Recent Reading: Science Fiction

I’ve been a steady reader of science fiction for decades, since the days when the “Age of Wonder” could be defined as Twelve, and most of the writers and readers were male. That has changed, happily, and these days science fiction is no longer a male bastion. It has, in fact, expanded to include science fiction romance and/or romantic science fiction, and these two books could tip into either of those categories.

Gunpowder AlchemyJeannie Lin’s Gunpowder Alchemy, the story of Jin Soling, once the daughter of privilege, now struggling to care for her eight-year-old brother and opium-addicted mother, takes place in an alternate China in 1850. The coastal ports of the Empire are full of Westerners with their steam-driven ships airships and weapons, while Chinese technology is powered by gunpowder.

Soling’s two-day journey to the provincial capital, where she hopes to sell the last treasure left by her engineer father, goes horribly awry, sending her on weeks-long journeys to the port cities and the open sea, and to meetings with Westerners and one-time colleagues of her disgraced father, including Chen Chang-wei, the man to whom she was promised at the age of ten. The betrothal was dissolved long ago, but Soling and Chang-wei become friends, and perhaps more, as he helps her find her way back to her family in the face of pirates and rebels. The background of Western invasion, the opium trade, and rebellion within the Empire is very much a part of Soling’s story, as is her independence as an apprentice physician.

Gunpowder Alchemy is a departure from Jeannie Lin’s historical romance novels set in 9th century Tang China, and an enjoyable twist on the steampunk genre. A brief excerpt of Soling’s next adventure, Clockwork Samurai, is included. I’ll definitely be watching for it.

Echo 8, by Sharon Lynn Fisher, is set in a near-future version of Seattle, not quite ours but very close. Tess Caufield is a parapsychologist with Seattle Psi, Ross McGinnis is an FBI agent assigned as her Echo 8bodyguard, and Jake Parker is a captive Echo, a person displaced from an alternate Earth nearly destroyed by a asteroid. The FBI is involved because the Echoes, not all of them captive, are dangerous, energy vampires needing to feed on native humans to survive.

As Tess and Ross delve deeper into the mysterious appearances—and disappearances—of the Echoes and their victims, the dangers mount on both personal and wider levels, while some of the Echoes hit shockingly close to home. Fisher draws a vivid picture of Tess’ Seattle and the parallel ruined Earth, and had me rooting for her characters.

I can also recommend Fisher’s previous books, Ghost Planet and The Ophelia Prophecy; all three are completely different stand alone science fiction romance novels.

A Close Call in Traffic

Early this afternoon I was driving across the Bay Area Boulevard overpass (over I45 south of Houston) when a man on a very large black motorcycle decided that the right lane wasn’t moving fast enough and he needed to be in the left lane, ahead of me, at the high point of the bridge.

 The Sunday afternoon traffic was leisurely, moving at thirty miles an hour or less, so I wasn’t concerned by his lane change, although he didn’t leave me much room.

I wasn’t concerned, that is, until Motorcycle Guy leaned too far to the left, laid his bike on its side and slid off and across the pavement, landing on his back.

I stomped on my brakes (thank you, Star Toyota service department) and stopped about two feet from the huge bike. Fortunately the driver behind me did the same and didn’t rear-end my poor little Corolla.

helmetMotorcycle Guy was wearing one of those soup-pot helmets that look like they came from the prop department of an old war movie. No visor, no neck protection. He was also wearing a scruffy tee shirt with ragged arm holes where the sleeves had been torn away, exposing lots of bare skin.

I sat there stunned for a moment, hoping Motorcycle Guy would sit up, or at least move, not quite knowing what to do. Fortunately the vehicle ahead of the bike, a big black SUV, stopped and backed up a few feet, and the driver, who must have seen what happened in his rear view mirror, jumped out and ran back to Motorcycle Guy. The driver to my right did the same, and by the time the two good-hearted drivers reached him, Motorcycle Guy was moving—and letting loose some fairly colorful language.

