Retail Memories

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about the changes in the retail industry, as so many sales move from brick and mortar stores to the convenience of shopping via computer, and those neighborhood stores seem to fall like dominoes. I hadn’t given it much thought until I read a story in the Chronicle business section this morning about the long and possibly terminal decline of Sears.

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Back in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Florida State, I worked at the Sears on Coral Way in Coral Gables, Florida. It felt like a step up from the previous summer, when I worked in the office of a small department store, part of a local chain called Jackson Byrons. At Sears I worked in the cash office, filling and handing out pay envelopes. Yes, back then Sears paid its employees in cash, and my job involved accepting the cash from the registers on the floor, running it through the counting machines, and making up the pay envelopes. A larger office next to ours handled all the checks and Sears credit card transactions. In 1967, that was it—cash, checks, and Sears cards.

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It was not an exciting job, but I liked the women I worked with, and I didn’t have to work on the sales floor, a job I am totally unsuited for and have successfully avoided all my life. In fact I seriously considered bailing on my college career and staying on at Sears, encouraged by Mabel, the kind-hearted woman who ran the office. My parents did not think that was a Good Idea, and eventually neither did I. (Maybe the dress code was the final straw—dresses, stockings, and high heels.)

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My next encounter with Sears was not so pleasant. A few years later, living in New Orleans while I attended grad school at Tulane and Jack worked on an archeological project in the French Quarter, I innocently tried to change the Sears charge account I had had for several years to my married name. Sears’ reaction was to close my account and offer to open one for Jack. This was not uncommon in the 70s—the same thing happened to a friend of mine when she attempted to replace a card her dog had chewed on—and it inspired me to open accounts of my own as soon as the credit industry began to recognize married women as independent people. (The Discover Card was one of the first, and I’ve had mine since 1990.)

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Sears used to be the Go To place for appliances—in fact, my dad bought a refrigerator on my employee discount—but no more. The Big Box stores are just easier. I bought my current refrigerator at Conn’s (I was in a hurry and they had quick delivery; as I found out later, they had very slow service) and my washer and dryer at Best Buy. I haven’t shopped at the Sears nearest me, in Baybrook Mall, in years, partly (and ironically) because Baybrook is still a healthy mall, the stores and the parking lots always crowded.

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Every time I drive into Houston, I see, from the lofty viewpoint of the freeway, the freestanding downtown Sears store that opened in 1939. I have never set foot in it, although I have lived here for forty years. I wouldn’t know how to reach it via the surface streets (well, it’s at Richmond and Main, I could figure it out). It was once, they say, the epitome of elegance, art deco exterior, interior decorated with murals, escalators connecting all the floors, and, surely a treat in Houston in 1939, air conditioned.

Sears Downtown 1940

The downtown Houston Sears circa 1940

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Sometime in the 1960s, management chose to cover the entire exterior, including the windows which once housed lavish displays, with corrugated metal. Today it looks, as a writer for the Chronicle described it, like a store wrapped in cardboard, as it sits alone in a part of the city that was once a shopping mecca but is no more.

Sears Downtown

The downtown Houston Sears today

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Here in Houston, Sakowitz is long gone. Foley’s was swallowed by Macy’s, which is now closing stores. Montgomery Ward is gone. Borders Books more recently. Whole shopping malls have been torn down or repurposed as something else entirely.

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Back when I was handing pay envelopes to my fellow workers at Sears, none of us could have imagined the Internet, or a computer in every home, much less on line sales hubs or the Amazon app on my smartphone. Maybe home delivery by drone really is right around the corner.

John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Reboot

Several years ago when I heard that John Scalzi had published Fuzzy Nation, a retelling of H. Beam Piper’s much loved 1962 classic Little Fuzzy, my first thought was Why? My second thought was No Thanks.

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Little Fuzzy and its 1964 sequel The Other Human Race (published together as The Fuzzy Papers) has remained on my keeper shelf for decades and multiple readings. Although Piper wrote numerous novels and short stories between 1947 and 1964, influencing many of the science fiction writers who came after him, he is probably best remembered for his Fuzzy tales. Other authors stepped in after Piper’s 1964 suicide and wrote Fuzzy sequels, which were knocked out of Piper’s time line by his own third Fuzzy novel, Fuzzies and Other People, discovered long after his death and published in 1984. (That one is on my shelf, too, along with The Complete Paratime, Piper’s Paratime Police/alternate timeline series.)

