Thursday, June 22, 2017

Interview with Marianna Heusler

Marianna Heusler is an Edgar nominated author of ten novels and hundreds of published short stories.
Her cozy series, taking place at St. Polycarp School, in which two amateur teachers solve murder mysteries, was originally published by Hilliard & Harris. The first three novels were chosen by Harlequin as part of their Worldwide Book Club. The fourth book in the series, Trouble Purse Sued, was just released.
A former elementary school teacher, Marianna lives in New York City with her husband, her son, and her little dog, Dolce.

I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Marianna’s third book in the St. Polycarp School mystery series, No End to Trouble.  I felt that she really knew how to write a “whodunit” mystery.  I was very excited when she agreed to an interview!

ME: How did you decide on the St. Polycarp School as the setting for your mystery series?

MARIANNA: I taught for twelve years in a Catholic school on the lower east side of Manhattan. I had a wonderful time there and met my best friend, Amy Bowllan, who was also a teacher. We had a lot of fun. When she left to take a job in a private all girls’ school, I actually went with her.

I told a fellow writer that when I was teaching at St. Brigid’s, my little second grade girls would rush into the classroom, to see what color shoes I would be wearing that day. He said, “You know there’s a novel in that.” And so I wrote it.

ME: When reading No End to Trouble, I was impressed by the way you had plenty of suspects with good motives to commit murder. Also, you were able to throw red herrings in and twists that made sense in the story. Many mystery writers try to do this and it just does not work. Is this a talent? How did you learn to do this?

MARIANNA: I’m reading a fascinating book right now – Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Colvin attempts to explain why some people who seem to possess extraordinary talent never become successful and others, with just a smidgen, go on to change the world. He talks about the necessity of practicing, not just a little, but a whole lot. Only it’s not just practicing, it’s “deliberate practice.” Colvin goes on to say that most people, when practicing, just keep doing the same thing over and over, and as a result never really progress, because they don’t recognize what they’re doing wrong and no one is there to take them to the next level. He discusses the importance of a mentor, who can give you a clear, unbiased view and help you to choose the best practice activity, something we are incapable of doing by ourselves. He writes that we just don’t have the extensive knowledge nor the best methods for developing in our chosen field.

I was very fortunate to have a great teacher, Alice Orr. I took three mystery writing courses with her and she taught me how to write a mystery.

But I’m also very lucky, because my sister-in- law, Jamie Ramondetta, and her four children are all mystery readers. Before I submit a book to my publisher, Jamie and my nieces and nephew all give it a careful read. They tell me if the solution is too obvious, because maybe I need more suspects, or that there are too many suspects and the plot is getting convoluted. If the motive doesn’t work for them, they tell me, or perhaps a character isn’t fully developed. I take their criticisms very seriously and almost always make the changes they suggest.

I also read quite a bit and I’ll analyze a book to learn why something works or, if I end up putting down the book, what I could have done differently.

I may have some natural talent, but truly I suspect that there are a lot people who have a lot more talent than I do, but who will never get published, because they don’t want to put in the time or the effort.

ME: What was the biggest challenge thus far that you’ve faced writing the St. Polycarp School Mystery series?

MARIANNA: When I was teaching I asked my third graders what they thought was the hardest part of being an author. They had various answers- thinking of a plot, naming the characters, choosing the cover. Then one little, quiet girl, who sat in the back of the classroom and hardly ever said a peep, raised her hand and stated quite boldly, “No one is even going to know that your book exists.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

According to AARP in the year 2015, 700,000 books were self-published. That doesn’t include books published by small presses or bigger houses. The challenge is always – how do you get a reader to pay attention to your story when there is so much competition out there?

My publisher, Hilliard & Harris is fairly aggressive promoting, but still, unless you have a huge budget and lots of contacts, it’s an uphill battle. Everyone wants to be heard.

51TDOl48vFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (333×499)ME: In your next St. Polycarp mystery, Trouble Purse Sued, looking at the cover, it looks like there is a very stylish purse involved. I know you have a fashion blog. Will we see more about fashion in this book?

Marianna: Absolutely. My friend, Hedy Cavanaugh, recently gave me a great compliment. She said that I inspire people just by the way I dress. Everyone likes to see someone who is wearing something pretty. It just makes them feel happy. I used to tell my students that I dress up everyday, and I take great pains to look nice, because they are so important to me that I’m willing to make the extra effort. My main character in the Polycarp Series is Mrs. Hopwood, who, like myself, loves clothing and shoes and all sorts of accessories.

