Random Reviews

The cover of Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun caught my eye, so I took it home, stuck it on my TBR-soon shelf (alas, some books only stay there until they get demoted to the TBR-eventually shelves—I can’t keep Girl Waits With Gunup), but didn’t read it until a friend raved about it on Facebook. I had picked it up expecting a mystery, but this is actually a rather slow-paced novel about the three Kopp sisters (who were real people, as were many of the supporting characters and the situation), told in first person by the eldest, Constance. The three sisters are delightfully distinct, and rather eccentric, characters, whose adventures over a year or so in 1914 New Jersey swing from terrifying to exhilarating. A well-written, imaginative, and thoroughly enjoyable look at the lives of three unusual women a century ago.

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Ria Parkar, the heroine of Sonali Dev’s second book, The Bollywood Bride, is a woman with one foot in Bollywood–and one in Chicago. In India she’s a movie star; in Chicago she’s one member of a large, loving Indian-American family, gathering to celebrate a wedding. But Ria has secrets she has guarded since she was a little girl, secrets that tore her away from the man she still loves, Vikram Jathar.

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By the middle of the book I was growing a little impatient with Ria’s insistence on keeping her secrets to The Bollywood Brideprotect other people, never giving them, and Vikram in particular, a chance to make their own decisions, but then I got caught up in her past and sat up way too late reading the second half of the book straight through.

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Aside from the rekindling romance between Ria and Vikram, Dev paints a fascinating picture of Indian culture joyously preserved in the suburbs of Chicago. I want to go eat in Uma’s kitchen!

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I really loved Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, the story of Maggie I Still Dream About YouFortenberry, former Miss Alabama (forty years or so ago), one-time model, never married, now a real estate agent in an office that seems to be sliding down hill. Maggie has decided that it’s time to leave this life on her own terms (but this is NOT a depressing book, far from it) and has devised a detailed (complete with to-do lists) suicide plan. But Maggie is so responsible and conscientious, socially and financially, that her obligations keep getting in the way. She can’t bear to leave a bill unpaid, an account unsettled, or a friend in need.

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This is a delightful book about a woman of a certain age finding unexpected meaning in life and in the future, and coming to terms with the past. It’s full of quirky characters, the history and culture of Birmingham, Alabama, and even an entertaining historical mystery involving a steamer trunk and a skeleton. Alternately hilarious and touching, this is a wonderful novel. Highly recommended.

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Fair Play, Deeanne Gist’s second book set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (following It Happened at the Fair) follows Dr. Billy Jack Tate, a female physician who finds herself working at the Women’s Building atFair Play the Fair, where she meets (and treats) Hunter Scott, a Texas Ranger spending six months as a Columbian Guard. When Hunter finds an abandoned baby on the Fair grounds, the two of them team up to find the baby a refuge at Hull House, where they learn of the terrible conditions of tenement living and the sad fate of so many children. Their desire to help the children brings them together, but will Billy’s career drive them apart? Another sweet romance from Gist, tempered with heartbreaking descriptions of life in the late 19th century slums of Chicago.

More Reading

The other night I stayed up late to finish reading Rachel Grant’s Concrete Evidence, one of the tensest suspense novels I’ve read in a long time.  I mentioned the book recently when I started reading it, and it turned out to be just as good as I expected.

The heroine of Concrete Evidence, Erica Kesling, has a job and a life far from the troubles that cost her a career in underwater archeology, but she knows she’s still in danger.  If the truth comes out, she may lose the job she has now, and her entire archeological career.  The incompetent intern assigned to her, Lee Scott, is far too attractive to ignore, and may not be what he seems.  When the man who caused her career-changing disaster appears on the scene, apparently thick as thieves with the management of the Cultural Resource firm where she works, Erica no longer knows who the real thieves are.  Who stole the artifacts, and where are they now?  Who is smuggling what?  And who is out to silence Erica, by killing her if need be?  Concrete Evidence is an edge-of-your-seat ride, all the way to an ending that I did not see coming.

