Random Reviews

I keep a file called Book Notes for Posts in my reviews and articles Scrivener project, and now and then it fills up with thoughts on totally unrelated books. Time to clean it out, so here are a few random reviews.

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between-home-heartbreakWho is Eldorado Jane? The heroine of Jacqui Nelson’s Between Home & Heartbreak (second in her Gambling Hearts series) is the star of Calhoun’s Wild West Show, but is she also Jane Dority, who disappeared as a child eighteen years ago after Gypson’s Medicine Show visited the tiny town of Juniper Flats, Texas? She says she is, and she’s laying claim to the Dority homestead.

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But Lewis Adams, Jane’s childhood friend and current owner of the Dority property, doesn’t believe her. She seems to have Jane’s memories, but she doesn’t have Jane’s eyes. But she does know horses, and Lewis needs help with the herd he’s contracted to train for the Texas Rangers.

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The bet Eldora and Lewis make for ownership of the homestead turns out to be the least of their worries, as deception, blackmail, old enemies, and even the weather combine to thwart their plans.

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Readers of Nelson’s Old West adventures first met Lewis in Between Love and Lies. Also reappearing from that novel are Noah and Sadie Ballantyne and a few other unexpected visitors. Between Home and Heartbreak is a very satisfying follow up to Between Love and Lies. You don’t have to read them in order, but why not?

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Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Book Club is the fifth entry in the Liz Talbot Mystery series, and just as good as its predecessors. This time Liz and Nate, back from their honeymoon, are investigating the murder of a locallowcountry-book-club socialite/volunteer who seems to have been loved by everyone around her, including the husband accused of pushing her over the balcony (and possibly another man—but who?). With the help of her ghostly friend Colleen, Liz narrows down the suspect list and discovers just how much turmoil can develop in a very prestigious Book Club.

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As always, the city of Charleston and the island community of Stella Maris contribute essential aspects to the story and Liz’ family members make cameo appearances. I’ve enjoyed this series from Henery Press since it began with Lowcountry Boil—worth reading in order.

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I’ve loved Elaine Viets’ Dead End Jobs series from the beginning, and The Art of the-art-of-murderMurder is an excellent entry. Helen doesn’t actually have to work a terrible job in this one (although Phil does time as a condo security guard), but she does join a painting class (for which she has no aptitude at all) to solve the murder of one of the students. Margery is back, of course, as well as Peggy and the parrots, Thumbs the cat, and Valerie the reporter. Definitely a fun read.

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For science fiction written in 1968, The Goblin Reservation holds up fairly well. I read pretty much all of Clifford Simak’s work back a few decades ago, although I didn’t remember this one. It involves a man who has accidentally been duplicated in a transporter accident (shades of Star Trek), a genetically the-goblin-reservationdesigned pet saber-tooth tiger, a Neanderthal time traveler named Alley Oop, William Shakespeare (who insists he never wrote anything), a Ghost who doesn’t know whose ghost he is, transport reminiscent of Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll,” and of course goblins, fairies, and trolls. Set, by the way, in Wisconsin about five hundred years in the future, with mention of phones but not of computers. A fun, rather nostalgic reminder of classic science fiction.

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The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, has been on the best seller lists for more than a year the-girl-on-the-trainnow, and I understand why. I’m not a fan of first person present tense narration, and there are three such narrators in the book, all of them undependable. The characters spend the entire book lying, cheating, and fantasizing. Terrible secrets are revealed and hearts are broken. This is not a feel-good book. But it is fascinating and difficult to put down, and I recommend it.

Recent Reading: More Mysteries

Here are three more mysteries I’ve enjoyed recently, two set in Texas and one in Florida, all quick and entertaining reads.

Katie Graykowski’s Rest in Pieces is the first in a new humorous mystery series, the PTO Murder Club, set in the Austin, Texas, area. Mustang Ridges, the first person narrator is funny and snarky and goes off on Rest in Pieceshilarious tangents, all while trying to hold together her life as a recently divorced mom. She doesn’t really need to be investigating the death of the local kindergarten teacher, unlikely as the verdict of death by heroin overdose may seem, but she and her fellow PTO board members, Haley and Monica, just can’t leave it alone. Add the suspicious attentions of TWO attractive men, a bit of breaking and entering, and a midnight manicure, and you have quite an adventure. Graykowski leaves enough loose ends to fuel the next installment; I hope it comes soon!

