Happy New Year 2019!

Every year I try to write a New Year’s post, although sometime during the first week of January seems to be about the best I can do. This year I spent New Year’s Day with friends, eating various traditional foods, including pork chops, black-eyed peas, and cabbage (in the form of coleslaw this year). My own tradition involves herring in wine sauce, but I didn’t take that to the party, since no one else likes it. I ate herring on New Year’s Eve, because I have every year since I was a little girl, and I’d be afraid to break the streak. Besides, I do like herring in wine sauce. (Good thing, because there’s a two-pound jar—the only size available at HEB—in my refrigerator.)

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I wrote very little fiction this year. I did some editing, for myself and a friend, wrote my Grammar Gremlin columns for the Houston Bay Area RWA chapter newsletter, blog posts, and book reviews. I closed out (I think) my contest career by unexpectedly winning the RWA Golden Heart in Paranormal Romance for Jinn on the Rocks, the third manuscript in my Pandemonia series. I’m still thinking about independent publishing for the three Jinn bocks, but I’ve been thinking about that for years, and it has not magically happened. Go figure. I’m also thinking I might try my hand at writing a cozy mystery, since I’ve been reading so many of them. Clearly I’m not into “write what you know,” so maybe I should try “write what you like to read.”

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I read 62 books in 2018, just clearing my Goodreads goal of sixty. (There was a time when I was a book-a-day reader, but those years are far behind me.) Each year I’ve noticed I read more on Kindle than on paper, but I was really surprised to see that in 2018 I read only a dozen printed books, and fifty ebooks. (As I write this, my Voyage and my Fire 8 are on their chargers on the kitchen counter; my Fire 10, which I bought mostly for watching video, is on the coffee table. Now and then I even read on my phone.) On New Year’s Day there were 627 titles in my Amazon cloud, but I think I’ve bought three or four more since then.

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Last year I read 27 mysteries by 15 authors, including multiple books by Cindy Brown, Annabel Chase, Waverly Curtis, Robert Goldsborough, Pamela Kopfler, Cynthia Kuhn, Julie Mulhern, and Kate Parker. Almost all of these books were cozies. I’ve been a mystery fan all my reading life, so this isn’t a surprise.

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Science Fiction used to be my go to reading, and I still have more science fiction (and occasional fantasy) on my keeper shelves than any other genre. This year I read eleven SF novels, but 7 were in Kirsten Beyer’s Star Trek: Voyager series. I’m hoping to up my SF reading this year. I have 55 to chose from in my Amazon cloud, not to mention the printed books in the bedroom. And all those keepers to reread some day.

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I read nine “mainstream” novels last year, but three of those were Laura Andersen’s Boleyn trilogy, set in an alternate Tudor England and just as easily added to the SF list. I love alternate history, and I have Andersen’s second trilogy to look forward to this year. My romance reading was down this year, only five, but I have plenty of those on hand for 2019.

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In nonfiction, I read ten books (and nonfiction accounted for four of the twelve printed books), ranging from the craft of writing to Hollywood history to the tale of a T Rex skeleton. I have plenty of nonfiction ebooks waiting, too.

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This month my faithful HP desk top computer reached the more-than-venerable age of nine. Yes, really. There was a time, long ago, when I actually looked forward to a new computer (or a new version of a favorite program), but now I’ve been putting off making the change for at least three months. The computer is slow, and I frequently have to wait for programs that stop responding, but I muddle along because I dread trying to get a new machine set up and working. We got new computers at work last summer (Dell all-in-ones), but we had IT guys do the switch (I wasn’t even there). And the switch has not been without problems. I haven’t decided between an all-in-one or a small tower with a big monitor, and I’ll probably have to buy a new (wireless) printer). Meanwhile I back up my documents frequently and cross my fingers.

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Wishing you all a happy and healthy year full of reading, writing, friendship, and all the other good things in life.

books 2019

 

An Afternoon at the Post Office

The other day I made a trip to the post office, on behalf of the Scorekeeper. We needed the usual three or four rolls of forever stamps, and Jo Anne wanted Christmas stamps, maybe sixty of those. I seldom buy stamps for my own use, having discovered the ease of paying most of my bills through my bank, but I’m a regular at the post office nearest the Scorekeeper.

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It’s the first week in December, so I wasn’t surprised the post office was busy. As usual, there were only two clerks working; the other three stations were piled high with packages and such. At one of the open stations a woman with a large plastic bin filled with small packages (maybe a hundred of them!) was handing them to a clerk in groups of five or six, each handful requiring discussion. Ahead of me in line were a woman and a young girl. The woman had a shopping bag full of presents, which she apparently intended to package with post office supplies before she mailed them out of the country. That requires paperwork, so she and her daughter moved aside to fill out customs declarations, and I got my turn at the counter.

