Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

If ever there was a mystery author who I consider a role model, Donna Leon is it. Her Commisario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice has all the elements of a great mystery series:

  • a perfect cast of characters starring Brunetti himself–the thinking man’s detective who reads the classics
  • his sharp-tongued wife Paola who teaches English literature at the university and is a great cook
  • the boss who swings according to the day’s political wind
  • stout-hearted but highly individual colleagues
  • the police department’s beautiful hacker/secretary.

Add to this cast the food and wine of Italy, the sights and sounds of Venice, twisty plots, and you have an intellectual series rooted in Italian culture.

THE GOLDEN EGG brings together all these elements as Brunetti probes into the death of a deaf man who seems to have lived totally outside of Italian officialdom, something almost impossible to do. Brunetti pulls gossamer threads, one after the other, to try and find out the basics about him, despite the fact that his death looks fairly accidental. The book is peppered with his queries of various people in Venice as he takes to the streets and canals in search of answers. Paola and his children form a bulwark against the sadness of the situation (Brunetti is one of the few international mystery characters who is neither an alcoholic nor divorced.)

Italy’s political mire and hopeless bureaucracy is on display in the book, mirroring the country’s real problems.  It seems to be as much of the culture as the water lapping at the riva of the canal or the tramezzini that Brunetti has for lunch.

The ending, as in so many of Leon’s novels, is a satisfying twist you don’t see coming. The “egg” of the title means “nest egg” but other than that I won’t give it away. Anyone who likes the international mystery genre or Italy will love this book, as well as the others in the series.

Book Review:  Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

This review is dedicated to the people of Boston.

I’m still surprised when I run across someone who is a mystery novel fan but who has never read a book by Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser novels that have come to define the mystery genre. His tough-as-nail-with-heart-of-gold private detective, whose first name we never know, is as much a part of the Boston landscape for me as Copley Square or Harvard Yard. The hardback editions of the books–and there around 40 in the series–include a map on the flyleaf with all of Spenser’s haunts labelled on it. Locke-Ober’s Restaurant, Faneuil Hall, his apartment on Marlborough Street and the oft-mentioned swan boats in Boston’s Public Gardens.

But we don’t just read Spenser mysteries for the Boston scenery. We read them for great characters, perfect plots, the crisp sparse language.  And Spenser’s firmly rooted code of ethics. He may be a private eye and a self-admitted thug, but he’s got a clear and believable moral compass and expresses it in a way we don’t see very often any more. COLD SERVICE is the Spenser novel that best sets out that code which includes loyalty to friends, standing your ground, but never striking without provocation.

In COLD SERVICE (the title is derived from the saying that revenge is a dish best served cold) his friend Hawk is shot and left for dead. Hawk was protecting a Boston bookie from a Ukrainian mob trying to muscle into the area. Needless to say the bookie and family are dead. With Spenser’s help, Hawk recovers, infiltrates the mob, and stops it from gaining a foothold in Boston.

Not many of the Spenser books revolve so closely around Hawk, although the enigmatic thug/hitman/bodyguard/boxer who plays wingman in almost all the books. Dialogue between them is nearly a work of art:

  • “They tell me I ain’t gonna die.”
  • “That’s what I heard.”
  • There were hard things being discussed, and not all of them aloud.

Without giving away the plot twists, let’s just say this is one of the best of the Spenser series, which is one of the best mystery series out there. The Ukrainian mob is opaque and brutish. Help comes but cannot be trusted.  Strange alliances must be forged to get at the mob, but they are tenuous at best.

The mayor of a small town near Boston holds the key; his administration is synonymous with corruption. Hawk’s quest for vengeance distances him from the surgeon he’s dating and his refusal to adjust his own code eventually pushes her away. Spenser understands Hawk’s code but will not pursue revenge in the same brute force way.

The end is a terrific nail-biter.

