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

Recent Reading

I continue to buy books faster than I can read them (that’s material for another post), but I’ve managed to finish a few in the last month or so.  About ten days ago my ancient air conditioning system died, resulting in an unexpected day off (and a very large replacement bill).  While men crawled around my attic with power tools, I sat on the couch and read Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen, a fascinating and thoroughly readable book.  I finished it with a new respect for the quiet, dedicated and very competent way Elizabeth II has played the hand she was dealt, and more than a glimpse of the woman under the crown.

Also in non-fiction, I enjoyed Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York’s Greatest Hoarders, An Urban Historical, by Franz Lidz, which I downloaded one day when it was the Amazon special.  Lidz mixes the story of the famous Collyer Brothers with that of his own Uncle Arthur in a short book with a long title.

My craft-of-writing read this month was also on my Kindle, Holly Lisle’s Mugging the Muse.  I reviewed it for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter here.

I’m delighted to report that Amanda Stevens’ The Kingdom is every bit as good as the first Graveyard Queen novel, The Restorer.  This one takes Amelia to the dying town of Asher Falls and a whole new cast of characters, and away from Charleston and John Devlin, but she returns to both in the next installment, The Prophet, which is waiting near the top of my To Be Read pile.

On a much lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed Elaine Viets’ latest Dead End Jobs mystery, Final Sail.  I’ve followed Helen Hawthorne’s adventures since she first went on the run from her greedy ex-husband in Shop Til You Drop (2003), so she and the other denizens of the Coronado apartments are old friends.  In this outing Helen works for an exhausting week as a stewardess on a private yacht, while her husband and detecting partner Phil poses as several different people to investigate a possible murder.

Last night I finished reading Zoe Archer’s Skies of Fire, the first in a new Steampunk series, The Ether Chronicles.  Airships, big explosions, the fate of the British Empire at stake, and a hot romance.  What more could a lover of action, adventure, and alternate history ask for?  This was the first recent Steampunk novel I’ve read, although I still have a copy of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) on my keeper shelf.  I also have several new Steampunk volumes on my TBR shelves, and on the coffee table (you definitely want this one on paper!) Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible, a gorgeously illustrated book in which literature seems to be something of an afterthought.   This is a subgenre that interests me as a reader, and perhaps as a writer, but that needs more exploration.

What have you been reading lately?

One Hundred Days and (Not) Counting

Yesterday was Day 100 on the hundred words/hundred days trail, and I’m going to stop counting for a while.  I won’t stop writing–if I could do that, I would have done it long ago–but I want a day off now and then.  I’ve mostly been editing, anyway, getting Bathtub Jinn into shape, and how do I measure that?  So much time with the manuscript on my lap?  So many pages marked up?  It’s all on the honor system, anyway.

The cast of Bathtub Jinn includes a cat, a wise-cracking pooka and witch’s familiar who plays an important supporting role.  His name is Porthos, although the hero insists on calling him Porky, and he’s black with golden eyes, in the tradition of the pooka, battle-scarred from several years of living among feral cats.  One of my critique partners, Carl Miller, however, is convinced that Porthos is an orange tabby, and last night he sent me this (uncredited) picture, saying: “Spotted one of your lead characters, in repose.”  It’s not Porthos, but it’s a great cat.

This morning when I spent $36 on slightly more than 9 gallons of gas, I thought of this list that I clipped out of a local paper recently.  No attribution, but I must  admit that I remember at least some of these numbers from fifty years ago:

  • average cost of a house: $13,500
  • average annual wages: $6,450
  • average cost of a gallon of gas: 31 cents
  • average monthly cost to rent a house: $118
  • average cost of a loaf of bread: 21 cents
  • average cost of a new car: $2,650
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: 969

I’ve been pretty good about not buying actual paper books lately, but I’ve downloaded a few to the Kindle:  His Lordship’s Vow, a short Regency romance by my buddy Cheryl Bolen, Skies of Fire, a steampunk romance by Zoe Archer, and two books about writing by Holly Lisle, Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course and Mugging the Muse.  Sigh.  I now have 98 books on my Kindle.  I’ll never catch up.

