Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review—THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS by Julia Spencer-Fleming

As I promised on Tuesday’s blog about award-winning mystery novelist, Julia Spencer-Fleming,, today I’m reviewing Spencer-Fleming’s newest novel, Through the Evil Days (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books).  And I must confess, I approached this with trepidation. Spencer-Fleming is one of my favorite writers, and her last book, One Was a Soldier, was an absolute tour de force.  If you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore or online marketplace or library and grab it. This was Spencer-Fleming’s most ambitious book in a series of ambitious novels, and it was superbly executed. I frequently recommend it to others as the best book, fiction or nonfiction, that I’ve seen on the situation of the soldiers who are sent back again and again to Iraq and Afghanistan, the damage with which they return, the harm the corrupt private corporations involved in these wars do to those soldiers, and the way in which we as a country let them down when they return home with physical, mental, and emotional wounds.

Consequently, I was as nervous about reading Through the Evil Days as I was eager for it. Would it be a letdown after the great achievement of One Was a Soldier? How could she continue after a triumph like that? Probably these same questions gnawed at Spencer-Fleming and contributed to the longer-than-usual gap between these two books. I needn’t have worried, however. Spencer-Fleming really is one of the finest writers practicing today, and it shows in her newest novel.

Through the Evil Days opens with explosive arson, a double murder, the abduction of a little girl, and a dog that has failed in his attempts to guard his home and people. That’s a lot to happen in less than two pages, and it slams the reader right into the book. From there, we move to the protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alstine, who are dealing with Clare’s PTSD and the alcohol and drug abuse it caused, as well as her unexpected pregnancy, stressing their brand-new marriage as much as her battle-induced problems since Russ adamantly has no desire for a child. Even as they travel to the crime scene in their professional capacities, others are plotting threats to their positions as Episcopalian priest and chief of the Millers Kill police force. There is plenty of suspense to keep the reader turning the page to find out what will happen to the child and to these two likable but flawed characters.

This book offers more than suspense, however, even though the suspense is taut and the plotting is complex with unforeseen twists throughout the book. Spencer-Fleming examines the massive illegal drug trade in the United States today and the corruption that its huge amounts of money brings into our society, the problems that women still face in the workforce, the struggles facing towns and cities in this time of austerity as they try to keep providing necessary services, and the difficulties of actually helping children in the custody of parents who are negligent or abusive. She faces these issues unflinchingly and shines a dispassionate light on all of them through her characters and their actions and responses.

Spencer-Fleming has given us another book with characters who come alive on the page, nonstop suspense, and surprising plot complications, all presented in lucid, intelligent prose. Through the Evil Days is another winner and will undoubtedly be nominated for the mystery genre’s top awards.

Through the Evil Days is available for pre-order now, and Spencer-Fleming is holding a contest in which everyone who pre-orders the book will receive an autographed original manuscript page and be entered in a drawing for a 16GB KINDLE Fire HDX. See her website,, for details.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Literary Mystery Novelists—Julia Spencer-Fleming

Award-winning, bestselling Julia Spencer-Fleming’s eighth book, Through the Evil Days, will be published November 5th and is now available for pre-order. This is an exciting event for her many fans who have been waiting eagerly for this book. The goal of this blog series, Literary Mystery Novelists, is to introduce my blog readers who read primarily literary fiction to mystery writers who write wonderful literary novels that are marketed as mysteries, and Spencer-Fleming, who has won or been a finalist for all of the major awards in mystery, is one of the primary examples of that crossover. Therefore, today I’ll introduce my readers to Spencer-Fleming’s stellar career, and then Thursday, I’ll review this newest book, Through the Evil Days.

Spencer-Fleming has won the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards and has been an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist. Her books have routinely garnered high critical praise from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and other major review outlets.

Spencer-Fleming burst on the mystery scene with In the Bleak Midwinter, her first novel in the Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstine mystery series which won the initial St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition over 230+ competing entries. Her books are set in small town, Millers Kill, and the surrounding countryside of upstate New York. She says, “That part of New York, where poor farms and Saratoga money and the mountains all come together, has always held a bone-deep fascination for me.” Her series features Clare Fergusson, former Army combat helicopter pilot turned Episcopalian priest in her first parish, and Russ Van Alstine, longtime Millers Kill police chief and former military policeman.

Spencer-Fleming’s characters are beautifully drawn real human beings, and in these books, the countryside including and around Millers Kill becomes another character with its long, devastating winters where the ice, snow, and cold make everything more difficult and can all too easily kill. “You realize how snow and ice can rule your life,” Spencer-Fleming says. “The weather, like any well-written villain, is both fascinating and deadly.”

