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.

Mystery Round Up

Julie Mulhern’s The Deep End is the first in her new Country Club Murders series, set in Kansas City The Deep Endin the 1970s. When Ellison Russell goes for her usual early morning swim in the country club pool, finding a body in the water is only the beginning of her problems. The body is her husband’s mistress. Her husband is missing. And her oh-so-proper and oh-so-controlling mother is appalled. As Ellison sets out to discover the truth behind the murder, and as more bodies turn up, she makes some discoveries about herself and what she wants from life as well.

The Deep End is a good mystery with a clever solution; it’s also fun for the references to the pop culture and politics of the 1970s, the absence of cell phones and computers, and the supporting cast of eccentric characters. And there’s an attractive police detective (with a little surprise of his own) and a charming lawyer, and another installment (Guaranteed to Bleed) waiting on my Kindle.

 

Lowcountry Bordello is the fourth installment in Susan M. Boyer’s Liz Talbot mystery series. Liz is Lowcountry Bordelloonly days away from her wedding, her mother and sister planning up a storm, when her friend Robert asks her to follow his wife Olivia, also Liz’ close friend, for a few nights. Busy with the wedding, and unwilling to get into the middle of her friends’ marriage, Liz declines. But then Olivia calls, terrified, sure she’s seen Robert’s corpse. In the parlor of a high-class bordello.

Liz can’t stay out of it now, so with the help of her partner/fiance Nate and her ghostly friend Colleen, she sets out to peel away the layers of mystery surrounding the bordello on Church Street in Charleston, while dodging her mother and a dictatorial wedding planner. As usual, the city of Charleston and Liz’ home on the island of Stella Maris area as much a part of the story as the mystery.

 

Tara Holloway, gun-toting Special Agent of the IRS, is back in Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses. While Tara’s boyfriend, Special Agent Nick Pratt, and DEA Agent Death, Taxes and Cheap SunglassesChristina Marquez are off to infiltrate a drug cartel run by the murderous El Cuchillo, Tara and her partner Eddie Barton tackle a variety of cases, including an art museum that doesn’t seem to know much about art (macaroni mosaics, anyone?), a wild life refuge that may not be as charitable as it claims, an identity thief (that one sends Tara to a toga party—dressed in a fitted sheet), and a charity scam on Facebook. Throw in some forbidden legwork for Nick, and Tara is up to her neck in excitement. This is a series I never miss (and I love Kelly’s Paw and Order series just as much).

 

Aaron Elkins’ Switcheroo is the latest adventure in the career of forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver, the Skeleton Detective. I’ve been following this Switcherooseries, one of my favorites, for many years. Part of the charm of these books, beyond the mysteries, are the settings, as Gideon and his wife stumble into cases all over the world. This one is set on Jersey in the Channel Isles, and moves from the German occupation during World War II to the present day. (The first book in the series came out in 1982, but Gideon has only aged about five years — I wish I new that secret!) Switcheroo is more about people (and food) than bones (of which there are actually very few in evidence) and thoroughly enjoyable.

Recent Reading: Friends

Today I am blatantly promoting books by friends, women I have met through RWA’s Golden Heart contest, but I wouldn’t steer you wrong. These are books, and writers, that I enjoy.

Nan Dixon is a Starcatcher (2011) and Lucky 13 (2013) GH finalist. Her debut novel, Southern Comforts, offers the reader a lovely trip to Savannah (with a side trip to Boston) and food and wine descriptions that will leave her mouth watering. (Psst: the recipe for those brandy pecan bars is on Nan’s website!).

Southern ComfortsAbby Fitzgerald is determined to make a success of her family’s bed and Breakfast, Fitzgerald House, but her long term plan is to add her own restaurant, Southern Comforts, and prove her standing as a top-drawer chef. And despite the business assistance of her two sisters, Bess and Dolley, she’s set on doing it herself. Her irresponsible father and the chef who dumped her in New York, blocking her culinary career, have led her to distrust men—and their money.

And money is what Grayson Smythe has a lot of. The Boston businessman has booked a six-month stay at Fitzgerald House while he oversees the conversion of a warehouse to condos, and Abby’s sister has forgotten to tell her that the deal includes dinner. Gray quickly falls in love with Abby’s cooking, but admitting that he’s falling in love with her is another matter. And persuading her to trust his good intentions is even harder.

I thoroughly enjoyed Southern Comforts and I’m looking forward to reading Bess and Dolley’s stories one of these days.

