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More Reads in the Sun: A Mid-Summer’s Reading List

Now that you’ve already marched through your first round of vacations, visitors, backyard or beach barbecues, and stack of summer reads, it’s time to replenish. Which brings us to the Word Journeys Mid-Summer Reads list. It is the first of a quarterly series where we’ll present recommendations in the middle of each season.

I would like to share some books from my writing friends, all of which are excellent summer reads.  They are available on Amazon.com in print and Kindle, and can be yours in a matter of moments (thank you, Whispernet!). Beware: these particular works feed reading addictions! All are gems in a crowded summer reading field.

As an added favor, in the spirit of summertime, if you buy and like the book, would you be willing to drop a quick review on Amazon.com and/or Goodreads? You only need to write 25 words – and the authors will appreciate you more than you can possibly know.

So stoke up the BBQ, open whatever goodies and libations you have in the cooler, grab your board or fins, set out with your canoe or kayak, or lay down a towel, and take in one of these nine books, recapped below:

Losing My Religion, by Jide Familoni

Intimacy Issues, by Claudia Whitsitt

The Hot Mess, by Gayle Carline

The Fashionista Murders, by William Thompson Ong

Madness and Murder, by Jenny Hilborne

Fobbit, by David Abrams

Wilder’s Woman, by Laura Taylor

The Hummingbird Review, Charles Redner, publisher

Ridin’ Around, Elaine Fields

51OWOAxPA8L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Losing My Religion, by Jide Familoni: Femi Fatoyinbo leaves his native Yoruban culture and tradition in Nigeria to become a doctor in the American South. There, he tries to immerse in a culture radically different than what he knows, dealing with racial issues, relationships, and numerous adventures – some funny, some not at all. This poignant novel captures how a person can change and grow in unexpected ways when presented with an entirely new environment, but also be able to retain his core tradition.  Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.75

Intimacy Issuesby Claudia Whitsitt: Sometimes, you want to just ask protagonist 51OJ9sPrCdL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Samantha Stitsill, “Do you plunge into sticky situations for the thrill of it?” This inquisitive mother of five with a sharp sense of humor is a hoot – and quite the amateur sleuth. In Intimacy Issues, Samantha releases she can’t move on after her dog, friend, and possibly husband are killed. So she tracks the killer down, going from the Midwest to Japan, and dealing with new questions as she always does:  with a mixture of moxie, reckless abandon, humor, and revelation. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.5

51HFN4G3ehL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ The Hot Mess: A Peri Minneopa Mystery by Gayle Carline: The author returns to her feisty favorite private investigator to find the real killer in a fatal house arson fire in which the owner, Benny Needles, is the prime suspect. Benny turns to his old friend, Peri, for help, but probably wishes he didn’t. During her investigation, Peri digs up long-held family secrets that create a dangerous turn – and spike the thrill meter in this thoroughly enjoyable book, the third to feature Peri. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.55

The Fashionista Murders, by William Thompson Ong: Since we’re on a Mid-Summer 41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_heroine/protagonist roll, here’s another: Kate Conway, the journalist-turned-amateur detective who makes her third appearance in The Fashionista Murders. This time, Kate gets caught in a dangerous web after the queen of fashion media, Paisley LaForge, is murdered to set off a serial killing spree. We race from the runways of Paris to New York in a taut, well-detailed thriller as Kate, her photographer friend Cam, and her father, retired detective Paul Conway, work to track down the killer before he takes his next victim – Kate. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5

 51dVdC6FtWL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Madness and Murder, by Jenny Hilborne: What can mystery readers not like about a book that combines murder, mayhem, a madman, a woman trying to start a new life, and enough plot twists to strangle a pretzel? Here we go again. Homicide detective Mac Jackson questions his methods when he uses “bait” to track a sadistic serial killer. The bait, Jessica Croft, moves away from a shameful past to begin a new life — only to find herself the target of both Jackson and the killer. Desperate, she tries to lure the killer, which leads to … you’ll have to get the book to find out. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 4.8, Goodreads – 4.45

