Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Oscars are coming... hoorah?

 I have to begin by saying that I love the Academy Awards... until they're on. It's a time to see absolutely everyone involved in the movie business in one room (do they have to leave one star out, like when the president delivers the State of the Union address?) and say snarky things from the comfort of one's couch. In my family, the tradition is that everyone can choose a decadent dessert on that night and try to see how long it will last. Usually we don't make it past Best Supporting Actor.

Each year I attempt - and almost always fail - to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, so I'll know whether I'm thrilled or annoyed when something wins. My family and I also go each year to see the nominated short films, usually both animated and live action. We do not go to a screening of the documentary short films because their idea of "short" and ours do not agree.

The show also always runs far too long, with enormous stretches of boredom in the middle, to the point that they have to rush through the big-ticket awards at the end as if they were afterthoughts.

Nonetheless, I love the show. But this year, I'm less enthusiastic than usual. I've seen seven of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture, and there is no clear favorite in my mind. I'd be fine with either of two films and largely annoyed if anything else wins, although my level of bile will probably be lower than usual. 

To begin with the short films, this year we saw only the animated shorts in the theater, due to scheduling. (It's harder than it used to be because my daughter lives an hour away and my son lives two hours away.) Of the ones we saw, three were depressing enough to disqualify themselves in my mind. I don't need help being sad. "Our Uniform," the offering from Iran, is the least tearjerking of the bunch, which should tell you something, and my choice would probably be "Ninety-Five Senses," a look at a man awaiting his last meal on death row. Yes. Others were more depressing than that. The one that'll probably win is "Pachyderme" from France, and it's disturbing as hell. Well done? My daughter and I had to explain to my wife, who is a very intelligent woman, why it was disturbing after we left. ("War Is Over" is very simplistic but has the benefit of a John & Yoko song in it, which makes it more watchable than most.) "Letter to a Pig," well, it seemed quite upsetting. I fell asleep in the middle and woke up at the upsetting part, so I'm a little confused.

We saw three of the five live-action shorts, so I can't offer much, but if I was voting, "Knight of Fortune," a Danish very dark comedy (ish) would get the vote. "The After" wins for absolutely the most horrifying but ultimately flat of the bunch.

I've only seen one of the documentary shorts, so I'll pass on commenting. 

As for the feature films nominated for Best:

1. Oppenheimer: The one that will win going away. The most celebrated, hyped, praised and talked-about of the lot. I found it irritating and generally dull, a three-hour movie that should have been two hours at the most, about a guy who's unknowable doing things that are hard to understand and having no thoughts about the consequences of his work until it's far too late. With a musical score that often drowns out the mumbled dialogue and NEVER stops playing. I'm not a member of the Nolan cult, so I'm not enthusiastic about all the Oscars it will undoubtedly get.

2. Killers of the Flower Moon: So you thought "Oppenheimer" was long? Martin Scorsese has made a movie in which nobody ever says anything once, there are plenty of people shot in the head and yes, it has a legitimate point to make, which it rams into the ground over and over again. Were the Osage people treated horribly, murdered and ignored about the murders? They were indeed. Did the movie need to be three-and-a-half-hours long? No. Yeah, it looks great, but it's repetitive and its characters are all either remarkably evil or remarkably stupid and sometimes both.

3. Barbie: It's a very nice, cute little movie with a little bit to say about how women are treated in society. It's not the Barbie movie you would expect, and give Greta Gerwig (who wasn't nominated for directing, thus making the movie's point for it) credit for that. Is it the best picture of the year? Depends on your point of view. I found it enjoyable with a second half that drags some.

4. American Fiction: If I'm being honest, probably my choice for Best Picture. A Black author deals with the expectations the publishing business has for him and with his family, which I'm sure you'll be shocked is dysfunctional. It's well-written, beautifully acted and it knows when to quit, which many of the others do not. It's even funny.

