It’s a mystery — November 9, 2022

It’s a mystery

As you might recall, a few years ago I penned a cozy mystery series. I decided to take a break from that and focus on a new series and a new set of characters.

Characters like these … A thrice-married aging bombshell. Her respectable sworn enemy. A scheming young executive. A long-absent father. A bored daughter with a secret romance.

These characters and others populate A Fatal Reception, An Ashton Arbor Mystery. As the first installment in the serialized saga begins, the beautiful Jenna and handsome Greg are preparing for their wedding, unaware a murder will mar their special day. With elements of a soap opera, the mystery features blackmail, double crossings, affairs, decades-long grudges, corporate espionage, and a whodunnit cliffhanger.

The book blends elements of two of my favorite genres – mysteries and soaps. In fact, I wrote the mystery because, like one of the characters in the book, I miss soap operas of my youth. Alas, unlike the character, no one could ever describe me as a bombshell.

You might be asking yourself, “Self, if this book contains elements of soaps, does this mean it will include an amnesiac evil twin who returns from the dead?”

Spoiler alert: There are no amnesiacs as well as no twins, evil or otherwise, in this book. I also don’t plan to raise characters from the dead in the series. Instead of focusing on those types of tropes, I want to celebrate the soapy goodness of betrayal, secrets, and lies.

A couple times whilst writing, I had ideas for character motivation or plot movement and said to myself, “Self, this is so soapy. Dare you include it?”

Spoiler alert: I absolutely did.

A Fatal Reception is different from my previous cozy mystery series in a few ways. For starters, it’s not set in Eastern Kentucky. Also, it’s not a cozy. But it’s cozy-adjacent. It’s certainly not a hardboiled mystery. After all, the murder occurs off stage. And while there are a few four-letter words here and there, it’s nothing I wouldn’t have heard on a soap when I was a wee lass.

There are also no explicit love scenes, so imagine my surprise when a friend who’s read the book described it as racy. Spoiler alert: It’s not racy. Maybe a little suggestive, but not racy.

Said friend redeemed himself when he told me that the story reminded him of soaps he watched with his mom. Huh. What do you know? That’s exactly the mood I wanted to create.

The ebook version of A Fatal Reception can be purchased at www.amazon.com/dp/B0BL43ZVYX and the paperback at www.amazon.com/dp/B0BL9V455Y

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

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Know your limits — September 28, 2022

Know your limits

As I’ve noted before in this-here space, I’ve become aware that my tastes have changed.

Indeed, I’ve realized in the past few years that, for the most part, I have trouble getting into a new TV series unless it features stories or characters with whom I’m already familiar. The Crown sheds a light on the British Royal Family, whom I’ve followed since the Diana years. The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi continue the Star Wars saga, which I’ve followed for decades.

Occasionally I find myself enjoying a new show (see last week’s review of Abbott Elementary). Other recent exceptions are Hacks and Only Murders in the Building. But those last two feature actors I grew accustomed to dozens of years ago. Hacks revolves around Jean Smart, aka Designing Women’s Charlene Frazier Stillfield, whilst veteran actors Steven Martin and Martin Short lead the cast of Only Murders.

Anyway, I’ve also noticed that I avoid shows and movies with dark or disturbing themes. I’m not talking about the horror genre. I’ve never been a fan of that.

Here’s an example of a recent show I vetoed watching. Steve Carell, aka The Office’s Michael Scott, can currently be seen in Hulu’s The Patient. When a friend asked if I planned to watch the psychological thriller, in which a therapist is held captive by a patient who wants him to help cure his homicidal urges, I said no.

I’ve seen the ads for the show and it looks amazing. But I can’t watch things like that anymore.

I considered watching Yellowstone, but when I remembered that someone told me there were a lot of killings on the show, I decided to turn to my comfort zone — sports — instead.

Knowing that I watch Dateline and 48 Hours, folks recommend true life documentaries. I also pass on those because there’s only so much murder I can take.

But here’s what stumped me: I can still read books with dark or disturbing themes.

