Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: Fighting Chance by B.K. Stevens

Fighting Chance.  B.K. Stevens.  Poisoned Pen Press, Scottsdale, AZ.  October 2015 release.  LCCN 2014958055.  Trade: 978-1-92934-514-4 $10.95. E-book: 978-1-92934-515-1 $7.99. 326 pages.  YA Mystery. Under the imprint: Poisoned Pencil.

From the opening page seventeen-year-old Matt Foley distrusts Bobby Davis, who is competing in a martial arts contest against Matt’s coach Randy Colson.  Why was Davis not doing warm-up exercises and looking so smug?  Then, minutes later, Davis crushes the coach’s larynx with a powerful spinning hook kick and kills him.  The umpire and the police see it as an accident. Matt and his friends are sure it was done deliberately.  Since no one else will follow up on the murder, Matt and his friends take on investigating. Who is this Bobby Davis, and what could have been going on in their coach’s life to make someone want to kill him?

I don’t often read YA novels, though I’m told some of my mysteries can be read as “cross over” work for teens as well as adults.  Nor did I know anything about the martial arts tae kwon do and krav maga, yet I found myself caught up in Matt’s fight.

Matt’s best friend, Berk, goes with him to Richmond, and they discover that Davis did not belong to the club he claimed, Kelly’s Dojo.  They don’t tell their parents what they’re doing.  The police keep warning Matt and his friends to leave it alone.  The school guidance counselor Mr. Quinn gives a session on grief, and argues that their conviction Colson was murdered was “denial,” a stage of grief.  The principal, Dr. Lombardo, allows them to have a bake sale to raise money for a scholarship in Colson’s honor, but they are forbidden to pursue the murder theory or publish anything along these lines in the school paper.    

Matt, Berk, and Graciana Cortez visit Colson’s landlady Mrs. Dolby, and she lets them see his apartment, which turns out to have been searched and trashed.  The only things missing are his computer and briefcase.  Everything the teens discover suggests something very wrong was going on.  Despite all the adults in authority insisting the teens leave the investigation alone and remaining suspicious, they continue their search.

What I especially like about this book is the transformation Matt goes through.  In the beginning he feels very critical of his family who are always upbeat and cheerful and like to eat food he considers weird, like tofu stir fry.  His little sister is always happy to be part of their family activities like learning French, but Matt remains alienated until his family begins to be threatened, as a result of what he’s learning about Davis.  

Suzette, one of the members of their club, manipulates Matt into taking her out, but then he learns she is very contemptuous of other people, even Graciana, who is the school paper’s editor, and quite willing to take risks with Matt.

As I read how Matt persisted in doing what he felt was right, I identified with him more and more.  I think my sixteen-year old grandson will receive this book for his birthday.  As far as I know he hasn’t studied martial arts, but I wonder if he has ever been in a situation where he had to fight those in authority who insisted he let go of something that he knew he was right to do.  I recommend Fighting Chance highly.

Judy Hogan  


B.K. (BONNIE) STEVENS’s first novel, Interpretation of Murder, is a whodunit that offers insights into deaf culture and sign language interpreting. Her young adult novel, Fighting Chance, is a martial arts mystery and also a coming of age story. In the spring of 2016, Wildside Press published Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, which collects some of the over fifty short stories B.K. has published. Most of these stories originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. B.K. has won a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. This year, both Fighting Chance and a Hitchcock story, “A Joy Forever,” were finalists for Agatha awards. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia and have two grown daughters. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Impressions from Malice Domestic 28 April 29-May 1, 2016. Bethesda, MD

Hank Philippi Ryan, Toastmaster

This year my friends Sharon and John Ewing dropped me at the Metro, so I didn’t gt lost in Falls Church, but Friday night, when John came to pick me up, I managed to wait on the wrong corner. We eventually figured it out by cell phones.  After the banquet Saturday night I came home from the Metro by taxi, and the driver got lost, but I helped him find my friends’ building.  I must have learned something last year.

I was bringing four mystery novels, two published by Mainly Murder Press in 2012 and 13, and two by my new Hoganvillaea Books in 2015 and 16.  When I go to Malice, I am always hopeful that my books will find new readers, and they often have.  Selling one’s books takes patience and ingenuity, and then out of the blue someone becomes enthusiastic.

The last morning, Sunday, at 11:45, was my panel, but I got confused about the schedule and arrived in the room at 11.  Another woman had, too, and we chatted.  Then when I realized I was too early, she went off to buy my first Penny Weaver novel, The Sands of Gower, and had me sign it.  That was one bookstore sale (Mystery Loves Company).  Still, as our toastmaster this year, Hank Philippi Ryan, said to us during the opening ceremonies, “While you’re here, something wonderful will happen to you.” That was my one thing.  And another fan, sitting next to me at another panel, after I gave her bookmarks, said she was going to buy my two new ones, maybe by e-book, which is still great.

