by Pat Browning
This week we have a review of a fun mystery series about a substitute teacher written by Carolyn J. Rose and a fun interview with Carolyn. Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of the book.
No Substitute for Maturity (Subbing Isn’t For Sissies) By Carolyn J. Rose
Review by Pat Browning
Barbara Reed, substitute teacher at Captain Merriweather High School in Reckless River, Washington, is not having a good day, and that’s even before the school bell rings. Opening lines:
“You may not realize you’re carrying a backpack loaded with beliefs or a tote bag crammed with foregone conclusions, until your baggage collides with that of another … And mine was slamming into Dave Martin’s as he moved into the condo now known as “ours.”
Fortunately, Barbara and Dave Martin, the hunky drug cop at Reckless River PD, aren’t married. Otherwise it might be a short distance between “I do” and “I don’t.”
Other featured characters are:
**Iz, the man-hating sister you just want to slap;
**Paulette, Iz’s new best friend, an expert in water aerobics and feng shui. She enlists Iz in her pet project, building new homes for abused women;
**Cheese Puff, Barbara’s tiny dog with the big ego and his own fan club;
**Muriel Ballantine (aka Mrs. B), the retired Las Vegas show girl who may or may not have been married to a mobster;
**Jake, Barbara’s worthless ex-husband, out of jail due to overcrowding.
Life is one crisis after another, with a murder and attempted murders, but, unlike the first two books in the series, the emphasis is on relationships, not on skullduggery at the high school. Relationships come into focus with the firebombing of a project house. The house occupants, Denise and her small children, narrowly escape death.
Denise’s vengeful husband is hauled in for questioning but released for lack of evidence. Iz immediately organizes a protest rally on the courthouse lawn. The story takes off at a gallop from there. The author works out all the kinks and complications with high humor.
One of the funniest story threads in the book involves Barbara’s ex-husband Jake. He charms his way into a job as handyman at her condo complex, where everything he touches turns to you-know-what. To say more about his comeuppance would be a spoiler.
The only characters not upset by the sturm und drang around them are Muriel Ballantine, who’s working up a tap dance routine for her feature on a TV reality show, and Cheese Puff who trots next door to bask in Mrs. B’s adoration every chance he gets.
I almost lost it when Mrs. B outfits Cheese Puff in a tuxedo and top hat and smuggles him into a school play. He fits in her tote bag, which she thoughtfully lines with blue ice, so Cheese Puff stays cool while everyone else swelters.
Muriel Ballantine has “pearl power.” If she’s wearing her single strand of pearls, pay close attention. If she’s wearing her double strand, don’t bother to argue with her. Backed by an endless supply of money, she gives help where needed and rearranges circumstances to make them more satisfactory for everyone concerned.
Mrs. Ballantine is, in short, the kind of fairy godmother we could all use. On a dark day, when everything seems to go wrong, how nice it would be to hear Mrs. Ballantine say, “This situation will be dealt with.”
Interview with Carolyn J. Rose
KRL: You co-author books with your husband, Mike Nettleton, as well as on your own. Can you give us a rundown of series you do alone and those you do with Mike?
Carolyn: Together we wrote the two-book Devil’s Harbor series (Death at Devil’s Harbor and Deception at Devil’s Harbor) and the two-book tie-dyed detective series (The Hard Karma Shuffle and The Crushed Velvet Miasma).
On my own I wrote a three-book TV news series (now out of print and going to stay that way because TV technology has changed and the books are dated), the two-book Kate Dalton series (An Uncertain Refuge and Sea of Regret), the three-book Subbing Isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), and the two-book Catskill Mountains Mysteries (Hemlock Lake, and Through a Yellow Wood).
My plans for the future are to write a third in the Catskill Mountains series and then continue the subbing series with three or more books. The mysteries set in the Catskills tend to be darker and more violent, and the subbing books are far lighter and more fun, so alternating series will give me some balance.
Mike has gotten interested in writing screenplays and is very involved in community theater productions. I have several solo projects in mind for the future, so I doubt we’ll co-author other books. But, never say never.
KRL: Both you and Mike Nettleton have successful careers in communications and show biz. What prompted your decision to establish your own publishing imprint or company?