Murder at Veranda House is one of Cheryl Bolen’s Texas Heroines in Peril romantic suspense quartet, but it is a stand-alone novel. Annette Holcombe is a young widow, opening the historic Galveston Island homeMurder at Veranda House she inherited from her late (but not particularly lamented) husband as a Bed and Breakfast. Her first week as hostess at Veranda House brings a lot more than she counted on: murder, guests who may not be who they claim to be, a possible missing treasure, and a tropical storm that can’t seem to make up its mind. Annette can’t make up her mind, either, about the handsome guest who charms her young daughter and has designs of his own on her.

This tale of romance and mystery will be especially entertaining to readers who are familiar with Galveston Island, featuring as it does historic houses and island charm. All in all, Murder at Veranda House is a quick and suspenseful read.

Killer BlondeKiller Blonde is a novella entry in Elaine Viets’ Dead End Jobs series, a long-time favorite of mine. Fans will enjoy hearing the voice of Marjorie Flax, colorful (mainly purple) septuagenarian owner of the Coronado apartments, as she tells Helen Hawthorne the story of a perfect murder committed forty years before. The tale is especially entertaining if you remember the office politics (and fashions!) of the 1970s. A must for Helen and Marjorie’s many fans.

Recent Reading

No particular theme today, just three more books I enjoyed. I’ve been lucky so far this year—I’ve enjoyed just about all of the books I’ve read.

The Tropic of SerpentsMarie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second volume of Memoirs by Lady Trent, although our heroine remains Mrs. Isabella Camherst, widow, mother, and dragon naturalist. In the first book, A Natural History of Dragons, Isabella and her fellow explorers made their way from their home in Scirland to the mountainous pseudo-Balkans of Brennan’s wonderfully developed world. In Tropic Isabella, leaving her toddler son behind and wondering if she is the worst mother in all of Scirland, leads her party to the world’s pseudo-Africa in search of snakes and swamp-wyrms. Once again, Isabella’s first person narration and Victorian style, as well as Brennan’s fabulous world building, captured me completely.

The preface to Tropic is signed “Lady Trent, Amavi, Prania, 23 Ventis, 5659,” reminding us just how totally not-ours Isabella’s world is. The next volume, Voyage of the Basilisk, is waiting on my shelf.

Checked Out is the latest case in Elaine Viets’ Dead end Jobs mysteries. I love this series. I’ve been following Helen Hawthorne’s adventures since she first appeared in 2003 in Shop Til You Drop. The Checked Outsettings are always fun and well researched, and the characters – Phil, Margery, Peggy, and Pete the Parrot, along with numerous less permanent visitors, continue to hold my interest.

In Checked Out, Helen goes undercover as a volunteer at a small, upscale library, searching for a John Singer Sargent water color (“Muddy Alligators,” signed on the back by Clark Gable, who lost it in a poker game in 1924) accidentally left in a donated book–somewhere in 300 boxes of books. And there appears to be a ghost, or at least a squatter, hiding in the library. Meanwhile, Phil is courting sunburn as an undercover gardener Peggy is worried about Pete’s personal life, and the new tenant at the Coronado Tropic Apartments is showing off his mojitos.

If you enjoy humorous mystery, you can’t do better than Elaine Viets.

Born With TeethOkay, so I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the original series (when I fell in love with Mr. Spock—c’mon, I wasn’t the only one), and I was delighted when Voyager came along with a female Captain. I couldn’t resist when I learned that Kate Mulgrew, Kathryn Janeway’s alter ego, had published a memoir, Born With Teeth. The book is well written, often funny, sometimes sad, always enjoyable. It ends rather abruptly around 1997, but I’m hoping (and the acknowledgments at the end suggest) that Mulgrew has another book in the works.

Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper

I don’t usually binge-read, but recently I realized, when the latest book was released, that I was three books behind on Elaine Viet’s delightful mystery series featuring Josie Marcus, professional mystery shopper living in the suburbs of St. Louis. I picked up the oldest of the three, and enjoyed it so much that I read the remaining two in rapid succession.

