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?

But the Calendar Says January!

The weather is absolutely gorgeous today. The sun is shining, the air is dry, and the temperature is in the sixties. Where I live, southeast of Houston, we haven’t had a freeze this winter. We have had a string of eight or ten days when the temperature never went as high as fifty, and if it wasn’t raining it was threatening to, and we’ll have more days like that before spring returns. But we don’t have ice storms, frozen highways causing forty-car pileups, or widespread power outages like our neighbors to the north. We figure our mild winters are a reward for sticking out hot summers, swarming mosquitoes, and occasional hurricanes.

So I’m not complaining about the change of seasons by temperature or calendar—it’s the middle of January, after all. No, what bothers me is the seasonal calendar the retail industry works on, the one that seems to run three months ahead of the rest of us.

I didn’t mind that the stores filled up with Valentine candy the day after Christmas. Chocolate is chocolate, whether it comes in hearts, pumpkins, or Easter eggs (any day now, I’m sure). But when the temperature dropped and my bedroom got chilly during the first week in January, I thought I’d buy a set of flannel sheets.

I love flannel sheets, always have, even when I lived in the suburbs of Miami as a girl. And I have at least two sets in the cedar closet. But when I bought a new mattress set last spring, I replaced a set that was twenty years old. I’m not sure why mattresses get thicker every few years, but they do, and one of these days we’ll all need those steps you buy for arthritic old dogs to climb into our own beds. I have a Queen-size bed, but with the new mattress and foundation I have to buy King-size bedspreads, and none of my old fitted sheets fit. I replaced the summer sheets (with a much higher thread count than I’d had before, very nice) and around November I even bought a blanket, but I forgot about the flannel sheets.

Until I needed them. Then I went looking for flannel sheets at the usual places—and they were all gone. The shops were full of bathing suits and summer clothes, and all that Valentine candy, but no flannel sheets.

Well, I thought, I’ll pull out that set of microfiber sheets I bought last summer. They felt so good to touch in the store, and so hot and sticky on the bed. I’d put them away, thinking they’d be good in the cold weather. Nope. They were still sticky, and not particularly warm.

So after a week of tolerating those, I made one more stab at finding flannel sheets, braving the acres of parking lot at my least favorite big box store (the one that has thirty-six check-out lanes, six of which are open at any given time), searching the bedding section, finding lots of microfiber and jersey along with the plain cotton, but no flannel.

Until I stumbled across the last few sets on a rack full of leftovers of various sorts of bedding. There wasn’t much to choose from, but I found a Queen-size set in blue with big cartoonish snowflakes, not what I would have chosen, maybe, but definitely flannel. And cheap, especially after a sales woman appeared with a big price sticker gun to mark them down.

I love my new flannel sheets, but I guess if I want another set before next August (when the bathing suits disappear and the sweaters come out), I’ll have to order them on line. Nothing goes out of season on line.

Meanwhile, on sunny days, we have visitors like this in our neighborhood.


A Tale of Two Gothics

When I was a girl, [mumble mumble] decades ago, Gothic romance was very much in style. Two of the leading practitioners of the form were Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, although numerous other writers contributed. Many of my friends remember those books fondly, while admitting that they haven’t actually read one in a very long time. Gothic novels usually featured frightened heroines (often governesses or poor relations) trapped by circumstance in isolated (and sometimes crumbling) manors dominated by aloof and dangerous lords (usually harboring some tragic secret). Readers loved them. But the appeal of the Gothic faded over the decades. Authors turned to more contemporary romantic suspense, and readers followed.

Now and then an adventurous author puts her own twist on the Gothic tradition. Not long ago I happened to read two such modern twists on the Gothic romance in quick succession, two very different books with shared literary DNA: Dark Angel by TJ Bennett and Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Dark Angel is subtitled A Gothic Fairy Tale, and that is a very good description indeed. The story blends the tale of Beauty and the Beast with folklore and history in lush and elegant prose, producing a most unusual and remarkable paranormal romance.

Dark AngelWhen young widow Catherine Briton is swept onto the shore of a dark, foggy island, the only survivor of a shipwreck in the Irish Sea, she is determined to return to London and her duties there. When her rescuer, the Master of the mysterious island of Ynys Nos, tells her that no one ever leaves, she is determined to discover the secret—or the curse—that holds the land and its people in thrall.

Both Catherine and Gerard, the arrogant and imperious Master, are burdened with secrets and guilt. Catherine soon discovers that the people of Ynys Nos pay a terrible price for what might appear to be a wondrous gift. She finds herself locked in her room in Gerard’s castle, wondering why Gerard only appears at night. When she visits the village, where no one is quite what they would wish her to believe, she learns even stranger secrets. And although she feels duty-bound to return to her old life, both the island and her growing feelings for Gerard may make that an impossible dream.

