Recent Reading

Half Price Books is having a holiday weekend sale, and so far I’ve managed to not set foot in the place, although I did download two books to my Kindle this morning. Meanwhile, I’m trying to catch up on reading and reviewing books. Here are a few I’ve liked recently: nonfiction, science fiction, mystery and, of course, romance.

I brought Queen of Your Own Life, by Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, home from the recent RWA conference in San Antonio. Ratzlaff was one of the featured speakers at the conference, speaking on author platforms and online resources, but this book is not about that. The subtitle is The Grown-Up Woman’s Guide to Claiming Happiness and Getting the Life You Deserve. It’s a short, easy read, but it includes some thought-provoking insights from its two authors on problems most women will identify with: self esteem, defending boundaries, and female friendship. Definitely worth reading.

Sharon Lynn Fisher’s first novel, Ghost Planet, was a colony planet story with a twist. The Ophelia Prophecy is The Ophelia Prophecycompletely different, set on Earth after humanity has nearly been destroyed by the results of genetic engineering gone wildly out of control. The world is now controlled by the Manti, the largely (but not always) humanoid results of those experiments. The heroine, Asha, is a member of the isolated human community of Sanctuary, until the day she wakes up along the lake shore near a Manti male called Pax. Neither of them remembers how they came to be there, and both of them have to protect and to unravel. Their travels in Pax’s sentient scout ship, complicated by Pax’s much more mantis-like sister Iris, lead them first to another pocket of humanity and then to the Manti capital in Granada, torn by factions within the Manti. The Ophelia Prophecy is an exciting story as well as a complicated look at uncontrolled biological experimentation run amok, with a romance for good measure.

Double Whammy, by Gretchen Archer, is a very funny and very entertaining mystery, first in a series featuring Davis Way, ex-cop from Pine Apple, Alabama (where her dad is the police Double Whammychief and her twice-ex husband’s family lives). In serious need of a new job, Davis signs on with a Biloxi casino, little suspecting why she’s really been hired. Assigned to seemingly random jobs (and disguises) around the casino, Davis eventually figures out what the real problem is, with the aid of a seemingly disinterested cab driver. In the meantime, Davis falls in love with the absentee owner of her sub-let condo while avoiding another entanglement with her worthless twice-ex husband. Davis, who just might be Stephanie Plum’s distant cousin, returns in Double Dip and Double Strike, and I plan to add those to my Kindle. (I was offered a copy of Double Whammy to review—which was extremely flattering—but I already had it on my Kindle. So far I have enjoyed all the Henery Press cozy mysteries I’ve read.)

For pure romance, I recommend Terri Osburn’s Meant To Be, the first in in her Anchor Island series. When Beth Chandler, on her way to visit her fiance’s family on Anchor Island, has a Meant To Bepanic attack on the ferry (she has a serious water phobia), she has no idea the man who comes to her rescue is her fiance’s brother. Or that first impressions will lead to deep attraction. But how can a self-respecting girl like Beth switch brothers? Even worse, on a small island where everyone knows each other? The story is full of wonderful characters and a charming setting, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The next Anchor Island romance, Up to the Challenge, is waiting on the ever-expanding invisible To Be Read shelf on my Kindle, and I just downloaded the third, Home To Stay.

 

I Am Not a Foodie, But . . .

No one would call me a foodie. I live out of my microwave oven, and when my six-year-old oven cratered last Saturday night, forty-five seconds into nuking a baking potato, I kicked it to the curb (well, actually the garage, and one of these days I will take it to the electronics recycling place), ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for supper, and went to Target for a new one the next day. My wine-conscious friends think I’m hopeless because I’m perfectly happy with grocery store whites (bottled, not boxed).

But this week I had a rare opportunity to enjoy a carefully planned six course dinner, with appropriate wines, at a wonderful restaurant, and I can’t express how amazing and wonderful it was.

My friend Jo Anne had given her brother, Ed Banker, and sister-in-law, Anne Newtown, a Chef’s Day at Brennan’s of Houston for Christmas last year, and they finally scheduled their day for August 22. Ed and Anne, who are both devoted foodies and excellent cooks, spent the day in Brennan’s kitchen, dressed in their new chef’s jackets (with their embroidered names), learning about the management of a fine restaurant kitchen and choosing their own special interests (sauces and stocks, I believe). Here they are about to eat the lunch they prepared, a giant Louisiana crab cake.