Sarah Caudwell: "Malice Remembers"

There were other highlights for me.  I hadn’t expected to be interested in Sarah Caudwell, but I always go to the “Malice Remembers” session.  Martin Edwards, Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press (Poirot Award), Douglass Green (Amelia Award), and Katherine Hall Page, our Lifetime Achievement honoree this year, brought Caudwell alive and made me want to read her books.  She published only four, was a solicitor, and graduated from Oxford.  She was almost never sober, but apparently erudite and very funny, both in her books and in her conversation.  She won an Anthony for her third book, and Peters said the weight of that paralyzed her. The fourth one was published after her death.

I like to hear the Best Contemporary Novel panelists.  Margaret Maron, who has won many Agatha teapots, was up for her last Deborah Knott novel Long Upon the Land.  Hank Philippi Ryan has won some teapots, too, and was up for What You See.  Annette Dashofy’s being on this panel was very interesting to me.  Bridges Burned is her third novel, and only last year she was on the First Best Novel panel for Circle of Influence, which did not win, though her comments on the panel interested me the most, and I thought that first novel was excellent.  Catriona McPherson’s nominee was The Child Garden.  Catriona has published twelve books and been on Agatha panels before.  Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast was also nominated but she wasn’t present.  Too bad.  She’s my very favorite contemporary mystery author.

Margaret reiterated a theme I like: she found there was nothing she couldn’t say in a mystery, and Annette said, “How therapeutic it is to kill people.”  I agree, though I find it shocks people outside the mystery community when I say that.

I also enjoyed the Best Historical Novel nominees, and one of my very favorite authors, Laurie King, was on it, and later won the teapot for her Dreaming Spies.  Rhys Bowen’s Malice at the Palace was nominated, as were Susanna Calkins (The Mask for a Murderer), Susanna Elia MacNeal (Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante), and Victoria Thompson’s Murder on Amsterdam Ave.  Victoria was Guest of Honor this year.

Laurie said about her Holmes and Mary Russell series that she wanted two characters with minds like Holmes, hence her young American, Mary Russell, and what interests Laurie are the differences between them, and then, as they work and live together, still more differences are revealed.  Rhys Bowen in her Royals series likes writing about a character poised in the 1930s between two worlds.  Vickie commented that “truth is always stranger than fiction.”

Their moderator Harriette Sackler asked them how they kept a long-running series fresh, and Vickie says she looks forward to being with her characters again.  “If I don’t love doing it, I won’t do it,” she said.  Laurie’s latest, a real series freshener? is The Murder of Mary Russell.  She has us worried now.  As to escapism, which is why some readers gravitate to mysteries, Laurie said, “I’m honored to offer people an escape.”

Some interesting ideas came up on the Outsiders panel.  Of the five, Shelley Costa (Practical Sins for Cold Climates), Jill Amadio (Digging Up the Dead), Elizabeth Duncan (Murder On the Hour), Nancy Martin (Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything), and K.M. Rockwood (Abductions and Lies), three are writing out of a different national culture experience, Shelley (Italy), Jill (Cornwall), and Elizabeth (Canada/Wales).  Nancy said being in Texas was like being in another country for her, and K.M. (Kathleen) noted that her character Jesse is an outsider in an American city because of having spent twenty years in prison.  

Shelley said, “All detectives are outsiders.”  Nancy said, “Outsiders don’t have expectations.”  Jill said, “They get away with more.”  Kathleen said, “Once out of prison, being an outsider is very freeing.”  Nancy said, “Outsiders can function under the radar.” Afterwards, I thought, writers are all outsiders, too, in that they pull back from participating and observe and later use those observations in their writing.

Barbara Peters
Robert Rosenwald

I also thoroughly enjoyed Laurie King’s interview of the Poisoned Pen Press and Bookstore duo, Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald.  They’ve built an international community around their non-profit press and store.  70% of their customers live outside of Scottsdale.  They see book events there as theater.

Barbara’s attitude toward trying new things, e.g., when they decided to start the press after the bookstore, “How hard can it be?” They have no credit issues now, which means that they can reliably ship large orders of books for an event.  They want to publish intelligent, well-written books, and do forty a year, plus about fifteen in the project of bringing back British authors that have gone out of print.

Robert answered Laurie’s question about whether it’s better for the author: being published by a small press or self-publishing.  He listed thee things: what an editor does for a book.  Barbara, for instance, will tell an author to leave out the first third.  Some hired editors won’t tell their clients the truth, she said.  A small press bets its money on a book, decides how much they can afford to lose, and if they’re well-known like PPP is, their marketing can make a difference.  A known press behind the author can also help in getting reviews.