Heather Ashby is a Firebird (2012) GH finalist, and a Navy veteran (and long-time Navy wife) herself. UnforgetttableWith co-author (and retired Marine) Christopher Bergeron, she wraps up her four-book Love in the Fleet series with Unforgettable, a follow up to the previous book, Never Forget, continuing the story of Royal Navy Lieutenant Gwyn Pritchard and Marine Gunnery Sergeant Adam Connor and adding a romance for Navy pilot Mike Nickolopoulos and Marine pilot Cate Hawkins. Unforgettable also ties up the stories of the 9/11 spirits trapped aboard the U.S.S. New York. Ashby and Bergeron blend romance and healing among the officers with exciting military action and suspense, producing a very satisfying finale to the series.

Susan Boyer is also a Firebird. Her 2012 GH finalist mystery novel, Lowcountry Boil, won an Agatha Award for Best First Book. Lowcountry Boneyard is the third installment in Susan’s Liz Talbot mystery series. Liz is a private investigator based on Stella Maris, an island off the coast of South Carolina, a ferry ride from Charleston. She works cases with her partner Nate Andrews and occasional well-placed help from the ghost of Colleen, her long-dead high school best friend, whose mission in the afterlife is to protect Stella Maris.

Lowcountry BoneyardIn Lowcountry Boneyard, Liz and Nate take on the case of missing heiress Kent Heyward, cutting their way through long-buried family secrets and rivalries. They have some problems of their own to solve, too—their business may do well with Liz based on Stella Maris and Nate a few hours away in Greenville, but their romantic relationship is suffering.

I’m looking forward to Liz’ next case (Lowcountry Bordello, due out in November) and hope there will be many more. By the way, if you enjoy cozy regional mysteries, check out Susan and Liz’ publisher, Henery Press.

Recent Reading

This evening I finished reading The Sound and the Furry, the sixth Chet and Bernie mystery by Spencer Quinn.  I enjoy this series so much that I went to my local Barnes and Noble a couple of weeks ago looking for the latest installment, and it did not disappoint.  The mysteries are always interesting, but the real charm of the books is their narrator, Chet, the canine half of the Little Detective Agency (Bernie Little being the human partner).  Chet’s interpretation of what’s going on is often hilarious, but clearly Bernie couldn’t have a better partner.  Open the book just about anywhere and you’ll find Chet’s take on Bernie (who can do no wrong), humans in general, and the joys of being a dog.

The Sound and the FurryHere’s an example:  “Batshit crazy,” Scooter said, hanging me up right there,  The night a bat flew into the house, back in the Leda days, and Bernie chasing after it with a broom, swatting and swatting the air!  Had I ever been more excited in my life?  The screams of Leda’s: I can still hear them.  Had the bat left any poop behind?  Would I have missed something like that? Does the bear shit in the woods?  That was too much.  I lost the thread completely.

Chet loses the thread quite often, distracted by a stray bit of bacon or an equally stray memory, but he always comes through for Bernie.  In The Sound and the Furry, the partners leave their Arizona home territory for a trip to Louisiana, where Chet enjoys some fascinating new smells and has a close encounter with an alligator.

Another mystery series I am enjoying comes from my friend Susan M. Boyer.  Last year Susan’s Lowcountry Boil won the Lowcountry BombshellAgatha Award for best first mystery.  Lowcountry Bombshell, the second adventure of South Carolina private investigator Liz Talbot, is, if anything, even better, involving a client who appears to be Marilyn Monroe’s doppelganger.  Calista McQueen was born exactly fifty years after Marilyn, and her life has mirrored the late actress’ in too many ways.  As she approaches the anniversary of Marilyn’s death, it becomes Liz’s job to make sure Calista doesn’t become a dead ringer.   By the time she reaches a solution, Liz finds herself in as much danger as Calista.

The Lowcountry mysteries are set on the coastal island of Stella Maris, populated with Liz’s family and friends (including one occasionally helpful ghost), and reading them is like going home with Liz for a visit.  I recommend them highly.  And if you like cozy mysteries, check out the rest of the Henery Press catalog.

I’m Back

It’s been at least a couple of weeks since I’ve posted here, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks, with six days in Atlanta for the RWA Conference in the middle.  I’m still recovering.  The Scorekeeper is a three-person office, so it takes some planning beforehand and catching up afterwards for any one of us to be gone for most of a week.

I left on Tuesday the 16th with my friends Cheryl Bolen and Colleen Thompson.  We got to Atlanta mid-afternoon, and walked for what seemed like miles before we figured out that the speedy  little train running along one side of the passage would take us directly to the baggage area, apparently located in the next county.  (And I’m not kidding about speedy–anyone foolish enough to ignore the warnings about holding on to the conveniently-positioned poles was likely to be tossed the length of the car when it started or stopped.)