I recently shared the discovery of my aversion to watching shows and movies with dark or disturbing themes with a friend. When I told her that I can still read those kinds of books, she said, “Hmm.” Then, she studied on it and said it probably has something to do with seeing the action presented visually.

I studied on that and came up with a perfect case in point. I previously recommended to you, dear readers, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. The book delves into the damage wrought by OxyContin. It’s a great book. But you already know that if you followed my recommendation and read the book.

There’s a series on Hulu called Dopesick. Based on another book about the opioid industry, Dopesick fictionalizes the damage wrought by OxyContin. Michael Keaton, aka a Batman and the Beetlejuice, stars in the ensemble cast.

I will not even try to watch the show because I know my limitations.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Two timing — September 14, 2022

Two timing

Years ago, when I started riding a borrowed stationary bike for exercise, I struggled to get through a workout. I counted down the minutes because I was bored out of my mind. Listening to music and/or watching TV didn’t relieve the boredom.

So, I studied on the matter and decided to try reading whilst riding. It worked. Later, when I started walking inside my house – and eventually on a treadmill – I continued the practice.

It seemed so ingenious that I wondered why I hadn’t started reading whilst exercising years earlier. After all, I’m able to perform two worthwhile and self-helpful activities at once. Talk about a win-win.

But then I reminded myself that for years I walked outside with my late dog, the lovely and talented Mia Frances Goff. Reading whilst walking outdoors sounds dangerous. By the way, now that I’m used to reading whilst walking, I feel like I’m slacking if I walk outdoors. I feel like I should also be performing a secondary activity like folding laundry or changing a lightbulb.

Although reading whilst walking has enhanced my workouts, reading print books whilst walking offers challenges. Firstly, I must hold the book because it won’t fit on the treadmill. Secondly, I must turn the pages. Thirdly, as my hands become sweaty, I must deal with moistened pages. This ordeal represents one reason I’ve become a fan of ebooks in my advanced age. With one swipe I can turn a page on my device, which rests comfortably on the treadmill.

Other than the minor inconvenience caused by print books, I have identified only one problem with reading whilst exercising. On some days, I realize I just cannot walk for exercise. There’s no way I can raise one leg onto the treadmill, which offers a more demanding workout, or even put one foot in front of the other to walk inside the house. It’s too much to ask. It cannot be done.

Occasionally, this is due to mental exhaustion or a migraine. That’s understandable. But I’ve also come to realize that from time to time, it’s because I dread to read one more word of whatever book I’m reading.

It always takes me a few days to admit I no longer want to spend time with certain fictional characters or to continue inhabiting the nonfictional world I’ve entered. But when this realization finally dawns on me, I download another book and don my walking shoes.

Until I develop mental exhaustion, a migraine, or an aversion to whatever book I’m reading.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Event planner — May 11, 2022

Event planner

When I discover a writer whose work I enjoy, I make it a goal to read that writer’s entire bibliography.

Such was the case with Australian author Liane Moriarty. So excited was I when discovered her novel, Three Wishes, that I shared this find with my bestie. Imagine my surprise when said bestie told me she was familiar with Moriarty. My surprise deepened when I spied another of Moriarty’s novels, Big Little Lies, on a shelf in a coworker/friend’s office.

As it turned out, by the time I discovered her, Moriarty was not a relatively unknown writer who needed me to spread the word about her funny (and occasionally dark-ish), intricately-woven stories of suburban Australia.

Although Moriarty doesn’t need my help to garner readers, now that I have read her complete bibliography (well, at least the books geared toward adults), I have written mini reviews of each novel.

