A Regency Christmas Novella

Lady Sarah Milton, the heroine of Cheryl Bolen’s His Lady Deceived, has had numerous offers of marriage since her presentation at court five years earlier, but none of those men made her heart sing. She’s reserved that feeling for a man she’s never even spoken to, Alfred Wickham, the son of Viscount Landis. When Lady Landis invites Sarah and her family to spend Christmas at Hedley Hall, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff, Sarah agrees, but she’s cautious. Lady Landis is convinced that Sarah would be the perfect wife for her only son, Alfred. Sarah longs to meet Alfred at last—but won’t be a party to any marital trap set by his mother.

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Alfred Wickham (known to his friends as Wick) has made it to the age of thirty without a wife, and he’s happy that way. When he gets wind of his mother’s Christmas plans, he agrees to go to Hedley Hall, but enlists his best friend, Lord Hugh Pottinger (known as Potts) to accompany him. Wick claims he doesn’t want to leave Potts to spend Christmas alone in London, but Potts knows better. Wick wants something.

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Wick does indeed want something. He wants Potts to convince Lady Sarah that Wick is a poor marital candidate. He makes Potts (who is hopelessly shy around women) promise to tell the lady that Wick wagers on everything—and always loses, that he fences without a mask, and, worst of all, that he has an “understanding” with an actress. The third, at least, is not true.

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What Wick has failed to realize is just how attractive Lady Sarah is. Alas, Potts finds her attractive, too, and Potts believes that Wick is not interested. Meanwhile Sarah isn’t sure what to think about either one of them. Surely Wickham is out of the question (that actress!), but maybe there’s more to Hugh Pottinger than meets the eye.

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Mix in a house party and a blizzard, a variety of eccentric guests, and a child with a secret identity, and you have a Christmas Regency romp. And if you want to know how the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff (the Duchess is Wick’s cousin) met and fell in love, pick up Bolen’s A Duke Deceived.

Dogged Detectives

I have waited (and I’m sure I’m far from the only one) four years for Heart of Barkness, Spencer Quinn’s ninth Chet and Bernie mystery. The previous installment, Scents and Sensibility, came out in July 2015, and (minor spoiler here) left Bernie, the human half of the team, deep in a coma from which no one expected him to recover. No one, that is, except his canine partner Chet, the narrator of the series.

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Quinn took his time getting back to Chet and Bernie. He also writes for middle graders as Spencer Quinn and adult novels as Peter Abrahams, and the Chet and Bernie stories have moved to a different publisher.

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In Heart of Barkness Chet and Bernie become involved with Lottie Pilgrim, a nearly forgotten country singer accused of murder. Bernie is sure there’s more to the story, and Chet, as always, is sure that Bernie is the smartest person in the world. Together they track down the secrets of Lottie’s past, despite her insistence that she’s guilty as charged.

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Somehow Quinn manages to capture the thought processes of Chet (a hundred-plus pound dog of indeterminate breed who flunked out of K9 training—there may have been a cat involved—but landed happily with Bernie Little) without making him sound like a furry human, while still communicating the story. Chet’s memory may be patchy and his attention span short, but he’ll do anything for Bernie. And happily for those of us who love him, a note at the end of Heart of Barkness promises a new adventure next summer.

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The Silence of the Chihuahuas is, alas, the last (to date, anyway) of Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series, featuring Pepe, the intrepid Chihuahua private investigator who talks to his human partner, Geri Sullivan. In this installment, however, Pepe has stopped speaking to Geri because other people think she’s nuts when she tries to tell them about it. But never fear: Pepe has taken up blogging instead (although he admits that “some dog named Chet” writes an even more popular blog). In Silence, Pepe and Geri’s search for Geri’s long missing sister and her recently missing friend Brad takes them undercover at a mental hospital. Along the way they attend the disastrous wedding of Geri’s ex-husband, deal with Geri’s somewhat loony mentor Jimmy G., and engineer a better fate for Bruiser, a sad dog they met on an earlier case. There’s a murder, a kidnapping, and, of course, a happy ending. (There’s also a bonus Christmas story, A Chihuahua in Every Stocking.) This series is so much fun—I hope the authors decide to continue it.

A Visit to the DPS, or Really, I’m a Citizen!

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety reminding me that my driver’s license will expire on my birthday next month. And that I would have to renew in person, since I renewed on line in 2013. And that I would have to provide my birth certificate.

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Really? I’ve been a licensed driver and registered voter in Texas for more than forty years (and in Louisiana and Florida before that). Surely the state of Texas knows I’m a citizen. But apparently the TSA doesn’t, and Texas is bringing its driver’s license policy in line with TSA to give us the ID we’ll need to get on an airplane in the future.