Grave DangerAs soon as I finished Concrete Evidence I looked for Grant’s next book, Grave Danger, another archeological thriller which has just been released on Amazon.  I’ve added it to my Kindle, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

At lunch yesterday (a pork fiesta bowl with extra onions at Pollo Campero in Webster, Texas), I pulled out my Kindle and read Tempest in the White City, a short story by Deeanne Gist.  The story, like her new release It Happened at the Fair, which I picked up Tempest in the White City(the paper version) last weekend, takes place at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  The story introduces Hunter Scott, a Texas Ranger serving as a Columbian Guard at the Fair, and the lady doctor who treats him for a rather embarrassing illness. (Even Gist’s short stories come with beautiful covers!)  Hunter and Dr. Tate will be back in Gist’s next novel.  Meanwhile, the download includes a peek at this year’s book, the recently released It Happened at the Fair, which is high on my To Be Read list.  I even bought an extra copy for a friend–books do make such wonderful gifts.

Abibliophobia Strikes Again

Abibliophobia

I’ve suffered from abibliophobia all my life, but until recently I had no idea some kindred soul had coined a name for the problem.  Mind you, there’s no chance of running out of reading material in my house.  Along with the shelves of book I Really Want To Read, there are whole walls of books I can’t give up because I might want to read them again one day.  But I never go anywhere that might involve a waiting room or a meal eaten alone without a book (or these days my Kindle).

The truth is, I’m an incurable bookaholic, and I have no desire to change.  There are far more dangerous (or anti-social) addictions.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped at the local Barnes & Noble, armed with a Christmas gift card, and bought one book, a lovely large volume called Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions by Brian J. Robb.  I’d spotted the book on line and bought it brick and mortar; on the same trip I spotted several books at the store to order on line.  I have gift cards for Amazon, too, and they stretch farther.

Yesterday I made another stop at Barnes & Noble, gift card balance in hand, but I didn’t buy anything.  The particular book I was looking for hadn’t hit the shelves yet, and I knew that the box of books I’d ordered from Amazon was due to arrive.  And sometimes I find a bookstore the size of B&N overwhelming.  So many, many books that I would like to read.  So many, many books that I will never have time to read.  So many, many books that I should be writing myself.

book pileWhen I got home from my errand-running rounds, the big box of books from Amazon was waiting on my doorstep.  Four of the books are recently released romances by my Firebird sisters (that group is beginning to make me feel like a serious underachiever!):  Highland Surrender by Tracy Brogan, Midnight Shadows by Carol J. Post, and two by Kim Law, Caught on Camera and Sugar Springs.

Beguiled, by Deeanne Gist and J. Mark Bertrand, is a romantic suspense novel set in Charleston.  Dee used it as an example in her workshop on research, and it was the only one of her books I didn’t have, so when I saw it on sale at Amazon, I clicked it into my cart.  Darynda Jones’ latest tale, Fourth Grave Beneath my Feet is the latest release in her series.  I’m running behind on those; I’ve read First Grave on the Right (a Golden Heart winner), but Fourth Grave will be joining Second and Third on the TBR pile.

For pure mystery, I’d ordered Aaron Elkin’s latest Gideon Oliver novel, Dying on the Vine.  I’ve been reading this series since the beginning.  I’ve also read Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone novels since the beginning (the latest is wating for me), so I couldn’t resist The Bughouse Affair, the first in a new historical mystery series set in 1890s San Francisco by Muller and her husband, Bill Pronzini.

I should be able to hold off the Heartbreak of Abibliophobia for a good while yet.  Say, the next twenty-five years or so.

Research: Would She Say That in 1877?

Yesterday morning West Houston RWA enjoyed a terrific presentation on research, given by our own Deeanne Gist.  Dee spends an impressive five months on research before she begins to write a novel, and not just for her American-set historical tales.  Even her contemporary romantic suspense novel (Beguiled, written with J. Mark Bertrand) required detailed research on its Charleston setting).

It Happened at the FairDee brought along samples of her research material for her upcoming release, It Happened at the Fair, set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and available April 30.  For this novel Dee accumulated numerous spiral binders of newspaper clippings and first person accounts of the Fair, as well as an enormous, disintegrating “Book of the Fair” she found on EBay, full of contemporary descriptions and photographs.

