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!

Diane Kelly’s Paw Enforcement

Paw Enforcement is the first book in a new series by Diane Kelly, author of the hilarious Tara Holloway mysteries. Tara’s adventures have been on my auto-buy list Paw Enforcementsince the first installment (Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure), so I was definitely looking forward to this, and I was not disappointed.

As Paw Enforcement begins, Officer Megan Luz of the Fort Worth PD is waiting to see if she’ll be canned for tasering her sexist partner in a most humiliating, um, location. But the Chief decides what Megan needs is a new partner. A female partner named Brigit. A 97-pound rescue dog occasionally mistaken for a bear.

It’s a good thing Brigit is an experienced K9 officer (her previous partner has retired), because Megan sure isn’t. Megan’s not thrilled with the idea of living with her new partner, either, not in a very small studio apartment. Not when Brigit insists on sharing Megan’s futon and chewing on her shoes.

But they survive the K9 training course (where Brigit kicks–and sniffs–the furry butts of the male dogs) and soon they find themselves in pursuit of a mad bomber. Not to mention the hunky bomb squad fire fighter and his bomb-sniffing dog, Blast, who take Megan and Brigit out to the dog park.

Megan’s first person narration alternates with short third person chapters from Brigit (working a case at the mall, Brigit shares the stolen remains of a chopped-beef sandwich with Blast: “No need to be stingy. Besides, the yellow Lab was kind of cute. She’d always had a thing for beta males.”) and from the mysterious bomber.

The characters are funny, quirky, and likable, the mystery is well done (with clues for the sharp-eyed reader), and Paw and Order Kellythe foundation is laid for the next installment, Paw and Order, scheduled for release on December 30, 2014. I’ll be looking forward to Megan and Brigit’s next adventure. It’s a long wait, but there’s a new Tara Holloway book (Death, Taxes, and Silver Spurs) coming in July.

Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

I seldom cry over books, but the last fifty pages or so of Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion had me tearing up repeatedly. Don’t let that discourage you—this is a wonderful book.  I bought it more or less by accident, looking for one more book to satisfy a free shipping or a “buy two get one free” offer from a book club. I had read two of Flagg’s earlier novels, years ago, and this one looked interesting, so I added it to my order—I’m so glad I did.

All-Girl Filling StationThe All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion tells the stories of two very different women, in two very different time periods. I won’t tell you just how they are connected—that’s one of many surprises in the book—but they are. Sookie Poole (the former Sarah Jane Krackenberry, better known as Mrs. Earle Poole, Jr.) is a sixtyish wife and mother living in Clear Point, Alabama, blessed with a happy marriage and four grown children, and perhaps not so blessed with a totally self-centered eighty-eight-year-old mother, the formidable Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, also known (especially to Sookie and her brother Buck) as Winged Victory.

Sookie’s biggest worry, now that her last daughter’s wedding is over, is feeding the small songbirds in her yard in the face of an invasion of voracious blue jays. That is, until she receives some unexpected information that makes her question everything about her life.

The surprising news about her family’s history leads Sookie to the story of Fritzi Jurdabralinski of Pulaski, Wisconsin, a restless young woman who becomes first an auto mechanic and then a pilot, eventually joining the WASPs and ferrying war planes from factories to bases during WWII.

Flagg’s portrait of Sookie, her family, and her community is both hilarious and touching, and Fritzi’s journey from a filling station in a small Wisconsin town through Billy Bevins’ Flying Circus to WASP duty in Texas and California is fascinating. The book is filled with wonderful characters dealing with joys, sorrows and dilemmas that readers will recognize and share.

I loved this book. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Fannie Flagg’s writing. I may have to pull Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café off my bookshelf, and track down the ones I’ve missed.

Scrivener Features: Links

This afternoon when I was cleaning out my email (a never ending task), I ran across one I had marked to save because it had several links to web sites I was interested in reading. Rather than bury the list in my inbox, I thought I’d start a file for the topic, and rather than open yet another Word document, I opened a new text item in the Research folder of my Scrivener Miscellany project, where I stash blog posts and book reviews.  I had downloaded and saved a PDF file from one site, and I pasted the addresses of the other three sites into my new document. And that’s all I had—addresses, not links.