Book Review: The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

Book Review: The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

Books starring the depressed Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander are growing on me, but not as fast as the portrayal of him by British actor Kenneth Branagh.  I like the book plotlines, the descriptions of rural Sweden, the nice balance of character introspection and action. His perpetual unhappiness, stilted dialogue, and self-searching angst are part of Henning Mankell’s moody style, and Branagh captures it perfectly.

In THE MAN WHO SMILED, Wallander can’t come to grips with the fact that he killed a man in the line of duty. He’s drinking himself into oblivion, emerging briefly for a sex-addict’s blurred holiday in Thailand. After an intervention by his grownup yet unseen daughter Linda, he takes his angst to the windswept beaches of Jutland and plans to retire from his job as senior police detective in Ystad, Sweden. But an old friend approaches him to investigate the death of his father, then later turns up murdered. Wallander pulls himself together and heads back into his police career.

He’s been gone for over a year. The squadroom has changed, notably with the addition of a young female detective. As I write a mystery series about a lone female detective in a squadroom full of hostile men, this character really resonated with me. Her attitudes, dialogue and action scenes were very well done.

The book showcased the way Wallander pieces together multiple murders. I enjoyed the pacing of the discovery of clues and the logic thread which made the mystery one of the best in the Wallander series.

But there was one epic fail and it surprised me, given that the rest of the book came together so well. The wrong part would have been very easy to leave out or adjust to make sense. Without giving it away, it involved a switch by the bad guys after the good guy was dead and they simply could have taken the clue when they left the scene of the crime. Or Mankell could have left the original item to be found as the clue. Either way the plot elements would have hardly been affected.

I often look for solid motive in a mystery. The bad guy’s motive was a bit thin, but Mankell sold it as an appalling disregard for human life. It worked—but barely.

Book Review: The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins

Book Review: The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins

THE LOST ONES by Ace Atkins is a well-crafted police procedural featuring the new sheriff of a small Mississippi county. Quinn Colson is back in his home town, fresh from war, and his old high school buddies are, too. Not everyone has come back to gainful employment, however, and Quinn has his hands full as an old crony gets into a gun-running scheme and another turns to drink as a way of escaping the misery of being left with only one arm. Quinn himself has ghosts to lay to rest that include a messed-up sister whose backstory is entwined with Quinn’s–and skillfully explained in a series of flashbacks–as well as the legacy of his uncle, the former sheriff whose last days were marred by scandal.

Perfect-pitch voices

Ace Atkins has a gift for capturing the voices of his characters and is able to assemble a cast who speak to each other–and the reader–with clearly defined personalities which all perfectly fit the rural Mississippi location and their divergent motives. Quinn is clearly the good guy, trying to do the right thing while keeping his own vulnerabilities under wraps. He’s the star of the ensemble but the gun-runner is painted the perfect shade of gray–a once likable small-time guy who went to the show and now finds the small town too confining–but isn’t smart enough to see very far beyond it. By the same token the women in Quinn’s life–notably his mother and his best deputy–have fit themselves into the small town and are trying to make the best of it.

Although the personalities take top honors in this mystery, the action moves  along at a fair pace as Quinn hunts for a couple who are selling children and mistreating them along the way. Switches between Quinn’s investigation through the wilds of rural Mississippi and the crony who is selling weapons to a Mexican gang keeps the suspense going.

Ace Atkins as Spenser

The two plotlines converge nicely and the book wraps up cleanly, making for a classic police procedural mystery. Quinn and the supporting cast make for an excellent read and a series with all the hallmarks of the very best a reader cold want in this genre. It is clear why Atkins was selected to continue Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series–he has the same tempo, gift for authentic dialogue and ability to create compelling characters.

