Random Nonfiction

Carol Burnett’s In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox tells the story of her legendary variety show. If you loved the show as much as I did (or if you’ve followed the shorter syndicated version, Carol Burnett and Friends), you will enjoy this book. Burnett writes about the movie parodies (featuring, of course, the unforgettable “Went With the Wind” and the story behind “Starlet’s” famous curtain rod dress), the repeating characters (Eunice and her family could be heartbreaking), the hilarious sketches with Korman and Conway (their dentist chair skit has to rank near the top of the funniest things in the universe), and many guest stars. Lots of color photos, too.

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Craig Rice was a well known mystery writer back in the 1940s and 50s (she died in 1957 at the age of 49). She was also a crime reporter, and 45 Murderers: A Collection of True Crime Stories, originally published in 1952 and reissued this year by Mysterious Press, draws on her work as a journalist. The stories cover the period from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, but most take place in the 1930s and 40s.

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One reason I downloaded 45 Murderers was mention of the famous Black Dahlia case, a contemporary mystery in Rice’s day. I think my first exposure to the case was the 1975 TV movie with Lucie Arnaz as the Black Dahlia, but there have been numerous movies, books, and TV episodes based on this still unsolved 1947 crime. Rice’s take on the story is the last essay in the book, and the only one without some sort of official solution (although Rice wasn’t always sure the authorities got it right.) I wonder if she realized the murder would never be solved?

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On the whole an interesting book, and Rice’s voice is entertaining enough that I downloaded one of her mystery novels (Knocked for a Loop, also recently republished by Mysterious Press and on sale when I looked); she’s one writer I somehow missed back when I was devouring Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Rex Stout. How nice to have some of these old and out-of-print books reissued in convenient and inexpensive ebook editions.

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Paige Willams’ The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy jumped off the new books kiosk into my hands at Half Price Books not too long ago. In order to tell the story of the tarbosaurus bataar that upset the life of fossil hunter/dealer Eric Prokopi and rewrote a number of laws governing the market in prehistoric relics, Williams wanders into the history of paleontology, the history and politics of Mongolia, the career of Roy Chapman Andrews, the world of high-dollar trophy collectors, and a variety of other fields. If such things spike your interest (as they do mine—I remember being fascinated by Andrews when I was a child, and I have the National Geographic Channel playing in the background this morning), you’ll probably enjoy The Dinosaur Artist, but it’s not a fast-paced page turner. (If you’re a scholar, you might even enjoy the 120+ pages of acknowledgments, bibliography, and end notes, but I passed on those.)

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I’ve watched a few of Leah Remini’s anti-Scientology shows on TV, so I thought her book on the subject might be interesting, and indeed it is. Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology tells the story (in Remini’s distinctive, funny, sharp voice) of her life in Scientology, following her mother into the organization as a young teen, and finally opening her eyes (due in large part to the antics of Tom Cruise) to the downside. Remini’s acting career and personal life are also covered, with considerable humor. If you are interested in how people fall prey to what is essentially mind control (and financial greed) posing as religion, this is a good read. The one aspect I thought was missing, perhaps intentionally, was any indication of a truly religious aspect to Scientology, but then I’m old enough to remember when L. Ron Hubbard was just another (not particularly good) science fiction writer.

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 Academic Mystery Series

Cynthia Kuhn’s The Semester of Our Discontent is the first in yet another Henery Press cozy mystery series, and just as good as the others I’ve read from that source. Lila The Semester of Our DiscontentMaclean is a brand new English professor at Stonedale University, trying to get her footing in the other side of Academia, a big change from being a student. But surely walking into a faculty meeting and finding the body of the colleague who has been disparaging her research project and curriculum suggestions is not normal. The violence doesn’t stop there, and somehow Lila always seems to be there, as the detective handling the cases never fails to point out. Throw in mysterious symbols that keep popping up, which no one can—or more likely will—identify, and Lila has her hands full.

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I’ve always loved school-based stories, and I enjoyed this one, with its departmental infighting and an interesting layer of feminist scholarship. So I downloaded the next installment, The Art of Vanishing, which takes an entertainingly different approach to academic mystery.

