicians to solve murders in the small Colorado town of East Plains. Each novel features a particular mathematician (usually with a weird story) that provides Bonnie with the AHA moment needed to solve the crimes.

Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

In 2005 I had sent out well over a hundred queries and submissions of The Witch of Agnesi to agents and publishers. One day I actually got twelve rejections filling my mailbox. In May of that year I was at my middle school involved in an activity that was akin to herding cats, Eighth-grade Continuation. What this is, is the first cousin of graduation, with the ceremony celebrating Eighth graders' move from middle school to high school. I was on the auditorium stage with over two hundred excited thirteen year olds, when a secretary came into the auditorium with a slip of paper for me.

I was on the wrong side of the hoard of students, so the message had to be handed off from student-to-student. Eventually, I got to read that the CEO of Medallion Press was on the line in the office. I would sign the contract two weeks later.

Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?

The small Colorado town of Ellicott, where I'd worked for 18 years, seemed the perfect model for East Plains, the setting for the Bonnie Pinkwater novels—old time ranchers, survivalists, witches, and just a slew of unique folks. The main issue I deal with is mathematics, or the history of same. It's long been a passion of mine and thus became a passion of Bonnie. Thus I get to include a puzzle or a bit of history along with an entertaining mystery.

How have you found it to be published? Share that experience

I get off on holding my book in my hand (I really relish the smell of it). When I was a teacher it was such a rush to look out over my classroom and see my book underneath desks. I love the promotion aspects: the signings, the radio bits, the interviews and reviews, the pieces in the local newspapers.

Lately, I've jumped into social media. In fact I just received an invitation from Pinterest this morning. Yesterday I was on a panel at the main branch of Colorado Spring's Library. All in all, I think it's a kick in the butt.
Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

Truth is, letters from fans are my favorite part of being an author. When folks buy my book at a signing I tell them they are making a contract with me to write me and tell me what they think of the read. Almost all do and some have become friends. My favorite review was an unfavorable one posted in Goodreads. I'll clean it up for your readers.
"A f***ing boring little math book."

What other books have you published and where, when?
 Besides the Bonnie Pinkwater mysteries I have no other novels published. When I was nineteen I had two poems published but that was an entire lifetime ago.

Do you have a work in progress now? Is it part of a series?

Actually, I'm working on three projects at the moment. Napier's Bones the fifth Bonnie Pinkwater mystery. A horror piece: a love affair between two psychopaths (this one gives me nightmares). And another Sci-fi novel akin to the first novel I wrote all those years ago (old habits die hard).

If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful? How?

I do belong to SinC, but I'm a new member. I'm hoping to get acquainted with other members at conferences this summer, especially Malice. I've volunteered to work a table or in the book room for the organization.

What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

This is my first Malice, but I hope to meet a new family of readers, hobnob with other authors, make connections, and make literary friends. Also I get to learn from folks a whole bunch more successful than I am.

What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?

I'll talk about Napier's Bones, due out this November. First of all, the term itself is a child's toy, a centuries-old device for teaching children their multiplication tables. You can buy them on Amazon. This novel is set eight months after Radical Equations, where the high school was destroyed by a tornado (when I worked in Ellicott, our school was actually wiped out by a twister).

Bonnie and her science teacher/lover Armen Callahan are watching the field, next to the newly renovated school, being leveled for a baseball field. A thirty year old corpse is unearthed. This shocking discovery sends Bonnie nosing into a decades old murder.
Thank you Judy. I loved your questions and had the best time answering them.

Robert Spiller is the author of the Bonnie Pinkwater mystery series. His teacher sleuth uses Mathematics and her knowlege of historic mathematicians to solve murders in the small Colorado town of East Plains.  Radical Equations, the fourth installment in the series, is scheduled for release in early March.  Robert recently retired from 35 years of teaching Mathematics and lives in Colorado Springs with his amazing and wonderfully patient wife, Barbara.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Gene's Wall

Gene's mosaic art on the wall of his garage in Durham


Gene’s Wall

I first met Gene when he joined a First Person writing course in the Durham Library in 1991. We read journals and autobiographies, and then did writing exercises related to the readings. Gene repaired heating and air conditioning units for a living, and he wrote in his diary when he had breaks.

Later he was in a number of poetry classes and became quite a good poet. We also became friends. I liked his directness, his honesty. He said what he thought, as do I.

By 2003-5 when he spent some Peace Corps time in Honduras, he was writing excellent poetry.



I saw his bent frame
walking toward the Mercado,
across his shoulders
a large pole with
huge bunches of bananas
hanging from each side.
Images rippled
through my mind
like corrugated sheet metal
used for roofing
in the third world.
I thought he was a troubadour
carrying many fascinating
odes encased with
a protective outer skin,
waiting for a chance
to recite.


A little earlier than that, he also began working in metal sculpture. I have an iron flower made from old railway nails in my flower garden. I also have a stepping stone made of concrete with an iron design in the center. He did dancers, faces, a dragon that held his mailbox in its mouth, and many iron flowers, often using rebar. You can see them at his house in Durham.

