Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Christmas on Nutcracker Court by Judy Duarte

What else would I be reading this week but a heartwarming Christmas story? I won this book from the author by commenting on a blog post and couldn't wait to start it. I've previously read "Mulberry Park" the first novel set in the fictional town of Fairbrook, and loved it.

Judy Duarte writes wonderful Christian romances. Or maybe they're women's fiction with strong romantic elements. Regardless of what genre you classify them in, they're stories of families and love and faith. They're books that, like "It's a Wonderful Life", are filled with hokey good things. And, just like I watch "It's a Wonderful Life" at least once every Christmas, I love reading stories by Judy Duarte.

In this book, we follow the stories of a number of characters. There's Carly, a single mom with two boys and serious financial trouble. Josh is troubled by the problems of growing up and having to take care of his younger brother, Mikey. He'd rather hang out with his friends. There's Lynette, who tries to play matchmaker for Carly, but finds herself attracted to the very man she's picked out for Carly. Grant isn't particularly interested in a relationship, but agrees to the date with Carly. Susan is just looking for any man so she won't be alone. She has her eye on Grant as well, but Max, the other bachelor in the neighborhood, would also work for her. Max, whose wife left him, has taken a year's leave of absence from his job as a probation officer to write a novel. He writes nights and sleeps days and is seen as a bit odd since when he does come out of his house during the day, it's usually in his bathrobe. And there's Maggie, the cousin who has shown up to watch Helen's house while she's away on a cruise, and touches the lives of all of the characters by her gentle suggestions.

We follow these people through their ups and downs and learn to care about them as they care about and for one another. It's a story of Christmas wishes and the power of prayer. And the perfect read for the week before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: The Lord is My Shepherd by Debbie Viguie

I downloaded this nook book when it was a free offering from Abingdon in late October. There are so many free books that it takes a long time for me to get around to reading those I've already downloaded, but I was attracted to this book because it was a Christian murder mystery, which is what I'm writing. It's always smart to check out the competition. :-)

The reviews I've read of this book tend to be at one extreme or the other. Readers either love it or hate it. Generally those who hate it object to the number of murders for a Christian book. That's almost right. The real problem is that this book is in a cozy voice, which means the murder usually takes place offstage, there's not a lot of violence, and the stories are generally character driven. Villains aren't really, really bad guys in cozies. At least, we don't feel like they're bad guys through most of the book. But the murderer in this book is a serial killer who not only kills dozens of people in this book, but has killed multiple people in other cities before. Serial killers and cozy mysteries don't fit together well. The reader is left with this disjointed feeling. My best description of how I felt when I finished the book was "Huh."

The story is told from three different viewpoints: Cindy, a church secretary, Jeremiah, a rabbi, and Mark, a police detective. Unfortunately, no matter which point of view a chapter is told from, they all sound alike. At first I thought the author was slipping out of the point of view of one character into that of another but the more I read, the more I realized that wasn't true. If a story is told from more than one point of view, each character has to be reflected in the language, the sentence structure, and the attitudes of the telling of events. That wasn't the case in this book.

Last of all, there's a concept attributed to the Russian playwright Anton Chekov which (roughly) states that if you have a gun on the wall in the first act, you'd better have someone use it by the third act. "The Lord is My Shepherd" violates the converse of this, i.e., if you have a gun in the third act, you'd better set it up in the first act. It's not a gun in this book, but something unlikely happens without having any reason given either in the current scene or, better yet, having been set up earlier in the book. I don't want to spoil the plot by explaining too much, but that kind of thing made me immediately downgrade my opinion of the story.

I have mixed feelings about this mystery. It's not a bad book, but the writing level isn't quite there yet. I can see where the author might develop into a good mystery writer, but this novel didn't appeal to me enough to make me want to read future books of hers.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Book Review: Skeleton Canyon by J.A. Jance

One of the reasons that I started this blog was because I wanted to do something to let the rest of the country know about Tucson and the Southwest. There are so many unique things here to see and do. It's a very different culture than the Northeast where I came from.

It's also the reason I wanted to write a mystery series set in Tucson. By telling stories, I think I can make people see the beauty of this area as well as problems that are specific to the Southwest. I also wanted to write about real people, people who went to church and had feelings about social issues and real relationships.

J.A. Jance beat me to it.

Skeleton Canyon is a book in her Joanna Brady series. Ms. Brady is Sheriff of Cochise County, based in Bisbee, Arizona, but with plenty of journeys to the Tucson area. It's fun to read a book and know the places that are part of the story. As the story opens, Joanna Brady is driving her daughter to the Girl Scout camp on Mount Lemmon. That's not too far from my house.

Meanwhile, a young girl back in Cochise County tells her parents that she's going to spend the weekend with a girlfriend in New Mexico, but is really having a rendezvous with her boyfriend in the Peloncillo Mountains. The secrecy is made necessary because Nacio, the boyfriend, is of Mexican heritage and her parents, particularly her father, are biased against Mexicans. Unfortunately, Nacio has to work and can't join her right away, so she goes up by herself to wait for him.

When she hears a car coming up the mountain, she assumes it is Nacio coming to join her. It isn't. She is murdered by the intruder and it's Joanna Brady's duty to find her killer. Of course, there are other complications.

This is a very enjoyable mystery. It has all the elements of a well put together plot. But what I really liked was the fact that there's a believable cast of characters. One of these is a woman minister. People in this novel go to church, call on the minister for help, and even offer brief prayers when the occasion calls for it. There's tension between Joanna and her mother, but also love. There's the friend with the shady past who's really a decent person. We root for her as she tries to turn her life around and gets disappointed.

I own several of J.A. Jance's novels. I've been to a couple of her book signings here in Tucson. But somehow this is the first book that I've pulled off my To Be Read pile (or TBR shelf on my nook). This is definitely a series I want to read in total.

And maybe I can learn to write a series as engaging as this one.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

NaNoWriMo Results

Once again November has ended and with it NaNoWriMo. This year I wrote 26,405 words, a little over half of the amount necessary to "win". But I hardly consider myself a loser.

Twenty-six thousand words in one month is a significant amount of writing. I got back into the habit of writing new words on a regular basis. Before NaNo started, I did the planning for this book, which is a sequel to the novel that I'm now submitting to a critique group. I developed a couple of interesting characters. I had that wonderful experience of having them do unexpected things, of telling me the story instead of the other way around.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Walk Along the Wash

It's been a long time since I took a walk in the morning. One of the disadvantages of taking my current job when I was laid off from the last one was that I had to give up my early morning walks. At the last job, most days I could work from home. Even when I had to go into the office, we had flex time, so I could arrive as late as 9:00 AM and still not be late. That left plenty of time for walking before I needed to shower and get dressed. At my current job, I have to be at my desk by the incredibly early hour (for me) of 8:00 AM.

I took this week as vacation in the hopes of being able to catch up on my word count for NaNoWriMo. Since the day after Thanksgiving is a holiday here, you get a whole week off while only using three PTO days. With no need to get up early or hurry off to the day job, another of my goals was to walk along the wash every morning like I used to. This was the first morning I made it.

I've missed my morning walks with a chance to watch the rabbits and listen to the birds greeting the day. I've missed saying hello to the other walkers. That's all the conversation that is required. The rest of the time it's just me and my thoughts. I come up with story ideas in the quiet of my mind. There's something about walking along in the outdoors that stimulates the creative side of my brain. It's kind of like writing with a pen on paper instead of typing on a computer. There's a link between the physical movement and the pathways of the brain. I don't know if science has proved that, but ask any writer.

I got too late a start to catch up with the rabbits or most of the birds, but most of the vegetation was there. As I've mentioned before, last winter was severe for Tucson, so a lot of plants died.  Not all plants died from the cold. For some, it was just their time. There was the agave with its twelve foot flower stalk that in an exuberant burst of life signaled its own death. The last time I was walking on a regular basis, it was one of the landmarks of my walk.

I'd forgotten the stunning surprise of turning around to head home and seeing the splendor of the Catalina Mountains against the sky. No matter how many times I see them this way, it never gets old.

It's days like this when I feel like I could walk forever. The temperature was just tipping sixty degrees, the sun is shining, and there's nowhere in particular I need to be other than walking along the wash.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cooking the Wild Southwest

Saturday morning I headed out early for another one of my Tucson adventures. It started out as a little bit more of an adventure than I had anticipated. Traffic had slowed to almost a stop and I wondered what could be causing it. Because it was Saturday, the elementary school wasn't in session and I doubted that they were doing the road construction that has been a problem this past month on my way to work.

