And More Cozies

You will have noticed by now, if you are a regular visitor, that I enjoy cozy mysteries. Here are three I’ve read recently, two new (to me, anyway) series and one I’ve been reading for quite a while.

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Rock BottomRock Bottom is the first in Jerusha Jones’ Imogene Museum cozy mystery series. I picked it up after seeing it on one of the several ebook sales emails I get every morning—I couldn’t resist the idea of a heroine who is the curator of a small town museum. Meredith Morehouse has left Seattle to live in a fifth wheel RV and run the museum in a small town in the Columbia River Gorge. The museum is a beautiful but old mansion—most of the plumbing in the fourteen original bathrooms has been disconnected for fear of leaks—and the globe trotting owner, Meredith’s boss, has just shipped another mysterious collection of crates from Europe. All is well with Meredith’s world, until her graduate student intern, Greg, vanishes somewhere between the museum where he works on weekends and the university where he studies anthropology.

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In a bit of a switch for a cozy mystery, Meredith doesn’t stumble over a dead body among the exhibits (although she does wonder about those chamber pots that insist on switching places when no one is watching). Instead, the story focuses on Greg’s disappearance, while Jones introduces a range of supporting characters who will, I presume, play their parts again in the six following books. The action doesn’t really heat up until fairly late in the book, but I enjoyed the build-up and the characters and setting—mystery fans will appreciate a dog named Tuppence rescuing a cat named Tommy—and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of the series.

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Here’s another new-to-me series by Waverly Curtis: The Barking Detective. Yep, anotherDial C For Chihuahua dog detective, and this one is a talking chihuahua. In the first installment, Dial C For Chihuahua, down on her luck recent divorcee Geri Sullivan adopts a chihuahua, part of a shipment of tiny dogs sent to Seattle from Los Angeles, where the fad for purse pups has apparently run its course.

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Imagine Geri’s surprise when little Pepe starts talking to her—and she understands every word. Well, nearly every word—her Spanish isn’t that great, so Pepe switches, mostly, to English. Geri has bigger things to worry about than possible sanity questions. She’s almost out of money, desperate enough to apply for a job with a private detective of questionable repute. In between recounting wild stories of his previous careers (as a search and rescue dog, a bull fighter, a circus performer, and a starlet’s pet, the last one possibly true), Pepe proves to be a surprising asset in the detecting business.

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Given the ridiculous premise, Waverly Curtis (actually a two-person writing team) did a dog-gone good job of pulling me into the story. Pepe is such a charmer, dragging Geri into one loony situation after another (not to mention his swaggering interactions with other dogs), that I’ll be following his further adventures.

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A Touch of MagicA Touch of Magic is the seventh novel in Annabel Chase’s charming Spellbound paranormal cozy mystery series, continuing the humor that runs through these tales of Emma Hart adjusting to her new life as a witch. This time around Emma tackles the case of the murder of a vampire mayoral candidate, helps a teenage nymph accused of animal cruelty, and uncovers some secrets about her own background. All the familiar characters are back, as the remedial witches try to create inventive spells of their own, with the expected—or rather unexpected—results.

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So many fun and entertaining series! How will I ever catch up with the ones I’ve started when I continue to find more?

 

Random Reviews: August

Back to short reviews: Here are a few of the books I’ve read over the last few weeks, in no particular order. I’ll be back with more in a few days.

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Sonali Dev’s A Distant Heart is a follow up to her previous novel, A Change of Heart, not quite as dark, but continuing the story of the organ theft ring which figured in that book. A A Distant HeartDistant Heart, set in contemporary Mumbai, tells the story of Kimi Patil, a heart transplant recipient, and Rahul Savant, a police officer working on the organ ring case. Kimi and Rahul met as children, and the novel switches back and forth between their growing friendship in the past (“a long time ago”) and current events (“present day”). The novel includes elements of romance and suspense, but remains mainstream at heart, beautifully written but rather slowly paced.

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I downloaded up Joseph Egan’s The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s because I enjoy early Hollywood tales, not because I know much about Mary Astor (I think I’ve only seen her in The Maltese Falcon), and I didn’t know much about her The Purple Diariesdiaries or her custody battle. Not much from the notorious “Purple Diaries” is reprinted in this book, and most of what was printed at the time was forged, but the story is interesting and kept me reading. It’s fascinating to see how the testimony at the custody hearing became wilder and wilder, and rose to the level of a national newspaper obsession for a few weeks in 1936. The writing is repetitious at times, and the proofreading mediocre, but I found the book entertaining.

