Showing posts with label Cynthia Kuhn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cynthia Kuhn. Show all posts

13 June 2017

It's Academic!

by Barb Goffman

Growing up, I was one of those nerdy kids who liked school. Not all subjects, and not all teachers, but I loved reading and history and got mostly A's (at least in elementary school). After completing college summa cum laude, I went on to get a graduate degree in journalism, and then after working a few years, went back to school and got a law degree. As I've liked to joke, there's no such thing as too much education.

My interest in education continued after graduation. When I was a newspaper reporter, I covered primary and secondary schools. School board meetings? Sign me up. Visiting classrooms to see how students were learning and write articles that gave their parents a virtual seat in the classroom. Loved it. And when I worked as an attorney, I specialized in higher education, first assisting colleges with compliance with state and federal regulations, among other things, and then working for a student-loan provider and servicer. I might not be a teacher or professor, but education sure is in my blood.

"Asps. Very dangerous. You go first."
And that's why one of the types of books and stories I love to dig into are academic mysteries. So I was jazzed to read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (yes, for pleasure reading) a couple of days ago titled "From Indiana Jones to Minerva McGonagall, Professors See Themselves in Fiction." The Chronicle surveyed their readers' favorite professors in TV, movies, and books, and the winner was ... Indiana Jones, the main character in Raiders of the Lost Ark and three subsequent films.

Why is Jones so popular? Who wouldn't love a Nazi-hunting, boulder-dodging, snake-hating scholar who travels the world between classes, seeking archeological treasures and fighting bad guys? Quoting William Purdy, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles, the Chronicle said, " 'One of the hard knocks against academics is we’re in an ivory tower and not in touch with the world. He’s a straight response to that criticism.' "

I ditto that. Indeed, the Indiana Jones movies are more action-adventure stories than campus mysteries, but there's crime at the heart of all of these tales, so they fall within my definition of the genre.

That said, there are also a lot of great crime novels set on college campuses. Just a few weeks ago, The Semester of our Discontent by Cynthia Kuhn won the Agatha Award for best first mystery novel published in 2016. Set at a prestigious fictional college, the novel showcases an English professor embroiled in departmental politics and murder. Here are just a few other mysteries involving academics that I've enjoyed:
  • The Red Queen's Run by Bourne Morris (more department politics and murder) - the first in a series
  • Murder 101 by Maggie Barbieri (a professor is accused of killing her student, which I bet a lot of professors dream about but few would admit to) - the first in a series
  • Artifact by Gigi Pandian (a historian described as the female Indiana Jones--the first in a wonderful series, but so far, no Nazis)
  • Fifty Mysteries by our own John M. Floyd (fifty short stories involving retired schoolteacher Angela Potts. They're not exactly academic mysteries, but I love Angela Potts, and she used to be a teacher, so I'm listing her.)
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Yes, they're set at a secondary school, but it's a magical school, and they're wonderful, and there sure is mystery in these books, so I count 'em. 
    "Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it."
Other academics that made the Chronicle's list of favorite academics:
  • Charles Kingsfield from The Paper Chase
  • John Keating from Dead Poets Society
  •  Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series
Want to read the whole Chronicle article? Click here.

And please share your favorite academic mysteries in the comments. I know there are a lot more I could have listed. What academic mystery books/series/stories/movies/TV shows do you love and why?

03 February 2017

Agatha Best First Novel Finalists & First Impressions

By Art Taylor

Last spring, it was a great thrill to have my book On the Road with Del & Louise named alongside Tessa Arlen’s Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, Cindy Brown’s Macdeath, Ellen Byron’s Plantation Shudders, and Julianne Holmes’ Just Killing Time as finalists for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. And I was hit with a flood of memories from that experience as I read through the finalists for this year's Agatha Awards in the same category: Marla Cooper's Terror in Taffeta, Alexia Gordon's Murder in G Major, Cynthia Kuhn's The Semester of Our Discontent, 
Nadine Nettmann's Decanting a Murder, and Renee Patrick's Design for Dying—and before I continue here on those memories, congratulations to them all!



