This ‘n That

Well, I’ve been wildly off kilter lately thanks to an unwelcome Gulf Coast visitor called Hurricane Harvey. My home (located between two lakes and Galveston Bay) suffered no damage, despite 38+ inches in my rain gauge, but I’m still feeling a bit shell-shocked, as is everyone in the area. Four days of nearly uninterrupted rain will do that. We’re still having trouble figuring out what day it is, even though most of us went back to work last week. A few major highways are still under water, so traffic in Houston has been more dreadful than usual. Many people lost homes and cars to the flooding; the rest of us are feeling fortunate, with perhaps just a touch of survivors’ guilt. We’re keeping our fingers crossed and waiting to hear from friends and family in Florida, as Hurricane Irma moves north, and hoping that Jose, Katia, and the rest of the alphabet go off into the uninhabited portions of the Atlantic.

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Phyllis Whitney update: When Whitney died in 2011, her novels were not available as ebooks. Now Open Road Media has acquired at least part of Whitney’s list and has begun Hunter's Greenreleasing the novels as ebooks. The first batch came out in July, another at the end of August, and more are scheduled for late October. So far I’ve snapped up The Turquiose Mask and Hunter’s Green at loss leader prices, but the regular price at Amazon is only $6.15. Open Road Media’s daily Early Bird Books often features classic mystery series. If you’re a fan, check out the site at openroadmedia.com. They produce several good newsletters for book and movie lovers. (I get four or five ebook newsletters every morning, and I really shouldn’t even open them. But I always do.)

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How I wish Al Franken were my Senator! (Moving to Minnesota is not an option–I spent my childhood in Wisconsin, so I know what the weather’s like up there. I’d rather deal with a hurricane every few years.) It does make me happy to know that the good people of Minnesota re-elected him in 2014, so he’s up there fighting for all of us.

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Franken, the one-time comedian and satirist, is still funny, and a good part of this book Al Frankentells of his efforts to avoid being funny, at least on the campaign trail and the floor of the Senate. He doesn’t always succeed there, and he doesn’t even try in the book (don’t skip the footnotes!).

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If you don’t like Franken’s politics (he’s a progressive Democrat), this may not be the book for you. I ate it up. Franken hates my Senator (Ted Cruz) and devotes chapter 37 to explaining why. But then apparently no one in the Senate likes Cruz (nor do I). And then there’s chapter 45, “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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But there’s a lot more to Al Franken Giant of the Senate (a very tongue-in-cheek title) than political opinion. The book is also a fascinating and very honest memoir of Franken’s comedy career, his unlikely run for the Senate and incredibly close victory (eight months of recounts), and his discovery of how the Senate actually works. I can’t imagine anyone else explaining the Senate from the inside out in such an entertaining (and often thought-provoking) manner.

 

The Movie Club Mysteries

I am loving this series of cozies by Zara Keane, set on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The central character, Maggie Doyle, is an American whose father came from Whisper Island, and she has fond memories of spending childhood summers there. So when her marriage and her job with the San Francisco police department both go down the tubes, she goes to visit her Aunt Noreen and help out at the Movie Theater Cafe, just for a little while.

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I had started reading book two, The Postman Always Dies Twice, when I discovered To To Hatch a ThiefHatch a Thief, a longish novella set between the first (Dial P for Poison) and second novels. So I switched over to read it first. To Hatch a Thief involves stolen diamonds and dancing chickens (in leprechaun costumes!), not to mention the intriguing Sergeant Reynolds. 

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The second full-length novel, The Postman Always Dies Twice is another funny, fast-moving entry. This time Maggie and her friend Lenny discover the body of the The Postman Always Dies Twicelocal postal carrier, and Maggie goes undercover at the island hotel in an attempt to find the poltergeist scaring the guests away. Meanwhile Sergeant Reynolds has moved into the cottage next to Maggie’s, but he may not be there long if the postman’s murder gets any more complicated. Between wardrobe disasters, bootleg whiskey, and pot-laced brownies, Maggie’s stay on Whisper Island is far from the uneventful r&r she was looking for–but maybe just what she needs.

