How to Make an Informed Reading Choice

How to Make an Informed Reading Choice

With so many books out there, how do you make an informed reading choice? From the author’s point of view, it’s all about “book discoverability.’ But I read more than I write and from the reader’s perspective, it’s all about knowing the book won’t disappoint.

How to choose

There are alot of Goodreads discussons about how readers choose a book. Cover? Synopsis? Word-of-mouth? Book of the month chosen by others?

Here’s a different answer: the book itself.

Sample Size

When the Emilia Cruz short story, The Beast, was featured on The Huffington Post’s Fiction 50 showcase, sales of the first two Emilia Cruz books, CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE, went through the roof. Readers got to meet Emilia, the first female detective on the Acapulco police force, and see what a fighter she is.

The lesson was the best way to help a reader make an informed choice with an excerpt that sets up a conflict, introduces characters to love, or otherwise intrigues. We want to make sure it won’t disappoint.

Reader Zone

That’s why I’ve created the free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library for readers. It introduces Emilia to readers who might have seen the books on Amazon or on a book review site, but wonder about the tone and quality of the books.

The Starter Library includes a copy of The Beast, just in case you missed it on The Huffington Post last year. Free of charge.

Character Bios

In addition to the Reader Zone, in response to a reader suggestion, I’ve also added bios of the main characters in the Emilia Cruz mystery series. The bios were previously only available on Shelfari.

It is a real look behind the scenes. For example, you can find out what real life union jefe inspired the character of Victor Obregon or what Emilia Cruz and an Olumpic boxer have in common.

Writing for Water

Choose a book that gives back. During 2014 I’m donating $1 to for every Kindle book sold. Several other authors are joining me and together we’re the Writing for Water team. Each month I tally up how many peope we have been able to give clean water for life through our donations to

We met our annual goal in August but we are still working hard. How much more can we do in the last 3 months of the year?  Help us out by buying books from Writing for Water authors.


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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


reading choice

35 Ways to be the Worst Traveller in the World

35 Ways to be the Worst Traveller in the World

I travel internationally about every 4 months or so. This means I get to watch fellow travelers, many of whom unsuspectingly offer colorful characteristics and situations ripe for my next mystery novel.

Yes, I admit it. I travel with a notebook and all too frequently jot down crazy things I see other passengers do. Especially when entering a new country–and culture–few of us seem to anticipate what they will find upon arrival.

So if you want to travel internationally, here’s how to do it badly.

1.  Wear a strapless dress while trying to lift a heavy carry-on into the overhead bin. Laugh nervously while doing so.

2.  Don’t change your home currency into the local currency. Doesn’t everyone use dollars/pounds/euros?

3.  Walk into the restroom, ignoring the attendant and the sign that says the cost to use the facilities is 2 pesos/kroner/zlotys (toilet paper included.)

4.  Travel without tissues (see #3 above.)

5.  Don’t carry a pen on international flights. Instead, pester strangers for a writing implement so you can fill out your immigration form. Do so while they are filling out theirs.

6.  Wear flip-flops to walk through A. the butcher section of a mercado  B. a hiking trail  C. European cobblestone streets or  D. any formal restaurant.

7.  Speak loudly in a language the listener does not understand no matter what your volume.

8.  Tourist loudly through a house of worship while a religious service is in progress.

9.  Walk around with your purse open or unzipped or stuff hanging out of your pocket.

10.  Wear short-shorts in conservative countries where the locals don’t wear anything shorter than capri pants.

11.  Jump into a taxi without knowing the local norms—are there meters, are fares negotiated beforehand, which are the unlicensed taxis and are they safe? Also–you took a taxi there. How are you getting back?

12.  Don’t have any idea how to read a map. Be unable to figure out where you are in any given city.

13.  Talk back to the guard at the museum who reminds you that flash photography is not permitted.

14.  When at a tourist attraction, talk loudly to your companions when all are wearing headphones. Double negative points if headphones are attached to museums gizmos that describe the exhibits.

15.  Don’t check local weather before arriving. Who needs a coat in Helsinki in March?

16.  Don’t travel with Pepto Bismol.

17.  Ignore instructions to put airline seat in the upright position during takeoff or landing. This way, you can get to know the people ahead or in back of you when thrust forcefully against them during takeoff/landing. Oh hi!