In Murder Is a Piece of Cake (2012), Josie’s mystery shopping assignment involves wedding flowers and wedding cakes. Murder Is a Piece of CakePerfect timing: Josie is planning her own wedding to veterinarian Ted Scottsmeyer. Perfect, that is, until a deranged ex-client of Ted’s shows up at the clinic in her wedding dress, insisting that she is Ted’s bride-to-be. What could be worse than that? Well, the crazed bridezilla is murdered—and Ted’s elegant and snobbish mother (who carries a pistol in her purse) is accused of the crime. How can Josie and Ted get married with his mother in jail?

Viets always includes a section of shopping tips in Josie’s adventures, and the tips at the end of this book, of course, cover how to buy wedding flowers and cakes.

Fixing to Die (2013) finds Josie remodeling the house she and Ted (yes, of course they got married!) have bought from his partner at the vet clinic, Christine. When they tear down the hastily built gazebo in the back yard, they find a body—the Fixing to Diebody of Christine’s sister, who lived in the house but supposedly left town months earlier. In between appointments with contractors and mystery shopping kitchen contractors, Josie needs to clear Christine before overwork at the clinic lays her new husband low.

Shopping tips cover renovating a mid-century kitchen. Apparently this is a big deal these days. My house was built in the 1950s, so I guess I’ve been living with a mid-century kitchen since 1976, but I can’t say I ever noticed. Or renovated, for that matter.

As the wife of a veterinarian, Josie is certainly well-equipped to mystery shop doggy daycare centers in A Dog Gone A Dog Gone MurderMurder (2014). She runs into trouble when the obnoxious owner of one of the daycares is murdered on the premises, and her mother’s new tenant is accused of the crime. (It’s downright dangerous to be a friend or relative of Josie Marcus, sort of like being related to Jessica Fletcher!).

Shopping tips cover what to look for in doggy daycare as well as some good tips on dealing with dogs who don’t do well in daycare.

I’ve been enjoying the Josie Marcus series since it began in 2005 with Dying in Style. The mysteries are always well done, and it’s fun to revisit the cast of supporting characters. Josie’s daughter Amelia has grown from young tween to almost a teen, and has started solving mysteries of her own, taking on the Mean Girls at school in Fixing to Die, and learning some of the dangers of trying to grow up too fast in A Dog Gone Murder.

A Dog Gone Murder also includes a teaser for Viets’ next Helen Hawthorne Dead End Jobs mystery, Checked Out, involving a painting of alligators, once owned by Clark Gable, now possibly hiding in a library book. I’m definitely looking forward to that one!

Elaine Viets’ Catnapped!

Catnapped! is the latest installment in Elaine Viets’ delightful Dead-End Jobs Mystery series. I’ve been a fan since Helen Hawthorne solved her first case in Shop till You Drop (2003), and Catnapped! did not disappoint me.

Catnapped!The detective work in Catnapped! involves two murders and, of course, a kidnapped cat (a four-month old Chartreux kitten), all good mysteries, but much of the charm of this series rests with the recurring cast and setting.

When the series started, Helen was struggling to survive as a newcomer to Fort Lauderdale, working cash-under-the-table jobs and living under the radar to avoid her deadbeat ex-husband and his unjust but legal claim on half her income. Over the course of the series she has settled her old problems and married Phil Sagemont, with whom she now operates Coronado Investigations, and these days she works those awful jobs in the course of their cases. In Catnapped!, she works for a cantankerous cat breeder, washing cats and their litter boxes (ten at a time!) for the princely sum of $8.04 an hour. Helen has been through a long string of fascinating (as long as someone else is doing them!) dead-end jobs, and Viets has worked most of them herself as research.

Besides Helen and Phil, the cast includes Margery Flax, the 70-something owner and live-in manager of the Coronado Tropic Apartments, a building nearly as old as she is, where Helen landed when she arrived in South Florida from her former up-scale life in St. Louis. In Catnapped!, the past catches up with Margery in the form of the ex-husband Helen never knew about and the possible destruction of the Coronado by old age and rusted rebar.

I grew up in South Florida, decades ago, and Viets’ descriptions of life at the Coronado and the changing landscape of Fort Lauderdale always makes me a bit nostalgic. On the other hand, Helen’s adventures among the Persian cats at Chatwood’s Champions makes me grateful for my low-maintenance rescue cat.

