In Which I Excavate the Cedar Closet

Yesterday I was struck by one of those random housecleaning impulses, and I decided to shovel out my cedar closet. The house was built in the 1950s, and the lining of the closet hasn’t actually smelled like cedar (or anything else) in a long time, but it’s big, and I’ve developed an unfortunate tendency to throw things in and close the door.

I suppose it was opening that door recently that made me think of the project. I’ve been making an effort to get rid of stuff I don’t need, and the mess on the floor of the cedar closet certainly qualified. I knew my suitcases were in there, and assorted seldom-worn clothing, and my college steamer trunk, which I’ve been dragging around since the late 1960s.

I started with my luggage, an inexpensive three piece set I bought in 2011 because I flatly refused to touch, much less open, any of the near-antique suitcases in the attic. My new luggage was designed to be nested—the tote bag into the small suitcase into the larger one—instant neat.

BagsThen I started pulling out the other bags. Tote after tote.  Some of them with logos, subscriber gifts from magazines. Others with zippers and compartments and shoulder straps, the sort of thing Jack brought home regularly. One full-size duffel bag. Two salesmen’s sample cases belonging to Jack (who never sold anything involving samples). Several backpacks left from our years of archeological survey work. One tote, still wrapped in plastic, from Roi Namur in the Marshall Islands, a souvenir from one of Jack’s trips. Two wheeled luggage carriers for all those wheel-less suitcases in the attic.

Also scattered on, under, or between all those tote bags were one bedspread (wrong color), one mattress pad (not needed on my new bed), one reading pillow, a red and green storage container full of Christmas decorations (unopened for several years), and one Army surplus canteen. And, sitting on the steamer trunk, one small TV set.

Once I’d hauled all that out and swept the floor, I attacked the clothes. I’d found one box of forgotten pullover tops on the floor, and hanging on the racks I found several dresses I haven’t worn in ten years; eight shirts that belonged to Jack; seven coats or jackets, only one of which had been out of the closet this winter; two hanging organizers (each half full of sweaters, scarves, hats and gloves, none of which had been out of the closet this winter); and assorted pullovers, sweaters and sweatshirts.

Now I arrived at the shelves, where I found one VHS player/recorder of unknown age and condition. Three handbags I will never use again, and two remarkable ugly clutch purses. One empty Tiffany & Company box—I have no idea what it once contained, or why I saved it. One bonnet style hair dryer, once needed for a hair style I haven’t worn in years. One Christmas wreath (plastic). Six empty magazine storage boxes, migrants from a previous cleaning episode. Hats. Lots of hats, spilling out of a carton. Jack collected hats. One large carton containing Jack’s childhood stamp collection. Two guitars and one small accordion, which Jack never learned to play, despite the rudimentary instruction book with it. And one beekeeper’s veil.Bee Keeper

When I finally made it back to the steamer trunk, I found it full of knitting and needlework supplies. And tote bags.

Most of the tote bags are on their way to the trash, although I kept the one from the Marshall Islands. I have more totes in my office than I will ever need, including three from RWA conferences and half a dozen from various charities. Much of the clothing has been packed to donate, although I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of Jack’s shirts (most of which I made for him, from fabric he chose), and I kept more coats and jackets than I need in this climate. I combined the two sweater organizers and threw one out—the other goes as soon as I buy some plastic storage bins.

The closet isn’t empty, but it’s neat. I can see the floor. There’s more to do. The hats I’ll have to sort through—a few have some sentimental value. The needlework supplies in the steamer trunk can sit for a while; the luggage carts are in the garage. I’ll get rid of a lot of what’s left, eventually.

But I’m keeping the canteen. And the beekeeper’s veil. You just never know when you might need such things.


Recent Reading

I don’t travel very often, and I don’t use my credit cards a lot, so I haven’t paid much attention to rewards point or miles accumulating on my accounts. Recently, rather to my surprise, I found emails from three cards in my in box offering gift cards for my points. Two of them offered Amazon cards, so I now have a nice chunk of credit there to make those Daily Deal and Big Deal emails even more tempting. And yesterday, while looking for something else in my wallet, I found that B&N card from Christmas that still has sixty dollars or so on it. We all know what this means: more books for the ever-expanding To Be Read shelves. Meanwhile, I’ve taken a few more off that list.