In Trouble Purse Sued, she inherits some vintage clothing and accessories from a dead aunt and decides to use them in a fashion show to raise money for the school. But, of course, buried in one of the accessories is the key to a long ago murder mystery.

ME: Besides the St. Polycarp School Mystery series, what other books have you written? Would you tell us a bit about them?

MARIANNA: Trouble Purse Sued is my tenth published book and I’ve written several young adult novels as well.

My first young adult novel The Night the Penningtons Vanished was nominated for an Edgar. It’s about three girls in a small New England town, who solve a murder mystery. The Day the Fortune Teller Died is the sequel.

One of my favorite books is One Stone Left Unturned. It’s also young adult but very different from my other novels. It’s about the Russian Revolution seen through the eyes of Tatiana Romanov, the daughter of the Tsar.

I spent over a year researching just to make sure I got all the details right. Part mystery, part history, part fantasy, it traces her path from the palace to Siberia and eventually to her execution.

The book also follows the life of a teenage girl in this day and time, whose life in many ways parallels Tatiana and eventually the two stories tie together. This keeps the book from being too dark and makes it an easier read for young adults.

It was published originally by a small press. Wildwood Publishing, as a kindle book. About six months ago, I received a notice that they were closing their doors and all rights would revert to me.

I was very disappointed, because I really love the book. However, a few weeks ago a publisher from Croatia contacted me and asked if they could translate the book and make it available to all the libraries in Croatia. They will be publishing it in hardback with a brand new cover. Of course, I said yes, and I am thrilled and honored that the novel is going to be read by young adults thousands of miles away. And I’m grateful that this book has been given a second chance.

ME: Of all the characters you created, which one is your favorite and why?

MARIANNA: Of course, I love Mrs. Hopwood, because she’s light and bright and funny, and she’s able to wear pretty clothes and influence her students. And she gets to solve murder mysteries with her best friend.

But I also have a soft spot in my heart for Tatiana Romanov. She was a real person, who lived a life of splendor and then, through no fault of her own, had it yanked away, was forced to live in deplorable conditions, and was subsequently murdered. I hope my book does justice to her memory.


                   


To find out more about Marianna’s books, click here.  To go to Marianna’s fashion blog, click here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

No End to Trouble


51rJmPVEPVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (333×499)

Title: No End to Trouble (A St. Polycarp School Mystery)

Author: Marianna Heusler

Publisher: Hillard and Harris, 2015

Pages: 272

Genre: cozy mystery

Obtained: from author in exchange for an honest review






Summary: There is a new principal at the St. Polycarp school and Mrs. Hopwood and Mrs. Johnson are not happy about this.  They already miss Father Felix, the prior principal.  To make matters worse Bertha Butterworth, one of the cafeteria ladies is found dead after the Parent's Night, and it looks as if it could be murder.  Can Mrs. Hopwood and Mrs. Johnson figure out whodunit?

Thoughts:  I enjoyed this cozy, sometimes humorous, whodunit mystery.  The author wrote in an organized way and I really liked how she paced the story- slow to begin, and then picked up speed to the climax with a quick wrap-up at the end.  The story was a good one and kept me engaged as I tried to pick up clues and figure out whodunit myself.  She also had other things going on with the characters in the story which rounded the story out.  The book could have benefited from more editing.  There are many typos, words left out, wrong words used, etc. which becomes distracting.  No End to Trouble will be released again by World Wide Mystery, a division of Harlequin Enterprises, Inc. soon.  I am assuming these problems will be resolved which will make this read even better!
     The author did a great job at making her characters distinctive.  Sometimes with whodunits it is easy to get the characters confused because the names are too similar or the characters are not unique enough.  This did not happen here, although I would have liked it if the characters had more depth.  Also, the author put just enough characters into the story.  I hate when there are not enough suspects!  There were plenty here.
     I liked the school as a setting for the story.  Although the physical description would have benefited from more detail, the author described the background action (what students were doing, school noises, teacher's conversations, etc.) very well.  I could picture the physical setting in my head at times, but could picture the action throughout.
     This is the third St. Polycarp book.  The other two are referred to in this book, but it is not necessary to have read the other two to get into this story.  This would make a good beach read!  Would I like to read the other Saint Polycarp Mysteries? Absolutely!  The forth book in the series Trouble Purse Sued will be published soon!




