The Reason I’m Staying Home

It can be argued that the purpose of entertainment, any entertainment, is escapism. Immersion in a preferred diversion allows us to indulge ourselves in ways that aren’t doable in everyday life. The flavors to choose from are almost limitless: the arts, sports, gaming, movies, YouTube…and of course, books. I read to challenge myself, I read to learn something new, I read to figure shit out —but I also read to slide into a little old-fashioned popcorn escapism. And when it comes to escapism, nothing beats a deep delve into places I don’t want to go. The best way for me to get out of town is curling up with a book and getting down with some armchair travel.

I LOVE armchair travel. I don’t have to pack anything, I can have snacks anytime I want, and most importantly, I don’t have to pack anything. It’s not that I don’t love going places. I really do. I just hate packing. When choosing an armchair travel book, I’m not fooling around. I don’t want some gentle, humorous vacation anecdote. Think thickly forested tropical jungles, rivers that traverse entire continents, or monsoon-drenched mountain topography. Throw in a full narrative involves a journey from one end of a country to another and I’m helpless to resist. As long as I’m not going somewhere, I want to not go to as much of it as possible.

Armchair travel also gets me off the hook for pretending to embrace new, unnerving experiences. Bluntly put, I am a big fat coward. In real life, I do not enjoy situations that intimidate and/or terrify me, but I bulldoze my way through my discomfort when I have to. But in my entertainment? Why I gotta suck it up? There are some non-negotiable scary things that I’m just not invested enough fake my way through. Take horror movies, for instance. My system can’t take looking at all that spurting blood and what’s the payoff? If I make it through Saw, I can do the whole awful experience again with Saw II? SRSLY. Hard pass. Accordingly, my armchair travel often centers on locations where I’m never going to go in person because it’s TOO SCARY. Specifically, I am always going to avoid any place on the globe where one can find the Giant Restless Spider Populations. If a given locale has spiders the size of frisbees, I can’t. I. CAN. NOT. (This is not meant to disparage spiders or the spider-loving humans among us. You’re all lovely and amazing and can you just stay on that other side of the room please? Or maybe outside? Yes. Outside is better.) But I definitely have enough gumption to read about spider-infested places, because I am a profile in courage.

Whether you prefer your arachnid-infested vacations fictional or non-fictional, I’ve got you covered. These books also have jungles, treasure, world history, and tigers. Grab your can of Raid and let’s jump in.

The Strangler Vineby M.J. Carter, is an Edgar-nominated novel set in 1837 India, at the height of British colonialism and the dawn of the Victorian era. When it came to establishing British rule in invaded nations the British government was dependent on the influential and powerful British East India Company.  Chartered in 1600 to pursue and protect trade routes for Britain, the British East India Company was a strange hybrid of army, for-profit corporation, and unchecked police force that leveraged the veneer of the British government without any accountability to any checks or balances. The odd structure of the company – private ownership that rested in Britain’s ruling peer class acting to create wealth for the nation – was a conflict of interest nightmare that spawned opportunities for abuse and corruption, with the populations of the countries that East India looked to dominate paying the price.  Where was the morality in disregarding the culture and existing governments of invaded countries? What dictates how we choose our loyalties? The Strangler Vine lays out these questions as a brilliant structure for a good old-fashioned road adventure and mystery thriller. Newly arrived in India, rookie East India officer William Avery is reluctantly paired with disgraced Company veteran Jeremiah Blake and tasked with finding the missing Xavier Mountstuart, a lauded poet whose latest work has caused a scandal within the British community in Calcutta. The East India Company wants Mountstuart found so they can safely send him back to Scotland and settle the scandal…or do they? The motives and means surrounding Mountstuart’s recovery provide the thriller backbone to this story, and you will root for Avery and Blake’s unlikely friendship. I love a plot that is predicated on ‘capture the threatening poet’. It’s a fast-paced, quixotic book, and it contains the best chase scene I’ve ever read. It also has a man-eating tiger. It probably had a bunch of India Jungle Spiders too but I closed my eyes during all those parts.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann, is a non-fiction account of Victorian-era British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive search for the legendary, lost city of El Dorado in Brazil’s Amazon. The same British Empire colonialist philosophy that created the East India Company also fostered a generation of British explorers, men who crisscrossed the world and brought proof of their travels back home to Mother England. Some explorers were motivated by science, to find and classify new species of flora, fauna, and animal. Some were motivated by competition, to be the first to climb mountains or cross the Arctic Circle. And some were motivated by acquisition, seeking caches of gold and treasure. It was this last category that Percy Fawcett falls. After years of expeditions in Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, Fawcett was convinced that the Amazon hid the ruins of El Dorado, an ancient city thought to be only a myth. Sure that he had determined its location, Fawcett led a search party that included his son into the jungle in 1925. The group disappeared. David Grann’s description of turn-of-the-century South American travel and his own foray into the Amazon are almost suffocatingly accurate. Well, I assume the description is accurate. It sure felt accurate, as I checked every room I entered for giant Brazilian monkey spiders for days after I finished the book. For all its classic adventure narrative, The Lost City Of Z’s examination of Fawcett’s single-mindedness and the larger implications of the relationship between the Old World and the New World is incredibly compelling.


