The Portrait of Lady Wycliff

Cheryl Bolen begins a new series (The Lords of Eton) with The Portrait of Lady Wycliff, the story of Harry Blassingame, the Earl of Wycliff, as he searches for the missing portrait of his late mother. Harry has spent the last eight years restoring the family fortunes lost by his late father, a decent man sorely lacking in ability as a gambler. Harry would prefer to keep his own counsel as to exactly how he has refilled the Wycliff coffers, but it wasn’t through gambling. Well, not exactly, anyway.

.

The Portrait of Lady WycliffThe last property on Harry’s list is the London house on Grosvenor Square, now in the possession of a young widow, Louisa Phillips. Surely it won’t be difficult to convince her to sell.

.

Louisa holds no admiration for the aristocracy, and no grief over the loss of her much older and unloved husband, who bought her from her unscrupulous father when she was fifteen years old. In fact, she holds very little admiration for men in general. She prefers to be an independent woman, with a secret of her own.

.

But, she discovers to her great distress, she can’t sell the house to Harry because she doesn’t own it. How will she and her younger sister Ellie manage now?

.

Against her better judgment, Louisa teams up with Harry to peel an onion of mysteries: Who is the shadowy “benefactor” who actually owns the house and apparently owned Louisa’s husband, too? Did Phillips and his secret backer deliberately set out to ruin the Wycliff family? And what has become of the missing portrait of Lady Wycliff, which should have been hanging in the Grosvenor Square house?

.

Louisa and Harry set off on a wild tour of Cornwall in search of answers, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and (definitely against Louisa’s better judgment) sharing rooms—and, chastely, beds—in country inns along the way, fighting their growing admiration for each other, convinced an aristocrat and a bluestocking have no future together.

.

Will they find the benefactor? The portrait? The answers? True love? Well, this is a romance, of course, but the road to Happily Ever After is always an adventure. In this case, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, populated with charming characters—Louisa’s sister Ellie and Harry’s cousin Edward have a few adventures of their own—and the always interesting background of Regency England.

 

More Techno Fun

Yesterday morning I found my computer waiting for its password—it had updated and rebooted during the night. That always makes me a little nervous. The computer is eight years old and often slow. A while back it took me two hours and a lot of experimentation to get it back on after an update, and a few weeks ago an update wiped out my Quicken file (I’ve been more careful about back ups since then). This time there were no update-related problems.

.

But when I opened my email, I found some very strange messages. Two were automated “not taking queries” responses from agents I have not queried. There were a couple of “you can’t post here because you don’t belong to this forum” emails from RWA forums that, indeed, I do not belong to. A couple of bounce notices from old email addresses. I later found spam emails, apparently coming from my email address, on a couple of lists I do belong to, and at least one friend received a spam link from me.

.

Drat. Spoofed again.

.

So I dove into the depths of AOL to change my password. I suspect the spoofing had nothing to do with my password, but it doesn’t hurt to change them, and the one I’ve been using, probably since the last time I had some minor disruption in service, was hard to type. I stuck a couple of unrelated words together and had a new password. My computer and the cloud based email system were fine with it.

.

My phone wasn’t.

.

I put the new password into the generic email app that the Verizon salesman set up for me two years ago when I bought the phone, and was informed, in no uncertain terms, that it was incorrect. Tried again. And again. The very definition of stubborn stupidity, repeating the same action and expecting a different result. I did not get a different result, no matter how often I tried.

.

I checked AOL help and found nothing useful, but after spending way too much time on the problem, the passing mention of an AOL android app finally clicked. I found my way to the app store, downloaded AOL, and was back in my email immediately. (And in the evening I figured out how to stop the old app from demanding authorization every time I woke the phone up.)

.

What strikes me as funny about the whole thing is that not much more than two years ago I’d never read an email on a phone. I didn’t have a phone that could handle the job. I didn’t know what I was missing, but now I do. The thought of not being able to access my email through my phone has become completely unacceptable.

.

I’ve seen no more evidence of email spoofing since I changed the password, whether that was really a factor or not. My Amazon Fire tablet, which until recently was demanding a password every other time I opened my email, sometimes telling me it was wrong, and then letting me in anyway, still doesn’t seem to have noticed the change. So I have three ways to get to my email—too bad my email isn’t more exciting.

 

More Cozies

I’ve read been reading cozy mysteries lately, so here are a few I’ve enjoyed, one from a brand new series by Kate Parker, plus series entries from Annabel Chase and Cindy Brown.

.