                                                                 








Company: French Creek Tea Company,
P.O. Box 5021, Custer, SD 57730
(605) 673-5383

Tea: Tid Bit

Obtained: sample from owners






     The French Creek Tea Company, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, has wonderful tea blends that I have been sampling.  At this time, their tea is not available to order online.  Their contact information is above and there is a list of their teas and where they are available here.
     Today I tried Tid Bit, a "blend of green and black teas flavored with vanilla and almond".  The tea was packaged in a good quality resealable bag.  The green and black leaves were all shapes and sizes. The scent of the leaves was of sweet almond.  I poured six ounces of water that had been boiled over one teaspoon of leaves and let this brew for three minutes.  The liquid was a dark yellow and had a slight almond scent.  The taste was a sweet vanilla almond blend.
     This would make a delicious dessert tea or a treat when craving something sweet, but trying to avoid the calories.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

61V7dYqWnOL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (260×306)Title: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Author: Lisa See

Narrators: Ruthie Ann Miles, Kimiko Glenn

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio, March 2017

Format: 12 discs, 14 hours and 9 minutes

Genre:  fiction, historical fiction

Obtained: library




Summary: Li-yan belongs to a hill tribe in the Yunan Province of China and is Akha, one of China's  55 ethnic groups .  When she becomes pregnant before getting married, she gives birth to her baby secretly, and makes sure it gets to the orphanage in the nearest town.  She does this because her tribe's law is that she must kill the child for the good of the tribe.

Thoughts: I always write summaries as simply and concisely as possible because when I am looking for a book to read I always feel as if the summary just tells me too much.  When writing this summary, it was very difficult to decide what exactly to include.  This novel encompasses so much!  It is the story of Li-Yan, told in first person narrative, from age 7 years through her late 30's.  Li-Yan struggles with balancing her heritage with the modern world.  Through Li-Yan's story the reader learns all about the Akha- their customs, rituals, beliefs, day to day lives, and how their ways have changed over the last 30 years.  The reader also learns about what was going on in the cities of China during this span of time as Li-Yan moves outside her village.  Li-Yan's story is both disturbing and heart-breaking at times, but the author writes in such a respectful, non-judgemental way that the story becomes emotionally powerful rather than upsetting.  There is also the story of Haley, Li-Yan's daughter who was adopted by a married white couple from southern California when she was a baby.  Haley's story is told in many different ways and by different people including Haley herself.  Through Haley's story we learn about what it is like to be a Chinese girl adopted by a white family in the United States. Many of these girls are grateful to have been adopted, but angry that their birth parents did not want them.  They also struggle with the question of who they are because they look different than their adoptive family members.  Tea, in particular pu-er tea, brings everything together.  The reader learns all  about the history of tea, tea culture, the growing and production of tea, and the tea economy today.  Tea is a part of both Li-Yan and Haley's lives.
     The author's strong characters seem so real and she writes so that the reader feels he or she knows the characters intimately.  Even the secondary characters are very well developed and have depth. The author's writing style is beautiful- places are brought to life and the descriptive details she adds easily bring the reader into the story.  The research the author did to create this novel was obviously extensive and she shares the knowledge she gained with the reader adding so much to this book.  If the reader is not interested in details about tea, this may weigh them down and it may feel as if the story does not move along quickly enough.  I was very interested in learning all about tea, the Akha, and China.  Throughout the book is the theme of mother / daughter relationships.  The story is told slowly, a little at a time, and ends with the climax.  It was refreshing to read a book that doesn't follow a morecommon pattern of story telling.  I just loved the ending.  It was not drawn out, yet everything came together.
     The narrators were excellent and there were other actors performing the parts of the secondary characters.  All spoke clearly and at a good pace and brought the characters to life.  The only thing I did not like about the audio book was that some of the tracks were over 20 minutes long and it was hard to find my place if I popped the CD out of the player.
     This was a powerful book that stays with you.  I finished it a week ago and still find myself thinking about it.  It would be an excellent book for a book club. The author has great book club questions and ideas to enhance your meeting on this book here.  I highly recommend this compelling book.

                                                                  

 I have done some reviews on pu-er tea in the past and have been drinking it over the past couple of weeks, but don't have any others to review.  Here are the links to the pu-er tea reviews I have done.  They are at the bottom of each post:



Art of Tea - Tea Party


Naked Pu-erh from Art of Tea

Golden Pu-erh from Art of Tea

Immortal Nectar from Art of Tea

Coconut Cacao Pu-erh from Art of Tea



Friday, June 2, 2017

Anne Read Along

In December 2016 I read Anne of Green Gables (audio book) and enjoyed it.  This looks like a fun read along.  Although I doubt I will be able to read all of the 8 books in the series, I am hoping to read at least one more this year!

