Monday, February 20, 2012

Guest Blogger: Mary Joy Johnson Reflects on Author Maddy Hunter’s New Book

My sister-in-law and mystery-co-writer, Mary Joy, had an opportunity to attend an author event at Madison’s own Booked For Murder this weekend featuring local mystery writer Maddy Hunter.  Mary Joy was so enthused about the experience that I asked her to write a guest blog for me, which she did.  

Maddy Hunter Tickles the Mystery Bone
By Mary Joy Johnson

     If you need a good hearty laugh, any of Maddy Hunter’s mystery series—Passport to Peril—may just be the ticket.  Yesterday I attended and thoroughly enjoyed a book signing/ reading event at Booked for Murder, an independently owned book store in Madison, WI, featuring Maddy and her newest book, Dutch Me Deadly.  Don’t ask me what the title means; Maddy didn’t know either, and unfortunately it’s not as clever as some of her other punny titles—Norway to Hide, Top of the Mournin’, Alpine for You.

This newest adventure featuring tour-escort Emily Andrew-Miceli and her motley group of senior citizens takes us to –where else?—the Netherlands and Belgium.  If the selection read by Maddy about the na├»ve Iowa seniors nibbling marijuana-lased brownies in Amsterdam’s red light district is any indication that this newest book lives up to her chuckle-producing style, the book will be a real treat to read indeed.  I have found I often have to stop reading mid-chapter because I’m laughing so hard I can’t see anymore.  I can’t wait to read this one.

Maddy Hunter
I found it interesting that Maddy doesn’t create an outline for her books and she never knows exactly what’s going to happen or how everything will turn out.  How she manages to pull all the pieces together at the end is the real mystery—to her and to her audience.  When Maddy travels, instead of vying for the best view of the latest tourist site, she finds herself looking for a good place to kill somebody.  Peggy and I can relate to that—we did it in Door County and years ago on Mackinac Island, long before we ever decided to write a mystery.  Maddy encouraged the audience to buy and read two other local mystery writers—Kathleen Ernst and Jerry Peterson. Perhaps as a sign of the volatile nature of the publishing industry right now, Maddy reported that Simon and Schuster had dropped her series in 2007 (a reason it’s taken so long for a new installment to appear), but fortunately for her fans, Midnight Ink agreed to publish both Dutch Me Deadly and another based in Scotland, with an appearance of the Loch Ness monster.

Mary Joy
Finally, I won the door prize! (Really I need to start attending more book signings as this is the second time in a row that I’ve walked away with one of the prizes.  Maybe I should buy a mega-lottery ticket.)  Unfortunately, I was one of the last to be selected so all the Belgian chocolate was gone. 

Thank you, Mary Joy!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What I’m Watching Now: No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

I discovered the delightfully unique detective series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith several years ago.  The heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is a one of a kind detective. The stories, set in Botswana, Africa, move languidly through the African cultural landscape, but the characters are both fun to get to know and have the kind of depth that is rooted in the human experience.

To my delight, I learned that the books had been turned into an HBO series. It turns out the series has been around for a couple of years. But I don’t subscribe to HBO, so this was a new discovery for me. I bought the boxed set as a Christmas gift for my sister-in-law Mary Joy, who is a HUGE mystery fan (and co-author of our mystery novel, On the Road to Death’s Door). It wasn’t an altruistic choice.  I knew I would get to watch the series with her.

And it was a great choice, if I do say so myself!  Precious Ramotswe, played by American actress Jill Scott, is a “traditionally built woman” who uses the money from the sale of her late father’s herd of cattle to open her detective agency.  Precious is smart, wise, and empathetic.  When she solves a mystery, she thinks as much about what effects her discoveries will have on the victims of crime as on the perpetrators.

Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) plays Grace Makutsi, the over-the-top, hyper-efficient secretary who’s goal in life is to become a detective in her own right. Desmond Dube plays the local hairdresser and Lucian Msamati plays the mechanic, JLB Matekoni, who will do anything for Precious, primarily because he respects her so much, but also in the hopes that he can eventually convince her to marry him.

Filmed in Africa, the series portrays a gentler side of the continent than most of us usually—perhaps stereotypically—associate with it.  If you like mysteries, or if you like a series with characters that you can connect with even if their lives are as different from your own as the continent of Africa is from the U.S., you might want to check out either the books or the HBO series, The No. 1 LadiesDetective Agency.  Believe me, you are in for a treat. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tooting My Own Horn: Interviews avec Moi!

I’ve had the pleasure recently to be interviewed by two book promotion sites. 

The first was early in January.  Frank Hall interviewed Mary Joy and me for his blog Hydra Publications about writing our mystery novel On the Road to Death’s Door.  (An explanation about the photo: no we are not a gay couple and that was not our wedding--not legal in Wisconsin. We were at my daughter’s wedding.  We desperately need to get some promotional photos taken.)  But the interview was fun.  I especially liked talking about what we learned from writing our book.  The url is: 

The second interview was for the Indie Exchange, a website managed by Donna Brown which promotes indie writers (writers who publish their work independently, not writers from Indiana).   

One of Donna’s questions caused me to reflect on how I manage my writing day (not well, at this point in time; I’m easily distracted by fun stuff like this blog).  The url for the Indie Exchange Interview is:  I will be returning the favor soon and interviewing Donna for these pages.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Thousand Words by Madison Playwright Gwendolyn Rice

Saw an awesome play this weekend:  A Thousand Words, scripted by Madison playwright Gwendolyn Rice and produced by Madison’s own Forward Theater Company.  

