Friday, March 2, 2018

Craks in a Marriage - An Interview & Review

I'm pleased to welcome Barbara Barrett to Cozy Up With Kathy today. Barbara writes the Mah Jongg Mystery series. Craks in a Marriage is the first book in the series and was released earlier this month.

Kathy: Craks in a Marriage is the first book in the Mah Jongg Mystery series. I have always wanted to learn to play Mah Jongg. Do you play? How were you introduced to the game?

BB: Yes, I play. In fact, I play two different versions, National and Wright-Patterson twice a week; it’s a great break from writing and keeps the brain engaged. When I first retired and moved to Florida, I decided it was a way to meet new people. I was a ball of nerves the first six months, because I played with people who’d been at the game for years. It was all I could do just to remember the various tiles, terms and rules; strategy and play were beyond me. But I hung in there and within a year I was addicted to the game. There are some 50+ hands in National. They change annually. Wright-Patterson has more hands, close to 100, but they change less frequently. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why this separate version was developed by wives whose husbands were stationed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, so they didn’t have to keep up with the new hands when they were transferred around the world.

Kathy: Sydney Bonner and her friends are fun-loving, take-charge retirees. Do you consider yourself one too?

BB: Yes, I consider myself a take-charge retiree. My three decades as a human resources management analyst taught me how to break a problem into its component parts in order to deal with it incrementally. I also learned not only how to deal with people but also how to develop, execute and administer programs. I used this knowledge to describe my four sleuths’ investigation process.

Once published, I’ve been called upon to promote my own work. That means someone who is more comfortable writing dialogue and developing characters and plots suddenly had to write promotional copy, develop and maintain a website and newsletter and give presentations to various groups about writing. That skill base has only expanded and strengthened since I’ve self-published my last four novels. You have to be able to take charge of your writing career to take that route.

Kathy: Kat is a singer. Which is amusing to me as I also go by the nickname Kat at times and also sing! Do you enjoy singing as well? Does Kat enjoy torch songs, show tunes, or something else?

BB: Glad that resonated with you. Since I’d never developed four protagonists for the same story before, I wanted to make sure each stood out from the other three. I turned to a behavioral tool, the DISC Personality Assessment that I’d used in the past; D stands for Dominance, I for Influence, S for Steadiness and C for Compliance. I framed their personalities around these descriptors to a degree. Kat is the Steady one, meaning she is friendly, predictable, takes slowly to change. After years of serving as assistant in someone else’s shadow and taking care of her ailing mother, she wins a huge fortune in the lottery shortly after her mother passes away. Now retired and living in central Florida, this is her time to break out. So I made her a singer to suddenly put her in the spotlight. She’s just starting to gain a following singing in local lounges, where the introvert morphs into a sexy butterfly. I thought of songstresses Kaye Starr, Patti Page and Jo Stafford, but I didn’t think many readers would know who they were, so I updated the model to Adele, Kelly Clarkson or Alicia Keys who sing adult contemporary, neo soul or Southern blues. Her voice is a blend of sweet and mellow yet raspy.

Kathy: What first drew you to cozy mysteries?

BB: By the time I was pregnant with my first child, I’d finished my graduate coursework in American History and my thesis was in progress. It was a stressful time, as I tried to figure out how to make the foreign policy of the Hoover administration compelling. I turned to the fiction section of the university’s library for relief and happened upon the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Though I was intrigued with Hercule Poirot, it was Miss Marple with whom I fell in love. Not just the way she solved mysteries through reason and comparison of personality types but also her village of St. Mary Mead. Over a decade later, I decided to write fiction. Though I loved cozies, I wrote first in romance, thinking there was a larger audience more opportunity. But I filed away that love and resolved to write at least one someday. This year, someday arrived.

Kathy: Do you write in any other genres?

BB: As I indicated above, yes, I write contemporary romance. I have published eleven novels and one novella in this genre. The last three novels are indies. I have temporarily put writing in this genre on hold to focus on cozies.

Kathy: Tell us about your series.

BB: The Mah Jongg Mystery series, set in the fictional small town of Serendipity Springs in central Florida, features four friends who play mah jongg together. Retired but still active in their community and living full lives with their friends and families, friends in their mah jongg community prevail upon them to unofficially investigate the murder of loved ones or others close to them for fear the local authorities won’t get it right.

Kathy: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?

BB: For this book, my favorite character is Sydney Bonner. She’s not only the ringleader of my four protagonists, she takes the lead in the investigation described in this book. Formerly a dean of women at a small Midwest college, she isn’t one to back away from problems. Instead, she breaks down the component parts of an obstacle and figures out how to get around it. I also like her because she’s tall, which I’m not; this author lives vicariously through this creation.