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When I mentioned this on Facebook, I heard from lots of friends who’d renewed recently. Some had showed up without a birth certificate and been sent away to find one. Someone was asked for her car title (complete nonsense—you don’t need to own a car to get a driver’s license). The letter also asked for proof of social security number, or of “lawful presence” if not a citizen.

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So I went on line to see the list of acceptable documents. I don’t have a passport (I had one, never used it, and it expired long ago), but I do have my birth certificate, a social security card showing my maiden and married names, and of course my current driver’s license.

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But just in case, I stuffed an envelope with everything I could think of: proof of insurance, car title, voter registration, etc., to take with me. I filled out the application on line and printed it—not only saves time, but it’s a whole lot easier to read. I looked up the nearest DPS office, which has moved since the last time I needed to go there. I read some of the hundreds of on line reviews of the facility.

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The reviews that were good emphasized two things: make an “get in line on line” appointment, and allow time to find a parking space. So this morning about 8:15 I went to the appointment web page, gave it my cell phone number, and it gave me a “approximate service time” of 10:41 AM.

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The office (the Southeast Houston MegaCenter) is about half an hour from my house, so I left about 9:40, got there about 10:10, and spent almost ten minutes cruising the parking lot. When I spotted two women who appeared to be headed for a car, I followed them and snagged their parking space. Apparently when the DPS built the MegaCenter (which truly is mega in its dimensions) they forgot that most of the people wanting to apply for or renew a driver’s license would be arriving in cars.

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I checked in at 10:18. There was a vast area filled with people sitting in chairs, waiting, but I was given a numbered slip of paper and directed to a short row of seats along one wall. A few minutes later one of the nearby clerks (there are a huge number of stations) called my number and I was on my way.

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I handed my application and my current license to the clerk, who was friendly and professional, and she asked for my birth certificate, which she carefully put in a plastic sleeve before running it through her scanner. She didn’t ask for any other papers, just my signature (on one of those electronic gizmos that produce a signature I hope my bank would never accept), my thumb prints, a quick eye test (with glasses on, read row 4), and a photo (with glasses off, no one would ever recognize me, but glasses throw off the facial recognition software we’ve been hearing so much about lately).

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I paid with my debit card, collected my temporary license, receipt, and birth certificate, and got my current license back with one corner snipped off (like a feral cat neutered and returned to the street!), and I was out of there at 10:34, before my actual appointment time.

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Moral of this story, in Texas or, I suspect, anywhere else: bring everything you need, fill out the paperwork on line if you can, and if the location offers it, “get in line on line” before you go.

Nonfiction New and Old

I’ve recently read two very different books by and about women dealing with the pressures of family life.

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Kate Mulgrew’s second book, How To Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir, is quite a different tale from her earlier Born With Teeth. The former covered her acting career, up to the early years of Star Trek: Voyager. I am a fan of both her acting and her writing.

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How To Forget has very little to do with Mulgrew’s life in the theater and everything to do with the deaths of her parents and her relationships with her five surviving siblings.The whole family was heavily influenced by the childhood deaths of two sisters, one as an infant, and one from inoperable cancer as a young teen.

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Mulgrew gives us the lives and eventual deaths of her parents, separated by only a couple of years. While her father died fairly quickly after a terminal cancer diagnosis, preferring not to endure treatment, her mother spent several years fading away with Alzheimer’s Disease, eventually requiring 24/7 care, totally unresponsive.

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Having lost both my parents to cancer and my husband to the lingering effects of Alzheimer’s, I found Mulgrew’s story very relatable. On the other hand, her description of her parents, rather distant by nature from one another and from their large brood of children, made me grateful for the astoundingly normal family I grew up in.

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Definitely a book worth reading, especially for anyone who has or will be trying to help parents deal with the end of life—and that’s really all of us, isn’t it?

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I read Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies decades ago (it was originally published in 1957) and remembered it fondly, so when I saw an ebook version wander by (from Open Road Media) I grabbed it. And the book is just as funny as I remembered. The title comes from one of her essays about raising children (the inspiration for a movie), but much of the short book is about writing (Kerr was a respected playwright, her husband a drama critic) and life in general. Don’t skip the introduction, which may be the funniest piece in the book, in which she explains how she became a writer in order to fulfill her greatest goal in life: sleeping late in the morning.

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I hope Open Road rescues Kerr’s other books (The Snake Has All the Lines, Penny Candy), which also appear to be long out of print.