Her lyrical prose helps to bring to life the densely textured world of her books, and her complex plots grow out of her characters’ needs, obsessions, fears, and secrets in a satisfyingly organic manner. Her books are always deeply moving as they examine thorny issues of modern American life, such as what our current wars waged on the cheap are doing to the soldiers who shoulder the burden, what drives undocumented migrant farmworkers and the many mom-and-pop farms that hire them for peanuts, what happens when environmentalists bent on saving the pristine wilderness battle large timber corporations and small local businesses are caught between, and many more. Yet, subtle humor threads its way through all of the books, no matter how serious their issues.

The New York Times Book Review has said of her writing, “Julia Spencer-Fleming… brings new airs and graces to the traditional small-town mystery.” Repeatedly, reviewers have noted that Spencer-Fleming’s books are as intelligent as they are suspenseful and enthralling. She brings all the strengths of the mystery genre—great suspense, complicated plot twists, and narrative drive—together with the devotion to well-drawn characters and a perceptive, lyrical prose style to create masterful novels.

To learn more about Spencer-Fleming or her books, check out her website.  She also blogs at the wonderful, witty group blog Jungle Red Writers  Spencer-Fleming can also be found on Facebook  and on Twitter

And check back here Thursday for my review of her forthcoming book, Through the Evil Days.

NOTE: Blogger still won't let me comment on my own posts (though I can comment on other Blogger blogs--go figure!). I'm still trying to correct this problem. Therefore, please be aware that I may not be able to respond to your comments right away. *sigh*

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Part II--Road Trips, the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Hudson Valley Writers Center, and Wichita Public Library

In Part I, I told of our trip to reach NYC in time for Brooklyn Book Festival events and our thrill-filled ride to the venue for my great panel, “Six Degrees of Separation."

After my panel and signing, were completed, Ben and I wandered outside to see the vendors—over 200 gathered on the plaza outside the Brooklyn Borough Hall. Along the way, we ran into friends and fellow Macondistas, Erasmo Guerra and Ron Drummond. Since we only had a short time for lunch before I was scheduled for a reading at the Las Comadres/La Casa Azul Bookstore booth, we hit a nearby coffee shop for lunch. While we were eating and catching up with Erasmo and Ron, Sergio Troncoso appeared. Sergio is a dear friend, and we were scheduled to read at the Hudson Valley Writers Center that evening. He’d generously offered to drive Ben and me to Sleepy Hollow where the center’s located. So it was lovely to meet him for lunch.

Soon enough, we headed back to the huge square full of vendors’ booths where both Sergio and I were to read at the Las Comadres/La Casa Azul Bookstore booth. The festival was so full of attendees (over 45,000) that, at times, it was hard to move around freely, but eventually we got to our destination. This reading had been organized by two dynamic women who are doing wonderful things for Latino literature—Nora Comstock of Las Comadres National Latino Book Club and Aurora Anaya-Cerda of La Casa Azul Bookstore. They had collected a terrific group of writers to read—Carlos Andrés Gómez, Tim Z. Hernandez, Lulu Delacre, Sergio, and me. Also gathered there were supporters of Las Comadres, La Casa Azul, and us individual writers, plus the amazing writer and activist, Rich Villar. It was a delight to see Rich again, since the last time we’d met had been at AWP in Boston in March. 

As Nora played emcee, many other festival attendees stopped and gathered around to hear the reading, which Carlos Andrés Gómez kicked off with a brief discussion about his memoir, Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood, and a warm poem about his grandmother. I had not been familiar with his work, but I’ve been blown away by him. Watch this video made of one of his poems to see how powerful his work is. 

Lulu Delacre was next. Lulu is not only a talented writer but a truly gifted painter. Her bilingual books for children are illustrated with her own lush paintings and are absolutely gorgeous. She’s part of the rise in gorgeous bilingual books for children that’s taking place in the U.S. today. When my own children were young, it was nearly impossible to find books like these. Now, parents, grandparents, and teachers have wonderful options like Lulu’s books to give to their children and students.
I spoke a little about my latest book, Every Broken Trust, and noticed that the crowd around our reading kept growing. Next up was Tim Z. Hernandez, who’s researched and written about Bea Franco, “the Mexican girl” in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Tim’s book, Mañana Means Heaven, tells the story of her life including but beyond her relationship with Kerouac and paints an evocative portrait of the world in which she lived. Tim’s research on this book was meticulous, and he read to us Franco’s moving final letter to Kerouac.

Our reading ended with Sergio Troncoso speaking briefly about his latest book, Our Lost Border, which he co-edited with Sarah Cortez. (See the account of our reading below for a link to a video of Sergio reading from this book.) Afterward, we all stayed to sign books and take photos with fans and friends. There continued to be crowds at the booth, looking at the many books La Casa Azul Bookstore had on display and available for sale. This bookstore is a real treasure in New York City with its heavy community involvement, its wide range of programming, and its strong support of writers and readers.