How Mexico’s Union Boss “La Maestra” Inspired a Mystery

How Mexico’s Union Boss “La Maestra” Inspired a Mystery

When fellow fiction writers ask where to find inspiration for characters I usually reply “minor league politicians.” There is always something to be found in the actions and words of those hungry for political power. In the same spirit, I channeled Elba Esther Gordillo, head of Mexico’s national teacher’s union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), when creating the character of Victor Obregon Sosa, head of the police union for the state of Guerrero in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Here’s how Obregon is introduced in CLIFF DIVER, the first book in the series:

The two newcomers surveyed the room. One of them looked vaguely familiar, as if he’d been in the newspaper lately. He was in his late thirties, with longish dark hair slicked back from a high forehead and the sort of angular cheekbones that spoke of a strong indio heritage. He wore a black leather blazer over a black tee shirt and cuffed pants. There was a slight bulge under the left arm. He looked around as if he owned the place. Emilia stopped typing. The man exuded power.

La Maestra

Elba Esther Gordillo, nicknamed “La Maestra,” (The Teacher) has been head of the teacher’s union for more than 20 years; wheeling, dealing, passing out favors, burying bodies, and living on the national stage. Obregon, a continuing character throughout the Emilia Cruz mystery series, borrows much from her:

  • Expensive trappings of office—cars, clothes, attitude
  • Enough money and political power to manipulate politicians and keep them in his pocket
  • Able to effectively block reform and initiatives that could threaten his kingdom
  • Rewards loyalty with best jobs, gifts, favors
  • Likes power and isn’t shy about showing it off

Elba Esther Gordillo photo courtesy of

Imagine my surprise—the imagination reels at what I can do with this via fiction–when Elba Esther was arrested on embezzlement charges last week. The shock wave is still rippling over Mexico where Elba Esther is as famous and powerful as Jimmy Hoffa at the height of his Teamsters power. She is charged with embezzling millions in union funds to support a lifestyle that includes private jets, plastic surgery, luxury homes in San Diego, secret bank accounts in Switzerland and a nearly $3 million credit-card bill at Neiman Marcus. The SNTE has around 1.4 million members and apparently that translates into a lot of dues.

Fictional Education

Of course, it’s not like Elba Esther’s profligate lifestyle was only recently discovered but as they say, timing is everything. (See article on La Maestra corruption from April 2011) The day before her arrest, President Peña Nieto signed into law a major education reform that the SNTE had aggressively opposed. It would allow teachers to be evaluated and possibly fired. This is a big blow to the union’s current status quo: teachers don’t have to have a degree, can never be fired, and high rates of absenteeism are tolerated.

While the president may be sending the message that he’s serious about corruption, Elba Ester’s excesses would have been easier to tolerate if Mexico’s education standards were in better shape:

Looks like Elba Ester has alot to account for and no doubt she’s working up a slick defense as she waits in a woman’s prison near Mexico City. I’m sure it will be inspiring . . . at least to a mystery writer!

2016 Update

Mexican President Pena Nieto’s education reforms have sparked a slew of protests across Mexico, as teachers protest a system overhaul, including evaluation tests every three years. The reforms also include competitive hiring, more control to the federal government, and a salary system to protect against graft and waste.

But in southern Mexico, this past summer protests got violent. Nine people were killed in clashes with police in Oaxaca. Highways were blocked, leading the government to airlift food into rural areas around the city.

While the main union has fallen in line with the reforms, combatative factions are leading the protests and vowing to close Mexico’s highway system. This comprehensive NY Times article from June 2016 focuses on the violence and extremism in Oaxaca.

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


Friday Fiesta: Love, Murder, African Design and the Final Frontier

dog reading paperAs the author of a mystery series I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

A love list by President Harry Truman

He’s better known for “the buck stops here” than for romance but the Smithsonian recently gave us a fascinating list that President Harry Truman wrote capturing his life with Bess, his wife of 53 years. He made a brief notation beside the date of their anniversary each year. Many entries evoke the time period the Trumans were living through. A really interesting way to capture our milestones. Some examples:

  • June 28, 1922 Broke and in a bad way
  • June 28, 1927 Presiding Judge – eating again
  • June 28, 1944 Talk of V.P. Bad business
  • June 28, 1947 Marshall Plan + Greece + Turkey