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The Art of Vanishing throws Lila into an uncomfortable situation: trying to get an interview with the notoriously uncooperative but highly regarded writer Damon Von The Art of VanishingTussel, who is scheduled to appear during Stonedale’s Art Week festivities. But Damon vanishes, and Lila is cornered into recruiting her mother, artist Violet O, into helping her corral Damon, an embarrassing situation, since Violet and Damon are ex-lovers. Oh, what a girl will do to stay on the tenure track.

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At one point Lila mentions that she never had panic attacks until she took up an academic career, reminding me that turning my own education toward commercial ends was a wise decision.

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Although there are threats and apparent attacks on various characters, no one is killed. Instead, the mystery turns on academic infighting and fraud (reminding me a bit of Dorothy Sayers). Lila has another run-in with her nemesis, the manipulative Selene, and a much more pleasant meeting with Detective Lex Archer, who suspected her of murder in The Semester of Our Discontent. The descriptions of academic life and the characters populating Stonedale ring true, with sharp wit and humor.

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In the latest installment, The Spirit in Question, Lila has reached her third year on the Stonedale staff, and has taken on (or perhaps been dragooned into) helping with the production of another professor’s play, Puzzled: The Musical, a barely comprehensible mixture of detectives and dancers. The student actors and crew are having a ball—until murder mars the production.

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The Spirit in QuestionAt the request of Lex Archer, Lila stays (mostly) out of the hunt for the murderer, but there are enough other puzzles to keep her busy. The play is being staged in a deteriorating opera house owned, but not much cared for, by the university and protected by the remarkably officious head of the Stonedale Historical Society. The building not only presents mechanical dangers—what with characters dropping from the rafters and popping up through the trap door, what could go wrong?—but it may be haunted by the ghost of a previous owner, who hanged himself on the stage.

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By the time the production opens, no one, least of all Lila, is quite sure who might be a target, or why. Between accidents, a seance, and a missing journal, the opera house is up for grabs—literally. At least Lila has a chance to rekindle her friendship with Detective Lex Archer—if the ghost doesn’t get her first.

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I’ve enjoyed this series. Alas, looks like I’ll have to wait until next year for another installment.

 

Mysteries With Humor

Mystery and humor make up just about my favorite combination in reading for pleasure (which, come to think about is, is just about all of my reading). Here are the latest installments in three series I really enjoy (and usually preorder).

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Killalot is the sixth entry in Cindy Brown’s wonderful Ivy Meadows mystery series. Ivy is a hard-working but underemployed actress in Phoenix, where she also works for her Uncle Bob as an apprentice private investigator. This time around she’s investigating a death at the local Renaissance Faire (jousting accident or murder?) and auditioning for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a potential Kennedy era version of Camelot, called Kennelot by its playwright, John Robert Turner, formerly of the very successful Broadway team of Turner and Toe (think about that one).

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The RenFaire setting is great fun, as Ivy goes undercover as a belly-dancing mime (or is that a mute belly dancer?), meets a very smart but somewhat addled wizard, and learns about the jousting circuit. Meanwhile, the three-person cast of the potential Broadway play (staying with which would bring Ivy another set of problems involving her loyal boyfriend Matt and her special needs brother Cody) is also full of surprises. There’s something odd about Jackie, and just how is JFK connected to the falcon handler at the RenFaire? And how did the missing jousting horse end up in the playwright’s pool in the middle of the Arizona desert?

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I love this series, which scatters some serious issues among the delightfully wacky settings and stream of hilarious song, movie and play titles. Cindy Brown is one of several cozy authors I follow who write for Henery Press (others include Julie Mulhern and Susan Boyer).

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The Long Paw of the Law (don’t you love those titles?) is Diane Kelly’s seventh novel featuring Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her K-9 partner, Brigit. This time the action begins when a man drops a newborn baby off at the fire station where Megan’s boyfriend Seth and Brigit’s boyfriend Blast work. This is perfectly legal under Texas’ Baby Moses law, but when Megan unfolds the beautifully hand-made quilt the baby is wrapped in, she finds an embroidered plea for help. There just may be something going on outside the law after all, and Megan intends to find out.

