Book Review: Top Secret Twenty One

The Stephanie Plum books are like Pringle’s potato chips—I can’t eat just one despite the fact I know they’ll be full of empty calories. Maybe it’s the salt. Whatever. Pass the can.

Top Secret Twenty One is the latest in the Stephanie Plum bounty hunter series by Janet Evanovich set in Trenton, NJ. With 21 books in a series, frankly, it must be hard to keep things fresh–I’m up to 3 novels so far in the Emilia Cruz series so am not speaking from experience. That being said, having read 1-20, I was pretty sure what to expect.

No crystal ball needed for this book review.

In “21,” Stephanie is still caught between Morelli, the Italian cop she’s sleeping with, and Ranger, the mysterious Latino god-cum-security-expert she’d like to be sleeping with. Ranger is always available to lend Stephanie a car or get her out of trouble, which is amazing as he’s not getting any.

Basically he’s the hottest, yet most unfulfilled, man on the planet . . . Babe.

The novel has Stephanie hunting for a bail jumper named Jimmy Poletti who was arrested for running girls out of his car dealership. She can’t find Poletti but when a frenemy shows up at her door claiming that Poletti is trying to kill him (Randy the uber-short in a recurring role), Stephanie figures the odds have changed in her favor.

Babe. Bait.

There’s the obligatory scene at the funeral home, her mother still drinks and irons when stressed, Grandma Mazur and Lula take turns at being the inept sidekick, Ranger’s invitation remains open-ended, and there are more run-ins with the bad dudes on Stark Street. The formula is familiar but still works, although the chapter endings in this novel seemed flat as opposed to the cliff-hangers Evanovich normally leaves us with. The dialogue wasn’t as snappy, either, like soda that has lost some of the fizz.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll read “22,” sure that it will be the one in which Stephanie finally chooses between Morelli and Ranger. Or maybe that will happen in “23.” Or “24.”

One Heart, Three Tragedies

Three places I love are bleeding and all I can do is watch and pray.

Mexico

As many readers know, my years in Mexico and Central America provided the impetus for my mystery and thriller novels and part of my heart will always be in Mexico. But the country has been rocked by the horrific story of the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the rural teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, “a college with a tradition of left-wing political activism,” according to BBC reporting.

flag printAuthorities in Mexico City say the students were rounded up by police “allegedly on the orders of the mayor of the nearby town of Iguala, “who wanted to prevent them from disrupting a speech his wife was giving at a public event that evening.” The students were then handed over to a gang known for violence. Gang members killed the students, burned the bodies, and discarded the remains in trash bags. One student has been identified from the remains. No closure for the other 42 families as of yet, despite more arrests.

Gang members, the mayor, his wife, and the police chief have all been arrested. Now there is a call for an investigation into the army. Meanwhile, the hashtag #YaMeCanse (I am tired) has become a rallying cry against Mexico’s drug violence and the mounting numbers of missing.

Related post: Entitlement, Mexico Style

If all this wasn’t enough, as federal investigators were combing the hillsides of the state of Guerrero (where the Emilia Cruz mystery series is set) they kept finding other mass graves. How much is too much!?

Surely there will be an end to the violence someday. In the meantime, I’m praying for answers.

Greece

I also have wonderful memories of living in Greece and regularly correspond with friends who are still there. In fact, Greece is where I wrote the first, 800-page (!) draft of The Hidden Light of Mexico City. We treated the crazy Greek bureaucracy, radical protests, and garbage strikes with humor. But in time we realized these events reflected systemic failure.

broken old potteryThis coming Sunday, Greeks will take to the polls in yet another drama related to the country’s ongoing financial crisis and overwrought political scene. Riding high is Alexis Tsipras, from the far radical left Syriza Party which would do away with the austerity measures Greece was forced to adopt in order to get billions in bailout money from the EU. The Wall Street Journal reported that the already beseiged Greek economy is in a tailspin over a potential Syriza win at the polls.