They are also now publishing books from other countries, but they have to be in English.  They continue to look for good books, and their only “trend” is to publish books “we love that are well-written.”

Katherine Hall Page

Katherine Hall Page was interviewed by Daniel Stashower. Katherine can’t remember when she wasn’t reading.  She wrote her first novel in France when she and her family lived there for a year, and she was freer of child care.  She joked that her children took naps until they were sixteen.  She came first to the third Malice, where she met Carolyn Hart.  She writes the kind of book she wants to read, and likes best the traditional mystery.

I went to the YA panel on Saturday with Kathleen Ernest (Death on the Prairie), Sara Masters Buckey (moderator), Shelly Dickson Carr (Ripped: A Jack the Ripper Time-Travel Thriller).  Nina Mansfield (Swimming Alone), and Carolyn Mulford (Thunder Beneath My Feet).  In their young years, Carolyn said she read Mark Twain.  Kathleen said she “disappeared” into books, and Nina loved Rebecca.  Kathleen’s young sleuth was strong yet vulnerable. Nina said hers “speaks truth to power.”  Carolyn’s keeps going and under control even in difficult circumstances (a catastrophic earthquake in Missouri in the late 1800s).  She has courage but is shy and holds back.  Nina’s fifteen-year-old is herself at that age and a risk-taker.  

Nina has the violence off stage.  Carolyn said the violence is exposed and the death reported.  Kathleen said the difficult things were off-stage.  As to sex and romance, Nina’s heroine has a crush but it’s not a big focus.  Kathleen said sex is off-stage.  Carolyn’s has light romance.  To survive, her boy and girl sleuths have to work together, but she thinks sexual tension is needed.

On Sunday morning we had a Sherlock Holmes panel: Laurie King, with three other Holmes authors.  Lois Gresh said she has fleshed out Watson and deepened the relationship with Holmes.  She also brought out the artistic temperament she sees in Holmes.  Laurie said it took her six books to develop her Holmes character and her study of her two sleuths, Holmes and Mary Russell.  Michael Robertson emphasized Holmes’s singularity of purpose and gave him a relationship with a bright woman.  The moderator, John Betancourt (editor of Wildside Press, who publishes a Holmes journal) asked why Holmes keeps coming back.  Lois said, “He’s irresistible–a fruit you cannot have.”  Laurie said, “He’s a super hero we could be if we worked hard.  He has a passion for setting things right.”

I was on the last panel Sunday morning: “Murder in Wartime: World War II.” Kim Gray was our moderator, and she gave us some easy surprise questions at the beginning.  Which author would we choose if we could co-write with another one.  I said, “Louise Penny.”  Sarah Shaber said, “Charles Todd.”  I forget Stephen Kelly’s.  When she asked what sleuth we’d choose of the famous ones out there, to help our sleuth, both Stephen and I said, “Sherlock Holmes.”  But that was right after the Holmes panel.  I couldn’t think of a single sleuth until Holmes jumped into my mind.  As I remember Sarah chose Josephine Tey’s sleuth, Alan Grant.  I love Tey, too.
Sarah and Stephen’s books (both really good) were Louise’s Chance, and The Language of the Dead, respectively.  Stephen’s is set in England early in the war; Louise’s in Washington, DC mid-war.  Mine takes place (The Sands of Gower) in 1991, with the British still angry at the Germans after 46 years.  Both Sarah and Stephen had done a huge amount of research.  My main research was having lived in a B&B like my fictional one on the Gower Peninsula.  I did actually consult a Swansea policeman, whose territory included the Gower peninsula, but I forgot about that on the panel.  Sarah even haunts Craig’s List for old hotel menus and maps from World War II.  Stephen had never even been to the southeast part of England that he was writing about, but by internet he’d caught it so well that I thought he was a Brit.  We had a good, interested audience for that panel.

I’ve given you impressions, things that struck me especially and that I enjoyed.  When Malice is first over, I try to evaluate my feelings and can’t very well.  Malice stirs up wishfulness, to have more readers, be more famous, win an Agatha, but I know it’s better to keep one’s expectations low and remember what you did enjoy.

B.K. Stevens

One big disappointment was that B.K. Stevens, who had had three books out since the last Malice:  a new collection of short stories (she has published about fifty) from Wildside Press (Her Infinite Variety); her first novel (Interpretation of Murder), and a YA novel called Fighting Chance, was unable to come because she fell and broke her arm the Wednesday before.  I had chosen to sit at her table for the banquet and wondered how that would be handled. 

