Book Review | “Should Have Played Poker” by Debra H. Goldstein with an interview about writing #CosyMysteries

Posted Thursday, 21 April, 2016 by jorielov , , , 2 Comments

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Acquired Book By: I was selected to review “Should Have Played Poker” by JKS Communications: A Literary Publicity Firm. JKS is the first publicity firm I started working with when I launched Jorie Loves A Story in August, 2013. I am honoured to continue to work with them now as a 3rd Year Book Blogger. I received my complimentary ARC copy of Should Have Played Poker from the publicist at JKS in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive compensation for my opinions or thoughts shared herein.

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This is a double-showcase for Cosy Mystery author, Debra H. Goldstein: wherein I am first revealling my impressions on behalf of her novel whilst immediately sharing the questions which came to mind to enquiry on her behalf about writing Cosies and where she’d like to take her stories hereafter. Her novel ‘Should Have Played Poker’ celebrated it’s #bookbirthday & #PubDay on the 20th of April, 2016.

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Book Review | “Should Have Played Poker” by Debra H. Goldstein with an interview about writing #CosyMysteriesShould Have Played Poker
Subtitle: A Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg players mystery
by Debra H. Goldstein
Source: Publicist via JKS Communications

“Should Have Played Poker” introduces Carrie Martin and her fellow sleuths, the Sunshine Village retirement home Mah Jongg players, as they work to uncover the mystery behind her mother’s murder.

Carrie’s life as a young corporate lawyer who is balancing her job and visiting her father at the retirement home is upset when her mother unexpectedly returns 26 years after abandoning her family. Her mother leaves her with a sealed envelope and the confession that she once considered killing Carrie’s father. Before Carrie opens the envelope, she finds her mother murdered and the woman who helped raise her seriously injured.

Instructed to leave the detective work to the police, Carrie and the ladies in the retirement home’s Mah Jongg circle attempt to unravel Wahoo, Alabama’s past secrets, putting Carrie in danger and at odds with a former lover – the detective assigned to her mother’s case.

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ISBN: 9781432831592

Series: Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg players


Genres: Cosy Mystery, Crime Fiction


Published by Five Star Publishing

on 20th April, 2016

Format: Paperback ARC

Pages: 244

Published By: Five Star Publishing, (Facebook) an imprint of Gale Group
Available Formats: Hardback and E-Book

Order of connection (story and/or characters): the setting of the University of Michigan was originally introduced in Goldstein’s debut novel “Maze in Blue” where some of the characters also made their first appearance. The Mah Jongg players at the retirement home originally were highlighted in the short story “Legal Magic”. Therefore this is the third installment of connective threads of either setting, story or characters by Goldstein.

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My Review of Should Have Played Poker:

Curiously, Carrie’s mother re-enters her life after twenty-six years apart from her (which is quite colossal if you consider Carrie’s only nine and twenty years!) giving her daughter a thin veil of a hint towards why she exited her life and chose this particular moment to make amends with the explanation she was always due to receive. You can feel the emotional shift in the room whilst Carrie and her mother are having this short conversation, one that doesn’t lend well to length as how do you knit together a connection with someone who is still withholding information? I was surprised Carrie kept quiet and did not explode outright as her mother walked out the door, leaving behind a letter and silence.

Her feelings abate whilst she absorbs the void of disclosure, Carrie moves forward with her day settling into a rhythm of work and personal time off the clock where she visits her father at a retirement home. It’s here where she’s put together a new kind of family, wherein she has garnished the familiarity of the residents and have found a welcoming nod of acceptance amongst them. One in particular is a old favourite of her childhood – a librarian and her father has taken his residency here as a blessing, as he has Alzheimer’s which slowly erodes his memory and faculties. Whilst she makes her way to her father’s room, you could say she’s jolted for a loop twice in one day with circumstances surrounding her mother! So much so, I’m quite sure Carrie will feel quite undone by the time the hours dissolve off the clock and the shock wears off where the only thing that remains are her thoughts and her unresolved anguish.