Gone TropicalGone Tropical, by Robena Grant, is a romantic suspense story set on the north coast (make that the northeast coast—I just checked my forty-five-year old atlas, practically an historic document by now, but I’m pretty sure Cairns, Cooktown, and Laura haven’t moved in the interim) of Australia, in the sparsely populated rain forest country. American Amy Helms is on the trail of the embezzling ex-husband she has been tracking for years, only slightly hindered by Jake Turner, the private investigator her father has hired to keep an eye on her. Soon they join forces (when Jake realizes there’s no way Amy’s going to wait patiently in Sydney. Or Cairns. Or anywhere else), and discover that Amy’s ex has stumbled into something a lot more dangerous than his typical con game. Throw in Australian friends and allies, a snake in the room Amy and Jake’s cover story forces them to share, and a cyclone named Robert, and you have an action-packed romantic adventure.

I’ve been reading Joan Hess’ Claire Malloy mysteries since the first one, Strangled Prose, came out in 1986. Murder As a Second LangMurder As a Second Languageuage is the nineteenth in the series, but fortunately Claire and her teenage daughter Caron have aged only a few years. Claire’s circumstances have changed, though. The early books revolved around her bookstore in Farberville, Arkansas, and the local college, but now that Claire has married the deputy police chief, hired a bored graduate student to run the Book Depot, and moved into her dream house, she’s looking for something to do. Caron’s summer plans drag Claire into volunteering at the Farberville Literacy Council, where she is quickly drawn into local intrigue and, of course, a murder. Hess’ books (her Maggody series is another old favorite of mine) combine mystery and humor and are always enjoyable.

Three PrincesI’m afraid I did not love Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes as much as I had hoped to. Although it started with the alternate nineteenth-century political intrigue I expected, that plot line soon dwindled away as the main characters set off on a trip across the Atlantic, from Egypt to the Incan Empire in Peru, on board a fascinatingly human-powered airship called a Quetzal. The world building in the book is great: history changed when Caesar (why does it always take me three tries to spell Caesar correctly?) and Cleopatra settled down in Memphis to raise a family and rule an Empire. In the 1870s their descendants still rule much of the Old World, and the depiction of a relatively modern Egyptian Empire is well done. The rather bland (and flawless) characters and wandering plot, not so much.

It’s unfair to the author to complain about the things I wanted to find in the book but didn’t. I wanted to know more about the British Isle background of the main character, Lord Scott Oken, loyal Egyptian, descendant of Caesar; what’s going on in Britain, and why are Victoria and Albert ruling Osterreich from Vienna? What’s going on in North America? The obvious (to me, anyway) Aztec influence on the Incan Empire and language wasn’t explained until late in the book, with a throw-away line about a long ago merger between the Incans and the Aztecs, leaving Mayaland somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if Wheeler plans a sequel. Three Princes didn’t leave me with a burning desire to know what happens next to the characters, but I’d read another installment to find out what else is going on in their well-imagined world.

What have you been reading lately?




Sharon Sala’s The Curl Up and Dye

Once upon a time, LilyAnn Bronte was the high school queen of Blessings, Georgia.  But when her almost-fiance was killed in The Curl Up and DyeAfghanistan, Lily retreated into grief and what-might-have-been.  Now, eleven years later, she’s pulling herself out of her funk and getting her life back together.  There’s a new man in town to pique her interest.  Unfortunately, she’s unaware that Mike Dalton, her life-long neighbor and friend, has spent those eleven long years waiting for her to wake up and notice that he loves her.  In fact, Lily is unaware of quite a few things as the story begins.

There’s a lot more going on in Sharon Sala’s The Curl Up and Dye than potential romance.  Ruby Dye’s beauty salon is not just a place where the ladies of Blessing go once a week for a shampoo and style, it’s the gossip hub of the town, and the source of much neighborly help (and not a little meddling).

There’s no lack of plot in Sala’s novel, including some turns that I did not see coming, but the true strength of The Curl Up and Dye is in its characters.  Beside Lily and Mike, we meet the ladies who work at the salon, owner Ruby, twin stylists Vera and Vesta Conklin, and manicurist Mabel Jean Doolittle, along with their customers, including Rachel Goodhope, who is a little too bored with her husband for her own good; Patty June Clymer, back from a recent tour of Italy; and Willa Dean Miller, who runs the local travel agency but does all her own traveling on the Internet.  Even Lily and Mike’s parents, in town for the holidays, can see what Lily doesn’t.  What it takes to wake Lily up and soothe Mike’s wounded ego will surprise you.