Last year, during the months between the announcement of us as finalists and Malice Domestic itself, it was a tremendous pleasure to get to know Tessa, Cindy, Ellen, and Julianne through an array of emails and a group blog tour—a journey that not only introduced us to other readers but also brought us closer together in so many ways. While I missed Left Coast Crime when the other four finalists first met one another in person, by the time we all sat down for lunch together at Malice, it felt like family—and those relationships have continued well beyond last year's Malice, with conversations and celebrations at Bouchercon, continued email correspondence, frequent Facebook interactions and IM chats, and more. (Malice has been very good to me in recent years—and this year again, when I'm joining fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens on the slate for Best Short Story!—but those of us in short story circles have already long seemed a family, so the experience last year was to a great degree different.)

When this year’s Best First Novel class was announced, I found myself hoping that their experiences would bring them together as closely as ours had last year. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; even as I was planning to reach out to the group about a guest post on SleuthSayers, Ellen Byron started a Facebook conversation to connect our group and theirs—sending along our joint congratulations and well wishes to the new class of debuts.

All that in mind, I'm honored today to help Marla, Alexia, Cynthia, Nadine, and Renee kick off their blog tour together, and hope you'll join me in welcoming them and wishing them fun adventures ahead!

Since this is their first outing as a group, my prompt focused specifically on the idea of making a debut: “First impressions can tell us a lot about a person—and first novels may offer us immediate insights into the authors behind them: their interests, their passions, the things they value about the wider world. What drove you to write this book? And what glimpses do we get of you in the characters, the plot, the setting, or the themes?”

I'll let them take it from here:

Marla Cooper, author of Terror in Taffeta (Minotaur)
I love weddings—from casual backyard ceremonies to overblown affairs where too much is spent on calla lilies and the bridesmaids all hate their dress. But that’s not what led me to write this series. A few years back, I got a job ghostwriting a book with a destination wedding planner. As she was telling me about her job, I thought, “What a great premise for a mystery series!” Going off to foreign places with people you don’t really know? Everyone looking to you when things went wrong? It had all the makings of a great amateur sleuth. Although my main character was based on someone else, there is a lot of me in Kelsey. We share the same sense of humor, we both tend to be “control enthusiasts,” and we’re both prone to colorful interior monologues. The only real difference? I’ve never run across a dead body at a wedding. Yet.


Alexia Gordon, author of Murder in G Major (Henery Press)
Murder in G Major originated in Southern Methodist University's Writer's Path program as a class assignment. Our instructor asked us, "What's your story about?" and gave us ten minutes to come up with an answer. I resurrected a "what if?" daydream I'd had—what if an African American violinist was broke and stranded in an Irish village? (I'm an introvert who lives in her head. My daydreams are complex and often cinematic.) I knew I wanted to write a mystery so I added "and found a dead body." A few (dozen) drafts later, that class assignment had morphed into my novel.
What glimpses of me does Murder in G Major reveal? I couldn't find a cozy mystery with an African American sleuth from a middle-class background. Many African Americans are highly educated professionals who enjoy a high living standard, yet we're invisible. When we do appear in crime fiction, we're portrayed as victims or criminals from the lower socioeconomic strata or as police officers who've clawed their way up from that background.  So, I took Toni Morrison's advice and wrote the book I wanted to read. My protagonist is an African American female with multiple degrees, a physician mother, a professor father, and scientist siblings.
I'm a Hibernophile so my novel is set in Ireland. Wish fulfillment's mixed in. I love classical music and wish I had musical talent so my protagonist is a brilliant musician. I've gained an appreciation for the folklore of my Southern heritage as I've grown older so my protagonist learns to admit tales of haints and boo-hags heard in childhood took root in her unconscious and color the way she interprets creaks on stairs and bumps in the night.