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By the time How To Murder a Millionaire rolls around, Maggie has decided to stay on Whisper Island, and has gotten How To Murder a Millionaireherself a private investigator’s license, and her first job—investigating the disappearance of a sheep named Nancy, who went missing twenty-two years ago. When she goes to interview the prime suspect in that very cold case, she finds his body in his barn—clad in a crotchless mankini. (Yes, I had to google that, and even with an intact crotch, a mankini is a terrible thing to behold. You have been warned.) Soon Maggie is dealing with the horrible American family of her late grandmother’s oldest friend, who just may be connected to the mankini murder. And then there’s Sergeant Reynolds . . .

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I’m looking forward to Maggie’s next adventure, The 39 Cupcakes, due out next month.

Nina Bangs’ Forever Wicked

Forever Wicked is the eighth installment in Nina Bang’s Castle of Dark Dreams series, but even if you’ve missed the earlier Wicked books, you can jump right into this one and enjoy it. If you are a long-time fan of cosmic troublemakers Ganymede and Sparkle Stardust, you’ll find some old friends here, but Forever Wicked is Ganymede and Sparkle’s story, as they deal with memories from the past, enemies and dangers in the present, and hopes for the future.

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Forever WickedGanymede has problems. He’s dodging the Big Boss, but he knows a confrontation is coming—his latest, frustration-spurred round of cosmic mayhem has attracted too much attention. His attempt to reach his creator, revenge in mind, backfires, and he finds himself saddled with a brand-new untrained cosmic troublemaker. He’s beginning to feel sorry for the humans who get caught up in the mayhem he causes. Perhaps worst of all, he’s on the outs with “that woman,” Sparkle Stardust, his companion for much of his long immortal existence.

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Sparkle isn’t ready to give up on Mede. She’s on the road looking for him (attracting his attention with Facebook posts). Her trouble-making talent involves creating sexual chaos, but somehow she’s lost control of her own love life, and she wants Mede back. After all, it was just a stupid argument. And what power, cosmic or otherwise, can keep Sparkle from going after what she wants?

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Even Sparkle is surprised when she tracks Ganymede to a beautiful (but haunted, and very hard to find) house in Cape May, New Jersey, a long way from the Castle of Dark Dreams, her home (in her adult theme park) in Galveston. She’s even more surprised at Ganymede’s collection of adolescent troublemakers. Are Sparkle and Mede really cut out to train them?

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But they will need the help of the children, along with some of their old friends (and frenemies) to face the confrontation that awaits them back at the Castle—almost as much as they need each other. Sometimes even cosmic troublemakers find themselves in cosmic trouble!

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I don’t want to give away the twists and turns of Sparkle and Ganymede’s adventures as they deal with enemies and dangers that threaten far more than their own lives and happiness, but let me just say that Forever Wicked is exciting, romantic, and often very funny.

And More Mysteries

I came back from RWA 2017 last week with a small stack of new romance novels (only eight this year, which is pretty conservative for a conference where free books practically fly into one’s tote bag—and picture 2000 women with identical green and blue tote bags!). I even bought three of them at the Literacy Signing (where RWA raised over $44,000 for literacy organizations).

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I’ll get to those books, and the several new downloads on my Kindle, sooner or later, but in the meantime, here are a few more mysteries. (The biggest mystery remains: when do I think I’m going to read all the books I collect?).

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The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors, edited by Otto Penzler, was first published back in the 1970s, so the detectives profiled date back to the early to mid twentieth century. Back in my voracious mystery reader days (how did I ever have that much time for reading?), I ran through the adventures some of these detectives: Roderick Alleyn (by Ngaio Marsh), Lew Archer (by Ross MacDonald), Jose da Silva (by Robert Fish), Nancy Drew (by Carolyn Keene), the 87th Precinct (by Ed McBain), Luis Mendoza (by Dell Shannon), and Mr. and Mrs, North (by Frances & Richard Lockridge), and I at least recognize most of the others (including the Shadow and Dick Tracy).

