Murder is Binding, Lorna Barrett

I have been on a mystery binge the last few weeks. It’s part of my transition into summer reading. I’m all about paperbacks I can take to the beach or lake; they can get sandy and wet without doing much real damage, and they can be left on a towel without fear of someone stealing them (the kindle is great for many things, but it doesn’t enjoy the elements or prove to be quite as discouraging to thieves).

Also, after months of keeping up the same work routine, these months of summer, while not necessarily vacation, provide an illusion of change. The days are longer. The drinks and barbecues and camp outs with friends are more plentiful, and in general, there’s a relaxing of the spirit. My reading habits tend to follow with a certain pleasant softening. I gravitate toward reading material that engages a playfulness rather than  studious or reflective part of my brain.

As a bonus, because I’m working on my own mystery novel, technically, I can call books like this research. Stretching it? Yes. A little. Maybe. But I don’t care. A good mystery is a gift, and I refuse to turn my nose up at the chance to read one. Barrett’s novel is even set near the town in New Hampshire where I grew up, so reading it felt like taking a mini-holiday back to the east coast (complete with a little family drama!). I was a little disappointed that the “binding” in question referred to book bindings and not quilting, but once I got over that, I was tickled by the idea of a town that tries to reestablish its downtrodden economy by inviting niche book shops to take over. I would happily live in such a town, and I suspect I am not alone.

Honestly, the premise alone was captivating to me. I loved imagining such a place – bookstores as far as the eye could see, and for every proclivity! Barrett even included a layer of realistic tension between the shop owners and the townies. Having lived for so many years in a small town kept alive by tourism dollars, I’m familiar with its double-edged sword. It can be difficult to live someplace constantly overrun with enthusiastic strangers. They walk too slowly, they seem to speak decibels louder than necessary, and they grab all the parking…but they’re also necessary. And sometimes even adorable in that exuberant, remember what it feels like to be on a holiday sort of way.

Barrett manages to capture that dichotomy here while exploring the position of an outsider like her protagonist, Tricia. Even after months of living in this town, she’s still very much on the fringes, yet when her sister comes to visit, she manages to insinuate herself with the locals in no time. It’s this push and pull at the heart of the book that drew me in, the reminder of what it felt like to live for eight years in a town where I never quite fell into step with the community, blended with the sort of dark mystery that exists in the secret heart of every town.


For more about Lorna Barrett, go here.

Young House Love, Sherry and John Petersik

Am I the only person who gets hit by an intense wave of pride after replacing an old toilet seat with a brand new one? Or after putting up shelves in the garage that require several iterations of measuring, drilling, and stud finding? Or planting tomatoes and keeping them alive long enough for them to actually provide me with fruit?

I  can’t be the only one who sometimes stares at home improvements months after they’ve been completed with a disproportionate sense of satisfaction at what I’ve accomplished. If I am, well then, you’re not doing right. Or possibly you are so used to doing it right that it’s lost its magic. Maybe you picked up a hammer as a child and you’ve been wielding it Thor-style ever since. You probably look at homes that need a little TLC and think, yup. I can do that. I can take that run-down pile of junk and turn it into something unique and wonderful.

That’s not me. It never has been. I didn’t grow up in a house with handy folk (apologies to my parents, who are wonderful people, and talented in many other ways, but it’s true). After my grandfather passed away, my brother was the only one of us with innate mechanical skills, and we’ve always turned to him when we need something repaired. The thing is, he lives three thousand miles away, and even if he didn’t, I’m as capable as the next guy (seriously – you should see those shelves I put up!), and with a little bit of research and a lot of patience, I’ve taught myself a lot about home and garden improvements over the last few years.

Of course, it helps that my husband knows about things like turning off the power at the source before beginning an electrical repair and measuring twice (yes, twice!) so we only have to cut once. His dad was apparently more hands-on when it came to tackling home repairs, and he has benefitted from those early years of experience. When it comes down to it though, most of the projects we take on are totally out of our wheelhouse. Typically what happens is that one of us will be struck by an idea, and after a few week of casual discussion, we’ll jump in. (“Let’s just try it!” is basically my mantra when it comes to all things home related, followed closely by “What’s the worst that could happen?” Let me tell you, I’ve changed my tune about that one after almost losing my left eye while trying to cut dead branches off our tree without safety goggles on.)

I probably should let inspiration guide me a little less than planning and research, but that’s one of the great things about Young House Love. The projects discussed by Sherry and John Petersik are cheap,  straightforward, and satisfying (like a big bowl of spaghetti without the carb coma). When I’m in need of a simple pick-me-up project for an afternoon, I can flip through and get inspired, and when we’re  about to tackle something bigger, I can check both the book and their blog for help. Their instructions are easy to understand (and include plenty of pictures), and as a family, they approach these tasks with a sense of humor and enjoyment I find refreshing.