As I crept up to the site of the problem, I had to smile to myself. There was a steer on the side of the road with a member of Tucson's finest parked nearby. Well, there is an Open Range sign not far from there, but there's also a fence which is supposed to keep the cattle off the road. Apparently this steer had discovered a way through the fence.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Book Review: Superior Longing by Patricia Deuson

In the interests of full disclosure, I received the epub version for free from the author in return for writing a review of this book. That did not influence my opinion in any way.

Unfortunately, this book is rife with errors that should have been picked up by a copy editor. In fact, after reading about five pages, the errors were so numerous that I stopped reading and went online to verify that it had been published by a commercial publisher and that Echelon Press was not an imprint of the author's.
Some are relatively minor:
"Positive, Ms Moore." (Missing a period after Ms)

While others are so obvious that they really disrupt the reading:
"I thought I saw her car I saw"

This severely detracted from my enjoyment of the book.


It was also difficult to get into the story because there were three different openings. First there was a prelude showing the murder. Then we meet our amateur sleuth, Neva Moore, coping with the problems of opening a new cooking school. And finally Neva travels to the small town where her uncle was murdered. I don't think the prologue added anything to the story and could have been omitted.

Despite a rocky beginning, this is an enjoyable cozy mystery. There were several unique characters that I enjoyed getting to know. And sometimes the author's language was close to poetry. I certainly didn't guess who the killer was. I would read the next book in the series.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse

With NaNoWriMo only two days away, I've been spending some time perusing the forums. It's always interesting to see where people are from, how old they are, how many times they've done NaNo, and what they are planning on writing for their novel.

A big plot this year appears to be Zombie Apocalypse. The first time I saw it, I thought, "Huh. Weird, but definitely a NaNo type novel." People tend to do crazy things in NaNo novels. It's all about typing 50,000 words in one month and there's a large contingent that will do anything to reach that goal. Including writing whacko stories about a Zombie Apocalypse. When I saw Zombie Apocalypse popping up more and more frequently, I figured out it must be some kind of pop culture reference that I wasn't familiar with.

One of the disadvantages of growing older is that you stop paying attention to pop culture and miss a lot of these references. The demographic that goes to movies and watches television is the 18 to 35 group. This turns into a feedback loop situation. Since it's the 18-35 year olds who are consuming media, the creators of that media focus on making movies and TV shows and video games that appeal to that age group. Generally this means that those who have started receiving solicitations from AARP on a regular basis don't like those movies, TV shows, or video games and do something else. Like read or tune in to PBS or TCM or go to symphony concerts.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Preparing for NaNo

Is it only a little over a week until the start of NaNoWriMo? This year I thought I was getting a good jump on planning my novel. I'd be all ready come November 1st with a detailed outline, character sketches, plot points, maps, and all the other things I usually develop as I write a novel. I'm not sure I'm going to make it.

Oh, I do have a list of characters and a vague idea of the plot. I've been getting good planning ideas from Alexandra Sokolov's blog over the past two weeks. But she just posted the details of Act 1 this week and I haven't even gotten to use that! There are two more acts and only nine days before I have to start writing! Panic is starting to set in.

Oh, I've done more prep than I have some years. But, for a plotter, it's never enough. Fantasy writers have a problem with worldbuilding. They can spend months--years, even--drawing maps and costumes and floorplans and developing languages and religions and magic systems.  Mystery writers--those of us who plot, anyway--can get bogged down in red herrings and suspects and arcane clues.

I've never understood how "pantsers" (those who write by the seat of their pants) ever get a novel out of what they write. I admire those who can sit down in front of a blank screen and just start typing a story out. They lead their characters to the edge of a cliff, push them over it, and only then do they worry about how they'll survive the fall. Me, I'd be hyperventilating, my stomach would be tied up in knots,  and I would probably turn that character into another victim. Unless I did several days worth of research on how someone somewhere survived a similar fall.

There's other kinds of prep that I have done, though. I've laid in a supply of chocolate. (Did Chris Baty plan on leftover Hallowe'en candy when he decided NaNoWriMo should start on November 1st?) I picked up a packet of Via, Starbucks instant coffee that actually tastes like coffee. I've been checking out recipes recommended for cooking during the month of November, things that don't take much time for preparation so you have more time for writing.

I'm nervous and excited all at the same time. There's nothing like the adrenalin rush of needing to type 1667 words every day knowing that there are thousands of people all over the world doing the same thing.

So, since I'm running out of time, I need to get back to my novel planning. That's all for this week.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: Sentenced to Death by Lorna Barrett

First a disclosure: Lorna Barrett is a member of the Guppies (see the link on the right) whom I've known for several years. I don't think that influences my opinion of the books she writes, but it might. I borrowed this book from the library based on the fact that I didn't like the last book in this series very much and am reluctant to buy books that I'm not sure I'll want to keep.

In this fifth novel in the Booktown Mystery series, Tricia's friend Deborah is killed when a small plane carrying a banner for the Founder's Day celebration runs out of gas and crashes into the gazebo where she's giving a speech. Everyone in town believes that this is just a tragic accident except Tricia. It doesn't make sense to her that an experienced pilot would forget to put gas in his plane.

Of course, Tricia doesn't sit still or mind her own business. She immediately talks to the NTSB representative sent to investigate the plane crash, persuades the local newspaperman (an ex-boyfriend of hers) to ferret out information, and generally noses about. This leads to the discovery that her friend had lots of secrets. As do others in Stoneham, New Hampshire.

This was a fun read that kept me turning the pages. Tricia's sister, Angelica, makes a perfect sidekick who listens to Tricia's speculations and aids her in the investigation. Although I do miss the antagonism that existed between them in an earlier book, I've come to accept Angelica's new role. Ginny, Tricia's employee at Haven't Got a Clue, the mystery book store she owns, grows and develops in this story. Mr. Everett and Grace put in an appearance.

The primary reason readers come back to a mystery series is to follow the lives of the characters as each mystery is solved. Lorna Barrett has created an ensemble cast that has become a group of old friends we want to keep up with.

Definitely recommended.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fall Gardening

Back in March, I wrote about the devastation of my yard due to the extremely cold February we had. Between the advice given by most horticulturists (don't assume the plants are dead too quickly) and the extreme heat of summer, my yard hasn't changed much since then. Well, except for the ground squirrels, but I'll leave the follow-up on that to another time.




I did trim back the dead branches and such before summer hit so the front wouldn't look like a Halloween stage setting. This did NOT improve the looks but, since it was small, it was able to hide behind the larger plant that survived.

Yesterday morning, before it got up into the nineties again (we're having a warmer fall than usual), I got out my brand new pitchfork and wrestled what was left out of the ground. I was glad to see an emitter for the drip irrigation next to the dead plant. That meant whatever I planted in its place would get plenty of water.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

I Should Be a Horror Writer

I have a terrific imagination, particularly when it comes to imagining the worst. The least little thing can send my mind scurrying down dark tunnels towards disaster.

There was one place I lived where I hated to clean the bathroom. Every time I started scrubbing it, I'd notice this odd smell. I was convinced there was something nasty living in the drains or the walls that was going to poison me and kill me. I'd die and no one would find the body until several weeks later. They'd do an autopsy and pronounce that I'd died of a heart attack or stroke, blissfully unaware of the evil POISON that had really killed me.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

I finally finished this second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I have to think my reading experience was damaged by putting it down to read some books I had put on reserve at the library, then moving on to some lighter fare after that, before picking it up again last week and finishing the book. I found myself wishing it would be over with, which is not a good way to feel about a book.

Or maybe it's just that I'm not meant for epic fantasy. These books have so many points of view, it takes me several pages of a new chapter to bring all the related characters and the situation we last left this character in back into my memory. Just as I'm getting thoroughly involved in this part of the story, the chapter ends and a different character steps forward to continue his or her tale.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Loving My Mac

I usually don't write about the geeky stuff in my life. I've always been a math and science nerd and, in my early thirties, became a computer nerd. After discovering that a Bachelor's degree in psychology wasn't a whole lot of good when it came to finding a job, I went back to school and got an Associate's degree in Data Processing, where I learned to program computers.

This skill served me well until a few years ago. I built my career on the IBM midrange computers (System/34, System/36, AS/400) and, as PCs and Microsoft took over the business world, it became harder and harder to find a job. When I was laid off from my last job two years ago and found a different type of computer-related job, I figured my days of business application programming were over. I was too close to retirement to make retraining realistic. Besides, what I really wanted to do was write mystery novels.

