Kelly Brakenhoff

Death by Dissertation by Kelly Brakenhoff

When Student Affairs Vice President Cassandra Sato moves from Hawaii to tiny Carson, Nebraska, to work at Morton College, she predicts adjusting to Midwestern food and frigid winters will be the most difficult obstacles to her success.  Turns out after a couple of months, even a dream job at a sedate private college can become a labyrinth of politics and treachery.

When 20-year-old work-study assistant Austin Price falls to his death outside the science lab, Cassandra is selected to manage the college’s investigation and media response.  Police unwind a complicated trail of connections between housing food service, a local farmer’s beef, and the science lab’s cancer research.  Meanwhile, she must deal with bungling office helpers, old school male faculty and exasperating student disciplinary appointments.  Once Austin’s Deaf roommate and a PhD student become investigation targets, Cassandra enlists her sign language interpreter co-worker, Meg’s, assistance to protect the accused students’ rights.  Together they resist overbearing Dr. Schneider, the PhD student’s adviser and Morton College Board Chairman, who busily covers his ties to the victim’s death. An ensemble cast of engaging characters in the vein of Janet Evanovich befriend Cassandra, including sexy housing director Marcus Fischer. Can she move beyond her workaholic comfort zone, overcome racial and sexual stereotypes, and make Nebraska her home?

Drawing upon my experiences living in Hawaii and Nebraska and 25+ years as an ASL interpreter, I weave in Hawaiian and Deaf cultures and my insider observations working as the fly on the wall.


The Book Doctors: Great title.  We have read a few dissertations, and we almost died doing it.  We like the setup of moving from the Paradise of Hawaii to the tidiness and Nebraskaness of Morton College.  It might be cool to throw in a couple of word pictures, palm trees to frozen tundra.  That kind of thing.  We also very much enjoyed how once the murder happens, we are off and running.  And it’s great that there’s this strange connection between food services, local farmers, and cancer research.  It sounds mysterious and deadly.  Which is just what you want in this kind of book.  We’d like a little more detail. Show us your writing chops when you’re describing the bungling office helpers, the old-fart professors, and the ridiculous student disciplinary appointments.  It might be also nice to throw a little political correctness into the mix.  We want to know a little bit more about our villain, Dr. Schneider.  Give us some more reasons to hate him.  And if you’re going to call out a character like the sexy housing director, give us some more details about who he is, how he operates, what he looks like, how our heroine sees him and what their relationship is.  We also need to see some more of action: How does the murder investigation manifest? What are some of the dangerous and ridiculous circumstances that our heroine finds herself in that she has to wriggle out of? Where are the racial and sexual stereotypes?  These seem a bit out of left field given what we’ve just read.  While we’re on the subject, we’d like to see more about what’s inside Cassandra.  What makes her tick?  What does she desperately want that she doesn’t have?  No comparable titles, but we have a great one for you: Dear Committee Members.  It might be more of a comedy than what you are working on here, but it’s definitely about the absurd, maddening, ludicrous, stupid, and sometimes dangerous behind-the-scenes antics at college. So perhaps you could combine that book with a murder mystery for your comparables. Very appealing Hawaiian fish-out-of-water-in-Nebraska story about a college administrator thrown into the ridiculous college politics to follow a murder.  We need to see more of the interior life of our main character, and see more plot points of how the story plays out.


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