Fobbit, by David Abrams: Earlier this summer, we interviewed David Abrams in this blog, 51S4MUUXEQL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_and for good reason: Fobbit has quickly asserted itself as one of the best war novels ever written. It’s hilarious and tragic, cynical and fierce, troubling and redeeming. Starting with an Army public affairs specialist’s tour in Forward Operating Base, Baghdad, Fobbit showcases the stated necessity, and ultimate folly, of war from a half dozen character perspectives. I’m not a war novel reader, but I couldn’t put this book down. It received accolades from more than 300 media reviewers for a reason. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 4.3, Goodreads – 3.5

51QoQvHDExL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Wilder’s Woman, by Laura Taylor: This switch from war novels to romance seems rather abrupt, but Laura Taylor belongs on any list of great storytellers, regardless of genre. She’s been on a bestselling tear with her romance novels the past two years, and Wilder’s Woman again showcases the reason. The way she depicts the betrayal and separation of Tasha and Craig Wilder, and their painful attempts to reconcile, speak deeply to the motives of the human heart, and how interconnected every moment can be. The story is powerful, sensual, written beautifully, and a reminder of the complexity of the heart. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.57

The Hummingbird Review, published by Charles Redner: Every Mid-Summer reading list 51wibrs-s8L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_deserves an anthology, for those who like books broken into shorter pieces. At the risk of appearing biased (which I am), The Hummingbird Review is well worth checking out. The collection of essays, poems, stories and interviews from writers known and unknown has gained a strong reputation in literary circles. For the Spring-Summer issue, Hollywood was the theme, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins the interview subject, Michael Blake and Martin Espada two of the featured poets, former Rod Stewart lead guitarist Stevie Salas and X vocalist/bass player John Doe the featured lyricists … and there’s even an excerpt of a screenplay by David Milton. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 5

41IMAM3yCuL._SY300_Ridin’ Around, by Elaine Fields Smith: No summer reading list is truly complete without a summer cruising tale. Ridin’ Around is the story of four college frat sisters and their summer of cruising the streets in Texas, looking for parties, guys, and the next fun thing to do. It may feel like an updated American Graffiti, or a somewhat more toned down Dazed & Confused, but this story is unique in the way the author presents the characters’ lives and how they find further bonding and purpose through both entertaining and somewhat frightening situations. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.71

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Twists & Turns of a Mystery Author: Part 2 of Interview with Claudia Whitsitt

This is Part 2 of our interview with Claudia Whitsitt, the author of mysteries Intimacy Issues, Identity Issues and The Wrong Guy, all based on real-life experiences. Claudia’s taut writing and captivating story lines have made her a fan favorite of a lot of readers the past two years. In this interview, she talks about how she developed a narrative voice that turns every day life into an event, laced with equal parts humor and seriousness – and then converted it into mysteries with more twists and turns than Six Flags.

READ PART 1 OF THE CLAUDIA WHITSITT INTERVIEW

Claudia’s latest work, Intimacy Issues, released on April 28, but this is a woman on a mission. After 37 years as a schoolteacher, specializing in Special Education, Claudia retired in June. She wrote four novels (Two of Me) in the past three years while teaching full-time. One can only imagine what we’re in for now from this delightful, engaging tour de force. Speaking of which, her next novel, Two of Me, is being prepped for publication in the next several months.Claudia Whitsitt copy

Word Journeys: What do you enjoy most about writing fiction?

Claudia Whitsitt: I love storytelling. In the classroom, it was one of my favorite things. I’d tell my students, “I’m going to tell you a story.” Their ears would perk up, they’d take a collective lean forward, and I had them in the palm of my hands. An electricity takes over when you tell or hear a good story. I love that element of writing fiction. When the story and the characters take over and lead me down an undiscovered path, the adrenalin rush is amazing, and oh so satisfying.

WJ: What about the mystery intrigues you so much? Why does it play so well into both your personality and the way you write?

CW: I grew up in the “olden days”. We had a 12-inch black and white television, which the seven of us crowded around to watch The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. Reading provided me with some alone time. Mostly, I picked up mysteries. I’ve always loved solving puzzles. With five brothers and no sisters, it seemed like a good skill to develop, as they were always cooking up some kind of scheme! While I wasn’t always successful at figuring out what they were up to, I was quite accomplished at guessing what would happen next in the mystery I was reading. I took great pride in putting the pieces together.

