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?


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.

Elaine Viets’ Catnapped!

Catnapped! is the latest installment in Elaine Viets’ delightful Dead-End Jobs Mystery series. I’ve been a fan since Helen Hawthorne solved her first case in Shop till You Drop (2003), and Catnapped! did not disappoint me.

Catnapped!The detective work in Catnapped! involves two murders and, of course, a kidnapped cat (a four-month old Chartreux kitten), all good mysteries, but much of the charm of this series rests with the recurring cast and setting.

When the series started, Helen was struggling to survive as a newcomer to Fort Lauderdale, working cash-under-the-table jobs and living under the radar to avoid her deadbeat ex-husband and his unjust but legal claim on half her income. Over the course of the series she has settled her old problems and married Phil Sagemont, with whom she now operates Coronado Investigations, and these days she works those awful jobs in the course of their cases. In Catnapped!, she works for a cantankerous cat breeder, washing cats and their litter boxes (ten at a time!) for the princely sum of $8.04 an hour. Helen has been through a long string of fascinating (as long as someone else is doing them!) dead-end jobs, and Viets has worked most of them herself as research.

Besides Helen and Phil, the cast includes Margery Flax, the 70-something owner and live-in manager of the Coronado Tropic Apartments, a building nearly as old as she is, where Helen landed when she arrived in South Florida from her former up-scale life in St. Louis. In Catnapped!, the past catches up with Margery in the form of the ex-husband Helen never knew about and the possible destruction of the Coronado by old age and rusted rebar.

I grew up in South Florida, decades ago, and Viets’ descriptions of life at the Coronado and the changing landscape of Fort Lauderdale always makes me a bit nostalgic. On the other hand, Helen’s adventures among the Persian cats at Chatwood’s Champions makes me grateful for my low-maintenance rescue cat.

I’m a little bit behind on Viets’ other series, starring Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper, but I recently read Death on a Platter (I have two more waiting on Death on a Platterthe never-empty shelves of unread books). In Death on a Platter, Josie witnesses a death-by-poisoning while mystery shopping restaurants specializing in St. Louis delicacies such as toasted ravioli, pig ear sandwiches, brain sandwiches and gooey butter cake. As always, she has help from her friend Alyce, and domestic challenges from her daughter Amelia and her mother (and landlady) Jane.

The Mystery Shopper books always include a “Shopping Tips” section covering Josie’s current assignment. In Death on a Platter, you will learn some remarkable things about St. Louis foods and restaurants. If I didn’t live so far away, I’d be checking them out for myself. (Well, maybe not the brain sandwiches. But the gooey butter cake sure sounds good.)

If you enjoy humor and great characters with your mysteries, you’ll enjoy any of Elaine Viets’ books.

The Computer in the Closet

I’ve known for a year or more that the City of Houston sponsors an electronic waste recycling drop off in my area once a month—on the second Saturday, when I go to an RWA chapter meeting forty miles away. When I decided to pass on the meeting this month, I remembered the recycling day.

I had two computers, with all their accessories, that hadn’t been turned on in years, the older one stuffed in the storage closet of last resort, the other still set up but gathering dust in the library (that sounds better than the junk room, and there are books in there, on shelves and in boxes, mostly Jack’s).

The computer in the library went out of service in January 2010, when I bought my current system. I kept it set up at first in case I needed something I’d forgotten to transfer. That happened a few times, but the computers couldn’t talk to each other easily. The old computer had only 3.5 inch disk drives for output, while the new one had only USB drives for input. My work computer at the time fell between them in age, and had both, but transferring a file required several steps, three computers and two locations. The library computer stayed set up for another four years because I had nowhere else to put it.

That computer had served me well for seven or eight years, and it still worked in 2010, but its memory and storage capacity, which had seemed vast when I bought it, couldn’t handle most new programs. The jump to my current computer, with its giant hard drive, Windows 7, and a DSL Internet connection, was an adventure.

the current computer, and then some

the current computer, and then some

The computer in the storage closet was even older, going back to the middle 1990s, but it had weathered the Y2K non-event. I have quite a few files on my current computer that I can trace back to it.