Writing a novel is not easy. It sounds easy. I mean, all you have to do is sit down at your computer and type up a story. Try it. What you learn pretty quickly is that the first thirty or forty pages are easy. That's all the stuff that's the premise for your story, the ideas that have been floating around in your brain, the things that inspire you. Then you get to the dreaded middle and you have to figure out how to get from that inspiring beginning to the bang-up finish. There's plotting and subplots and how do you get all those characters to play nicely with your story?

As Walter Smith said:
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is Faith the Same as Church?

Last night I decided I would not be going to church today. I always feel guilty about this since I grew up with a strong mandate to attend church and Sunday school every Sunday. I argue with myself about what my priorities are. If I'm really a Christian, shouldn't going to church take precedence over anything else I might do on a Sunday morning?

But I'm also a human being.

One of my unique needs is the need for alone time. I was built with a need for time away from people, time when I get in touch with myself, time to de-stress and refresh my mind and spirit. If I don't do this, I start to worry and fret and get the crazies. It's not pleasant.

This has been a week with more than my usual quota of social activities. In addition to the day job, I attended the Wednesday night supper at church with Bible study afterwards, a dinner out with friends on Friday night, and the monthly RWA chapter meeting on Saturday. These are enjoyable and two of them were also educational, but they also have a component of stress for someone like me. All I could think about last night was that, if I went to church, I wouldn't have any morning quiet time this week, I'd need recuperation time from yet another social activity (and church is a social activity as well as a worship activity), and yet another weekend would go by with household chores falling farther and farther behind.

Now, I do believe that it is important to gather together with other Christians to worship God, sing praises, and partake of the sacrament of Communion. The premise for the mystery series I'm writing is the importance of the community of believers. Sharing faith leads to growing faith.

But it isn't the same as faith. Faith is between you and God. Faith is what you feel in your heart. I found this quote from Hebrews 11:1 just now while seeking for a way to describe it:
"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."
And, regarding my "should" of going to church every Sunday, this from Galations 2:16:
"know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified."
Those quotes are a good reminder that following the rules to the letter, like the Pharisees, is not what makes you a Christian. So today I will enjoy my alone time, catch up on some of those chores, and refresh myself for the new week.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: My Blood Approves by Amanda Hocking

This book was a surprise in a totally different way than the last one. Now, unless you haven't paid any attention to what's going on in publishing these days, you've probably already heard of Amanda Hocking.  She's one of the sensations of the epub world, selling a humongous number of books in a short time.

I have to admit that I didn't expect much from this book. I still have a certain snobbery and bias towards traditionally published authors. The perception that those who find an agent and a publisher are superior to those who don't and publish their books themselves hangs on in my brain, despite evidence to the contrary. And I did read somewhere that Amanda Hocking had tried querying agents with her books and gotten her share of rejections before deciding to self-publish.

Then there's the fact that she offers the first book in each series for 99 cents and the sequels for $2.99. Again, I have a bias towards "You get what you pay for."

Lastly, I understood this to be a paranormal romance, which is not my genre of choice. I just don't get what the obsession is with vampires. I even described her work as probably being a "Twilight" knockoff before I read it. I didn't much enjoy "Twilight" and I wasn't eager to read anything similar for a long time.

You can see that with all of my prejudices against  "My Blood Approves", it's a wonder I ever got around to reading it at all. But Amanda Hocking did recently sign with a traditional publisher, I've read interviews with her, and all the people buying her books couldn't be totally wrong, so I finally started this book.

There's a reason she sells so well. The woman knows how to tell a story.

Her characters are real. Alice, the seventeen-year-old whose story this is, rings true. She's not particularly interested in school. Her life consists of hanging out with her friend Jane, listening to her iPod, and spending time with her younger brother Milo while their mother works the night shift. Milo is the nearest to an adult character in this novel. He cooks the meals, chides Alice about staying out late at night, and tries to keep peace with their mother. The family dynamics work.

Then Alice meets Jack and everything changes. From the beginning, there's something different about Jack. For one thing, although Alice never tells him exactly where she lives or where she's at when she texts him, he always seems to know just where to find her. His skin is cool. It doesn't feel like real, living skin. Everyone he meets falls a bit in love with him, except Alice. And there's obviously a secret that he's keeping from her.

School becomes even less important as Alice spends all her free time with Jack. There's an attraction that she can't quite explain, but what he finds intriguing that she isn't hypnotized by his presence like other people are.

I don't want to say too much more about this book because I think the reader should discover the story on their own. I wouldn't want to give away too much of what happens.

The fact that I remember all the characters' names several days after finishing the book is amazing enough. Usually, once I move on to the next book, I quickly forget details of the last one I read. But not in this case. The characters are so well drawn and the conflict so engaging, I'm having trouble not rushing back to the Barnes and Noble site to download the rest of the series.

This is highly recommended. Great job, Amanda!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

And the Rains Came

Just when the monsoon season was winding down, a batch of storms moved through this week that made this the rainiest September on record. It rained four days in a row this week with 2.84 inches of rain falling on Thursday alone. When you measure rainfall in hundredths of an inch, this is a big deal.

The Santa Cruz River, which is usually mostly dry this far south, became a raging torrent.

Of course, there were the usual number of water rescues. Despite the "dumb motorist law," which fines anyone who enters a flood area despite warning signs, there are always those who try to cross a wash or a flooded intersection.

This time, there was also a man lost to the flooding. Somehow he wound up clinging to a bridge stanchion in the Santa Cruz. He was swept away before police and fire could get to him. They positioned themselves on several bridges over the river trying to spot him. The explanation was that this way they could see the whole width, while standing on the bank would only allow them to see one side. As far as I know, his body hasn't been found yet.

In sections of town, homes and businesses were flooded, as well as part of one campus of Pima Community College.

The water drains pretty rapidly in Tucson. The desert sucks it up in a matter of hours. By the time I left work on Thursday, the streets were almost dry. The weeds, however, are having a field day. And there are mushrooms sprouting in the lawn in the park across the street. It's amazing how much growth happens in a short period of time following rain here. The Sonoran Desert is amazingly green.

This was probably the end of the 2011 monsoon season. Now we enter the time of year with the weather that brings retirees to Tucson. Temperatures will drop to the eighties, then the seventies, the skies are huge, blue backdrops for the mountains, and the sun shines all the time. I can't wait.

* * *
Photos from the Arizona Daily Star can be seen here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

You never know what you'll run into while clicking through the blogosphere. I don't remember exactly how I got there, but one day I found John Scalzi's blog. He writes an interesting, literate blog and posts almost every day, so I continued to return to it.

Scalzi is the current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so you can guess his chosen genre. I was kind of curious about what he wrote but, as I've said before, I don't read nearly as much SF&F as I used to. However, when he announced that "Old Man's War" was going to be made into a film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the book made it to the top of my nook wishlist. In case you don't know who Wolfgang Petersen is, he directed The Perfect Storm, In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Neverending Story, and the amazing Das Boot.

I was disappointed in this book. To begin with, the first half of the book was largely exposition: an introduction to the main character and a lot about the society and technology. Nothing. Much. Happens. Science fiction has a tendency to do more of this than other genres because half the fun of the writing, and often the reading, is extrapolating what technology is possible and how that will affect society. But an author can weave this into his story seamlessly or, as in Old Man's War, it becomes the primary focus of pages and pages of the book.

When I finally got to the second half and things started happening, meaning the plot became prominent, the more I read, the more I thought, "This is just like Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers,' only with bioengineered bodies instead of mechanical suits."

Heinlein did it better.

Now, Heinlein was one of my favorite writers in my teen years. "The Rolling Stones" was my introduction to science fiction. I took it out of the school library because it was about a family named Stone. I've reread "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" multiple times and I'm positive that that book is one of the reasons I became a computer programmer. And "Stranger in a Strange Land" opened my eyes to thinking about religion in a different way. So Scalzi had some pretty big shoes to fill.

To his credit, the author does acknowledge Robert Heinlein for inspiring this book. I was glad to see that and it did make me feel better about the novel. But not enough better.

I think the key difference between Heinlein's version and Scalzi's version is that Heinlein created characters I really cared about. As I read "Starship Troopers," I felt like I was inside Johnny's skin. With "Old Man's War", I always felt some distance from John Perry. Maybe it's because Perry's attachments to other characters are ephemeral. Most of the people he gets close to die. The one character who promises a continuing relationship isn't really who she appears to be. Maybe it's because Perry doesn't have much vulnerability. I like my characters to have flaws. Perry was always the hero.