The Killing at Kaldaire House begins a new series from Kate Parker, this one set in Edwardian London and featuring Emily Gates, a young, talented, and reasonably The Killing at Kaldaire Housesuccessful milliner who inherited her shop from her mother. Unfortunately some of her aristocratic clients seem to see no need to actually pay their bills, and Emily is forced to take extreme measures, using the burglary skills she learned from her father’s disreputable (but highly successful) family to take their valuables (some of which turn out not to be valuable at all) hostage.

.

On a late night visit to Kaldaire House, Emily discovers the dying master of the mansion lying on the floor of his study. Unwilling to abandon anyone in that condition, she alerts the household. When Lady Kaldaire promises to vouch for her (and pay Emily’s bill herself) if Emily will help her solve the mystery of Lord Kaldaire’s murder, Emily has little choice.

.

She doesn’t have much choice when the attractive detective assigned to the case, James Russell, recognizes Emily as a member of the notorious Gates family and promises not to arrest her if she will help him keep an eye on her relatives. Needing her income to send the relative she cares most about, her younger brother Matthew, to a special school for the deaf, she finds herself juggling her investigating for Lady Kaldaire, her family, and her growing attraction to Detective Inspector Russell.

.

With a range of entertaining supporting characters, lots of period detail, and a good mystery, The Killing at Kaldaire House promises another fun series of cozy mysteries from Parker.

.

Better Than Hex is the fifth installment in Annabel Chase’s Spellbound series of humorous paranormal mysteries, following the adventures of Emma Hart, who didn’t know she was Better Than Hexa witch until she stumbled into Spellbound, a community of paranormals trapped in their town by a very old spell, and found she couldn’t leave. In this tale, Emma, now the local public defender (and witch in remedial training) takes on the case of a young were-lion who won’t explain why he was caught in possession of deadly nightshade. Meanwhile she frets over the impending marriage of her not-so-secret crush, fallen angel Daniel Starr, to mean-spirited (but gorgeous) fairy Elsa Knightsbridge. Has Daniel really fallen back in love with his ex-girlfriend, or has he been the victim of an Obsession potion administered by Elsa?

.

Better Than Hex ends on something of a cliffhanger, so I immediately downloaded the Cast Awaysixth installment, Cast Away, in which Emma is only slightly distracted from her concerns about Daniel by a new client (a macho young werewolf accused of peeing inappropriately in a peony bed) and a new mystery (the death of a likable troll found frozen under a bridge). Emma’s experiment with potions at the nightclub hosting Elsa’s bachelorette party goes awry, of course. Will she break the Obsession spell in time to stop the wedding? Or will the secret she’s been keeping trip her up? Chase answers these questions while leaving plenty of story lines for the next books in the series.

.

Cindy Brown’s The Phantom of Oz is another fun theatrical mystery, this one set in an elegant old theater haunted by the Lady in White. Ivy Meadows is a hardworking young The Phantom of Ozactress who also works for her Uncle Bob’s PI firm (Duda Detectives), so naturally when her best friend, Candy, disappears from the touring company of The Wizard: A Space OZpera Ivy dives in to investigate, landing herself an understudy role with the company in the process. Props include spaceships and Trekian costumes, and the cast includes munchkins and flying monkeys (played by children ranging from adorable to creepy), a famous director, a toxic reality star, a costume mistress who might be a witch, and Toto. Misunderstandings with her boyfriend and her brother only make Ivy’s life more complicated, not to mention the wardrobe mistress’ well-intentioned cold remedies. I love this series, with its madly scrambled theatrical productions and hilariously close-but-not-quite-there movie titles.

 

A Visit From the Easter Raccoon

Once again, a seemingly minor problem has spiraled into major household repairs (and expense), although fortunately not on the scale of the Great Plumbing Adventure of 2016. I’m coming to expect this sort of thing.

.

It all started in January with the pitter-patter of tiny feet—no, make that the nightly stampeding of paws—above my head. We’d just had three days of cold weather so icy I couldn’t even get into Houston for work, and rodents had taken refuge in my attic. It wasn’t the first time in the forty plus years I’ve lived in this house, far from it, but I decided to take action and called in Pest Control.

.

The pleasant and knowledgeable man who came to evaluate my situation immediately spotted the Hole in the Roof, which I had managed not to notice despite the fact that it was located low on the roof not far to the left of my front door. No wonder there were rodents in my attic.

.

roof 1

.

The Pest Control technician came the next day, and after he’d laid out traps in the attic we covered the hole in the roof with a handy wooden crate cover from the garage. The technician knew his business; the noise in the attic disappeared almost immediately and the slab of wood on the roof stayed in place.

.

It stayed in place for several weeks, as I became more and more complacent and found any number of things more important than calling someone to repair the roof. I’d glance up there each morning when I went out to collect the newspaper, satisfied that everything was under control.

.