Anne of Green Gables was the May book and Anne of Avonlea is for June.  There are some links to some really interesting posts and reviews already up at the read along site.  Check out how this read along works, what bloggers have to say about Anne, and join in discussions about everything Anne here.
   

Thursday, June 1, 2017

You Exhaust Me

you-exhaust-me-a-clueless-guys-guide-to-marriage-the-perfect-groom-gift-this-wedding-season.png (1650×2550)Title: You Exhaust Me

Author: Bob Marsocci  

Publisher: RAM Publishing, 2017

Pages: 172

Genre: nonfiction

Obtained: from author in exchange for an honest review






Summary: The author gives advice, based on his marriage and the experiences of other married men he knows, on what to expect after the vows are made.

Thoughts: This was a light, humorous, fun, entertaining book.  Although the book cover states it is "A Clueless Guy's Guide to Marriage",  I believe anyone thinking about marriage or already married would get something out of this book.  As a woman who has been married for 17 years, I found it refreshing to read.  I was glad to find that other women and men go through many of the same scenarios that my husband and I do.  All relationships and people are different, and of course, not everything in this book will apply to each person, but there will be something that hits home.
     I just loved the author's writing style.  It was open and honest with lots of good humor.  I got hooked right away and my interest held throughout the book.  This was a very quick read with just enough information.  The only thing missing was pictures.  I really wanted to see the "giant heads" that the author's wife had in their bedroom that he insisted be moved.  Luckily, they are on a video on the author's website www.bobmarsocci.com.  I think it would have added to the book to have pictures of things such as "the bag of bags", candles displayed (not used)  throughout the house, and the commandeered closets and bathrooms.  Sometimes pictures can really make a point.
     Now it is time for the author's wife, Lissette, to write a book about marriage from her perspective.        


                                                               



Company: French Creek Tea Company
PO Box 5021, Custer, SD 57730
(605) 673-5383

Tea: No Frills

Obtained: sample from owners




     The French Creek Tea Company is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Their loose leaf tea blends can be purchased in shops throughout South Dakota.  Their contact information is listed above since they do not have online ordering at the present time.   Today I sampled a blend of green teas named No Frills.  This is just what it was- a blend of good quality green teas- nothing fancy.  The leaves were a dark greenish gray and looked like they had been squished up and dried like that- really cool looking  They had a light, fresh vegetal scent.  I put 2 teaspoons of leaves into my teapot and poured 12 ounces of water that had been boiled (I let the water sit a bit) over the leaves and let this steep for 2 minutes.  The liquid was a deep yellow and had a faint vegetal scent.  The texture was a bit creamy and had a fresh vegetal taste.  No Frills is a delicious blend for green tea lovers.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Call Me Sunflower

51kxlzp0vJL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (333×499)Title: Call Me Sunflower
                                                       
Author: Miriam Spitzer Franklin

Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2017

Pages: 259

Genre: children's fiction

Obtained: from publisher in exchange for an honest review






Summary: Sunny Beringer has just moved with her mom and sister Autumn from New Jersey to North Carolina, leaving her dad, cat, and all her friends behind.  She will now have to attend middle school for sixth grade instead of continuing at her elementary school.  She needs to come up with a "Super-Stupendous Plan" to get her mom and dad back together so that everything can return to normal.  While carrying out her plan she comes across a photograph that changes everything.

Thoughts:  What a bright, cheery cover!  I couldn't wait to open this book to see what was inside after seeing this cover!
     This book dealt with being true to yourself, not just taking the easy way out, what it means to be a friend, respecting differences, seeing different sides, all families are different, how secrets can hurt, parents separating, and how hard it can be to move and / or start at a new school.  The story is narrated by Sunny, the main character.  So, the reader learns all her thoughts and feelings first hand.  She is a very well developed character that learns important life lessons throughout the story.  The author seemed to be spot on with what would be going through the mind of a middle schooler.
     The author's writing style is simple and direct.  She has written a well-paced and engaging book.  The characters and setting are brought to life through her writing.  What stood out for me the most was the author's talent for writing so that the reader feels the emotions (both good and bad) that the protagonist is experiencing.  Also, she does a fantastic job writing from the viewpoint of a sixth grader.
     The publisher has recommended this book for ages 8 to 12.  I would recommend it more for ages 10 to 14, but even adults and teens may enjoy it as I did.  As I read this, I felt like younger kids would just not relate to what Sunny was going through, especially the transition to middle school.  Also, one of the topics is cruelty to animals in relation to the production of fur coats.  I know this would be disturbing to my 9 year old.