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I picked up Hoax: A History of Deception, by Ian Tattersall and Peter Nevraumont, at my local Half Price Book store. Broken into 50 chapters, the book covers everything from harmless and amusing exploits to wild conspiracy theories to the downright dangerous (such as homeopathy and anti-vaccine Hoaxhysteria, two bits of nonsense I find very disturbing). Faked photographs, faked deaths, successful and unsuccessful forgeries, scams and con games, flat and hollow earth ideas, military trickery and so on all pop up in the book. In this age of “fake news” and apparent willingness to believe Big Lies, there’s a lot to be learned from hoaxes of the past.

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Very little is known about the life of Kate Warne, the first female operative with the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, but Greer MacAllister has done an impressive job of giving her a story in Girl in Disguise. The novel begins with Kate applying for the job,Girl in Disguise answering a newspaper ad that no one, least of all Allen Pinkerton, expected a woman to respond to. Earning the trust and respect of her male colleagues is no easy feat, but Kate perseveres, working on cases of all sorts, until the Civil War turns her into a spy. Along the way she meets characters both fictional and real (including Abraham Lincoln), contemplates the moral lines she may or may not be crossing, and confronts ghosts from her past. MacAllister draws a fascinating picture of the mid-nineteenth century, of the Pinkerton headquarters in Chicago, and of Washington society during the Civil War.

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I actually downloaded Girl in Disguise over a year ago and promptly lost track of it among the hundreds of books in my Amazon cloud. Now and then I open the Kindle app on my computer, which gives me a wide screen, full color view of my electronic library, and browse. The cover of Girl in Disguise caught my eye, and I’m glad it did. I will, however, never catch up.

 

There IS an App For That!

Sometime late in 2015 my car stalled, at a busy intersection at dusk, and I discovered just how hard it was to call AAA from my little Tracphone. (Fortunately, the car started after a few minutes, and I managed to cancel my call for help.) There must be an app for that, I thought, if only I had a phone that did apps.

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So a couple of months later I went to the local Verizon store and bought myself a very smart phone; among the first apps I downloaded was AAA. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

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Last Thursday, after driving my usual 30-mile commute into Houston for work and running some business errands, I came out of the post office to a car that refused to start. Not so much as a grumble. Turn the key to utter silence.

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Sudden battery death is not unheard of in the heat of a Houston summer. Maybe that was all it was, a simple fix, even though the battery had been checked recently when I had the oil changed. No need to panic. After all, I was in the parking lot of a post office, at 11:45 AM. There are definitely worse times and places to have car trouble. And I had my phone, and the AAA app.

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So I called Jo Anne to tell her I would not be back in the office for a while. Four minute discussion of options, which boiled down to the obvious “call AAA.”

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But why call when I had that smart app, right? Surely the app would be quicker and more efficient.

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Not so fast. When I opened the app, it asked for my PIN. Seriously? I have a PIN for AAA? I tried the default PIN I usually use when forced to come up with four digits, but that didn’t work. So I backed up and tried again. This time it asked for a password. Of course it did. And my original smart phone probably knew the password, but I had to replace that phone a couple of months ago, and the new phone didn’t have a clue. Nor did I.

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By this time a nice woman picking up her mail had noticed my problem and offered me the phone number for AAA. I had that, of course, right there in the app, but I had accepted a challenge. I was going to conquer that app in the air-conditioned comfort of the post office, in case I might need it some night on the side of the road.

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I circled around the app again and put in my AAA membership number. Aha, now it knew me, but it still wanted a password, so I went through the whole password reset routine, which involved the browser, the web site, and three emails.

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At long last, with a new password, I got into the business section of the app. That presented its own challenges. The phone’s GPS had sent a not-too-accurate location, and I had to ask a postal clerk for the correct street address. Then I discovered that I couldn’t just type “Toyota” into the vehicle description boxes—they all work on drop down lists. I finally managed that, and got an immediate response and an estimate of about an hour.

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Happily, it didn’t take nearly that long. After receiving one call from the subcontractor (who rattled off her standard message so fast that I had to ask her to repeat herself) and another from the driver, I saw a truck pull into the parking lot and stop behind my car.

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The driver, a big cheerful Latino guy with a tear in the right leg of his uniform trousers, hopped out of his truck and handed me a cold bottle of water. He checked the battery with some high-tech gadget and pronounced it perfect. Probably the starter, he said, sliding the driver’s seat back so he could wiggle into my Corolla. He then performed a magical feat involving the gear shift, and the car started. There was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would start again if I turned it off, he said.