Until I woke up on the Saturday morning before Easter to a crash and the sound of paws running through the attic. When I went out to get the paper, it was clear that that the wood had been moved and the hole exposed. What an enterprising . . . rodent, I thought, as I moved the wood back in place. The traps up there will take care of this.

.

Nope. Come evening, great banging around upstairs told me that something was trapped in the attic, something larger than my previous tenants. I went out and moved the board, came back in and made loud noises by snapping the door to the attic, and went back out.

.

There was a raccoon on the roof, sitting next to the hole, staring back at me.

.

I waited half an hour or so, until I was sure the raccoon had gone on about its nocturnal business. Then I put the wooden slab back in place and weighted it down with a large artillery shell (my garage is full of a remarkable variety of strange objects) that my late husband used as an ashtray.

.

The next morning, Easter, I heard banging on the roof again, and when I went outside I could see that the wood had been moved again. Not wanting to trap the raccoon in the attic, I left my failed barricade as it was.

.

Sometime on Monday, though, I realized that I hadn’t heard any more noise upstairs. When I climbed the ladder to check the hole in the roof, I saw that it had only been partially uncovered. Had the raccoon been unable to get back in? Had it met with an accident, or found a better place to live, maybe a furnished apartment over someone’s garage? I decided to take a chance and cover the hole again, this time adding the second artillery shell from the garage. (Don’t ask me where Jack found them, or why I’ve kept them all these years. Amazing what eventually comes in handy. Besides, it’s not that easy to toss a heavy brass object in the trash.) If I heard furious action in the attic, I could always go out and uncover the hole.

.

roof 2

.

Meanwhile, I found a local roofer with many excellent reviews. I contacted him on Tuesday, and while I was at work, he scoped out my problem. It would take a full square (a ten-by-ten-foot sheet of half-inch plywood) to repair the rotten decking that had allowed the rodents to tear a hole in the first place, and several hundred dollars. Maybe it wasn’t worth starting to patch a 22-year-old roof? Twenty years is a pretty typical life span for a roof in this climate, and my homeowner’s insurance company had been giving me grief over it for several years.

.

roof 3

.

So the roofers came on Monday at 7:30. An amazingly efficient crew of six or seven men had the whole job, including clean up, done by 5. It looks beautiful. Well, it looks like a nice, clean, intact roof, and the old gray rodent-chewed vents have been replaced by handsome black ones with caps to keep future rodents out. Of course all the leaves that were on the old roof are now on my lawn, but that’s a minor problem.

.

roof 4

.

I’m still listening for noise in the attic, but so far so good. According to Nutmeg, my cat, no animal in its right mind would have stayed around with all that hammering going on. I guess I’m lucky she didn’t pack up and leave. She did demand extra treats and a lot of cuddles.

 

Phyllis Whitney Revisited

When Phyllis A. Whitney died a few years ago, at the age of 104, most if not all of her novels were out of print. Out of print, but not forgotten by two or three generations of mystery readers. I found a few of her late novels (she was 94 when the last one was published) at Half Price Books and enjoyed them, so I was delighted when Open Road Books began releasing Whitney’s tales of mystery and suspense in digital format, and I’ve been stashing them away on my Kindle.

.

The premise of Listen for the Whisperer (first published in 1972) intrigued me, perhaps because it involved a reclusive former Hollywood star (and I was reading a novel about Mary Pickford at the time), and it hopped to the head of the digital TBR shelf. The novel is set in Bergen, Norway (Whitney visited all her settings, right up into her 90s, and made them near-characters in her plots), and centers around Leigh Hollins, a young woman seeking to meet her birth mother, one-time movie star Laura Worth, who abandoned Leigh to her father at birth and abandoned Hollywood after a scandal involving the murder of her director. Leigh is very angry with Laura, but she soon sees that her mother may be the victim of a campaign of fear—or she may be delusional.

.

The novel seems slow by today’s suspense/thriller standards, the violence is mostly off-page and never graphic, and the romantic element is very low key and far from central to the story. (Although her books are now sometimes called romantic suspense, Whitney considered herself a mystery writer and was frequently honored as one.) But Whitney uses her atmospheric setting skillfully throughout the book (sending me to find pictures of the Fantoft Stave Church, an important location in the story, on the Internet), throws suspicion on everyone, and saves her truly dangerous suspense for the climax of the book.

.

I probably read Listen for the Whisperer back when it came out (the Mystery Book Club was my lifeline back then when I lived far away from bookstores and didn’t have much money), but I have no memory of it. I enjoyed it this time around, and I have quite a few more waiting on my Kindle.