There didn’t appear to be much I could do to help, but I got out of my car in case I was needed. Traffic behind me, both lanes of the bridge blocked, waited with surprising patience. I don’t know how many drivers could see what had happened, but I didn’t hear a single horn complain.

The two drivers helped Motorcycle Guy, still cursing at the universe (and perhaps at himself), to his feet, and the three of them righted the bike. Motorcycle Guy climbed on, the bike started up, and he took off across the bridge. Both he and the bike must have picked up some scrapes and scratches, I’m sure, but both were mobile. If Motorcycle Guy stopped cursing long enough to thank his two helpers, I couldn’t tell. The rest of us climbed back into our cars, and traffic across the bridge returned to normal.

No harm, no foul, I guess. But I have to wonder what might have happened if Motorcycle Guy had pulled that maneuver on the freeway instead of the overpass, at sixty or seventy miles per hour instead of twenty five or thirty. Could I have stopped before hitting him? Could the driver behind me? Could anyone have safely stopped to help? Could that pot-like helmet have saved him if he landed on his head?

I see motorcyclists riding without helmets every day—I don’t believe they are required in Texas, a state where “personal freedom” trumps social responsibility all too often. I once saw a man riding a bike down I45 at sixty miles an hour, wearing no helmet—perhaps because a helmet would have interfered with the cell phone he held pressed to his left ear.

I hope Motorcycle Guy got home safely. I’m very grateful that I did.

Scrivener & HTML

I’ve finally downloaded the latest upgrade to Scrivener for Windows, after putting it off for several weeks. Normally I download Scrivener’s upgrades as soon as they are available, always on the lookout for the frequent small improvements the programmers at Literature & Latte send out.

This time, however, the first item on the change list was the announcement that Scrivener would no longer include HTML coding on clipboard output.

To be honest, I had no idea that copy-and-paste from Scrivener included HTML, but I had noticed that as soon as I began writing my blog posts in Scrivener and copy/pasting them into WordPress, my WordPress posts appeared in 14 point rather than 12 point type. I habitually write in 14 point Times Roman in both Scrivener and Word, much easier on my eyes, but trying the same copy/paste from Word only produced 12 point type in WordPress.

So when the Scrivener upgrade said it would no longer put HTML on the clipboard, I realized what was happening. Sure enough, when I looked at one of my WordPress postings in the “text” view (rather than the “visual” view which I use to finalize posts) it was loaded with HTML coding, way more than I would ever have the patience (or knowledge) to do by hand.

I was pretty sure I had seen something in Scrivener that would allow me to export individual documents in a variety of formats (rather than go through the rather complicated Compile feature), and after searching through most of the menus I finally found it (in the most obvious place): File/Export/Files (or Ctrl+Shift+X, for the keyboard-oriented).

Unfortunately, that didn’t work. It produced a file that opened with Internet Explorer, but when I copy/pasted it to WordPress, none of the HTML coding came along.

So I went to the Literature & Latte web site forum section and hunted around until I found a post from someone dealing with the same question, where I learned that there is a “copy special” item on the Scrivener edit menu that allows copying several different formats to the clipboard. After several attempts I have discovered that Edit/Copy Special/Copy as HTML will get me most of what I want, if I paste it into the WordPress “text” editor rather than the “visual” editor. Then it took a trip to the WordPress forums (via Google) to learn that it takes “Shift+Enter” to add a blank line in the visual editor.

I don’t know why the clipboard output in Scrivener has been changed. From the description in the change list, I’m guessing it must have been causing a problem for people copy/pasting to Word or other word processing programs. I’ve spent way too much time finding a work around this morning—but then, time spent learning something new is never wasted.