The situation continues to worsen as Carrie finds the Director of the retirement home less than agreeable to the investigation taking precedence over routine. Meanwhile, her old beau Brian is the lead detective on the case, of whom she’d rather see less of automatically and of whom makes it hard for her to get a foothold in the case itself as she wishes to do her own sleuthing on the side. Her father’s mind sharpens a bit the day after the discovery, but with everyone vying for everyone’s attention to shine light on the incident itself, the only thing Carrie feels most is exhaustion; physically and emotionally, as she’s taxed on all angles of her life.

The only silver lining is the librarian whose survived the curious situation surrounding the crime scene, but even that is little to balm her emotional angst. There is a continuous volley between the Detective Robinson (the one known better as ‘Babyface’) and Carrie with a bit of consternation with her ex-Brian as well thrown in for good measure. Some parts of their interactions felt a bit forced to me, almost as if they were being added for the benefit of friction but it did not feel natural to me as I read the story; except for my dislike on behalf of Robinson’s character – he simply wasn’t a character you could warm up too.

Told in a quick-styling of dialogue and narrative direction, Goldstein presents a Cosy that takes up the action of sequencing the detection soon after the crime is discovered. She doesn’t stall long on back-story or on character development, but rather, hones in on the plot with a keen eye to sort out the motive and the plausible reasoning of how the crime was committed rather than focus solely on her lead characters and their lives outside the setting of the retirement home. There is a sub-plot happening in the shadows of the main crime of focus – one that addresses a issue at Carrie’s place of work, where something is being covered up to the point of deletion of evidence. It’s loosely following the traction of the investigations surrounding the murders as there are more than one occurring in a short time period. I wasn’t as invested in the sub-plot as I was about the main thread of story – mostly as it did not feel like a warranted avenue to shift the focus. The best part of the story is when everything is tightened around the retirement home – a bit like how Diagnosis Murder works so well as each of the mysteries has a key tie to the hospital where Dr Sloan works.

My personal preference for Cosies are a lengthening of curing out the back-stories whilst fleshing out the development of setting and character; I like it when Cosy Mysteries truly envelope you inside their niche of thought whilst granting you this portal in which to climb through directly. I cannot say I felt the same connection within Should Have Played Poker as I had recently within the pages of Death Sits Down to Dinner (review) or even The Secret Life of Anna Blanc (review). The latter I mention, as I do appreciate cheeky humour inside mysteries as well as well-placed humour inside dramas where levity can lighten the dramatic sequences, but for me, I was finding my reading of this novel to be going too quickly to appreciate the subtle gestures as I kept looking for ‘something’ I felt was missing.

If you like the lighter Cosies this one would be a good fit for you; perhaps even a better one than it was for me. I kept hankering for a bit ‘more’ here or there to draw me fuller into the backbone of the story whilst giving me a reason to rally behind Carrie a bit more than I had. I felt disconnected in places, as if I were watching a reel of her life but not feeling as if I had stepped through the portal completely. In part, I think the initial turn-off for me is the title of the story itself – as even ‘Death in lieu of Mah Jong’ felt even more appropriate somehow as I think this is what Goldstein was trying to initiate with her title – regret over which game to play whilst keeping the attention of focus off the main kernel of truth to shatter the case open.

Fly in the Ointment:

Just no. When your referring to one of the lead detectives on the scene of a crime and your entertaining the notion to call said person ‘Babyface’ please note, this reader finds that a disruption! I recognise the reasoning – the person is obviously ‘young’ in appearance but I have never been a fan of the distinction within the conjuring of this name for this reference. Everyone else in the story has a real name and a personality to match, but why this particular bloke gets a moniker I am unsure. He sort of felt a bit out of step with the scene and the flow of the story, too. Personally, he did not warm to me and I nearly felt his presence could have been best left out of the scene or story as a whole.

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You’ve chosen the setting for your Cosy Mystery at a retirement home – such an interestingly delightful choice, as it’s a setting that is oft-times overlooked. What drew your eye towards this locale to explore inside of a series?

