Texas Lightning

Anna Delaney, heroine of Gerry Bartlett’s latest romantic suspense novel, Texas Lightning, is a recent Boston to Austin transplant. She’s getting settled in her job with the software development company that bought up her previous employer—her own as yet unfinished pharmaceutical application was the major asset in the sale.

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Texas LightningBut she’s not used to Texas weather. When the temperature shoots into the eighties on a winter day, Anna, wearing a heavy wool sweater, comes close to fainting in the Capitol rotunda, only to be rescued by a handsome and well dressed, if somewhat overbearing, cowboy.

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King Sanders (fans of Bartlett’s books will remember him from Texas Fire) insists on driving his sharp-tongued damsel in distress home from her ill-fated tour of the capitol building, only to find her little dog running loose in her parking lot and her apartment ransacked, computers stolen.

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Anna and King soon realize that her computer project is even more valuable than she thought, especially to the wrong people. And those wrong people know that the unfinished program is worthless without Anna. Theft escalates to kidnapping and violence, and even the ever-changeable Texas weather seems to conspire against them as they fight to protect themselves and their friends.

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Texas Lightning rocks with both suspense and, of course, romance. It’s the first in a new three-book series from Bartlett.

 

The Night of the Triffids

All bookaholics have books we’ve read more times than we remember. One of mine is The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, an author my voracious reader parents introduced The Day of the Triffidsme to decades ago (my dad even kept a plant labeled triffidus americanus on the patio). Several of Wyndham’s other books also fall into the treasured book category, and a couple of years ago I even replaced my tattered copies with brand new editions (from their British publisher, through the Book Depository, as much of Wyndham’s work has gone out of print in this country).

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The Day of the Triffids tells of the collapse of civilization after much of the human population is blinded by a strange comet’s light show, while man-eating and mobile plants called triffids escape from greenhouses and gardens and overwhelm London, the countryside, and as far as anyone knows, the world. The novel ends with the narrator, Bill Masen, and his family safe, at least for the time being, in a growing colony on the Isle of Wight, defensible against triffids from the mainland.

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I only recently discovered The Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark, although it was published in 2001 and won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2002. Clark, The Night of the Triffidsprimarily known as an author of horror novels, wrote this sequel with the permission of Wyndham’s estate (Wyndham died in 1969) and with obvious respect and love for Wyndham’s work.

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The narrator of The Night of the Triffids is David Masen, Bill’s son. Some thirty years later, David pilots one of the ancient flying boats the Isle of Wight colony uses to maintain contact and trade with the other channel islands. One morning he awakens to total darkness, an echo of the long ago blinding. As the sunlight gradually comes back David’s adventures mount. Rescued after a crash by an American survey ship, he travels across the Atlantic to Manhattan, a seemingly idyllic island of civilization. But we all know that things are rarely as they seem.

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Clark piles on the disasters and surprises, and the triffids continue to terrify (some American triffids reach sixty feet in height), but he knows, as Wyndham did, that sometimes one’s fellow humans are more to be feared than the forces of nature.

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Clark is not Wyndham, but he’s done a good job of carrying on the voice and the story of The Day of the Triffids. I highly recommend all of Wyndham’s novels (Re-Birth and Out of the Deeps, British titles The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes respectively, are my other favorites, and The Midwich Cuckoos may be the best known after Triffids). The 1981 BBC TV version of The Day of the Triffids is excellent, and the most faithful to the novel, but unfortunately it seems to have gone out of print (if that’s the right term for an unavailable DVD).

 

Mysteries & Mayhem

The Man Who Lived By Night is David Handler’s second mystery featuring ghost writer Stewart (”call me Hoagy”) Hoag and his basset hound Lulu. Hoagy’s celebrity assignment The Man Who Lived By Nightthis time around is faded rock star Tristam Scarr, now living in isolated grandeur on his estate in the English countryside. Originally published in 1989 (most of the series was republished in ebook format by Open Road Press in 2012), the book is a travelogue through the music scene of the 60s and 70s, British and American, peppered with real people. Handler tells chunks of the story through tapes of Hoagy’s interviews with Scarr and his associates, peeling away the past until the motives for current murders are revealed.

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Somehow I missed this series completely when it was first published, but I’m enjoying it now: I identify with both writers and basset hound owners.

