Why Write About Chicago?

Judy AlterAn award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West. In The Gilded Cage she has turned her attention to the late nineteenth century in her home town, Chicago, to tell the story of the lives of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right. She is also the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series. With the 2014 publication of The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame. http://judyalter.com/

Blog URL: http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com

Facebook URL: https://www.facebook.com/judy.alter

Skype: juju1938

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For years I wrote about women of the American West—Libbie Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Etta Place, cowgirl Lucille Mulhall, and a host of others. And then I took a detour to contemporary cozy mysteries—wrote ten in five years. So why now turn to a novel about a couple of privileged people in Chicago in the Gilded Age? A couple of reasons, but first let me say that various versions of The Gilded Cage were in process all during those years I wrote other things. The earliest version I find on my computer is dated 2002, and I think there were even earlier versions, now deleted or on disks no longer readable (one of the problems of the computer age).

I turned to Chicago because I was fascinated by Bertha Honoré (Cissy) Palmer. She was the first woman to equate great wealth with a responsibility for philanthropy, and she put her belief into action. I’m not sure where I first found out about Cissy, but I soon did a children’s book about her. Still, I wanted to know more…and more about her husband, Potter Palmer who established the famous Palmer House Hotel, still thriving in Chicago. Through research I gathered that though happily, even blissfully married, they had different approaches to life…and to charity. Palmer gave generous contributions to various established causes but he never descended to know the poor, know who he was helping. Cissy, on the other hand, invited factory girls into her home, volunteered at Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous community settlement house. For Cissy, philanthropy reached beyond monetary contributions to compassion for the less fortunate.

Not that I would put Cissy on a pedestal. She enjoyed the trappings of wealth and was positively enraptured when she thought her sister would become the daughter-in-law of President Ulysses S. Grant. Unfortunately, Grant left office before her sister and his son could be married, so Cissy never got her visit to the White House. Still, she enjoyed trips to Europe with her husband, and the acquisition of fine European art work for their home. (Their home was a different story and a delicate subject for Cissy—Potter had it designed and built without consulting her and in some ways it was a monstrosity). But Cissy was a social butterfly, and she enjoyed the life of the upper crust in Chicago, even when her older husband got so he wanted to stay at home at night.

But there’s more to the story of my fascination with Chicago and the Palmers. Cissy was the president of the board of lady managers at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a position that carried great responsibility and prestige. The exposition was not unfamiliar to me.

As a young child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the Hyde Park neighborhood, I wandered the land that once boasted the World’s Columbian Exposition. My mother took me out in rowboats around Wooded Island, and I learned to ice skate on the Midway, which still cuts a swath of green through the city for more than a mile west from the lakeshore. My friends and I made countless trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, the only exposition building that survives. Much later I attended the University of Chicago, which sits almost on the exposition grounds. That part of the city was “my” Chicago.

The Gilded CageSo I wanted to tell those two intertwined stories—the Palmers and the Exposition. But I am a storyteller, not a historian, and as so often happens, my characters took over the story and dictated the direction it would take. Explanations are thus in order: there is no evidence of an attraction between Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, and Cissy Palmer. Indeed, evidence points to a long and very happy marriage between the Palmers. Harry Collins, the villain in these pages, is of whole fictional cloth: no such man existed. Other, smaller incidents and characters within the story are also of my own making—for instance, in preparation for the exposition, Mrs. Palmer made two trips to England; for simplicity in storytelling, I combined them into one trip. If readers enjoy the story, I hope they will forgive my slight tampering with history.

I have tried to be faithful to the era of this story and to the major events—the Civil War as it was experienced in Chicago, the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riot, and the exposition. But I have allowed the characters to create a new—and, I hope, more compelling—story than is found in the factual accounts of the exposition and one lone biography of Cissy Palmer.

For me, the city of Chicago, with its colorful, robust history, is one of the major characters in this book.

Book Review: June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore—and a Giveaway!

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Crown, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-553-44768-2

From the publisher—

Twenty-five-year-old Cassie Danvers is holed up in her family’s crumbling mansion in rural St. Jude, Ohio, mourning the loss of the woman who raised her—her grandmother, June. But a knock on the door forces her out of isolation. Cassie has been named the sole heir to legendary matinee idol Jack Montgomery’s vast fortune. How did Jack Montgomery know her name? Could he have crossed paths with her grandmother all those years ago? What other shocking secrets could June’s once-stately mansion hold?

Soon Jack’s famous daughters come knocking, determined to wrestle Cassie away from the inheritance they feel is their due. Together, they all come to discover the true reasons for June’s silence about that long-ago summer, when Hollywood came to town, and June and Jack’s lives were forever altered by murder, blackmail, and betrayal. As this page-turner shifts deftly between the past and present, Cassie and her guests will be forced to reexamine their legacies, their definition of family, and what it truly means to love someone, steadfastly, across the ages.