Goldstein responds: Cozy mysteries traditionally are set in closed environments – usually towns having a few clearly described homes, shops, civic areas and a police station. All of these things could easily have been worked into the story-line of my twenty-nine-year-old protagonist; however, simply using these settings would not have been realistic for the Sunshine Village Retirement Home Mah Jongg players.

From visiting retirement homes and assisted living facilities while researching Should Have Played Poker, I quickly realized each provided a contained world for its residents. In each instance, all activities, whether entertainment, meals, or even going to the beauty parlor, took place within the physical confines of the retirement home. Consequently, to be realistic, I had to create a full cozy setting within a community cozy setting to properly reflect how the characters’ stories and viewpoints were influenced by their living situation.

The first story involves Mah Jongg Players – a classical game of Chinese origins with the similar appeal to chess for those who like intellectual gameplay; are you a player yourself or have you been drawn to the game through curiosity? If you’re a player, what is your favorite part of the game?

Goldstein responds: My mother was a Mah Jongg player so I grew up familiar with how the game was played. Two years ago, when I left the bench to write full-time, I told many of my friends who had regular games to call me if they ever needed a sub. One friend invited me to substitute in a game where other than my friend I didn’t know any of the women. I did and had a wonderful time. When one of their players moved out of town, they invited me to join their game as a regular. Because I found the women, who I wouldn’t have come in contact with in any other way, fascinating, I jumped at the chance to play with them once a week. Much as I like the game’s combination of using my brain and luck, it is the interaction with the other women that I most treasure.

Family drama and hidden secrets collide inside Should Have Played Poker – how did you conceive the back-story on behalf of your character Carrie Martin to have such a decidedly anguishing hard upbringing?

Goldstein responds: Although writers are always told to “write what you know,” writing that I grew up in a two-parent home where my parents never lost the thrill of their first-born’s birth, where I always had enough food and books to nourish my soul, and where I was encouraged to get the best education I could so I could be anything I wanted didn’t seem like a particularly interesting story to tell.

Instead, I thought reversing the story to wonder what would have happened if my mother hadn’t loved me and hadn’t been there for me would create more seeds of internal and external conflict. Once I approached the story from this viewpoint, I discussed the emotional impact of being orphaned or put up for adoption at an early age with several women who had had that experience. I utilized the insight I gained from them to incorporate their successes and insecurities into the composite character that became Carrie.

Multi-generational stories are lovely because they bring together the perspectives from different characters who are at different stages of their lives. What was the key element you wanted to showcase while granting your characters the will to share their knowledge whilst solving the mystery?

Goldstein responds: I used the multi-generational characters to showcase the value of different opinions and knowledge and what happens when it is shared. When I was a child of ten, I thought someone who was twenty-eight was ancient and in the downward slope of life. At twenty-four, as a newly minted attorney, I looked at people over fifty as passing time until death, so I figured I best grab their knowledge before they were gone.

As time passed, it didn’t take me long to realize that everything was relative and that I could learn as much from the eighty-year-old who still played tennis and hiked as from the younger couch potato. The key was being willing to listen. Hopefully, I successfully translated what I learned into the interaction between my characters in Should Have Played Poker.

Humour is a wonderful addition to any story, but especially a mystery where levity breaks up the more dramatic bite – how did you approach etching in humour to your story?

Goldstein responds: My books, Should Have Played Poker and Maze in Blue, are designed to be beach, airplane, or bedside reads that are fun for readers. The operative word is fun. Even though the books often touch on heavy social issues or conflicted emotional involvements, there has to be a sense of levity woven into the story.

In Should Have Played Poker, Carrie could have been weighed down by her father’s early dementia, the demands of her corporate legal job, and the subplot involving her mother’s abandonment, sudden return and murder, but that would quickly have become tiresome. That’s why, as comic foil, I added the Mah Jongg players. Their quirky personalities and occasional sayings allow the reader and Carrie to take a breath. In addition, even some of the things Carrie does contain humor. The result is a fast read that allows the plot-lines to unfold in a way that the reader has fun and wants to keep turning the pages.