All packed!

Have a lovely time, keep your windows rolled up, and call me when you get there! In the meantime, I am going to go not unpack. I’m exhausted.


Action Items
The Lost City of Z was developed as a film and is being released this year. Robert Pattinson is in it and I was surprised because I was unaware of recent vampire activity in Brazil. Anyway, watch the trailer here.

The Reason I’m ImPoesing

When it comes to looking for new reading material, I’m both lazy and impatient, so one of my favorite hacks is culling titles from award lists. I mean, if something was nominated for an award, it’s probably good, and I didn’t have to go to all the effort of looking at a whole bunch of books and making a decision. Those poor suckers on the award committees had to do all that work. My favorite awards list is the Edgar Awards, named for Edgar Allen Poe and presented yearly by the Mystery Writers of America. The Edgar Awards recognize mystery and crime fiction/non-fiction writing and they know how to pick ‘em. I’m always finding great books on the Edgar lists. Feel free to check them out yourself, or if you are even lazier than I am, pick from my list of Edgar Award authors below. Stop complaining–there are only two. Jeez.


You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I have a recurring dream about elevators. I’m in a giant, casino-hotel-sized building and I get on the elevator to go to a high floor. After I press the button, the elevator starts to move, but instead of going up, it goes sideways or diagonally or backward. The elevator walls are glass, so I can look out and view the odd angles the elevator is traveling, but I don’t have any way to change direction or arrest momentum because the elevator buttons don’t work. That slippery feeling of witnessing your own powerlessness is perfectly captured in Megan Abbott’s new book, You Will Know Me. Set in the suburban world of competitive gymnastics, the book introduces the Knox family: father Eric, mother Katie, 10-year-old son Drew, and the otherworldly-gifted gymnastics dynamo, 14-year-old daughter Devon. Like a weird dream that takes place in an ordinary setting, Abbott’s writing builds tension in banal places, driving this murder mystery story from perceptions and points of view. You Will Know Me is ultimately Katie’s story, showcasing the choices the mother of an extraordinarily talented child will make in extraordinary circumstances. When your family’s status quo includes a future Olympics on the horizon, how does that distort the prism through which a mother views her world? I loved this book—once I opened it, I could not put it down. I am definitely going to be giving the gymnasts in Rio serious side-eye because I never knew gymnastics could be this murdery.

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

I grabbed The Last Policeman after gleaning “New Hampshire rookie detective” from the summary I skimmed. Imagine my surprise when I found I’d purchased science fiction. Science fiction is my third-rail genre, y’all. The Last Policeman’s premise is not so much apocalyptic as pre-apocalyptic. An asteroid is on a direct flight to collide with and destroy Earth in six months – how, then, does one spend the time on the countdown clock? Personally, I’d have some sort of epic French-onion-dip consumption plan, but main character Detective Hank Palace is a better person than I am. Trying to live out his lifelong dream of being a professional policeman in an increasingly chaotic world, Palace is nobly fighting an uphill battle. Winters poses intriguing (and uncomfortable) questions about how much our humanity is tied to infrastructure and technology. Does Hank Palace’s loyalty to an old-fashioned sense of personal honor have a place in a society no longer constrained by any fear of accountability? I loved that push and pull in this book. The Last Policeman is the first book in a trilogy, and I’ve read the second one, Countdown City, and I’ve got the third one, World Of Trouble, on deck, so yes-I am reading science fiction now, apparently. (I assume the series stopped at three because that asteroid finally lands). Final score: Science Fiction 3, Bookreasons 1.


Action Items
The 2016 Edgar Awards were presented in April. Check out that list, along with prior year winners and nominees, at

The Reasons The Case Is Closed

As hobbies go, being a junior detective is very fulfilling. It’s not difficult to be a clever and resourceful crimefighter if you start your career like I did – with lots and lots of books, obtaining a comprehensive detective education from fictional adolescent detective characters. I’ve read all the authoritative texts-Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown.  If there was a series about feisty, spunky kids solving mysteries, I was all in. (Except for the Hardy Boys. I can’t with them). If you did not spend your formative years obsessing over a mystery-solving career, don’t worry! I paid very close attention and took lots of notes on how to be a detective in my detective notebook (ALWAYS HAVE A DETECTIVE NOTEBOOK HANDY-I HOPE YOU CAUGHT THAT VALUABLE DETECTIVE TIP.). Since the world can always use more amateur crimefighters, I am happy to share what I know. It’s a master class you can take in the privacy of your own home, or hiding in your office at work, or behind the wheel at a red light – wherever you are surreptitiously* reading this.
*Being surreptitious isn’t required to be a detective but it doesn’t hurt. When you get a chance you should practice being surreptitious as fuck.