Murder in the Library

The British Library has a new exhibit featuring the sound and text of British crime fiction writers. Murder in the Library: An A to Z of Crime Fiction is the British Library’s current free exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery in the Entrance Hall. As reported in the Library’s English and Drama Curators’ blog, the exhibit includes recordings including Edgar Wallace reading his short story ‘The Man in the Ditch’, from a 1928 commercial disc; Arthur Conan Doyle speaking in 1930 about his most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes; Agatha Christie in 1955 explaining how she began her career; Raymond Chandler in conversation with Ian Fleming in 1958; and an extract from a 1943 radio version of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Maybe I find this fascinating because I write a mystery series, love museums, and appreciate the innovation that goes into a non-standard exhibit, but the British Library has created an intriguing display, especially if visited on a dark and stormy night . . .

House of Kenya

Art and design is taking off in Kenya, according to the ever-fresh online magazine.  Both London and Los Angeles will host an Africa Fashion Week this year and Berlin’s Fashion Week will include an Africa Fashion Day. A few of the names that are behind this recognition by the tough-nut-to-crack fashion world are Kenyan designer Anna Trzebinski who will open her first U.S. boutique in New York in late 2013 or early 2014, Nigerian-born Adèle Dejak whose workshop in Nairobi focuses on using sustainable materials for her accessories line, and Penny Winter who sells fashion accessories in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, as well in Browns in London. Watch out Dior and Chanel—Kenya’s cultural fashions are creative, colorful, and wearable.

The Final Frontier

The cleverness of some folks! “redditor” boredboarder8 superimposed a map of the continental United States on a comparatively-sized image of the moon. The result? The US covers nearly half of the moon. As Robert Gonzalez, writing for website, said: “A rough estimate, but it’s certainly good enough for government work when it comes to illustrating the Moon’s relative dinkiness. (Or America’s hulking hugeness, depending on how patriotic you’re feeling.)” Take an eye-opening look at America’s final frontier here.

The Best and Other Interview Questions to Ask a Mystery Writer

There are certain interview questions to ask someone who has just published a novel in a mystery series. And other questions that are sort of odd. Here are the ones I’ve been asked lately.

1. Why did you write it?

Cover of Cliff DiverI wrote Cliff Diver: An Emilia Cruz Novel because current events in Mexico don’t make it to the top news stories for big media outlets in the US, despite the fact that over 60,000 people have died there in the past 5 years amid the ongoing violence. US news stories are more concerned with domestic politics, the Middle East, and Lindsay Lohan. And, of course, the Kardashians. If news stories on Mexico do make it to prime time, they are viewed in the context of the US national debate on immigration. The real story—the toll that the drug wars is taking on the people and culture of Mexico—stops at the border.

Oh wait—there was the story about a Mexican snack food company’s trucks being targeted by cartels. That made it to the US news. Danger to snack food manufacturing is important.

But seriously. Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books gave US readers an authentic glimpse inside Russia, creating interest and an awareness that hadn’t been there before. I’m hoping that a contemporary mystery series can do the same for Mexico. The reviews for my 2012 political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City–a story from the heart that took on both Mexico’s rigid social system and the corruption that flows from huge drug profits–made me sure that contemporary fiction can ignite popular interest in what is happening in Mexico better than the news.



2. Who should read it?

When I first started writing, I thought my target readers were the women I’d met in Mexico City; smart, educated women who had jumped into the expatriate lifestyle with both feet, ready to learn new things and assessing and adjusting as they did so. But I’ve been happily surprised by the number of men who read The Hidden Light of Mexico City and liked it.