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The authors’ essays range from biographies of their characters to interviews with the detectives (a technique many authors favor) to discussions of how these fictional people were created (some well planned in advance, some appearing on the page with no warning). For me, those peeks into the minds of those writers was the most interesting part of the book.

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I know some Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe purists are not thrilled with Robert Goldsborough’s continuation of the series, but I’ve been enjoying his efforts. The Last Coincidence was published in 1989, and, although the characters have not aged over several decades, they are now living in the late twentieth century, and Archie is keeping the orchid records and doing other office tasks on a computer. His relationship with long-time lady friend Lily Rowan gets a bit more attention, too, although Archie remains a gentleman and never goes into detail.

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The Last CoincidenceIn this installment, Wolfe and Archie investigate the murder of a young man who assaulted Lily’s niece. For a moment even Archie might be a suspect, but attention soon turns to a collection of Lily’s relatives and their friends. The novel ends, as Wolfe’s cases often do, with all the suspects gathered in Wolfe’s office, as the great detective drinks beer and explains all.

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Many years ago, when I was a book-a-day reader, I barreled through all the Nero Wolfe novels. I’ve picked up and enjoyed a few of those more recently, but I’m also happy to see the cases continue. I’ve managed to accumulate all of Goldsborough’s entries on my Kindle—now I just need more reading time.

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Watching the DetectivesWatching the Detectives is the fifth entry in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series, Set in Kansas City in 1974, in that bygone era before computers, the Internet, and cell phones changed our lives. Ellison Russell has developed a remarkable talent for discovering bodies, sometimes in her own house, while juggling her teenage daughter Grace, her overbearing mother, and two attractive men, police detective Anarchy Jones and attorney Hunter Tafft. This time around, Ellison discovers an interior decorator whose life is as much a mystery as her death, contributes to a luncheon without finding out who the guest speaker is, and delves into some dark domestic secrets. Excellent as always. I’ve just preordered the next book in the series, Cold As Ice, available in October.

The Man in the High Castle

When I joined Amazon Prime a couple of years ago, I was mostly in it for the fast free shipping, but I did plan to take advantage of the access to videos and music. Good plan, but not much came of it. Then Amazon announced it was producing an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic SF parable The Man in the High Castle, and my interest in the video side jumped.

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I’ve always been a fan of alternate history tales, and I’d read High Castle back around 1980, so I downloaded a copy to my Kindle (later discovering that I still had an old Science Fiction Book Club edition on a high shelf) and read it last November. That convinced me that an adaptation was going to take a lot of work.

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The Man in the High Castle

New cover, based on adaptation, sure to confuse unsuspecting readers

The Man in the High Castle is a very cerebral novel, based on the premise that the U.S. and its allies lost World War Two. The eastern half of the country is now part of the Greater German Reich, the west coast is ruled by the Japanese, and a strip just east of the Rockies is a Neutral Zone. In the novel, an array of (not particularly sympathetic) characters spends an inordinate amount of time consulting the I Ching and discussing the probable political fall out from Hitler’s eventual death. Interesting enough to read, but not the stuff of great cinematic drama. The action, such as there was, took place in the Pacific States (where Dick was interested in the problems of Americans trying to adapt to the very different basics of Japanese culture) and the Neutral Zone (where the Man in the High Castle, who appears only in the last few pages, lived).

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Turning this relatively short philosophical novel into a ten-hour (and more—the third ten-episode season is currently in production) was clearly going to take a great deal of expansion. When I finally begin watching the series (on my new WiFi powered tablet), I quickly began piling up “I don’t remember that” moments.

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For good reason. Much has been added, much has been changed, and much has been improved. The basic premise remains, of course—the United States is no more. It is 1962, and the Reich rules the East, the Japanese the West, and the Neutral Zone is essentially lawless. The main characters, Juliana, Frank, and Joe, are younger, more interesting, and far more active, and relationships between them have changed. Major characters have been added, as have important motivations.

