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?

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


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