Recent Reading

I’ve been enjoying Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mystery series for many years, since it began with Edwin of the Iron Shoes back in 1977. When I noticed that Muller had published the first in a new series, written with her husband Bill Pronzini, I bought a copy and quickly misplaced it in my fear-inspiring collection of unread books (so many books, so little time). When I learned that two more books have come out in the series, I found The Bughouse Affair on my mystery shelf and read it.

“Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services,” has been in business in San Francisco for The Bughouse Affairthree years when The Bughouse Affair opens in 1894. Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton investigator, widowed when her husband was killed on a case. John Quincannon is a former Secret Service Agent. Their partnership is strictly business, although Quincannon would like something more to develop (and perhaps it will, in time).

While an Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes meddles in their investigations, Sabina and John find that their separate cases, involving burglars, pickpockets, and murder, are actually related. But the real charm of the book for me is the detailed and very believable description of life and business in the San Francisco of 1894. If you enjoy the setting, you will enjoy the book.

Also set in the late nineteenth century, but not fiction at all, is Evan Schwartz’ Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. As the subtitle suggests, this is less straight biography than a portrait of the society and political events that influenced Baum. I picked the book up because, although I Finding Ozam a life-long Oz fan, I knew little about it’s creator. I learned that Baum dabbled in a variety of business ventures, most of them less than successful, lived in a number of places, and married the daughter of a well-known crusading feminist. I also learned a great deal about the life and times of the period.

I found some of Schwartz’ conclusions a bit far-fetched (he did not convince me that the massacre at Wounded Knee was reflected somewhere in The Wizard of Oz), but the book was definitely entertaining. I have a couple of anthologies containing the first ten Oz books on my shelf (Schwartz shows little interest in Baum’s career post-Wizard) and I may just reread them one of these days.

Howard Blum’s American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century is the story of the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Time building in 1910. Like many “crime of the century” events, this one has been largely forgotten. I’d never heard of it, and when I mentioned it recently to a friend who grew up in L.A., she didn’t know about it, either.

American LightningBlum’s narration mostly follows the efforts of William Burns, known in his day as “the American Sherlock Holmes,” to identify and track down the bombers, but he also brings in D.W. Griffith, who finds inspiration in the case as the movie industry moves from New York to Hollywood, and the attorney Clarence Darrow, who was involved in the defense of the accused bombers. Griffith’s involvement seemed a bit tenuous to me, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the early movie business.

American Lightning gives an interesting picture of the U.S. (and Los Angeles in particular) a century ago, and reminds us that terrorism is nothing new.

Of AlphaSmarts and Changing Technology

Not long ago, writers on one of the loops I follow were talking about AlphaSmarts (and the Neos and Danas that came after them), self-contained, battery-powered keyboards developed for school children but widely adopted by writers.

AlphaSmarts, Neos, and Danas are no longer manufactured, but quite a few writers still use these distraction-free keyboards, which don’t play games or connect with the Internet. I bought mine fourteen or fifteen years ago and used it quite a bit for several years, but it’s been sitting on a bookshelf for a long time. The mention of things like corroding batteries (the Alphie operates on three ordinary AAs) made me think I should check on mine.

AlphaSmartWhen I hit the on/off button, nothing happened, so I turned it over and began pulling out old, slightly-sticky batteries. It took a screwdriver to pry the first one out, and I had to remove the entire back of the keyboard to retrieve the third one. My expectations weren’t high, but I blew the dust and battery crud out of the channel, put in three new batteries, and replaced the back of the keyboard.

When I turned it over and hit the on/off button, it not only came on, but it remembered the eight files I last wrote on it (clearly there’s a lithium battery in there somewhere). I found book reviews, newsletter articles, and the minutes of a couple of RWA chapter meetings, dated 2008.

I don’t think I’ll start using the Alphie for novel writing, but I’m typing on it now, and I may decide it’s still handy for writing short articles while sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Of course I have yet to see how well it transfers text (by USB cable) to Scrivener. I don’t think I’ve ever used the Alphie with my current computer. (Note: When I plugged the Alphie into a USB port, it took my computer a few minutes to find a suitable device driver, but once it did, the file transferred perfectly, typos and all.)