Should Tsipras win and make good on his promises to walk away from Greece’s promises to the EU, it would mean an epic financial crisis. But maybe he’s got support because austerity has simply exhausted the Greek spirit. The Economist reports that “Although the economy is now growing again, Greek voters remain understandably enraged that GDP should have shrunk by almost 20% since 2010 and that unemployment is still as high as 26%.” According to UK newspaper The Guardian, “Many Greeks will be inclined to vote for the insurgents as much out of hopelessness as helplessness.”

No matter what the outcome, I’m praying for restraint.

France

I went to college for a year in Paris, long before there were euros and the internet. My best friend and I lived in the 17th Arondissment–the high rent district. It was a year of important life experiences, set against the backdrop of the City of Lights.

Girl Meets Paris book coverBut the news coming out of Paris this month has been nothing like that. Terrorist rampages, manhunts, sleeper cells, mass shootings. Like so many others, I’ve been glued to the news, remembering locations and events that brought me so much joy, and shocked by what today’s  journalists are reporting.

I’ve been tinkering with a memoir, based on my letters, of my year in Paris. “Girl Meets Paris” captures all the joy and excitement of discovering Paris.

Maybe publishing could be part of the healing process, because I’m praying for recovery.

 

Book Review: The Witch of Napoli

The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker is an unexpected trip to 1890’s Italy, when Garibaldi’s unification of the country was still tenuous and Italy’s city-states retained their strong regional rivalries and flavors. At the same time, the study of the occult was all the rage. The reality and authenticity of the spirit world–and those who could access it–was hotly contested. Fame and fortunes were at stake in this historic time of debate about the afterlife.

The book is narrated by a young man, Tomas, who will rise to journalistic fame on the coattails of a medium. Alessandra is a beautiful woman with an explosive temper, seamy past, and abusive common-law husband, but her apparent psychic powers are mighty. Both she and Tomas are from Naples, where the action starts, and together they navigate treacherous waters as the Italian, and then European, cognoscenti try to prove if Alessandra’s remarkable power to connect with the spirits of the dead, including medieval monk and heretic Savonarola, are for real.

Schmicker is adroit in his handling of the central question—is Alessandra for real?—as Tomas describes her séances. Alessandra is a marvelous character, true to her rough upbringing and the culture of old Naples. She is by turns conflicted, fiery, confident, sick, in love, desperate—yet always remains true to herself as she hides both a secret anguish and the source of her psychic abilities. Tomas is also well drawn. He’s a young man ready for life’s adventures, half in love with Alessandra, and increasingly protective of her even when he knows she has made a bad choice.

The Witch of Napoli, beyond its absorbing premise, is an excellently crafted book. Alessandra’s nemesis, a haughty Englishman bent on proving her a fraud, is introduced with just the perfect amount of suspense. Chapters end on cliffhangers. Secondary characters are as well written as the principals, with deft descriptions. The sense of time and place is exceptional as Alessandra’s skills as a medium are “tested” in many European capitals. London proves her undoing . . . until she’s back in her native land.

The discussion of the occult is never mawkish nor amateurish, yet neither is this a book about spiritual secrets. At its heart, the Witch of Napoli is about a woman with secrets and the wave of political and academic curiosity that tried to wash those secrets out of her. In a note at the end, Schmicker lets us know that the book was inspired by a real woman and provides research material.

I love reading mysteries and thrillers, as well as writing them, and this book contained all the elements I crave: a fresh premise, characters that intrigue, and both elegant and exceptional dialogue and construction. Bravissimo!

Highly recommended.

Theme for 2015: Maximize!

At our family New Year’s Eve dinner, I asked if anyone had made any resolutions. My husband had some fitness goals, while our college kids talked about GPAs, Zumba classes, getting more sleep, and internships.

Later, I realized that no one had asked me if I had made any resolutions. I pouted for a minute, until Kathy Griffin striped Anderson Cooper’s head with hair dye, leaving him look like a startled British rocker, and I forgot about the whole dinner/resolution/hey-you-forgot-mom business.

The truth is, like last year, I’m not doing resolutions in 2015.

Yes, Virginia, it’s okay not to resolve

As we all know, resolutions evaporate fairly quickly unless they stick around long enough to become a habit. (I believe gym memberships are based on this business model.)