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I haven’t missed one of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries since the first one came out in the 1970s. The latest, The Breakers, follows Sharon’s search for a missing friend. We first met Chelle Curley in earlier books as an enterprising teenager who often pet sat for Sharon’s cats. Now she’s in her early twenties and has had some success The Breakersrehabbing old buildings in run down sections of San Francisco. When her parents call Sharon from Costa Rica because they haven’t been able to get in touch with Chelle for days, Sharon takes up the search.

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The investigation leads to an assortment of characters, friends and/or possible suspects, and to other crimes. Sharon’s husband Hy and her various employees work mostly in the background on this one, which is primarily Sharon’s story. The Breakers, the one-time hotel, now a deteriorating and nearly empty apartment house that Chelle is living in while rehabbing it, holds a number of clues, if only Sharon can puzzle them out in time. A little slower and less complex than some previous entries (and fairly short at 260 pages), The Breakers is still a solid addition to the series.

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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the advertising business in Robert Goldsborough’s Fade To Black. I read all of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series back in the day (when I apparently had more time for reading), and I enjoy Goldsborough’s continuation of the series just as much, as he brings Wolfe and Archie into the computer age (without aging them a day). In this one Archie and Wolfe work to discover who’s passing ideas about the ad campaigns for one cherry soda (yuck) to the ad agency for another. Lots of familiar characters, and the routine at the brownstone never changes.

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In their next adventure, they become reluctantly involved with murder at a megachurch in Silver Spire, but only because long-time associate Fred Durkin is accused of the killing.

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In The Missing Chapter, Goldsborough has a little fun with his own career, as Wolfe and Archie investigate the possible murder (or was it really suicide?) of a “continuator,” an author who has taken up the pen of a well-loved mystery writer, producing new cases for the homespun Sergeant Barnstable and making lots of enemies, including his editor and agent, a fellow writer who borrows his “word processor” (this one was published in 1993), a missing cousin, and even his fiancee. Needless to say, Wolfe and Archie winnow out the truth.

 

Kristan Higgins: Good Luck With That

I could stand to lose a few pounds, but I’ve never been seriously overweight. As a kid I was downright skinny, saved from an uncle’s merciless teasing only by the fact that one of my cousins (Norma Jean the String Bean) was even thinner. So Kristan Higgins’ Good Luck With That, the story of three women, Georgia, Marley, and Emerson, who became fast friends at “fat camp” is pretty far removed from my own experience. That said, so many other elements of their lives as women are totally on point for any reader.

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Good Luck With ThatThe story begins (no spoilers, this is on the back cover) when Emerson dies of complications of extreme obesity and leaves her friends a bucket list they wrote when they were eighteen. Georgia, a lawyer turned nursery school teacher, and Marley, a personal chef, set out to accomplish some of the things they dreamed of when they were teens. Now in their mid thirties, they find that list leading them out of their comfort zones and into new attitudes and adventures.

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Higgins is known for romantic comedy (and truly hilarious keynote speeches). Good Luck with That moves out of the romcom subgenre, but there is definitely both humor and romance included, with Georgia finally realizing what went wrong in her failed—but perhaps not unsalvageable—marriage, and Marley taking interest in her weirdest catering customer—lost soul or serial killer?

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This book has spawned some controversy on review sites, with some angry readers calling it (and Higgins) “fatphobic.” I found it enlightening, emotional, touching, and ultimately life-affirming and loving. Georgia and Marley are very different women, but closer than sisters, haunted by very different childhood memories. I found myself rooting for each of them to find her happy ending—without having to make herself over into something unsustainable to reach it.

 

And More Cozies

You will have noticed by now, if you are a regular visitor, that I enjoy cozy mysteries. Here are three I’ve read recently, two new (to me, anyway) series and one I’ve been reading for quite a while.

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Rock BottomRock Bottom is the first in Jerusha Jones’ Imogene Museum cozy mystery series. I picked it up after seeing it on one of the several ebook sales emails I get every morning—I couldn’t resist the idea of a heroine who is the curator of a small town museum. Meredith Morehouse has left Seattle to live in a fifth wheel RV and run the museum in a small town in the Columbia River Gorge. The museum is a beautiful but old mansion—most of the plumbing in the fourteen original bathrooms has been disconnected for fear of leaks—and the globe trotting owner, Meredith’s boss, has just shipped another mysterious collection of crates from Europe. All is well with Meredith’s world, until her graduate student intern, Greg, vanishes somewhere between the museum where he works on weekends and the university where he studies anthropology.