Junior Detection In Eight Easy Bullets

Language See how I used ‘bullet’ there?  Start using use crime words frequently in your everyday conversation. It subliminally communicates to potential clients that you are looking for cases. Other good crime words are ‘fingerprint’, ‘safecracking’, and ‘haunted mansion’.

Your Prerogative You should be under the supervision of a laid-back, kindly aunt and/or uncle, a laid-back, kindly housekeeper, or a laid-back, kindly parent who is never home. This will allow for reams of unsupervised time, and you are going to need all that time because mysteries don’t solve themselves, kiddo. Laid-back supervision also keeps adults from saying anti-mystery stuff like “No you cannot go in that abandoned gold mine, it’s dangerous” or “No you can’t break into a suspected criminal’s house to look for evidence, it’s dangerous”. Worst case scenario, you might have to be an orphan. If you are going to solve mysteries, you can’t be weighed down by authority.

Posse You thought you would be a successful detective all by yourself? WRONG. It’s critical to have best friends who love fighting crime as much as you do. (If all you have are one or two best friends who love committing crime, that’s cool, but we will cover those books on another day. Also, you should probably get a lawyer.) Cultivate best friends who are always available to go with you anywhere at any time with no other interests or calendar conflicts. Also-successful detection involves delegation. Give your friends all the boring crap jobs to do.



Your friends should supply their own nets.


Branding Dazzle people with a nickname that conveys you are smart enough to solve mysteries but are completely non-threatening, like “Girl Detective”. Or “Young Girl Detective”.

Sphere of Influence Cultivate a robust networking circle to ensure a steady stream of mystery referrals. The best scenario here is a close relative who is a police chief. Specifically, a small-town police chief, because big-town police chief isn’t a thing. The police officers who work for this police chief should be nurturing and supportive of your investigative career and not at all threatened by your reasoning superpowers. They should also be relied upon to call you from a crime scene and when you show up turn the solving of a case completely over to you, no questions asked, even if you’re not old enough to have a driver’s license.

(Not sure what all those nurturing, supportive officers do in all the down non-crimesolving time they gain by utilizing crack junior detectives. I suspect CSI fanfic and assembling IKEA police station furniture.)

Independently Wealthy You need a steady stream of income to bankroll all your deductions. Detectives gotta eat, yo. Since you’d never do anything as gauche as accept payment for your awesome detective-ing, this is when your laid-back, kindly minimal supervision comes in handy. If nobody cares where you are, are they really going to care when you ask for money to get there? (If you’re an orphan, it’s okay–you have a huge inheritance.)

Convenient Locales Live in or near a community where petty theft and light embezzlement are people’s hobbies. It is helpful if these communities have a large population of wealthy elderly who live in rambling Victorian houses, all of whom have unscrupulous nieces and/or nephews who need to get their hands on a family fortune unscrupulously.

Target Market Only agree to solve mysteries that take place in houses with attics and basements, castles with attics or basements, or abandoned theaters with attics or basements. That’s because all the clues are in attics or basements.  If a mystery happens in a strip mall or a gas station, where are the clues? NOWHERE, that’s where. Because no attic or basement. What, you’re going to look for clues in a drop ceiling at a gas station? What’s detectivey about that?

Congratulations! You’re an official junior detective. Your newly cultivated air of adolescent authority is your entrance into the mysterious world of mystery.  We passed a deserted theme park about three miles back. It’s got a No Trespassing sign on it. Go check it out.


Action Items
If you need some Senior Detective action, check out Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books.





The Reason For All The Formats

If you are an author who sets your books in Victorian London and your first name is Charles, I have a special section on my bookshelf just for you. Granted, it’s a niche genre, but it’s not that crowded yet so now is the time to make your move if you’ve been considering a name change and a literary specialty. If that isn’t enough to entice you, maybe I should tell you a little bit about the company you’d be keeping. Take a close look at my cool authors shelf, population Charles Dickens and Charles Finch. (On Wednesdays, they wear pink.)