Summer is here, and with it, my desire to clean up, reorganize, and tackle projects I’d been putting off in colder weather. With hours more of sunlight to work with, even week nights are becoming project friendly, and with the Petersiks behind me, I’m ready to break out the tools and go to town on our house! After I buy some safety goggles. Very important, those. Not the same thing as sunglasses, by the by…


For great project ideas, check out Young House Love at its source.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher

Michael snorted. “You destroy buildings, fight monsters openly in the streets of the city, work with the police, show up in newspapers, advertise in the phone book, and ride zombie dinosaurs down Michigan Avenue, and you think that you work in the shadows? Be reasonable.” (p 267)

There are few things I love more than a new Dresden Files book. I have to give Jim Butcher major props too, because come spring, he delivers. I’ve been reading this series since 2007 (seven years after he began publishing stories about Harry Dresden), and although it’s painful to wait for the next volume after I finish a new one, it’s comforting to know I won’t be left hanging indefinitely. I cannot overstate how much I value consistency when it comes to a series I love.

An author can buy my affection for the low, low price of a great book written every year. Piece of cake, right? If you have a pact with the devil, maybe. Or you’re heavily into witchcraft. I suspect Jim Butcher of both. And I am fine with that. He works hard, and his books are such fun that even while my rational brain is applauding him for the grueling writing schedule he must have to keep, I never get the feeling it’s hard work – just the contrary. His style is sarcastic adventuring at its best, and it reads like he enjoys spending time in his version of Chicago more than the world outside of its pages.

I don’t know anything about Butcher’s personal life. I don’t where he lives, or whether he’s married or has kids. I’ve never seen him speak or read any interviews, and yet I’ve created a mental image of him after reading his books that informs my own work as a writer deeply. I greatly admire his work ethic. I don’t need to do more than look at the number of books he’s published to know that he lives by the adage “a writer writes.” I, like many writers, go through periods over the course of every year where I write more or less, and at the moment, I’m in one of those lulls that forces me to confront the fear that I’m not doing enough to prove myself in my field. When I read books by authors like Butcher, I’m humbled by his dedication to his characters, to his fans, and to his own desire to tell stories.

It’s such a beautiful thing to read books by writers who are clearly in love with writing. That creative fire ignites their work to create spectacular energy on every page; Butcher is the kind of writer who stokes that fire for all its worth. He could just as easily fall back on the great novels he’s written in the past, but instead, he breathes new life into his characters with every book. When I finished Skin Game, I was reminded again of the joy that lies beneath his stories. It’s a feeling that makes me wish I had time to go back and reread the series every year. I could easily live in Dresden’s universe for months at a time, and the most butt-kicking part of realizing that is that knowledge I should take as much pleasure from my own fictional worlds as I do the ones created for my enjoyment…


For more about Jim Butcher, go here.

Midnight Crossroad, Charlaine Harris

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know about my love of all things Harris. I’ve read every series she’s written as fast as she could write them, and when each of them ended, I experienced the kind of sadness unique to multi-book story arcs. (There’s a different sadness that comes with reading a great standalone book, or a trilogy – it’s not a question of greater or lesser – it’s just different.)

Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to books with seemingly unending adventures though (Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, even back to the Berenstain Bears). Something inside of me felt this overwhelming joy at the idea of sinking down into a book with characters I knew and loved well. A friend once said it was just like me to extend my introversion to having a hard time meeting new fictional characters, and I think she was right. When it comes to novels especially, I am most drawn to both characters and authors I already know and love. That being so, this past May was a banner month. I got the latest book in the Dresden Files and the first book in a new series by Harris.

Now, first books are obviously not as exciting as sequels, at least for me (I suspect Harris was ready to start writing new characters with thirteen Sookie Stackhouse novels under her belt), but the transition was eased by the inclusion of a minor character from her Shakespeare series. I have to admit, when I realized who he was (some time before the connection was explicitly made), I mentally made the switch from “well, I suppose I can learn to love this new series” to “ooh continuity is the best – more please!”

I think what had also made me hesitate before that point was that Harris has decided to write at least this first book from the point of view of multiple characters. While that’s not uncommon, it is a different approach than she’s used in the past, and one of the biggest downsides of it is that it takes a lot longer to get to know those characters and establish trust in them as narrators. Having just finished writing a book where we had ten different characters telling the story, I have been on the receiving end of plenty of opinions about the technique, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person who has mixed feelings about it. I still remember when I started reading George RR Martin’s books over a decade ago; it took me three tries to get into A Game of Thrones because there were just so many people clamoring to be heard, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Dance of Dragons because I’m bitter about how he split the characters up in the fourth and fifth books. (Yes, I do realize it’s ridiculous to hold a grudge when the fifth book has been out for about three years, but I had roughly six years between those two books to really work myself into a snit, and I suspect it will take about that long before I’ve completely let it go. And no, before you ask, I don’t watch the show – his story was devastating enough the first time. No need to relive that pain in high def.)

I like to make one of the characters in any given book the friend I rely on, and it’s much easier to do that in books with only one narrator. The person I love best isn’t always in that primary role, but I know there will be a certain consistency in my interpretation of the characters when I’m not bouncing from one head into another. I don’t know that it bothers me all that much for an author to use multiple povs in most books, but it threw me for a loop this time because I wasn’t expecting it. I had to adjust to Harris’ new style in addition to setting, story, and characters, and I’m not too proud to admit it helped to have one familiar face in the crowd. That being said, I love that she went quite dark at the end of this first volume, and I’m glad as an author she’s generally consistent about getting a book out every year so I have something to look forward to next spring.


For more about Charlaine Harris, head over here.