When I first started reading June, I have to admit I was thinking I might be sorry because the opening pages smack of magical realism and I REALLY don’t like that. Happily, though, I pushed on and the story soon became a pretty straightforward tale, albeit set in two time periods 60 years apart. The POV in 1955 is from a girl named Lindie whose best friend, and object of her affection, is June. In present day, the focus is on June’s grandaughter, Cassie. It’s during Lindie’s and June’s time that we get the first hint of the dark things that happened back then.

These three young women are each very interesting in different ways. June appears to be the proper daughter raised in gentility who never breaks the rules and always does what’s expected of her. Lindie is the girl exploring her lesbianism and she goes overboard in trying to make herself unattractive, perhaps an effort to play down her girlness. And then there’s Cassie who initially seems to be in the grip of a deep depression, unable to cope with the necessities of everyday life, but she’s soon rocked out of her somber, uncaring mood by the news that she has inherited a huge fortune from a man who claimed he was her grandfather.

The coming battle between Cassie and Jack Montgomery’s acknowledged family is just what you might expect but her search for the facts leads to answers she certainly never anticipated and it’s June’s and Lindie’s stories that are really compelling.

Beautifully written prose and easy transitions from one time period to the other and back add to characters who are as appealing as any reader could want. Author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, unknown to me before now, already has a reputation as a fine writer and June should be seen as another feather in her cap.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2016.



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About the Author

Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreMiranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of three other novels: New York Times bestseller Bittersweet; Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, given annually for the best book of fiction by an American woman; and The Effects of Light. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, she lives and writes in Brooklyn.

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Theater of the Mind/My First Radio; Why Radio Works for Mystery

Nancy Cole SilvermanNancy Cole Silverman credits her twenty-five years in radio for helping her to develop an ear for storytelling. In 2001, Silverman retired from news and copywriting to write fiction full time. In 2014, Silverman signed with Henery Press for her new mystery series, The Carol Childs’ Mysteries. The first of the series, Shadow of Doubt, debuted in December 2014 and the second, Beyond a Doubt, debuted July 2015. The third in the series, Without A Doubt, was released in May 2016. Silverman also has written a number of short stories, many of them influenced by her experiences growing up in the Arizona desert. For more information visit www.nancycolesilverman.com

When I was a kid, I remember listening to late night mystery theater on the radio. Those old radio plays whose transmissions mysteriously found their way through my bedroom window in the black of night, shadowed images in my mind that were more powerful than a big screen cinema.

Now don’t get me wrong. I grew up loving movies and watching all the popular fifty and sixties TV shows. But, there was nothing like late night radio to sharpen my senses of mystery, and while I didn’t know it then, would prepare me years later for writing for the blank page.

When I was seven-years-old, my dad and I made my first crystal diode radio set.  We strung the antenna through the grapefruit orchards in my backyard, and I had my own headphones, which seemed super cool to me. I could listen to radio stations thousand of miles away. I tuned to KOY in Colorado or KNX in Los Angeles, all from beneath the sheets of my bed in the middle of the Arizona desert, where I slept with a flashlight to keep the bad guys away.

To me, radio embodies everything that is mysterious. Faceless voices. Piercing screams. Hollow sound effects.  Scratchy signals that black out and then bleed into the night from far off lands.

My fascination with radio turned into a career. I spent twenty-five years in the business. Most of it news and talk radio. I wrote everything from news to commercial copy, and I retired as the general manager of a sports talks radio station. Proof that God has a sense of humor!  I’m not a sports babe.  But when the opportunity presented itself for me to pitch the job, I did what any other ambitious female might do. I leaned in.

When I was very young, I was asked to ride the midnight signal.  That’s the equivalent of spot checking the signal, driving to the outermost areas of the station’s signal and listening to make sure there’s no interference.  I think it was more of a joke than a serious request from the station’s engineer,  and when I did it – at least partially – he appeared surprised. Years later I would use that experience in a short story. It was beyond spooky. But then, like radio signals, mystery is made up of that which we can not see or that we can see but can not hear or understand.

Without a DoubtIn 2001, I retired from radio, but it wasn’t long before I found myself itching to write about what I knew.  I think the story picks the writer.  And the stories I’ve penned with The Carol Childs Mysteries have picked me.  They’re not too dissimilar from those I either witnessed or worked on during my career, although for the sake of fiction, they are much spicier.

The only real difference between my career in radio and my protagonist, Carol Childs, is that I wanted a middle-aged woman, who was at a crossroads in her life. She’s been given a chance to reinvent herself as a reporter.  Something she’s longed to do.  Of course, with opportunity comes challenge. Carol’s challenge comes in the way of her boss, a peach-faced whiz-kid who calls her the World’s Oldest Cub Reporter.