Ed & Anne at Brennan's

The package included dinner for six, and Ed and Anne were kind enough to include me, along with Jo Anne and two of their close friends, Chris and Judy. None of us knew what to expect (although all of us knew that one can always expect the very best at Brennan’s), but Ed and Anne had been told it would be a six course dinner. Jo Anne and I joined them at seven o’clock, in time for the first glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I pretty much lost track of the wines, although the sommelier came out with each bottle to tell us about it. I know there was a second Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay from South Africa (delicious, and I don’t usually care for Chardonnay) at least two bottles of Petite Sirah (a favorite of Ed and Anne’s), and one of a blended white from the Willamette Valley (my favorite). Fortunately the waitstaff was adept at removing just the right glasses at the right time, but each of us had three glasses (one water and two wines) in front of us for most of the evening.

The food was even more amazing, and one or another of the chefs came out with each course to tell us about it. I wish I could remember the details of the sauces and seasonings (I hope Ed and Anne caught them all, because I get invited to their house for dinner now and then), but the menu was so overwhelming I can’t repeat it all. But here goes:

First Course: Crab salad on a thick slice of beefsteak tomato (locally sourced, as is much of Brennan’s food), with bits of watermelon and cantaloupe and a dollop of caviar on top. The tomato was the kind we all say we remember from childhood but haven’t seen in the grocery store for forty years, the kind that reminds us that a tomato is technically a fruit.

Second Course: One large, whole (with head) barbecued shrimp and two smaller shrimp (I think they were sauteed; they certainly weren’t boiled or fried), over Texas grits made with goat cheese, all with a marvelous sauce that I can’t even describe.

Third Course: Half a quail, roasted, with cornbread dressing, served on a wedge of waffle and topped with a quail egg, sunny side up (one perfect mouthful—I don’t remember ever eating quail before, and I know I’ve never had a quail egg), and another amazing sauce.

Fourth Course: (And here I really tipped into dining paradise) One lamb chop, cooked as rare as lamb should be, served over rice and mushrooms, with asparagus. (Lamb may be my favorite meat, but it’s not particularly popular, or readily available, here in Texas.) Oh, how I wish I could describe the sauce!

Fifth Course: Three perfect pieces of cheese. One of the chefs came out and told us what order to eat them in. The first two were cheeses I’m not familiar with, and I wish I’d caught the names (maybe someone else remembers), but the third was a small, and very strong, square of bleu cheese. I wouldn’t/couldn’t eat that one in quantity, but the size on the plate (beautifully embellished with berries, nuts, and a small piece of bread) was perfect.

Sixth Course: And then came dessert. Instead of identical plates for all, as in the first five courses, a stream of waiters delivered what seemed like an endless stream of dessert plates to the table. As Catherine the Pastry Chef described each one (the word sugar was particularly frequent), our eyes expanded like children’s in a candy store. Five minutes earlier, we’d all been too full to eat again all weekend, but now we managed to pass the desserts around the table and sample every one, leading to a lively discussion of their merits (no two of us arrived at the same ranking). We tasted pecan pie with vanilla bean ice cream, peach cobbler with cream cheese ice cream (made on site), lemon meringue pie (about four inches high), white chocolate bread pudding (my personal favorite), Grand Marnier creme brulee, Mississippi Mud Pie (a towering stack of chocolate delight), dark chocolate bread pudding, strawberry shortcake, and Brennan’s classic Bananas Foster.

We were far too happy eating, drinking, and talking to take picture of the food, but Anne did take this one of Jo Anne and me (behind all those wine glasses) before we left, about three and a half hours after we sat down to dinner. Definitely one of the most remarkable meals I have ever enjoyed.

Kay & Jo Anne at Brennan's

Watching Plants Grow

A few weeks ago I found myself wandering through the garden section at my local Lowe’s, looking at plants.  I’m pretty good with outdoor plants.  I put them out where they’ll get some sun and some rain, and once in a while I trim them, and generally they do all right for themselves.

Indoor plants are not so easy.  My house was built in the 1950s, and it was designed to stay cool in the Texas summer:  windows shaded by porches and vines, and a roof shaded by lots of trees (a magnet for guys with a pickup truck, a chain saw, and a limited command of the English language, but that’s another story ).  So I don’t have a lot of big sunny windows.  Actually, I don’t have any big sunny windows.