Heroes Are My Weakness, on the other hand is a totally contemporary novel, but Phillips had me at the dedication—to Mary Stewart, Anya Seton, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney. Despite the fact that the Heroes Are My Weaknessheroine, a ventriloquist, holds conversations with her puppets, there’s nothing paranormal about Heroes. But Annie Hewitt is trapped on an isolated island, in the dead of winter, with no job and no prospects, by the terms of her inheritance. The owner of the mansion on the island, Theo Harp, is no stranger. In fact Annie has known him since they were kids, and can’t imagine ever forgiving him for what he did then. But it’s a small island, and she can’t avoid him for long. There are secrets from the past, nosy townsfolk, a creaky crumbling mansion—and quite a bit of Phillips’ trademark humor.

Dark Angel was nominated for an RWA RITA Award in 2014. I will be amazed if Heroes isn’t nominated this year. These two very different Gothic tales are both delicious books.

Relax and Read More

That’s the only resolution I’m making this year: relax, and spend more time reading.

There was a time in my life when I read close to a book a day. Looking back, I realize how I managed that: no cable TV, no computer, and a rather erratic work schedule. On my computer I have reading lists going back many years (and many computers, come to that, and the earliest ones were done on a typewriter and later committed to the first computer I owned).

The To Be Read PileThe list for 1980, for example, isn’t numbered, but it’s nine pages long. Almost all science fiction and mysteries back then, and a scattering of non-fiction. (Still no computer in 1980—no Internet, no email, no following links for an hour until I’ve forgotten what I was originally looking for.) The list for 1990 is only three (single-spaced) pages long, science fiction, mysteries, and lots of non-fiction, much of it on the craft of writing. (I had a computer by then, but if I had an Internet connection, it worked with the majestic speed of glaciers.)

In 2000 I read 24 romances, 14 mysteries, 20 “other fiction,” and 20 non-fiction, a mixture of research, writing, and general interest books. Move up another decade: in 2010, I read a total of 43 books: 8 romances, 13 mysteries, 4 science fiction novels, 7 other novels, and 11 non-fiction.

I’ve been pretty consistent over the last few years: 41 books in 2011, 39 in 2012, 39 in 2013. Well above the national average, I suspect, but nothing that would have impressed my mother. (I jumped over to my browser, typed in something like “national average books read,” and discovered that the average American adult read twelve books in 2013, thus proving that almost anything can send me scurrying off into Google-land.) In 2014 I read 48 books (13 romances, 14 mysteries, 8 science fiction, 7 other novels, and 6 non-fiction).

In 2011 I bought a Kindle, after several years of insisting that I didn’t want to read ebooks. That year I read nine books on my Kindle, out of 41. In 2012 it was 13 ebooks out of 39, in 2013 14 out of 39, and in 2014 16 out of 48. I seem to have settled at about one third ebooks to two thirds paper.  (Let’s not even think about how many unread books are waiting on my Kindle.)

What got me started on all this rather pointless research was the last book I read in 2014, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. I have a whole stack on Dennis’ books on the shelf, most of them very old, brittle and yellowing from age and many readings, some held together by scotch tape and nostalgia. Some of them belonged to my mother, and we both read each of them multiple times. When I saw Auntie Mame available for my Kindle recently for $1.99, I downloaded it and enjoyed it just as much as I did decades ago.

I have walls full of books that I won’t part with because I want to read them again one day, or so I tell myself. I know full well that I should weed a lot of those out and send them off to new homes, because I’ve lost interest or will just never get around to them again, but there are so many that I want to keep, just like those ancient Patrick Dennis novels, because I love them. But I also have shelves full of books that I haven’t read but really want to—that’s why I bought them, after all—and that invisible To Be Read stack on my Kindle.

So I looked back a few years to see just how much re-reading I’ve managed to do lately. In 2014, Auntie Mame, Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson, and Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly, all on my Kindle (Hambly was an accident—I read a couple of chapters before I realized I’d read the original paperback edition when it came out twenty years ago, but I enjoyed it just as much this time around).

In 2013, I reread science fiction by H. Beam Piper and John Wyndham, both on paper, and Shirley Jackson’s Life among the Savages on my Kindle. In 2012 it was more long-remembered science fiction: Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land that Time Forgot trilogy (on my Kindle, pretty much a guilty pleasure, terribly dated), Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, DeCamp and Sprague’s The Mathematics of Magic, and Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy (all of those on paper and all well worth rereading). In 2011, three old favorites by Wyndham (another beloved author whose books I actually replaced with new editions from the Book Depository), Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

I have no idea what any of this means, but it’s been fun picking out the stats. Now it’s time to go sit on the couch and read, so I can start a new computer file: BOOKLIST 2015. And I promised Goodreads that I’d read fifty books in 2015. I’m actually in the middle of three right now, so that seems doable.

Happy New Year, everyone, Happy Reading, and thanks for dropping by.

Books, Books and More Books


Sonali Dev: A Bollywood Affair

Sonali Dev’s delightful debut novel, A Bollywood Affair, begins with a wedding, a wedding that will complicate several lives and cause no end of emotional turmoil. The wedding takes place in a small rural village in India. The bride is four years old, the groom twelve. The groom’s ten-year-old brother watches the festivities with more interest than the groom displays, and tries to comfort the sobbing bride, at least until his ill-tempered and dictatorial grandfather drives him off.