The rapid changes in everyday technology continue to amaze me. Not so many years ago, a few of my more affluent writer friends were showing off their new “thumb drives,” precious (and very expensive) gizmos that could store 128 megabytes of data. At the time that was enough space for several novel manuscripts (software was a lot simpler back in the day). Now I have flash drives all over the place, from very old and very small to ever newer and bigger, but never big enough, as my Document directory grows ever larger. The other day at Office Depot, I picked up a set of two 16 gigabyte flash drives for less than twenty bucks. I suppose the day will come when they seem small, but I’m not looking forward to it.

In yet another case of speeding technology, I find myself thinking about replacing my four-year-old keyboard Kindle. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I use it regularly. But the new Kindle Voyage is so tempting, with its larger, paper white screen, self-adjusting light, and much higher pixel per inch count. Although I still prefer to read paper books, many of my friends publish electronically these days. It seems that a good e-reader, unheard of when those first flash drives arrived or even when Alphie was born, is almost a necessity today.

I don’t think I’ll replace my relatively simple TracFone, though. It does (occasional) phone calls and text messages, and not much else, but I can’t convince myself I need more than that (or the monthly bill that comes with a smart phone). Maybe there are some areas of technology where I don’t need—or even want—to keep up.

Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper

I don’t usually binge-read, but recently I realized, when the latest book was released, that I was three books behind on Elaine Viet’s delightful mystery series featuring Josie Marcus, professional mystery shopper living in the suburbs of St. Louis. I picked up the oldest of the three, and enjoyed it so much that I read the remaining two in rapid succession.

In Murder Is a Piece of Cake (2012), Josie’s mystery shopping assignment involves wedding flowers and wedding cakes. Murder Is a Piece of CakePerfect timing: Josie is planning her own wedding to veterinarian Ted Scottsmeyer. Perfect, that is, until a deranged ex-client of Ted’s shows up at the clinic in her wedding dress, insisting that she is Ted’s bride-to-be. What could be worse than that? Well, the crazed bridezilla is murdered—and Ted’s elegant and snobbish mother (who carries a pistol in her purse) is accused of the crime. How can Josie and Ted get married with his mother in jail?

Viets always includes a section of shopping tips in Josie’s adventures, and the tips at the end of this book, of course, cover how to buy wedding flowers and cakes.

Fixing to Die (2013) finds Josie remodeling the house she and Ted (yes, of course they got married!) have bought from his partner at the vet clinic, Christine. When they tear down the hastily built gazebo in the back yard, they find a body—the Fixing to Diebody of Christine’s sister, who lived in the house but supposedly left town months earlier. In between appointments with contractors and mystery shopping kitchen contractors, Josie needs to clear Christine before overwork at the clinic lays her new husband low.

Shopping tips cover renovating a mid-century kitchen. Apparently this is a big deal these days. My house was built in the 1950s, so I guess I’ve been living with a mid-century kitchen since 1976, but I can’t say I ever noticed. Or renovated, for that matter.

As the wife of a veterinarian, Josie is certainly well-equipped to mystery shop doggy daycare centers in A Dog Gone A Dog Gone MurderMurder (2014). She runs into trouble when the obnoxious owner of one of the daycares is murdered on the premises, and her mother’s new tenant is accused of the crime. (It’s downright dangerous to be a friend or relative of Josie Marcus, sort of like being related to Jessica Fletcher!).

Shopping tips cover what to look for in doggy daycare as well as some good tips on dealing with dogs who don’t do well in daycare.

I’ve been enjoying the Josie Marcus series since it began in 2005 with Dying in Style. The mysteries are always well done, and it’s fun to revisit the cast of supporting characters. Josie’s daughter Amelia has grown from young tween to almost a teen, and has started solving mysteries of her own, taking on the Mean Girls at school in Fixing to Die, and learning some of the dangers of trying to grow up too fast in A Dog Gone Murder.

