Countdown to Book Launch

I’m delighted to announce that my cozy mystery will launch on Amazon.com on May 15th. What’s a cozy mystery you ask? Ironically, when I started writing Second Bloom, I had never heard the term myself.

The word “cozy” says it all. Whatever you picture when you hear that word–a fireplace, a steaming pot of tea, a fluffy comforter, the smell of bread baking in the oven–that’s what to expect from a cozy mystery. Jessica Faust of Book Ends Literary Agency explains it this way:

“When you read one you feel like you’re being embraced by a world you want to be in. You’ve found new friends and maybe a protagonist who inspires you or who could easily be your best friend. The book itself doesn’t move too fast, there tends not to be a lot of blood, usually no more than one body…”

Like so many other mystery fans, I developed a  love of traditional and cozy mysteries reading Nancy Drew books, graduating to Agatha Christie as I got older. As I wrote in my November blog: “Especially when the world seems gray and gloomy, whether literally or figuratively, I know no better escape than reading about a plucky heroine who says and does all the things I can’t, a shero who conquers the bad guys and finds true love with some hunky hero.”

I got the idea for Second Bloom, the first book in my Holly and Ivy Mystery series, sitting in the garden at the Daniel Webster Inn on Cape Cod. My sister and I were admiring the flowers and I said something about Rosemary and Thyme, the PBS cozy mystery series that featured two women gardeners as amateur sleuths. Suddenly I got the spark of an idea. Wouldn’t an American version be great…a series about two sisters who garden and solve mysteries? And that’s where it all began, the summer of 2010.

The resulting book, Second Bloom, is  a cozy mystery about Holly Donnelly, a 55-year old adjunct English professor, and her younger sister, 52-year old Ivy Donnelly, a recently widowed, retired nurse. The look-alike sisters are reluctantly drawn into the investigation of an elderly neighbor’s murder when Juan Alvarez, Holly’s trusted gardener, is accused of the crime. Holly fears police detective, Nick Manelli, assumes Juan is guilty and won’t conduct a proper investigation, while Ivy feels the “hunky” Manelli is not only a good cop, but also a possible romantic match for her sister. The burning question is: can the clues the sisters unearth from neighborhood gossip about the victim’s family, a politically connected neighbor and a powerful real estate developer help save an innocent man, or will the gardening duo dig up more than they bargain for?

Tomorrow, April 27, I leave for Bethesda, Maryland to attend the annual Malice Domestic conference. This gathering is an annual fan convention  that celebrates the traditional mystery. As you can guess, these are “my people”. I’ll be there spreading the word about my imminent launch…all those years of marketing have not been lost on me.

If you like cozy mysteries, I hope you’ll check back here on May 15th. If you subscribe to my blog, you will automatically get notified when the book goes on sale and, if you subscribe before May 15th, I’ll send you Holly’s recipe for Honey Oat Bread.
Until then, wishing you sunny days and cozy nights!

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

On Sunday evening, June 26, 1977 I sat down at the desk in my room at Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, England. The next day I would attend the first of my master’s level classes at Wroxton College, the British campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. That summer we would be reading Henry VI, Parts One,Two and Three. Later in the summer, we would be attending all three of these Shakespearean history plays performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon.

My sister, Mary Ellen, and me on a return visit to Wroxton Abbey, Summer 2011.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I read that the setting of the first scene was Westminster Abbey. I had just been there the day before. Yes, I loved Shakespeare before, but my three summers at Wroxton would transform that love into unconditional adoration.

Imagine my horror when I picked up the newspaper this past October and read the following headline: “Oxford says Shakespeare will share credit for Henry VI.” Wait…what? That’s right. Oxford University Press’ new edition of Shakespeare’s works will credit Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. [Are you rolling in your grave, Will?]

Gary Taylor, a professor at Florida State University and the principal investigator of the new edition crowed, “Shakespeare has now entered the world of big data.” He and a team of 23 international “scholars” used “computerized data sets to reveal patterns, trends and associations— analyzing not only Shakespeare’s words, but also those of his contemporaries.”

Seriously? Why would anyone do that? Have modern scholars run out of original ideas and thoughts to explore and research? This reminded me of one disappointing lecture by a tutor at Wroxton that focused on the number of active and passive verbs Shakespeare used in his plays. After listening to visiting Shakespearean scholars lecture all semester, providing brilliant insights into Elizabethan life and times and inspiring interpretations of Shakespeare’s writing, I found the verb identification exercise rather uninspiring. And now, computer analysis of Shakespeare? Positively dispiriting, not to mention yawn-inducing.