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In a bit of a switch for a cozy mystery, Meredith doesn’t stumble over a dead body among the exhibits (although she does wonder about those chamber pots that insist on switching places when no one is watching). Instead, the story focuses on Greg’s disappearance, while Jones introduces a range of supporting characters who will, I presume, play their parts again in the six following books. The action doesn’t really heat up until fairly late in the book, but I enjoyed the build-up and the characters and setting—mystery fans will appreciate a dog named Tuppence rescuing a cat named Tommy—and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of the series.

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Here’s another new-to-me series by Waverly Curtis: The Barking Detective. Yep, anotherDial C For Chihuahua dog detective, and this one is a talking chihuahua. In the first installment, Dial C For Chihuahua, down on her luck recent divorcee Geri Sullivan adopts a chihuahua, part of a shipment of tiny dogs sent to Seattle from Los Angeles, where the fad for purse pups has apparently run its course.

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Imagine Geri’s surprise when little Pepe starts talking to her—and she understands every word. Well, nearly every word—her Spanish isn’t that great, so Pepe switches, mostly, to English. Geri has bigger things to worry about than possible sanity questions. She’s almost out of money, desperate enough to apply for a job with a private detective of questionable repute. In between recounting wild stories of his previous careers (as a search and rescue dog, a bull fighter, a circus performer, and a starlet’s pet, the last one possibly true), Pepe proves to be a surprising asset in the detecting business.

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Given the ridiculous premise, Waverly Curtis (actually a two-person writing team) did a dog-gone good job of pulling me into the story. Pepe is such a charmer, dragging Geri into one loony situation after another (not to mention his swaggering interactions with other dogs), that I’ll be following his further adventures.

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A Touch of MagicA Touch of Magic is the seventh novel in Annabel Chase’s charming Spellbound paranormal cozy mystery series, continuing the humor that runs through these tales of Emma Hart adjusting to her new life as a witch. This time around Emma tackles the case of the murder of a vampire mayoral candidate, helps a teenage nymph accused of animal cruelty, and uncovers some secrets about her own background. All the familiar characters are back, as the remedial witches try to create inventive spells of their own, with the expected—or rather unexpected—results.

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So many fun and entertaining series! How will I ever catch up with the ones I’ve started when I continue to find more?

 

Random Reviews: August

Back to short reviews: Here are a few of the books I’ve read over the last few weeks, in no particular order. I’ll be back with more in a few days.

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Sonali Dev’s A Distant Heart is a follow up to her previous novel, A Change of Heart, not quite as dark, but continuing the story of the organ theft ring which figured in that book. A A Distant HeartDistant Heart, set in contemporary Mumbai, tells the story of Kimi Patil, a heart transplant recipient, and Rahul Savant, a police officer working on the organ ring case. Kimi and Rahul met as children, and the novel switches back and forth between their growing friendship in the past (“a long time ago”) and current events (“present day”). The novel includes elements of romance and suspense, but remains mainstream at heart, beautifully written but rather slowly paced.

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I downloaded up Joseph Egan’s The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s because I enjoy early Hollywood tales, not because I know much about Mary Astor (I think I’ve only seen her in The Maltese Falcon), and I didn’t know much about her The Purple Diariesdiaries or her custody battle. Not much from the notorious “Purple Diaries” is reprinted in this book, and most of what was printed at the time was forged, but the story is interesting and kept me reading. It’s fascinating to see how the testimony at the custody hearing became wilder and wilder, and rose to the level of a national newspaper obsession for a few weeks in 1936. The writing is repetitious at times, and the proofreading mediocre, but I found the book entertaining.

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I picked up Hoax: A History of Deception, by Ian Tattersall and Peter Nevraumont, at my local Half Price Book store. Broken into 50 chapters, the book covers everything from harmless and amusing exploits to wild conspiracy theories to the downright dangerous (such as homeopathy and anti-vaccine Hoaxhysteria, two bits of nonsense I find very disturbing). Faked photographs, faked deaths, successful and unsuccessful forgeries, scams and con games, flat and hollow earth ideas, military trickery and so on all pop up in the book. In this age of “fake news” and apparent willingness to believe Big Lies, there’s a lot to be learned from hoaxes of the past.