A Bollywood AffairTwenty years later Mili considers herself a married woman, although she hasn’t seen her husband, Virat, since the day of the wedding. She dreams of the day her husband will return to claim her, but in the meantime her married status has allowed her to go to college, and she’s about to embark on a new adventure, an eight-month graduate course in sociology—in Michigan.

While Mili has been dreaming of her husband, now an officer in the Indian Air Force, he hasn’t given her a second thought, believing the barely remembered child-marriage has long since been annulled. When he finds out it hasn’t, his younger brother Samir, now a well-known Bollywood director (and equally well-known playboy) heads for Michigan to persuade the naïve little village girl to sign the annulment papers.

Of course what should be a simple task proves not to be. Mili may be a naïve village girl, but she’s also smart, educated, and determined to honor her obligations. Samir may be a cynical playboy, but there’s something about this girl, this unexpected sister-in-law, that forces changes he never expected in his view of life. While Mili tries to figure out what the future holds for her, Samir finds himself face to face with the past he has done his best to forget.

A Bollywood Affair is a charming and emotionally satisfying romance. It is also a fascinating look at various facets of Indian culture. We see life Mili’s tiny rural village and Samir’s in the sophisticated circles of Mumbai. And then there’s Ridhi, Mili’s Michigan roommate, happily balanced between two cultures: American enough to insist on marrying a man her family would have considered unsuitable back in India, but Indian enough to delight in an extravagant Indian wedding (in Columbus, Ohio).

I thoroughly enjoyed A Bollywood Affair—my only complaint is that I can’t taste any of the delicious-sounding Indian food Mili, Samir, and their friends enjoy throughout the story. I’ll be looking forward to Dev’s next book, The Bollywood Bride, due out in 2015.

Merry Christmas!

Santa Bear


Who Turned Out the Lights?

Yesterday morning, the Saturday before Christmas, I got up with all sorts of plans for the day. I fed my cat, read my email, fetched my newspaper, and cooked myself an egg and sausage sandwich for breakfast. (Have you seen the “Easy Eggwich” on the nearest As Seen on TV rack? They really work!)

I had barely sat down with my sandwich and my morning newspaper when the power went off. Lights, television, computer, microwave oven. All dark. And unlike the usual aggravating ten-second glitch, nothing came back on.

I couldn’t see to read the paper, so I ate my sandwich and wandered over to the one telephone that works in a power outage to call CenterPoint Energy, which handles all the line maintenance for the Houston area. I reported the outage at 9:45 AM, and even gave the new voice mail system a five star review on their little survey. Little did I know how annoyed I would be by the third time I called for an update and was told they knew of no outages in my area, and would I like to report one.

That first call, though, told me that the outage should be corrected by 12:15, so I decided to go run errands while the lights were off. I wrote and addressed the last of my Christmas cards on the kitchen counter by the questionable light of a battery lamp. I went for a short walk, discovering that the only sign of electrical power on my block was the across-the-street neighbor’s generator. So much for CenterPoint’s warning about the fee I’d be charged if the outage was my equipment’s fault (yes, I should probably have that antique circuit breaker box in the garage replaced).

Fortunately the garage door was up when the power went off, so I didn’t have to disconnect it (and just as fortunately, I live in a neighborhood where I don’t mind leaving the door up if need be). So I went out and mailed my cards, finished (I hope) my Christmas shopping, and visited the grocery store.

When I got back, about 12:30, there was a CenterPoint truck parked near the corner a long block from my house. Not a good sign, and I wasn’t surprised to see that my house was still dark. So much for doing the laundry, writing (at least on the computer), or wrapping Christmas presents. I did put my groceries in the refrigerator, trusting that the outage surely couldn’t go on long enough for anything to spoil.

Called a friend to complain (she was sympathetic—her Internet and cable had been off all morning). Sat by the only window in the house with anything like enough light to see print, and read the newspaper. I had more success reading on my Kindle, which has a light built into its case.

By 2:30 or so I had given up on the possibility of a telephone update, but I was grateful that the dispatcher had better control of the situation. I braved the rather chilly day (if this happened in nicer weather I could have been reading outdoors) and walked down the street to the CenterPoint trucks, where I learned that a tree had fallen across two yards and taken with it the line carrying power into the neighborhood. They knew what the problem was, and there was someone up a pole, probably shutting off the broken line, but there seemed to be no one equipped to cut up the broken tree, and one of the men said it would probably be dark by the time it was fixed.

What is one to do when nothing in the house works, including the electric controls governing the gas heat? One gathers up a blanket and the cat (by now the indoor temperature was down to 65) and takes a nap.

I woke up when the lights came on at 4:45 PM. Seven hours. With the exception of the aftermath of hurricanes, I think that’s the longest the power has been off at my house in decades.

Losing power for seven hours is enough to remind me how little I can do in my house without electricity. But it also reminds me how much more comfortable my house is, even without power, than living conditions in much of the world. Maybe a reminder now and then of just how First World most of our problems are doesn’t do us a bit of harm.

Christmas Bear

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