Kathy: Did you have a specific inspiration for your series?

BB: The short answer is “The Golden Girls meet Jessica Fletcher.” The longer answer is the fascination with the lifestyle of the retirees in my central Florida community that I’ve developed the past few years as I’ve embraced the life of the retiree myself. I wanted to incorporate my observations into my writing but couldn’t figure out how to do so until I got to thinking about finally writing the cozy mystery I’d been putting off for years. Initially, I planned to make the series “The Tea Room Murders,” so I could also write about one of my favorites things to do. Then I realized I’d been amassing a lot of knowledge and experience about mah jongg the past nine years. Why not write about it?

Kathy: What made you decide to publish your work?

BB: I’d already published eleven novels and one novella before writing this book. There was never any consideration of NOT publishing this book.

Kathy: If you could have a dinner party and invite 4 authors, living or dead, in any genre, who would you invite?

BB: First, I have to decide what I wanted to accomplish with this party: to learn, to be entertained, to be inspired or what? Let’s say I’ve decided I want to be entertained, keeping in mind not all entertaining authors are spontaneous. I’d start with Erma Bombeck because she’s known for her observational humor about marriage and family. Add to that another humorist, Bill Bryson, because he grew in central Iowa, where I live part of the year. To top off the group, I’d include two of my writing friends from Florida, Roxanne St. Claire and Kristen Painter. I’ve heard them pair up to do several presentations about writing and the publishing business. I always come away inundated with new knowledge. And I laugh a lot.

Kathy: What are you currently reading?

BB: I joined a book club several year ago so I could keep up with other literary works besides the genres in which I write. I just finished reading The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Next month, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Kathy: Will you share any of your hobbies or interests with us?

BB: You’ve probably read more than you ever wanted to about my interest in mah jongg, so one of my other hobbies is needlepoint. With each new member of our family, I’ve done a needlepoint Christmas stocking for them. The first two, for my two children, I designed. They look terrible, but are full of memories. After that, I bought kits. Our eighth grandchild joined the family two years ago; I hope to have his done this year.

Kathy: Name 4 items you always have in your fridge or pantry.

BB: Diet Coke – I don’t have to explain, do I?

Canned tuna fish – when there’s nothing else for sandwiches

Skim milk and Cheerios – my typical breakfast

Kathy: Do you have plans for future books either in your current series or a new series?

BB: Definitely! I’m working on rewrites for Book 2 in the Mah Jongg Mystery series, which I hope to release in April. Book 3 has been started and is slated for mid-summer. I have committed to writing a new novella, this one with a billionaire theme, for Roxanne St. Claire’s Kindle World of Barefoot Bay, due out in late July. The second half of the year I want to add Books 4 and 5 to the UnderWright Productions series, my contemporary romances. After that, I have no idea where I’m going. Probably to the beach to collapse.

Kathy: What's your favorite thing about being an author?

BB: Creating a brand new story no one has ever heard in a world of my making. My goal is to touch the heartstrings, no matter what genre I’m writing in.



CRAKS IN A MARRIAGE by Barbara Barrett
The First Mah Jongg Mystery

Sydney Bonner and her friends enjoy their weekly Mah Jongg game, even if they do have to put up with the annoying Olivia. Yet when Olivia's husband is found murdered,  it's Sydney the widow turns to in order to find out who killed her husband. Believing she's out of her element and not wanting to get in trouble, as well as not being completely sure of Olivia's innocence, Sydney asks her friends if they will join her in discretely looking into things. Now between playing mah jongg, clipping coupons, and avoiding her husband's new project, Sydney and her friends will try to catch a killer!

CRAKS IN A MARRIAGE is a fun start to a fresh new series. I love how the four friends actually discuss if they really want to get involved in a murder investigation, and consider the bad things that could happen! Of course they do decide to discretely look around, but for the most part they do it intelligently and actually contact the police when necessary.

These women of a certain age are smart, attractive, and fun. They know what they want in life and actively go out and pursue it. I enjoy the relationships of both Sydney and Trip as well as Marianne and Beau; couples that have been married for some time who show love, understanding, and annoyance with each other! The mystery is interesting, although the discovery of the actual killer could have been flushed out a bit more.

Excellent characterization, an interesting background (I really want to learn to play Mah Jongg now), and subtle humor make CRAKS IN A MARRIAGE an enjoyable series debut.