That’s a long way to say that my readers are those who like

  1. Clever, intricate plots
  2. Real characters who experience change and cope with it
  3. Creativity that stems from current events, history, real places
  4. Books that make other cultures accessible to the reader

3. What is it about?

Cliff Diver launches the Emilia Cruz mystery series, introducing an intriguing cast of characters, and putting the reader squarely into the complicated and conflicted world of an honest cop in Mexico. Emilia Cruz is Acapulco’s first and only female police detective so not only do the books have the usual elements of a mystery series—crime, investigations, evidence, clues, etc—but she also has to navigate her way through Mexico’s culture of machismo.

In Cliff Diver Emilia is forced to lead the murder investigation into the death of her shady lieutenant by a union boss with questionable motives. She faces resentment from the other detectives as well as a blood-spattered crime scene, no witnesses, and the shadow of counterfeit ransom money. Missing police files, the lieutenant’s involvement with a past kidnapping, and a possible link to a gang working for a drug cartel further combine to make this a messy case with too many loose ends.

Expecting to become a target herself because of her own brush with the lieutenant’s counterfeit scheme, Emilia must move quickly to find the killer. But as she pieces together the lieutenant’s last hours, she becomes a pawn in an ugly game of corruption, money, and power being played by Acapulco’s mayor (love this character, think a haughty Salma Hayek at her scornful best) and the union boss. Luxury hotel manager Kurt Rucker has some advice for Emilia but the heat between them quickly becomes a complicating factor. He’ll be back in other Emilia Cruz books.

4. I love mystery series. Tell me more.

Cartels and corruption aside, lots of the tension in the Emilia Cruz series stems from relationships between people. Acapulco’s ambitious mayor and the police union boss who complicate the investigation in Cliff Diver will make return appearances. Emilia’s mother, and the strays she takes in, will keep Emilia’s personal life off balance, as will American hotel manager Kurt Rucker. To keep things fresh, Emilia will have a different lieutenant in each novel.

5. I love Mexican food. What do people eat in the Emilia Cruz books?

Er, well. Acapulco is on Mexico’s Pacific coast so seafood is popular. In one scene in Cliff Diver, Emilia and her partner Rico eat at a seafood lunch bar:

Both had plates of rice, salsa, and pescado empapelado; marinated fish wrapped in foil and grilled by the sweaty proprietor. Emilia pulled apart the foil packet, taking care to keep her fingertips away from the billow of lemony steam. The whole fish lay nestled inside the packet, fragrant with citrus and tomato, the fish’s mouth open wide as if in surprise.

In another chapter Emilia eats ceviche—pickled fish–and avocado from a glass jar at a street stand. Her mother makes tamales and Emilia cooks arroz rojo.

6. What are your favorite lines from the book?

 A minute later Rucker was standing by her desk, sweat beaded on his forehead. The starched collar of his shirt was damp.

   “There’s a head,” he said breathlessly. “Someone’s head in a bucket on the hood of my car.”


     Silvio fired his gun into the ceiling and everyone went silent. A large overhead fluorescent light made a sizzling noise and went out.

     “No doubt Lieutenant Cruz has something to say to us,” Silvio said mockingly.


     “You’re a good cop, Cruz,” Salazar said. “The kind that die young.”

     He stood and turned his back on her to look at something on the other side of his desk.

     A paper shredder ground out a symphony as she left.

7. Do you really know anything about Mexico or Acapulco?

  • Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated on 1 December 2012 amid charges of  major voting day irregularities, claims of vote buying, and media bias. You can find him on Twitter @EPN.
  • At La Quebrada, Acapulco’s famous cliff divers plunge 136 feet (41.5 meters) into the Pacific and land in water only 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) deep.
  • Mexican government documents estimate that 25,000 people are missing as a result of drug war violence over the past few years.
  • I used to live in Mexico City and blog about my experiences now and then.

8. Tell us some fun factoids about writing a mystery series

  • I read 4 newspapers every day, plus regularly surf 3-5 websites that give me information about Mexico.
  • I use painter’s tape to post notes above my desk. Looks messy. But nothing falls off.
  • Sometimes I take a break and write about my dog.
  • All mystery series writers drink copious amounts of coffee. I am no exception.