READ THE OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE FOR IDENTITY ISSUES

IDENTITY ISSUES COVER copyWJ: Your main character in Identity Issues, Samantha Stitsill, has been a crowd favorite since she was first released to the reading public. I could see you writing a series around her. What about Samantha made it so much fun for you to write her character?

CW: Samantha has a fiery spirit. When I sit down to write, her voice flows through my fingertips. She’s smart and sassy, and she has a comeback for everything. I give myself over to her. I trust myself with her. She trusts me, too. Sometimes I disagree with her, but she’s strong and stubborn. It’s very difficult for me to change her mind after she’s made a decision. I love her. I think she feels the same way about me.

WJ: A question from one converted academic writer to another: How did you move beyond critical, objective writing? Did you practice journaling, writing exercises, etc.? Or were you able to make the shift in the course of writing the story?

CW: I welcome the opportunity to divert my writing from thought-based to emotion-based and from objective to subjective, but I need coaxing at times. Because my life is so full (CRAZY), it’s often difficult to transition. Journaling and free writes have helped me enormously. I’ll put my fingers on the keyboard, or better yet, pen to paper, and let the words flow. That, and listening to music, opens my soul to the depths required for novel writing.

WJ: How did you develop your taut, humor-laced writing voice? Did that come from what you intimacy issuesread, or through finding the novelist within yourself and trusting how it flowed out?

CW: Good question. I grew up in a sarcastic household. I have five younger brothers. FIVE! There was teasing and joking in our household 24/7. I carried that caustic nature into adulthood, so much so that people don’t always know how to take me. As a result, I’ve learned to be more careful about what I say, but my inner dialogue is fast and furious. I tend to be critical, so it was essential that I learned to temper that in the classroom. When an acerbic comment slipped out like, “Seriously, dude. You’re going to talk when I’m teaching?” my students enjoyed it. They’ve always considered me “nice” and “sweet”, so I guess I haven’t damaged too many psyches.

The tautness in my writing comes from juggling so much in my real life. I’m quick to cut to the chase because I don’t ever have “extra” time, and I’ve always viewed my life as a “to-do” list. There isn’t much wiggle room, so this part of my personality comes through in my voice. I’ve even been accused of jumping ahead, writing the second paragraph before the first. Hmm.

WJ: Humor really enhances a book, doesn’t it? I find it works great to provide levity after, or in the midst of, deadly serious scenes. Plus, most of us use humor for any number of reasons. How do you see it?

CW: Humor is a healthy release and a welcome coping mechanism in times of strife. It’s a natural defense, and a very helpful tool in surviving life’s body slams, or controlling a tenable situation. The funniest people are those who’ve suffered great pain in their lives. They look at life in a way that allows them to survive those wicked blows, and say, “Go ahead, Life. What else have you got? Give it to me. ‘Cuz I can throw it right back at ‘ya!”

The Wrong Guy Cover!!WJ: Who were your favorite authors growing up? Who are they now? And which authors did you promote to your kids?

CW: Growing up, I was a huge Nancy Drew fan. I hid under the covers with a flashlight and read into the wee hours of the morning. Hence, I became a mystery writer.  My high school years were all about discovery. I loved the classics. The Scarlet Letter. Catcher in the Rye. And anything by Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. For years, Holden Caulfield held the honor of being “my favorite character”. Then, D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nuff said. One of my favorite passages is when Holden Caulfield says:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Raising kids, I read to them each night. Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein were the top requests at bedtime during those twenty years.

For a while, I read mostly Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, and Janet Evanovich. Quick, easy reads for a busy mom. Then Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Berg, and Anna Quindlen. To this day, Fortune’s Rocks, by Anita Shreve, is my favorite book.

WJ: What gives you the greatest satisfaction as an author?

I’m in my element when I’m writing. Losing sense of time and place and becoming immersed in my characters and story gives me untold joy. Having someone read my work and enjoy it is rewarding, too. It’s nice to know readers care about my characters as much as I do!