5. The Holdovers: My second choice. Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa deliver masterful performances in the story of a cranky boarding school teacher, the only student whose parents don't come for him at Christmas break, and the woman in charge of the kitchen at the school. Touching, sometimes funny, and well told. I wouldn't be sorry if it won, which it won't.

6. Past Lives: Clearly I missed something. This story of two Korean people who have a flirtation as children and then separate when the girl moves to America with her family has been praised to the heavens but I found it dull, and the characters bland and unlikable. It's obviously my fault and not the film's, but I didn't care whether they got back together or not. People have been known to weep at the end. I didn't.

7. Anatomy of a Fall: A German woman in Switzerland is accused of murdering her husband by pushing him off a balcony. I get that the movie wants not to be obvious about her guilt or innocence and that the people are meant to be real and not "good" or "bad," but it left me cold. Well constructed but in my case, anyway, unaffecting. 

The other three - Maestro, Poor Things and The Zone of Interest - I have not seen and don't intend to. So maybe they're amazing. You'll have to find out for yourself. (In fact, you should find out for yourself no matter what I said above; how do I know our tastes are similar?)

So I think it'll be a pretty dull show. But maybe the desserts will be good.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Why I Write the Books I Write

 Truly, the reason I write what I write is the same reason most writers do what they do: Nobody else is writing the book I want to read. So I'll fill the gap myself.

I'll tell you what I DON'T want to read: 

* Anything that will make me sad;

* Anything that will turn my stomach with unnecessarily detailed violence;

* Anything so cozy that if you're not wrapped in a shawl and drinking tea you might as well not bother; 

*Anything that assumes a person who works at the flower shop, the craft store, the bakery or the local cheese shop is better at solving crimes than detectives;

* Anything that centers on a sleuth so cynical and damaged he (inevitably) should be under psychiatric care;

* Anything "shattering," "gut-wrenching," "devastating" or "deeply disturbing." I'm not looking for that.

This is not to say that YOU shouldn't want to read any of those books. If that fulfills your needs, you should run toward it. It's just not going to make it for me. Life is short, and I don't have that kind of time.

So I write books that I think have interesting characters but add a decent amount of laughs. I write plots that might not hold water all the time, but should keep you turning pages. I think about how to show new sides of my characters perhaps more than what the most innovative way to dispatch some non-entity to get the plot going might be. 

I like to laugh. I like to follow interesting, nuanced characters. I hope to write a mystery that's as good as TED LASSO. I'd also like to read such a book (doesn't have to be a mystery).

If you know of something I'd probably enjoy reading, please don't hold back. I'd genuinely like to know.

Cover Reveal: Fran & Ken Stein #2!

Coming in May, 2024!


Monday, October 3, 2022

No. There aren't going to be more Haunted Guesthouse books.

Readers ask questions, and that's great. There's nothing writers love quite so much as talking about themselves and their work. 

But I do cringe just a little when I get the most frequent question from a reader, and it's because I don't have an answer that's going to make them happy. They want to know if there will be more books in the Haunted Guesthouse mystery series, and I have to tell them no.

I hate that.

Authors most often don't decide when to end a series. I have never voluntarily ended a series since I finished the Aaron Tucker books in 2005. And that wasn't so much because I wanted the series to end as that I had a better deal with another publisher. 

So no, it's not my choice that the most popular of my book series will not continue. Believe me, we tried, to the point of actually selling the last two Guesthouse books to a new publisher when the first one decided not to ask for any more. Then those two books didn't supply the kind of sales numbers the new publisher required, and well, you're not going to move a series more than once, if you manage it that many times. (Still, you might get another quick glimpse of Alison and the gang, not in a new book, and when I know for sure I'll be certain to pass the news along.)

Alison Kerby and her nutty group of confederates will have to satisfy themselves with ten novels and two novellas (only on audiobook). And you and I will have to do the same, I'm afraid.

The same is true of Duffy Madison and Kay Powell, who inhabited the Mysterious Detective and Agent to the Paws series, respectively. Each of them got two novels and that was it. This is the reality of the publishing business. If enough people buy the books, there are more and if not... well, I can only assume I didn't do as good a job as I should have.