9.  Where can I read an excerpt of Cliff Diver?

Here you go. Enjoy!

Cover of Cliff DiverBuy CLIFF DIVER on today! 

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


Lost in Mexico has nothing to do with translation

Lost in Mexico has nothing to do with translation

In CLIFF DIVER, the first full-length book in my new mystery series, Acapulco police detective Emilia Cruz keeps a log of women who have gone missing. For her they are las perdidas, the lost ones, and sometimes it seems as if she’s the only who still cares.

I’d like to say that I made this up, that hey–the book is fiction, that there are no women missing in Mexico or anywhere else. But we’ve seen the news from Mexico over the past few years and know that the battles for money and power between rival drug cartels and between cartel interests and the rule of law have taken a heavy toll.

The conflict bleeds south through Central America and beyond; las perdidas aren’t confined to Mexico. Where I live in Central America, notices like the one above often appear in the newspapers. DISAPPEARED the headline cries. The ads are placed by the families and the size of the ad is usually an indicator of the family’s wealth. (Read my post about violence against women in Nicaragua here.)

How Many Are Missing

In Mexico, leaked government documents from late 2012 put the overall number of missing adults and children as 25,000 over the past five years. In the city of Cuidad Juárez alone, the number of “disappeared” women is hard to calculate. Most know a family with a missing female member. This riveting account from the New Statesman of what is happening to women there is well worth a read.

The Cost of Closure

Trying to find out what happened to your disappeared wife, daughter or mother in Mexico can be fruitless and expensive, according to this report from the Inter Press News Service. One source puts the cost at $23,000. FYI, the average annual salary in Mexico is just over $11,000, according to the OECD.

The dead are easier to count

According to The National Citizen Observatory on Femicides (OCNF) from January 2010 to June 2011, 1,235 women were killed in Mexico. Between 2005 and 2011, in the state of Mexico, adjacent to the capital city and notorious for violence against women, the OCNF recorded 922 victims of femicide. In the state of Chihuahua, home to Ciudad Juárez, in 2010 alone there were 600 cases of femicide.

photo courtesy of BBC News

So we’ll continue to see advertisements for the disappeared. Some places will be creative in the search for loved ones and justice, such as Chihuahua’s campaign to place notices for missing persons on tortilla wrappers the way faces and information are carried on milk cartons in the United States.  This photo accompanied this story by BBC News late last year.

I wish I’d made up Acapulco police detective Emilia Cruz’s las perdidas. I really do. But maybe fiction can generate some attention to this wrenching problem. Mexico is a country rich in resources, culture, and tradition. No one should be “lost” there.

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


Friday Fiesta: The Real Big Bird, Famous Birthdays, and Beer for Fido

Coming 30 January! CLIFF DIVER: An Emilia Cruz Noveldog in birthday hatAs a fiction and mystery author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your own good news stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

Red Robin

The website carried this super story about the Red Robin restaurant chain’s official policy of random act of kindness. Red Robin’s signature “Ymmmmm” also means that management and wait staff are empowered to cut customers’ bills, offer on-the-spot specials for customer events and other actions that elicit customer testimonials. We’re not talking just a few comments a sidebar. There are so many comments on the Red Robin website that it is a whole section. Now go get a burger.

Sistine Chapel aged 500 and colder

About three years I was lucky enough to tour the Vatican. I walked through the Sistine Chapel with my head canted back in awe and the rest of me roasting in a herd of tour groups. This amazing space celebrated its 500th anniversary last October and several websites like the Cultural Travel Guide celebrated the occasion with a story or retrospective. But keeping this 500-year-old wonder in good shape is a herculean act of historic preservation: dust, dander and other “bodily debris” from the thousands of tourists who pass through every day dirty it up. The UK’s Guardian quoted the director of the Vatican museums, Antonio Paolucci as saying that the Vatican will install a special carpet and air handling systems to ensure that “visitors who traipse sweat, dust, skin flakes and hair into the 16th-century chapel will be ‘dusted, cleaned and chilled.’” Maybe next time I’ll bring a sweater. One that doesn’t shed, of course.