What do you love the most about crafting Cosies as much as reading them? Why do you think we all love being curled up inside a well-conceived plot with softer edges as compared to their hard-boiled cousins?

Goldstein responds: My legal career was characterized by two things: complicated cases and a lot of time on airplanes. Because I read for relaxation, I wanted fast paced fun books to read. When I began to write, I had to craft the type of books I enjoyed. My motivation was the word “FUN.” That’s what I wanted the reader to have while still being challenged by a good plot-line. There is merit in reading the hard-boiled cousins of Cozys, but I think Cozies give us mental stimulation without making us overly tense. Cozy readers, like I am, love being curled up with Cozies because they provide a moment of “FUN” and escape from the demands of everyday life.

What drew you to write Crime Drama over other genres of choice? Will you dapple in other styles of stories or strictly focus on Mystery, Thriller and Suspense?

Goldstein responds: I spent my legal career writing dull briefs and opinions. My first creative writings were short stories. Although some of them were literary in nature, judges and lawyers seemed to creep into many of them. I quickly realized that just as Cozys were my fun escape from the legal world, I could easily bring my legal world into stories that are fun for other readers. In the few years I have written seriously, I have dappled in other areas of writing, too. Just as I say, I hate to be pigeon-holed, my writing is equally diverse. I have had non-fiction pieces and literary pieces published in magazines including MORE Magazine online and the Birmingham Arts Journal, but the majority of my stories could be classified as Crime Drama with a dash of humor.

Being considered a writer with the sensibility of a Southern woman, what do you think best describes this attribute about yourself and how it translates inside your stories?

Goldstein responds: I think Southern women are made of steel. We understand emotions, social needs, and the beauty of the land and we convey this understanding through language. Southern women tell stories through words and through their expressions. Whether we are telling someone, “Bless your heart,” or formally blasting the person out, we get our point across. Although I am a Yankee transplant, I have embraced the Southern culture and it shows in my writing. Most of my stories are set in Southern towns and defined by the heat, the social community overtones, and the sophisticated innocence that comes from being part of the South.

As the continuance of this series depends on several factors (i.e. your publisher’s imprint discontinues next year, reader interest, sales, etc.) would you explore self-publishing more novels or a sequence of novellas which would eventually go into an anthology via POD?

Goldstein responds: My hope is that Should Have Played Poker is well-received and that another publisher would like to continue its characters’ stories, but the reality, as I learned with Maze in Blue, is that most of the advice is to write something different. That said, the Mah Jongg ladies appeared in my first published short story: Legal Magic. That should have been the only time readers met them, but they demanded to come back. Although I am in the process of revising a new book with a different setting and different characters, I can’t say that readers will never see the Poker characters again. They want to continue living! Consequently, I’m not ruling out POD or self-publishing in the future or mixing Carrie, the men in her life, or the Mah Jongg players into another series.

After this release, which story or series do you believe will become the one you focus on most?

Goldstein responds: My next novel, already in the revision stage, is a food related cozy tentatively entitled One Taste Too Many that deals with twins – one a well-trained chef and one a cook of convenience, like me. Even so, I’m not saying good-bye to my old characters. They won’t let me. I already feel another short story with Carrie and the Mah Jongg group calling my fingers to the computer.

Being an Indie Author, what appealed most to you to publish outside the Major Trade market?

Goldstein responds: I didn’t mean to be an Indie Author. My first book was never shopped because a friend mentioned it to her publisher friend, who agreed to read Maze in Blue as a favor. A week later she offered me a contract. Although I pitched an earlier version of Should Have Played Poker to several agents, I pitched it before it was ready for publication. Consequently, I worked on revising it and then brought it to Killer Nashville. There, during a round-table session, Deni Dietz of Five Star heard its first two pages and invited me to submit the full Poker manuscript. A few weeks later, she, too, offered me a contract. In both instances, I accepted and was thrilled that my books would be getting into the hands of readers.

What is your process of research and the tools of your trade whilst you’re writing?