Carolyn: It was less of a decision than a slow shift. We were with several small presses and one mid-size press but, as I’m sure most writers are aware, it was up to us to do the heavy promotional lifting, and foot most of the bills for what that involved.
In 2010, when I realized my contract with Five Star didn’t include electronic rights, I put Hemlock Lake up on Kindle and Nook on my own. Sales were slow but steady, and the process was so simple that, when I grew weary of trying to find a publisher interested in An Uncertain Refuge, I self-published that book and then a stand-alone, A Place of Forgetting. Sales were strong, so from there it was a natural progression. As publishers’ rights expired, we revised those books and put them out ourselves.
We just finished revising the last of them (The Crushed Velvet Miasma) and I’m looking forward to being able to put more energy into new projects.
KRL: Where did you get the idea for your series about substitute teachers?
Carolyn: That’s a no-brainer. When I decided I didn’t have the energy or commitment to continue as a TV news producer, I turned to subbing to pay for my writing habit. I sub in high school, so it’s not always a walk in the park, but a little challenge is a good thing. And it’s almost always amusing and rewarding to spend time with teens and get an education in pop culture and the world view of those who haven’t reached voting age.
KRL: You don’t have children or grandchildren but your teenaged characters are spot on. Where does that come from?
Carolyn: The prime source is my subbing job. I keep my eyes and ears open on the days I’m filling in at local high schools. (And let me add here that if you’re not on full alert as a substitute teacher, you’re either way better at it than I am, or you’re missing a lot.)
Mike and I also tutor a 13-year-old neighbor who fills us in on events in middle school. He also allows us to take him to movies and explains things we might not otherwise get. And I kept a journal from the time I was twelve, so I can go back and look at my own thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears. Lots of things have changed in half a century, but many core human needs and wants are constant. If you dressed my teen self in today’s styles and dropped her a high school, she’d fit right in.
KRL: Have you ever known a dog like Cheese :Puff? If not, where did that character come from?
Carolyn: We have two small dogs, a mixed breed (Yorkie/Miniature Schnauzer) and a purebred Maltese. They both have definite ideas about our roles in their lives and provide plenty of fodder for Cheese Puff’s character.
I always wanted a small dog, but Mike fought the idea until 1992 when I had a horrible reaction to a medication and they thought my liver would flame out. I drama-queened the incident until he promised that we’d get a small dog when all the two medium-sized dogs we had went to that big doggie playground in the sky. They lived long and healthy lives and it wasn’t until 2000 that I spotted Bubba as a Humane Society pet of the week. Our vet warned us that small dogs rise every day with the intention of bending their owners to their will, and I used that to create Cheese Puff and his sense of entitlement.
KRL: Do you plan your plots and/or outline before you start writing?
Carolyn: Whenever I have an idea for an incident or character or motive, I scribble it on an index card. No idea is too off-the-wall or over-the-top. When I’m preparing to write a book, I lay the cards out on the long wing of my desk and move them around until I have the threads for at least half of the book and the marker cards for the beginning and the end.
If a card doesn’t fit, I set it aside. It might work for the next book or the one after that. It might be fodder for a blog. I like the feel of the cards, and I like to get able to turn from my computer and see the progression of the story. It’s also nice to get my eyes away from the screen for a bit.
KRL: What area of No Substitute books challenges you the most?
Carolyn: Making sure I have enough different settings is a challenge. But a bigger challenge will be dealing with Cabot Cove Syndrome as the series progresses. My fictional town of Reckless River, Washington, isn’t a metropolis, so how many people can I kill off before readers start shaking their heads in disbelief? I may have to send Barb out of town.
KRL: What book are you planning/ next for this series?
Carolyn: I’m going to write the third book in the Hemlock Lake series (tentatively titled The Devil’s Tombstone) this spring, but in the fall I’ll start on the fourth Substitute book and it’s possible that Bigfoot could put in an appearance. On the other hand, when I lay out the index cards and take a look at the ideas I’ve scrawled on them, I may find that Bigfoot will have to wait for the fifth book.
To enter to win a copy of No Substitute for Maturity, simply email KRL at krlcontests @gmail [dot] com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Substitute” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 29, 2014. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways, and mystery short stories, including another St. Patrick’s Day related mystery, in our mystery section.