One of our chapter members asked Dee how she tracked down colloquial expressions appropriate for her characters, setting, and time period, and Dee laughed and said she bought every book on slang she came across.

I know my personal library doesn’t rival Dee’s, but I’ve written historical fiction, and I have shelves of research books on a wide variety of nineteenth century Americana, including several on language and slang.  My favorites are three volumes by the late Stuart Berg Flexner, not least because they are the sort of books one can open at random and be pulled into an hour of happy browsing.

Even the titles are tempting to a word nerd like me.  I Hear America Talking, An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases, was published in 1976.  Listening To America, An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from our Lively and Splendid Past followed in 1982.  Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley, published in 1997 and edited by Anne H. Soukhanov (Flexner died in 1990) combines material from the earlier books with updates and additions.  All three appear to be out of print, but thanks to Internet sources like Amazon and Alibris.com, this no longer means unavailable.  The books are excellent resources for writers and great fun for readers.  They cover, with colorful phrases, historical vignettes, and (important to writers) dates, topics from religion to sex, business to sports, food to technology.  With indices, illustrations, and quotations.

Opening I Hear America Talking at random, I find on page 71 that “Canoes and Cannibals were two concepts Columbus and his men brought back to Europe from the West Indies (they also brought back syphilis, but that’s another story).”  On page 208, I learn that “gravy train” dates from the 1940s but came from the earlier (1910) use of “gravy” to mean profit or illegal gain through political conniving.  And on page 377 I see that “Zombi, often spelled zombie, was also now first recorded (in 1871) . . . Zombie was both the name of a snake god and of a spell that could animate a dead body.”

See what I mean?  I’d better put them back on the shelf right now, or I’ll get nothing else done this evening.

Welcome, 2013!

The weather has been grey today, the temperature dropping from a morning high of 57 degrees.  I went out to get my newspaper at 8:30 and haven’t been out the door since.  I spent a chunk of the morning (after reading the paper and watching an old Perry Mason episode) dithering over all the Productive Tasks I thought I should accomplish on my day off.  I have lists of them, on my computer monitor, on scraps of paper, in my head.  Pieces I need to write, tasks for my RWA chapter, sections of the house to clean and declutter, and so on.  I’m not very good at relaxing.

I finally convinced myself that this was a Day Off, for heaven’s sake, and I settled on the couch with Nutmeg the cat, a Mysteries in the Museum marathon running on the background TV, and Janet Evanovich’s Notorious Nineteen.  Stephanie Plum’s insane adventures kept me entertained all afternoon, as she and Lula tracked down a few bad guys, blew up a few cars, and made me laugh out loud more than once.

I haven’t had (or given myself) too many chances to sit down and read a book for a while.  I used to read a hundred or more books a year easily, but it’s harder to do that when you work full time at a paying job and take up writing as your other job.  Doesn’t leave a lot of time, and it’s way too easy to fall asleep over even a good book late at night.

This year I read 39 books.  Yes, I keep a list (you mean not everyone does?).  Ten romances (six on paper, four on Kindle), ranging from Regency (Cheryl Bolen) to steampunk (Zoe Archer), paranormal (Darynda Jones) to inspirational (Deeanne Gist), mostly contemporary settings.  I would read more romance–I have stacks of them To Be Read–if I wasn’t writing romance myself.  I suppose I’m afraid of seepage.  And, of course, if I had more time, because I love other genres, too.

I read nine mystery novels (only one on Kindle) this year, mostly on the humorous end, by Diane Kelly, Elaine Viets, Joan Hess, Susan M. Boyer, and Spencer Quinn, with Marcia Muller on the more serious side and Margaret Maron in the middle.   I only read five science fiction novels (one on Kindle), although it’s not easy to draw a line–Zoe Archer’s romance titles are also science fiction, and Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet is also a romance.