Cynthia Kuhn, author of The Semester of Our Discontent (Henery Press)
Ever since discovering the wonderful Kate Fansler series by Amanda Cross (Professor Carolyn G. Heilbrun) in a used bookstore, I have been a huge fan of academic mysteries. They tend to address academia’s complicated issues in thoughtful (and often playful) ways. The Semester of Our Discontent was born of one stressed-out, caffeine-infused night in graduate school during which I was trying to finish a seminar paper. As I struggled to wrestle my uninspired thoughts about the assigned topic into an argument that made any sort of sense, I was struck instead by the basic idea for Semester. I jotted it down, and the story continued to nudge me for years until I finally started writing the book. In response to the second question, the setting is completely opposite: Stonedale is a small private school, and I work at a large public university. And Lila’s a character in her own right, but we do teach the same things, and—so far at least!—we care about the same issues.

Nadine Nettmann, author of Decanting a Murder (Midnight Ink)
Decanting a Murder combines two of my passions: wine and mysteries. After wine became a big part of my life in 2011, I wanted to incorporate it into a novel and have a character solve mysteries with her wine knowledge, similar to a Jessica Fletcher in the wine world. While I’m a Certified Sommelier just like my main character, Katie Stillwell, we’re very different even though we have a lot of the same interests. Sommeliers have the opportunity to share each wine’s story when they open a bottle, so I wanted to set the novel where the wine’s journey begins—in the winery and its sun-kissed vineyards. My state of California is home to many wonderful wine regions so I chose Napa Valley as the location and Decanting a Murder was born.

Renee Patrick (Rosemarie and Vince Keenan), author of Design for Dying (Forge)
Design for Dying is set in Los Angeles in 1937, during Hollywood’s Golden Age. So it won’t come as a surprise we’ve both been huge movie fans since we were kids. Rosemarie once faked illness as a child so she could watch King Kong on the Million Dollar Movie every day for a week. It was our love of classic film that brought us together—we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary just weeks after Design was published—so it made perfect sense that our novel would be set in Tinseltown. Now when we watch Turner Classic Movies, we call it research! More seriously, Lillian Frost, one of our main characters (the other being legendary costume designer Edith Head), is a tribute to Rosemarie’s mother and aunts, women who grew up in the 1920s and ’30s and faced the Depression with grit and grace. Lillian’s journey west was undertaken by many young women attracted to Hollywood. Only a tiny fraction of them could have careers in show business, and the rest needed to make lives for themselves. We wanted to show that resourceful spirit in action.

For the complete list of Agatha finalists, visit Malice Domestic’s website here. Look forward to seeing everyone in Bethesda in late April! 



14 October 2016

Reading Here, There, and Everywhere

By Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Cynthia Kuhn wrote a fun post at the Henery Press blog: "Professor X, In the Conservatory, With a Book," which looked at many different ways to read, places and times to read, and even types of books to read, or maybe the better word there would be editions or conditions, since she talked about the differences between brand new books versus used ones. I was struck particularly by Cynthia's observation that "many people are fond of reading in bed, snuggled under a cozy blanket with a book to send you gently off to dreamland. (Or, if you’re like me—routinely jarred awake when the book falls onto your face—not so gently.)"

I read each night before going to bed—and yes, more than once, I've had the book fall on my face, waking me up. (And then, instead of putting the book down like a sensible person might do, I just shuffle myself up a little higher against the pillow and settle in for a few more pages...until it happens again.)

I often find myself wishing I had more time to read—and while that was one of my first reactions to Cynthia's post, my second thought was sharper and maybe more in tune with what she was saying: I am always reading. Not only is it the last thing I do at night, it's also the first thing I do in the morning—scanning the top news stories from Washington Post on my iPhone there in the darkness, and then later reading the paper itself, and sometimes sneaking in a few pages of whatever else I'm reading in between parts of the morning routine. One of my New Year's Resolutions this year has been a chapter a day of War & Peace, as I've mentioned before, and I'll sometimes knock that out first thing, then throughout the day, it's reading at every turn—though not always traditional kinds of reading, I guess: emails,  Facebook status updates, stories linked to those FB updates, blog posts here and there; then the stories and essays and books I'm reading as part of lesson prep for class, and the student essays and exercises that I'm grading, of course; and somewhere in there, some reading for myself, dabbling in any number of stories and essays and books I have in various corners of my life.