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I didn’t like those odds, so I called Jo Anne. After stopping by her house so her helper could come out and get the mail I had picked up (I didn’t think to ask her to bring me my lunch, which is still sitting under my desk), I headed south to the Toyota dealership in League City, where they quickly discovered that the problem was indeed the starter (gee, it only lasted 240,000 miles—how many starts would that be?), which they had in stock (not always the case with parts for a 2004 Corolla). While I waited, I pulled out the phone yet again, made a couple of calls, opened the Kindle app, and downloaded the book I was currently reading. The book opened to where I’d left off on my Kindle the night before, and I read until the car was ready.

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My phone was expensive, and the monthly service isn’t cheap, either, but it sure comes in handy when I need it. Between the phone itself, the AAA app, my email, the texting app, and the Kindle app, I definitely put it through its paces on Thursday. I never leave home without it.

 

And the Golden Heart® Goes to . . .

In mid July my friend Jo Anne Banker and I went off to the national Romance Writers of America conference in Denver planning to see lots of friends we only meet once a year, attend a few workshops, maybe speak to an agent or editor here and there, eat a lot, and sleep not so much.

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We’ve both been involved in the Golden Heart® contest for unpublished writers several times over the past few years. Jo Anne was a finalist in 2011 (that year she won in the Contemporary Series category), 2015, and 2017, and I was a finalist in 2011, 2012, 2013, and now in 2018. Between us we know a lot of GH finalists, which has become quite a sisterhood over the years.

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But having made the finals four times, with four different manuscripts, once (in 2011) in the Historical category and three times in the Paranormal category, I was not expecting to win. I write light, humorous paranormal stories, entertaining, I hope, but not dark or angsty. And humor may be the most subjective of fields. One judge might crack up over my manuscript while another wonders what on earth I’m trying to say.

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So my expectations for the conference revolved around meeting the Persisters (the 2018 “class” of GH finalists) and reconnecting with the women (although a few men have been Persisters PinGH finalists over the years, there have been none in my classes) I’ve met through the contest in previous years. The Golden Network, the RWA chapter for GH finalists, holds a retreat every year at the beginning of the conference, a morning of inspirational pep talks, panel discussions, and socializing, always one of my favorite conference activities. And of course, we planned to attend at least a few of the enormous number of workshops going on nearly nonstop from Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning.

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The presentation of the Golden Heart Awards came at lunch on Thursday. As a finalist I had a seat up front and a ticket for one friend, so Jo Anne and I settled in together to eat and watch the awards. (Two other members of the Houston Bay Area Chapter were also finalists: Leslie Marshman in Romantic Suspense and Sara Neiss in Short Contemporary.)

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“Do you have something written down?” Jo Anne asked me. “An acceptance speech?”

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“Of course not,” I said. “No way I’m going to win. I’ve read blurbs for the other entries. They’re all great, much more serious and inventive than mine.”

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“Eat your lunch,” Jo Anne said. “You don’t want to go up there with food in your teeth.”

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“I’m not going up there, Jo Anne,” I repeated. “Not a chance.”

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By the time Pintip Dunn, the Emcee of the program, reached the Paranormal category (after three industry awards and four GH categories), I had finished lunch and was curious to see what my selfie—I’ve never gotten around to having a professional head shot taken—would look like on the jumbotron (there were about two thousand people at the lunch, and very few of us could actually see the stage).

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Pintip read off the finalist manuscript titles and their authors as they showed on the jumbotron, and then opened an envelope and read, “And the Golden Heart goes to . . . Jinn on the Rocks by Kay Hudson.”

 

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I was stunned. I managed to stand up and make it to the stage without falling off. Someone took pictures of Pintip handing me the little jeweler’s box containing the—my—Golden Heart necklace and the envelope with the announcement—just like the Oscars!—and then I found myself at the podium, looking out at that huge crowd, many of whom were cheering, bless their hearts.

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“I Am Stunned.” I know I started out with that. I know I thanked my local friends who were there (making Gerry Bartlett temporarily famous for nagging me . . . and taking me shopping), my chapters, my GH groups. I think I went on to talk about RWA for a couple of minutes, but I honestly don’t remember that part. I’ll have to watch when RWA posts the recording of the ceremony. Apparently I did all right—at least I didn’t fall off the stage—because friends and total strangers told me so.

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I had intended to go to a workshop after lunch, but somehow I didn’t make it. I managed to get up on the stage again that evening, with the rest of the GH winners, when we were recognized during the RITA® Awards for published books, but fortunately we weren’t expected to say anything.

