Three New Mystery Series

I’ve recently read the first installment of three mystery series. They don’t have much else in common (except that I enjoyed them all), but I do my best to find some way to tie these reviews together.

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Curse the DayCurse the Day, by Annabel Chase, is a delightful paranormal cozy mystery, first in a series, set in the small town of Spellbound. Spellbound isn’t just any small town in rural Pennsylvania. It’s populated entirely by paranormals, everyone from angels to vampires, witches to were-ferrets. And none of them can leave—no one is entirely sure how or why, or even when the town was cursed, but cursed it is.

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When underpaid and overworked lawyer Emma Hart stumbles into town (in the arms of a morose fallen angel), she has no idea that she’s anything but an ordinary human being. But when she tries to leave, she walks into an invisible but unbreakable barrier. The curse on Spellbound won’t release her, and the witches of the town recognize her as one of their own—and one badly in need of training. Before she can say abracadabra, Emma finds herself trying to learn the art of spell casting and trying to fill the now-empty shoes of the town’s public defender, a recently murdered vampire.

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Emma is a snarky, self-deprecating, very funny narrator, and the supporting characters, from the apprentice witches (who are sharper than their elders realize) to the cranky centaur sheriff, night-golfing vampires to flea-conscious werewolves, are a hoot. I thoroughly enjoyed Curse the Day, and there are several more installments waiting to be read. Number 2, Doom and Broom, is waiting on my Kindle.

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of the cozy mystery genre is the variety of setting and background. Zara Keane’s Dial P for Poison is the first in a series set on a small island off Dial P For Poisonthe coast of Ireland, featuring Maggie Doyle, who grew up in California but spent childhood summers visiting her Irish relatives on Whisper Island. Recently divorced from both her cheating husband and the San Francisco Police Department, Maggie has come back to help her Aunt Noreen run the Movie Theater Cafe, and maybe to hide out from life for a while. But she’s thrown right back into detecting when someone is murdered during a movie showing at the cafe and Noreen is accused of the crime.

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Surrounded by childhood friends—and enemies—and faced with a local Guard Sergeant who would really rather be playing golf, Maggie recruits a few allies and sets out to clear Noreen.

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I enjoyed both the writing and the setting, and have already downloaded the next book, The Postman Always Dies Twice. Keane’s web site promises at least one more, How To Murder a Millionaire.

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A Study in Scarlet Women is the first installment in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series. A Study in Scarlet WomenThomas takes her time setting up the premise for her female Sherlock, Charlotte Holmes, youngest daughter in a thoroughly, suffocatingly Victorian family. When Charlotte deliberately engineers her own social downfall to escape her home life, she inadvertently throws suspicion on her father and sister in the wake of a series of unexpected deaths. Once she gets her now-independent feet on the ground, she falls back on her old penchant of writing letters of detective advice to the appropriate authorities, signing them with the name of her non-existent brother, Sherlock Holmes.

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It took a bit of a stretch for me to buy into a Sherlock Holmes tale in which, let’s face it, Sherlock doesn’t exist, but Charlotte, Lord Ingram Ashburton (who knows the truth), and Inspector Treadles (who doesn’t) combine forces to solve the murders.

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Thomas is primarily a writer of historical romance, and a bit of romance shows up for Charlotte toward the end of the novel, along with vivid descriptions of Victorian London from the viewpoint of a woman who has lost (voluntarily) her social position, and considerable commentary on the situation of Victorian women in general. The next volume in the adventures of Charlotte Holmes is due this fall.

Keeping Up To Date

The other night I received an email from a reader (hurray for readers!) of my blog, letting me know that one of the links in my article Software for Writers led him to a Japanese porn site. He was interested in the software, so he’d found (and sent me) an active link leading to an innocent software site (if a bit old, referencing Windows XP as the program’s operating system).

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So I clicked on the link in my article and—oh, my goodness! That link did not go there when I set it up several years ago, and I apologize to anyone else who accidentally ended up there. My guess is that someone let their domain name expire and had to set up a new one. Apparently the vacated domain appealed to someone in Japan with an interest in things other than writers’ software.