Check out The Happiness Project’s author Gretchen Rubin on habits.

So instead, I pick a theme for the year.

I can post the word above my desk and be reminded all year of my intention. I can give myself little checks as the weeks fly by, asking if what I’m doing is in keeping with the spirit of the theme.

This year’s theme is: MAXIMIZE

Related post: 2014–Does your year need a theme?

Maximize Me

I’m going to maximize my year in three ways:

  1. Maximize my time

I waste a lot of time on social media. Sad, but true. I’m going to use automation tools for marketing purposes and be more intentional with the personal time I spend on the 3 Deadly Sins: Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

book outlineI will also go back to working from an outline. I tried NaNoWriMo this year with a strong sense of the novel I wanted to write but no outline. Hey, pantsers do it all the time. The result? I wasted a ton of time slack-jawed in front of the screen, trying to figure out the right sequence of events for an extremely complicated mystery plot.notebook and handwriting

I will also spend more time writing longhand. I wrote almost all of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY in notebooks, typing up a few pages at a time. Pen and paper help marshal my thoughts and I find I have less editing work later.

  1. Maximize my creativity

Being an author these days isn’t just about having fiction for sale on Amazon. It is about creating a connection with readers and reaching them wherever they are. To that end, I’m going to do some fun and creative things on new platforms, like Slideshare and maybe even YouTube, with the goal of maintaining the connection via the Mystery Monthly emails.

I’ll also offer a few different reader gifts besides a free copy of THE BEAST. I’ve got some surprising ideas from the work I’ve been doing for bookmarketingtools.com and a lecture I gave about crafting a mystery series. Stay tuned.

  1. Maximize my reach

I have had the good luck to be offered guest post opportunities and interviews on writer blogs and would like to do more. It’s great to extend my reach and I’ve also met some terrific folks. The next step is to look at syndication opportunities for this blog.

Your theme for 2015

It’s all about attitude. In my mind’s eye, I’m drawing in deep breaths, the way an athlete does before a race to maximize lung power.

How about you? What is going to be your theme this year?

It Goes Without Saying in 2015

It wasn’t a high school for the performing arts, but it came darn close.

Every year, my Catholic high school raised the majority of its operating funds by putting on two plays and a musical. With  about 360 kids in four grades, that meant that at some point, you were in a show.

By the time I arrived for freshman year, resplendent in my sister’s hand-me-down red blazer and plaid skirt, the school knew how to wow its stolid upstate New York audience and the musical was firmly established as the social event of the year. Costumes were rented from Broadway, set construction was overseen by local home builders, and the Capital Theater was booked for 8 shows. Opened in 1928 as the first theater in the aere for play “talkie” movies, the theater was still an opulent, albeit faded, reminder of the Roaring Twenties by the time I walked its boards.

capital theater

Interior of the Capital Theater. Picture courtesy romecapital.com

Treading the Boards

I auditioned and won a role in every production the school put on. Freshman year I was cast as a plucky maid in George M!, the lively musical show about the life of Broadway actor and producer George M. Cohan. He wrote classics like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Over There.” I still remember the words to half a dozen Cohan songs and will sing them on request.

The show had a cast of 100, all of whom took tap lessons for months before. The guy who played George went on to become a professional dancer. The rousing final number included a Rockettes-style kick line holding sparklers.

As the music faded, a scratchy recording of a male voice started. “My father thanks you. My mother thanks you. My sister thanks you. And as for myself, it goes without saying.”

The voice was George M. Cohan himself, from a recording made when he was playing vaudeville with his parents and sister as The Four Cohans.

Statue of George M. Cohan in New York City.

Statue of George M. Cohan in New York City. Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Channeling George

I’m channeling George today as I look back on 2014 and ahead to 2015. As an author, I have many people to thank for their support, friendship, and inspiration.

First, thanks to readers who bought, read, and reviewed THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and the Emilia Cruz books. In response to the number one question I receive, “When is the next Emilia Cruz coming out?” I can say “This summer.” Make sure to sign up for the Mystery Monthly. Subscribers will be the first to know.