Conflict, mystery and that blank page.  I love it, and I hope you enjoy reading the series as much as I have in writing it.

Stay Tuned,

Nancy Cole Silverman

Book Review: Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah

Woman with a SecretWoman with a Secret
Sophie Hannah
William Morrow, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-238826-1

Woman with a Secret is a book that could only have been written now, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century. While some of its themes – infidelity, the nature of love, the mysteries within marriages, human perversity – are ageless, the way they are explored in this novel is through the thoroughly modern world of online bloggers, Twitter, and virtual dating websites.

The book begins, traditionally, with a murder. Outrageously opinionated Damon Blundy, a celebrity columnist, is found dead in his house in a suburb outside London. The crime scene is bizarre – a knife is taped to Blundy’s face, but was not used to kill him, there’s a knife sharpener in the room, and the killer even leaves an unrecognizable self-portrait to mock the police. There’s also a cryptic clue painted on the wall: the phrase “He is no less dead”, which baffles  the crime scene officers and detectives.

While the book is partly a police procedural, it is much more of a literary novel, with an intense focus on people’s hidden motivations and secret lives. The story is told from a number of different perspectives. There are sections made up of Damon Blundy’s columns, and some of the Twitter wars resulting from the things he has written. These mostly consist of debates about a disgraced cyclist who strongly resembles Lance Armstrong , about a weed-saturated literary novelist named Reuben Tasker, and about gorgeous former MP Paula Riddough, and her faithlessness. These chapters alternate with descriptions  of the police investigation, mainly featuring arrogant, single-minded Simon Waterhouse, and Simon’s wife Charlie Zailer. The sections that are perhaps the most compelling are the first-person, present-tense chapters narrated by Nicki Clements, a feverish, rattled, possibly pathological housewife tormented by an upsetting childhood and a marriage that bores her.

I couldn’t say that I liked Woman with a Secret, because I’m not fond of unreliable narrators, and I didn’t find any of the characters likeable. However, it was an interesting taste of current literary mystery fiction, and I was fascinated by the author’s focus on social media – both the true revelations and the lies that many of us now seek out daily online. Hannah explores people’s psyches deeply, and in a manner that’s often unpleasant, reminding us how cold and selfish some of our motivations can be. Not surprisingly, given the title, Hannah delves specifically into questions around honesty and dishonesty, and all that surrounds those qualities: righteousness, cheating, mistrust, forgiveness. Despite all of the nasty twists and convoluted psychological turns in this book that left me wondering if anyone in it was capable of experiencing real love or friendship, I think the author has captured something authentic about the difficulties of recognizing the truth in the current smoke-and-mirrors atmosphere of social media.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, May 2016.

Book Review: He Will Be My Ruin by K.A. Tucker

He Will Be My RuinHe Will Be My Ruin
K.A. Tucker
Atria Books, February 2016
ISBN 978-1-5011-1207-2

From the publisher—

A woman who almost had it all . . .

On the surface, Celine Gonzalez had everything a twenty-eight-year-old woman could want: a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a job that (mostly) paid the bills, and an acceptance letter to the prestigious Hollingsworth Institute of Art, where she would finally live out her dream of becoming an antiques appraiser for a major auction house. All she had worked so hard to achieve was finally within her reach. So why would she kill herself?

A man who was supposed to be her salvation . . .

Maggie Sparkes arrives in New York City to pack up what’s left of her best friend’s belongings after a suicide that has left everyone stunned. The police have deemed the evidence conclusive: Celine got into bed, downed a lethal cocktail of pills and vodka, and never woke up. But when Maggie discovers a scandalous photograph in a lock box hidden in Celine’s apartment, she begins asking questions. Questions about the man Celine fell in love with. The man she never told anyone about, not even Maggie. The man Celine believed would change her life.

Until he became her ruin.

On the hunt for evidence that will force the police to reopen the case, Maggie uncovers more than she bargained for about Celine’s private life—and inadvertently puts herself on the radar of a killer. A killer who will stop at nothing to keep his crimes undiscovered.

How well does one person really know another? That question is at the core of the larger mystery in He Will Be My Ruin and working through it is a fascinating study of family relationships.

The relationship between Maggie and Celine is actually that of best friends but it also serves as family in their case. Growing up together, Maggie was the very rich little girl and Celine the daughter of the nanny, Rosa, but the two girls were as close as any children could be while Rosa was something of a surrogate mother to Maggie. Her own parents were distant, far more involved in their own world of wealth, business and society than with their daughter, and Maggie eventually left that life behind.