  • Three Wishes (2003): The book that introduced me to Moriarty, it remains my favorite. As is the case with most of her books, she begins with a traumatic event and works back and forth in time to reveal what lead to the traumatic event. Three Wishes’ traumatic event – an argument among thirtysomething triplet sisters that results in a fork protruding from the pregnant sister’s stomach – is told from the point of view of the triplets’ fellow diners in a fancy restaurant. By the way, one of the triplet’s names is Catriona. I pronounced it Cat-ree-on-uh whilst reading the book. It’s Catrina.
  • The Last Anniversary (2006): This is one of the few Moriarty books I don’t recommend. It centers around a woman who inherits a house from her ex-boyfriend’s aunt. The house is located on a mysterious island. I figured out the mystery by the end of the prologue and spent the book rolling my eyes at the characters for not seeing the obvious.
  • What Alice Forgot (2009): The traumatic event is that Alice falls during exercise class and bumps her head. When she wakes up, she’s a decade younger, but life has marched on. She’s frightened by her husband as well as the changes in her life and in herself. Moriarty’s books always have a deeper level and this one made me wonder if my younger selves would recognize the current me and if they would approve.
  • The Hypnotist’s Love Story (2011): This one doesn’t have a traumatic event or much of a mystery. It did make me chuckle, in part, because the hypnotist and her mom are serious eavesdroppers. They legit stop talking at dinner so they can listen to the conversation at the next table, which leads me to another thing I love about Moriarty. It’s like she’s in my head.
  • The Husband’s Secret (2013): I call this one the Easter book because the characters legit go all out for Easter. They hide eggs and/or candy the night before the holiday and I feared a kangaroo or a koala would snatch the candy. Alas, my major complaint about Moriarty is that no kangas or koalas make appearances. The traumatic event concerns a wife learning her husband has a secret. Hence, the title. This is one of her darker books, and it’s also one of her best books.
  • Big Little Lies (2014): Another dark one, it’s probably the most popular but not in my top three. The traumatic event, a parent’s death, occurs at a school’s trivia night. Oh, I should mention that I love how most of her male characters call one another “mate.”
  • Truly Madly Guilty (2016): The one fans refer to as the barbeque book, this is another one I don’t recommend. When I consider her books, I ask myself, “Self, did it hold your interest after she revealed the truth behind the traumatic event?” The answer with this book was “NO!” The characters bored me. I simply didn’t care.
  • Nine Perfect Strangers (2018): Controversial among fans, this book doesn’t have a traumatic event. Instead, Moriarty put nine people in a health resort run by a woman who might be a lunatic. I love the main character, Frances. She licks the inside of a candy wrapper to ensure no chocolate is left behind. Who among us hasn’t?
  • Apples Never Fall (2021): Controversial for the ending, this book entertained me. Joy Delaney has gone missing. That’s the traumatic event. As the book unfolds, we meet Joy, her husband of 50 years, their four adult children, and a mysterious young woman. The Delaneys are tall. When a character sees one of Joy’s daughters, she speculates that she’s fixing to perform the long jump. Get out of my head, Liane Moriarty, and write another book.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

A good read and watch — April 20, 2022

A good read and watch

As a teen reader, I discovered the mysteries of Agatha Christie. And although I eventually read oodles of Christie’s books, I don’t think I ever figured out whodunit. (By the way, Christie’s And Then There Were None is one of only a handful of books I’ve read in one day. Indeed, I might have read it in one sitting. Yes, it’s that good.)

Anyway, even though I tried – and failed – to solve the mysteries, for me it was more about the characters and the settings. I enjoyed being transported from the holler to grand manors or English villages.

I thought of those books again recently after watching the most recent adaptations of two of Christie’s mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.

Parts of both movies are boring, but overall they entertained me. I preferred Orient Express because I’ve always favored that story – it’s one of Christie’s most memorable – and because of the stunning shots of snowy mountains and landscapes.

Nile, as the title suggests, is set in Egypt and also features stunning shots. But most of them look like they were created by CGI (computer generated imagery) … because they were. Here’s the thing: CGI is kinda like wigs, hair extensions, and cosmetic surgery. If I notice them, then they must be really obvious.

My only other major complaint of both movies is with the character Hercule Poirot, played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the movies. In the books and earlier adaptations, the Belgian detective – the world’s greatest detective (he proclaims this statement frequently) – is conceited, egotistical, and mannered. In fact, David Suchet played him to perfection in the aptly-titled BBC series, Poirot.