The other thing that bothered me about "Old Man's War" is that it presented the human race as being in an imperialistic land grab against every other race in the universe. The premise was that there are only so many life-friendly planets and we had the right to conquer as many of them as we could--even if they were already inhabited by another species. My memory may be wrong, but in "Starship Troopers" the war was being fought because the "bugs" were trying to conquer planets where the human race had established colonies. We were defending ourselves against the invaders.

I keep wondering what Publisher's Weekly and World Science Fiction Convention members who nominated it for the Hugo saw in this book that I didn't. Maybe it's because I haven't been reading science fiction over the past few decades, so I don't know what's standard in the genre any more. Regardless, this wasn't engaging enough to encourage me to read any more books by this author.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11th


I was born in Queens and grew up on Long Island, eighteen miles from the New York City line. I remember the time before the World Trade Center was built and the controversy over how those boxy towers were going to ruin the distinctive New York skyline.

Years later I remember walking on the outside observation deck, my young son laughing at my fear at being suspended in the sky as the wind whipped our hair and clothes.

I remember the first trip home in 2001, Christmas I think it was, and staring at the hole where the towers used to be from the span of the Throgs Neck Bridge.

I was working in Boston in 2001. I remember that bright Tuesday morning in September, the air so clear and the sky so blue it would break your heart. We had our usual weekly meeting with the CIO, a meeting all us techies put up with but couldn’t wait to leave. Released at last, we hurried down the hall to our computers so we could do what we loved best.

A few minutes later, my boss came out of his office looking stunned. “My daughter called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center,” he said. We, too, were stunned. I quickly brought up the CNN web site but there wasn’t much more than what he’d already told us. A few minutes later he came back into our room and told us the TV was on in the lunchroom if we wanted to go watch it.

I stayed at my desk initially, but I couldn’t concentrate. I went downstairs and sat in the lunchroom, glued to the news reports, watching the smoke billow out of the North Tower.  From nowhere, the second plane came into the screen and I flinched as it hit the South Tower. I knew then this was a terrorist attack. I didn’t need a reporter or politician to tell me that.

I cried for months afterwards. It didn’t take much for me to start. The sight of flags flying in front of houses, offices, and from car windows would do it. And there were a lot of flags flying in Boston. The grim resolve of people whose lives were shattered, but were determined to carry on, to not let the terrorists defeat our spirit. The pictures of the smoldering ruins, the raising of an American flag among them, the shower of ashes and paper through the New York City streets.

I cried for the people who had gone to work that morning, perhaps dreading a meeting of their own, never thinking they would die that day. I cried for the police and firemen who rushed into the burning buildings, knowing how dangerous it was, but risking—and giving—their lives in an attempt to save others. I cried for the heroes of Flight 93 who wrested control from the hijackers and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field rather than let it be a weapon against another building. I cried for the loss of our innocence, our invincibility that was shattered, and the knowledge that our world would never be the same.

 And I returned to God.

I didn’t go to church, except for the occasional Christmas or Easter, in the decades before September 11th. God and I had had a falling out. I figured that some day, a day far in the future when I was closer to death, I’d take some time and figure out this whole religion thing. But there wasn’t any urgency about it. I was young yet. Well, young enough.

But the enormity of what happened that day made me realize that I needed something bigger than myself to understand it, to accept it, and to move forward. I needed to be able to make sense of something that was, at its core, senseless.

I spent the next several months going to various churches, staying longer at some than others, but never finding quite the right fit. Finally I decided to try a Lutheran church that wasn’t too far away. I’d put the Lutheran church at the bottom of my list because, well, because I’d been raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran and hadn’t particularly cared for it.

I went to House of Prayer in Hingham, Massachusetts without much hope one Sunday morning. And found a warm and welcoming ELCA congregation. The minister remembered my name after the first Sunday, some older women kind of adopted me and encouraged me to join their weekly Bible study group, and I started doing some of that exploration of faith that I’d put off so long.

I used to ask myself on occasion whether God had caused the events of September 11th to bring me back to Him. That seemed like a lot of hubris and I’m not sure I could accept the fact that God had been the cause of something so awful.

I still have a lot of doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There are times I feel like a fraud. And I know that I’m not living what faith I have in as positive a fashion as I should. But I also know that I can’t imagine facing another September 11th without God. And, horrifying as it is to contemplate, there’s a good chance that there will be another September 11th in my lifetime. Evil never gives up.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Number One on My Bucket List

A few years back there was this marvelous movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson called "The Bucket List". It was about two men with terminal cancer who decided to do a number of things before they kicked the bucket. It started me thinking of what would be on my bucket list and what I could do to accomplish those things.

Not surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind was to see the Red Sox play at Fenway Park. Although I lived in the Boston area for eight years, I never made it to Fenway. When you live in a place, it seems like there will always be time to do things there. You regularly pass by landmarks and think, "Some day I'll have to go there." But some day never seems to come. Life gets in the way.

And then I moved to Arizona and it was a bit longer than a ride on the T to get to Fenway Park. I did manage to see the Red Sox play at Chase Field when interleague play scheduled them against the Diamondbacks. But Chase Field isn't Fenway.

This past spring I started thinking about going back to Boston for a visit. We were coming up on the Fourth of July and, with the severe drought we had, there was talk about fireworks shows being cancelled. That reminded me of what the Fourth is like in Boston. There's no place better to celebrate the Fourth than on the Esplanade with the Boston Pops and fireworks over the Charles River. So I started searching the Internet looking for travel packages that might get me there.

I didn't find any fireworks packages, but I did find Red Sox Destinations. Now that might be a way for me to get to see the Red Sox play, along with a stay at a good hotel, eating fresh seafood, a chance to visit with old friends. I took a look at the dates. I pondered. I saw that there was one trip scheduled for the Yankees series at the end of August. There couldn't be any openings left. But there were! I slept on it. It would be expensive with airfare and hotel and meals out. And then I clicked and made the reservations.

So I spent last week in Boston, saw two Red Sox games, had a VIP tour of the park, a session with a Red Sox player, and lunch at the park. It was wonderful!



I got to the park early enough to see batting practice on the first day. It was hard to believe that I was actually there. I've watched so many games on television, seen so many pictures, I almost had to pinch myself to believe it was real. The Sox lost, but it was okay.



Day two was packed with activities. The tour was fun and I learned a lot about the history of Fenway. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. The intention is to have it put on the National Register of Historic Places at that point. That will keep it just as it is. Newer parks may be shinier, have bigger broadcast booths and more luxurious seating. But Fenway has character. Sure, it shows its age, but there is no place that feels more like baseball than Fenway.


 And I was there. I walked on the field. I stood next to that old manual scoreboard. I went inside the scoreboard that doesn't have air conditioning or heat or running water, so you can imagine what it's like for the guys who sit inside it every game and post those worn green and white numbers for the fans to see.

The players aren't immune to what it means to play for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. We had the pleasure of meeting Jarrod Saltalamachia before our lunch. He signed one item (in my case, a baseball thoughtfully provided as part of the package) for each of us, then did a question and answer session. He was thrilled to be there, thrilled to have Varitek as a mentor, and he practically burst with pride and pleasure when one member of the tour asked how it felt to be the future of the Red Sox. He's a good kid and, from what I've seen, the first catcher who stands a chance of taking Varitek's place when Tek retires.

The second game couldn't have been any better if it had been written into a movie script. Beckett pitched. Ellsbury hit his first home run over the Green Monster. Big Papi launched one over the fence in center field. And Pedroia put on his laser show in the field. What more could you ask?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: Murder on the Rocks by Karen MacInerney

I seem to be in the mood for cozy mysteries lately. Maybe it's because it's summertime and no one wants to do too much this time of year. Maybe it's because, after working a full day and doing daily chores and having a neverending to-do list, I just want to relax. Or maybe it's because I like cozy mysteries.

I'm not sure how this book made it to my nook. I've downloaded a lot of books that looked somewhat interesting when they were offered for free or at a steep discount. Frequently the first book in a series is discounted, at least for a time, to entice the reader to try something new, with the hope that they'll like it and buy the rest of the series.

"Murder on the Rocks" is the first in Karen MacInerney's Gray Whale Inn series. According to the blurb, it was an Agatha nominee for 2006. The Agatha Awards are nominated by and voted on by mystery fans and presented at Malice Domestic, a convention held every spring in Bethesda, Maryland. You have to register before December 31st of the prior year to nominate books. The top nominees are placed on a ballot,  which is turned in at the convention.