A Tubular Birthday

London’s subway system, the Tube, is 150 years old this year. Guardian reporter Stephen Moss celebrated with a 52-mile ride on the Central line, including the 6 miles used before 1994. His commentary is consummately British and clever (From Epping I go just one stop – to Theydon Bois. I’ve never been to Theydon Bois, but have always been captivated by the name, which suggests a Victorian actor-manager or a well-meaning but talentless amateur captain of the England cricket team c 1910) and the journey, as well as key moments in Tube history, comes to life in his words. He does mention the price of a go-anywhere ticket, which made me gulp, but it is a ride on a piece of history.

Beer in the Doghouse

According to, Boneyard Brewery in Bend, Oregon, has created an alcohol-free beer for dogs made of vegetable broth, water and spent grain from the brewery. says the beer, which is sold in 16 ounce bottles, can be enjoyed by Fido as a treat by itself or mixed with dry food for the ultimate dinner. Let the party start!

Carmen’s books on

5 Life Lessons from a Month of Writing Dangerously

5 Life Lessons from a Month of Writing Dangerously

NaNoWriMo can be described as a cult phenomenon, a virtual writers gathering, a very strange hobby or God’s gift to global coffee sales. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. It’s a tough thing to do—not tough as in survive cancer or send a rocket into space sorts of tough—but it truly tests your self-discipline, imagination, and relationships with others.

If you do it right, NaNoWriMo becomes a month-long learning experience. Here are a few universal lessons I took away from it this year:

 A goal is different from a plan

Writing 50,000 words is a goal. The plan to get that done defines the steps to take to achieve the goal. The more detailed the plan, the better the chances of achieving the goal. In this case, outline + schedule = plan. In my case, both the outline and the schedule changed but the initial planning helped me stay on track.

Use the Deadline, Grasshopper

A deadline is an overlooked luxury. It defines the project and allows you to work backwards from the hard line. This is a variation on Covey’s excellent axiom: Begin With the End in Mind.

You Can Have it all, not just all at the same time

Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan) said this in response to why she quit acting to have a family. By taking on a big project like NaNoWriMo, something else had to come off my plate. We stared at splotchy yellow dining room walls the whole month; your truly finished the paint job on 3 December.

Learn to Prioritize or Learn to Fail

My mother always said all you have to do is want it. Two things are implicit in her words: that her kids would be able to A. prioritize and B. not slack off. If we want something that bad, the actions to achieve it will consistently and consciously be at the top of the daily to-do list. I wrote about 1700 words each day, with a couple of spurts so I could skip a day here and there. A writing buddy friend who had to juggle exams in November wrote in bigger and fewer spurts but did nothing else those days.

Rewards R Good

A reward was in order because I’d set out a tough thing for myself and got it done. Yay me. When challenges are quiet and don’t get a lot of external attention, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy, they’re just quiet. A reward is still in order. It’ll help muster enthusiasm for the next challenge. (I bought a fish-shaped talavera jug. Don’t judge, it is waaay cool.)

So, yes, I “won” my NaNoWriMo challenge this year with a 50,303-word draft manuscript tentatively entitled SUN GOD. Over the next year, I’ll add another 20,000 words and rewrite a bunch of it and eventually, maybe, just maybe, it will become the 3rd EMILIA CRUZ mystery novel. It was great to spend the month in Acapulco with Emilia and Kurt . . . but let me tell you, it’s hot down there . . . 

2016 Update

SUN GOD got pushed to the side. DIABLO NIGHTS (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 3) and KING PESO (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 4) needed to be told first. SUN GOD was renamed PACIFIC REAPER and will be the 5th book in the Emilia Cruz series, slated for release in February 2017.

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


Carmen Amato at Spring Hill

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