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.

Gothic revival: In the Shadow of Lakecrest

Last night I dreamed Lakecrest was on fire. Elizabeth Blackwell’s In the Shadow of Lakecrest begins with this bit of homage to Daphne du Maurier and Rebecca, but Blackwell puts her own spin on the Gothic novel, and quite a ride it is.

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in-the-shadow-of-lakecrestKate Moore, Blackwell’s narrator, is a bit of a gold digger. She has survived a rough childhood with one ambition: find a wealthy man, marry him, and escape the past. Her past is indeed full of secrets, right down to her true name.

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When she meets Matthew Lemont on an Atlantic crossing in the summer of 1928, she is traveling as a governess, only allowed in the first class areas of the ship in the company of her temporary charges. A flirtation follows, and suddenly Kate is catching a ride to Chicago in Matthew’s family train car.

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Kate is an honest gold digger. She doesn’t love Matthew—in fact she has a few misgivings about him from the very beginning—but she likes him well enough, and when he asks her to marry him she accepts his proposal with every intention of holding up her end of the bargain.

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That seems easy enough living in his apartment in Chicago, but his family’s bizarre, decaying mansion on the shore of Lake Michigan—comprised of more architectural styles than Kate can count, and guarded by gargoyles—and his controlling mother are enough to make her wonder if she can abide by her decision.

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Lakecrest is full of family secrets, and Kate has no idea who she can trust. But then Kate has secrets of her own to protect.

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I have a confession to make here. Although back in the day I gobbled up the Gothic tales of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, the had-I-but-known mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, and the suspense stories of Phyllis A. Whitney, I have never read Rebecca. I’ve never even seen the movie. All I know is that famous first line, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. So on the way to the grocery store, I stopped at Half Price Books and picked up a copy to add to my vast waiting collection of Books To be Read.

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If you enjoy Gothic novels, old or new, pick up In the Shadow of Lakecrest.

Seven Months of Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the beginning of the original series. I was in college then, without easy access to a TV, and it probably took me years to catch all the episodes (mostly on black and white sets back in the day). Since then I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek and The Next Generation an embarrassing number of times. I can nearly recite the dialog along with most of them. On the other end, I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Scott Bakula, I never really warmed up to Enterprise.

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But I loved Voyager and Deep Space Nine, both long off the air. I’d seen all of Voyager, but not since its original run, and I’d missed big chunks of Deep Space Nine, which was shown in syndication and probably moved around the schedule a lot. So I chortled with glee last July when the oldie channel Heroes & Icons announced it would be showing all five series six nights a week, straight through in their original order. Voyager wrapped up (and started again from the beginning) last week, Deep Space Nine this week, and it was great fun to watch the whole sagas in seven months instead of the original seven years.

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voyager-companionI had picked up a copy of Star Trek Voyager Companion at Half Price books a couple of years ago and stashed in on the shelf with my well-worn copy of Captains’ Logs (which covers the franchise from the beginning through the casting of Voyager). Not the sort of book one sits down and reads from cover to cover, the Voyager Companion includes episode synopses, cast lists, lots of pictures, features on the characters, and several passable indexes, but not much behind-the-scenes information. When the series started its run last July, I started reading the book, episode by episode (especially useful when I dozed off during Act 3, not an unusual occurrence given the 11 PM time slot).

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I immediately decided I needed the corresponding Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion, but that book was out of print and not easy to find. Enter Alibris, where I found a copy indeep-space-nine-companion mid August. I quickly caught up to reading by the episode. The Deep Space Nine book far outshines the Voyager volume (except for its lack of multiple indexes). Detailed synopses of the episodes are followed by behind-the-scenes sections describing the writing process, character development, special effects, connections to other episodes, and more. The tales of “story breaking” are informative not just for screenwriting techniques, but for the choices made in developing character and plot consistent with the long arcs of the series. Many finished episodes reflected only a kernel of the original story idea.

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Why do I continue to watch Trek episodes that I’ve seen over and over again? Not for the plots, good, bad, or indifferent. I know what happens, no surprises there. I watch for the characters. I don’t so much care what they’re doing—I care who they are. There’s a lesson for writers in that: we may have a plot, but without characters that our readers care about, we may not have a story.

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Live Long and Prosper!

Preston’s Lost City of the Monkey God

I’ve read a number of thrillers by Douglas Preston (most but not all written with Lincoln Child), and that’s what I expected to find when I plucked The Lost City of the Monkey God off the New Books kiosk at Half Price Books the other day.

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lost-city-of-the-monkey-godSo I was surprised to spot, in small letters on the cover, the phrase “A True Story,” and to learn that when Preston is not writing thrillers, he writes on scientific topics for publications from National Geographic to The New Yorker, and has written half a dozen previous nonfiction books.

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The Lost City of the Monkey God is, in fact, the tale of the search for a long rumored, and even longer abandoned, city deep in the nearly impenetrable mountainous rain forest of Honduras. Preston first heard the legend of the “White City” (Ciudad Blanca) some twenty years ago, met some of the people most interested in it, and finally became a member of the 2015 expedition which located a vast and previously unknown ruin in the heart of the rain forest.

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One reason (besides the title) I couldn’t resist the book is that I have a long-unused degree in anthropology and archeology. I haven’t kept up with the field (and Central America was never my specialty), so I was fascinated by new techniques like lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) allowing aerial surveys with laser capability to penetrate the thick rain forest cover.

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But even with lidar, nothing comes easy in this tale of exploration. Preston covers the long history of the fabled Lost City and several previous attempts to locate it (some serious and at least one outright fraud) before he gets to the 2015 expedition, the first to enter the valley, accessible only by helicopter, since it was abandoned by its inhabitants several centuries ago.

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The valley, known as Target 1, is still inhabited, though, by hordes of spider monkeys, fer-de-lance & coral snakes, and countless insects, most of which live to bite. (These make north Florida digs infested with mosquitoes, chiggers, red ants, ticks, and the occasional harmless snake sound like picnics.) But the lidar didn’t lie—the expedition finds a huge site. The acidic rain forest soil has destroyed all organic remains, but there are earthworks and plazas everywhere, as well as a stunning collection of stone and ceramic artifacts. Preston is clearly on Cloud Nine, despite the sand flies and snakes, steamy heat, and nearly constant rain.

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Preston’s recounting of the aftermath of the first expedition is just as interesting, covering topics from tropical diseases to the collapse of civilizations (no doubt caused at least in part by the non-tropical diseases carried in by the Spanish explorers) to the history and culture of Honduras. Preston’s theories about the abandonment of the city are thought provoking, and a bit frightening. The combination of climate change and tropical disease is not to be taken lightly.

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The Lost City of the Monkey God is currently on the best-seller list, and deservedly so. But I’d still love to read the thriller version, in which intrepid explorers find the city cut off from the modern world but fully populated by the Monkey God’s very scary devotees. I love lost world stories, fact or fiction.

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