by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of Better Off Read by Nora Page, and an interesting interview with Nora! Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Better Off Read along with a link to purchase the book from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Better Off Read: A Bookmobile Mystery By Nora Page
Review by Cynthia Chow
Only a true villain would dream of sacrificing a public library in favor of a fishing pier and floating casino. That’s what the insultingly young new Mayor Jebson Day intends, dismissing the pleas by septuagenarian librarian Cleo Watkins to instead repair their Catalpa Springs Library. Left with only her beloved, boy scout-renovated, bookmobile to service the entire Georgia County, Cleo makes it a mission to coax irritable library board and town council member Buford Krandall to her side. Even Cleo, who as a librarian never judges patrons on their reading selections, has to question why DIY-aficionado Buford is suddenly requesting a surplus of true-crime books on unsolved murders. Cleo’s worries were misplaced, as it is Buford who turns up dead in his creepy home, surrounded by torn books (gasp) and one opened to a chapter depicting the exact method of his murder.
Although Cleo’s inherent librarian skills as a researcher and people-reader make her an intrepid investigator, she intends to stay out of the way; at least until the good ol’ boy network narrows the focus upon Buford’s neighbor, Mary-Rose Garland. Mary-Rose’s and Buford’s families had been warring since the Civil War, and most recently his water pump was draining Pancake Springs and polluting her restaurant’s water. That Cleo’s ne’er-do-well grandson seems to have been be-spelled by a tattooed activist only further muddies the water (figuratively, this time), forcing Cleo to intervene on behalf of a misguided Ollie. It will be up to Cleo and the charming rare book store owner Henry Lafayette to determine why Mary-Rose is lying, if Buford’s 20-year-long divorce finally pushed his wife over the edge, and whether their mayor has brought in Vegas “Family” to implement his plans to make Catalpa Springs the Fishing Capital of the Universe.
Book lovers will adore this series that celebrates libraries, librarians, and the power of reading. A surplus of snarky wit elevates the writing and highlights Cleo’s sharp wit, describing Buford as a hypochondriac Dracula, allowing Words on Wheels to become a temporary party bus, and depicting a scene of “strip bingo” that fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on one’s taste – is not what one first expects. Many will relate to the “book hangover” that occurs after being too immersed in the fictional world, but one might not mind if it left one in Catalpa Springs. Cleo’s, library cat Rhett Butler, Henry, his wobbly pub Mr. Chaucer, and aspiring librarian Leanna all prove to be a delightful detecting team, ultimately proving that one should never defy the library or harm the books within. This is a wonderful mystery that showcases how librarians should never be underestimated.
Interview by Nora Page:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Nora: I’ve always been writing in some form or another, including previous jobs in grant writing, editing, freelance writing, teaching, and printing tiny names on cul-de-sacs in the last days of hand-drawn street mapping. I’ve been writing mysteries for a little less than a decade.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Nora: Bread of the Dead, a culinary cozy mystery set in Santa Fe, came out in September 2015, written as Ann Myers. My husband and I had moved to the Southwest after many years in the South, and I became smitten with the place and food. My protagonist in that series is also a relative newcomer. She gets a taste for New Mexico while dishing up regional delicacies and reluctantly solving crimes. All three books in the Santa Fe Café series also take place during holidays: Day of the Dead, Cinco de Mayo, and Christmas.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Nora: Yes, always mysteries and suspense. They’re what I love to read, and it seems like I can’t think up a plot unless someone dies.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Nora: Cleo Watkins, septuagenarian librarian, combines elements of people I love, real and fictional. When the Santa Fe series ended, I missed the characters, especially the feisty octogenarian sidekick. Cleo has bits of that character’s spark, and this time the senior sleuth gets to take center stage. Cleo also reminds me a little of my grandmother, a former librarian who shared Cleo’s devotion to pie. My grandmother once lugged a cherry pie down the side of a waterfall because she believed a good picnic needed pie. Cleo would agree. As for the setting, Catalpa Springs is fictional but full of my fond memories of the South (and less fond memories of battling invasive vines). I love the atmosphere of the South as a setting. Plus, I still enjoy dropping an all y’all into conversation.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Nora: Entertainment. That’s why I love to read mysteries and especially cozies. Of course, there are serious themes, along with murders, betrayal, and dark secrets, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Nora: I try to keep to a schedule through a daily word-count goal and self-imposed guilt, tracked and color coded on a calendar.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Nora: I write a synopsis first and often a back-cover-style blurb. Then I outline at least the first act and the ending. In my ideal world, I’d outline down to the scene and sentence and stick to it. In reality, my characters and storylines sometimes switch directions midway through. At the end of a draft, I’ll re-outline.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Nora: Mornings. Ideally, I’d get up before the sun and have my word-count goal done by brunch. Ha! You did ask about my ideal…