Branagh’s Poirot, whilst conceited, egotistical, and mannered, is also so morose and devoid of any spark that, if not for his signature moustache and accent (and for the fact that everyone calls him Det. Poirot), I wouldn’t know who he was supposed to be.

These movies center around murder and death. Not exactly fun-filled times. And in the case of Orient Express, it’s a sad, sad story. I legit became emotional at one point whilst watching that flick. But most of Christie’s mysteries are so over-the-top and filled with such hyperbolic characters that I can’t take them seriously. This includes Nile. More than once whilst watching that flick, I legit rolled my eyes at the characters’ hysterics.

So I’d really like Poirot to be outrageous as well and not constantly moping around with a bad case of the sads. (I’ve read that another adaptation of another book with another actor features an even sadder Poirot. I implore filmmakers and actors to please stop this nonsense.)

Nevertheless, I recommend the Branagh movies. And, of course, Christie’s books. I’m happy to report that after I watched the films, I advised a younger person in my life to read Orient Express. She took my advice.

As should you.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Read all about it, part two — January 5, 2022

Read all about it, part two

Last week when I shared the best nonfiction books I read during 2021, I promised that this week I’d share the best works of fiction I read last year.

Before I do so, allow me to impart deep thoughts I’ve developed about annual reading challenges. As I reviewed all the books I read last year, I said to myself, “Self, a reading challenge serves as a good metaphor for a year. When you begin a new year, you have no idea what adventures and challenges await you. When you begin a reading challenge, you have no idea what books await you.”

Unless, of course, you’ve selected every book you’ll read that year in advance. But don’t do that because you’ll upend my metaphor.

Anyway, the best works of fiction I read last year were the first two installments in Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s Beartown series.

The first book, the aptly-titled Beartown, was published in the United States in 2017. I learned of its existence in 2021 upon my bestie’s recommendation. In Beartown, Backman tells the story of a despairing town, the aptly-titled Beartown, and how the town’s residents have pinned their wishes, hopes, and dreams on the junior hockey league. (There’s also an HBO series based on the book.)

Although I’m a sports fan, I watch hockey only during the Olympics. When the teams ran plays in the book – are they called plays in hockey? – I didn’t understand what was going on. What’s more, I never fully understood the structure of the hockey leagues.

But I understood Backman’s characters. I felt them. I worried about the fate of one character so much that, upon learning the second book had already been published, I told self we would not be reading it. The way I saw it, if said character suffered a tragic fate, he would do so without my knowledge.

But I woke one morning and realized I owed it to that character and the others to see them through to the end. My bestie lent me her copy of book two, Us Against You, and I returned to that despairing town and to its desperate and damaged residents.

At times, I regretted my decision because the story made me sad and/or angry. But as I wrote last week, emotion is good. Besides, at other times, the book made me laugh and smile.

I still worry about that one character, though. With one book to go, I stress over his fate. Backman has released the book in Sweden and, reportedly, it will be published in the U.S. this year.

I hope those reports are true or I’ll be learning Swedish.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Read all about it, part one — December 29, 2021

Read all about it, part one

Every year since I’ve joined Goodreads, I’ve participated in a reading challenge on the website. (Pro tip: The key to completing your reading challenge is to set a ridiculously easy goal to achieve. You’re welcome.)

And every year as I look back on my year in review, I select the best books I’ve read during said year. But I’ve never shared those books with anyone but me.

Until now.

This week I’ll share a couple of the best nonfiction books I read during the year; next week I’ll share a couple of the best works of fiction I read.

Just because a book lands on my best-read list doesn’t mean it’s among the best books published that year. Of course, I’m starting with a book published in 2021 – Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.

Keefe tells the story of how the Sackler dynasty began – from the humble beginnings and hopes of immigrants in pre-World War I – to how it amassed wealth – from medical advertising and pharmaceutical sales.

But not just any pharmaceutical sales. The family served as principal owners of Purdue Pharma, which started selling OxyContin in 1996.