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One change at the core of the adaptation involves the McGuffin of the story, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In Dick’s novel, this was an alternate history novel, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, the Man in the High Castle, banned in the Reich, available in an under the table sort of way in the Pacific States, and sold openly in the Neutral Zone. In the adaptation, it is a collection of newsreel films showing alternate time lines, sought by both the Reich and the Japanese, extremely dangerous for the Resistance members attempting to smuggle the reels to Abendsen, who may be responsible for them or merely collecting them. The films provide danger, conflict, and mystery to propel the action.

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Major new characters include Chief Inspector Kido of the Japanese Kempeitai in San Francisco, terrifying and ruthless in pursuit of his duties and the newsreels, and Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, the American head of the SS in New York, a man with a home in the suburbs (where neighbors wave at one another with a cheerful “Sieg Heil”), a family he loves dearly, and the ability to push a disloyal subordinate off a building ledge without wrinkling his uniform.

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I could go on and on. As a lover of alternate histories, I’m totally engrossed by the story, the characters, and the production values. As a reader and writer I’m fascinated by the changes and expansions made to bring the novel to the screen. And I’ve lost so much sleep staying up late watching it that I’ve promised myself that I’ll wait until August (after I return from the RWA conference in Orlando next week) before I start on Season Two. Then, alas, I’ll have to wait with everyone else for the release of Season Three, probably late this year.

Nazi Times Square

Mystery Roundup

I seem to be reading a lot of cozy mysteries lately (when I’m not solving logic problems on my new tablet and telling myself it’s good mental exercise). Here are the three latest offerings in series I enjoy a lot.

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Ivy Get Your GunIvy Get Your Gun is the fourth installment in Cindy Brown’s mystery series set in and around Phoenix and featuring Ivy Meadows (nee Olive Ziegwart), a working actress who moonlights with her private investigator uncle to make ends meet. But it’s one of her theatrical friends who asks her to check out the situation at a newly opened Wild West tourist attraction, where she finds herself in a two-actor, four-character melodrama, and in the middle of trouble. Meanwhile, she’s auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, researching the real Annie Oakley, and tracking a pack of feral chihuahuas across the golf courses in pursuit of a missing (male) pug named Lassie. And then there’s her sort of secret relationship with her boyfriend Matt.

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I really love this series. Jump on board now and read them in order: MacDeath, The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted. Great fun.

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Murder, Curlers & Canes is Arlene McFarlane’s second Valentine Beaumont mystery, and it’s just as much fun as the first (Murder, Curlers & Cream). This time around, Valentine’s salon is doing well, thanks in part to the sexy new stylist she’s hired. He’s not only Murder, Curlers & Canesdrawing in a bevy of clients who look like supermodels even before he does their hair, but he’s almost enough to take Valentine’s mind off Detective Romero, who’s been missing with no explanation for a couple of months.

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But then Phyllis, the world’s worst salon employee, marches back in, and Valentine finds one of her retirement home clients, Sister Madeline, dead in a plate of lasagna. The police are ready to call that natural causes, but Valentine suspects something else. But who would want to murder a retired nun?

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Everyone has a secret: the dead nun, the sexy stylist, the returning Romero, and practically everybody at the retirement home. Only one of them is threatening Valentine as she gets too close to the truth, but who is it?

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Add to that a series of disastrous blind dates (engineered by Valentine’s mother), a car chase through the mountains, and Valentine’s improvisational skills with the tools of her trade and whatever else she can lay her hands on, and you have a fast paced and funny mystery with more than a dash of romance.

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Lowcountry Bonfire is the sixth entry in Susan M. Boyer’s series about private investigator Liz Talbot, her husband and partner Nate Andrews, and Liz’s long-dead friend Colleen. Yes, Colleen is the guardian spirit assigned to protect Stella Maris, Liz’s island home off the South Carolina coast near Charleston.