But in the house plant ward at Lowe’s, I found a handsome dark green plant with a tag that read “Plants of Steel.”  “Wants minimal attention,” the tag said.  “I can do that,” I said.

The plant, called Zamioculcas zamiifoli, didn’t have a common name on its tag, but I like ZZ Plant.  (I’m not the first to think of that, as I found when I looked it up on Wikipedia.)  It comes from eastern Africa and was introduced to commercial production by Dutch nurseries about twenty years ago.

Apparently ZZ Plant is happy in its new home, because not long after I brought it home, I noticed a new, light green shoot springing up through its established branches.

August 3

August 3

A few days later, the new shoot was a good bit taller and beginning to unfurl.

August 12

August 12

And this morning, taller and more open.

August 20

August 20

And if you look right in the middle of the plant, you’ll see the tip of a smaller new shoot.  According to Wikipedia, ZZ Plant may even flower in due time.

Watching plants grow–yet another distraction from writing.

Another Box of Books

When I got home from work last night, I found a lovely box of books on my doorstep. Now, you might think, with all the (mostly free) books I brought home from the RWA conference, that I wouldn’t need to be book shopping again any time soon. (Well, no, if you stop by here often, you wouldn’t think that at all.)

most books 2Ha! I always need books. I’m a book junkie. And the August release of books in two series that I never miss sent me mousing over to Amazon a couple of weeks ago to order them: Paw And Order, the latest Chet and Bernie mystery from Spencer Quinn, and Death, Taxes, and Silver Spurs, the latest adventure of Tara Holloway, Diane Kelly’s intrepid (and armed) IRS Special Agent. Chet, Bernie, and Tara are among my very favorite book people (well, Chet’s a dog, but he’s still a favorite character) and I never miss their stories.

As long as I was there (and making sure to order enough for free shipping—I have yet to succumb to the lures of Amazon Prime, for fear I would never be able to tear myself away from all those videos), I ordered Kate Parker’s The Counterfeit Lady (the second installment in the Victorian Bookshop Mysteries) and Lauren Christopher’s The Red Bikini, a contemporary romance set on a California beach.

I’d heard through the RWA grapevine that the writers who went to Lisa Cron’s workshop were raving about it, and about her book, Wired for Story, so I ordered that, too. Haven’t cracked it yet, but a friend who has been reading it assures me that she’s gotten a lot of ideas from it. The subtitle, The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, is a bit intimidating (Brain Science? Really?), but I’m always up for a few nuggets of inspiration.

I wanted one more book from a series I’ve loved since its beginning, Marcia Muller’s The Night Searchers, the latest Sharon McCone mystery, but when I pulled it up on Amazon, it was listed at full price and with a possible two-week delay. Aha—published by Grand Central and caught in the ongoing feud between Amazon and Hachette.

So I moused on over to the Mystery Guild. I’ve belonged to the Mystery Guild and the Science Fiction Book Club since the pre-Internet days of the early 1970s, when I lived in a small town in Louisiana, thirty miles from the nearest book store (and short of money at that). Over at the Mystery Guild, I not only found The Night Searchers, but they were running a sale, so I preordered another series favorite, Margaret Maron’s latest Deborah Knott mystery, Designated Daughters, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ new release, Heroes Are my Weakness.

Then last weekend I went to a West Houston RWA meeting and bought three new books by chapter sisters: Sophie Jordan’s A Good Debutante’s Guide to Ruin (first in a new historical romance series), Shana Galen’s Love and Let Spy (third in the Lord and Lady Spy trilogy), and Heather MacAllister’s Taken By Storm (Harlequin Blaze romance).

Clearly, I’m still devoted to the paper book, but I’ve added several novels to my Kindle since the conference, too, some by friends, some through BookBub (even more temptation than the Kindle Daily Deal!). As soon as I find another day or two in the week to devote to reading, I’ll put up some more reviews.

Meanwhile, what are you reading?