Goldstein responds: When I’m writing a story or a book, I do a lot of behind the scenes research that never makes it into the published piece. Some of the research is hands on visitation (like the retirement homes for Should Have Played Poker), computer/google research, interviews, reading, and pulling from personal experiences. In the case of interviews and personal experience, I often take the seed of something that happened or I’m told and then I enhance it or combine it with other seeds to create something unique. My novels and short stories truly are fiction, but they still have to feel realistic.

Outside of writing and researching your novels, what uplifts your joy the most?

Goldstein responds: Writing and researching novels and short stories is only one small element of who I am. I get the most joy from my family. Joel, my husband, whose blood runs crimson, supports me in all I do and our four children not only give me joy constantly, but take pride in both my accomplishments and my willingness to try new things. So, family is what uplifts my joy the most followed by my writing and civic volunteer activities.

About Debra H. Goldstein

Debra H. Goldstein

Goldstein’s debut novel, “Maze in Blue,” received a 2012 Independent Book Publisher Award and was reissued in May 2014 by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries. She serves on national and local boards including Sisters in Crime, Alabama Writers Conclave, YWCA of Central Alabama and the Alys Stephens Center and is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Forum and Zonta. Goldstein lives in Birmingham, AL, with her husband.

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This author interview is courtesy of:

JKS Communications: A Literary Publicity Firm

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I look forward to reading your thoughts & commentary! Especially if you read the book or were thinking you might be inclined to read it. I appreciate hearing different points of view especially amongst bloggers who picked up the same story to read.

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{SOURCES: Book Cover Art for “Should Have Played Poker”, author biography, author photograph of Debra H. Goldstein, book synopsis, and reviewer badge were provided by JKS Communications and used with permission. Ruminations & Impressions Book Review Banner created by Jorie in Canva. Photo Credit: Unsplash Public Domain Photographer Sergey Zolkin. Conversations with the Bookish badge created by Jorie in Canva. Tweets are embedded due to codes provided by Twitter. Comment Box banner made by Jorie in Canva.}

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About jorielov

I am self-educated through local libraries and alternative education opportunities. I am a writer by trade and I cured a ten-year writer’s block by the discovery of Nanowrimo in November 2008. The event changed my life by re-establishing my muse and solidifying my path. Five years later whilst exploring the bookish blogosphere I decided to become a book blogger. I am a champion of wordsmiths who evoke a visceral experience in narrative. I write comprehensive book showcases electing to get into the heart of my reading observations. I dance through genres seeking literary enlightenment and enchantment. Starting in Autumn 2013 I became a blog book tour hostess featuring books and authors. I joined The Classics Club in January 2014 to seek out appreciators of the timeless works of literature whose breadth of scope and voice resonate with us all.

"I write my heart out and own my writing after it has spilt out of the pen." - self quote (Jorie of Jorie Loves A Story)

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Posted Thursday, 21 April, 2016 by jorielov in 21st Century, Amateur Detective, Blog Tour Host & Reviewer, Book Review (non-blog tour), Cosy Mystery, Crime Fiction, Father-Daughter Relationships, Fly in the Ointment, Indie Author, JKS Communications: Literary Publicity Firm, Mahjong, Modern Day, Mother-Daughter Relationships




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2 responses to “Book Review | “Should Have Played Poker” by Debra H. Goldstein with an interview about writing #CosyMysteries

  1. Jorie,
    Thank you for having me as a guest today and for reviewing Should Have Played Poker. As a writer, I value being introduced to new readers and reviewers … it is what makes the journey so much fun. I appreciate you being part of the fun and excitement swirling around the introduction of Should Have Played Poker!.

    • You’re quite welcome, Ms Goldstein!

      I enjoyed being able to ask questions about your writing life and the motivations you have to write stories which fit inside the Cosy genre of mysteries. I am thankful you enjoyed visiting with me – even if I did not fully connect to the story itself, I enjoyed becoming introduced to your style and as a fellow writer, enjoyed our conversation! All best!

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