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Scorekeeper check in hand, I asked for three rolls of forever flags, not always available at this particular post office, which has been known to run completely out of stamps. Then I asked for three sheets of Christmas stamps, and the clerk showed me a card with birds and one with last year’s Madonna. “Don’t you have Santa or Christmas Carols?” I asked, having checked on this year’s stamps on line. I was prepared to take birds if that was all they had.

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“Yes,” the clerk said, “but if you want those you have to pay with a credit card.”

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What the hell? Which wasn’t exactly what I said, but close. “Why?” I demanded. I’ve been buying stamps with Scorekeeper checks there for years, frequently from this particular clerk.

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He shrugged. No idea. Orders from the management.

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By then there were even more people in line, so I wrote out the check for flag stamps, while the clerk scurried off and came back with a bag of Christmas stamps and a hand held credit card reader. I pulled out my own credit card and paid for three cards of stamps (one set of Santas and two of Christmas Carols). But I still wanted an explanation of this particular inconvenience, and the clerk said I could talk to a manager at the lobby window.

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So I stuffed the stamps and receipts into my purse and headed for the lobby—and my cell phone rang. It was the veterinarian who has been treating my ailing cat, and I spent five minutes in the post office lobby discussing cat poop on my cell phone. Amazingly, that was the high point of my visit.

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Once we’d settled on the cat’s further treatment (a week’s worth of pills—that should be fun), I went to the lobby door and cornered a manager, who listened to my story and announced that the clerk was completely wrong, and the manager would speak to him. As I left, the manager was indeed speaking to the clerk. End of story, or so I thought.

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But as I drove away, the proverbial penny dropped, and I realized I had written a $160 check for three $50 rolls of stamps. I pulled the receipt out of my purse and saw that he had charged me for one card of the damn bird stamps.

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Back to the post office, where I boldly cut across the line (still long, and the woman with all the little packages in the plastic bin was still there) and had a brief argument with the clerk. After insisting once that he had given me the bird stamps, he must have seen the murderous look in my eye; he checked around the stack of stamps near his register and handed me my birds.

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It took me forty minute to buy those stamps. I think I’m going to look into the stamps-by-mail service on the USPS web site.

 

There IS an App For That!

Sometime late in 2015 my car stalled, at a busy intersection at dusk, and I discovered just how hard it was to call AAA from my little Tracphone. (Fortunately, the car started after a few minutes, and I managed to cancel my call for help.) There must be an app for that, I thought, if only I had a phone that did apps.

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So a couple of months later I went to the local Verizon store and bought myself a very smart phone; among the first apps I downloaded was AAA. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

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Last Thursday, after driving my usual 30-mile commute into Houston for work and running some business errands, I came out of the post office to a car that refused to start. Not so much as a grumble. Turn the key to utter silence.

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Sudden battery death is not unheard of in the heat of a Houston summer. Maybe that was all it was, a simple fix, even though the battery had been checked recently when I had the oil changed. No need to panic. After all, I was in the parking lot of a post office, at 11:45 AM. There are definitely worse times and places to have car trouble. And I had my phone, and the AAA app.

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So I called Jo Anne to tell her I would not be back in the office for a while. Four minute discussion of options, which boiled down to the obvious “call AAA.”

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But why call when I had that smart app, right? Surely the app would be quicker and more efficient.

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Not so fast. When I opened the app, it asked for my PIN. Seriously? I have a PIN for AAA? I tried the default PIN I usually use when forced to come up with four digits, but that didn’t work. So I backed up and tried again. This time it asked for a password. Of course it did. And my original smart phone probably knew the password, but I had to replace that phone a couple of months ago, and the new phone didn’t have a clue. Nor did I.

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By this time a nice woman picking up her mail had noticed my problem and offered me the phone number for AAA. I had that, of course, right there in the app, but I had accepted a challenge. I was going to conquer that app in the air-conditioned comfort of the post office, in case I might need it some night on the side of the road.

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I circled around the app again and put in my AAA membership number. Aha, now it knew me, but it still wanted a password, so I went through the whole password reset routine, which involved the browser, the web site, and three emails.

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At long last, with a new password, I got into the business section of the app. That presented its own challenges. The phone’s GPS had sent a not-too-accurate location, and I had to ask a postal clerk for the correct street address. Then I discovered that I couldn’t just type “Toyota” into the vehicle description boxes—they all work on drop down lists. I finally managed that, and got an immediate response and an estimate of about an hour.

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Happily, it didn’t take nearly that long. After receiving one call from the subcontractor (who rattled off her standard message so fast that I had to ask her to repeat herself) and another from the driver, I saw a truck pull into the parking lot and stop behind my car.