Romance!

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Trouble brings together Scarlett Hall from Texas Lightning and Ethan Calhoun from Bartlett’s earlier Texas Heat trilogy–and a whole lot of trouble. Scarlett is doing her best to recover from a traumatic encounter with a knife-wielding criminal when she learns that Knife Guy has escaped from prison, and just might be looking for her. Meanwhile Ethan’s mother has escaped from a mental hospital, demanding help from him.

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Texas Trouble has lots of action, sizzling romance, some very scary villains, a talented tattoo artist, Scarlett’s brother (named, surprise, Rhett), a motorcycle riding PI, a sometimes exasperated Texas Ranger, and one very small but very brave dog. What more could we ask for in romantic suspense? (Rumor has it that Rhett Hall will be getting his own happy ending come December–I’m looking forward to that one.)

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I’m not an avid reader of historical romance, but I picked up (or rather downloaded) Zana Bell’s Fool’s Gold on the strength of its setting, New Zealand in 1866, definitely something different. Gwen (Lady Guinevere) Stanhope is an English woman left on her own in New Zealand after her father dies on the long sea voyage to the colony. Gwen has very little money, but she does have the photographic equipment with which her father had hoped to capture a picture of the (alas, extinct) moa and make enough money to buy back the mortgage on the family estate. Gwen is very nearly swept away by a sudden flood, only to be rescued by Quinn O’Donnell, an Irishman has arrived in New Zealand after serving as a surgeon in the American Civil War.

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Gwen wants only to return to Maidenhurst, the family home in England, even if she has to marry the man who holds the mortgage (her father’s back up plan). Quinn hates the English and wants to build a new life in New Zealand. But this is a romance novel, so we know something’s gotta give.

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Along the way, Gwen tackles a number of jobs, even working briefly as a housemaid, learning quite a bit about herself and about the people she never noticed when she was a pampered lady in England, while Quinn learns what he is really meant to do with his life. Their romance grows slowly (heat level sweet) and believably.

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The New Zealand setting is fascinating (and I assume authentic, as the author lives in New Zealand), the characters are likeable, and the story held my attention.

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Shelly Chalmers’ Must Love Plague is the first book in her Sisters of the Apocalypse series. Piper Bane, descendant of the Pestilence clan, returns to the small paranormal town of Beckwell, Alberta, for the wedding of her best friend, Ginny (heiress of Famine, who loves to bake) and a reunion with their friends Anna (heiress of War, currently the town librarian) and Nia (heiress of Death, who speaks to ghosts). Piper has spent ten years trying to avoid her heritage—and her propensity for making others ill. Now she’s faced with the rumor that she and her friends are about to rise as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, bringing on the End of the World.

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As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the first person she runs into when her car lands in a ditch going through the supernatural barrier that protects the town is her one-time fiance, Daniel Quillan, town doctor and sometime Fomorian (yes, I had to look that one up—definitely bad-ass guys). She’s also being stalked by a large brown toad. And the barrier that has protected the town and its not quite human inhabitants for a century has suddenly turned into a prison dome.

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What’s a girl to do? Piper and her friends are determined to avoid the Apocalypse, but the citizens of Beckwell aren’t making that easy.

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Chalmers’ imaginative approach to a wide range of mythology makes for an entertaining read, to be continued as the rest of the Four Horsewomen take their turns.

Changing Cars

About three weeks ago, the check engine light in my car came on. Again. My faithful 2004 Corolla was going downhill, and I knew it. Over the last few months I’d had to replace the starter and the oxygen sensor and clean the gas tank. The rear fender was scraped, the windshield was cracked, and another wheel cover had disappeared (number nine, I think). In February I had to buy a set of new tires.

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So when the check engine light popped on again as I drove home on I69 on Friday afternoon, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Annoyed, but not surprised. It wasn’t blinking, so I wasn’t panicking. The next Monday I stopped by Mac Haik Toyota (an adventure in itself, given the condition of the I45 access road in League City) and told a service rep about my problem. They were backed up, so I made an appointment to bring the car in on Friday morning.

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The check engine light stayed on, and by Thursday the oil light was blinking now and then when I hit the brake, so I was happy to make it back to the dealership. Not so happy when Janie Elizondo, my favorite service advisor, gave me the diagnosis. The engine light was signaling that the fuel injectors were failing. And the excessive oil burning gave rise to talk about engine block replacement.

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Nope. No fuel injectors, no engine block. It was time for that new car I’ve been planning for over the last couple of years. Even a Corolla won’t last forever.