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But Megan’s not a detective—not yet, anyway— and she has the usual patrol cases to follow, including a pair of thieves who specialize in stealing garage door remotes from parked cars. Along the way she meets a cosmetics and clothing consultant and an elderly dressmaker, both of whom would love to give Megan a makeover, goes to a car show with Seth and his cranky grandpa, and helps her mom study for an American History exam. Meanwhile with the help of Detective Audrey Jackson (her mentor), Frankie (her roller derby star/fire fighter housemate) and explosives expert Seth, Megan and Brigit pursue the case of the abandoned baby.

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As always, Kelly alternates police work with humor, and tells the story from three viewpoints: Megan, Brigit (who is mostly interested in food and chasing perps), and the villain. Paw Enforcement continues to be a most entertaining and enjoyable series.

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Stephanie Plum returns in Janet Evanovich’s Look Alive Twenty-Five, tracking FTAs and generally getting into trouble, with Lula at her side. This time around she’s dealing with a deli that can’t seem to hang on to a manager—they keep disappearing out by the dumpster, leaving one shoe behind. Stephanie and Lula find themselves working at the deli (Lula’s approach to sandwich production is especially memorable), hunting for a local rock musician (whose charges include peeing on a dog), and driving a burrito truck. Stephanie’s family are minor players in this installment, but Morelli and Ranger are front and center. There are feral chickens. And a catnapping. A number of seemingly unrelated cases manage to come together by the end of the book.

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Look Alive Twenty-Five made me laugh out loud several times. That’s exactly what I expect from Stephanie, and exactly why I continue to follow her adventures.

Recent Reading: Cozies

I have found so many enjoyable cozy mystery series, it’s hard to keep up. Oh, all right, it’s hard to keep up with any section of my To Be Read shelves. But I’m a real sucker for first-in-a-series sales, and then I get hooked. Here are three from series that have held my attention past the first entry.

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Chihuahua Confidential is the second entry in Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series. Chihuahua ConfidentialThis time Geri and Pepe, the talking chihuahua that only Geri can understand, are in Los Angeles for the taping of Dancing With Dogs, the pilot for a potential reality TV series. Dance lessons, costume fittings, dognappings, and the occasional murder keep Geri and Pepe on the go, even more so when Geri’s PI boss, the notably eccentric Jimmy G, shows up looking for a missing package. Pepe and Geri even find some answers regarding Pepe’s rather mysterious past life. The characters, both human and canine, are totally entertaining.

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In Better Dead, the first in Pamela Kopfler’s B&B Spirits Mystery series, Holly Davis helped the ghost of her late (and largely unlamented) husband move on. But with Burl’s departure, her haunted B&B and ancestral home, Holly Grove, is no longer haunted. Or is it?

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As Downright Dead opens, the reality show producer who made Holly Grove famous is Downright Deaddemanding a sequel episode, spurred on by a dedicated debunker who plans to expose the whole story as a fake. The original haunting was real, but with the ghost gone, Holly does feel like a fake, and has no idea how to honor her option contract without destroying her business.

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And that’s not Holly’s only problem. Her handyman has an accident, her ICE agent boyfriend is AWOL, and her cook has taken an inexplicable dislike to a perfectly inoffensive guest. The portrait of the Unknown Ancestor keeps jumping off the wall, a visiting psychic predicts a dire future for the debunker, and Bayou St. Agnes rises, cutting Holly Grove off from any way out.

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And then there’s a murder. Or two.

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What’s a girl to do? Holly deals with it all with charm and aplomb, and help from her band of loyal friends—and a ghost or two.

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In Back Stabbers (number 8 in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series), Ellison Back StabbersRussell discovers a body. Not a surprise. Ellison has developed quite a reputation for discovering bodies. This time it’s her stockbroker, siting behind his desk, with his pants around his ankles. And that’s not the last of the disasters plaguing the firm.

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Meanwhile, Ellison’s half-sister Karma comes to visit, staying with Ellison at her dad’s insistence. After all the only other choice would be for Karma to stay with Ellison’s parents, and if Ellison is surprised by Karma’s existence, she can hardly imagine how her mother will react.

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And then there’s Ellison’s relationship with Anarchy Jones, who is all too previously acquainted with Karma. And Ellison’s daughter Grace, who has brought home a rescue cat. Max, the dog in residence, does not approve.

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As always, Mulhern has written a good mystery, populated with quirky and amusing characters, and set in the upper social circles of Kansas City in the early 1970s, back before cell phones and computers changed life so much.

 

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).

 

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