When I got to the (completely satisfying) end of the novel, I found a twelve-page teaser for the prequel novella, Color Me Bad, Color Me Badand I couldn’t stop with twelve pages, continuing on my Kindle until I’d found out exactly what caused Patty June to take such a colorful revenge on Bobbette Paulson, what Willa Dean discovered about her own husband (and what she did about it), and how the ladies of Blessing rose in support.

I hope Sharon Sala is planning more stories from Ruby’s Curl Up and Dye salon.  There are surely many more characters with tales to be told.  In the meantime, if you haven’t visited the Curl Up and Dye, what are you waiting for?  Both stories are available for your e-reader, and The Curl Up and Dye is on the shelf at your local bookstore.


Speculative Fiction for History Buffs

Alternate History is one of my favorite subgenres. When I searched for “alternate history romance” I was given a long list of steampunk romances, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I vaguely remembered coming across a couple of genuine alternate history based romances, and between Google and one of those trivia files in the back of my mind I tracked them down, two long-out-of-print novels by Maura Seger: Fortune’s Tide (1990), set in a world where the American Revolution failed, and Perchance to Dream (1989) in which the Confederate States were victorious. Apparently that subgenre never took off, alas.

But the idea of alternate history has always been popular over on the science fiction shelves, although such stories don’t usually have a lot to do with science. Steampunk certainly presents an alternate Victorian world, but my suspicion is that it’s based more on technology and society than on history. I haven’t read enough steampunk to be sure, but I plan to remedy that. (In my spare time.)

I do have several favorite alternate history novels on my keeper shelves (and on my To Be Read stacks). Such stories generally have a point of change, sometimes called a hinge, some specific event that changes the course of history from what we know to what the author imagines. Some are straight history, while some add a fantasy or science fiction element.

Harry Harrison went way back in time for his hinge, setting the trilogy West of Eden, West of EdenWinter in Eden, and Return to Eden (1984-1988) in a world in which the cataclysm that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago never happened, leading to conflict between the highly evolved dinosaur civilization and the rising Ice Age human race. Geeks like me will also enjoy the appendix detailing the biology, culture and language of the dinosaurs. And who can resist domesticated mammoths?

Peshawar LancersS.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2001) is set in twenty-first century India, now the seat of the British Empire, after a disastrous fall of comets in the 1870s destroyed much of Europe, changed the planet’s climate, and brought technological advance to a standstill. The book includes a set of fascinating appendices on history, technology and language. Stirling, a prolific author, has also written other alternate histories, including the dark and violent Domination series and two enjoyable novels based on Venus (The Sky People, 2006) and Mars (In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, 2008) as the inhabitable planets they were imagined to be a century ago.

Lord DarcyRandall Garrett’s Lord Darcy novels (written in the 1960s and collected in one volume in 2002) have a big fantasy element (think CSI with magical technicians), but the world is the twentieth century as it might have been if King Richard the Lionheart had stayed home where he belonged, changing the course of British history with a long and successful reign. Lord Darcy himself has no magical Talent; he is a criminal investigator with a sorcerer assistant. Together they solve cases in tales full of in-jokes and references that will delight any mystery fan.

Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, 2006-2008)Farthing describes a world in which Britain made peace with Germany before WWII began, leading to a very different and dark mid-century. The books are mystery/thrillers tied together by a police detective with deep secrets of his own.

Harry Turtledove is the acknowledged master of alternate history, writing dozens of novels, many in long series, about everything from the survival of the Byzantine Empire to an alien invasion changing the course of the Second World War. Two on my shelf are Guns of the South (1992), in which time-travelers provide the Confederacy with AK-47s, and Ruled Britannia (2002), in which the Spanish Armada has conquered England, and Shakespeare is writing a play about King Philip. Turtledove has written something for everyone who loves history.

I could go on. And on. When I was planning this post I found a notice of a new book, Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler, a novel of nineteenth century intrigue in a world dominated by the Egyptian and Incan Empires. How could I resist that? Hence a trip to the bookstore (I bought a steampunk romance, too, as long as I was there.)

Sharing these books makes me want to read them again–that’s why they live on my keeper shelves. And while I’m at it, maybe I should take a shot at writing an alternate history romance. Heaven knows I’m becoming an expert at writing in subgenres no one knows how to sell.

For even more ideas, visit this list of The Most Unusual Alternate History Novels Ever Published.

HOW Old Was That Mattress?

We’ve all heard that we should replace our mattress every seven or eight years, but since we generally hear it from someone hoping to sell us a mattress, it sounds more like advertising than truth.  It has been slowly dawning on me, though, that my mattress might be aging faster than I am.

