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.

New Books from Phillips and Flagg

Two authors I can always depend upon for a thoroughly enjoyable read are Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Fannie Flagg, both of whom released new books in the past few months.

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Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ latest entry in her Chicago Stars series (#8) is First Star I See Tonight, the story of first-star-i-see-tonightCooper Graham, retired Stars quarterback now running his own night club and thinking about expanding to run clubs for other players, and Piper Dove, who has bought her late father’s detective agency back from her wicked stepmother and landed a job trailing Cooper for the investor thinking about financing his expansion.

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Piper annoys (and impresses) Cooper so much that he hires her to analyze the security at his club, while both of them, in true romance fashion, find reasons to resist their attraction to each other. Not content with one job, Piper finds herself driving for truly annoying Middle Eastern princesses and looking for her elderly neighbor’s dead husband. Along the way she manages to drag Coop into her adventures, and into her heart.

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I’ve read several of Phillips’ previous books (what romance lover hasn’t?) but this was my first Chicago Stars novel. I immediately went out and found the previous entry in the series, Match Me If You Can, to find out how two of the supporting characters in First Star got together.

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Fannie Flagg’s latet novel is The Whole Town’s Talking, an oddly structured novel about the town of Elmwood Spring, Missouri, from the establishment of a hilltop cemetery in 1889 through its last interment in 2016. A the-whole-towns-talkingfour-hundred-page collection of vignettes about the people who established, built, and lived in the town, the novel centers around the strange goings-on in the cemetery (not, I assure you, the least bit frightening).

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I’ve read several of Flagg’s books, too, most recently I Still Dream About You and The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (which I loved to the point of forcing it on several friends), but I did not know that she wrote three previous books set in Elmwood Springs. Now that I’ve met the folks there, I want to read more about them. I’ve rounded up Standing in the Rainbow and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, but I still have to find Welcome to the World, Baby Girl.

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Sigh. So many good books, so many authors with back lists, so little time to read. I’ll keep you posted. (Join me on GoodReads, if you like.)

Three Funny Books

The only thing these three recent reads have in common is that they made me laugh. Since that’s my favorite kind of book, it’s what you’re likely to find here more often than not.

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Razor Girl: I love Carl Hiaasen’s books. I lived in Florida way back when, but that’s not a prerequisite for appreciating Hiaasen’s hysterical recombining of things that actually happen there. As usual, this novel has a razor-girlmyriad of characters whose lives become improbably tangled together, the main one being Andrew Yancy, former detective reduced to health inspector, determined to get his badge back by involving himself in matters he really should avoid.

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As for the Razor Girl of the title, she certainly has carved out a unique occupational niche for herself, and brings an unexpected helping of madcap adventure into Andrew’s life.

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Featuring bearded reality(?) stars, Gambian pouched rats, bizarre pharmaceuticals, Hollywood talent agents, fake service dogs, and a mongoose, Razor Girl is a fine example of Hiaasen’s frenetic storytelling.

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From This Fae Forward is the second installment in AE Jones’ Paranormal Wedding Planner series. This time out, Bennett Bridal’s exercise instructor, Sheila Hampton, finds herself having to pretend that ex-SEAL andfrom-this-fae-forward security expert Charlie Tucker is her fiance for thirty days. The operative word here is pretend, because Sheila is a woodland nymph and Charlie is a sea nymph, and never the twain shall meet. Or marry.

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That’s not so much of a problem for Sheila, who has been banished from her clan, or Charlie, who has cut ties with his, but it sure upsets Sheila’s father and the rest of the woodland faction, who have been holding a grudge against the sea folk for generations (to the point that no one really remembers why). No, Sheila and Charlie’s problem is that they don’t like each other. Well, that’s what they try to believe, but it isn’t really working out that way.

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All the characters from In Sickness and in Elf are back, planning a fabulous nymph wedding for Sheila and Charlie (who are about the only people who don’t expect the wedding to happen) and From This Fae Forward is just as much fun as the first story.

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Diane Kelly’s Above the Paw continues the adventures of Forth Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her four-above-the-pawfooted partner Brigit. This time around we find Megan going undercover to search for the drug dealer selling Molly to university students. She hasn’t been out of school more than a few years herself, but going back is something of a culture shock. Brigit, posing as an epilepsy alert dog, enjoys all the attention. Megan’s investigation leads in unexpected directions, and puts her and Brigit in danger when they get too close to the truth.

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I never miss one of Kelly’s books, and this one does not disappoint. With mystery, humor, and Brigit, how could it miss?