The tease was a stash of photos taken in Havana, Cuba in 1933 by Depression era photographer Walker Evans. They were discovered among boxes and crates of Hemingway’s possessions unearthed in a storage room in Key West.  What I thought I was going to get was a historical look at the relationship between Hemingway and the photog.  But what was delivered was the fictional story of the emotional fallout when Evans is teemed with a hesitant young woman to document Kansas sharecroppers in the 1930s.  I’m glad that’s what A Thousand Words turned out to be. 

After a clunky opening in which one of the lead characters reads a newspaper article (perhaps unnecessarily) to set up the backstory and tell us who the main character is, I quickly found myself mesmerized by the way the story bounced effortlessly between the present and the past.  The story begins with two art buyers/promoters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art lusting after the newly discovered Evans photos. But one of the procurers, Sally Quinn, is already booked to go to Kansas to arrange delivery of a collection of rural quilts for a planned exhibition.  We are then taken back to 1937 when Evans is teamed with pretty, earnest Shirley Hughes to travel to—guess where—Kansas to photograph sharecroppers suffering during the Depression.  Hughes is dismayed with their particular assignment. She lives in New York and has dreams of seeing Paris.  And she’s not too thrilled with Evans himself. 

The story unfolds through a series of small moments like a set of live action prints. Rice infuses her dialogue with a nice blend of humor and drama. The twists and turns are more than plot points; they become emotional moments that reveal things about the characters that some of them do not even know about themselves. That, in my mind, makes for a very satisfying story. 

The play was expertly directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray. The set, designed by Nate Stuber, was simple but evocative of the theme and allowed the audience to focus on character. The six actors – T. Stacy Hicks, Sarah Day, Josh Aaron McCabe, Molly Rhode, Georgina McKee, and Libby Amato – all hit just the right notes, once even eliciting applause mid-scene. 

This was the last weekend of the play’s world premiere production. When the Madison run is finished, the play will be presented at the Milwaukee Chamber Theater.  I’m guessing A Thousand Words won’t stop there.  This is a play that speaks to the human experience.  It entertains while offering just enough of a historical hook that it made me want to know more about Walker Evans.  Kudos to Gwendolyn Rice! 

[Photo by Edwin Locke, for the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information / Office of Emergency Management / Resettlement Administration]

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What I’m Reading Now: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I tend to be impatient with fiction.  I can’t put a book down without finishing it, so I get impatient when a book is just okay and I wish I was reading something else.  At this point in my life I read a lot of non-fiction.  I think it’s likely because I’m at an age where I realize that I there isn’t as much time left to learn everything about everything. So I read to learn as much as I can about…everything.

But every once in a while I come across a piece of fiction that hooks me.  It does what a good work of non-fiction does for me.  It teaches me something.  Maybe something about history, science, or whatever.  But generally it teaches me something about the human experience.

Right now I am reading such a book.  I first learned about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer a few weeks ago when I saw the TV trailers for the movie starring Tom Hanks.  It looked interesting, the kind of movie I’d like to see.  And then I read somewhere that it was based on a book, read the description, and thought this might be the kind of book I’d want to read.  I put my name on the wait list at the library.

My turn came up to read the book in just a couple of weeks rather than months.  This was probably because everyone who knew anything about books had reserved it back when it was first released–in 2005. 
I read the cover flap first:
"Meet Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, and pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search… His mission is to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11."
Yes, this is definitely the kind of book—even though it’s fiction—that I like to read.  Then I read the first page. Hooked?  I was mesmerized.

The story takes place shortly after the fall of the Twin Towers in NYC.  But if you didn’t know that, you’d be drawn in anyway, wondering and waiting to find out what makes the little boy in the story tick the way he does.  Foer doesn’t tell his readers up front what happened to the boy’s dad, he leads and teases and draws out the timeline the way it likely would be perceived in a young boy’s head.  The story is told first person from the boy’s point of view.  And right away I loved him, and right away I loved his Dad.  Of course, having seen the movie trailer, the dad’s dialogue always came through with Tom Hank’s voice.  But that’s okay.  It’s a perfect fit.

The book is stylized, but the emotions are raw.  Interestingly, I learned that Foer’s book—his second—received  a number of rather disparaging reviews when it came out.  Michiko Kakutani, in a New York Times book review called the book “cloying,” “contrived,” and “haphazard.”  I guess I was too busy enjoying the inner working’s of Oskar’s mind to notice. Kakutani found Oskar to be “unsympathetic.” I guess she’s never hung around kids who are “on the specrum,” as we teacher’s often refer to kids who likely have Asperger’s syndrome or some level of autism, but can’t quite be pegged as such.  I found Oskar to be a totally sympathetic main character.

So, yeah, maybe parts of the book are a bit contrived. Froer uses text in a way that at first kind of amazes you with his audacity, and then perhaps annoys. And I couldn’t find any purpose to the illustrations in the book. But that hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of the story. 

Okay, admittedly, I haven’t yet finished the book.  Maybe I will feel differently by the end of it. Tune in a week or so from now.  I’ll add an addendum to this post.  But for now, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the kind of book I savor. A book that gives me insight into the human condition. In this case, that human condition is grief—unimaginable grief—and how an individual and a family deals with it.  I have  high hopes for the ending.