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Recently, though, I’d heard so much praise for Scalzi’s work that I picked up his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, from the New Book kiosk at my local Half Price Books. Fuzzy NationLooked interesting, so I went back to the science fiction section to see what else they had and found a copy of Fuzzy Nation. Well, why not, I thought. If I hate it, I don’t have to read it.

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I didn’t hate it. I loved it.

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In his author’s note, Scalzi calls Fuzzy Nation a reimagining of Piper’s story, a “reboot” not unlike the recent Star Trek movies. I’ve enjoyed those, despite being a Trek fan since the premier of the original series. And I hadn’t read Piper’s stories in at least twenty years (so little time, so many books on my To Be Read shelves, and on my Kindle, and on my Keep To Reread shelves, and people keep writing new ones).

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Fuzzy Nation is indeed a reimagining of the story. It does begin with prospector Jack Holloway discovering a huge seam of sunstones on the apparently uninhabited planet Zarathustra XXIII. And Jack Holloway does indeed meet a family of Fuzzys (Scalzi’s rebooted spelling), adorable, clever, cuddly creatures vaguely resembling large bipedal cats. And Scalzi’s story, like Piper’s, revolves around the question of Fuzzy sentience. If the Fuzzys are people, Zara 23 will no longer be an uninhabited planet, and all the rules for its exploitation will change.

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Scalzi’s Holloway isn’t quite the same person as Piper’s, nor are Scalzi’s Fuzzys, not that they’ve lost any of their intrinsic charm. The supporting cast is completely different, the characters more developed than Piper’s. Not to mention Holloway’s amiable dog, Carl, who lets the Fuzzys into the cabin through his doggy door (when he’s not setting off explosives on command).

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Scalzi has also brought the sensibilities and technology of the story up to date. A lot has changed in the last fifty years, from computers to ecological awareness. He has also added at least two more sentient species to the story (although we don’t meet them), along with the warning story of a possible third which was exterminated before its existence could disrupt the exploitation of its world.

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If you read Piper’s Fuzzy stories back in the day, don’t be put off by Fuzzy Nation. Scalzi’s love and respect for the original is clear, and the book was written with the approval of Piper’s literary estate. If you’ve never even heard of Piper (alas, sadly possible these days), you need no prior knowledge to enjoy Fuzzy Nation.

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I liked Scalzi’s approach and style so much that I ordered a copy of his 2013 Hugo Award winning novel, Redshirts. I mean, how could an old Trek fan not love that title? I’ll keep you posted.

Dave Barry’s Florida

The other day while I was poking around the recent hardback shelves at Half Price Books, adding to my lifetime supply of unread books, I stumbled over Dave Barry’s Best. State. Ever., subtitled “A Florida Man Defends His Homeland,” a clear shot at all those “Florida Man” news headlines that have cropped over over the last few years. Barry quotes a lovely collection of these in his introduction, including such gems as “Florida Man Sets Home on Fire with Bomb Made from Bowling Ball,” “Florida Man Seen Trying to Sell Live Shark in Grocery Store Parking Lot,” and my personal favorite, “Florida Man Says He Danced on Patrol Car in Order to Escape Vampires.”

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Barry is not a native Floridian (surprisingly few people of our generation are), moving to Miami in the early 1980s. Neither am I, but I lived in the Sunshine State (as it was then known—Barry says it is now called the Joke State) from the beginning of fifth grade until I graduated from Florida State University, some years before Barry’s arrival from the North. I began migrating around the Gulf Coast, and Barry began writing humor for the Miami Herald.

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I’m firmly rooted in Texas now, but I’ve kept a soft spot for Florida. So I couldn’t resist Barry’s take on the state. And he is, as always, hilarious.

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After an introduction in which he describes phone calls from people in states which have had to build new prison wings to house their convicted office holders, demanding to know “What’s wrong with Florida?” he goes into a brief (and hilariously off-the-wall) history of the state, and then on through the Everglades to the tiny community of Ochopee, home of the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. There he meets alligators, turtles, and a few human beings, but no skunk apes. He is not surprised, but he’s having a great time.

