More Mysteries (To Read!)

No technological enigmas today, just three very readable mystery novels.


Maggie Doyle is back in a new adventure in Zara Keane’s The 39 Cupcakes. She’s settling into her new life as a private investigator on Whisper Island, just off the coast of Ireland, and into her growing relationship with Garda Sergeant Liam Reynolds (at least until his outspoken eight-year-old daughter comes to visit). The Movie Theater Cafe is hanging on (with a showing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) despite the opening of The Cupcake Cafe right across the road. And Maggie’s cousin Julie has recruited her to help chaperone thirty summer camp kids on a tour of an archaeological excavation.


The 39 CupcakesPeople may call Maggie a Corpse Magnet, but it’s actually one of the kids who discovers the first body. Bones do turn up in archaeological sites, but not with modern dental work. With Reynolds technically on vacation, Maggie and her unofficial assistant Lenny are off and running on the investigation.


The 39 Cupcakes brings back many of the characters from Maggie’s previous cases and adds a few new ones. The cast and the setting of these books is so much fun, and Maggie works her way through the mayhem around her with great humor, seeing her father’s country with American eyes, struggling to pronounce Irish names, and waiting for those official divorce papers.


Fortunately we won’t have to wait too long for Maggie’s next case: Rebel Without a Claus, coming this holiday season.


Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries never spend much time on my TBR shelf. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, came out in 1977. Over the years we have met more and more members of Sharon’s large and increasingly The Color of Fearcomplicated family, and a number of them figure prominently in the latest installment, The Color of Fear. When Sharon’s visiting Shoshone father is attacked and beaten on a San Francisco street, the incident appears at first to be a random hate crime, perhaps related to other recent crimes against minorities. But when Sharon and her colleagues investigate, it appears there’s a lot more going on—and someone will go to any lengths to stop Sharon from finding out the truth.


Sue Grafton also has a new mystery on the shelf, Y Is For Yesterday. I haven’t picked that one up yet, because I’m three behind—V, W, and X are still waiting for me. I’ve been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels since A Is For Alibi (1982), and I will catch up. These are two series that will stay on my keeper shelf.


I missed David Handler’s Stewart Hoag mysteries completely when they were published in the 1980s. I picked up the first one, The Man Who Died Laughing, when it popped up on an ebook sale email recently (I get far too many of those). How could I resist a mystery starring a one-hit wonder writer conned into trying his hand at ghostwriting? Not to mention the basset hound, Lulu.


The Man Who Died LaughingIn The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy heads to California to ghostwrite the autobiography of famous comic Sonny Day. Much of Sonny’s story comes out in the form of interview tapes, but he’s reluctant to answer the one question everyone asks—what caused the public fistfight which ended his partnership with straight man Gabe Knight. That question seems to be at the heart of a whole string of drastic events: death threats, vandalism, arson, and finally murder. Someone clearly does not want the answer to become public.


The book is set in the early 1980s, and many celebrities of the day wander in and out of the story (perhaps to assure the reader that Day and Knight are not based directly on any real people), lending considerable atmosphere to the setting. There’s quite a bit of wry humor, but the mystery is a bit darker than I expected. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have another Handler tale (The Woman Who Fell From Grace) waiting on my Kindle. I’ll be watching for others in the series.


Adjusting to Change

Change is seldom easy, even when you’ve been looking forward to it.  Not that I’m complaining about my new schedule, not at all.  This is my second long weekend, and it’s not over yet.  Tomorrow is Monday, and I don’t have to go to work, don’t have to get up at 6:15, don’t have to drive into Houston.

It’s just that I’m having my usual trouble relaxing, reminding myself that my schedule is looser now, that I don’t really have anything pressing I have to do before tomorrow.

I’ve been sleeping seven or eight hours a night,  instead of the five or six I’ve been managing with for so long.  I wonder how long it takes to recover from chronic sleep deprivation, and one friend tells me he’s still trying to catch up with the sleep he lost doing shift work forty years ago.  Another friend, who retired from teaching to write full time a few years back, tells me I’ll soon be just as busy as I ever was.  She may be right, but I’m hoping most of that busyness will be of my own choosing.

I’m still too tired to read much when I get into bed, but this afternoon I sat and read for an hour (Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey)–while doing the laundry, before an hour of ironing.  Some things don’t change.  I haven’t cracked any of the DVD movies I’ve been saving, but I’ve caught up on a few TV shows On Demand.

We’ve gotten some rain this week, and today it was overcast, relatively cool, and extremely humid.  Fortunately I mowed the lawn last Monday, but that’s about all I’ve done in the yard, except for collecting several bags of toad stools before they could spread even more spores across the lawn.  And the rain woke up the mosquitos.