I read in in bed, at the breakfast table or standing in the kitchen, in my office, and (yes) in the bathroom. I have read in the spare moments while waiting to meet someone or waiting at other appointments (haircut recently, for example). I've even read while waiting at stoplights—pulling out my iPhone and opening the Kindle app to sneak in a few pages; we're in Northern Virginia, after all, and that's a lot of time that could be, should be, used well! (No reading while the car is actually in motion, of course, at least not while I'm behind the wheel—though you won't catch me in the passenger seat or on public transportation without a book nearby.)

While I could go back through that list and those moments above and qualify that much of it isn't what I want to read, reading solely for pleasure—and isn't that at the core of the wish for "more time to read"?—I realized looking around today that I've actually surrounded myself with reading that's not assigned and not part of daily chores and routines (not part of staying plugged into email and the web), reading that is, in fact, just for me.

Maybe it's the distracted nature of our lives these days, but I'm usually juggling several books at one time—even not counting those I'm pacing out on my syllabi for class. I've got bookmarks in several titles I'm working through, reading a bit at a time depending on what calls to me most at a given moment, and I often read aloud to my wife Tara in the evenings, so we're frequently in the middle of a story from one anthology or another—and all these books stay within easy reach. 

For example, here's what you'll find on my nightstand right now (and a hat tip to Patricia Abbott, whose semi-regular feature on this also inspired me here):
  • Ian McEwan's Nutshell
  • Sarah L. Kaufman's The Art of Grace
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace—both a big hardcover copy of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and then the Maude translation on my Kindle
  • The Kindle itself—and tops on recently accessed titles, both War & Peace and Anna Katherine Green's The Golden Slipper (I taught one of the Violet Strange stories in class and I'm now reading/rereading others for fun)
  • Several single-author short story collections, including Ann Beattie's The New Yorker Stories, Ellen Gilchrist's Acts of Gods, and B.K. Stevens' Her Infinite Variety (hi, Bonnie!) 
  • Several anthologies, including The Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, In Sunlight or In Shadow, and The Folio Book of Ghost Stories 
  • The new Best American Mystery Stories anthology and the November issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, since I have stories in each myself and want to read the stories by the other contributors (hi, Rob Lopresti!)
  • Another EQMM, from December 2015, that I've already read and should put away somewhere
  • Sophie Hannah's Closed Casket that Tara passed my way with some enthusiasm, even though I still haven't read the first of Hannah's mysteries with Christie's Hercule Poirot (I'm behind)
  • Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files, which I pulled out because I was considering teaching it and need to revisit again anyway, even though I didn't add it to the syllabus

And as you can see, the list quickly gets qualified and commented on and... and why don't I have more time to read?

Just to round out the listing of books close at hand, here are the ones physically on my desk from my office on campus—not counting the ones I'm reading for class:
  • The first volume of the new seven-volume Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith, and those first pages of Beast In View really draw you right in, don't they? 
  • 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories, which a friend dropped off to me and which I've already dived into
  • The July 2016 and September/October 2016 issues of EQMM (hello sometimes-SleuthSayer David Dean in each of those!)
  • The July/August 2016 issue of AHMM (hello to SleuthSayers Terence Faherty, Eve Fisher, Janice Law, and R.T. Lawton!)
  • Karen Huston Karydes' Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Their Detectives, which I've read and still need to review
  • The Describer's Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations... which reminds me, I'm supposed to be writing too in the middle of all this reading. (Where's the time for that, huh?)
Whew!

What are you reading? And when, where, how do you read?

Top of my reading list next (I promise!): any comment you leave here. :-)