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Barry goes on to describe, in laugh-out-loud detail, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs and the sponges of Tarpon Springs, rating tourist attractions in terms of one to five out-of-order Mold-a-Matic machines (apparently there are very few functional Mold-a-Matics).

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One spot Barry visits that I had never even heard of is Cassadaga, a Spiritualist community which bills itself as the Psychic Capital of the World. His analysis of his psychic reading from a woman not really named Judy is a scream, and the pet psychic who analyzes his dog Lucy from a photo is even funnier (“In short, to summarize what Lucy’s aura reveals, as seen by a professional in the psychic field: Lucy is a dog.”).

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Barry then turns his attention to a retirement community known as The Villages and to Gatorland, near Orlando, which receives a rating of 4 out of 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics, in part for having a Mold-A-Matic that actually works, producing a toy “made of what appears to be radioactive mucus, of a hat-wearing man who appears to be having sex with an alligator.” (There is a photo; this appears to be an accurate description.)

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Back in Miami, Barry and his brother-in-law visit The Machine Gun Experience, to which he awards an amazing 6 out of 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics. And then a visit to a night club (where Barry and his wife are unquestionably the oldest people there, and would never have been admitted without help from the owner), and finally a trip to Key West, “Florida’s Florida—the place way down at the bottom where the weirdest of the weird end up.”

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If you’ve ever read Dave Barry, you know how funny he is. If you’ve ever read the wild Florida novels of Carl Hiaasen, this is the non-fiction—really!—version. Barry even mentions in passing the incident which spawned the title character of Hiaasen’s novel Razor Girl. I don’t know if I would find humor about, say, Idaho nearly this funny, but if you have any connection to Florida, don’t miss Best. State. Ever.

Sonali Dev: A Change of Heart

A Change of Heart is Sonali Dev’s third novel, and it is far darker than her previous novels, A Bollywood Affair and The Bollywood Bride. It tells the story of two terribly damaged people with a faint but real change of overcoming pain and deception to heal each other.

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Dr. Nikhil Joshi (whom we met in Bollywood Bride) has spent the past two years as medical officer on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, wallowing in grief, guilt, and Jack A Change of HeartDaniels since the death of his wife, Jen, who was brutally murdered on the street in Mumbai. One night on the ship he sees a woman who resembles Jen. Her name is Jess, and she tells him that Jen’s heart is beating in her chest; she has the scar to prove it.

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Unlike Nik, who grew up in a comfortable and loving Indian American family in Chicago, Jess has moved from Kathmandu to Calcutta to Mumbai, fleeing poverty and violence, not always successfully. Now she has a decent job as a chorus dancer in Bollywood films, a seven-year-old son who must never know how he was conceived, and a mission to find the evidence of an organ theft ring that Jen had gathered and died for, no matter what it takes.

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Nik and Jess’ relationship, from the cruise ship to their search for the missing evidence among Jen’s belongings in Chicago, is painful and hard. The novel depicts violence against women as well as the organized organ theft Jen had discovered.

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A Change of Heart is a far darker book than I usually enjoy, but it is deeply emotional and beautifully written, and I couldn’t put it down until all its mysteries were untangled.

Three Murders & a Death

Arlene McFarlane’s Murder, Curlers & Cream introduces Valentine Beaumont, beautician and amateur detective. It’s not that Valentine wants to be a sleuth—she’s already trying to live down a past incident involving a killer and a perm rod—but she’s got problems. Murder, Curlers & CreamBusiness is down, the mortgage on her salon is due, and she’s short of rent money. She’s also saddled with the world’s worst employee, a distant cousin she can’t quite bring herself to fire, despite regular disasters, and a rival salon owner trying to poach her best employee. But all that takes a back seat to the client waiting for a facial, found dead with an electric cord around her throat.

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Desperate to restore her salon’s good reputation (before the bank forecloses on the shop and her landlord kicks her out of her house), Valentine sets out to solve the case, armed only with her bag of beauty tools. Her plan leads to more problems, not the least of which is handsome police detective Mike Romero, who thinks Valentine should stick to the beauty business.

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She tries, but between a fire, an explosion, and another murder, she can’t seem to avoid trouble. This is a delightful first installment of Valentine’s adventures. And by the time you finish reading about the potential weaponization of various beauty products, you may think twice before your next salon visit.