18.  Get drunk during a flight and offer your drink to the possibly underage person next to you.

19.  Pack porn for a trip to the Middle East.

20.  Try to dance through the metal detector at the airport.

21.  The sausages in Austria were supposed to be great but there is just wurst on the menu. Seriously, wouldn’t you think they’d serve their best?

22.  Don’t set your watch and/or travel clock to the local time zone.

23.  Call room service and ask the hotel to provide American TV channels.

24.  Although you don’t understand the difference between football/fútbol/soccer/rugby/Aussie rules, talk a lot as if you do.

25.  While in China, ask people if they realize that ping-pong is not a sport.

26.  Eat partially cooked eggs. Add points by combining with #16, above.

27.  Drink tap water when everyone else is drinking bottled water. Again, see #16, above.

28.  Use a shopping bag or other open bag as a carry-on so you can share everything in it with the rest of the plane passengers during landing.

29.  Don’t use sunscreen. More negative points if you then get on an airplane where the air is really really dry . . .

30.  Damn. “Wet season” actually means rain.

31.  Spoiler alert:  Turkish coffee, Turkish delight, and Turkish toilets are not all equally nice.

32. Call the hotel concierge, TSA agent, or tour guide “dude.”

33.  Let your screaming children be the center of everyone’s attention in the hotel restaurant/breakfast buffet/line at Disneyworld attraction/butterbeer stand at Hogsmeade.

34.  What, they don’t speak Latin in Latin America?

35.  Try to score drugs in a foreign country. Dude, seriously.

But be a great traveler with ideas from these travel websites!  the online portal for AFAR, the unique travel magazine a safe travel guide as well as a place to find deals and advice

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


worst traveller

3 Latinas Who Inspired Fiction’s Newest Crimefighter

3 Latinas Who Inspired Fiction’s Newest Crimefighter

Police detective Emilia Cruz is the main character in CLIFF DIVER, the first novel in my new mystery series set in Acapulco. She’s the first and only female police detective in Acapulco, a strong Latina woman who knows the value of family, how to fight for what she wants, and how to hold her own in a squadroom full of male cops who don’t want her and are still trying to break her.

These qualities were inspired by three real-life Latina women whose stories provide inspiration, not only to lovers of mystery series, but for us all.

Marlen Esparza

Marlen Esparza from Vugue magazine

Marlen Esparza photo courtesy of

Known For: Bronze medal winner for women’s boxing at the 2012 London Olympics, as well as 6 US national championships, a gold medal at the 2008 Pan Am Games, and a bronze medal at the 2006 World Championships.

Qualities That Matter: As Esparza’s talents moved her from her Houston neighborhood and into the international spotlight as the first US female Olympic boxer, she hasn’t lost her connection to her roots. In an interview with USA Today’s Hispanic Living magazine she said that when she came home after London, “I realized for me, it was about the gold medal, but for other people it wasn’t about the gold medal. It was how I made something out of nothing.”

Emilia Cruz learned to fight as a young girl as well, tagging along with her male cousins. Her skill lets her defend herself and blow off steam by kickboxing. It also helped her climb the police ranks.

Quote: If you really know…what you want and how to get there, then everything else really falls into place. (Cosmopolitan Magazine)

America Ferrera

America Ferrera 2012

America Ferrera photo courtesy of

Known For: Her award-winning role as Betty Suarez in the series Ugly Betty and movies such as The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and 2012’s cop thriller End of Watch. In addition to her film work she’s an advocate for Voto Latino.

Qualities That Matter: Onscreen, Ferrera is fierce, able to project true depth of emotion. The scene in the first The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants in which she sobs out pent-up anger to her father over the phone is a riveting piece of acting. She perfectly captured the gritty cop vibe in End of Watch; the movie’s prep included police academy training and rode with LA cops. Despite her success she comes across in interviews as friendly, normal, and happily resistant to Hollywood elitism.

Emilia Cruz has that same combination of toughness, emotional vulnerability, and frankness.