Purdue marketed OxyContin as a miracle non-addictive opioid with a 12-hour release coating. It was supposed to help folks with chronic pain manage that pain without fear of addiction.

As Keefe, an investigative reporter, lays out in Empire of Pain via company memos and emails as well as public documents, high-ranking executives, including some Sacklers, knew OxyContin was being abused as early as 1997.

Yet, the company kept pushing it. People kept overdosing. People kept losing loved ones. People kept losing jobs. People kept breaking into pharmacies as well as other businesses and homes to steal pills and money to feed their addictions. People kept losing themselves to those addictions.

Meanwhile, the Sacklers kept getting richer.

The book made me sad and angry, but mostly angry. I annoyed a friend with frequent updates about those expletive Sacklers.

So, why am I recommending a book that made me sad and angry? Because emotion is good. Because we need to know what happened. Because if I hadn’t read the book, I wouldn’t have been inspired by Nan Goldin.

Who’s Nan Goldin, you ask?

I guess you’ll have to read the book for an answer to that question.

Keefe also wrote the other nonfiction book I’m recommending – Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. No joke. Comments on a message board dedicated to viewers of The Crown, a TV show about the British royal family, led me to Say Nothing. I was so impressed with Keefe that I sought out other works by him, learned about Empire of Pain, and put a hold on the-then work in progress.

Released in 2018, Say Nothing, according to our friends at the Wikipedia, “focuses on The Troubles in Northern Ireland, beginning with the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville.”

Say Nothing also made me sad and angry. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting around, and I’ll think about Jean McConville and get sad and/or angry.

Again, why am I recommending this book? Because emotion is good. Because Jean McConville should not be forgotten. Because what happened to Jean’s children after her murder should not be forgotten. Because The Troubles should not be forgotten.

What are The Troubles, you ask?

I guess you’ll have to read the book for an answer to that question.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

It was a week — March 31, 2021

It was a week

This week, everyone was enthralled by the saga of a man who might or might not have found shrimp tails in a box of cereal and with a big-expletive boat blocking the Suez Canal.

As for the tale of the alleged shrimp tails…all I have to say is that I only buy brand name cereal when purchasing for someone else or purchasing for myself with a coupon. And I’ve never found anything but cereal in my boxes of cereal. You can extrapolate that to mean whatever you wish.

As for the big-expletive boat…I am not nearly as enamored with this story as are my fellow galaxy mates, but I do wonder how the big-expletive boat managed to become dislodged in the canal. Where was it going? Why was it turning in the middle of said canal? I dare say that Capt. Stubing never allowed the MS Pacific Princess to become stuck in a waterway.

Regardless, I haven’t spent much time worrying over these matters because I’ve been mourning the back-to-back deaths of actress Jessica Walter and author Larry McMurtry.

Walter amassed oodles of credits during her 60-year, Emmy-award winning career. But for many of us, she came to personify Lucille Bluth, the character she played on Arrested Development. Indeed, on the afternoon of Walter’s death, a friend messaged me that Lucille Bluth had died.

In the days since Walter’s passing, I have consoled myself by watching clips of Lucille and giggled again and again at her unparalleled ability to roll her eyes, judge another character with only her eyes and a frown, and deliver a biting line. All whilst holding a martini glass.

I was still mourning the loss of Lucille Bluth/Jessica Walter when the same friend messaged me about the death of McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove and oodles of other books.

The obituaries for McMurtry have described him as an unsentimental author of the American West. I’m simplifying it, obviously, but anyone familiar with his work would agree with that assessment. My sister, Kathy, has read dern-near every work of fiction McMurtry penned. This weekend, she told me she couldn’t finish one book in particular because it was too dark. I told her I can’t finish one series in particular because I know it will end with the death of the main character. As long as I don’t finish the last book, he will live forever.

Of course, no one lives forever, including McMurtry’s fictional characters. As I sit here, I can remember turning a page more than 20 years ago to discover the fate of a beloved character. I immediately threw the book across the room and I, a woman not prone to fits of sentimentality, began weeping. I briefly cursed McMurtry for killing the character and for letting the readers know her fate.