Abibliophobia

The Dress Thief, by Natalie Meg Evans

The Dress Thief, Natalie Meg Evans’ debut novel, is a perfectly delectable read, with suspense and romance set against the rising tide of approaching war in the Paris of 1937. Above all, though, Alix Gower’s story comes alive in the world of haute couture, as she uses her talent and skills to move from a The Dress Thiefstable but stifling job as a bilingual telephone operator toward her goal of opening her own salon. Along the way she becomes entangled in the dangerous pursuit of copying fashion (we first meet her slipping into a shop to memorize a newly released Hermes scarf), a path not so easy to leave when the time comes.

There is mystery in Alix’s past as well, going back to the murder of her artist grandfather in Alsace in 1903. What is the connection between the Comte de Charembourg (the Alsatian aristocrat who befriended Alix’s late English father during World War I and later paid for her eduction) and Alix’s Alsatian Jewish grandmother, who shares her small Paris apartment and rightly fears the rise of anti-Semitism? Will the truth about her grandfather’s death turn Alix’s life upside down?

The Dress Thief is broad in scope, with a variety of interesting supporting characters, including the denizens of the fashion world, from the lowly seamstresses to the designers, the wealthy American woman involved in fashion copying, and the bohemian artist Bonnet for whom Alix sometimes poses.

The men in Alix’s life are equally varied. There is Paul, the young day laborer who lives on a boat, caring for his two young sisters and making ends meet by selling Alix’s sketches; Monsieur Javier, the designer who gives Alix a job and encouragement; Verrian, the English journalist drawn deep into the Spanish Civil War; and Martel, the dangerous night club owner.

The most fascinating element in The Dress Thief is the world of Paris high fashion in the late 1930s when the coming war casts a shadow that will change everything. Natalie Meg Evans portrays this world in wonderful detail, from the seamstresses toiling in the workrooms to the society women shopping in the salons, from the small salons filled with copies to the top designers struggling to create a successful collection every season.

As Alix carves out a life for herself in this world, she makes some debatable, if understandable, decisions along the way, but she never loses sight of her goals. It’s a difficult journey, but a fascinating one, and The Dress Thief portrays it beautifully.

At this time The Dress Thief does not have an American distributor, but it can be ordered from the Book Depository (free shipping and quick delivery just about anywhere). Natalie Meg Evans’ next book, The Milliner’s Secret, will be out next spring. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Summer TV and History

Remember when the TV season ran from late September through sometime in May, and the summer was populated with reruns and variety shows? These days summer TV is still full of reruns, as well as countless “reality shows,” but the cable networks have thrown the old calendar aside and put some of their best (scripted!) shows on in the summer. I often say I don’t care for violence, but apparently it’s only twenty-first century violence that bothers me. Dress the offenders up in costume and send them back in time, throw in some beautiful scenery, and I’m there for all the blood and guts.

One of my favorites, Hell on Wheels, began its 2014 season this weekend, catching us up with most of most of its established characters and adding some new ones. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon is still trapped in the Mormon fort, digging a well under the supervision of his long-time nemesis the Swede (who pointed out once again, in his assumed identity as Bishop Dutson, that the “late” Thor Gundersen was actually Norwegian). The opener saw the birth of Cullen’s son and his new determination to take Naomi and the baby with him when he leaves.

Meanwhile in Cheyenne, Durant manages to sink an entire train in a frozen river, auction off his land to raise money, and get himself thrown out of the hotel by an angry Maggie Palmer. General Grant, about to be elected President, has sent a new watchdog to make Durant’s life miserable. Eva is doing laundry for the brothel, determined not to go back to whoring (“But that’s what you’re good at,” says Mickey McGinnes, now the mayor of Cheyenne—and still running the brothel), and mourning the loss of Elam.

That’s right, there was no sign of Elam, not even in the opening credits, but I’m hoping he’ll be back. Maybe he’s been hanging with Joseph Black Moon’s folks since he had that run in with the bear. It would be nice to see Joseph back again, too.

Hell on Wheels 2014

Another period show I’ve been enjoying this summer is The Musketeers, a rousing swashbuckler from BBCAmerica, featuring swords, guns, and four very attractive men. I haven’t read Dumas in several decades (my tolerance for long, involved nineteenth century epic novels is not what it once was), so I can’t even guess whether any of the story lines have been taken from the original novel. But I had no trouble recognizing the characters. Athos, the mature, responsible aristocrat, is younger than I always imagined him (he was my favorite), but carries the part well. Aramis is the devil-may-care swordsman with the heart of a romantic, and Porthos is the mixed race (as was Dumas himself) child of the streets. And D’Artagnan, of course, remains the idealistic young countryman, determined to earn a commission in the King’s Musketeers. The most recognizable actor, to Americans anyway, is Peter Capaldi, spot-on as Cardinal Richelieu. If a second season is planned, they may have to recast or eliminate the Cardinal, as Capaldi has moved on to become the new Doctor Who. The Musketeers was filmed somewhere near Prague, with scenery doing a remarkable job of passing for early seventeenth century France, from the underside of Paris to the glories of the palaces and churches.