Quote: On being a producer and creator: It takes you away from that whiny, “Why aren’t there any roles for me?” place to “I’m going to create a path that feels right to me.” (Jezebel magazine, 11 Feb 2010)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Judge Sotomayor

Justice Sonia Sotomayor photo courtesy of

Known For: First Hispanic judge on the US Supreme Court. Author of memoir, My Beloved World.

Qualities That Matter: Justice Sotomayor doesn’t give up when the going gets tough, as she’s described in interviews about her college experience. Not only was she very much a minority at Princeton, but she struggled with college-level writing skills in English, her second language. She attacked the problem directly, asking professors what was wrong with her papers and taking classes with professors who could help—even if they were tough teachers. An admittedly stubborn person, in an interview she recently said that she has a “personal need to persevere, to fight the fight. And if you just try and be stubborn about trying you can do what you set your mind to.” (Interview with Scott Pelley, CBS News, 13 Jan 2013)

Emilia Cruz has to be tough in the same way. If she backs down, she won’t achieve her goals. Or respect herself. But it means she’s often in opposition to powerful forces in Mexico: corruption, cartels, and a culture of machismo.

Quote: Don’t ever stop dreaming, don’t ever stop trying, there’s courage in trying. (Bronx Children’s Museum gala, quoted by CBS News, 11 Jan 2013))

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Latinas who inspired

What McDonald’s Taught Me And It’s Not About The Food

What McDonald’s Taught Me And It’s Not About The Food

In my quest to find connections across cultures I’ve been thinking about how different cultures influence what we eat (salsa, anyone?) But if we turn that around to look at how a food influenced different cultures we come to one inescapable word: McDonald’s

Yep. The fast food giant has had its share of cultural impact.

After all, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved less than 2 years after McDonald’s opened in Moscow in early 1990. Maybe it was just a coincidence but maybe not . . .

So not to be outdone by the end of the Cold War, here are my top culture-meets-McDonald’s moments:


In the weeks after Romanian Communist dictator Nikolai Ceausescu was overthrown, Romanians came by the busload to Vienna, the closest big Western city, to see how the rest of the world lived. They all looked as if they’d suddenly got out of prison. Their clothes were drab, they were all thin, and they looked fearful and excited at the same time.

My husband and I were in Vienna’s two-story McDonald’s. We each tucked into a substantial fast food meal; Big Macs, fries, the works. A Romanian couple our age was in the booth across the aisle, sharing the equivalent of a hamburger Happy Meal. They each took small bites, savoring the strange food, still in their coats as if they expected to be chased out at any moment.

Mexico City

It was my housekeeper’s anniversary and I took her to the big mall in Santa Fe to pick out a king sized bed for her and her husband. After arranging to have it delivered to their house, we went to the food court. She said she wanted to eat at McDonald’s but would not say what she wanted to order.

After a strange and frustrating exchange about the menu she finally said she’d have whatever I had. It turned out that she’d never eaten at a McDonald’s before.

She was 28.


New Zealand’s capital is a bit more lively these days but when I was there 20 years ago it was a sleepy town, especially on the weekend. There was shopping and a city tour on Saturday but most things were closed on Sunday. Except the one McDonald’s a couple of miles from my hotel. I walked there for lunch, then went to the movies, then walked back to McDonald’s for dinner.

Without McD’s I would have starved. Or had the hotel’s cold mutton buffet for all 3 meals.


The Olympic stadium in Athens housed the biggest McDonald’s we’d ever seen and my kids were as fascinated by the restaurant as by the Olympic events. No mix-and-match fast food here, you could only order from a short list of preset meals, including the first salad any of us had ever eaten at a McD’s. We sat in the middle of the huge space listening to the babble of  languages and watching the array of national costumes.

My kids got it then–the fact that not everybody is like them. Meeting people who aren’t is exciting. The Frenchman in the skinny white capri pants and Puma flats is still remembered fondly.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.



About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

A year ago I was Lost.

No-cell-phone-service Lost. The-road-is-a-gravel-track-through-cane-fields Lost.

Set Sail One Day

Five girlfriends had set out from Panama City to go to El Valle, about two hours away. We’d go to the Sunday crafts market there and have lunch at a boutique hotel afterwards.