That's the way it goes. 

(And if you're one of the people wondering whether the next Mysterious Detective book would have solved the mystery of Duffy Madison, I can tell you with no hesitation that it would not, because I never decided whether he was real or not.)


Within a month (specifically, by November 1, when AND JUSTICE FOR MALL hits bookstores and libraries) there will be four Jersey Girl Legal mysteries in print, and the fifth will be available in 2023. Also next year will come UKULELE OF DEATH, the first in what we all hope will be a series about Fran and Ken Stein, and if you want to know about them, read their names together and you might get an idea. More on that after New Year's.

So let's not dwell on the past. The Guesthouse books and all the others still exist. You can read them whenever you like. And I'm not finished writing yet, so hopefully there will be more on the horizon. And if we run into each other somewhere along the line and you feel compelled to ask, I'll be happy to answer you question.

But I'm afraid the answer will not have changed. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Why You Won't See Guns on My Books Anymore

 Just to be clear: The following does NOT apply to the next Jersey Girl Legal Mystery, AND JUSTICE FOR MALL, which will be published this fall with a cover that was approved early this year. 

Earlier this month I sent an email to the wonderful Rachel Slatter, my editor at Severn House, asking about upcoming covers on (at least) two books the company will publish from me in 2023. One will be the fifth Jersey Girl book, and the other... that's a subject for an upcoming post. And we'll see after that.

After having given it considerable thought, I asked Rachel if we could keep the image of any guns off the covers of my books from this point on. Part of this came from my noticing the handgun on the spine (!) of WITNESS FOR THE PERSECUTION, the most recent Jersey Girl book. And my realizing that until now I hadn't even registered that it was there. That was how ubiquitous that image had become.

I don't intend to turn this post into a political statement, but it is necessary to understand that I am an advocate of much stricter gun laws that the US has at this moment, even with the tweaks that passed through the Senate recently. I thought things would change after tiny children were shot down randomly at Sandy Hook, but that was 10 years ago and the situation, if you've been paying attention at all, has simply gotten worse.

This post is not meant to change anyone's mind on what the Second Amendment does or does not guarantee, or on what should be done about a country of 330-million people with 393.3-million guns. That's your own business and each of us reacts the way we see fit. This is how I did it.

I worry that, writing crime fiction, I have allowed myself to fall back on firearms as an easy way to get the story moving and to get my characters into danger. The antagonist pulls a gun and the stakes are raised. Easy. 

It shouldn't be that easy. I should have to work harder.

Now, I'm not promising that you'll never see a firearm show up as a plot point in one of my books again. To some extent, removing them entirely would be unrealistic in the society where these novels take place. I will try to limit any discussion of guns to a minimum and try harder when getting my characters into trouble. That's on me.

But I do worry about glamorizing guns, and to some extent about taking their danger away. Readers just accept that a bad guy - and quite a few good guys - will have a gun. A lot of crime fiction writers go to great lengths to research those firearms and make sure they're being used (and described, often in great detail) correctly. I tend not to be quite so precise, partially because I am not an expert on the subject but also because I don't want to be. 

Normalizing the use of firearms has gotten us to this point. I don't blame popular culture for mass shootings in schools but I think the mindset of a person who might consider such an act is influenced to at least a small degree by the fantasies put up on movie theater screens, television and, yes, in the pages of books.

I prefer not to have that image be the face of my work. And the good people at Severn have indulged me on that point.

Again, I can't promise that I won't ever fall back on the device, but I will try to minimize it. And the first step is taking it off the cover.

I don't think it will solve a thing, but it's what I can do, so I'm doing it. 

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Coming November 1 (I'm pretty sure)!


Sandy Moss is back, with a client who won't leave her alone! Eleven-year-old Riley wants Sandy to get her father out of jail. But her dad is already convicted--of murdering Riley's mom. And he swears he's guilty.