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The rest of the Conference was anything but a letdown. I went to workshops, met with Necklaceagents, had meals and visits with friends, and even got some sleep. I didn’t need to visit the local pot dispensary to stay high—I was floating. And playing with that necklace, half afraid someone would pop up and say, “Oops, we made a mistake, give it back.” I wore it for a week, and I’ll wear it again, often.

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The only disappointment at the Conference was the RWA Board’s announcement that next year will be the last Golden Heart Contest. The publishing industry is changing faster that anyone can measure, yes, but we don’t understand this decision. RWA has always been supportive of its unpublished members, and those of us who have benefited, made friends, finished manuscripts because of the Golden Heart hate to see it go.

 

Three Mysteries

Valentine Beaumont goes to sea in Arlene McFarlane’s Murder, Curlers & Cruises. When Murder, Curlers & Cruisesshe wins passage on a beauty cruise for her salon, she sets out with Max, Jock, and Phyllis, all of them competing in an onboard makeover contest (with Valentine’s family tagging along). When one of the contestants turns up dead in an ice sculpture and Valentine’s great aunt goes missing, Valentine’s sleuthing skills rise to the occasion, along with a bottle of nail polish remover and a very sturdy nail file. To add to Valentine’s dismay, she’s pretty sure something’s going on with Romero and a cop named Belinda, and who’s leaving that trail of Tic Tacs around the ship? And just how did Valentine’s stilettos end up on that ceiling fan? Another fun adventure, number three in the Murder & Curlers series.

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Lowcountry Bookshop, the seventh book in Susan M. Boyer’s Liz Talbot series, begins with what appears to be a simple hit-and-run case (not that the circumstances in which Liz and Nate enter the case are so simple) but quickly morphs into something far more Lowcountry Bookshopcomplicated. Was the hit-and-run victim an abusive husband? Is the slightly eccentric mail carrier as innocent as she appears to Liz, or as guilty as she appears to the Charleston police detective handling the case? What’s going on at the bookshop, where there appears to be an inexplicably high demand for The Ghosts of Charleston? Why is the blonde in the Honda stalking the mail carrier? And that’s only the beginning.

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Most of this story takes place in Charleston (one almost needs a street map of the city to follow the action), but we do visit Stella Maris long enough to see what antics Liz’ father is up to (involving a pig, three goats, and a large hole in the backyard). Liz’ brother and sister pop in, as does Colleen, Liz’ long dead but still active best friend. Another excellent entry in the Lowcountry series.

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Julie Mulhern’s Shadow Dancing is the seventh installment in the Country Club Murders series,set in Kansas City in the 1970s. Ellison Russell and her sixteen-year-old daughter Shadow DancingGrace have an uncomfortable habit of finding bodies, but as this book opens, it’s been quite a while. It’s also been quite a while since Ellison has seen Detective Anarchy Jones. And she’s not entirely sure how she feels about that. The situation changes when Ellison’s socialite mother finds an unidentified box of ashes in her hall closet. A visit to a psychic and a minor traffic incident lead Ellison back into the world of investigating murders, especially when a body turns up on her own driveway. All this may upset her mother, but it also brings Anarchy Jones back to her door.

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Shadow Dancing includes Mulhern’s usual wit and humor, with Grace’s wisecracks, her friend Libba’s terrible taste in men, and some unwelcome surprises for her mother. Mulhern also investigates the serious subject of human trafficking an teen prostitution, as Ellison and Grace do their best to help a girl who calls herself Starry Knight.

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The Country Club Murders is one of my favorite series, with its pre-Internet and cell phone setting. I have not yet read the first book in Mulhern’s new series, Fields’ Guide to Abduction, but it’s waiting on my Kindle.

 

Hollywood and Texas

A while back I read an excellent book on The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend, by Glenn Frankel, so when I saw a review of Don Graham’s Giant, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film (wow, what a subtitle!), I ordered a copy.

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I enjoyed both books very much, but they are quite different in their approaches. Frankel’s The Searchers devotes half the book to the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the historical background/inspiration for Alan Lemay’s novel, and another section on adapting that novel for the screen (I’ve read the novel, and the second half differs wildly from the movie), with the last third covering the actual making of the movie (which is set in Texas but was filmed in Utah).