Next, thanks is due to the generous fellow authors who helped me raise funds for water.org: Sharon Lee Johnson, Norm Hamilton, and Jerold Last. Bless you all.

To the many authors, bloggers, store owners, publishers, and pundits who contributed to the Bookstore of the Future project, especially thriller author Dale Brown, who was the first to respond. I was thrilled to get responses as well from marketing “evangelist” Guy Kawasaki, and historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. It was a fascinating project and the conclusions were surprising to many.

To the virtual friends from three special Facebook groups: Mystery Readers Corner, which does not allow any promotion but is the best place to talk about mysteries; Instant Bestseller, a group of authors connected by Tim Grahl’s online marketing course based on his book YOUR FIRST 1000 COPIES; and Mexico Writers, a vibrant community of authors whose passion for Mexico is evident every day.

To those who helped me reach new audiences by hosting me on their websites, including mamiverse.com, mexicoretold.com, omnimystery.com, bookmarketingtools.com, and mysteristas.com.

In 2015, I hope to continue to entertain, donate to Water.org from book sales, and raise awareness about the plight of the missing in Mexico. It’s good to have a big agenda.

Being an author isn’t musical theater, but a journey of a thousand steps. I’ve said thanks, but know that every day, it goes without saying.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

What if you were truly haunted by the ghost of Christmas past?

Sometimes I think I might be.

That First Christmas

We spent our first Christmas as a married couple in a fairy tale setting. It was crisp and cold that year in Vienna, Austria. We strolled through the market in front of the Rathaus. Recalling my love of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic, I fell in love with the nutcrackers of every shape and size.

Christmas past in Vienna Jumping into the local culture with the appetites of youth, we sampled gluhwein (hot spiced whte wine), ate wurst larded with cheese from sidewalk stands, and  found a charming pub-style restaurant at the end of the tram line that specialized in groestl, a hash made with potatoes and ham. When we had enough local food there was a 2-story McDonald’s.

The trip was an introduction to eiderdown comforters, too. We snuggled in a double bed slightly larger than a twin, and watched German television piped in from Bonn. For some reason old American sci-fi movies dubbed in German were popular. The 50’s flicks were campy, with specific effects depending on aluminum foil and string. The spacecraft looked like flying yams.

The commercials were the best part, especially the English language ad touting Spandau Ballet, “the band that styled the 80’s.” We recognized the song “True,” which had gotten decent air time in the US, but fell over ourselves with laughter at the tag line. Even today, one of us will suddenly come out with it, and for some reason it is still as funny as it was then. I mean, come on.

The Band That Styled the 80’s.

You had to have been there, I think.

End of an Era

While we were in Vienna, the reign of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu came to a gruesome end. I saved the edition of the International Herald Tribune with the story of the Christmas day execution of  Ceaușescu and his wife. You can read this Huffington Post article about it.

Suddenly, there was another tear in the Iron Curtain. Romanians came flooding across the border into Vienna, stuffed into tiny cars or by the busload to see what the free world looked like. They were slightly shell-shocked in their drab, poorly made clothes, as they took in Vienna’s magnificent architecture, restaurants and pastry shops loaded with food, and markets with high quality Christmas decorations.Trams of Christmas past

A McDonald’s Moment

The McDonald’s was a magnet for the Romanians, although they couldn’t afford it. My husband and I were in the restaurant at one point, eating our way through a sizeable meal. A Romanian couple was nearby, sharing a much smaller meal. They were eating it slowly and with great wonder.

Related post: What I Learned at McDonald’s and it isn’t about the food

That meal was a gift in many ways. It made me realize the joy there is in freedom and to never take it for granted. I also recognized how lucky I was to be able to watch the awakening of a nation, yet not have to carry the burden of the past or the fear of change.

Ghost of Christmas Past

That couple in the McDonald’s in Vienna is my ghost. But in a good way. Rarely does a year go by that I don’t think of them. They were about our age, amazed at what the world outside Romania was like.