I’d owned, and gotten rid of, at least three computers before that one: an early PC clone (which had minimal memory and storage, no hard drive, a tiny gold-on-black monitor, and a daisy wheel printer, and cost about $5,000—a business expense—in 1984) and two Tandy PCs (in which I had installed 32-megabyte hard cards myself). There may have been another one in there somewhere, and Jack had an early (and very heavy) laptop that he never really learned to use. I have no idea how we got rid of those, concern about recycling electronic waste not being a major concern back then. I probably gave the pieces to some computer-tinkering friend or just threw them in the trash.

I had ambitious plans this morning for getting rid of both old computers at once, thus furthering my general, if slow, war on cluttered closets, but even the roomy trunk in my Toyota couldn’t handle that. I’d forgotten how big—and how heavy—that old CRT monitor in the closet was. The tower was big and heavy, too, and then there was the defunct printer. By the time I tucked cables, keyboard, speakers and mouse into the corners, the trunk was pretty well full.

But the storage closet was considerably less so. I’d even thrown out a couple of old pillows, although there were still several of Jack’s old metal detectors, several boxes (some empty, but you never know when you might need a shoe box), a nice wooden rack—for cassette tapes, and a set of dog steps (I don’t have a dog) in there. But there was plenty of room for the smaller library computer and its flat screen monitor.

So I still have a computer in the storage closet, and the closet still needs cleaning, as does the library (more boxes, some full of books, some empty, one full of minor computer junk, two cartons of West Houston chapter archives, and a seldom used vacuum cleaner). But I’m making slow progress, and I’ve done my ecological good deed for today.

How Smart Should My Phone Be?

Do I need a Smart Phone, or will I only be embarrassed when the gadget turns out to be smarter than I am?

I resisted getting a cell phone for years, back in the day when people still thought of them as “car phones.” Back then, my car was very nearly the only place where I could get away from the phone. There were rare occasions when it might have been handy to have a phone in my purse, but I didn’t give it much thought.

When I started commuting to work, thirty miles each way, in 2003, I thought about it more seriously, and after I had car trouble on the Gulf Freeway one evening in early 2005, I gave in and bought a TracFone, a simple little device that could make calls and not much else. I rarely used it. In fact I rarely turned it on, and I didn’t give the number to anyone but Jo Anne, the friend I work with.

old phone 2A couple of years later, TracFone sent me an upgrade. Apparently there was some change in the — heck, I don’t know what changed, but I needed a different type of phone, and they sent me one. Every year I pay a minimal amount, about $100, for service, and they give me more minutes, of which I use very few.

Two years ago I upgraded on my own to a much nicer TracFone model. One might even call it a moderately intelligent phone. It has a larger screen, with colors and icons. I can leave it on and it only rarely makes calls on its own. It supposedly can access the Internet and my email, but I have yet to figure out how. The instructions it came with are utterly worthless, and those available on line not notably better. But I can make and receive calls and text messages, although I rarely do. I have more than 6000 minutes on my account. If I have to call AAA for help, I can. As far as phone service goes, what more do I need?

But I’m being tempted by Apps, and all those things people do with their phones these days. My phone has a calendar, and notes, and probably a lot of other not very useful built-in functions, but not enough memory to download Apps. It has a camera, but no way to get the pictures off the phone, at least not that I can find. (I have an actual camera for that.) I don’t want to send pictures of my lunch to Twitter anyway. I don’t want to read books on my phone (my Kindle is small enough!), but sometimes it might be handy to hop on the Internet and look something up, or read my email when I’m away from home and computer.

I have many friends, most of them younger than I am, who seem to carry their whole lives on their phones, even some who never take the Bluetooth gadget out of their ear (apparently because any incoming phone call would be more important than the live human beings in the same room). I don’t want that.

On the other hand, tonight I got an email from my car insurance company offering an App that might be genuinely useful. It wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered if I’m really missing something. I’m frequently surrounded by people my age and older who seem to find their smart phones genuinely useful.

Smart phone? IPad? Kindle Fire? I don’t know what the heck I need. No, I know I don’t actually need any of them. I’m trying to decide what I want. Maybe I should make up my mind before I’m the last person alive without a “mobile device.” Maybe I just have a growing case of gadget envy.

What works for you? Advice and suggestions welcome!

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