I’m a little bit behind on Viets’ other series, starring Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper, but I recently read Death on a Platter (I have two more waiting on Death on a Platterthe never-empty shelves of unread books). In Death on a Platter, Josie witnesses a death-by-poisoning while mystery shopping restaurants specializing in St. Louis delicacies such as toasted ravioli, pig ear sandwiches, brain sandwiches and gooey butter cake. As always, she has help from her friend Alyce, and domestic challenges from her daughter Amelia and her mother (and landlady) Jane.

The Mystery Shopper books always include a “Shopping Tips” section covering Josie’s current assignment. In Death on a Platter, you will learn some remarkable things about St. Louis foods and restaurants. If I didn’t live so far away, I’d be checking them out for myself. (Well, maybe not the brain sandwiches. But the gooey butter cake sure sounds good.)

If you enjoy humor and great characters with your mysteries, you’ll enjoy any of Elaine Viets’ books.

Shopping on Black Friday

For years I’ve said, rather smugly, I’m sure, that I wouldn’t shop on Black Friday.  Of course for the last ten years or so I’ve been at work on Black Friday, making the point moot.  But our work schedule has changed, and I was home today, and yes, I went shopping.  But not at the mall or the big box stores.

Two of the friends that I had Thanksgiving dinner with yesterday were going shopping last evening, which I never even considered.  (Their two top destinations were Victoria’s Secret and Toys R Us, which I thought was an interesting combination.)  But this morning, after several days of very cold and very wet weather, was cool and sunny, perfect weather for getting out and doing something.

I don’t do much in the way of Christmas shopping, but I had some things I needed.  I was running low on cat food, I have a friend with a birthday next week, and I always need something at the grocery store.  So I set out with my shopping list and coupons, only to discover that the vet clinic (where I get the diet food that doesn’t seem to causing any noticeable reduction in Nutmeg’s weight) was closed for the weekend.  But by then I was out and about, so I went on to Office Depot.

Office Depot was not crowded.  I bought a supply of pens, one of those folding cardboard science fair display boards (Jo Anne and I use them to hide our jigsaw puzzles from the cats, and the current one is falling apart), and a stuffed panda wearing a red and white muffler.  Okay, so I’m a sucker for stuffed animals, even at the office supply store.  And then the lady at the check out offered me an 800-sheet package of paper for $4.  Couldn’t turn that down.  No writer ever has too much paper.

Office Depot is next door to Half Price Books, as if I needed an excuse.  And I had a coupon.  So I came out with  Charlaine Harris’ Dead Ever After, the last Sookie Stackhouse novel (I haven’t read the previous one yet, but I’ll catch up), Janet Evanovich’s Takedown Twenty (I’m up to date on Stephanie Plum’s adventures, and this one will go on the To Be Read Soon pile), and two collections by David Sedaris, whom I always enjoy when I catch him on NPR.  And a stuffed Frost Dragon.  Told you I couldn’t resist stuffed animals.  Half Price Books was fairly busy, but no more so than usual.

Next stop, Bed Bath & Beyond, which was probably the most crowded store I hit today.  I found a birthday present and some kitchen stuff–I don’t cook much, but I like gadgets.  No stuffed animals.  And then on to Barnes & Noble, which Fixing to Diewas not as busy as I expected.  I bought another birthday present there, and one book for myself, Fixing to Die, the latest installment in Elaine Viets’ series about mystery shopper Josie Marcus.  I’m a couple of books behind on that series (and a lot of others!), but I’d never pass up one of Viets’ books.

Finished up at the grocery store, which was crowded (I thought everyone was eating leftovers today), for a few things, which somehow cost me another eighty bucks.  But I remembered the birthday cards I needed and a few cans of non-diet cat food to tide Nutmeg over, and succumbed to temptation when I spotted the half-price sale on Dreyer’s ice cream (I bought mint chocolate chip, my lifetime favorite).

Tomorrow is small business Saturday, and I’ve been trying to think of some independent shops in my area.  Once upon a time there were lots of small books stores, selling both new and used books, but sadly they’re all gone now.  Maybe I’ll have lunch at a non-chain restaurant.  Or maybe I’ll stay home and read.

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

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