It’s no secret that writers often seek the advice of other writers, and in Elizabethan England, there was “a demand for new material to feed the appetite of the first mass entertainment industry.” I’ll concede that the small group of writers working at that time probably consulted one another and may have even collaborated. As a writer myself, I participate in classes and critique groups where members of the group provide wonderful suggestions about editing my phrasing, language, and even plot, and I have amended my work based on their suggestions. Does that make them my co-authors?

It’s hard to account for the obsession with discrediting a beloved and venerated writer who’s been dead nearly 500 years. Historically, there have been writers, scholars and critics who questioned Shakespeare’s ability to have written all the plays that have traditionally been attributed to him. Some say Shakespeare simply didn’t have the experience to write about the subject matter he covered. In response to that James Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? writes:

“What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him exceptional: his imagination.”

The Bard

So, my question to the scholars using “big data” to analyze Shakespeare’s plays is what imaginative contribution have you made to the world of literature? Even if you’re right, does it really matter that Christopher Marlowe, a poet and playwright himself, may have written some scenes in the Henry VI plays, perhaps to help out a fellow writer trying to meet a deadline or because he needed the money?

Will any one of the scholars who completed this study be quoted 500 years from now? Methinks the answer lies in the Bard’s own words. Compared to Shakespeare, the scholar using computer analytics to define his work is:

“…but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.” Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

And as for his computer study, well:

“ It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

Long live Shakespeare! Long live the Bard!

Book Review: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

The main character of John Irving’s novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is a writer named Juan Diego Guerrero. Irving says this about his protaganist’s writing:

“In a Juan Diego Guerrero novel everyone is a kind of outsider; Juan Diego’s characters feel they are foreigners, even when they’re home.”

avenue-of-mysteriesThe same can be said about John Irving’s novels in general, but this is especially the case in Avenue of Mysteries. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Juan Diego and his sister, Lupe, are los ninos de la basura or dump kids. Their mother was a prostitute and they were raised by el jefe, the dump boss, who had a relationship with her at one time. Whether or not el jefe was Juan’s biological father is one of the book’s many mysteries.

What is extraordinary about Juan Diego is that he has taught himself to read, scavenging books that have been tossed in the garbage. Even more remarkable, he has taught himself to read both Spanish and English. Lupe, on the other hand, speaks her own language that only Juan Diego can understand. He is her translator. Some people think she’s retarded, but  she often surprises them because she can read their minds and sometimes she can even foresee the future.

We learn the story of Juan Diego’s life in Mexico and later in Iowa, mostly through his dreams and memories. After the luggage carrying his medication is delayed on the first leg of his flight to the Phillipines, Juan Diego’s “thoughts, his memories—what he imagined, what he dreamed were jumbled up.” And thus begins a masterfully crafted story that moves seamlessly from the present to the past and back again.

On the back jacket of Avenue of Mysteries is a blurb lifted from a TIME magazine review. It says:

“…unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he [John Irving] manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability.”

I have to tell you I laughed out loud when I read that. So, was the reviewer acknowledging that critics like books that are unreadable? I have read my share of critically acclaimed, prize winning novels that experiment with time…no boring, formulaic beginning, middle and end for them. Quite frankly, they make my head hurt. Half the time I’m not sure who’s speaking or what century we’re in. I do believe those writers should read and study Avenue of Mysteries. This is how you do it so that your reader is with you every minute, enjoying the journey, spending time reflecting on the ideas you’re writing about, not struggling to figure out who’s who and what time period we’re in..

"The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most." Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

“The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most.” Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

There is so much more to say about this book. Irving expounds on various topics —writing, life’s mysteries, Shakespeare and the Catholic Church (anyone who went to Catholic school will most certainly recognize Sister Gloria) to name just a few. There’s also one wonderful episode in which Juan Diego views a book store bulletin board in Lithuania and mistakenly thinks he’s stumbled on a dating service that matches people based on the novels they read. He thinks it’s a wonderful idea. My question is why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

I look forward to writing future blogs inspired by Mr. Irving’s reflections. I’d love to  share some of his thoughts on writing and I especially can’t wait to write my answer to the question “Who wrote Shakespeare?”