But he had to do so. He had to be true to his story. And such was the power of his stories and his characters that their fates still move me. I can always revisit the books, though, where I will find the characters alive and alluring.

Just as I can always re-watch Arrested Development and find Lucille judging everyone as she day drinks.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

With gratitude — November 25, 2020

With gratitude

Usually, at this time of year, I pen a post comprising a list of people, places and things for which I am thankful. For various and sundry reasons that shall remain secret, I’m not feeling that particular post this year.

Instead, I’m choosing the following days from a social media 30 days of gratitude challenge as prompts for this-here Thanksgiving post:

  • My guilty pleasure. I’m not sure why this is included on the list. For starters, if doing something makes you feel guilty, you shouldn’t be doing it. But people apply the guilty pleasure tag to, among other things, silly TV shows or trashy books. I’ll make it simple — you shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying those pastimes. You can express your gratitude to me for absolving you of this guilt.
  • Something positive about my body. A few years ago, whilst in a hotel gym, I decided to start lifting weights. Do not misunderstand. I am in no danger of becoming a competitive weightlifter. I started small and have not advanced to large dumbbells. But I continue to lift my weights and, at my advanced age, I’ve developed muscles. A year ago, I impressed an older gentleman in the Superstore by easily hefting a flat of water. The other day, I shocked my family by using my upper and lower body weight to snap a board. Make no mistake. These feats might not have impressed you. But I am not in competition with you, just as you are not in competition with me. You can express your gratitude to me for helping you develop a positive body image.
  • A compliment that made me feel good. A couple friends are going through, well, what’s worse than a rough patch? A rough garden? A rough forest? They can’t seem to catch a good break, so I told another friend that I wished there was something I could do for them. He said I was probably doing more than I thought. He added that I had helped him through a recent rough patch simply by being there. I don’t share this so you’ll view me as an awesome friend. (Which I obviously am.) Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes, people just need to know someone is on their team and there to listen. You can express your gratitude to me for reminding you that you’re also doing more than you think.

Well, that’s about all the prompting I can handle for one day. Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Something special — November 18, 2020

Something special

Next week marks a holiday we look forward to all year — Black Friday.

Although I’ve taken part in the actual Black Friday shopping tradition — but not Thanksgiving shopping  — for years, due to COVID, this year I plan to sleep in. But there’s one tradition I’ve already participated in — looking at Black Friday ads.

Looking at ads represents my favorite aspect of Black Friday. During normal years, I start searching for them online around Halloween. As soon as one drops, I send messages, which contain multiple exclamation points, announcing this momentous event to friends and family.

I follow up days later, asking if they’ve checked out the ad, only to be disappointed when they tell me they have no interest in perusing an auto parts ad. Well, neither do I, but it’s a Black Friday ad! They’re special!

In fact, last year I pored over the Cabela’s ad like I was going to be tested on the contents later. Do we even have a Cabela’s? I have no idea because I’ve never been inside one of the stores, yet I can say with confidence that I’m not a Cabela’s kind of gal. But it was a Black Friday ad! They’re special!

My interest in Black Friday ads is similar to my love of catalogs, which I have previously mentioned in this-here space. Although I prefer physical copies of ads, I can make do with online versions, especially in the age of Corona. But in normal years, I study the online versions for weeks. Then, a couple days before Black Friday, I practically run to the mailbox to retrieve this venerable publication so that I can review the circulars in living color until they literally fall apart.

Of course, this year, I’ve been all sorts of confused by the dates of the stores’ sales because some stores started their sales weeks ago. Not that the actual sales are the point because its not like I’m in the market for a big ticket item like an Atari.

Instead, the ads serve as a stress reliever for me. I can mindlessly flip through pages whilst mixing it up occasionally by recoiling in horror at ugly and/or expensive merchandise.

As in years past, I’ve shared the ads’ existence with friends and family. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to care. They’ve ignored my messages and responded to my verbal communications by saying, “So? We’re not going shopping.”

But they’re Black Friday ads! They’re special!

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.