Sunday, July 27, 2014

Give One's Last Strength to Fruit

Peppers and tomatoes--July--in Lasagna Garden

A THREAD OF LIGHT XXIII.  February 23, 2014

Our climate may be
whimsical, but there are deeper 
principles at work in the Universe.
Death is an ever-present reality, but 
hardly the whole story.  Plants teach us.  
Trees hold seminars in survival.  
Take in rain when it falls. Wait for 
sun.  Life turns emphatic: Grow!  
To despair is to miss out on the rewards 
of holding on, anticipating a resurgence 
of the will to live and flourish, 
to give one’s last strength to fruit.
–A Thread of Light III.

The trees hold still; the peepers continue
their jubilant, shrill song of resurrection.
Winter turned cruel; nearby woods were
ransacked for fat logs to sell, huge 
limbs left for trash, which ultimately
feeds the soil should human beings
leave it alone.  The first purple crocuses
lift their elegant heads, and the tree frogs
sing, not dismay but desire–all day, all 
night.  The heavy rain and wind, which 
came to punish us, did not cut off their 
cheerful voices.  Sun again finds its 
reason for being.  Our garden moves 
from dream to reality.  Ana Maria says
I will have the best vegetables ever.
After cardboard to discourage weeds
and rabbit manure with fat earthworms,
we scatter straw, begin the next layer
of manure; then more straw and finally
manure to be topsoil and welcome seeds.
We, as well as the crocuses and peepers,
have outwitted winter and its savagery.
Ask only for what you truly need.  Care
for those who care for you; then add
a couple more.  Love multiplies its
boundaries like seeds do.  The 
Universe has its grain.  Find it,
stick close, and be everything
you ever wanted to be

now and forever after.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Jenny Milchman's Ruin Falls

Ruin Falls.  Jenny Milchman.  Ballantine, 2014.  Hardback: ISBN 978-0-345-54907-5. $26.  339 pp.

Ruin Falls is about children.  And mothers.  And fathers.  About how hard it is in 2014 to make a good marriage and to be a good parent.  It’s also about fear, especially fear for your children.  

Liz Daniels and her husband Paul haven’t made a road trip together since their children, Reid, eight, and Ally, six, were born.  Hence the first line: “The children had never been this far from home before.”  Hence the dedication: “This one is for my children, Sophie and Caleb, who know all about dreams and have done so much for this one.”

The Daniels family is headed into western New York state in the summer to visit Paul’s parents, from whom he is alienated.  They stop at a hotel for the night, and in the morning the children are gone.  The agony of Liz is unimaginable, but Jenny Milchman easily imagines and presents it so that you’re there.  It becomes clear that Liz is extremely dependent on Paul.  When Paul also disappears, she almost can’t function.  Add to that, her new clarity: Paul took the children.  We had learned that Paul had extreme views on what the family should eat (avoiding sugar, caffeine, corn and other genetically modified and processed foods) and wear (no cheap clothes or goods manufactured by children in poor countries).

Liz knows their children cheat on their strict diet, and even she sometimes lets them have sweets, which Paul forbids.  The boy Reid has, by age eight, becomes a skilled pickpocket enabling him to pilfer gum from his classmates or remove the wallets of strange men (for practice only; he doesn’t keep them).  So we know this isn’t quite your “normal” nuclear family, if that still exists.

The story that follows takes us through all the stages of Liz emerging from a serious dependence on Paul’s belief in himself and his idealism and on the emotional support of her best friend Jill, to her finding within herself the confidence and competence she needs to solve a crime that the law and the police can’t help her with. 

She’s still married, though she no longer wants to be, and she doesn’t know where her children are.  To find them, she has to outwit her missing husband and learn more about him than she ever bothered to know before.

In these climate change years we all live with more heat and cold than our bodies easily cope with.  Jenny’s first book, Cover of Snow, takes place in an icy, chilling world of northern New York state.  Ruin Falls begins in the plains of western New York state in summer when it’s too hot, sweaty, and sticky.  

I loved how the earth and its fruits are presented here--the trees, the soil, the healthy food that Liz and Jill in their Roots farm business have learned to grow.  Even six-year-old Ally misses trees when they leave home and already has a green thumb.

We meet other parents and their children in situations where mothers and fathers are coping badly and are putting their children at risk.  The book begins with a seemingly normal family off on its vacation and gradually changes until we are in a surreal universe, one in which our conscious, normal life is turned upside down, and we have to live with our worst fears becoming the reality.

Jenny has taken on our contemporary American dilemma as our government allows large corporations the freedom to dominate what we eat and what we buy, while parents try to raise healthy, independent-minded children who can cope in an increasingly difficult “real” world.

If every novel has a moral, which once was true and still often is, and Good in fiction can still win out over Evil, then Jenny’s moral is to love, respect, and cherish your children, and teach them to think for themselves as well as to love and care for our earth and for other people.  We need more books like this one.