                                                                   



Company: Pickity Place

Tea: Fruit and Flower

Obtained: gift








     Pickity Place is a beautiful place to go for lunch, walk through their herb gardens, and shop at their greenhouse and gift shop.  For Christmas I received some herbal tea blends created at Pickity Place.  Today I tried the Fruit and Flower blend.  Their teas are packaged in resealable bags that keep the dried herbs fresh.  This blend looked to be a mix of flower petals and dried fruit, but the scent was of licorice.  I put one tablespoon of leaves in my tea ball and poured 10 ounces of water over the leaves. I let this brew for 5 minutes.  The color was an exquisite red and the scent was of fruit.  The taste of the liquid was of tart berries with a slight peppery after taste.  This was a light, calming tea.  As I was drinking it, I was thinking that in the summer it would be delicious iced with fresh berries from the garden added to the mix.  Pickity Place does not have their herbal teas available to order online, but if you are an herb lover and are near Mason, NH, I highly suggest you stop in to Pickity Place for a visit.  Reservations are required for lunch.  So, definitely plan ahead.


Friday, May 19, 2017

The Quantum Ghost

51Tkcf+ZT6L._SY400_.jpg (265×400)Title: The Quantum Ghost

Author: Jonathan Ballagh

Publisher: 2017 by Jonathan Ballagh (self-published)

Genre: science fiction, fantasy, young adult

Pages: 200

Obtained: from author in return for an honest review










Summary: Remi Cobb sees a glowing dome floating in the pond in her backyard.  A robotic hand reaches up and pulls the dome underwater.  This discovery is the beginning of a technological adventure that brings Remi into alternate realities.

Thoughts:  I read The Quantum Door by Jonathan Ballagh in November and really enjoyed it.  The Quantum Ghost is the next book in the Quantum Series and it is just as good, if not better, than the first.  The author uses the same straight forward, organized writing style.  The pace and flow are excellent.  Even though the book involves science and technology, the writer makes it easy to understand.
     This is a story that feels fresh.  I have not read anything quite like it in the past.  The author brings the unique worlds he has created to life and the reader can picture the settings, technology, and races easily.  Although the focus is on the adventure and mission, and moves along steadily, the characters are developed and likeable (except of course the evil ones).  My favorite part is the strong ending, which provides closure to the story, but lets the reader know the adventures will continue.
     The books in this series do not have to be read in order.  The Quantum Ghost can definitely be read as a stand alone.  Some of the characters are the same, but each book is a separate story with different protagonists.
     I did not mention this in my review of The Quantum Door, but the illustrations by Ben J. Adams in both stories were awesome and really added to the book.  Just look at the fantastic covers!
    I recommend this book to anyone 12 and over.  My son had such a hard time finding books he wanted to read when he was in 5th-8th grade.  These would have been perfect.


                                                                      



Company: Teema Tea

Tea: Lemongrass Black

Obtained: purchased







     Lemongrass Black was the last tea for me to sample in the Discovery Gift Pack from Teema Teas.  I cut the pre-measured bag (for 12 ounces of water) open and put the leaves in my teapot.  The leaves were a beautiful mix of all shapes and sizes of black tea leaves and light brown, almost yellow curls.  The leaves had a lemon scent.  I poured  12 ounces of water that had been boiled over the leaves and let this brew for 4 minutes.  The liquid was a yellowish- brown color and had a lemon scent mixed with another scent that I discovered in another Teema Tea blend Ginger- Lemongrass. The only way I can describe the scent is corn oil.  Since lemongrass was in both of these teas, I am assuming it comes from the lemongrass, although I have had lemongrass teas from other companies and the leaves did not have this scent or taste.  The tea had a nice lemon taste- not too strong, not too weak, but the texture was a bit thicker than water and I could perceive that corn oil taste in the background which I did not like.  This tea was not for me.
     I cannot recommend the Discovery Gift Pack by Teema Teas.  Although the Moringa Green was really good, and the Jasmine Green was good, I did not care for either the Immortality nor the Lemongrass Black.  Also, four samples for $14 was a bit much, especially since all four teas were not absolutely delicious.