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Lowcountry BonfireThis case stays close to home on the island, when its small community is disrupted by the discovery of a body in the trunk of a burning 1969 Mustang convertible, right across the street from Liz’s parents’ house. The victim (and owner of the classic car), Zeke Lyerly, had clearly not committed suicide. Although Zeke was a Stella Maris native, much of his life was a blank filled with grandiose stories most of his friends took for imaginative fables. But Liz, who doesn’t believe Zeke’s wife knew he was in the trunk (or even that he was dead) when she set the car (filled with Zeke’s clothing) on fire, digs for the truth.

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As Liz hunts through Zeke’s mysterious past, she comes to suspect that the answer to this mystery may lie closer to home, but long in the past.

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Boyer’s Lowcountry series features a great cast of characters and well developed mysteries, but a big part of their charm is the setting. The island community of Stella Maris, which Colleen works to protect from both disaster and development plays an important role in the series, as does the nearby city of Charleston. Very entertaining, and almost as good as an island vacation.

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And a short story bonus, Big Foot Stole My Wife, and other stories: I’ve been a Joan Hess fan forever, and have all the Claire Malloy and Maggody books on my keeper shelf, so I grabbed this collection of short stories when I saw it. The stories were all written in the 90s, but they were new to me. Two are Claire Malloy shorts, two Maggody stories (one with Arly and one with only Ruby Bee and Estelle). The other seven are funny in a very dark and sometimes rather twisted way, most of them rooted in domestic tension. Let’s just say no one in these stories is happily married. I enjoyed them all.

Star Trek and Red Shirts

I watched Star Trek Beyond last night. No, I’m not the most up-to-date movie fan. I did manage to see the first Star Trek reboot film in a theater (where it was breathtaking). I watched Star Trek Into Darkness on TV. I watched Star Trek Beyond on my Fire, because it’s just come available on Amazon Prime. (I also have all the original series and Next Gen movies on my DVD shelf).

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I enjoyed Beyond. The movie had some humor, LOTS of action and explosions, people in red uniforms lying dead in corridors, fabulous CGI and special effects. Exactly, I suspect, what the movie makers were aiming for and what the audience wanted. There was even a sweet tribute to the late (and so very much lamented) Leonard Nimoy (Spock was always my favorite). Early in the movie, young Spock is disturbed by the news of Ambassador Spock’s death. Near the end, young Spock receives a box of Ambassador Spock’s belongings; he opens one intricate container to find a picture of the bridge crew from the original timeline.

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As much fun as the reboot movies have been, I still can’t quite see Chris Pine as Kirk. Karl Urban comes a little closer with McCoy—he has the acerbic wit and says what he thinks. Zachary Quinto comes closest as Spock—he does the mannerisms well, and he’s physically believable.

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But as much as I love a good alternate timeline story, as much as I’ve enjoyed the reboot movies as visually stunning space opera, I still have a hard time seeing them as “real” Star Trek.

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And now back to books: If you’ve ever been a Star Trek fan, the title of John Scalzi’s RedshirtsRedshirts says it all. Well, maybe not all, because the minute you (and the five newest crew members on the good ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, or Dub U) think you have it figured out, the story takes off in some new direction. I’m not going to give away much, because I love being surprised by a story, and this one bounced me around but good.

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The Trek universe redshirts were the extras who went on away missions with the regular cast. Guess who got killed. Often for no apparent reason, except to lead into a commercial break. No matter how much you enjoyed the Trek franchise, didn’t you ever suspect that the “science” side of the science fiction equation made no sense at all? And what about all those other people on the ship (three hundred or so on the original series, over a thousand on Picard’s Enterprise, at least 150 on Voyager)? What the heck were they doing in all those labs and on all those decks that we never saw?

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Redshirts is full of the most surprising answers to questions like that, sending up the whole SF TV genre from the inside (and with great love and respect). It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013, and it’s one of the most entertaining (and funniest) books I’ve read in a long time. My appreciation for John Scalzi rises another notch.

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It’s been fifty years now, hasn’t it? I still love Star Trek, old and new. Bring it on.

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