One day last week, after I spent yet another night sleeping fitfully, waking often, and getting up with a sore back and shoulder and even a bit of a headache, I thought, not for the first time, that my mattress might be a problem.  I knew it was old, bought well before Jack’s passing in 2002, but it still looked beautiful, it wasn’t saggy or lumpy or even stained.  Of course it hadn’t been flipped in years: turning a queen size mattress over is not a one-person job.

The thought of a replacing the mattress had crossed my mind over the last few months, but this time I did a little research.  My old SpringAir was a fine innerspring, but these days mattress construction is much more complicated, with layers of memory foam and gel, padded tops, cooling vents, and all sorts of new ideas (including no mattress turning!).  When I got home Thursday evening I opened the Filing Cabinet of Seldom Used Information and found a file marked “product info.”  About halfway through the stack I found the sales slip and brochure I was looking for.  I’d bought my mattress in March 1994.

Eight years may be a sales pitch, but twenty years really does seem to be a ripe old age for a mattress.  I’d paid slightly under a thousand dollars for the set, delivery and sales tax included, in 1994, and I’d certainly gotten my money’s worth.

But shopping for a mattress?  We’d bought the last one at a furniture store, but these days, at least in the Houston area, there’s a Mattress Firm shop wherever you look.  When I checked their web site store locater, I found five within a few miles of my house.  Seemed like a good place to start.

After looking over the offerings on the web site, I left the house on Friday prepared to look.  My Smart Shopper side was determined to take my time, window shop, compare all the options, maybe buy something next weekend.  My inner Impulse Buyer snuck my Discover card into my wallet.

So I found myself at the Mattress Firm Super Center in Webster, Texas, looking over a sea of beds, probably forty or fifty of them, with no idea where to start.  But the sales woman, Pamela Wells, has been in the business for fourteen years, and knows exactly what questions to ask.  She listened carefully and then pointed me toward a Simmons Beautyrest, which felt absolutely perfect.

Of course, Smart Shopper then dragged me around the showroom, with Pamela in tow, and made me lie down on half a dozen others, including the high-end TempurPedics (which actually felt a little creepy to me, but that’s why there are so many mattresses to choose from).  I didn’t bother to lie down on the set that cost almost $7000.  A good mattress is one thing; insanity is quite another.

And then I went back and stretched out on the first mattress again.  And it was good.  And it was in stock.  And I had my Discover card.  And there was even a sale going on in honor of some made-up bedding industry holiday.

There was an open spot on the delivery schedule, too, for Saturday afternoon.  The delivery men showed up on time (despite the rainy weather), and as Pamela predicted, they had the old set out and the new one installed in no more than ten minutes.

The new mattress is at least four inches thicker than the old one (which was four inches thicker than the bed it replaced twenty years ago), and the first fitted sheet I tried on it (an old favorite) didn’t fit.  My newer sheets are fine, and last night I climbed up there to try it out for real.

Nutmeg Avoiding the Invasion of the Mattress Men

Nutmeg Avoiding the Invasion of the Mattress Men

Was it an overnight miracle?  No, I won’t go that far.  I woke up a few times, and I still had a few twinges this morning.  But my back didn’t ache, the twinge in my shoulder was minimal, and I felt more rested than I have in a long time.  It has the Nutmeg seal of approval, too.  She didn’t join me until early this morning, but as soon as she ate breakfast, she was back on the bed for her regular morning nap.

So I’m happy with my purchase, and with my dealings with Mattress Firm.  (I add that because most people who mention a business on line are complaining about something.)  My only complaint is that the experience seems to have pushed one of my rarely-activated housekeeping buttons, and I’m now sitting here waiting for the couch cushion covers to make their way through the dryer cycle.  I am not looking forward to wrestling them back onto the cushions.

By the way, did you know that used mattresses are considered toxic waste?  Think about it.


Texas History, John Ford, and John Wayne

I didn’t see The Searchers when it was released in 1956.  It wasn’t the sort of Western anyone would take a child to see.  Fess Parker as Davy Crockett was more my speed in those days.  John Wayne was not one of my childhood heroes.  But when I finally did see the film on TV a few years ago, I was fascinated.  I not only bought a DVD copy of the movie, I hunted down and read the novel it was based upon, also called The Searchers, written by Alan LeMay and published in 1954.

Searchers - FrankelI’ve just finished reading Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, which tells the story from the historical background to the making of the movie, with several stops along the way.  The book appealed to my interests in Texas history, movies, and writing, and proved to be both satisfying and entertaining on all counts.