I hope things worked out for them and that they are prosperous now. Maybe getting ready to enjoy Christmas, laughing about how naive they were that first time out of Romania. Thinking about the American couple they saw in McDonald’s and how they looked like freedom.

Writing for Water.org: Glass Half Full in November

Throughout 2014 I am donating $1 for every Kindle book sold to Water.org, the charity co-founded by Matt Damon to bring clean water and decent sanitation to communities worldwide. A number of other emerging authors have helped me out, including Norma Hamilton, Jerry Last and Sharon Lee Johnson. Together we are Writing for Water.

Glass Half Full

As I noted in the October Writing for Water update, the advent of Kindle Unlimited brought Kindle sales to a screeching halt. It’s a good thing we’d met our goal of bringing clean water for life to 25 people in 2014 already because even that low bar would have been impossible in this brave new world of borrows vs sales.

Related post: Writing for Water: October’s Surprising Stall

November saw us move the bar only half a notch. But when added to the year’s progress, this means that 30 persons have gained access to clean water for life from our efforts. writing for water Nov 2014

Looking ahead

To try and end the year on a high note, all of the Emilia Cruz novels, CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS, featuring the first and only female detective on the Acapulco police force, will be reduced to $1.99. The $1.99 sale will run until Christmas.

Related link: Carmen’s books on Amazon

Stock your Kindle now for wintry weather reading in January! It’s a trip to Acapulco, where the weather is hot but the crime will burn you.

Related post: Locating the Emilia Cruz Mystery Series

In other news

I have contracted with the design firm MondoVox to redesign the Emilia Cruz book covers. As much as I have loved the ocean motif, none of the book covers say “police procedural” or even “mystery.” MondoVox not only came highly recommended by Sherry, the font of all things marketing, but is the creative force behind the branding for Chicago company, The Spice Outfit. Check out the mobster-inspired packaging here: http://mondovox.com/our-portfolio/18-portfolio/packaging/65-the-spice-outfit

Look for the new book covers in March 2015, along with a blog redesign to match!

Twice as Nice: Book Reviews That Matter

A glowing book review from an authoritative source is good. But let’s face it, two is twice as nice. That’s what happened this week.  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY was selected to be one of 5 books reviewed in November by Literary Fiction Book Reviews. And to top it off, DIABLO NIGHTS was reviewed for onlinebookclub.org.

“Rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption”

Hidden Light by Carmen AmaWhen an author puts their book into the hands of a respected editor in hopes of a meaningful review, there is always the chance that the editor simply won’t “get it.” Won’t get the message, the relationships, the something special you were trying to convey.

Well, this editor “got it” all, from understanding the Cinderella relationship in the novel–“a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum,” to the action “The suspense is beautifully mantained as Eddo pursues El Toro to the island haven of Antigua and an unforgettable underwater fight scene.”

You can check out the full review at literaryfictionreview.com.

“Unique and gripping mystery novel”

Diablo NightsOnlinebookclub.org is an interesting forum for book lovers of all genres. The review of DIABLO NIGHTS was done by a thoughtful member who compared the novel to the In Death series by J.D. Robb.

But the review also had this to say: “Both feature a plucky female detective with a dark past who has a thirst for justice and a rich foreign lover who plays back-up on occasion. While I couldn’t help but make note of the similarities, Amato’s unique setting, realistic characters, and intriguing plot set her apart.

You can check out the full review at http://forums.onlinebookclub.org/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=21685

Even Better Than Twice as Nice

What could be better than great reviews? Water.

Yep, you read that right. Water.

Throughout 2014 I’ve been donating $1 for every Kindle book sold to Water.org, the charity co-founded by Matt Damon to bring decent sanitation and clean water to communities worldwide. A number of indie authors have been helping, including Norm Hamilton, Jerold Last and zombie storyteller Sharon Lee Johnson.

We met our goal of bringing clean and safe water to 25 persons for life already this year but are trying to edge the water meter a bit higher. If you’d like to help, please feed your Kindle from this list of authors and books.

Or simply go to our donation page at Water.org and make a donation. Any amount will make a huge difference in giving someone this most basic of human needs. Clean water.