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Death, Taxes, and Sweet Potato Fries is another hilarious installment in the saga of Tara Holloway, gun-toting IRA agent. This time she’s dealing with human smugglers, Death, Taxes, and Sweet Potato Frieskidnapped girls, fake 1099 forms, an addictive Spanish telenovela, and, of course, those sweet potato fries. Perhaps scariest of all, her mother has teamed up with Nick’s mom to plan The Wedding.

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I love this series, and it never lets me down. This is number 11, and Kelly promises one more, Death, Taxes, and a Shotgun Wedding, in November. And when you’ve caught up with Tara’s adventures, don’t miss Kelly’s series of K9 mysteries, featuring Megan Luz and Brigit.

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I read all the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout back in the day, and Robert Goldsborough has done a good job of picking up where Stout left off. Murder in E Minor is set in 1977, Muder in E Minortwo years after Stout’s last installment (A Family Affair), and I had to do a little research (you can find out just about anything on line) to catch up with the events mentioned in the book. Wolfe is lured into taking on his first case in two years by the niece of a man he knew back in Montenegro.

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I’ve only read a couple of Goldsborough’s books (I have more waiting on my Kindle), but so far I think he’s done an excellent job of capturing Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe, and all their associates (none of whom have aged a day since Stout began writing about them in 1934). I’m enjoying returning to the old brownstone on West 35th Street.

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I know I read all the Mr. & Mrs. North mysteries back in the day, so I picked this ebook edition up on sale for a nostalgia read. Murder Out of Turn was published in 1941, only the Murder Out of Turnsecond of the 26 installments Frances and Richard Lockridge eventually wrote, and I suspect they hadn’t quite hit their form yet. The main character in the book is actually Lt. Weigand of the NYPD; the Norths (often referred to rather formally as Mrs. North and Mr. North) are really supporting characters. The book is rather slowly paced (at least until the last couple of chapters), wandering off into detailed descriptions of martinis and such, and definitely old fashioned. Nostalgic indeed, but not enough to send me off in pursuit of more of the series. In my opinion, Rex Stout and Agatha Christie hold up better.

Writer Wednesdays: Favorite Phone Apps

The Wednesday Writers are back, with a new list of slightly wacky topics for 2017. This month we’re asking one another “what is your favorite phone app?”

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WW 2017

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It was the prospect of phone apps that pushed me to move to a smart phone after years of carrying a basic Tracfone in my purse. I insisted for years that I didn’t want or have any use for a cell phone, until I started commuting to a job thirty miles from home. Shortly after I found myself marooned on the side of the freeway at twilight, waiting for a Good Samaritan to happen by and tow me to safety, I bought that first Tracfone.

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I seldom used it. Didn’t give out the number. Didn’t even turn it on very often. And then one evening, twilight again, about a year and a half ago, my car stalled on the way to an RWA chapter meeting. And I found out just how hard it was to contact AAA, and to punch in my account number, on that little phone (my sister-in-law swears I somehow called her before I got AAA).

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There must, I thought, be an app for this.

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phone apps 1So about a year ago, I finally marched into the local Verizon store, bought an expensive phone (an LG V10), and signed up for service. Among the first apps I downloaded were AAA and my car insurance company. Thankfully, I have yet to use either one of them.

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I still don’t make many phone calls with my cell phone, but I have learned to text. I give out the number now. I get robo-calls, which I have learned to recognize and ignore.

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But I certainly use the phone, the little computer I carry in my purse or park on my kitchen counter. I check my email and Facebook with it when I’m away from my computer (or my Internet connection goes down), but I don’t use Twitter or Instagram. I’ve never even opened any of the games that came with it. I don’t have any music on the phone, and I don’t watch videos. I use the Kindle app now and then, usually when I’ve forgotten my Kindle. Last summer I used the RWA Conference app quite a bit, and it’s still on the phone.

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I use the calendar all the time, and I’ve developed an obsession with the Google maps timeline feature, since the day I was startled to discover that the phone knew where I was. Most of the time. For some reason the maps app is convinced that my phone wanders off from time to time, usually at night, and apparently without me. But as long as I keep an eye on its roving, I find it a useful record of where (and when) I’ve been from day to day.