Soon enough, Sergio, Ben, and I headed for the subway and the ride into Manhattan to Lincoln Center to meet his delightful wife, Laura, and head out of the city. It’s a beautiful ride down the Hudson River Valley, and Sergio and Laura pointed out key places and explained some background about them as we drove.

Sleepy Hollow, New York, is a lovely village that reminds me of small river towns around Kansas City. The Hudson Valley Writers Center is located in Philipse Manor, a historic train station that was rescued from complete dilapidation and restored to beauty to become once more a functioning train station, as well as the home of the Hudson Valley Writers Center. HVWC offers a wide range of literary programming and an impressive list of workshops, and its physical location looks over railroad tracks directly into the magnificent Hudson River. I was fortunate enough to meet Margo Stever, the poet who led the arduous battle to create the Hudson Valley Writers Center and give it this current beautiful home.

The interesting thing about reading at HVWC is that trains are still pulling in and out of the station in the background as you read. It sounds disruptive, but it actually was not. It added a bit of idiosyncratic charm to the evening. I had been asked to read poetry, which was a treat for me since I’m usually expected to read or talk about my novels right now. The audience was very engaged and receptive. 

After my reading, Sergio gave a powerful talk and reading from the book of essays he recently co-edited with Sarah Cortez, Our Lost Border. This is a link to a video of a similat talk and reading Sergio gave to a school several weeks later. Though the two readings might sound disparate, they actually meshed well. After Sergio finished reading, we answered questions and had a passionate discussion with the audience for some time before we finished up with a book signing.

Then, Sergio and Laura took us out to dinner at a lovely restaurant with wonderful Mediterranean food in nearby Tarrytown called Chiboust where we sat and ate, talked, and drank until we closed the place down. What a lovely evening with such congenial and personable hosts!  At the end of the evening, seeing how exhausted everyone was, Sergio dropped Laura off at their apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and drove Ben and me all the way back to our hotel in Brooklyn, causing him another long drive back to his garage and walk to his apartment back in Manhattan. Kindness personified.

 Monday morning, Ben drove us out of Brooklyn and Manhattan, discovering an interesting phenomenon. Coming into Manhattan, the charge for the Holland Tunnel is $13.00. Driving back out of Manhattan, there is no charge. They really would rather you didn’t come into the city, it seems. We took the same road back west because any other route would add so many miles and hours to our travels. But we encountered more of the frustrating delays on the Pennsylvania turnpike, and once off, we could not find a hotel or motel for the night. They were all full of construction workers for all the road construction going on. We learned that they were running three shifts on the road construction, and most of the men (and some women) working were from out of town, the majority from Texas. It grew later and later as we drove, desperate for a place for the night and worn to a frazzle, until finally one hotel had one deluxe suite (at a much higher cost than we would have chosen to pay) still available. I snatched it up, and as we headed to the room to unpack the car, we passed two more families pulling up to try to find a room in the dark. We drove sixteen hours the next day to finally reach our home, and I could hardly walk when we got in.

After a day and a half of recuperation, we set out again for events in Kansas, culminating in a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Wichita, KS, Public Library. I love to do events at libraries. Librarians are my heroes and have been since I was a child hiding out among the books from my dysfunctional home. It’s always so much fun to meet and talk with not only the librarians but with the regular patrons and supporters of the library.

Once back, it was time for the national teleconference with Las Comadres National Latino Book Club. I was fortunate enough to have Every Broken Trust selected as the September book for the NLBC to read, and gatherings all around the country had been reading and discussing it. I had met the leader of the New York City group at the Brooklyn Book Festival—that group had live-tweeted their meeting and discussion, which was great fun. Nora Comstock, the incredible founder and CEO of Las Comadres, interviewed me for the teleconference with intelligent and insightful questions. Some of the hundreds of Las Comadres who were listening had asked questions, and Nora asked those of me, as well. Anyone who despairs of what’s happening to reading in America and who believes that no one reads anymore—or not for anything but the crudest escape—should listen to the Comadres and the perceptive, thoughtful questions they asked of me. They’ll post the tape of the interview to their website at when they have it ready. (I don’t believe it’s up yet.)

I had a wonderful time in my travels, but I’m oh so glad to be back home. I have a book to write, but I have to put it on hold since my copy edits just came in for Every Hidden Fear, the third Skeet Bannion novel. Time is absolutely whizzing past. But now, I settle into the boring life of a writer who’s not on the road, a life of writing, revising, writing, revising, and not much else. Hurray!

NOTE: Blogger is not letting me comment on my some reason, so if you don't get an immediate reply to your comment, that's why. I'm working on it, but unfortunately Blogger isn't.

Coming later this week, a 2-part Literary Mystery Novelists blog featuring Julia Spencer-Fleming and her forthcoming book, Through the Evil Days