WJ: Finally, what is the most surprising thing someone said to you about your books, or your writing, at a book signing?

CW: I’d met a gentleman at a book signing at Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago shortly after my first mystery, The Wrong Guy, was released. He read the book, sent me a creepy email about the parts he would have changed (all related to the sex scenes, and very graphic, of course), then had the nerve to show up at Printers Row the following year.

When he saw a man standing behind me, he had the nerve to ask, “Who’s he?”

“My husband,” I answered.

He was indignant. “What’s he doing here?”

Wish I hadn’t been so darned naïve and nice the year before. (It does make for a good story idea though…writer stalked by reader! Scary!)

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Where Truth and Fiction Collide: The Sleuthing and Writing Life of Claudia Whitsitt

(PART ONE OF A TWO-PART INTERVIEW)

Most novelists weave fragments of their own stories, experiences, friends (or enemies) into every book they write. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I have nearly 100 fragments in there – but you’ll never know. The book is fiction. A fewer number write novels based on actual experiences, fictionalizing just enough to muddy the waters of the actual truth.

Rare is the author who bases novels on actual events, twisting timelines and events while keeping the essential truth intact – and pulls it off.

Claudia Whitsitt copyClaudia Whitsitt is that rare author. Her mystery thrillers draw directly from events in her life, which she unabashedly admits and promotes. When you write as well as Claudia, with a taut narrative style and compelling, unforgettable characters that keep the pages turning, you can say and do whatever you want. Her books are damned good.

Claudia is the author of Intimacy IssuesIdentity Issues, The Wrong Guy, and the forthcoming Two of Me. Without having to blast the spoiler alert, I will give you this: Intimacy Issues deals with a very pissed-off mother whose kids and dog are seriously messed with. Identity Issues is loosely based on the real-life stolen identity crisis involving her husband, Don, and the hell it put them through for years. She writes through the character of Samantha Stitsill, a mother and teacher who tracks down hilarious moments as well as she chases leads. The Wrong Guy is derived from the Michigan Murders, the horrifying co-ed murders that took place on the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan campuses in the late 1960s. A college freshman, Katie, is the protagonist – a girl loosely based on Claudia, who enrolled at Eastern Michigan just after they caught the serial killer.

READ THE PR WEB RELEASE ON CLAUDIA WHITSITT

In all three books, Claudia lets it fly with a combination of tragedy, drama, some of the ever-engaging sassy, tough-chick persona, emotional roller-coaster rides, great characterization and dialogue, and a trademark of every great mystery writer – humor. Damn, she’s funny! (More on that in part 2 of this conversation). And an obsessed amateur sleuth, drawn from her childhood fascination with Nancy Drew mysteries. Every mother with a beating heart would laugh their tails off at the first 10 pages of Identity Issues – and frequently thereafter, even though this is a dead-serious novel that speaks to an epidemic affecting up to 2 million people per year.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Claudia for almost four years; we met at the Southern California Writers Conference, where we both are presenters. Now, it’s your turn. Enjoy this conversation with the fabulous, recently retired Special Education teacher from Saline, Michigan – and then treat yourself to her books for some truly entertaining summer reading.

intimacy issuesWord Journeys: You sure seem to find, or fall into, real-life situations that activate your mystery instincts! 

Claudia Whitsitt: I love to play “what if?” with real-life scenarios. My brain seems to be wired to tap into situations that I’ve heard about and ask myself how I’d handle myself in the same situation, or imagine the ways in which things could have gone differently. I never have trouble thinking of ideas for my novels.

True stories fuel my fiction. I often say, “I write my life as fiction.” There’s always a jumping off point from the actual story to fiction though. Once I reach that point, which is often before I even begin to write, I feel the magic begin!

Word Journeys: What are the advantages — and pitfalls — of IDENTITY ISSUES COVER copywriting fiction so close to real life?