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The driver, a big cheerful Latino guy with a tear in the right leg of his uniform trousers, hopped out of his truck and handed me a cold bottle of water. He checked the battery with some high-tech gadget and pronounced it perfect. Probably the starter, he said, sliding the driver’s seat back so he could wiggle into my Corolla. He then performed a magical feat involving the gear shift, and the car started. There was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would start again if I turned it off, he said.

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I didn’t like those odds, so I called Jo Anne. After stopping by her house so her helper could come out and get the mail I had picked up (I didn’t think to ask her to bring me my lunch, which is still sitting under my desk), I headed south to the Toyota dealership in League City, where they quickly discovered that the problem was indeed the starter (gee, it only lasted 240,000 miles—how many starts would that be?), which they had in stock (not always the case with parts for a 2004 Corolla). While I waited, I pulled out the phone yet again, made a couple of calls, opened the Kindle app, and downloaded the book I was currently reading. The book opened to where I’d left off on my Kindle the night before, and I read until the car was ready.

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My phone was expensive, and the monthly service isn’t cheap, either, but it sure comes in handy when I need it. Between the phone itself, the AAA app, my email, the texting app, and the Kindle app, I definitely put it through its paces on Thursday. I never leave home without it.

 

Back on Trek

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for fifty years (gee, that’s a little scary), since I was in college during the first run of the The Original Series (as it was not known then).

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During and after that run, as I caught up with missed episodes in reruns, I also read most, if not all, of the paperback spin-off novels that came out, some of them written by well-known science fiction writers of the day.

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By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, life, and syndication, got in the way, and I picked up episodes of that and of Deep Space Nine rather sporadically. Didn’t even think about reading the accompanying novels, although over the years I have caught up with watching both series.

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Then came Voyager. By then my life was a bit more settled, and so was the broadcast schedule for the show, now on a regular (if short-lived) network rather than syndication. I watched Voyager from the beginning, fell in love with the ensemble cast, and read the Voyager novels (varying in quality but all featuring the familiar cast) as they came out.

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After Voyager returned to Earth, finishing its seven-year run, I read a few of the “relaunch” novels that appeared, but wasn’t terribly impressed, and there weren’t many of them. I stopped watching for them not that long after the series ended, when I heard that some writer (in a Next Generation novel, I think) had killed off Kathryn Janeway.

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Voyager without Janeway, the redoubtable first female captain with her own series? I don’t think so. Chakotay without Janeway, break my heart again.

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Not too long ago I was wondering what the Trekverse had in store for the cast of Deep Space Nine after that show closed. I knew there must have been any number of novels written in the years since then. So I went poking around on the Internet, where I learned that, this being science fiction, Janeway was restored to life four books into a (currently) nine-book relaunch series by a single author, Kirsten Beyer.

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Full CircleI tried to resist, but I failed. Completely. I devoured the first two books (Full Circle and Unworthy) over the Memorial Day weekend (and these are not short novels), the third (Children of the Storm) during the week, and the fourth (The Eternal Tide) this weekend. Hooked, obviously. I’ve downloaded number 5 (Protectors), although I might force myself to read something else next. Maybe.

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As a reader and as a writer, I’m impressed with how well Kirsten Beyer has handled bringing in backstory from five TV series and countless novels without huge info dumps and without leaving the reader (assuming a certain degree of Star Trek knowledge) totally confused. There are literally hundreds of books out there (if you think I’m exaggerating, check out Wikipedia’s List of Star Trek Novels), and there may well be people who have read them all. I’m not one of them, and never will be, but I am enjoying these.

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However, I’m not writing this to tell you “Read these books, you’ll love them!” Unless you’re a long-time Star Trek fan with a special affection for Voyager, you probably wouldn’t. It’s a niche market.

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What I am sharing, as I babbled to a writer friend recently, is the joy of rediscovering books that keep me up late, books that I can’t put down. Books that have me reading 1800 pages in ten days or so. The joy of binge reading.

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Writers come to look on reading almost as homework, too alert to the mechanics, watching to see how the writer has done something, kicking ourselves because we don’t think we can do it as well, or because we really wish we’d thought of (or written) something on our own. Although most of us are bookaholics, with huge piles of books we really want to read, on our shelves or our ereaders, the book that keeps us up all night, that keeps us away from whatever we think we should be doing, becomes a rare find.

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So when you find an author, or a series, or a subgenre that you fall in love with, go ahead and binge. Reading should be a joy, not an obligation, and I’m delighted, and thankful, to have been reminded of that.

 

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.

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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.

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Drat. Spoofed again.

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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.

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My phone wasn’t.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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roof 1

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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roof 2

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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.

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roof 3

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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.

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roof 4

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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.

 

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And then my purse rang.

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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.

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I answered it anyway.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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

 

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