We arrived at the Marriott Marquis before check-in time, left our bags in the designated area, and began exploring.  The hotel is gorgeous, with a vertigo-inducing fifty-story atrium and those speedy glass elevator cars that make some people nervous (I love them).  (And the Best Ladies’ Rooms Ever–over six days I never once had to wait for a stall.  The perfect amenities for a conference attended by two thousand women.)

Tuesday evening I felt like a real social butterfly, having dinner at a nearby Turkish restaurant with the Firebirds (the Golden Heart finalists of 2012) and dessert at a Latin-Pacific fusion place with the Lucky 13s (this year’s GH finalists).  The annual RWA conference is as much about renewing long distance friendships as it is about workshops and industry networking.

On Wednesday I attended the Golden Network retreat, the annual meeting of the on-line chapter for Golden Heart finalists.  This year the planners went straight for the top.  Our opening speaker was Susan Elizabeth Phillips, a fabulously warm and funny lady, followed by Courtney Milan, an extremely successful and knowledgeable pioneer in the field of self-publishing.

Our keynote speaker was the incomparable Nora Roberts.  Yes, that Nora.  Her advice to us, a mixed crowd of published and unpublished writers, was “Just Keep Writing,” a motto she clearly follows: her typical yearly output, she told us, is one hardback suspense novel, two J.D. Robb books, and a paperback trilogy.  Exhilarating and terrifying at once.

After lunch we had a panel of agents and editors, followed by a group of multi-published authors, all answering our questions and letting us pick their brains.  Between speakers our talented emcees, Susan Boyer and Lorenda Christensen, kept us entertained with their rap intros and commentary, sometimes even in sync with their prerecorded accompaniment.  We’re writers–technology is not always our strong point.

Wednesday evening was the annual “Readers for Life” Literacy Booksigning, as crowded and noisy as always, with hundreds of authors singing their books.  The event is open to the public, and this year raised more than $50,000 for RWA’s continuing support of literacy programs.  I managed to restrain myself–after all, I had to get back to Houston with one suitcase and a carry on–but I visited with friends around the room.

WordPress is not being its usual cooperative self tonight, won’t even let me upload a photo, so I think I’ll save the rest of the conference for a day or two.  I had a wonderful time in Atlanta, but I’m still trying to catch up with my ordinary world.

 

 

Reading: Mystery & Suspense

A few weeks ago I won a door prize copy of Barbara Taylor Sissel’s Evidence of Life, a book I might have missed otherwise.  Sissel is a Houston area author, but I don’t know her, although we have mutual friends.   I pedal fast enough trying (unsuccessfully) to keep up with the books of my friends.

But one of those friends, Colleen Thompson, highly recommended Evidence of Life, and as soon as I opened it I understood why.   It’s a hard book to categorize, but literary thriller may come close enough.  It’s the story of a woman, Abby Bennett, whose husband and daughter, on a camping trip in the Texas hill country, disappear without a trace in the wake of a storm and flash flood (yes, that does happen).  In the course of trying to discover what happened to them, Abby learns too much that she had never suspected, about her husband, her family, her marriage and her friends.   An excellent and beautifully written novel.

Falling for FrederickFalling for Frederick, by my friend Cheryl Bolen, was one of the first of Montlake’s Kindle serials, but is now available as a full novel.  I read it in installments, which suited me because I usually read on my Kindle once or twice a week while waiting for an appointment or grabbing lunch by myself.  So when the last installment was delivered to my reader recently, I was nearly caught up, and I found myself sitting up late to finish the story.  Falling for Frederick is a contemporary romantic suspense tale, featuring an American grad student in England, the handsome earl she meets when she’s found crouching over the body of his archivist, knife in hand, a missing (and highly valuable) artifact, and an historical mystery to go with the modern one.  And, of course, a romance.

Yesterday at lunch I opened my Kindle and began reading Concrete Evidence, by my friend and fellow Starcatcher andConcrete Evidence Firebird Rachel Grant.  Although Rachel is considerably younger than I, we have quite a lot in common:  we both studied archeology at Florida State University, worked as cultural resource management archeologists, and married men involved in marine archeology.  So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rachel’s romantic suspense novels involve archeology.  Fortunately my own involvement in archeology (and Rachel’s, I’m sure) never included the sort of danger the heroine of Concrete Evidence finds herself in.  I picked it up again last night and had to force myself to put it away at 1:30 this morning–I had too much to do today to read all night.  I can hardly wait to get back to it.

Lowcountry BoilAnother of my Firebird sisters, Susan M. Boyer, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel last night at the Malice Domestic Conference, for her 2012 Golden Heart finalist, Lowcountry Boil.  Published by Henery Press last fall, Lowcountry Boil is a wonderfully entertaining mystery (with a paranormal twist), the first in a series.  Huge congratulations to Susan, and to Henery Press, a new publisher with a bright future.

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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