This is a typical first in a series cozy mystery. Natalie Barnes leaves her native Texas to open a bed and breakfast on the Maine coast, investing all she has to do so. This sets her up as the typical "fish out of water" character, which gives the author an opportunity to explain and describe things to the reader on the pretext of having the character learn about them. Not only does Nat have to overcome the struggles of starting a new business, a potent threat to it comes in the form of a major resort developer who wants to build a huge hotel next door to the inn. When the developer turns up dead, Nat becomes the major suspect, not just because of the threat to her business, but because she's a leader in the "Save Our Terns" group that challenges the hotel's construction because it will destroy a sensitive nesting area.

There are a lot of things about this book that kept screaming "first" at me. These are things that I've become aware of since deciding to write my own mystery novels and I'm not sure an average reader would notice them.

One of these is the overuse of two verbs - headed and fished. Characters in this book are always "headed toward the kitchen" or "headed over to the store" or "headed down the path". Nat "fished her keys out of her pocket" and "fished whatever out of a drawer". I think the author could have found more alternative ways to say these things because it does get repetitious.

Another thing I noticed is that Nat often describes things that a real person may not have noticed. I kept thinking that the author, in her effort to include the five senses in her scenes, worked a bit too hard at this. Smells are usually mentioned every time Natalie enters a new place. Descriptions of flowers around the inn are too detailed for someone who never seems to be working in the garden.

My last objection is a personal thing and what is a negative for me is a positive for many readers of cozy mysteries. Nat is always cooking and baking. She gets up every morning and puts together breakfast for her guests. Now, running a real bed and breakfast, this would be something she'd need to do, so it's logical in terms of story, but I got tired of descriptions of what went into her coffee cake or muffins or fruit dish every day. And, after breakfast is over, she starts all over again with cookies or something to take to her friends or those she wants to interrogate in the course of her investigation. All this activity in the kitchen does give her a chance to ruminate over suspects and things but, as someone whose idea of cooking is popping frozen meals in the microwave or, when I really get ambitious, making sweetened condensed milk fudge like I did yesterday, I felt there was too much time spent on food.

After all that kvetching, what did I think of this mystery? I liked it.

The key for me is that I didn't pick out the murderer long before the end of the book, but it made perfect sense when the reasons were revealed. I had briefly considered this person at an earlier point in my reading, but the person wasn't a stronger or weaker suspect at that point. When you're evaluating a mystery, this is huge.

I also liked the secondary characters. I can see where their roles and relationships will form a nice ensemble cast for the series. The folks of Cranberry Island became like friends over the course of the novel. And that's what keeps readers coming back to a cozy series. You buy the next book because you want to find out what happens next in the life of the characters.

But (and I apologize for more kvetching), will I buy another book in this series? Probably not. My tipping point price for ebooks is five dollars. If I like a light cozy series, a book under five dollars is a no-brainer. I might go 6.99, 7.99 or even 8.99 for a book by an author I really like, and even then the higher price is reserved for longer books, books with depth, by authors like Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin. The publisher has priced the Gray Whale Inn series ebooks at 9.99. If I run into a paperback copy at the Friends of the Library used book sale, I would probably buy it. If I happen to be at the library and see another book in this series, I might take it out. But there are so many books to read and so many already on my nook that I can read, I wouldn't ever pay 9.99 for a light read like the books in this series.

So, recommended, but buying it is pricey.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Doing What You Love

This week Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple because of health reasons. In one of the many news articles about his decision and his career at one of the most successful companies in the world, there was a link to the only commencement address he ever made.

It's a very personal speech, describing his adoption, his parents, his "failure" to get a college degree, the company he and Steve Wozniak started in a garage, and his subsequent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. And the title of it is "You've Got to Find What You Love."

A few years back, I was one of the millions who viewed "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch. This had a profound effect on me at the time and haunts me still. Pausch, also diagnosed with cancer and knowing he was terminal, used a similar theme: achieving your childhood dreams.

This message seems to be pervasive in my life recently. Yesterday morning's devotional said, in part: "I'd rather be ashes than dust. I'd rather my spark burn out than that it should be stifled by dry rot. The proper function of my life is to live, not exist. So I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use every moment."

Maybe I'm more aware of it lately, like when you buy a new car and suddenly every other car on the road is the same one you just bought. Or when you're pregnant, you seem to always be running into other pregnant ladies. Most of my life I've been fortunate to get at least a piece of what I loved. I got married and had a child. I built a career as a computer programmer, a field that used my talents and paid me well, and worked at really good companies. If I didn't like my job, I was able to find a different one with a company more suited to me.

But for the past few years I haven't enjoyed my work. It's become "just a paycheck", with no creativity, no appreciation for my work, no chance for advancement. And the paycheck isn't as large as it used to be. Because of the economy, there are no alternatives without relocating. And, if you own a house, you can't sell it, so relocating isn't really an option. Besides, I like Tucson. I don't want to move to Minnesota.

It's made me wonder how many people go through their entire lives working at jobs that are "just a paycheck." I remember a college roommate insisting that she didn't want to marry a guy who worked on the line at Oldsmobile. That was my first intimation that there were people who had boring jobs and were content to do them for the sake of a paycheck. I always assumed I would find a job I loved.

So now, when I'm doing a job I don't even like, I've been thinking more and more about doing what I love. That, of course, is writing. It's not a new idea, of course. When I was in high school trying to choose a college, I told my mother that I'd like to be a writer. Her reply was that I could be a teacher and write in the summer, ignoring the fact that I had no desire to be a classroom teacher, in fact was terrified of the whole idea of standing up in front of a roomful of children or, worse, teenagers.

Two years back, with a layoff imminent, I started thinking about writing again. Ever practical, I looked into magazine article writing, looked at books about how to become rich as a freelancer. Again, it required doing things that terrified me: pitching story ideas, calling publications, calling experts to get their stories before I could write them up. And, as a writing friend of mine pointed out, if I was doing all that, when would I have time to write the novels I loved?

It seems to me that I've always put off doing what I really loved. I've been practical. I've been risk-averse, like most Americans. Even now, there's a voice at the back of my head whispering, "You can wait two more years until your full retirement age. Or maybe even wait until you're seventy, so you have more Social Security."

But I don't want to wait. I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of putting things off. Heck, I may not live until I'm seventy and what will it matter then how much Social Security I'd be entitled to?

It's time for a change. I'm committed to doing what I love, not two years from now, not when I'm seventy, but within the next year. I refuse to listen to all the voices telling me to put it off, to be careful, to be afraid. I'm not going to let dry rot set in first.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: Choke by Kaye George

First, a disclaimer. I know Kaye George. She's a member of the Guppies and we've met in person when she came to Tucson. "Choke" is her first published novel, although she has previously published several short stories, one of which was nominated for an Agatha. The paperback edition of "Choke" is published by Mainly Murder Press, but this publisher allows the author to retain ebook rights (a mistake on their part in my opinion). I read "Choke" on my nook, which I purchased when it was offered as a free selection.

Imogene "Immy" Duckworthy has always dreamed of being a detective. She spent much of her childhood reading mysteries and is obsessed with detection to the point of naming her daughter Nancy Drew Duckworthy. She lives in a trailer with her mother, Hortense, a retired librarian, and works as a waitress at the diner owned by her Uncle Huey. At least, she's doing this as the book opens, but not for long. She's decided that it's time to pursue her dream of being a PI and quits on the same day as another waitress does, leaving just Clem, the cook, and Baxter, the busboy.

When she tells her mother that she quit because Uncle Huey pinched her bottom (He didn't do that to her. He did that to the other waitress.), Hortense storms off to give Huey a piece of her mind. The next morning, Huey is found murdered, making Hortense the prime suspect.

Of course, Immy resolves to prove her mother's innocence, starting off her career as a PI.

Immy reminds me a bit of Stephanie Plum. She plunges into action without quite thinking through the consequences. She decides she needs disguises to do her investigations and makes several trips to a costume shop for this purpose. No one is fooled by these disguises and her misadventures with them provide some amusing scenes.

The characters are types the reader will recognize. Baxter is the seductive bad boy and Immy agrees to some things that she knows she shouldn't. His dreamy eyes and sexy body are persuasive agruments. Hortense is quirky in her own way. She uses an erudite vocabulary, sometime to the point where it slowed me down as I attempted to translate, except when under stress, when she reverts to simple speech. She's obese, a condition which resulted from the death of Immy's father in an auto accident. Food is her substitute for love and plays a big part in her life. There's Ralph, the nice guy police officer, who has always had a crush on Immy and keeps wanting to have a date with her.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that it kept feeling like a YA most of the time, but there were things about it that weren't YA. For one thing, Immy is too old a heroine for a YA novel. She's in her twenties with a daughter. There were some scenes that didn't feel YA. I'm having a hard time defining specifically what these were, but there were several times I stopped and thought the tone had changed.