Jenny Milchman lives with her husband and two children in upstate New York when she isn’t traveling on the world’s longest book tour.  In 2013, when her debut novel Cover of Snow came out, she and her family traveled for seven months, putting 35,000 miles on their car and visiting independent and mystery bookstores all over the U.S.  This year, after Ruin Falls came out in April, they have been on a four-month tour.  They were here in the Triangle area of central North Carolina over the July 4 weekend, where she read at McIntyre’s in Pittsboro, and they return here for Jenny to read at Flyleaf books in Chapel Hill on August 20, 7 PM, and at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on August 22 at 7:30 PM.  We always feel lucky to have Jenny and her family visiting us.  You can follow her trip schedule on her website:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: K.M. Rockwood's Fostering Death

Fostering Death: A Jesse Damon Crime Novel.  K.M. Rockwood. 2012, 208 pp.  E-book: ISBN: 978-1-61937-824-7. $4.99.  Paper: order from $10.00.

K.M. Rockwood did it again.  She got me hooked into worrying about Jesse Damon and then pulled it out when I thought it impossible.  Fostering Death is the second in this crime series. Steeled for Murder is the first.  (Cf. my review here on June 8, 2014)  Every time Jesse tries to help other people, suspicion falls on him, and his good deeds are viewed as proof of his crimes.  The detective duo, Belkins and Montgomery, are on him again when he shows up at the funeral home viewing to pay his respects to his foster mother, the only person in his life who had given him real affection.  

Then he’s accused of killing her.  She was hit on the head and thrown down her basement stairs, but Jesse hadn’t seen her alive since before he went to prison at age sixteen for murder.  He had taken an Alford plea, which means he acknowledged that they had enough evidence to convict him, but he isn’t a murderer.  Twenty year later, out on parole, this duo of detectives is sure he’s guilty every time he makes a move, despite his having kept the terms of his parole and almost finished his three-month trial period of employment at the steel manufacturing plant, making him finally eligible to join the union.

Meantime Aaron, a young drug addict co-worker at the same steel plant, keeps pestering him to sell him drugs, when Jesse is working hard to stay clean and sober so as not to violate the terms of his parole. He’s afraid that Aaron is helping the police.

His foster mother’s widower, Mr. Coleman, tells Jesse to stay away, but when Jesse goes back to their house to see if he can discover the real murderer and finds Coleman on the ground, unable to get up, Jesse helps him into the house, makes him a cup of tea and some soup.  The house is too cold, so he calls the gas company to learn that the heat is off because the bill was never paid.  He gets Mr. Coleman to sign a check for the amount owed, and then he hurries to get the check in before the deadline so the gas can be turned on again.  He calls a neighbor woman to look after Mr. Coleman, but she’s suspicious of him, and then the cops are after him again.  All his good intentions backfire and make him look bad.

Kelly, his new girlfriend, as he hopes, has a drinking problem, and she’s touchy and angry at him for “interfering” with her children, when she was too drunk to take care of them. Meantime he has found a cold and hungry cat at his front door in pouring, icy rain. He tries to get her to go elsewhere, but the cat won’t leave, so he takes her in, feeds her the tunafish he’d splurged on for his lunches, and fixes her a bed in his laundry basket, where she soon has two kittens.  Jesse can barely pay his bills and normally eats peanut butter sandwiches, but he buys more tuna and cat litter.  Then the strange cult group that has set up a temple next door claims the cat as their missing goddess.  What are they up to anyway?

I’m struck by how Jesse is one of those “good” characters in crime fiction to whom bad things are always happening.  Think of Louse Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache, who is both good and wise, and how evil people, including his superiors in the Surete, go after him. I’m also reminded of Henry James’s advice for the best kind of novel plot: a hero/heroine who is intelligent enough to feel intensely and blind enough to suffer, and then has “fools” ministering to him or her so as to make those sufferings agonizing to the reader.

You won’t want to miss these Jesse Damon books.  There are two more in the series which I’ll be reviewing later this summer (Buried Biker and Send Off For A Snitch).  The fifth novel, Brothers in Crime, is due out this summer, too.


KM Rockwood draws on a varied background for stories, among them working as a laborer in a steel fabrication plant, operating glass melters and related equipment in a fiberglass manufacturing facility, and supervising an inmate work crew in a large medium security state prison. These jobs, as well as work as a special education teacher in an alternative high school and a GED teacher in county detention facilities, provide most of the background for her novels and short stories.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Barbara Smith: Death at Painted Cave. Interview

1. When did you begin writing?  Why?

I’ve been writing since graduate school (trained as a scientist).  As I was writing a textbook, Psychology of Sex and Gender (2004), I felt constrained by the demands of scientific writing and began a novel . . . Green Grows the Grass, a complicated historical story, which I just finished!  My son was in the hospital for many months—while staying with him, I worked on a mystery that arose from my time living in Santa Barbara, California.  That book was Death at Painted Cave.  Writing helped keep me calm and allowed me to be with him and still give him space.

2. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?
I love mysteries—trying to solve a problem, after all, is what science is all about!  The draw of writing them, I suppose, is the freedom involved in creating my own mystery and then solving it. 

3. Are you writing a series or a stand-alone?  Explain your basic idea for your series.   
Death at Painted Cave is the first in the series:  Robin Crane Mysteries.   I am currently completing the second in a series, Floater in the Baltimore Harbor.  The basic idea is a series featuring a woman detective, with a young son, that combines a mystery and suspense, flavored with police procedural, as well as a dash of politics and current issues.

4. Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.
I’d written a text book that had been professionally published and was not impressed with the publication and marketing process.  I was attracted to the independence related to self-publishing and decided to give it a try.  I’m blessed with family and friends who were willing to serve as readers and provide me with feedback regarding the cover.  

5. Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?
Two of the social issues that arise in Death at Painted Cave are domestic violence and human trafficking.   Early in life, I volunteered at a shelter and was appalled, at so many levels, by domestic violence.  As a developmental psychologist I addressed domestic violence in the classroom, particularly as it relates to child development—I suppose my books are an extension of communicating my concerns.   Moreover, I lived and worked in Latin America for many years and was shocked at what I learned about the trafficking of children.  An overarching theme repeating itself in my writing relates to the effects of war on subsequent generations.

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

I love the sense of completion that comes with publication—with the letting go of a project that has consumed me for months and, in some cases, even years.  In addition to the feeling of accomplishment, publication enables me to more fully focus on my next project.   Exciting!

7.  Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?
The following are some of the reviews on Amazon:

· This is a terrific suspense story, I really enjoyed this book. The sense of place was well-wrought, and I'm glad to know it's going to be a series. Love female detectives. I can't say more without giving something away. So when is the next one coming up, B A.....?

· Although I've never been to Painted Cave, as a native Californian I loved being transported to this fascinating location and then led seamlessly into an intriguing story, complete with a Nicaraguan connection. Smith's finely-tuned character portrayals and the interweaving of immigrant and academic life, political intrigue and detective work are deftly melded. It looks as though Robin Crane is already on the path to tackling another mystery and I look forward to her further adventures!

· Great read! Held my attention completely and I could not put it down! Can't wait for the next Crane mystery.

· This is a very good novel. The author makes a very good job at keeping the reader engaged. What it seems a simple and straight forward crime investigation turns into an international political scandal that will have you go back to your history books (or you can Google it). If you like mystery and crime thrillers, this is the one for the season.

· I found the story and its characters very real and with so many details. You can actually see the story taking place. The author gives you the background of the story and relates it well to the progression of the plot. Robin Crane is more than a character in the story; she is a mother, a detective, and a friend. I can hear her thoughts and ideas and understand her  well.  B A brings in her own cultural knowledge through the language in the story and information about Nicaragua. It is the first Robin Crane mystery thank goodness. This character deserves more stories.

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

Psychology of Sex and Gender, 2004, through Pearson.

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

Green Grows the Grass is finished.  It is currently a stand-alone, though I cut so much that there is a possibility for a follow-up. 

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

Absolutely!  Judy Hogan strongly recommended belonging to the Guppies—so I’m new to that group—but am looking forward to future events and developing more relationship with like-minded folks.

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

I found the greatest benefit to be the meeting with other authors.  I am pretty much isolated with my writing—the encouragement and education I received at my first Malice Domestic Conference was so helpful.

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

The title for the next book in the Robin Crane Mystery series is Floater in the Baltimore Harbor.   Detective Robin Crane has left the police department of Santa Barbara, California for the Baltimore, MD, PD.   After training and some street work, she is assigned to a murder case:  the body of a young boy was discovered in a culvert.  Though apparently well-cared for, Crane and her partner do not even have an identification for the dead child.  As she works on that case, she finds herself unaccountably disturbed by the memory of a body found floating in the harbor one day while taking a walk.  Complicating the murder case are rumors of child trafficking taking place in the mid-Atlantic area.

Green Grows the Grass is a novel that pulses with an exploration of the life of Katie Stewart, a privileged professor and cancer survivor who returns to her childhood home of Costa Rica to do research.  Her close friend is Felicia, an uneducated and poor Nicaraguan who fled her war-torn homeland for prosperous Costa Rica. Through their friendship, Katie faces painful memories of her own past, including the tragic disappearance of her father.  As the novel unravels the historical and political strings connecting people, the immediate and long-lasting effects of war become heartbreakingly apparent.  


 B A Smith received her doctorate in psychology and taught and carried out research at the Johns Hopkins University for twenty years.  As a Fulbright Senior Scientist Award recipient, she studied healthcare delivery in an economically impoverished community in Costa Rica.  Smith has lived in Central America and across the United States but currently calls Maryland home, where she is at work on the next novel in the Robin Crane series, Floater in Baltimore Harbor.  Above all, she is a proud mother and grandmother who, in addition to writing, enjoys travel, gardening, and reading.