After a brief introduction, Frankel begins with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by Comanche raiders in 1836 and “rescued” in 1860 after twenty-four years and three children (the youngest of whom, her daughter Prairie Flower, was rescued with her).  Although Cynthia Ann, who never adjusted well to life with her relatives, left no record in her own voice, Frankel found unpublished papers written by her cousin Susan Parker St. John, which filled in many pieces of her story.  The background of The Searchers, however, is not so much Cynthia Ann’s story as it is the tale of those who looked for and eventually found her.

The book continues with a biography of Cynthia Ann’s surviving son, Quanah Parker.  Relatively little is known about Quanah’s youth (or the fate of his brother, Cynthia Ann’s middle child), but Frankel documents his career as the leader of the Comanche during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and his own search for his mother and her family.

Searchers - LeMayFrankel goes on to cover the career of novelist Alan LeMay before he dives into the stories of the men responsible for the movie, director John Ford and actor John Wayne, and the process of turning LeMay’s novel, set thirty years after the historical Parker story, into Ford’s film.  As a writer, and as someone who has both seen the movie and read the novel, I found this section especially interesting.  Some choices were obvious and commercial, while some were based more on the structural differences between written and visual story telling.

The descriptions of filming the story were just as fascinating.  No computers or CGI special effects in the early fifties, and very few roads into Monument Valley (this Texas story was filmed in Utah, as were many of Ford’s Westerns), Searchers - DVDwhere everything had to be brought in by truck and the heat often passed 100 degrees.  Behind the scenes were Ford’s struggles with his financial backers and his rather appalling treatment of his actors and technical people.

Woven through Frankel’s descriptions of history, movies, and the people who made both are the themes of the Western as American Legend: family and bigotry, heroism and violence, the clash of cultures, seen from both sides of the divide between the settlers and the Comanche.

I could hardly put the book down.  Now I want to read the novel and watch the movie again.

Recent Reading

I sat down this evening to write this post and found myself wandering off into an entirely different article.  That one’s not finished yet, but I’m back here for my occasional report of what I’ve been reading.  This morning I made the mistake of opening the Kindle App on my computer, and found myself staring at the vast array of books that I have downloaded, most of which I have not yet had time to read.  I’m not sure of the experience is discouraging, embarrassing, or just overwhelming.  (It doesn’t stop me from downloading more books, of course.  A few days ago I went on a minor binge and downloaded Blind Fury by Gwen Hernandez, Withholding Evidence by Rachel Grant, and Writing Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell.)

For the last few months I’ve only been working three or occasionally four days a week, and friends have asked if I’ve been catching up on my reading.  Alas, so far the answer appears to be No.  I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like, either.  I have, however, been getting a lot more sleep.

But I’ve managed a few books so far this year, and I’m reading three more as I write this (possibly having three books going at once isn’t the best habit, but I seem to be stuck with it.

Grave DangerGrave Danger is an excellent romantic suspense novel by Rachel Grant.  I particularly enjoy Rachel’s books because, like me, she has a background in contract archeology.  (We even went to the same school, Florida State University, although I was there mumble mumble decades earlier.)  In Grave Danger, archeologist  Libby Maitland has landed a great contract in a small town in the Pacific Northwest.  She can deal with the usual problems of the business, keeping the crew at work and the clients happy, but she’s got serious trouble this time: a burial where there shouldn’t be a burial, and a stalker no one else, especially not Police Chief Mark Colby, believes in.  Libby’s been stalked before, but is this the same man, or has she become entangled in something far bigger than a simple excavation project?  Grave Danger kept me turning the pages (or rather pressing the button on my Kindle) in search of the answers.

Bride of the Rat God, by Barbara Hambly, was as enjoyable this time around on my Kindle as it was when I first read it in Bride of the Rat Godpaperback twenty years ago (something I didn’t remember when I snagged it from the Kindle Daily Deal offerings recently).  It does eventually live up to its rather lurid title, with a cursed necklace, a Chinese wizard, and a powerful demon, but it is also a fascinating picture of Hollywood in the 1920s, when movies were silent, parties were noisy, and Chinatown was a mystery.  Not to mention the three gallant Pekingese dogs who help fight the demon.  Bride of the Rat God is full of eccentric but believable movie folk, silent movie production, and thoroughly spooky suspense.  There’s even a romance.

I even got around to updating the software on my Kindle this morning.  Good thing those files don’t weigh anything.  The  App on my computer says I have 214 items on my Kindle.  That’s kind of scary.

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