The Musketeers

Vikings, perhaps the most violent of all, is over for 2014 but will be back in 2015. This season ended with a blood bath, leaving Ragnar, a simple farmer when the series began, as the apparent king. My favorite Viking, though, is still Lagertha, shield maiden, Ragnar’s former wife, now an earl in her own right.

Many of my friends are excited about Outlander, just starting this week. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait for the DVDs on that one, as I don’t subscribe to Showtime. That might just give me time to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. I know I have the first one, right over there on one of the To Be Read shelves . . .

RWA 2014

I spent last week on the San Antonio Riverwalk at the annual Romance Writers of America Conference, and I’m still recovering. Too much fun, too little sleep. I had no special reason to go this year, but my friend Jo Anne Banker and I signed up as soon as registration opened. In fact we’d been planning to go to this one since we went to New York in 2011. San Antonio! Road trip!

RWA 2014 toteThis year I had a completely stress-free conference. I wasn’t involved in the Golden Heart contest, and I didn’t make any editor or agent appointments. I went to have fun, hang out with my long-distance friends, and learn something about independent publishing, and that’s exactly what I did.

I went to a lot of workshops on independent publishing, picking up ideas and inspiration. I have yet to decide whether I want to follow that path, but I think I’m leaning that way. Humorous paranormal stories don’t seem to be in high demand in New York these days—one respected agent I spoke to said that she sold no paranormals at all in 2013—but there are readers out there who enjoy them.

I heard inspiring—and often very funny—talks from wonderful writers. Cathy Maxwell stepped in at the last minute to give the keynote address at the Golden Network Retreat. Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave a great workshop on character development (the characters in our manuscripts, that is), and she and Jayne Anne Krentz, long-time friends, told us about their adventures as writers.

One workshop I attended focused on the challenges and benefits of being a “mature” writer. I think all of the women at that presentation were over fifty, some published, some not yet. One attendee was 83. I went to numerous talks by and for independently published authors (definitely a new alternative for us mature writers), until they all ran together in my overworked brain. In fact, by Friday afternoon everything was running together. Fortunately, most of the sessions were audiotaped, and I am awaiting my copy so I can listen to sessions I attended and sessions I had to miss.

RWA 2014 booksThere were books everywhere, and I brought home even more than I usually do, one advantage of driving rather than meeting the packing requirements of airline travel. (The FedEx store at the hotel was constantly busy, shipping boxes of books home for those who were limited to their suitcases.) The tote bags we received at registration (imagine two thousand women wandering around with the same tote bag!) were filled with books, and there were more on the chairs at the general sessions.

The Readers for Life Literacy Autographing was the only Conference event open to the public, and people began lining up at 2 PM for the 5:30 opening. The hall was filled with five hundred or so authors signing books donated by their publishers, and countless enthusiastic book buyers, filling the shopping bags handed out at the door. The book sales raised over $58,000 for literacy programs. I went in intending to say hello to women I only see once a year, but I ended up buying a few books, too. I also went to several of the publishers’ free book signings during the conference and collected more books (including some for the neighbor who looks after my cat when I travel and refers to the conference as “Kay’s Book Thing”).

On the social side, I visited with many friends I’ve made through the Golden Heart at the Golden Network retreat, shared dinner one night with the Firebirds (at Tony Roma’s) and another night with the Lucky 13s (at the revolving Chart House atop the Tower of the Americas, with a panoramic view of San Antonio), as well as smaller dinners with friends. Houston writers filled at least three tables at the awards ceremony so we could cheer together for our finalists.

Next year the RWA conference returns to New York City. I may need a Really Good Reason to make it to that one. But that’s what I said in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and the reasons turned up, so who knows? The RWA Conference is the kind of vacation that leaves you needing rest when you get home, but it’s worth every minute.

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