I also have to say I'm not a fan of Stephanie Plum, so this kind of cozy mystery is not exactly my cup of tea.

On the other hand, there are some lovely descriptive passages about Texas. The pacing is very well done. The book keeps moving with no dead spots in the plot. All in all, an engaging, light read that I found enjoyable.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg and the First Responders

This week, as I was surfing around the news sites, I read that Mayor Bloomberg announced that the 9/11 First Responders were not invited to the 10th anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero. In my opinion, this is just... wrong.

9/11 changed our world forever. Life in the United States was totally different before the events of that day. Before 9/11 we were safe. Terrorist attacks were something that happened in other countries. Northern Ireland. The Middle East. Even prior attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing and the earlier attempt on the World Trade Center seemed like isolated events. They weren't part of our world.

After 9/11, we will never feel safe again.

I have always felt that September 11th should be a national holiday, a day of mourning, prayer, and commemoration. We mourn not only those who died, but the passing of more innocent times. After ten years, memories fade. There are children who never knew a time when you passed through airport security without having to take off your shoes, allowed to carry water bottles through the gates, and weren't limited to a quart Baggie of liquids. We need to remember.

And, while the towers were burning and civilians were streaming out of lower Manhattan, who was heading into the disaster, rushing up stairwells to bring people out, and sacrificing their lives? New York's Bravest and New York's Finest. It was chaos. No one knew what was happening, communications were scrambled, the immensity of it was overwhelming. But these men and women did their job as best they could and suffered the consequences.





And they stayed there for days, weeks, months afterwards, searching through the wreckage, first for survivors, and later for victims.







They honored the dead.









And they honored their country.







The reason Mayor Bloomberg gave was that there just isn't enough room at the site to include everyone. The families of the victims have to be given priority. But, as so many have pointed out, the firefighters and police were family to their brothers and sisters who died that day.

There were 343 firefighters and 72 police officers who died. I remember watching the funerals for so many of these during the following weeks on television. And at every one there was a huge contingent of their fellow first responders.

Certainly Mayor Bloomberg, who figured out a way to stay in office by changing the law on term limits, something even Rudy Giuliani, who showed what leadership in a crisis looks like, refused to do, can figure out a way to make the heroes of 9/11 a part of this anniversary?

They say that the majority of firefighters will be at the firefighters memorial on Riverside Drive. Wouldn't it be possible for the firefighters and police to have a procession through Ground Zero on their way to this location that would be part of the ceremony? Wouldn't it be possible to have a representative contingent remain onsite for the full ceremony?

On this tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack the United States has ever known, we need to respect and honor those who gave so much in its aftermath.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mudballs and Mortality

Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting at my desk when I heard a loud thunk. It didn't sound like it was inside the house and I wondered if the kids next door were playing some game that involved thunking. A minute or two later, there was another one. The cats and I looked at one another, telepathically asking, "What was that?"

There were no more thunks, so I went back to what I was doing.

It wasn't until the next day that I discovered what had caused the sounds. I went out in the backyard and found two chunks of smooth, rounded concrete on the ground near the back of the house. I looked up at the roof and, sure enough, there was a noticeable difference in color between the two tiles at the peak of the roof... and no concrete. There was concrete on the other side of the peak.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Majoring in Murder by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

There are times when you want a prime rib dinner. There are times when you crave bistro food. And there are times when you just want meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Just as there is comfort food, there are comfort reads. After the intensity of Dan Simmons' "Flashback" and weeks reading "A Clash of Kings" (which I'll get back to now), I felt like something lighter, something softer, a book that I could cuddle up with and enjoy. For me that means a cozy mystery.

I was not disappointed by this book in the "Murder She Wrote" series. I loved the television series and, although I haven't read many of the tie-in books, this one was exactly what a cozy mystery should be. There are no recipes or knitting instructions. We don't have quirky characters a la Grandma Mazur. What we do have is a well-crafted mystery with multiple suspects, clues ably planted, and characters you can identify with.

In this one, Jessica Fletcher, retired English teacher, mystery writer, and incredibly nosy amateur sleuth, is invited to teach a class in mystery writing at Schoolman College in Indiana. While there, a colleague is killed during a tornado when the building he's in collapses on top of him. Jessica, of course, suspects foul play almost from the outset. When the sister of the victim arrives in town, bringing a letter from him where he says his life is in danger, Jessica is even more convinced. But, as usual, local law enforcement thinks that the two women have overactive imaginations and doesn't want to investigate.

Since Jessica is new to the campus, it's believable when we get to know the people at the college by her asking questions. Anyone who's familiar with Murder She Wrote knows that Jessica jumps right in and helps people she just met, even though there may be long-term friends and acquaintances who, in real life, would fulfill this role. And we know she always pokes her nose in places she doesn't belong. With these characteristics as a given, Jessica Fletcher is a very believable amateur sleuth.

After writing that, it has me trying to identify why a retired English teacher is a more believable amateur sleuth than, say, the owner of a bookstore or a baker or a knitter. I suppose there's no reason inherent in the occupation of the amateur sleuth. I think the problem with all the craft and cooking mysteries is that the author (and probably their readers, since the books are popular) is just as interested, if not more so, in the crafts or recipes as they are in solving the murder. A troubled romantic relationship seems to be a required subplot as well. And, of course, the obligatory quirky character.

In "Majoring in Murder", the focus is on solving the crime. Classroom lectures on how to write a mystery don't overwhelm the plot. Jessica doesn't meet a handsome, widowed professor who tries to woo her. And we don't have anyone who brings a juggling baboon to class.

Donald Bain knows how to write a traditional mystery with all the elements of a good whodunnit. I'll definitely be reading more in this series.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bookstores

When I first came to Tucson six years ago for a job interview, one of the things I wanted to do was see the local mystery bookstore. I have always had a fondness for bookstores of all kinds.

As a teenager growing up on Long Island, one of the treats of going into Manhattan with my friends was a stop at the Scribners Book Store.  As far as I know, we didn't have a bookstore in my home town, much less anything the size of Scribners.

I will never forget that magnificent staircase that led up to the second floor or the shelves and shelves of books of all kinds. It was a magical place, better than a library.

Unfortunately, Scribners disappeared decades ago.

I remember a used bookstore in Sea Cliff, New York. Mr. Thompson's I think it was called. That was a totally different experience. It was a small store, crammed with gently worn volumes, shelves so close together you could barely walk down the aisles.

It was natural that one of the things I would look for in a potential new home town was a bookstore. Yes, I knew there was a Barnes and Noble and a Borders store, but was there a store that was unique to Tucson?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Book Review: Flashback by Dan Simmons

The last book I read by Dan Simmons was "Hyperion", published in 1989. I own the paperback edition, which didn't come out until 1990, so that's probably when I bought it.

When I finished it, I was tempted to throw it across the room. I've only done this literally with one book, but I've done it mentally several times. The reason? It wasn't because it was a bad book. On the contrary, I had gotten totally wrapped up in the story and, since it's 500 pages, I'd spent a number of hours in its world. As with most good books, I'd read faster as I got to the end, eager to find out the resolution to the story... only to find out that there was no resolution in this book. It ended on a cliffhanger and the next book wouldn't be available for another year.

I hate when that happens. I hate it so much that I refused to read another book by Dan Simmons. (I will confess to buying the next two sequels, but I didn't read them. I was waiting to know for sure that when I got to the end, it would really be the end. There's a fourth book that I don't own. Why buy a book that you're not going to read? After several years I realized that I'd have to read the first book over again to remember enough of the story in order to continue. That hasn't happened yet.)

Then recently I saw a glowing review of "Flashback" and learned that Dan Simmons writes mysteries as well as science fiction. It sounded intriguing, so I reserved it at the library.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Superheros

Friday afternoon my company declared Employee Appreciation Day. In honor of the occasion, they bought us lunch at a restaurant and a private showing of Captain America. Now, if I were paying, I would have preferred to see the new Harry Potter movie that was showing in the adjoining theater. But I wasn't paying and it was certainly better than an afternoon at work. I figured if Captain America really wasn't my cup of tea I could always go to the ladies room and not come back

Well, it wasn't my cup of tea, but it did move and I only found myself glancing at my watch during the last half hour. (How many explosions does one movie need?) But I found myself watching the movie as a writer rather than a viewer.

