The Weekend Book Spotlight – CASINO QUEEN

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About the Book

Former Palm Springs native Cara Bertoia deals a good hand with ‘Casino Queen’
Cara Bertoia stacks the creative cards in our favor in “Casino Queen” (The Wild Rose Press), a compelling mystery set in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree.
Bertoia lived in the Coachella Valley for nearly 22 years. In fact, she and her husband, Ray, were casino employees and long-time residents in Chino Canyon before moving to Florida several years ago. “Casino Queen” arrives at the perfect time when crime-solving tales that revolve around strong female protagonists aren’t just a luck of a draw. They’re downright successful. (See TV’s “Equalizer” and “Poker Face” for samplers.)
To that end, “Casino Queen” has the makings of a streaming series. Meet Caroline Popov. She’s heartbroken, in debt, and winds up nursing her wounds in sunny Palm Springs at a time when Native American-run casinos have populated the land. A job at Palm Oasis Casino helps Caroline get her life in order — somewhat — and she begins to appreciate mentorship from John, a charismatic tribal chairman.
Caroline is fascinated by casino culture and eventually becomes a casino manager. John happily sends her to the Night Hawk in Joshua Tree to “clean house.” That proves to be more challenging, if not unnerving, for our girl. In addition to managing multicultural employees, meeting guest demands, and increasing revenue, danger lurks in the shadows — and in some cases, broad daylight.
Suddenly, a list of enemies grows and Caroline begins to uncover the dark underbelly of corruption running through the casino. Desert hijinks on the outskirts of paradise? What’s not to like?
As if often the case, the author pulls from real-life experiences to create a worthy piece of fiction. And her own life is a vivid kaleidoscope of adventure.
Prior to living in Palm Springs, Bertoia and her husband worked on a cruise ship. “When we finally got off the cruise ship, we just drove into town,” she says.
Her boss on the ship also ran Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, where the couple worked for several years. She went on to be a dealer at SPA Resort Casino under Tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich, whom she called “charismatic.” Milanovich, a longtime leader of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a philanthropist, and a stalwart supporter of the arts and conservancy, died in 2012 at the age of 69.
“Richard would go around and talk to all of the dealers, all of the customers, and he knew everything about everybody,” Bertoia says, quickly adding how various aspects of Milanovich and other casino “characters” inspired “Casino Queen” — plenty of real-life fodder to pull from, no doubt.
As for the main character, Caroline, Bertoia says there’s some of herself in there, but clarifies it’s a “six-foot-one imaginary character of the person I would love to be.”
Readers will appreciate the buoyant pace to “Casino Queen” as they are mindfully whisked off an adventure with a strong female character determined to do what it takes to uncover the truth. Bertoia admits that it was important for her that readers experience an interesting story about a strong woman.
“It’s vital we tell these stories,” she adds. “I’ve read so many mystery books where female protagonists will have some kind of major problem, but I really wanted somebody who was just a strong person so that anybody reading the book could relate to that character.”
She quickly points out the housing crash of 2008 and how Caroline in the book is affected by it—it’s what gets her into casino life, in fact. “I thought that was really important to include just as a cautionary tale for people thinking about buying real estate in a crazy market.”
“Casino Queen” is Bertoia’s second novel. “Cruise Quarters — a Novel About Casinos and Cruise Ships” was released several years ago, hinting, perhaps at the author’s penchant for taking real life and spinning into a fascinating read. She and her husband Ray also produced a movie on walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago.
As for living in Palm Springs, Bertoia admits she found the desert uplifting. “I’ve always thought the desert was really good for creativity,” she says, “because you’re just kind of isolated out there. You’re in your own little world. Everything’s there, but it’s still far away from everything. No hustle. No traffic, especially if you live in Palm Springs. It’s like paradise. And when we got there, it was like we were discovering a whole new world.”
When asked what she really hopes readers take away from “Casino Queen,” the author ponders themes of empowerment and liberation.
“This is a story about a woman who can do it for herself and a woman who survives,” Bertoia shares. “Caroline can survive terrible things that happen to her — from her husband to being in Russia, and coming back to America, and having to start all over. Mostly, without any help from anyone. She just starts a new life, and I think that’s inspiring.”
Learn more about “Casino Queen” and Cara Bertoia at

They say write about what you know and I know a lot about casinos. My new mystery Casino Queen has been featured in The Big Thrill, Women Writers Women’s Books, Charlotte Reader’s Podcast, Tell Me About Your Book, and dozens of popular book review sites. 
In my twenties on a summer hiatus from teaching in North Carolina, I drove to California and became a dealer in Lake Tahoe. Well, I can tell you that after teaching high school, handling an unruly gambler was a piece of cake. My mother highly disapproved of my working in a casino, “a place so bad it has ‘sin’ in the middle.” 
Thankfully the paper from Palm Springs disagreed with my mother. The Desert Sun raved, “As if often the case, the author pulls from real-life experiences to create a worthy piece of fiction. And her own life is a vivid kaleidoscope of adventure. Casino Queen arrives at the perfect time when crime-solving tales that revolve around strong female protagonists aren’t just a luck of a draw. They’re downright successful. (See TV’s “Equalizer” and “Poker Face” for samplers.) To that end, ‘Casino Queen’ has the makings of a streaming series.”

Eventually, I succumbed to pressure from the family and returned east to take a high-tech job in Boston. I also began working on my MFA in writing at Emerson. While in Boston I was offered the opportunity to join Princess Cruises as a croupier. Jumping at the chance, I spent the next five years circling the globe. Sometimes life exceeds your dreams. I was awed by the beauty of Venice, the glaciers of Alaska, and the wonders of the Amazon. 

I returned from ships with a very special souvenir, my husband Ray. We now live in Hollywood, Florida where I write while gazing out at the ocean. I can see the cruise ships sailing out of Port Everglades and I get a little bit jealous.

article written by Greg Archer
Greg Archer writes about change agents, happenstance and the entertainment industry. His work has appeared in the USA Today Network, Palm Springs Life, Huffington Post, The Advocate and other media outlets. His memoir, “Grace Revealed,” chronicles his Polish family’s odyssey during World War II.
note: Helen has not yet read this title – it is on her TBR list!

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