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So Janie called her favorite salesperson, Dawn Riddle, and I headed over to the sales floor, a place I hadn’t been since I bought my old car there fifteen years ago (it was Star Toyota back then; the name has changed, but most of the staff remains).

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It never occurred to me to buy anything but another Corolla. When you have a car that serves you well for fifteen years and 252,408 miles, there’s really not much reason to change brands. But, my goodness, how much the cars have changed!

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Dawn showed me around, gave me a brochure, and gave me some idea of what I was looking at. Back in 2004, there were two, maybe three “trims” of Corollas, and I headed straight for the lowest price; I had no money to speak of and wasn’t even sure I could get a car loan, having only recently gone back to work. But my Ford was dying under me (after a mere 80,000 miles), and I needed a car.

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Now there are six “trims” for 2020 Corollas (plus a hybrid version—and who knew the 2020 models would be out in June?), so the decision required a bit more thought (and a lot more money). I left with my head spinning and joined my friend Gerry Bartlett for lunch. Gerry, who drives a newish Nissan Rogue, has been telling me for over a year that I need a new car with all the modern safety features, including the Blind Spot Monitor. And I wanted wheels that didn’t have removable wheel covers.

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After lunch and a couple of errands, Gerry drove me back to Toyota, and we took a test drive. And of course I fell in love. More looking at features finally narrowed the choice down to the XLE—everything I wanted and then some (the S series has more horsepower, larger wheels, and a sportier interior, none of which matter to me).

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So when I got home I phoned Dawn and told her I wanted an XLE, but not one of the pearl white ones they had on the lot. After driving a silver sedan for fifteen years, I wanted something different. I wanted the blue-gray color Toyota calls celestite. And Dawn said she’d find me one.

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I didn’t hear from her over the weekend, but on Monday morning, just in case, I took my car title and my checkbook along when I went to have lunch with Gerry. And while we were eating, Dawn texted me: We’ve got your car.

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Even without financing I spent three hours at the dealership, and I must have signed about 43 pieces of paper. I had removed most of the contents from my old car over the weekend, and what was left was easily transfered to the new one. Then Dawn gave me a quick tour of the current state of automotive controls. Before I really knew what I was doing, I was giving Gerry a ride in my new car.

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Driving the car is no problem. The next morning I was on the freeway on my way to work. It’s getting used to all the modern conveniences. Keyless entry, pushbutton ignition. Finding the controls to adjust the mirrors (and figuring out that the rear view mirror adjusts by hand, the old fashioned way). It took me two days to figure out how to program the radio (wonderful HD radio for the local stations, and a three month trial of SiriusXM). Figuring out the door locks. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t lock the trunk until I realized it was sensing the fob in my purse. All those controls on the steering wheel. A whole new set of dashboard symbols. No mechanical parking brake. The back up camera (wait a minute, which way do I turn the wheel?). Tinted windows. And I love the Blind Spot Monitors.

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The main manual (there are several, including a quick reference guide) is over 550 pages long—the collection (in its own plastic tote) looks like what used to come with a computer, back in the 1980s.

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In fact I feel like I’m driving a computer, and I still have a few things to figure out, but I love it. I hope we have another fifteen years together. Maybe by the next time I need a car, all the cars will be driving themselves.

New from Kate Parker

Kate Parker’s Deadly Deception is the latest installment in the adventures of Olivia Denis, part-time journalist (limited by the mores of late 1930s London to the Women’s Pages) and part-time unofficial spy and investigator. As the book opens, Olivia finds her father (with whom she does not have a particularly warm relationship), kneeling over a corpse, blood on his hands, his knife in the man’s chest.

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Her father may have his faults, but Olivia doesn’t believe for a minute that he killed the man lying on the floor of his house, especially since the victim is an old friend who had been reported drowned two years earlier. But her attempts to prove his innocence clash with his refusal to cooperate and lead Olivia deeper into the maelstrom of pre World War II security.

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I’ve enjoyed all of Parker’s books, but Deadly Deception proved to be a real page turner; I had trouble putting it down, and read it over a weekend (when I should have been doing other things).

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Parker’s The Mystery at Chadwick House is part mystery, part ghost story, and part romance. Emma Winter is helping her best friend renovate a Victorian mansion, but so much goes wrong that it seems as though the house itself is fighting the work. Or is it someone in the house—that face in the window that shows only in Emma’s photographs? What about the mysterious man who may—or may not—be the last of the Chadwicks, or Emma’s childhood friend, now a police officer? And what really happened in the barn back in 1904? It all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining novella, quite different from Parker’s excellent historical mysteries.

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