I also read four uncategorized mainstream novels, two on Kindle and two on paper, and eleven non-fiction books (six on Kindle, five on paper).  Of the non-fiction, four were on writing topics and three on social media.  The others included a gorgeously illustrated book on all things steampunk and a massive (but fascinating) biography of Queen Elizabeth II.

Here on my blog, WordPress tells me, I published 81 posts in 2012, with 91 pictures.  I had 21,000 page views (I stand amazed!) by visitors from 96 countries (most of them from the US, with significant numbers from Canada, the UK and Australia).  My most-read posts all concern the TV show Hell on Wheels;  that was hardly my goal when I began blogging, but I do find the show fascinating, and I’m looking forward to the next season.

On the writing front, I’m afraid I’ve been more involved in RWA activities than in actual writing.  I’ve served as president of the West Houston chapter (that’s a chunk of the To Do list on my computer monitor right there), been a finalist in the Golden Heart contest for the second year in a row, and traveled to the RWA national conference in Anaheim.  I’ve written columns and articles for my chapters’ newsletters.  I’ve done quite a bit of editing/revising/polishing, begun a new novel, and I’m learning to use Scrivener.

So, in short, I always have two or three bookmarks in play, even if I don’t get through the books as fast as I used to.  I’m building my “Internet platform,” but only as fast as I enjoy doing so.  And I’m pretty much always planning, plotting, or writing something.  I hope to continue all of this through 2013.  Maybe I’ll even manage to clean the rest of the house and hire someone to do something about my yard.  And remodel the bathrooms.  Maybe.

Happy New Year 2013

RWA Conference: Saturday

Saturday was the last day of the conference, with thoughts of the trip home creeping in between the continuing activities.  On the way to my appointment with an agent, I stopped at the concierge desk to ask about airport shuttles, and the helpful young man who made a reservation for me also told me how much the hotel was enjoying our conference.  I suspect we left very little destruction in our wake.

After my appointment, I was once more  drawn as if by a giant magnet through the Goody Room, where I managed to pick up two more free books.  The tables of promotional giveaways adjoined a new feature of the conference, the Connect Lounge, a spread of round tables equipped with WiFi stations, evidently quite a success.  Whenever I went by the room was full of people chatting and using their computers.

On to a workshop presented by Sharon Sala, one of the nicest women I’ve met through RWA.  Her topic, When One Door Closes, was meant for published authors who’ve hit a road block or two, been orphaned when an editor moved on, had an agent retire or a publisher go broke.  I’m still waiting for that first door to open, but Sharon’s advice, starting with “never put all your eggs in one basket,” applies throughout a career.  Sharon writes for Mira Books, but she’s also ventured into indie publishing this year with A Field of Poppies (which I’ve just added to my ever-growing Kindle library).

On to another workshop, SOS for Writers, presented by Erin Quin, who discussed the mechanics of tracking and planning scenes.  By this time my head was positively swimming with good ideas and information, but I have to confess the individual workshops had begun to run together.  I’m looking forward to listening to them again on the conference recordings.

After the rehearsal for the awards ceremony (we all walked across the stage and promounced our names into the microphone), I managed to fit in one last wrokshop, one I had been particularly looking forward to, From Aether to Zeppelin: Writing the Steampunk Romance, presented by Suzanne Lazear, Theresa Meyers, and Cindy Holby, three of the ladies of STEAMED, a blog I have been following for a while now.  I’m not planning to write a Steampunk novel myself, not just now, anyway, but I’m fascinated by the ideas and the alternate world environment.

On the way back to my room with a roast beef sandwich and a bottled frappucino from Starbuck’s, I stopped to print out my boarding pass on the courtesy computer in the lobby.  Then I spent some quiet time reading on the patio between my room and the pool.

About 6:30, dressed for the Big Party, I met the rest of the West Houston delegation in the lobby bar.  Rita nominees Vicky Dreiling, Deeanne Gist, and Linda Warren joined us, along with Karen Burns, Julie Pitzel, Lark Howard, and Sarah Andre.  Sarah, a Golden Heart finalist last year, was my “date” for the awards ceremony, where we sat up front at the VIP tables.  The ceremony was great fun, with clips from all our favorite romance movies, funny presenters and even funnier acceptance speeches, and two standing ovations for Lifetime Achievement honoree Brenda Jackson.