One of the problems with writing fiction is that you learn what makes good fiction and what makes it bad. You analyze it, especially when it isn't working for you.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Resurrection

I've pretty much been in a funk since April as far as writing goes. As I wrote in this post, the disappointment over my contest results hit me hard. I've been floundering since then, trying to work on the pieces of a fantasy novel that I plan to write for NaNoWriMo this November. but not feeling very enthusiastic about it.

Oh, I like the idea well enough. I think it will be a fun book to write. But I've always considered NaNo novels to be larks, not serious writing. They're total playtime for my muse. She can come up with all kinds of ridiculous ideas and my "me" doesn't get to censor any of them. NaNo novels get to have goddesses and spaceships and paranormal elements that my "me" doesn't like very well. Logic does not get to overrule any of these ideas.

But in my heart I want to be a mystery writer. I like mysteries with an element of romance. The marketing departments at publishing houses have taken to calling these romantic suspense or just plain suspense because those categories sell better, but I still like the term traditional mystery.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: Aunt Dimity's Death by Nancy Atherton

I think that this book is the perfect example of how expectations can color your impression of a book. Although the front cover boasts "One of the 100 best mysteries of all time," this book isn't really a mystery.

There's no murder. There's no hunt for whodunnit. There's no bad guy.

I was expecting a traditional murder mystery, something along the lines of Agatha Christie perhaps, because I knew the story was partially set in an English cottage. I was drawn into the opening. The main character, Lori Shepherd, is sympathetic and I found myself rooting for her to have a better life for herself than she's had so far. But once it became evident that there was no murder mystery in this story, I was disappointed.

It's hard for me to judge the book based on the reality versus my expectation. It's a sweet read and more of a romance than a mystery, but it doesn't even have passion in the romance. It's almost as if the author wasn't sure what she wanted to write.

The Aunt Dimity series is very popular, so it must be appealing to a number of readers. Personally, I would have liked to have something more happen, stronger emotions, and a nice, juicy killing with a puzzle to figure out. I doubt that I'll be reading any more books in this series.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ha:san Bak

The title of this entry is the O'odham language phrase for "the saguaro is ready". It's what the native peoples of Southwestern Arizona call the Saguaro Harvest Festival. Sometime in May, the saguaro cactus is crowned with beautiful white blooms. These give way to green fruits that ripen around the end of June or early July. This coincides with the start of our annual monsoon season and historically the harvesting of the fruit has been part of a ceremony to "bring down the rain".

There are several places that allow you to experience something of the saguaro harvest and I've wanted to try doing this ever since I moved to Tucson. This year I got my chance. I signed up to take part in Ha:san Bak at La Posta Quemada Ranch on the grounds of Colossal Cave Park. It started early. We were supposed to arrive between 5:30 and 6:00 A.M. to check in. Even in southern Arizona, it was still dark when I left the house, although the sun had risen by the time I got there.

The first part of the workshop was learning how to make a ku'ipad (which sounded like kweepah) from three generations of Tohono O'odham women. Grandma Ina is on the left, daughter Delphine is in the pink shirt, and the granddaughter is in the turquoise shirt sitting on the bench. On the right is Lauren, the park employee who directed the workshop. 


Monday, July 04, 2011

Monday Evening Update

And the answer is...

Use my domain and use Blogger as my web site! I was able to find clear instructions on the GoDaddy site that mirrored Holly's instructions for setting up Wordpress as your web site. This is so much easier than using new software to design a site.

Of course, I now have a lot more tweaking of my blog to do to make it function as a web site, but I've got the basic format down and the rest is, well, tweaking.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Conflict

On Fourth of July weekend, you might think this blog was going to be about the many wars we're involved with. Or possibly Minnesota as they were unable to resolve their budget issues. Maybe you're a sports fan and immediately thought of the NFL or the NBA.

This is about none of the above. This is about my personal conflict over priorities. I'm not talking about overall priorities in my life, but those in a very small, albeit important, part of my life: writing.

There just aren't enough hours in the day to do everything. And I'm having a lot of trouble deciding what "everything" should encompass.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dehydration

This week I wound up in the emergency room of Saint Joseph's Hospital. I won't go through the whole story of how I got there, but I'd been feeling tired and sluggish and weak for a couple of weeks. I was also feeling fuzzy-headed, which was probably the part that bothered me the most. After all, my brain is probably my favorite organ. (Unlike Woody Allen in "Sleeper".)

After all the usual ER stuff (EKG, blood work, urinalysis), the ER doc came back and said, "You're dehydrated." It's a pretty easy diagnosis in Tucson, but it was something I hadn't thought of. You see, I drink a lot of fluids. I have coffee in the morning, often orange juice as well, and always drink a quart bottle of water in the afternoon. Evenings are hit and miss. I don't have a routine there. Fluid was going in and coming out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tucson Museum of Art

Julia Cameron, playwright, filmmaker, poet, is probably most well known for her book "The Artist's Way". I took a class based on this book many years ago and incorporated Morning Pages into my daily routine. The idea of Morning Pages is to write three pages of stream of consciousness prose when you first get up, before your logical self wakes up and starts editing and censoring the part of yourself that gets to live in dreams. You don't worry about spelling or grammar mistakes or whether anything makes sense or not. You just write, keeping the pen on the page.

The other key tool of "The Artist's Way" is the Artist Date. The idea here is that once a week you should do something to feed your muse. You're not supposed to do this with anyone else because that tends to be distracting. It's just you and your muse filling the well of creativity.

While Morning Pages are pretty easy to do once you get in the habit, the Artist Date tends to fall by the wayside. We have jobs, we have errands, we have writing to do. Taking one day a week or even just a few hours is hard, so fitting this in becomes more of a chore than a delight. But it really is an important tool of "The Artist's Way". When several of us in the Guppies Goals Group were complaining about being in the doldrums with our writing, one of our members suggested that we all try to do one Artist Date this month and report back to the group. I decided it was time for a trip to the museum.

I've lived in Tucson for five years and had never been to the Tucson Museum of Art. I'd never noticed any ads for an exhibit I wanted to see, nothing like the Monet exhibit that came to Phoenix a few years back, and the thought of negotiating downtown intimidated me. Although smaller than most, downtown Tucson has the same challenges. Many of the streets are one-way, there are twists and turns, and side streets tend to dead end unexpectedly. Throw in the usual ongoing construction, and it often seems like the trouble is more than it's worth. But making this an assignment, if you will, gave me the motivation to try it.

The city of Tucson began as a presidio, or garrison, under the Spanish in 1775. This is the "official" founding, although people have lived in the Tucson Valley since 10,000 BC. The Museum of Art is in several buildings, including the modern main building, as well as several old adobe buildings from the original presidio days. The photo at left is of the rear entrance to the modern facility, which houses several permanent collections. Unfortunately, since this is the off-season for tourism, the staff was taking this opportunity to change out exhibits. The main exhibit hall was under construction or whatever you call it to set up the biennial exhibit to go on display later this year. I decided to explore some of the other buildings first and come back here if I had time.

Another initial disappointment was that most of the Western Collection was not on display because the space in the Edward Nye Fish House was currently home to a special exhibit. I like to do things that are uniquely Tucson, that celebrate its Western heritage, and the thought that I was missing that part of the museum's collection dismayed me. I was wondering if I'd made a mistake in my choice for an Artist's Date.

The answer was "no".  Bill Schenck is definitely a western artist. The exhibit is a display of serigraphs, or silk screenings, largely based on movie stills and photographs he took. This is a picture from a book I bought at the museum. I thought I'd gotten a picture of the one that really grabbed my attention, but apparently not. I'll try to do that later and update this page.

The one that made me stop and give these serigraphs a closer look was one of a cowgirl leaning on the grill of a Rolls Royce, cigarette dangling from her mouth and a champagne glass in her hand. This was a cowgirl with attitude.

The building impressed me as much as the art itself. The Fish House was built in 1878 and has the traditional foot-thick adobe walls used in that time period. The walls keep out the hot summer sun, while fireplaces built into the corners of many rooms in the house warmed it in winter. You could still see spots on the floor where hot embers had burned the wood. Overhead you could see the rough-hewn timbers holding up the roof. There were places where the walls bulged at the bottom, weighted down by the years. If I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the voices of the people who had lived in this house so many years ago.