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Very little is known about the life of Kate Warne, the first female operative with the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, but Greer MacAllister has done an impressive job of giving her a story in Girl in Disguise. The novel begins with Kate applying for the job,Girl in Disguise answering a newspaper ad that no one, least of all Allen Pinkerton, expected a woman to respond to. Earning the trust and respect of her male colleagues is no easy feat, but Kate perseveres, working on cases of all sorts, until the Civil War turns her into a spy. Along the way she meets characters both fictional and real (including Abraham Lincoln), contemplates the moral lines she may or may not be crossing, and confronts ghosts from her past. MacAllister draws a fascinating picture of the mid-nineteenth century, of the Pinkerton headquarters in Chicago, and of Washington society during the Civil War.

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I actually downloaded Girl in Disguise over a year ago and promptly lost track of it among the hundreds of books in my Amazon cloud. Now and then I open the Kindle app on my computer, which gives me a wide screen, full color view of my electronic library, and browse. The cover of Girl in Disguise caught my eye, and I’m glad it did. I will, however, never catch up.

 

Three Mysteries

Valentine Beaumont goes to sea in Arlene McFarlane’s Murder, Curlers & Cruises. When Murder, Curlers & Cruisesshe wins passage on a beauty cruise for her salon, she sets out with Max, Jock, and Phyllis, all of them competing in an onboard makeover contest (with Valentine’s family tagging along). When one of the contestants turns up dead in an ice sculpture and Valentine’s great aunt goes missing, Valentine’s sleuthing skills rise to the occasion, along with a bottle of nail polish remover and a very sturdy nail file. To add to Valentine’s dismay, she’s pretty sure something’s going on with Romero and a cop named Belinda, and who’s leaving that trail of Tic Tacs around the ship? And just how did Valentine’s stilettos end up on that ceiling fan? Another fun adventure, number three in the Murder & Curlers series.

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Lowcountry Bookshop, the seventh book in Susan M. Boyer’s Liz Talbot series, begins with what appears to be a simple hit-and-run case (not that the circumstances in which Liz and Nate enter the case are so simple) but quickly morphs into something far more Lowcountry Bookshopcomplicated. Was the hit-and-run victim an abusive husband? Is the slightly eccentric mail carrier as innocent as she appears to Liz, or as guilty as she appears to the Charleston police detective handling the case? What’s going on at the bookshop, where there appears to be an inexplicably high demand for The Ghosts of Charleston? Why is the blonde in the Honda stalking the mail carrier? And that’s only the beginning.

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Most of this story takes place in Charleston (one almost needs a street map of the city to follow the action), but we do visit Stella Maris long enough to see what antics Liz’ father is up to (involving a pig, three goats, and a large hole in the backyard). Liz’ brother and sister pop in, as does Colleen, Liz’ long dead but still active best friend. Another excellent entry in the Lowcountry series.

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Julie Mulhern’s Shadow Dancing is the seventh installment in the Country Club Murders series,set in Kansas City in the 1970s. Ellison Russell and her sixteen-year-old daughter Shadow DancingGrace have an uncomfortable habit of finding bodies, but as this book opens, it’s been quite a while. It’s also been quite a while since Ellison has seen Detective Anarchy Jones. And she’s not entirely sure how she feels about that. The situation changes when Ellison’s socialite mother finds an unidentified box of ashes in her hall closet. A visit to a psychic and a minor traffic incident lead Ellison back into the world of investigating murders, especially when a body turns up on her own driveway. All this may upset her mother, but it also brings Anarchy Jones back to her door.

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Shadow Dancing includes Mulhern’s usual wit and humor, with Grace’s wisecracks, her friend Libba’s terrible taste in men, and some unwelcome surprises for her mother. Mulhern also investigates the serious subject of human trafficking an teen prostitution, as Ellison and Grace do their best to help a girl who calls herself Starry Knight.

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The Country Club Murders is one of my favorite series, with its pre-Internet and cell phone setting. I have not yet read the first book in Mulhern’s new series, Fields’ Guide to Abduction, but it’s waiting on my Kindle.

 

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