Money Tree

I am by no means known for my green thumb. I do remember to water my houseplants once a week (well, most weeks) and most of them appear to be happy. My outdoor plants are largely dependent on rainfall (my rain gauge picked up 66 inches last year), although I do water them now and then during dry spells. I live southeast of Houston, not too far from Galveston Bay, and last night we had our first freeze in several years. I won’t know for a while which plants survived, and I won’t worry about it until spring.

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But a sad case came into my life a couple of weeks ago, and I have resolved to nurse it back to health. A day or two before Christmas, a friend left a money tree plant for me on my desk at the Scorekeeper. This is probably what it looked like at the time, but I wasn’t there to see it.

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money-tree-plant

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Jo Anne didn’t give it much thought, and she had no reason to go into my office, so when I came in to work on Tuesday morning after Christmas, I found the plant pushed off the desk onto the windowsill, with most of its leaves chewed off, the victim of Sam, one of the office cats. Jo Anne thought the poor thing was a goner. It definitely wasn’t safe from Sam on my desk, and it wasn’t going to get enough light anywhere in my office, so I brought it home. This is how it looked on New Year’s Eve, with just a hint of new growth.

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money-tree-123116

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I’ve left it in my kitchen (yes, it’s sitting on the stove, giving you a hint as to my cooking habits—the microwave is on the other side of the room), following the instructions for a bright, well lighted area without too much direct sunlight, and it seems to be on the road to recovery. This is how it looks today, two weeks after its encounter with the plant-eating cat, still hanging on to the largest surviving leaf. All the other leaves are new, with more to come.

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According to my on line research, the braided trunks of the money tree symbolize locking in good fortune for someone keeping the plant in her home or office. This particular money tree has certainly seen the ups and downs of fortune. I’m hoping we’ll thrive together.

Happy New Year 2017

Well, here we are in 2017, not a year I ever gave much thought to, back in the day. Anyone remember Y2K? The world didn’t end, or even falter, on January 1, 2000, and I’m going to assume that civilization as we know it won’t collapse this year, either.

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happy-new-year

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This morning my blog post from one year ago popped up on my Facebook feed, reminding me of my annual attempts to take stock. My resolutions, such as they are, remain the same. Write more. Publish something. Declutter the house. Lose a few pounds. Read more.

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I didn’t do well on “write more” this year. I did some editing on my Jinn books, and some for friends. I did not start a new manuscript, but I have some ideas for a fourth Jinn story. I entered the third Jinn story, Jinn on the Rocks, in two contests, and it made the finals in one, the West Houston RWA Emily contest. Fifty percent is about my standard—folks tell me that’s because I have a “strong voice.” I hope that’s true. I’m still dragging my feet on independent publishing.

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I wrote 53 blog posts, about one a week. That’s down from when I started in 2011, but fairly steady, and it gives me an outlet. I’ve written a few columns for my RWA chapter newsletter (Grammar Gremlins—you can find them in the articles section of this site if you’re interested). I went to the RWA National conference in San Diego in July, had a great time, learned a lot, and came home with every intention of diving back in. It was a very shallow drive.

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I have done a bit of decluttering—the old office is clearly in mid-process, just as it has been for months. The garage has a long way to go. The old sewing room, where my exercise bike sits mostly ignored, is in pretty good shape, with a work table for editing and a very old TV for noise. The plumbing jumped up and bit me when I tried to install a new washing machine, and the extensive work that caused took most of September, and a serious chunk of my bank account.

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Lose a few pounds? Yeah, well, I’ve gained about four. Better luck this year.

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In February I finally bought a smart phone. I won’t go so far as to say it has changed my life, but it sure has made some aspects easier. Contact with the outside world when the power or the Internet connection goes out. I deposit checks with it, and my relocated address book ties into navigation. I love the camera! It takes beautiful pictures (in spite of my minimal photographic talents) and sends them anywhere. I still don’t use it much for phone calls, but I have learned to text, usually in complete sentences, with punctuation. Some things don’t change.

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I did pretty well on reading, although it often feels like I never have enough time for it. I bought myself a new Kindle this year, a Voyage, and it’s a big improvement over my old keyboard Kindle (which I thought was pure magic when I got it in 2011).

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I raised my Goodreads Challenge target from 50 books to 60, and read 69 (compared to 72 in 2015). 41 of those were ebooks, a number that has risen steadily over the years. I’m sticking to that target this year, five books a month. According to Goodreads I read 19,705 pages this year (20,131 last year).

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In 2016 I read 14 romances, 21 mysteries (mostly cozies), 19 science fiction novels, five mainstream novels, and ten nonfiction books. Most of them were good; my average rating on Goodreads was 4.5 stars. I suppose I tend to be generous, knowing how hard it is to write a book.

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I plan to Keep Calm and Carry On in 2017, and wish you the best of luck with whatever comes your way.

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Happy New Year!

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