A Dog Gone Murder also includes a teaser for Viets’ next Helen Hawthorne Dead End Jobs mystery, Checked Out, involving a painting of alligators, once owned by Clark Gable, now possibly hiding in a library book. I’m definitely looking forward to that one!

Car Talk

Everywhere I looked on line this morning I saw car ads. They might be targeting me because a couple of days ago I visited the Star Toyota web site, looking for the phone number of their service department. Or maybe I’m noticing car ads because I’ve been thinking about cars this week. I hope I’m not seeing lots of car ads because I’ve been thinking about cars, and somehow the universal over-web knows that. That’s a bit much even for me. (But there might be a story in it . . . )

My 2004 Corolla and I have been together for almost ten years now (our anniversary is coming up in March) and we’ve covered 190,226 miles together as of this morning when I picked the car up at Star. We’re on our third set of tires and our third or fourth battery. One of those batteries gave out while I was paying for a tank of gas, prompting a call to AAA for a jump start. One part in the air conditioning system failed, no small matter in August in Houston. And one day I managed to hook the driver’s side mirror on a fence post while backing out of a very narrow driveway. As far as I can remember, those have been the only unscheduled repairs we’ve had in ten years.

So it came as a total surprise Tuesday evening when I stopped at a major intersection for a red light on my way to an RWA chapter meeting, and the engine shut down and refused to start again. Stranding me in the right hand lane at a green traffic light. At six o’clock in the evening. 

After I’d failed to restart it several times and turned on my flashing trouble lights, I pulled out my cell phone and managed to call AAA, in the dark, something of a miracle given my total incompetence with a cell phone, and given that I had to read the tiny little membership number off my key tag and punch it into a number pad that kept disappearing on me.

AAA could send someone, but it would be forty-five minutes to an hour. Better than nothing, I supposed, and so far the other drivers were politely going around me. I sat for a few more minutes before I put the key back in the ignition—and the car started right up.

Stunned, I went on across the intersection and headed for the restaurant where I was meeting friends before the meeting. AAA called back, and I managed to answer their second attempt (I pushed the wrong button the first time) and told them to cancel the service call. I can’t imagine how anyone can send text messages while driving; I can barely answer a phone call, much less make one, while I’m moving. By the time I got to the restaurant I was too shaken to eat all my French fries, if you can imagine that.

I held my breath at every red light and stop sign for the rest of the evening, and the car had no more problems. Started right up at the restaurant and after the meeting, but I was immensely grateful to the friend who followed me home. The next morning I took the car to Star Toyota, still holding my breath every time I stopped.

They couldn’t get to my car until the afternoon, and I work well outside their shuttle service limits, so I rented a car. They gave me a 2015 Corolla, and I had to ask one of the service people to show me around the dashboard. What a change from my 2004 model! Bigger, quieter (practically silent, in fact), and full of bells and whistles. Touch screen radio. Degree by degree temperature control. Rear camera for backing up. When I turned on the ignition the little screen behind the steering wheel said welcome and when I turned it off it said goodbye. Of course this was after I’d figured out how to raise the steering wheel so I could actually see what was hiding behind it. The last person to drive the car was a lot shorter than I am.

I wasn’t disappointed when Simon the service agent called to say that they had found (after the car refused to misbehave for them, of course) that the throttle body (who knew?) needed cleaning and a couple of gaskets needed replacements, and those had to be ordered. Cool, I said, I’ll just keep this car another day.

I almost hated to give the 2015 back this morning. It was fun, even driving 75 miles yesterday in really foul rainy weather. I’m thinking maybe there is one more new car in my future.

But not just yet. My 2004 is running like a top again, comfortable, dependable, economical, and long since paid for. How could I let it go before we pass the 200,000 mile marker together?

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