A quick stop for cheese empanadas and gas and we were on the road. The miles sped by as we talked and laughed and it was well over an hour before we started to look for the turnoff to El Valle. There wasn’t a sign, but the intersection was the one with the pink shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

More talk. More laughter. More miles. Eventually we turned on the GPS and it signaled a turn. Not the road with the shrine, but it was the right direction.

At Road’s End

About half a mile down the new road, tarmac gave way to gravel. With deep ruts. Then worse ruts. We passed a small village and asked if that was the right road to El Valle. Yes, we were assured. One person said El Valle was just 10 minutes. Another said 30 minutes. The GPS seemed to split the difference.

always turn right

Bad ruts turned into a dry stream bed weaving through Panama’s low mountains. The doughty SUV slid downhill, the tires unable to grip the loose stones. We jolted in the car like peanuts in a tin can. A dashboard light turned on—overheated transmission. We stopped on a rocky plateau and scouted ahead only to find that the gravel track narrowed ahead. The five of us were quite alone in the hot rustling jungle.

The SUV cooled and we started off again, now having discovered that we were all Catholic and that two of us carried rosaries. The jungle gave way to cane fields. Hard green stalks as high as the car roof rattled against the windows.

Two Hours Later . . .

After two hours off-road we broke through the cane field and clambered onto tarmac again. We were on the eastern edge of El Valle. Never were five women more ready to buy souvenirs.

I learned a few things that day.

About being lost. And knowing when to turn at the shrine.

  1. Don’t be so distracted by peripherals—entertainment, Twitter, mooning over the wrong guy—that you forget to look for the shrine that points the way to where you really want to go.
  2. If you’re lost, keep going. Take a break to rethink the situation, take care of problems, or give yourself a pep talk, but don’t confuse “taking a break” with “breaking down.” Cheerlead as you go—you’re handling the uncertainty well, you’re learning about yourself and wherever this “lost” place is—even if it is inside you.
  3. The shrine doesn’t have to be the pink altar on the side of the road. A shrine can be any pointer that helps you travel where you want to go. A shrine can be the project you handled well—you can use it as inspiration for managing a bigger one. A shrine can be a passing grade in a tough subject—you know you can master the next class, too. A shrine can be a hard decision, a recovery from an illness, the day you stood up for yourself, the time when you were scared but did it anyway.
  4. Maybe today’s the day you build a shrine. The day you make a decision and carry it out. The day that you see new possibilities. Believe an inspirational quote and translate it into action. Once you build the shrine, it’s yours forever, ready to inspire if you get lost.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


always turn right

The Power of Daddy

The Power of Daddy

Once upon a time, when we lived in Panama, I was walking the dog and passed a construction site where the workers were engaged in a furious argument. The Spanish flew too fast for me to catch every word but anger came through in every red-faced yell and hostile gesture. The whole block rang with the shouts between a worker on the would-be second floor of the roofless structure and another on the ground below.

As we passed I wondered if bad karma was being transferred from the workers’ anger to the house. Would it silently bleed over into the lives of the people who would one day live in that place?

It made me think of an opposite scene I’d witnessed in Greece, when a family gathered at a construction site in our Athens neighborhood to have their new home blessed. The Greek Orthodox priest, resplendent in his embroidered robes and gray beard, solemnly intoned a blessing while swinging a huge golden incense brazier over the cement foundation. The extended family, all in their Sunday best, stood proudly together in the mud of the construction site, responding to the prayers. They would have a good life in that house, I thought at the time, living in a place infused with God’s blessing.

I grew up in such a house, a long duplex that my grandfather built. My family lived in one side and my maternal grandparents in the other. As a very small girl, I recall being frightened by a school presentation about fire and asked my mother what would we do if the house burned down. Nothing bad could ever happen to the house, my mother informed me, because when he poured the foundation my grandfather had dropped religious medals into the cement. Mary and Joseph were part of the house and would always protect it.

Years later, my husband and I were raising small children. There were no blessings or religious medals factored into the construction of suburban builder homes to keep us safe. We were on our own.

My toddler daughter was scared, she told me one night as I tucked her into bed. There could be monsters in her room that came out when the lights were off. Maybe in the closet.

“Daddy doesn’t allow monsters in the house,” I replied.

And such was the Power of Daddy that the issue was never raised again.

To this day, it remains the smartest thing I ever said as a mother.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.