More BooksI’ve done some shopping, of course, some of it necessary (groceries) and some for fun (books).  I’m still buying books, or downloading them to my Kindle, far faster than I’m reading them, but that’s nothing new.  Last weekend I went to Barnes & Noble for several books by friends (Lady in Red by Maire Claremont, Summer Is For Lovers by Jennifer McQuiston, Spy’s Honor by Amy Raby, and Find Me by Romily Bernard), and that lovely anthology of the first five Oz books–with the original illustrations!  This weekend, I went to Half Price Books and picked up the latest novels by two authors I’ve read regularly since their first books came out, Sue Grafton’s W Is For Wasted and Steve Berry’s The King’s Deception.

Yesterday I did get up at 6 AM, to make the long drive across town to the West Houston RWA meeting.  My term as president is almost over–one more meeting, and some planning and paperwork to take care of, and then I can pass that on to the next board.  It’s not an onerous job, but it’s time consuming, and two years is quite enough.  I’m lightening the load.

I’m still a bit in vacation mode.  I haven’t made appointments or plans for any of those easier-done-on-a-weekday projects I’ve been saving.  But I’m working on my latest writing project again, and I have eight pages to read to my critique group tomorrow evening.

And lots of books to read.

Reading About The Craft Of Writing

was something I avoided for quite a while after I started trying to write fiction (mumble-mumble) years ago.  I suppose I was afraid the authors of such books would tell me I was doing it all wrong.  And I probably was, but at least I was trying.

In the mid 90s I joined a local multi-genre writers group, the Bay Area Writers League, but I knew I wanted to write novels.  I didn’t know I wanted to write romance novels until I discovered what was then called “futuristic romance,” the infant subgenre that eventually led writers to science fiction romance, urban fantasy, and various other branches of paranormal romance.  So I joined Romance Writers of America® and the local Houston Bay Area chapter.  Through those groups I attended workshops and conferences, and met the wonderful BK Reeves.  Her encouragement (and classes) gave me confidence, and showed me that books on writing could be both entertaining and helpful.

Since then I’ve read a lot of craft books.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, but I learned something from every one of them.  I certainly learned that you can read the same idea over and over again and barely notice it until one day that idea is exactly what you need.  I’ve given some away over the years, but I still have several bookshelf feet of craft books that I want to reread, or at least refer to from time to time.

My current favorite craft of writing author is James Scott Bell.  I have not read his fiction (he’s known for legal thrillers), but I have his books on Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing on that bookshelf, and The Art of War for Writers, a collection of essays and blog posts, on my Kindle.  When Amazon informed me (they know me all too well) that Bell had a new book out on Conflict & Suspense, I downloaded that, too.

I don’t really like reading craft books on my Kindle.  I don’t know what page I’m on, or where to go when an author says “more about that on page 165.”  I can’t flip back and forth to find some neat idea I want to reread.  On the other hand, I can pull the Kindle out of my bag and read through lunch, as I did this afternoon, or while waiting for the oil in my car to be changed.

So I can’t tell you what page to look at, but somewhere around the 65% mark, in Chapter 14, “Tools for Conflict,” I found a Really Neat Idea, one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that ideas (for which Bell credits Sue Grafton, one of my favorite mystery authors–I’ve been a fan since A Is for Alibi was published).  Bell calls this the Novel Journal–a notebook (or computer file) used as a preface to the day’s writing, for recording bits of the writer’s life, stray thoughts from the middle of the night, ideas for the next scene or anything else that comes up, a place to gather all those loose ends that don’t fit into an outline or synopsis.  Grafton calls this an “interchange between Left Brain and Right.”  Bell recommends it for both OPs (Outline People, or Plotters) and NOPs (No Outline People, or Pantsers). 

The Novel Journal certainly ought to work for someone like me, who falls somewhere in the middle.  I’m going to pull out a fresh  spiral-bound notebook and try it.


Thursday Thoughts

Just saying Hi tonight.  I’m still determined to finish my WIP by the end of the month, not that I’ve made much progress so far this week.  The Michael Hauge workshop pretty much derailed the weekend (well worth it), not to mention the three contest entries I had left to the last minute for judging.  Fortunately they were all quite good–I even gave one a perfect score.  By the time I finished those on Monday night and went to a meeting of the HBA RWA chapter on Tuesday night, I’d run up a string of six or seven nights going to bed at one AM.  Keep in mind I have to get up at 6:30 on weekdays, and 5:30 last Saturday, so Sunday was my only chance to sleep in.  Add to that the cold I’ve caught from my BFF Jo Anne, and by Wednesday I was a zombie.  So I wrote a couple hundred words (keeping up my run, Day 130) and crashed at 11.  Still have the cold, but at least I got a good night’s sleep. 

I’ve had very little time for reading this week, but that hasn’t stopped me from collecting more books.  At the West Houston RWA meeting on Saturday, I picked up Deeanne Gist’s latest, Love on the Line, along with a second copy for my neighbor.  Bethany House gives Deeanne’s books the most charming covers.  I also picked up Kerrelyn Sparks’  Sexiest Vampire Alive, the latest in her Love At Stake series.  On Monday night I found a box of books on my doorstep:  Sue Grafton’s V Is for Vengeance, Marcia Muller’s City of Whispers, and Jack McDevitt’s Firebird.  So many books, so little time.