Recent Reading

I managed to finish reading a couple of books last weekend, not that I’m in any danger of catching up with the To Be Read shelves, and I can’t even remember what’s on my Kindle.  But I do my best.  This afternoon at work I had a job to do that involved recoding information on an online bookkeeping site (the client and her business are located several states away).  The software is slow to begin with.  My work computer is several years old and still runs Windows XP and IE8.  After each transaction, the screen refreshed so slowly that to keep from banging my head on the desk I pulled out my Kindle and found I could read a page or so while the screen was blank.  I’m not kidding.  I spent an hour and a half making those corrections as fast as the computer could handle them–and reading while I waited for each one to process.  Heck of a way to read, but better than staring at that blank screen in frustration.

I recently finished reading James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense on my Kindle–excellent book.  I really enjoy Bell’s writing on writing–one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels.  Here’s the review I wrote for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter.  (I also posted a review of Bell’s Plot & Structure here.)

A couple of weeks ago I read Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right, a book that won a Golden Heart® in 2009.  Three years later it’s on the shelves with two sequels, and another due out this fall.  I’ve only read the first one (but there are two more on my TBR stack), and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It’s a humorous blend of mystery and romance, with a heroine who is a “part-time private investigator and full-time grim reaper.”  Charlie sees dead people, which isn’t always as much of an advantage in her p.i. work as you might imagine.  As for the hero, if that’s what he is, well, Charlie spends the span of the book trying to figure out what he is. 

Next I read Joan Hess’ latest Claire Malloy mystery, Deader Homes and Gardens.  I’ve been reading this series (and Hess’ Maggody mysteries, too) since it began, and wouldn’t miss one.  Deader Homes moved a little more slowly than most–or possibly I was just reading more slowly.  The large cast was occasionally confusing, but Claire’s daughter Caron and her BFF Inez (approaching their senior year in high school) got themselves into as much trouble as usual while helping Claire in her unofficial sleuthing.  And Claire, as usual, gets to the bottom of things in her own unconventional way.  She continues to be one of my favorite cozy detectives.

Looking for a change of pace, I opened Zoe Archer’s Collision Course on my Kindle.  This is a very short novel, published by Carina Press, and falls into the subgenre of science fiction romance.   It tilts more toward the (quite explicit) romance end of the scale, and I would have liked to see more of the universe Archer created.  But trap an independent scavenger heroine and a military pilot hero alone together in her small space ship–well, once or twice I wanted to tell them to get out of that bunk and get on with the mission.  By the time the story ended, though, I was ready to download the sequel.  If you like steamy action romance, Collision Course is for you.

I’m still reading the new biography of Queen Elizabeth II.  No hurry–that’s my coffee table book.  On my Kindle I’m enjoying Edgar Rice Burrough’s delightfully old-fashioned The Land That Time Forgot

When I finished Deader Homes and Gardens a few days ago, I had my usual what-shall-I-read-next quandary, until I opened the newspaper the next morning to see multiple stories about the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  I read the book last year, but I hadn’t revisited the harsh world of Panem.  So I picked up the second book, Catching Fire.  So far, just as harsh and compelling as the first book.   Definitely not an old-fashioned tale.

Back to Borders, for the last time?

I made another pass through Borders this morning, not looking for anything in particular but unable to resist the increasing discounts.  As it turned out, this is also the last weekend the store is honoring Borders Plus cards with an extra ten per cent off.

The store is still neat and clean, not as crowded as it was the first weekend of the sale but still busier than it ever was before they pulled the plug.  The shelving has become a bit random, but there’s still a lot of stock.  Apparently they are still shipping books to the stores rather than leave them languish in the warehouse (or be stripped and returned to the publishers).

I started with the science fiction shelves.  I haven’t kept up with sf in recent years the way I once did, although I still order fairly regularly from the Science Fiction Book Club.  I do love a good space adventure now and then, and on my last trip to Borders I picked up the first in a series by Ann Aguirre.  Haven’t read it yet, but I found two more installments on the shelf and picked them up (still missing number three).  I also bought Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson, a book I missed when it first came out in 1998.  Alternate history with a gorgeous cover.

Then I went over to the romance shelves, where I found Kieran Kramer’s When Harry Met Molly, a double finalist (for Best First Book and Best Regency) in this year’s Rita contest.  How could someone who loves (and writes) humor resist that title?

On the mystery shelves I found Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn, a handsome trade paperback from a predominantly romance publisher (Mira) which labels the book simply historical fiction.  This is the fourth volume (I think) in a series, so I’ll be jumping into the story.