Just a word of caution. In previous blogs, I have expressed my love of cozy mysteries and happy endings. The word cozy is not one that could be applied to John Irving’s work, and satisfying might more aptly describe his endings than happy. If you’ve never read John Irving before, you might prefer to start with his all-time, best-selling novel , A Prayer for Owen Meany. However, if you are looking for a masterful piece of writing that gives you much to think about, Avenue of Mysteries is the book for you.

Book Review: Dear Killer

I was an English major in college and have a Masters Degree with a concentration in Shakespearean studies, but I must confess there are times I like nothing better than to crawl into a cozy mystery or a romantic suspense story. Especially when the world seems gray and gloomy, whether literally or figuratively, I know no better escape than reading about a plucky heroine who says and does all the things I can’t, a shero who conquers the bad guys and finds true love with some hunky hero. Formulaic and unrealistic? Perhaps. But sometimes that’s just what you need.

dear-kill-cover-finalTo my delight this week I discovered a new, audacious female protagonist, Marley Clark, when I started reading Dear Killer by Linda Lovely (http://www.lindalovely.com/). Marley is a 52-year old widow and a retired military intelligence officer, working as a security guard for the fictitious Dear Island community where she lives on the coast of South Carolina. When she discovers the body of a local real estate appraiser drowned in a Jacuzzi, she becomes involved in a murder investigation that upends her lazy “Mayberry by the sea” and puts her in mortal danger.

Linda Lovely is masterful at writing page-turning suspense scenes. I stayed up past midnight last night because I just couldn’t stop reading…that from a person who rarely makes it up past ten o’clock. Lovely’s writing style is a pleasure to read and Marley’s voice throughout is full of wry wit and raw, honest female emotion. She’s absolutely someone I’d enjoy having a few beers with.

What about the romance, you’re probably wondering. Well, Lovely does not disappoint in that aspect. The deputy sent to investigate the murders is Braden Mann. That’s right, Braden Mann…what a name! What a guy! He’s twelve years younger than Marley, but he doesn’t even seem to notice. Their spicy love scenes will warm you up on a cold night.

And here’s the best of all…Dear Killer is just the first in the Marley Clark Series. I’m often regretful at the end of a book when I must say good-bye to characters I’ve come to enjoy spending time with.  How I love learning these characters live on in a series!

My next book club title is John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries. It’s been awhile since I read a John Irving book and I really am looking forward to it. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s young face beckoning me from the cover of Born to Run, which I just haven’t had time to start reading. Marley Clark will have to wait a bit…but winter’s on its way, and I have curling up in front of the fire on a dark and stormy night with No Wake Zone, book 2 of the series, to look forward to.

If you like romantic suspense, you’ll love Dear Killer.

Didn’t See It Coming

November begins in just a few days and I was beginning to despair that I could come up with a blog topic for October. Oh, lots of ideas have come and gone, but I just couldn’t seem to settle on something I really wanted to write about. Actually, I confess, I haven’t been able to write at all this month. My moribund search for an agent along with a rejection from a publisher sort of took the wind out of my sails. I spent much of this month wringing my hands, feeling like a fraud and a failure, wondering what in the world makes me think I can write. Knowing all writers experience moments of dejection and self-doubt was no consolation.

Instead of writing, I spent one day clearing junk off my laptop and discovered an article entitled Ten Steps to Becoming a Writer by Joe Bunting of The Write Practice (thewritepractice.com). That motivated me to at least start typing a journal entry every morning. Here’s how my first entry on Monday started:

From A.Word.A.Day (www.wordsmith.org)

 ORNERY
adjective: Having an unpleasant disposition: irritable, stubborn, combative, etc.
 Yes, today, I feel ornery. I want to indulge in being ornery. I don’t want to be Ms. Nice Guy. I want to rant and rave and rail against everyone from the unwashed masses that simply annoy me to anyone who makes demands on me. I don’t want to be the sane one, the smart one, the responsible one, the one who knows better.”

It went downhill from there.

Then on Tuesday night my sister and I went to Centre Stage to see Luna Gale, a powerful play in the theater’s fringe series. (If you live in the Greenville area, try to get to see it.) Before the performance, we stepped into the theater lounge and on the counter I noticed a stack of paperback books entitled Didn’t See it Coming. I picked one up and saw it was the work of The Writers Block Project.