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Nora: Yes! I had a manuscript with a fabulous title (if I do say so myself) but all sorts of troubles I didn’t see at the time. I queried a nearly uncountable number of agents before realizing they were right to reject. I started over with the Santa Fe series.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Nora: You know writers are supposed to always remember “The Call,” the one when you learn a publisher accepted your first book? I remember ? I do! But I also remember doubting it. When my wonderful agent called, I was in Barcelona with my husband, who was about to teach a study-abroad class. Fabulous and memorable, right? Absolutely! Except… it was nearly midnight. We were asleep, having just gotten in after long flights for which I’d taken nerve-smoothing medication, necessary ever since sudden-onset flying phobia turned me into a sweaty, seatmate-clutching menace of the skies. The medication came with the usually pleasant side effect of mild amnesia. Needless to say, I was pretty dazed during The Call. My husband slept through everything. The next morning, I told him what happened, hoping I hadn’t dreamed it all up. Thankfully, I hadn’t.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Nora: I don’t have any “interesting” stories yet, as in disasters or embarrassing incidents or book fights, thank goodness. My most memorable signing was a book fair hosted by my hometown bookstore, From My Shelf Books and Gifts. It was great to have family there and former classmates I hadn’t seen in decades.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Nora: I’m about to start on revisions of the second Bookmobile Mystery and am brainstorming ideas for the third book. I hope that Cleo and Words on Wheels will keep rolling for many more adventures.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Nora: All writers! That might seem like a cheating answer, but it’s true.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Nora: I probably get a little too bogged down in researching small details, like what plant is blooming in Cleo’s garden or what time the sun sets in November. Even if many of these items don’t make it into books, I like having them sorted out in my mind. More practically, I compile lists of images, details, and ideas I’d like to include in the story.
KRL: What do you read?
Nora: Mysteries and cookbooks. I’m the person nabbing the new cookbooks at my local library.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Nora: I’m being so predictable, but I won’t pretend: I love mysteries, especially British series such as Endeavour, Shetland, Broadchurch, and of course Agatha Christies.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Nora: Forge on and finish a full draft! The exclamation point is there as a reminder to myself. I fight the urge to tinker endlessly with the first few chapters. But I now know they might change or even get cut after the full draft is done. Keep going until you reach the end.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Nora: Thank you so much for inviting me! It’s wonderful to be here!
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Nora: That I have multiple degrees in geography? It’s surprising because I get lost everywhere.
KRL: Many of the female characters face off against outdated, sexist attitudes. Have you had any experience with being underestimated or overlooked because of you age, race, or gender?
Nora: What a great question! I’m a forty-something, gray-haired woman, so on age and gender, I have to say undoubtedly yes. But more broadly, these are attitudes cozy mysteries suffer from too. Cozy readers and writers know this: our books are sometimes dismissed as too fluffy, frivolous, or cutesy. Too female, as if that’s a problem! Cozies feature strong protagonists (mostly women) of all ages and professions, and that’s something to celebrate. Cozy protagonists stick up for their family and friends and justice. They’re clever and brave. They’re superheroes, just not usually in Spandex suits, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
KRL: How have libraries influenced and affected you?
Nora: This is a hard one! I feel like libraries are such an essential part of my life, it’s like pondering the influence of food and water. Libraries and reading surely gave me a broader perspective and sparked an urge to explore other places and cultures. I grew up in the country in a very rural area. My family didn’t travel, and we had little TV reception at the time. Library books took me everywhere.
KRL: Possibly related, what are your strongest memories of libraries?
Nora: I haven’t lived in my hometown for decades, but every time I visit, my mother and I end up at the library. It has a distinctive scent of paper, wood, and old house. It’s like how certain food aromas can spark instant nostalgia ? that’s what I get when I step into that library. It’s a lovely old home with white pillars and a curved front porch. I used it as the model for Cleo’s library in the Bookmobile Mysteries.
KRL: Do you think libraries can stay relevant in this techno-driven society?
Nora: Absolutely! Of course, I love going to the physical library and browsing the shelves, but there’s so much available electronically now too with e-books and audiobooks, online resources, and archives opened up for anyone with an internet connection to explore. I encourage everyone to hop over to their library’s website and check out all the offerings. Libraries will always be relevant!
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of Better Off Read, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “better,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen July 14, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address (so if you win we can get the book sent right out to you), and if via comment please include your email address. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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