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GiantGraham’s Giant, on the other hand, has no real background history to deal with, although both films, released in the second half of the 1950s, deal strongly with the racism of the time. Graham does deal with the troubles inherent in adapting Ferber’s long novel (which I have not read) to the screen in such a manner that it would not be blackballed in Texas (the novel was very cutting in its treatment of the state) and that it would not provoke law suits from the King Ranch and the Kleberg family (moving the setting from the coastal plain near Corpus Christi to barren West Texas near Marfa was a big part of that effort, and gave us that iconic image of the mansion surrounded by . . . nothing).

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The bulk of Graham’s Giant is about the people involved: Taylor, in her early twenties, on her second marriage, barely out of her child actress status; Hudson, in his late twenties, still learning his craft; Dean, in his third and last picture, a maze of contradictions; Ferber, who participated actively in the adaptation but hated much of it, feeling it softened the core of the novel too much; and director George Stevens, trying to make an epic film while wrangling so many personalities.

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The book contains mini-biographies of Taylor and Hudson (both interesting people who remained lifelong friends), but at the center of the story is James Dean, who would be killed in a road accident on September 30, 1955, at the age of 24, before the picture was finished (and before Rebel Without a Cause was released) turning him into a Hollywood legend and a lasting enigma. Was he a sullen, scruffy bad boy? A lost child? A potentially great actor? Who knows? Graham appears to have interviewed everyone who knew Dean (and dug up old interviews with those no longer alive), and found no consensus. Humphrey Bogart may have been right when he said, “Dean died at just the right time. He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he’d never have been able to live up to his publicity.”

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I haven’t watched Giant in many years, and I don’t have a DVD copy, but one of these evenings (when I have three hours plus to spare) I’ll stream it on Amazon. There is also an excellent PBS documentary on the filming of the movie and its effect on Marfa, Children of Giant, available on Amazon Prime.

 

Scattered Science Fiction

The science fiction genre encompasses as much variety of content and style as any other, and I enjoy most of them. Here are three quite different examples I’ve read recently.

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Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series (which treats its dragons as wild animals rather than Within the Sanctuary of Wingsthe sentient beings so popular in science fiction and fantasy) is set in a world comparable to our own in many ways but wildly different in others. I let Within the Sanctuary of Wings sit on my shelf for a long time, and took my time reading it, knowing it was the last of the series; I didn’t want it to end. This fifth volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs started a bit slowly, but in good time Isabella makes her greatest discovery, and with the help of her loyal supporting cast solves the problems that come along with it.

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I wouldn’t recommend this as a stand alone–you want to read the whole series. In fact, I want to read them all again, one of these days, without the yearly wait for the next volume. My only complaint about the series is with Tor’s decision to print the books in odd-colored inks (brownish, reddish, or blueish) probably to better serve the wonderful illustrations, but a bit hard on older eyes.

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If you’ve been following the action in Veronica Scott’s science fiction romance novels set in the Sectors universe, adventures on far flung star ships and colony planets, you’ll Songbirdrecognize some of the supporting actors in Star Cruise: Songbird, a novella originally published in the Pets In Space anthology, but the story works perfectly well as a stand alone. The pet in this tale is Valkyr, a telepathic Qaazimir war eagle bonded to Grant Barton, recently retired from the Sectors military and now working security on the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr. Grant finds himself handling ship-board security for celebrity entertainer Karissa Dawnstar, a famous and widely beloved singer. Not exactly what he signed on for, but his instincts—and Valkyr’s—take over in the face of developments. What is more dangerous, a mob of adoring fans, a lovelorn stalker, or a pair of strangely devoted monks?

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I thoroughly enjoy Scott’s tales, and this one was no exception. Valkyr is as much a character as the hero and heroine, and even manages a bit of romance himself. I’m not sure I’d want to sign on for a cruise on the Nebula fleet—you never know what disaster awaits—but they certainly are fun to read about.

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Lois McMaster Bujold’s long standing series centered around Miles Vorkosigan has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She writes of humanity (if sometimes genetically modified) spread widely through the universe, and the books vary from military science fiction to science fiction romance.

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The Flowers of VashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi is a novella, a little gift from Bujold to her legion of fans. Set after Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, it follows Ekaterin Vorkosigan’s discoveries in the radiation-riddled Vashnoi territory and her attempts to bring about restoration of the land. Miles makes a brief appearance, but this is Ekaterin’s story. Someday I’m going to find the time to reread the entire Vorkosigan saga.

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As the years go by (that is, since 2011, when I bought my first Kindle), I find myself reading more and more on e-readers. Along with the general ease of handling and reading, access to hundreds of books on a gadget that fits in my purse, and the instant gratification of downloading a book whenever I want it, I find the easy availability of novellas like Scott’s and Bujold’s to be a real benefit.

 

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