A few years ago he began to work with mosaics. Last year, after many months, he finished a beautiful design of yellow and red flowers on the front wall of his garage. But it was the next wall mosaic that told me he was truly gifted, truly original. I’ve tried to describe this wall of undulating lines with large round shapes rising.


We have the beauty of your art, which
reminds me of the sea, and the bubbles
rising, the underside of the waves catching


[It was] like an ocean, like
the solemn, purposeful, ecstatic motion of
the waves and bubbles of joy lifting themselves...
You’ve caught incoming waves
in stone, with tiles, broken and whole, with
mirror fragments catching the light.


I’m so happy to see the artist Gene happy in his art, working still as a repairman, but in the evenings and on weekends, working on his walls and plotting new ones.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Wisdom about Love and Art

March daffodils on my dining table


Not all of my favorite books are by authors well-known today, but they’ve stuck with me for years. If you are artistically inclined, give yourself a treat and read Gulley Jimson’s perspective in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. I saw it first as a movie, at age thirty, in Berkeley, 1967. Alec Guinness played Jimson. It is one of the funniest and saddest books I’ve ever read. Here are some of my favorite parts.

Quotes from Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth.

Gardens. Adam’s work. You have to make the bloody things and pile up the rocks and keep the roses in beds. But you don’t get the thorns in your tender parts, by accident–you get them in your fingers, on purpose, and like it, because a garden as old Randypole Blake would say, is a spiritual being.... It happens every day. The old old story. Boys and girls fall in love, that is, they are driven mad and go blind and deaf and see each other not as human animals with comic noses and bandy legs and voices like frogs, but as angels so full of shining goodness that like hollow turnips with candles put into them, they seem miracles of beauty. And the next minute the candles shoot out sparks and burn their eyes. And they seem to each other like devils, full of spite and cruelty And they will drive each other mad unless they have grown some imagination. Even enough to laugh....

Imagination, understanding. To see behind the turnips, to enter into each other’s doesn’t grow on trees like apples in Eden–it’s something you have to make. And you must use your imagination to make it, too, just like anything else. It’s all work, work. The curse of Adam. But if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get anything, even love. He just tumbles about in hell and bashes himself and burns himself and stabs himself. The fallen man–nobody’s going to look after him. The poor bastard is free–a free and responsible citizen. The fall into freedom...

Yes, free to cut his bloody throat if he likes, or understand the bloody world, if he likes, and cook his breakfast with hell-fire, if he likes, and construct for himself a little heaven of his own, if he likes, all complete with a pig-faced angels and every spiritual pleasure, including the joys of love; or also, of course, he can build himself a little hell full of pig-faced devils and all material miseries including the joys of love and enjoy in it such tortures of the damned that he will want to burn himself alive a hundred times a day, but won’t be able to do it because he knows it will give such extreme pleasure to all his friends...

Yes, I said, the fall into freedom, into the real world among the everlasting forms, the solid. Solid as the visions of the ancient man.

P. 196-8

To forgive is wisdom, to forget is genius. And easier. Because it’s true. It’s a new world every heart beat. P. 251.

You can’t expect them to like a picture like that. It’s dangerous. It’s an act of aggression. It’s really equivalent to going into a man’s garden and putting dynamite under his wife. Or trying to kidnap his children. Many a man has lost his children like that–on account of some picture which has carried them away. No, if there’s a plot, it’s a fair and reasonable plot, and I won’t have you abusing my friends, even if they are enemies.

When you’re as old as I am, you’ll take my tip: BE FRIENDS WITH YOUR FRIENDS. It may not be prudent, and it is often difficult. But it is better for the liver, lights, and kidneys. After all friendship has one great advantage; if you don’t like your friends, you can always avoid them, and they won’t mind. Not if there is really good feeling on both sides. P. 323 ["lights" are the lungs]


Then a childhood favorite. I wrote this about it for the February Sisters in Crime Guppy Newsletter, First Draft.


My mother read me The Secret Garden when I was nine. How I loved it–I think now because it was a story of transformation. Both children, crabby Mary, who landed with her reclusive uncle at Misselthwaite manor, and Colin, who was a spoiled invalid, change dramatically. The agent of change was Dickon, the healthy boy, who lived nearby and was at ease with growing things and wild creatures. Dickon’s mother gave good advice to all parents: "Children should neither have nothing of what they want nor everything they want."

Mary and Colin meet, and Mary finds a neglected, walled garden. With Dickon’s help, she resurrects it and then brings Colin there. By the end Mary is happy and Colin can walk.

I loved the change and how it was wrought. Dickon declares the seeming dead roses were "wick." Alive! Everything difficult and depressing slowly turns joyful and triumphant. This theme is through all my writing. Partly because of this book, I came to believe that even seemingly hopeless situations could be transformed.

As a young reader, I was hooked by their difficulties and thoroughly relished the gradual transformation of the children and the garden. My mysteries give me the same opportunity to take the reader through suffering and doubt to resolution and hope. The book may also be why I’m a small farmer.

The actual words of Dickon, from The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett: "Mother says as the two worst things that can happen to a child is never to have his own way or always to have it. She doesn’t know which is the worst." P. 139