The Birth of Hollywood

In Melanie Benjamin’s novel The Girls in the Picture, the girls are screen writer Frances Marion and actress Mary Pickford, each of them new to Hollywood as the story begins. Told from both points of view (first person for Fran, third for Mary), the novel runs through the growth of the movie industry from 1914 through the late thirties. It centers around the friendship and collaboration between the two women (Marion wrote many of Pickford’s most successful movies, as well as some not so successful), and their eventual drifting apart, as Marion continued to be one of the most successful screen writers (”scenarists,” as they were once known) in the first half of the twentieth century, while Pickford faded away, trapped in her own image as Little Mary, the Girl With the Curls.

.

The Girls in the PictureBenjamin has clearly done a great deal of research, while also fleshing out the two women as real people, through their professional successes and failures as well as their personal lives. The book is also a fascinating look at the growth of an industry, from a light-hearted, fun-filled adventure in the early years to a serious business-focused industry—controlled by men. Although Marion was a successful (and highly paid) writer and Pickford a brilliant business woman and a founder (with Fairbanks and Chaplin) of United Artists, Benjamin also deals with the problems women faced in the first part of the twentieth century—not much different from those of the twenty-first. The very title, The Girls in the Picture, comes from Marion’s recognition, long years later, when looking through photos from those early days, that she and Pickford were almost always the only girls in the picture.

.

Well researched and well written, the book teems with both familiar and forgotten names from the early days of the movie business, when everything was new and exciting in Hollywoodland. A fascinating read.

 

Golden Heart Calling!

Wednesday, March 21, was a Big Day in the romance world, the morning calls went out to notify the finalists in Romance Writers of America’s® two big national contests, the RITA® (for published works) and the Golden Heart® (for unpublished writers). The calls go out fairly early in the morning: the RWA board members who make the calls love doing it, and the writers who have entered one of the contests are on pins and needles. (The Golden Heart takes up to 1200 entries; the RITA is capped at 2000.)

.

I got very spoiled when my manuscripts made the Golden Heart finals in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Spoiled, but not sold, so I kept on entering, without success, in the following years. Last year I swore I’d never enter again, but when the time came I couldn’t resist. 2018 will be the last time, I said to myself. I’d rewritten the beginning of Jinn on the Rocks after getting some constructive criticism from the judges in the Emily contest last year. Good to go.

.

By Wednesday morning, I was almost wishing I hadn’t entered, sure my poor Jinn wouldn’t final yet again. Humor is too subjective; it would never find five judges who thought it was funny. Then my phone started chiming—with text messages. My friend Leslie Marshman was a finalist in romantic suspense. Then my friend Sara Neiss got her call, a finalist in short contemporary. But no phone call for me.

.

So a little after 9 I left for my Tuesday through Thursday job at the Scorekeeper, a thirty-mile commute, most of it on the freeway. Surely the calls had all gone out. Bummer. I’d never enter again. My phone kept chiming, and I pulled over into a restaurant parking lot to read the rest of the text messages, and to text Jo Anne that I was on my way in, no call, done with the Golden Heart. Loyal friend (and three-time Golden Heart finalist herself), she texted back, “Maybe later.” “Not holding my breath,” I replied, and got back on the road.

.

For the next twenty minutes I ran through all the reasons I didn’t really want to be a finalist this year. Too much pressure. All those emails and Facebook posts. So many events to juggle at the National Conference in Denver in July. Finding a decent photo to send to RWA. The list went on.

.

And then my purse rang.

.

Congratulations balloonNormally I do not answer my cell phone while driving. Especially not while driving into Houston on I45. But this was Golden Heart day, so I pulled my phone out to look. “Restricted,” said the Caller ID. No phone number.

.

I answered it anyway.

.

And it was Donna Alward, an RWA Board Member, calling from Nova Scotia to tell me that Jinn on the Rocks is a finalist in the paranormal category of the Golden Heart.

.

I managed to stay safely in my lane on the freeway, but it wasn’t easy. Probably a good thing the call only lasted two minutes (thanks to Donna, who knew I was driving). I broke another rule before I put the phone away, and texted “Me too” to the morning texters, confusing most of them.

.

And suddenly all those reasons why I’d rather not final disappeared. I’m welcoming all the emails and Facebook posts, almost 50 new Golden Heart sisters, a giant ego boost. Golden Heart finals for all three of my Jinn stories. I am, once again, thrilled. (The balloon is from Jo Anne.)

.

Contest judging is always subjective. No more than ten percent of Golden Heart entries make the finals; many excellent manuscripts don’t. I judged eight (in another category, of course), and I would have been happy to see two of them on the finalist list, but they didn’t make it. After all, ninety percent don’t final. We chalk it up to experience and move on.

.

But, oh, what a thrill to make that list!

 

Previous Older Entries