Bonnie’s daughter Rachel came, and the Wildside Press couple, John Betancourt and Carla, helped host, too.  My friend Gloria Alden and I had both chosen to sit there.  B.K. was also up for two Agathas, for the YA and a short story called, “A Joy Forever.”  I enjoy B.K.’s stories, her novel, and I’m planning a review May 29, of Fighting Chance.  I reviewed Interpretation of Murder on this blog on Feb. 25 this year.

Malice is known as the friendliest crime writers convention, and I find that true.  My friend Sharon went with me Sunday, and shared some panels and the Agatha tea.  This year they actually served the tea first before the coffee.  I do like Malice best of the conventions I’ve been to. After writing this, I feel glad I went.  As to greater success in the mystery world, I’ll keep publishing and finding new readers, and try not to expect too much.  Someone there said that what can you expect when you bring all these introverts together and tell them to communicate?  Still, we did. 

Judy Hogan

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Reader Comments on Penny Weaver Novels So Far

The Sands of Gower appeared December 1, 2015, the first in my Penny Weaver series.


I have just finished reading Sands. It is a sweet love story, as well as a masterful mystery. Knowing Penny before Kenneth gives depth to her character and prepares your readers for some of the conflicts she experiences in the later books. Having experienced something similar myself, it was very interesting to me to read a book where two grown people meet and fall in love and plan to balance their separate lives. I think the experience described in Sands is more common today than it has been, at least among the people I know well. 

The description of the scenery was beautiful--so vivid I could walk it in my mind. I feel like I've been to Gower. 

With the descriptions of these various couples and their relationships (with the exception of Evelyn and Harold), one can hope for better things for the "new" couple in the novel--Penny and Kenneth. 

Love your book, 
--Mary Susan Heath, writer in Goldsboro, NC


Haw: The Second Penny Weaver Mystery.  
Released May 1, 2016 

Haw is a testimony to how jealousy and anger can propel an average person to murder.

Penny often wonders what kind of mother could have raised such immature, impulsive, careless young men as both Curt and his twin brother Sy. Through her conversation with Kenneth, there is interesting social commentary on modern child rearing. Chrissy's behavior provides point and counterpoint to Penny's speculations. 
There are other pairs in the book as well and more social commentary. Penny and Kenneth's romance is "old love." Their relationship is a foil for that of Penny's daughter Sarah and her husband Ed. Theirs is new, young love. Penny's ability to hold her own in the relationship is contrasted with Sarah's clingy dependence on her husband. 

Ms. Hogan seems to be saying through her characters that a good marriage is indeed possible, but that it must be based on respect, as well as a mutual desire to allow the other person to be the best that he or she can be. Haw is a wonderful old school Who Done it, and a masterful social commentary on marriage and children. 
I loved it!!! 
–Mary Susan Heath, writer in Goldsboro


Nuclear Apples?  Coming September 1, 2016.

An early comment from NC WARN Director Jim Warren:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Judy Hogan was involved in a real-life citizen movement to keep high-level radioactive waste from being shipped from around the Carolinas and stored at a nuclear plant near her home. She has turned that successful struggle into a thrilling whodunit. This book captures the feeling of community and empowerment that came from neighbors banding together for the common good, and it reminds us that the same courage and solidarity are still needed today to guide the conscience of corporations, governments and the media.

To order or pre-order a signed copy, send $19 (covers tax and postage) to Judy Hogan, PO Box 253, Moncure, NC 27559.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Everything Takes More Courage

One of my White Rock hens.  Photo by John Ewing

Can Flowers Change Your Life? VI. January 24, 2016

Then ice came. The first day I put down
wood ashes and then crunched my way
through it to feed the hens.  I saved wood
and used the heat pump.  The electricity
did not go out Friday or Saturday,
though I had prepared.  All around me
ice had brought down power lines.
We were told not to travel.  I didn’t
even go out the front door.  I asked
Shawn to help me clear the ice off
the back steps, and when he walked
along the icy path to the coop, I 
followed with feed.  The hens had
already laid three eggs in the dark.
Everything takes more courage, but I 
do keep summoning it.  Today sun,
and no more ice showers.  I left the
small flaps open for the hens for light
because the cold coop doesn’t deter
them.  I ate warm muffins for breakfast
and meditated on the rest of my life.
Things settle into a routine again,
but there are frequent interruptions.
I’ve committed to stop the coal ash
if it’s humanly possible, to finish and
publish my Russian story.  I teach and
edit to pay the bills.  My physical strength
holds as long as I use it.  My balance
is better.  The sun is melting the ice.
The hens will reach the orchard.  I’ve
ordered seeds and will buy more bird
food.  People keep writing: Are you
warm?  Yes, warm, sane, determined to
live a good life, to age well, to be as
ingenious as ever, and as ready to love
those who reach out to me
as well as I can.


Judy selling books in Goldsboro's Wayne County Library, spring, 2015. Photo by Mary Susan Heath.