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I wrote and posted that article nearly six years ago, so after I replaced the bad link with the correct one (Thanks again, Stephen!), I checked all the links, and was pleasantly surprised to see that all the programs I mentioned still have active web sites. I’m no longer using any of them, having switched almost all of my writing to Scrivener in the intervening years (see Introduction to Scrivener for Novelists), but we all process our writing differently, so another program (or combination of programs) may be just what you’re looking for.

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On the theme of keeping up to date, I read and replied to that email on my newest toy, an Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet. I knew I wouldn’t resist long after I had WiFi set up in the house. I’ve been an Amazon Prime member for years, but as much as I buy from the Zon, the free shipping doesn’t add up to the annual fee. So I thought I’d buy an Amazon tablet to use for music and videos. And, of course, because I wanted a new toy. The Fire is inexpensive (less than I paid for my Kindle Voyage) and simple to use. The Quick Start Guide is the size of a business card, mainly showing the location of the on/off button. I plugged mine into the charger and it sprang to life, walking me through the rest of the set up.

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I have barely scratched the surface of the App Store, but I have both my email accounts set up (and setting up my little-used gmail account brought my phone calendar over), along with Goodreads and Facebook. I promptly made the time-sink error of downloading three games (there are thousands available): Solitaire, Sudoku, and Flow Free, a totally addictive logic game.

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The Fire came with a six-month subscription to the Washington Post—that might not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m enjoying it, and I expect I’ll renew when it runs out in September.

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Of course the Fire comes with the Kindle app already installed (along with Amazon Video, Amazon Music, Amazon Shopping, and Alexa), and the e-reader function is very nice, including something called “blue shade,” which you can turn on to cut out the blue light that keeps some people (and I seem to be one of them) from sleeping after reading on a screen at bedtime. One of the joys of having my Kindle Voyage, my phone, and the Fire all on WiFi is the automatic sync—if I forget my Voyage, I can pick up where I left off in a book on my phone. And if I want to read in bed on the Fire, it takes me right to the page where I stopped on the Voyage.

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The Fire only connects to the Internet via WiFi, but once you’ve downloaded a book, a game, or even a video, you don’t need the connection.

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Any day now, I’ll actually sit down and start watching The Man in the High Castle. Maybe that could get me back on the exercise bike I’ve been neglecting.

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Lest you think I have been totally absorbed by the Cloud—I still do the crossword, the jumble, the cryptogram and the sudoku in the Houston Chronicle every evening (I actually read the paper in the morning), and I continue to add to my collection of paper books To Be Read (I have five on pre-order from Amazon even as I type, and there may have been recent trips to bookstores).

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There are not enough hours in the day.

Kindle and book

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Trilogy

With Texas Heat, Gerry Bartlett begins a new contemporary romance series set in the Houston oil industry. Cassidy Calhoun has no idea she’s even distantly related to the owners of Calhoun Petroleum until she’s invited to the reading of Conrad Calhoun’s will. Texas HeatSuddenly she finds herself moving in with the three half-siblings she never knew about, required to work at the oil company for a year before collecting her inheritance, and more attracted than she should be to Mason MacKenzie, the oil field competitor who will be evaluating the performance of the Calhoun siblings. If they don’t perform well, Calhoun Petroleum may go right down the pipeline, or be devoured by Mason’s Texas Star Oil, which is facing its own share of financial problems.

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Cassidy has more to deal with than Mason’s questionable intentions. She has no idea why her mother kept her away from the Calhouns all her life, even though it meant living in near poverty for both of them. She doesn’t know who to trust, either—can her siblings be as welcoming as they seem? And what about the people at Calhoun Petroleum? And then the real danger begins.

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The Calhoun Petroleum story continues in Texas Fire, as Cassidy’s newly discovered sister, Megan Calhoun, sets out to fulfill her assignment in the will, working in theTexas Fire oilfields for a year, a tough call for someone who has changed jobs—and boyfriends—whenever boredom set in. And to make the situation touchier, she’s volunteered to go on the road with engineer Rowdy Baker, the long-time boyfriend Cassidy left behind. Rowdy has about as much love for Calhoun women as Megan does for dust storms, work boots, and cramped travel trailers.