I first learned about The Writers Block when Scott Lewis, the warden at Perry Correctional Institution spoke at our Sisters in Crime meeting earlier this year. Perry Correctional Institution is a maximum security prison here in South Carolina which has instituted a Character-Based Unit “composed of men who have indicated a desire to make changes in their lives, even if they will spend the rest of their lives there.”

The Writers Block Workshop is one of the classes the men can enroll in as part of the behavior contract they sign when they are accepted into the Character-Based Unit. I bought the book and read the section entitled “I Write Because…” I immediately knew what I had to blog about…what I had to share with you.

Below is a poem written by Arimatia Buggs in response to the writing prompt: “I write because”.

I write because I must

I write to release

To bring inner peace

To make sense of confusion

 To focus life’s kaleidoscopic illusion

To mend the souls of those broken kindred spirits

Who feel what I feel and see what I see

But never penned the words so it was left up to me

I write because I must

I write because of peace, love, joy and pain

Stress, hurt and strain

I write to appreciate

I write to innovate

I write to reveal

What I see, know and feel

To cry and to vent

To forgive and relent

To reminisce of time spent

I write because I must

I write to breathe

I write because I believe

You can achieve everlasting life when you write

Living forever on a page

Then reincarnated–through reading–through windows of

The soul to stand again upon life’s stage

I write because I realize I am who I am because of words.

Words that moved me, taught me, grew me

Made me into the man that I am

I write because I must.

Today I, Sally Handley, write because I have been inspired by Arimatia Buggs. Didn’t see it coming.

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To get a copy of Didn’t See it Coming (only $15), or to learn more about The Writers Block, visit www.thewritersblockproject.org.

Book Review: Garden Spells and First Frost

Enchanting. That’s how I would describe Sarah Addison Allen’s books about the Waverly family if I had to do it in one word. Both Garden Spells and First Frost charm us from page one. The Waverly women live in our world, but they’re different. They possess remarkable talents that set them apart from their neighbors in the small town of Bascom, North Carolina.

Claire is a successful caterer, but the recipes she’s learned from her grandmother produce edible delights that often have odd and sometimes life-changing effects on the people who eat them. Elderly cousin Evanelle finds herself compelled to give people things, never knowing why. Of course, the recipients always need Evanelle’s unlikely gifts, though they don’t know why at first. And the apple tree in the backyard throws its fruit to impart a message to those who eat it.

Garden SpellsEven the name, Garden Spells, has a dreamy quality to it. The gardeners among us must smile when we think about planting seeds and watching them magically transform into gorgeous flowers or luscious vegetables. This first of the two novels involves the surprising return of Sydney Waverly and her young daughter, Bay, to the family homestead. Ultimately, Garden Spells is a love story…a tale of how Claire and Sydney reconcile and how each finds romantic love, ready or not.

If you finish Garden Spells, sad to say good-bye to these charming characters, no problem. The Waverlys return in First Frost. When a stranger arrives in town, he upsets the peaceful balance Claire and Sydney Waverly have achieved in their lives. The sisters, along with Evanelle and Bay, whose gift, by the way, is knowing where things belong, again use their special gifts to work their way through the challenges to their family brought on by the stranger’s story.

Firt FrostIf you want a break from the harsh and often painful realities that surround us, Garden Spells and First Frost are the ticket. Don’t be surprised if you start wondering whether or not you have something in common with the Waverlys. Is that green thumb of yours just a learned skill, or a magical talent passed onto you from your mother, grandmother, and who knows how many generations before? When you phone a friend and she says, “I was just thinking about you?” is it a coincidence or your “gift”? When you miss the train that derails…just plain luck or evidence of your inherent intuitive powers? You decide.

Good Reads and Happy Endings

Well, it’s the end of February and this is my first post. Tsk! Tsk! But it’s been a really good month because I’ve accomplished a lot and, most importantly, I found an editor for my cozy mystery, Second Bloom. I’ve only got a few more chapters to revise before I send it off to her. That means I can start writing Book Two of my planned series in March. Finishing something, however big or little, is always satisfying. The end of one thing allows for new beginnings and that’s always exciting.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

That brings me to my topic for today…good reads and happy endings. This month I discovered that Emma Watson has created a book club group called Our Shared Shelf on the website GoodReads.com. (I know. Can you believe our little Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies is all grown up and the Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women?) Of course, I joined Goodreads.com and also Emma’s group…I’m one of 115,569 members.