Having spent the last several years using her enormous trust fund in her nonprofit organization building new lives for third world villages, Maggie is now in New York City to settle Celine’s affairs after her suicide. Trouble is, Maggie finds it impossible to believe that Celine would kill herself and begins to question Celine’s life in the last few years. Those questions lead Maggie to some very tough answers and to the distinct possibility that she herself is about to die.

Fraught with tension, this story is a rollercoaster of emotions as well as an intriguing hunt for the truth about Celine’s life and death. At times, I couldn’t put the book down and that was partly because of the tight plot but also because Maggie and Celine are such appealing and captivating characters, each in very different ways. The final resolution was not entirely surprising but the journey to get there was well worth it and I’m looking forward to trying other books by K.A. Tucker.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2016.



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About the Author

K.A. TuckerK.A. Tucker is the author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and the Burying Water series. She currently resides outside of Toronto with her husband, two beautiful girls, and an exhausting brood of four-legged creatures.

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Book Review: Game of Fear by Gledé Browne Kabongo

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Title: Game of Fear
Series: A Fearless Novel

Author: Gledé Browne Kabongo
Publisher: BrowneStar Publishing
Publication Date: February 24, 2016
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult



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Game of FearGame of Fear
A Fearless Novel #1
Gledé Browne Kabongo
BrowneStar Publishing, February 20116
ISBN 978-0692539729
Trade Paperback

From the author—

A desperate act, an explosive secret, and a diabolical enemy—all part of a treacherous game, with no limits.

Overachieving good girl Abbie Cooper has her future all planned out. As senior year at her elite private school kicks off, she has one simple goal: get into the Ivy League. But at St. Matthews Academy, nothing is ever simple. The pressure is overwhelming, the secrets are dirty, and the games are wicked. Abbie has a dirty secret—one that could destroy her chances of getting admitted into Princeton, and the lives of those closest to her.

One morning, she discovers a note in her locker with the warning, “I know what you did”. Then a photo arrives in the mail. It captures her most shameful deed—the shocking blunder she can never erase, in glorious detail. Someone is out to ruin her, but who and why? The answer lies with the sender of the photo, a mysterious girl known only as The Avenger. For a price, she assures Abbie her secret will remain safe. There’s only one problem: The Avenger may not exist at all. If Abbie doesn’t uncover her true identity before acceptance decisions are made, it’s game over…

Poor Abbie…her nearly perfect, planned-to-the-last-detail life has run into a stumbling block, one she can’t control or even understand. Who could be sending her these threats and what are they referring to? While that’s going on, she’s monumentally distracted by bad boy Christian who seems to be pursuing her relentlessly but Abbie doesn’t trust that his intentions are good and his ex-girlfriend, Sidney, queen of the mean girls, is out to make Abbie’s existence miserable.

Christian actually is pretty likeable and Abbie is, too, except that she’s so controlled, so driven, to the point where I sort of thought these threats from The Avenger might rattle her cage enough to make her a bit more like an ordinary teenager. Her best friends Callie and Frances are truly loyal to Abbie and each other and the three take strength and comfort from each other. In fact, all of this is almost too good.

I know there are very privileged kids in this world and many of them go to extremely exclusive private schools but Saint Matthews Academy and its students are so over the top I couldn’t really relate to any of them. This is a world in which nearly everyone has enough money to buy a small island or the Hope Diamond and they’re all paragons of beauty. Essentially, they’re interesting but nowhere close to normal.

I also can’t really agree that this is a thriller because the pace is pretty slow and, in fact, far more attention is paid to the romance than to the apparent blackmail. The final resolution is kind of ho-hum, possibly because it’s hard to feel too sorry for these kids. On the positive side, though, this is a pretty good story, better than average escapism, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Autumn of Fear, the sequel to Game of Fear, will be coming out in the future but, for those who’d like to know more about Abbie before then can check out her first appearance in Swan Deception, available now.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2016.

About the Author

Glede Browne KabongoGledé Browne Kabongo writes intense psychological thrillers—unflinching tales of deception, secrecy, danger and family. She is the Amazon Bestselling Author of Game of Fear, “Mark of Deceit” (Eye of Fear Anthology), Swan Deception, and Conspiracy of Silence. Her love affair with books began as a young girl growing up in the Caribbean, where her town library overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. She was trading books and discussing them with neighbors before Book Clubs became popular.

She holds both an M.S. and B.A. in communications, and worked as a freelance news reporter right out of college. After she abandoned the dream of winning the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Boston Globe, she jumped into marketing management for over a decade. Gledé lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

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Waiting On Wednesday (30)

Waiting On Wednesday is a weekly event that
spotlights upcoming releases that I’m really
looking forward to. Waiting On Wednesday
is the creation of Jill at Breaking the Spine.

This week’s “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

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