Rude in Any Culture

Back when I started this blog, I talked about what it means to be a World Citizen, someone who can go anywhere because they understand and embrace the culture in which they find themselves. I identified a few things that go into the making of a World Citizen and Manners was one of them.

Related: The Right Fork

Manners differ considerably from place to place. Often rudeness is one culture is the norm in another. Differing views of standing in a line, for example. But some things are universal.

If you’re a World Citizen, you shouldn’t find yourself doing any of the following:  6 things that are Rude in Any Culture.

  •  Defacing national monuments or historic sites, including taking “souvenirs” which could prove to be significant artifacts, like, oh, the Elgin Marbles.
  •  Performing acts of personal hygiene in public, including urinating, picking one’s nose, clipping fingernails with the teeth, etc. One can never explain such actions in a way that is flattering.
  •  Talking in a theater, unless the movie is Ricky Horror Picture Show.
  •  Putting feet up on a table or other furniture unless invited. It implies disdain for others’ possessions.
  •  Smoking in areas where signs are posted that say–in any language–“No Smoking.”
  •  Overreliance on the word “fuck,” which is now a virtually global swear word, except possibly in France which is rude enough to stick to the time-honored merde.
rude in any culture

A Walk in Her Shoes

A Walk in Her Shoes

I recently was on a plane heading from Central America to the United States. I had the aisle seat. Next to me, in the middle seat, was a middle-aged woman who was obviously new to airline travel.  The flight attendant rapped out directions how to buckle the seatbelt and stow carryons and continued to the next row. The woman looked panicked and I helped her get situated. We introduced ourselves. She was Maria from Colombia, this was only the second flight she’d never been on, and she only spoke Spanish.

A smooth takeoff turned into one of the bumpiest flights I’d ever been on. Maria and I held onto our complimentary dinners and said reassuring things to each other. We noted that each wore a small cross.

As we approached the US, the flight attendant handed out immigration forms. Maria stared at it blankly. I asked if she had the address of where she was going in the United States. She took out a well-worn address book, pressed it into my hand and asked me to fill out her form.

Maria was starting a whole new life in Tennessee with her niece’s family. She asked me if the winters there were cold; she wasn’t sure she could live in a cold place.

When her form was completed I explained as best as I could the immigration process and how she’d need to collect her suitcase before going through customs and finding her connecting flight to Tennessee. She kept nodding but I’d never had to describe such a process in Spanish and couldn’t seem to find the right words. But once in Houston I went into the line for US Citizens and pointed her toward the line for Visitors. Last seen, she was waiting patiently for her turn to show her passport to the uniformed official.

I wondered if I’d see her at the baggage carousel but the place was awash with people. The giant tote board showed nearly 40 arriving international flights. I’d just found the correct carousel for my flight when another woman, also about Maria’s age, addressed me in German.

I don’t speak German, just a few tourist bits from my travels like bier and weiner. But it was clear she didn’t understand how to get her luggage. The airport didn’t seem to have enough signs and few were in other languages besides English. And this was in the international arrivals area. I steered her back to the tote board and started reading off the city names. When I said Hamburg she nodded vigorously.

Baggage from the Hamburg flight was slated for carousel two. I held up two fingers and pointed the way. She saw the giant number hanging over the carousel and said “Thank you” in English. We laughed when I replied “Danke.” She gave me a hug and then went to get her bags.

I met up with her again in the Customs line. Through a series of gestures and a mix of languages I learned that her name was Marta and she was going to visit her daughter in Minnesota who was a teacher. When we parted at her gate I wished I knew how to say “good luck” in German.

As I waited for my own connecting flight, I mulled over my newfound role as a traveller’s aid society. A day in Maria and Marta’s shoes had been hard, full of incomprehensible directions and unfamiliar environments. I wondered how they would look back on their first experience of the big unruly culture of the US. They’d kept smiling and trying and hoping, because there was nothing else to be done, but underneath there had been fear of the unknown.

Every experience with a new culture is like that and putting on their shoes for a day was a good reminder. The world is smaller now than ever, and more connected, but it still takes courage to explore it.

Besos, Carmen

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walk in her shoes


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


walk in her shoes

Author Carmen Amato

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