It’s not rocket science or costs a fortune. But clean water is critical to fighting diseases like Ebola.

Entitlement, Mexico style

Over the last few weeks I’ve been following the news stories about the fate of 43 students who went missing in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in a small town not far from Acapulco, in late September. The students, from a rural teaching college, were mostly men in their 20’s who went to protest in the town of Iguala about the lack of funding for their school.

After the protest got rough, they were arrested by the police but reportedly handed over to a gang. Justice, Mexico style. They haven’t been seen or heard of since.

Zocalo, Mexico City

Demonstrators in Mexico City’s Zocalo. Photo courtesy of Reuters via BBC.co.uk

Demonstrations demanding answers have been held in Acapulco and Mexico City, with a spiraling anger that has led to numerous arrests.

riot police, mexico City

Riot police protect National Palace adjacent to Mexico City’s Zocalo. Photo courtesy of Reuters via BBC.co.uk

Related post: March for the Missing in Acapulco

The mayor, no less

Now the mayor of the town of Iguala and his wife have been arrested for ordering the execution of the students because the student demonstration disrupted a social event for the municipal royal couple. The mayor and his wife were found hiding out in Mexico City. The Iguala chief of police who is also charged, is still a fugitive.

Here is a comprehensive CNN report:

Remains of the day

Federal authorities searching for bodies of the missing 43 stumbled upon a number of mass graves in the hills around Acapulco but none were of the tudents. Did I read that correctly, you are saying to yourself; “Numerous mass graves???”

So if the dead in those graves aren’t the students, then who is buried there in these lonely, unmarked plots? And why should a culturally rich country, with world famous food and a spot on Monocle’s soft power annual survey, have mass unmarked graves dotting its countryside?

But the good news is that, according to the most recent CNN news reports, partial remains have been found that are likely to be the students. They were shot, then burned, then the remains dumped in a river.

This is hurting my heart.

Mexico style

The latest Emilia Cruz mystery has elements of this sort of entitlement, as does THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which I saw all too often when I lived in Mexico. It’s an attitude of Mexico style entitlement that says “I can wipe out those bothering fools because they aren’t real people.” It is a sense of respecting no one but yourself, of having lost touch with basic humanity and being consumed by one’s own ego.

Cartels and corruption have taken it to stratospheric levels in Mexico. I’m not sure I have ever experienced that type of attitude to such an extent anywhere else.

Writing for Water: October’s Surprising Stall

Throughout 2014, I’m donating $1 for every Kindle book I sell. Other authors are joining the Writing for Water effort and togethe we have raised enough to provide 29.5 people with clean water for life through Water.org. Our goal for the year was 25.

Related: Meet the Authors Writing for Water

October stats

In late September, Amazon rolled out the Kindle Unlimited program, which enables people to borrow Kindle books similar to the way the Netflix or Oyster entertainment subscription plans work. While all of my books are enrolled in the program at present, the borrowing calculation means an author doesn’t get paid until at least 10% of the book is read. Check it out here.

Great for readers but it meant that my Kindle sales dropped. As in dead. In. The. Water. 10 books sold all month.

This means that, even by stretching my numbers, we only added a bit to the chart for October. Really, really glad we hit our goal back in August.

WritingforWater_Oct2014

Looking ahead

Hopefully November will be a little better. There are just two months left in 2014 and deep down, I was hoping we’d hit 50. I know that won’t happen but we should at least be able to say that in 2014, 30 people gained access to clean water because of a handful of indie writers who decided that their books could make a difference.

Even while slaving over my NaNoWriMo effort, I’m going to try and jumpstart sales in November with some advertising and a Goodreads giveaway of the new paperback version of DIABLO NIGHTS.

If you’d like to make a contribution to our fundraiser, wthout benefit of buying a book, here is the link: http://give.water.org/fundraiser/2154/

Thank you!

A big shoutout to Sharon Lee Johnson, author of those addictive zombie tales, who continues to send me encouraging messages and checks to Water.org. Sharon has an amazing work ethic and I truly appreciate how committed she has been to the cause of clean water. Read her stories like Zombies Invaded My World.