If  you find yourself searching for “good reads”, I think you’ll really like GoodReads.com. What I love about the site is that you get to see what your friends are reading. You can also read reviews they’ve written and decide whether or not you want to try a book. When you sign in, you link through your Facebook account, and your Facebook friends who are also members of GoodReads.com, automatically become your Good Reads friends. It’s simple, uncomplicated and it’s free.

As a result, I’ve been reading a bit this past month…of course, I’m always reading. I’m a member of a book club for over thirty years. Since I moved to South Carolina, I “skype” in. (Skype is just the most wonderful communication technology…but that’s a topic for a whole other blog.) This month we read How to Be Both by Ali Smith. Does the title make you scratch your head? Well, the whole book left me scratching mine. Here’s my Good Reads review:

How to Be Both“Not a fan of this style of writing. From the title to the very end of the book, I longed for a simple declarative sentence to dispel the murkiness of the convoluted dual narratives. I know this was a prize winner lauded by critics, but I was neither enlightened, inspired nor entertained.”

So there you have my criteria for a “good read”. I want to finish a book feeling enlightened, inspired or entertained. Otherwise, I feel cheated. I admit that, left to my own devices, I’d read nothing but murder mysteries. Clearly, they fall under the entertainment category, and, after all, that is one of the reasons I belong to a book club.  I want to be pushed out of my comfort zone. Most of the time, I am rewarded with the enlightenment or inspiration, if not always entertainment, that result from reading books I wouldn’t ordinarily choose myself. All the Light We Cannot See by A. Doerrs and State of Wonder by Anna Patchett are two that come to mind.

Ironically, I think my tendency to read mysteries is that they tend to have satisfying, if not entirely happy, endings. The puzzle is solved, the murderer is caught and everyone can go on and live happily ever after. In spite of that general rule, I was recently horrified by the ending of Anne Cleeves’ murder mystery, Blue Lightening. I won’t give it away, but I felt quite blindsided and heartbroken by a murder that occurs near the end of the book.

Okay, I confess. I love happy endings. I mean, who doesn’t? If I want to feel hopeless andOld Yeller depressed, I can read the newspaper or watch the news on television. If I want to feel baffled and confused, I can watch the political debates. When I invest my time reading fiction, I want to conclude feeling something positive. No matter what awful things happen to the characters I read about, I want them to triumph in the end. If fail they must in order to move forward, at the very least, I don’t want their spirits crushed, because my spirit will be crushed as well. Remember Old Yeller? I cried my eyes out when they had to shoot him, but he died a hero, and the movie ends with Yeller’s puppies running around, making us smile as only puppies can. That’s what I’m talking about.

Low Country BoilRight now, I’m reading Carl T. Smith’s Low Country Boil, set in a small fictional town on the coast of South Carolina. When I met Carl at a Creative Writers of Greenville Meetup, he told me he writes stories about “strong women and enigmatic men”. How could I not want to read one of his books? I just started, but here’s what I wrote on GoodReads.com:
I’m on page 27 of 395 of Lowcountry Boil: After reading Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, this book is like a tall, cold glass of water following a walk in the desert. Beautiful, crystalline prose: “There was no moon to speak of — a slender cut that chiseled shafts of light through the limbs of the live oaks and created quiet shadows and sequined reflections on the surface of the water.” Can you ask for a better opening line? —

Another book I’m reading at the moment is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. How I love this man and his enthusiasm for writing! But that, too, is a topic for another blog. Nevertheless, I want to end by sharing with you a quote from his essay, “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”, in which Mr. Bradbury contends that we must surround ourselves with experiences that “feed” our inner spirit if we’re going to be creative:

“Look at yourself then. Consider everything you have fed yourself over the years. Was it a banquet or a starvation diet?
Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.”

Gosh, I just love that. No starvation diet for me, thank you. Books, like good friends, must nourish us.  Go find some good reads and have a feast. Till next time, Happy Reading!

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You may be hearing from me in the form of quotes or book reviews posted on  GoodReads.com  and shared via Facebook. If you’d like to share what you’re reading with a community of readers, I encourage you to check out GoodReads.com. Alternatively, feel free to share your book recommendations by adding a comment to this blog. And, don’t forget that by adding your email to this blog’s subscribe list to the right, you’ll receive an email when new blogs are posted. At the rate I’m posting, you clearly don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by too many emails. LOL