Claudia Whitsitt: Because the early parts of Identity Issues are based on my own experience, it was easy to write the beginning of the book. The funniest part though, was that initial readers didn’t believe that anything like what I’d experienced could ever really happen. I ended up making several changes to make the story more plausible. Truth is stranger than fiction! In all honesty, I got much more of a rush fictionalizing the back end of the story. It was liberating, in fact.  Sam is a much braver woman than me, and it was a delight to have her say the things I wish I had the nerve to say, and do the things I wish I had the guts to do. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Of course, my husband would probably say the same about me!

the wrong guyWJ: What about your husband? He was the loosely depicted “model” for the Jon Stitsill, the husband in Identity Issues … which must have been interesting on the home front! 

CW: My best friend reads all of my work. When she first read Identity Issues, she was furious with my husband. She could barely look at him after she read what his fictional character had done to put his family and marriage in jeopardy. Family and other friends also have had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. I think I’ve conjured up all kinds of questions for them about my “real life”. Because the book is based on our own life experience, the lines sometimes become blurred between fact and fiction.

WJ: While Identity Issues is disturbing in the way identity theft can compromise and even devastate its victims and their families, The Wrong Guy is downright disturbing – a serial killer, a rapist, young co-eds scared to death. Could you describe this time of the Michigan Murders, and how you drew from your experience at Eastern Michigan to develop Katie?

CW: My college experience paralleled Katie’s in several ways. I entered college on the heels of (convicted murderer John Norman) Collins’ arrest. I experienced firsthand the fears of negotiating a campus where coeds lived with the constant worry of a predator’s existence. I attended countless meetings about safety. We were warned at every turn that there was no assurance we were safe just because a suspect was behind bars. We carried mace on our key rings, were taught to weave our keys between our fingers (in order to be ready to defend ourselves), and advised never to travel alone on campus. It was a tense time, and not the “typical” college experience.

I also had the most unlikely roommate, my complete opposite, just as Katie did. Katie’s roommate sits on closet shelves, tosses around profanity like loose change, and teaches Katie that there is more than one way to view the world. Katie learns to respect differences and forms a lasting bond with Janie. (My roomie and I are still best friends to this day!)

WJ: Your books have great plot twists. How did the necessity of switching gears as a parent, teacher, and in life shape your narrative style?

CW: As a reader, I love it when I’m comfortable with the plot and ease into predicting the next course of events. Then, wham! I’m blindsided. To me, that’s what creates the mystery and suspense. It’s my goal to create that same suspense in my own novels. Just when the reader settles back, I dish out something completely new and unexpected. It also mirrors what I went through after Don’s identity was stolen and I received late night phone calls in which the caller tried to convince me I didn’t know my husband. Much like Samantha, I had to be quick, smart, and savvy. Even when I’d only had a few hours of sleep.

WJ: Thirty-seven years of dealing with schoolkids made your flexible, I’d guess.

CW: Switching gears has been my M.O. for years. Life tosses me surprises on a daily basis. In my teaching of Special Education students, there was always some behavioral crisis looming. In raising my family, a sibling squabble, a last minute trip to the ER, or a broken heart to mend.

WJ: How did the theft of Don’s identity directly affect you?

CW: When my husband’s identity was stolen, I learned that thinking on my feet, flexibility, and multi-tasking were my friends. The identity theft occurred when my four older kids were in elementary school and my youngest was an infant. I held a full-time teaching position, and my husband traveled the world for business. I had an astounding amount to manage. Attitude was everything. I adopted a survival approach. Every day was a new and unexpected adventure. I learned to appreciate the surprises, and challenged myself to act rather than react. It became a game of sorts. I approached each day wondering what new wrench would be tossed into my day. The ordinary days became few and far between. Great writing fodder!

WJ: When we write fiction, we all have unanticipated surprises that just “fly out of us” during the writing process – and they become invaluable to the work. What were a couple of those surprises for you?

CW: When I become one with Samantha, she leads me through her innermost thoughts and feelings. They are sometimes deep. And dark. And way more personal than I anticipated. Being with her in her darkest hours takes me to surprising places. I feel privileged that she allows me to accompany her on her journey. The depth of emotion, or her internal timeline, as I like to call it, taps something in my soul that I didn’t know existed. There are times I walk away from a writing session completely spent. Sam faces her inner demons. When she does, I’m at my best as a writer. She’s opened my soul. I thank her for that.

(PART 2 will appear on Tuesday, July 2)

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