Being inherently lazy, I wanted links, not addresses that I’d have to cut and paste (again) into my browser. I knew this was possible in Scrivener, but I didn’t know how to do it. I tried right-clicking on an URL; that brought up a menu of formatting options, including “Scrivener link,” but I didn’t want to connect to anything within my Scrivener project. I wanted the outside world, or at least my computer files and on line sites.

So I went poking through menus and found what I wanted under Edit/Link. That brought up this little box:

Link 2

When I cut and pasted the URL I wanted to save into the box and hit “okay,” I had my working link.

To link to the PDF file I had saved to my computer, I opened the link box, changed the source to “file” and dragged the file name into it.

Link

Now I can build my own catalog of references, each accessible with a click of my mouse.

The latest update of Scrivener for Windows was released last month. I printed out the Refinements and Changes notes, but I haven’t begun to scratch the surface. Scrivener Ace Gwen Hernandez has posted an overview of the new release here, along with scads of useful information on the program.

My Favorite Thriller: Steve Berry

Recently I was invited to a birthday party for a male friend, and I was stumped by the thought of a suitable gift. It’s so hard to buy gifts for guys. I’ve known Ed for years (he’s my friend Jo Anne’s brother), but that doesn’t mean I knew what to buy for him. I know he likes to read, and Jo Anne told me he likes political thrillers. Aha, I thought, after scratching my head and staring at my bookshelves (the ones devoted to mysteries and mainstream fiction) for a while: Steve Berry. Ed’s wife, Anne, couldn’t tell me for sure if Ed had read Berry, but when I told her that Berry’s tales generally involve an historical mystery and/or treasure hunt with present day political consequences, she thought that was just what he’d like. So I headed over to Half Price Books one day (more book for your buck, not to mention the availability of good hard cover editions of backlist books) and found three for Ed: The Third Secret, The Templar Legacy, and The Alexandria Link. The first is a stand-alone thriller; the others are the first and second in Berry’s series about Cotton Malone, former government agent trying, not all that successfully, to retire to life as an antiquarian book dealer in Copenhagen. (I’ve since heard through the grapevine that Ed is pleased with my choice.)

The Amber Room I started reading Berry’s novels way back when the first one, The Amber Room, came out in 2003. The story of the legendary Amber Room, said to have been stolen in its entirety from Russia by the Nazis, was enough to tempt me into a genre I didn’t often read. Berry’s second novel, The Romanov Prophecy, touched on a bit of history I’d always found fascinating. I was hooked. (Odd trick of memory here: I was sure I had shared these books with my late husband, Jack. But Jack died in 2002, before The Amber Room was published. I suppose I just knew at the time that I wished I could share it with him—it’s a novel he would have loved.)

Shopping for Ed reminded me that I still had three unread Berry novels on my shelf—if you’ve visited here before you probably know I buyThe Jefferson Key books a lot faster than I can possibly read them. So the other day I picked up the next one in line, The Jefferson Key, and dove in. It definitely lived up to the description I’d given Ed: a secret cypher, developed by Thomas Jefferson and used by Andrew Jackson to conceal the whereabouts of papers essential to a conspiracy of modern-day hereditary privateers, an attempted assassination, and the most infuriating villain I’ve run across in some time. I stayed up until one o’clock in the morning to finish it.

The Lincoln MythI have two more Berry novels on my shelf, The Columbus Affair (a stand-alone), and The King’s Deception (Cotton Malone), and Berry has a new one out just last month, another Cotton Malone called The Lincoln Myth (the last time I looked at the New York Times bestseller list, there it was). I’ll wait a bit before I get to that one, though: Berry’s novels are so packed with action and suspense and move at such a break-neck pace that I can’t read them back to back. But they’ll stay on my keeper shelf and one day I’ll read them all again.

History geeks like me will also enjoy the Writer’s Note at the end of each book, in which Berry lays out the historical basis of his stories and explains what he added. Information on all of Berry’s books is available on his web site at steveberry.org.

 

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