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But Rowdy and Megan make up their minds to soldier on, even while Megan learns to live without credit cards and Rowdy finds himself saddled with an unexpected puppy. Megan’s fake ID, intended to deflect the feelings of people hurt by the downsizing of the oil industry in general and Calhoun Petroleum in particular, doesn’t last long, and she’s thrust into representing the Calhoun interests to everyone from diner waitresses to environmental protesters.

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As if that wasn’t enough, Megan has a guilty secret—she knows something about Rowdy’s past that even he doesn’t know. How in the world will these two share a year in the oilfields without killing each other or bringing another disaster down on Calhoun Petroleum?

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Texas PrideThe story continues in October with Texas Pride, when the action shifts back to company headquarters in Houston. Shannon Calhoun is struggling with her assignment, protecting Calhoun Petroleum’s image with press releases, when her old flame Billy Pagan, now a top drawer lawyer, shows up with yet another threat to the Calhoun family business.

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I’ve really enjoyed Texas Heat and Texas Fire, and I’m looking forward to Texas Pride (available October 3 from your favorite ebook source).

More Adventures in Technology

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the phrase “easy self install” going back years. When I first got a DSL line for my computer (after surviving dial-up Internet access far longer than I should have put up with it), it took me several hours, moving the entire computer set up to a different phone jack (and a different room) and a long conversation with a technician in the Philippines to get the little modem working. I avoided making any changes, even when I began to feel the lack of home WiFi, for fear of being told to self install another modem.

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Avoidance didn’t work with Comcast, as cable boxes over the years either stopped working or were declared obsolete. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to change my own boxes (sometimes including searching out the nearest Comcast store front and hoping they had what I needed in stock), and I don’t think I’ve ever done it without at least one phone call to tech support. On occasion even that didn’t help, and I’ve had to sift through multiple web sites and forums to solve a problem.

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So a few months ago, when I called Frontier Communications in frustration over the latest Internet outage, I resisted the idea that my (by now antique) modem was at fault. The woman on the other end of the phone insisted there was no general outage (although two friends in my general area had confirmed that their service was out, too), but she said she would send me a new modem, which I could easily self install. Yeah, right.

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My Internet service was back to normal before the new modem arrived. I put the unopened box aside, despite a growing suspicion that the modem hiding in it probably handled WiFi (these days does anyone even make a modem that doesn’t?). I wasn’t going to invest several hours of frustration trying to find out.

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Then a couple of weeks ago I came home to find that my land line phone was dead. Even with my spiffy smart phone, I’m too old and set in my ways to give up my land line, even if most of the calls I get are ones I don’t answer (thanks to Caller ID). And worse, the problem on the land line was making my Internet connection hopelessly unstable.

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The phone went out sometime on Wednesday. It came back on Thursday evening, and went out again on Friday morning. So Saturday morning I followed the troubleshooting instructions on the Frontier web site, took my one remaining corded phone (which works when the power goes off and my cordless phone system won’t work—useful for calling the electric company) out to the connection box and plugged it in. Perfect dial tone. So I called Frontier and arranged a tech appointment for the following Friday (the soonest both a technician and I could be here at the same time).

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When I got home from work on Wednesday, a week after the initial outage, both the phone and the Internet were working perfectly. But I wasn’t going to cancel that tech visit, knowing full well that the moment I did, the phone would die again.

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new modem

Yay! WiFi at last!

Fortunately, the Frontier technician, a very nice and very competent young man named Seth, agreed, and quickly traced the problem to a bad wire in the phone jack handling the cordless phone base and the computer line. Once he’d fixed that, he looked at my ancient modem (circa 2010) and asked if I wouldn’t like a new one, a decent one with WiFi.

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So I handed him the unopened box Frontier had sent me, and he had the new modem installed and the WiFi working perfectly with the computer, my smart phone, and my Kindle within ten minutes. I’m absolutely sure it would have taken me at least two hours and a phone call—if I was lucky.

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And I am no longer the only person without WiFi in my house. Just think of all the gadgets I have done (quite happily) without because I didn’t have WiFi. Maybe I’d better lock up my credit cards for a while.

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.

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