Victorian London is a wonderfully elastic world in which to set a book- by turns atmospheric and grand, violent and sexy. The tension that results from the convergence of Industrial Age modernity and monarchical rigidity is a forceful backdrop. Plus, the wardrobes are on point.
Victorian London: what is it about me that’s so awesome
Colonial America: maybe the top hats
Victorian London: i serve steamed suet for dessert
Colonial America: it’s definitely the top hats

Charles Dickens’ poignant ghost story A Christmas Carol has Victorian London street cred. Dickens drew on his own life experience in his writing, having been a poor child who worked in a blacking factory. As a successful author, his storytelling served as a platform for him to articulate his arguments about the impact of crippling poverty, class injustice, and the need for social reform. He self-published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and the rest is past, present and future. “Bah, Humbug” entered the English language and Scrooge achieved the kind of one-word name recognition that would one day be shared by Beyoncé and Liberace.
Charles Dickens: Goals: codify the meaning of Christmas for generations in one short book
Charles Dickens: (publishes A Christmas Carol)
Charles Dickens: nailed it

Over there on the shelf, to the right of the multiple copies of A Christmas Carol, are the books in the Charles Lenox historical mystery series by Charles Finch. A Beautiful Blue Death introduces Charles Lenox, amateur gentleman detective, wealthy enough to pursue his passion as a hobby but also wealthy enough for his passion to be tolerated by his social circle. (Oh, Victorian London, you and your insufferable class snobbery.) Lenox is sharply intelligent and remarkably intuitive, and his determination and drive are the core of the appeal of the books.
Charles Finch: Goals: publish an award-nominated debut historical mystery novel
Charles Finch: (publishes A Beautiful Blue Death)
Charles Finch: nailed it

According to every car commercial aired between 12/1-12/31 and all 4,324 Christmas movies on Lifetime, the month of December guarantees joys are magnified, memories are made, and problems are solved with a quick application of some Magic Of The Season. Sometimes, that is real life, but December has a way of magnifying all the opposites too. Losses are more resonant. Endings are more heartbreaking. The boomerang between the highs and the lows tuckers me out. Inevitably, there comes a moment in December when I need to shake off all the heightened, frantic expectations and when that moment comes, I’m selecting a favorite from the Charleses shelf for a solid re-reading chill session.  I never get tired of Ebenezer Scrooge throwing off the weight of a lifetime of grief. I never get tired of Charles Lenox’s clever perserverance. I never get tired of imagining myself navigating the streets of Victorian London in a top hat.
Victorian London: seriously?
Colonial America: told you
Victorian London: what about sewage? got lots of that
Colonial America: sticking with the hats

QV in a top hat

Queen Victoria in a top hat. Aesthetic: monarch meta.

If you’ve ever asked me for book recommendation, you’ve heard me talk about the Charleses. (Charleseses? Charlesi.) Also, if you’ve ever asked me for a book recommendation, I am so sorry, and I hope you have recovered. You were unprepared to be utterly swamped by a tsunami of pure booknerd glee. I should have warned you that I am positively evangelical about books I like. If you ask me for recommendations while you are in my undecorated house, I am going to take the book I want you to read off my shelf and press it into your hands while I describe in detail why I love it so much. You poor thing. Just nod and take it; I really can’t help myself. It’s because of my lack of bibliophilic boundaries that I buy the same books over and over again. When I need to spend some time re-reading, I’ll hit up my shelf only to find that the book I want isn’t there. Buying the same books every 18-24 months will really throw off Amazon’s recommendation algorithm.
Amazon: Did you enjoy A Beautiful Blue Death
Me: Yes!
Amazon: Then we recommend A Beautiful Blue Death
Me: I’ll take it

I’ve laid in some emergency formats for the inevitable days that my shelf presents a Charleses (Charlsises. Charlers?) gap. I picked up A Christmas Carol on audiobook this year to go with my hardback illustrated special edition and paperback. I own A Beautiful Blue Death in  paperback and digital and just replaced the hardback (for the third time). When I’m ready to enjoy a favorite, I want to enjoy it however how I can in the moment I have available. Sometimes, that’s e-reading in a waiting room. Sometimes it’s a hardback on a lazy morning or an audiobook on a long drive. And sometimes, I want to enjoy it by pressing a copy into someone else’s hands.

On December days when the edges are ragged and the strings are strung tight, I am comforted by Charleses and the vision of top hats on a busy Victorian London street. Scrooge forgives the world that took his beloved sister. Charles Lenox tracks down West End thugs and Hyde Park racketeers. Souls are saved before it’s too late. There’s redemption and there’s justice. I’m reading something that has an ending I know, because all the endings I don’t know are looming a little too large. Maybe, when you asked me what you should read, I really heard you ask for a good ending. I get it. Here’s a Charles.

Action Items
Charles Finch just published the ninth book in the Lenox series, Home By Nightfall. 
Patrick Stewart’s audio version of A Christmas Carol is marvelous.