Back to the front of the store, where I picked up two novels by Melanie Benjamin.  I blame these on National Public Radio, which carried an interview with Benjamin this week about her current release, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a novel based on the life of its historical heroine, less than three feet tall, who refused to hide from the world.  On the next shelf down was Benjamin’s previous novel, Alice I Have Been, based on the life on Alice Liddell, the original Alice in Wonderland.  I’ve bought a lot of books that I might otherwise never have heard about since our Houston NPR station split into an all-talk channel and an all-music channel.  Maybe I should be listening to the music side more.

Meanwhile, the invisible To Be Read shelf in my Kindle continues to expand.  On the previous Borders expedition, I bought the last volume in a set of four by Zoë Archer, an alternate nineteenth-century fantasy series called The Blades of the Rose.  I didn’t find any more of those today, but I remembered seeing the series at Amazon.  Checked this afternoon and found all four bundled into one file for $9.99.  Click.  Now available on my Kindle, four more novels . . .

Not a contemporary setting in the stack today.  I am currently reading It Had to Be You, by my good friend Cheryl Bolen, on my Kindle, a novel set in Los Angeles before and during (and maybe after–I’m at the 60% mark) World War II.  The serious side of the novel deals with the unconscionable treatment of the Japanese living in California in those years;  the fun part covers Hollywood and teems with well-known names of writers and actors.  Cheryl’s done a terrific job of making life in the Los Angeles of the thirties and forties an integral part of the novel.

Is there a twelve step program for book-aholics?

The Going Out of Business sale at Borders Books

is more than any self-respecting book junkie can resist, of course.  I pulled into the parking lot at my local Borders about 10:45 this morning and had to search for a parking space.  The store teemed with shoppers filling baskets, and there was already a sort of jumble sale air about the place.  Signs proclaimed “Discounts Up to 40%,” but most of the rack signs promised ten to thirty percent.  They were still honoring Borders cards for another ten percent off, so I walked out with five paperbacks, two DVDs, and a greeting card for $53.

I surely didn’t need more books (or movies):  I got two in the mail a few days ago, and downloaded five to my Kindle this week, thanks to a sale at Amazon.  So I took advantage of this trip to buy books by authors I haven’t read yet, women I either met or heard good things about at the recent RWA conference, all somewhere on the paranormal to science fiction romance scale: Molly Harper, Zoe Archer, Marjorie Liu, Robin D. Owens, and Ann Aguirre.  Also replaced my ancient videotape copy of Cabaret with a DVD and picked up a copy of Master and Commander, which I keep missing on TV, just for the pleasure of spending an evening looking at Russell Crowe.  I was also looking for the daybooks I use for record keeping, which I bought at Borders last year, but apparently they’d had the foresight not to order anything dated 2012.

I’m always sorry to see any book store close, be it a Big Box giant or a tiny used paperback shop in a strip mall.  Borders isn’t the first to vanish.  I remember a chain called MediaPlay that flourished briefly in the mid to late 90s selling books, music, movies (on videocassettes) and computer software.  And BookStop, which was devoured by Barnes & Noble.  Then the big guys pushed a lot of the little ones under.

But in all honesty, I can’t say that I’ve done much to support the brick and mortars over the last few years.  I’ve belonged to various branches of the Doubleday Book Club for decades: the Science Fiction Book Club and the Mystery Guild since the late 1960s, and Rhapsody, the romance club, more recently.  The SF and Mystery clubs kept me going for years when I lived far from the nearest book store, long before Amazon invented on line book sales.

These days I buy books on line from the clubs and from Amazon.  I buy regularly from a wonderful independent book store called Katy Budget Books, but I have only set foot in that store a few times (it’s about fifty-five miles from my home); KBB is the book supplier for West Houston RWA, bringing books by our guest speakers, our members, and other books of interest to our chapter meetings every month.  Now and again I stop at the local Barnes & Noble, usually when I have a gift card.  I shop at Half-Price Books a lot.

As for Borders, about a year and a half ago I did a lot of Christmas shopping there, and in the process picked up one of their upgraded loyalty cards.  It paid for itself on that shopping spree, and brought me 40% discount coupons by email on a regular basis.  I used those mostly to order DVD sets (mostly of old BBC TV series) from Borders.com.  I understand Borders came late to the ebook party, but so did I.  I bought a Kindle, and I don’t know much about the Kobo, but I believe it falls well below the Kindle and the B&N Nook in sales.

Maybe the decline of the Big Box book stores and the rise of independent publishing will open new doors for small specialized booksellers.  There are still a a few of those thriving in the Houston area.  Those of us who love books and book stores should be doing more to support them.

Just what I need–a reason to buy more books.