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My bank app makes it super easy to deposit my weekly paycheck from my kitchen counter. And speaking of the kitchen, I no longer keep a grocery list on the refrigerator door, where I all too often left it when I went out to shop. Now everything goes on the QuickMemo app as soon as I think of it, and I always have my shopping list with me.

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But I think my favorite app is the camera. My last Tracfone included a camera, but I never phone apps 2used it because I had no way to transfer the pictures out. (There probably was one, but the useless operating manual kept it a dark secret. It also claimed it could reach the Internet, but I never succeeded in making that happen.) The camera on my smart phone (far better than the digital camera I never remembered to carry with me) takes beautiful pictures and easily sends them to email addresses, Facebook, or someone else’s phone. I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured out half of what that camera will do. But I always have it with me, and I frequently remember to use it.

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What do you use your phone for? Any great apps I should know about?

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For more favorite phone apps, visit this month’s Wednesday Writers: Tamra Baumann, Pamela Kopfler, Priscilla Oliveras, T L Sumner, and Sharon Wray.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire

I didn’t discover Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels until the first three books had been published and I picked up an omnibus edition from the Science Fiction Book Club, back in 2006. It was with some regret that I read the ninth and last novel in the series, League of Dragons. I hate to see the saga end.

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The quick description of the series is hard to resist: “the Napoleonic Wars—with dragons.” The dragons are sentient and vary in size, with some able to carry large crews of soldiers. The British dragons are organized into the Aerial Corps; dragon-borne forces have become a mainstay of warfare, but the dragons and their captains and crews remain largely outside the traditional military social structure.

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In the first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon (2006), Royal Navy Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship carrying a precious dragon egg intended for Bonaparte himself. TemeraireWhen the dragonet Temeraire hatches prematurely and bonds with the captain, Laurence finds he must leave his Naval career behind to join the Aerial Corps, a tight-knit organization very much separate from the rest of the British military.

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In Throne of Jade (2006), Laurence and Temeraire travel to China, to discover Temeraire’s origins, and step into intrigue at the Emperor’s court. Black Powder War (2006) takes them to Istanbul to bring three precious dragon eggs back to Britain.

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In Empire of Ivory (2007) an epidemic strikes the dragon population, and Laurence and Temeraire travel to Africa in search of a cure. Victory of Eagles (2008) brings new troubles all around: Laurence has been convicted of treason, he and Temeraire have been separated, and Napoleon has invaded England.

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Tongues of Serpents (2010) sees Temeraire and Laurence transported to Australia, taking with them three dragon eggs intended to establish a new dragon covert in the colony. There they meet the recently overthrown military governor, William Bligh, who tries to enlist their help in restoring himself to office. A survey expedition into the outback brings more surprises.

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In Crucible of Gold (2012), Laurence and Temeraire are restored to their positions in the Aerial Corps and sent on a mission to Brazil, where the Portuguese rulers have been besieged by invaders from Africa. On the way they find themselves in the midst of danger in the Incan Empire.

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Blood of Tyrants (2013) finds Laurence shipwrecked in Japan, with no memory of the last few years, while Temeraire searches for him. Reunited, they travel west to Moscow, where Napoleon has turned on the Tsar, his former ally. The last volume, League of Dragons league-of-dragons(2016) wraps up the long war and the many other story lines.

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Such a brief listing can’t possibly convey the joys of this series. The alternate history is detailed and believable (well, dragons, sure) and the culture of the Aerial Corps is fascinating (there are some breeds of dragons who will only accept female captains).

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Most of all, though, I love the characters, the dragons even more than the humans. Laurence is very much the British officer and gentleman, concerned above all with honor and duty. Temeraire is practical, concerned with everyday matters—and with the condition of dragons as they strive to be accepted as partners and fellow citizens rather than possessions or slaves.

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The dragon characters’ personalities vary as much as the humans, as do their lives in various parts of the world. The cultures of the dragons and their relations with humans vary from place to place, and there are “feral” dragons who owe allegiance to no one but themselves.

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The quality of Novik’s writing is always excellent; the plots vary a bit, one or two reading more like filler than novel. But the characters and the exploration of an alternate history so fascinatingly different from our own never failed me. League of Dragons answered all the questions I had and brought the story full circle. I may just have to find time to read the whole series again one of these years.

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