My Golden Heart category, Paranormal Romance, was first on the list, so as soon as that was awarded to my tablemate and friend Lorenda Christensen, I could relax and enjoy the show.  (You can see the complete list HERE.)  No one from West Houston won this year, but we all felt like winners.

After the awards ceremony, the Firebirds gathered one last time at the First Annual AfterParty thrown by Samhain Publishing for all the Rita and Golden Heart finalists and their guests.  Wine, cheese, fruit, desserts, and loud rock music–how better to end the 2012 Romance Writers of America® Conference?

I’m not planning to attend the 2013 Conference next July in Atlanta.  Unless, of course, I have a Really Good Reason to go.

RWA Conference: Thursday

On Thursday morning the Conference started in earnest, with half a dozen workshops to choose between in every time slot.  So where did I go first (after hitting the continental breakfast and chatting over coffee and muffins)?  Why, to the Book Fair, of course, where I bought three more books.  (Anyone who stops by here more than once a month knows how much I need more books.)

The first workshop I attended was a presentation by two authors and an editor from Sourcebooks on how sell the book you want to write, the first of many to include the pros and cons of digital self-publishing.  From there I went to a hour on “Writing Intimacy Across Genres,” both because the topic interests me and because three of the five presenters, Shana Galen (historical), Deeanne Gist (inspirational), and Sophie Jordan (young adult), are my chapter sisters from West Houston RWA.  I managed one more workshop before lunch, Voice Lessons: How to Pinpoint and Develop Your Voice, given by Darynda Jones and Liz Talley.  I love discussions of voice, as everyone (including me) attributes my wildly erratic contest results to a strong voice.  As good a reason as any, and more comforting than most.

At lunch, where I shared a table with old friends, new friends, and one three-month-old hero-in-training (the infant son of Firebird Liz Bemis), best-selling author Stephanie Laurens gave a keynote speech, “Weathering the Transition,” that truly struck the note of author power and publishing shift that carried throughout the Conference.  I’m not going to try to summarize it because you can read the whole thing (and see the illustrations) HERE on Stephanie’s web site.  Go read it.  Right now.  I’ll wait for you.

We were also treated to a preview of Love Between the Covers, a documentary film under construction (with a start-up grant from RWA) by The Popular Romance Project.  You can watch it yourself HERE.

By this time I already knew that not only was I unavoidably missing a lot of good workshops, even the ones I was attending were beginning to swim together in my fuzzy brain, so I stopped to order the Conference recordings, available every year from Bill Stephens Productions.  CDs containing the most popular workshops from the last two Conferences were also available at the booth, so I picked up one of each (haven’t had a chance to listen yet).

After one early afternoon workshop on using emotion in writing (Make ’em Cry, Make ’em Scream, Make ’em Laugh), I went to the Annual General Meeting of RWA, mostly because I’d never been to one, and because I’m a chapter president this year and felt I should have something I could report back to WHRWA.  The current membership of RWA is 10,051, making a quorum of only 10% a mere 1,005 members.  116 showed up.  Not the most popular event at the Conference.  Nothing was up for a vote this year, so the various board members (a very hard-working and under-appreciated team) cheerfully gave their reports.  There was, in fact, some interesting news, mostly of interest to RWA members, regarding changes in the Rita and Golden Heart contests, which has caused considerable discussion on various web sites and Yahoo loops.

After a pass through the Goody Room (where authors leave piles of promotional material, including free books, of which I picked up two more), I joined a group of Starcatchers at a very pleasant local Italian restaurant called Carolina’s for dinner and conversation.

Here are the books I brought back from the Conference.  The short stack I bought, but the books in the tall stack were freebies, in the tote bags, in the chairs at lunch, and in the Goody Room.  Talk about a Book Lover’s Heaven.  Some of the folks (local readers, I’m sure) left the Literacy Signing on Wednesday night with armloads of books they could barely see over.

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