I did a quick pass through the main building, but I've seen Chinese artifacts before, visited the Philebaum Gallery, and am not terribly into Mexican masks. The collections from Central and South America were more interesting. I discovered something I hadn't known before. Most museum exhibits of this culture show stone balls while talking about the ball courts that are almost universal in the Americas. I'd often wondered how they played games with stone balls. The answer, of course, was they didn't. The stone balls are funerary objects, buried with the dead so they can continue to play in the afterlife. The actual balls were made of latex rubber and didn't survive the years. Obvious when you know about it. Early explorers brought the latex rubber balls back to Europe, giving rise to a whole new series of games.

I didn't get to see all of the museum. The Corbett House wasn't open. I did take a few pictures out in the Plaza of the Pioneers. Being a Tucsonan now, the fountain was a big draw. We don't see much water here.

And the restful bench among the greenery was attractive, too. It was much too hot to really enjoy the outdoors (it reached 105 degrees during the afternoon), but it was a pleasant city oasis.

I'm not sure if my well was filled or not. I'll have to see if these images inform my writing this week. I do know that it was a very pleasant day at the museum.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: 61 Hours by Lee Child

Jack Reacher is an iconic character in the mystery/thriller genre. And Lee Child is a charming, warm human being. I saw him at a writers conference several years ago and was impressed that he was not only good-looking and intelligent, but friendly as well.

So I was disappointed when I read my first Jack Reacher novel. I don't even remember the title, but I wasn't impressed. Now, I'm a firm believer in different strokes for different folks and I don't always like popular and/or critically acclaimed authors. Elmore Leonard is one of those. I've tried several times to read one of his books and I just don't care for him. But, having had a somewhat personal connection with Lee Child (I think we exchanged five or six words outside the hotel), I was really hoping to like his writing.

Several years later, "61 Hours" was offered as a free nookbook. Since I had nothing to lose, I downloaded it to my nook and stuck it on my TBR (To Be Read) bookshelf. It's been there for several months and for some reason I decided to start reading it last week.

This is a case where offering an ebook as a freebie worked. Or will work. I was immediately drawn into the story, entranced by the setup, and fully intend to buy more of Lee Child's work in the future.

For those unfamiliar with this series, Jack Reacher is a former Army agent, skilled in all those special talents that turn mere mortals into superheroes. But he's damaged. He's constantly on the move, traveling the country, not owning so much as a spare change of underwear. He buys clothes, wears them for a few days, then throws them away. No laundry, no baggage, no address. Of course, he runs into situations where he must employ his special talents to solve a mystery or a crime.

In this novel, Jack has wangled a ride through snowy South Dakota on a tour bus. An oncoming car leads the bus driver to twitch and the bus slides off the icy road, damaged, in a snowstorm. Reacher and his fellow travelers, a group of senior citizens, are forced to wait out the storm in a small town while a new bus is sent to retrieve them.

There's something odd about this town. As a condition of having a lucrative prison complex built, supplying badly needed jobs and income from visitors and lawyers, the police department has agreed that in case of an emergency at the prison, ALL officers, including the Chief of Police, will abandon their stations and form a perimeter around the town.

The complication is that there's a band of bikers living at an abandoned military installation just outside of town. The townspeople fear the bikers and are looking for an excuse to kick them out, but they have no reason to. Until an elderly woman witnesses one of them selling a brick of meth in the parking lot outside a restaurant. She believes in doing the right thing and wants to testify in court to what she saw.

But the police know that her life is at risk. There's something going on at that military installation and the police are pretty sure it's a meth lab, but they can't just descend on the bikers without reasonable cause. The bikers certainly don't want the old lady to testify at the trial of one of them.

Jack has been put up at the home of the Assistant Chief of Police. The police figure out pretty quickly that he's not part of the tour group and, after doing some checking, decide they want to keep an eye on him and use his skills and connections to figure out what's going on at that abandoned military installation that no one seems to know the purpose of.

Things get more interesting when a lawyer is found in his car with a bullet through the middle of his forehead. Now they have concrete proof that there's someone out there who will kill to keep the case from coming to trial.

And even the Air Force seems to have forgotten the fact that they ever had a facility in South Dakota.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There was a point about sixty pages from the end where I was positive who the killer was. I'd briefly considered this person before, but there wasn't enough to be sure yet. I was afraid I was going to be disappointed again. Sixty pages is an awful lot for the hero not to figure out whodunnit when the clues are clear to the reader. But Lee Child wasn't done yet. The tension didn't let up and the ending was taught and powerful. And left a question hanging that makes me want to buy the next book RIGHT NOW.

----
I've decided that "Book Impression" sounds stupid, so I'm going back to calling these posts "Book Reviews." I don't care that they're non-standard. As far as I'm concerned, I'm reviewing books I've read.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ebook Pricing

I'm in love with my nook. When ereaders first appeared, I thought they would be the solution to the Not Enough Shelves problem. Every avid reader tends to collect more books than will fit on the bookshelves they own. You wind up putting two rows of paperbacks on a single shelf, then stacking books on top of the bookcases, then debating if you have room for another bookcase. Some readers I know have stacks of books on the floor.

I remember going to look at an early model Sony ereader years ago. It sounded wonderful to be able to have hundreds of books that would only take up the physical space of one. But the technology wasn't there yet. The screen wasn't easy on the eyes and I couldn't imagine giving up holding a physical book in my hands.

Then came along e-ink technology, which is used in the screens of both the nook and Kindle. Finally there was a screen that was easy to read at a price that was acceptable. When Barnes and Noble lowered the price on the nook, I bought one as soon as I was able to get to the store.

One of the reasons I chose the nook is the fact that it uses the standard ebook format, unlike the Kindle, which has its own proprietary format. I could read ebooks downloaded from the library, something that isn't supported on the Kindle. (Although there are ways to work around that.) I also didn't like the fact that not once, but twice Amazon had removed ebooks in a snit without warning to customers, both from its website and even from the Kindles themselves. I didn't like their high-handedness and the way they were trying to monopolize the ebook market.

When Apple decided to get into the ebook market with the iPad, I was happy. The more the merrier, I thought. More competition would mean better ebook pricing, more options. Except Apple also introduced the agency model of ebook pricing.

Before Apple got into the game, ebook sales were handled in the same way as regular book sales. The retailer, in this case Amazon and Barnes and Noble, would buy the books from the publisher and set the retail price. Because of competition, retail prices were low, with Amazon often taking a loss on an ebook in order to build sales and customer loyalty to the Kindle. Barnes and Noble would match the price.

In the agency model, the publisher sets the price and the retailer acts as an agency for the sale. They get to keep a percentage of the retail price, but have no control over how much an ebook will cost. I remember in the beginning lots of articles that proved that even though the publisher now controlled the retail price, they would be making less money than they would under the old model.

Publishers decided they knew a way to fix that. They'd just up the price of ebooks! So, where before the price of an ebook was often a bargain for the consumer, now there's absolutely no financial incentive to buy most ebooks.

Publishers somehow equate the ebook to the hardcover edition of a book. So, while the hardcover edition of James Franzen's "Freedom" has a suggested retail of $28.00 and is discounted by Amazon to $15.93, the Kindle edition of the same book is $12.99. The hardcover edition John Sanford's "Buried Prey" is $15.37 and the Kindle edition is $12.99. "Dreams of Joy" by Lisa See (this week's number one on the NYT hardcover list) is $13.97 in hardcover and $12.99 for the Kindle edition. "Dead Reckoning" by Charlaine Harris is $16.77 in hardcover, $7.99 in paperback, and $12.99 for Kindle.

You get the idea. While the maximum price for an ebook under the old system was somewhere around $9.99, $12.99 seems to have become the new standard. And the infuriating thing is that the price for the ebook doesn't seem to come down once the paperback comes out. I refuse to pay more for an ebook than a paperback! Especially since I can't loan the ebook to a friend (the LendMe feature is a joke - one time for 2 weeks to a fellow nook owner), donate it to the Friends of the Library to sell, or have the author sign it.

But someone must be paying the high prices. Otherwise the law of supply and demand would tend to make the prices come down. And I haven't seen that lately. Personally, I can't afford that. So I'll download the freebies (B&N has free book Fridays with one title offered for free), watch for the sales (you can get "Water for Elephants" on both Kindle and nook this week for around $4.00), and borrow regular books from the library or buy the paperback until the prices become reasonable.

Like I said, I love my nook. I love that I'm not killing more trees to feed my reading habit. But I'm not going to support the idea that an ebook should cost more than a paperback.