This past summer, Houston radio station KTRH abandoned its long, proud history of news programming and surrendered to conservative talk.  Even the morning news is now more conservative opinion chat than actual news (and I exchanged a few emails with the station manager on that topic one morning when I woke up to a particularly offensive mockery of one of our area congresswomen).  Fortunately our NPR station has split, amoeba-like, to give birth to full-time news and information on one channel and full-time classical music on another.  KUHF does carry local news, but I was delighted to learn recently that many of the people thrown overboard by the KTRH shipwreck are involved in the launch (to stretch the metaphor a little too far) of a new 24/7 news station, NEWS 92 FM.  Should be on the air next week, and I’m hoping the venture will be a huge success. 

Here’s another of those pictures that wander around cyberspace with no atrribution.  Made me chuckle.

Somebody missing a cat?

I was looking for a change of pace

after finishing Suzanne Collins’ excellent but unrelentingly bleak Hunger Games, something cheerful, like a murder mystery, so I picked up Earlene Fowler’s Spider Web, the latest in her Benni Harper series.  A note at the beginning of the book led me to think about another type of pace: the connection between the passage of time in the real world and in the world of a long-running fictional character.

Spider Web is Fowler’s fifteenth novel about Benni Harper.  The first in the series, Fool’s Puzzle, published in 1994, took place in November 1992.  The current novel is set in March 1998.  Fowler mentions in her note the problems of remembering (or researching) details of technology used twelve or thirteen years ago, but she has, I think, another reason for fastening her series to an internal calendar.  Benni’s husband suffers from PTSD induced by his service in Viet Nam.

Another series with a strong internal timeline is Sue Grafton’s, beginning with A Is for Alibi, published and set in 1982.  The latest novel, U Is for Undertow, published in 2009, takes place in April 1988.  So Kinsey Milhone has aged about six years in the nearly thirty years Grafton has been following her adventures.  She lives and works in a world much less affected by cell phones and computers, and makes us realize how fast technology has moved in the past quarter century.  (V Is for Vengeance is scheduled for November 2011.)

Not all writers treat the passage of real and fictional time the same way.  Marcia Muller has written 27 books featuring Sharon McCone since Edwin of the Iron Shoes was published in 1977.  Talk about technology flying past!  Sharon and her colleagues have aged a few years, yes, changed jobs and relationships, at a much slower pace than real time.  But they have adapted to cell phones, computers, and all the rest of modern technology.  Muller identifies days and months within the books, but not years.  Coming Back, published in 2009, feels every bit as contemporary now as the first book did nearly 35 years ago.  (City of Whispers is due in October 2011.)

I was surprised when I pulled Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel, One for the Money, off the shelf and saw that it was published in 1994.  Stephanie, Joe, Ranger, and the rest of the gang exist in a timeless world, flying through their cases at a furious rate, unhampered by reality.  One book a year (Smokin’ Seventeen will be out shortly) in our lives, one case every few weeks in Stephanie’s.

I don’t know exactly how or why these authors, or many others who have kept their characters alive through many books and many years, make their decisions.  No doubt some plan their methods in advance, while others are taken by surprise by success.  These four authors have proved that there is no one solution to keeping series characters growing without growing old.

Where, oh where has my reading time gone?

I love to read.  I could read before I started school.  I buy books like a junkie.  I know perfectly well I’ll never catch up with my To Be Read shelves, and I buy more books anyway.  There was a time when I read several a week.  That was before I had a full time job with a long commute.  Before I was writing seriously.  These days by the time I get into bed with a book, I’m already half asleep.

In early February we had a Weather Day.  Not the kind we’re used to here on the Texas Coast (Hurricane Ike springs to mind), but sleet, a little snow here and there, and ice on the freeways.  Just another day in, say, Chicago, but no one in the Houston area knows how to drive on icy roads.  I certainly don’t–I was born in Wisconsin, but I learned to drive in South Florida, and I haven’t lived north of Interstate 10 since.  So I called in afraid-to-drive and had an unexpected Friday off.

And I spent most of it reading.  I sat down on the couch with a thick mystery novel (Sue Grafton’s U Is For Undertow) and read the whole thing.  My Weather Day turned into the most relaxing day off I’d had in ages.  No errands, no chores, no waiting for a repairman or a delivery, just a whole day with a book.

Many years ago, I read a book called Where Were You Last Pluterday?, one of those literary European science fiction novels translated and published by DAW Books, back when all their covers were yellow and numbered.  I remember nothing at all about the plot, just the premise:  the elite of society had access to an extra day of the week, Pluterday.  If I could find just a few Pluter-hours here and there, I would spend them reading.