Book Review: Christmas on Nutcracker Court by Judy Duarte

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
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.

Book Review: The Lord is My Shepherd by Debbie Viguie

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
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.

Book Review: Skeleton Canyon by J.A. Jance

Wednesday, December 07, 2011
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.

NaNoWriMo Results

Sunday, December 04, 2011
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.

I don't usually write about writing on this blog. There are too many unpublished (prepublished/wannabe/amateur) writers blogging about their journey to publication. Our stories are pretty much all the same. We discover the same books, the same newbie mistakes that beginning writers have to learn to correct, the same articles online, the same blogs written by other writers, published and unpublished. The world doesn't need another one of those. However, I'm going to indulge myself a little this morning.

I've done a lot of thinking about the left brain/right brain schism we all have during the past month. If you don't know, the left brain is responsible for logical functions like math and the right brain is where most of our creativity comes from. They're two entirely different ways of thinking. That part I wrote about the characters taking over? Yeah, that's the right brain or, as artists like to refer to it, the muse, letting loose, being given free rein to play in the fields of fantasy.

I've made my living as a computer programmer for most of my life. Guess which side of the brain that comes from? Oh, there's some creative aspects to programming. There are the times when you come up with an out-of-the-box solution to a problem or when you're entranced by the elegance of code you write. But, for the most part, it's logically putting together a set of instructions that a series of logic gates can follow.

Writing fiction is primarily a right brain activity. Just as programming isn't all logic, writing isn't all muse. There are definite structures to stories, a pattern that people expect that, if it isn't followed, will leave a reader dissatisfied. We all know that feeling of getting to the end of a book and having too many loose ends that aren't tied up or having what has traditionally been referred to as a deus ex machina rescue the hero and save civilization. The muse, if left to herself (and mine is definitely feminine), will ramble all over the place, decide that aliens landing in a flying saucer to end nuclear war is a perfectly good way to resolve your story, and not care that you didn't tell the reader what happened to the orphan lost in the snowstorm at the end.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can feel which side of my brain is in control. I write morning pages, a journal of free associations, planning, rambling and miscellaneous thoughts while drinking my first cup of coffee. This practice comes from reading Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" many years ago. Overnight your right brain is most active, creating all those dreams with the weird stuff in them. Your right brain doesn't care that you can't actually fly; you'll do it in your dreams anyway. So, while the right brain is still more or less in control, it's a good time to brainstorm about characters and stories and plot ideas. That's when I believe I can write a time travel romance where aliens really are responsible for some of the plot.

As it gets closer to the time I have to get ready for work, my left brain kicks in, nagging me to stop writing about all this stuff and think about what I'm going to make for lunch, what I'm going to wear, what I need to do at my job that day. My left brain stays in control pretty much all day because of the nature of the job and the fact that you need to pay attention while driving and stuff.

And that's why it's so hard for me to get back to writing in the evening. It's hard to shut down the left brain and let the right brain out to play when you're tired and wound up from a day at work. And, if I do make that effort, my muse is rather sulky and liable to toss me ideas I can't use, words that make no sense, diversions that will only need to be cut from the final manuscript.

For most NaNo participants, the drivel is fine. If you read the forum boards, suggestions for making the day's word count include plot bunnies and random challenges to work a frog and a robot into your plot and other insane ideas. The main concept behind NaNo is to silence your inner editor, a.k.a. the left side of your brain, and let your muse write a novel. The first two years I participated, I really needed to do this. It worked wonderfully for me.

But I've gotten past that blockage and now want to write "real" novels, not just make sure I write 1667 words every day during November. And it's too difficult for me to switch to right brain mode after being in left brain mode all day and write a lot. According to my tracking spreadsheet, I averaged 880 words per day. But it was more variable than that number would imply. If I wrote more than 1,000 words one day, I'd probably write only 600 words the next day. If I wrote 2,000 on another day, there was a good chance I wouldn't write anything the next day.

And that's okay. Sometimes. Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, which are huge fantasy books, told me at a signing that she writes slow. Her books come out years apart. George R.R. Martin, of "A Game of Thrones" fame, also takes years to write a single book. This seems to be acceptable in the fantasy world.

However, in the world of cozy mysteries, publishers expect a book a year from a series. The belief is that if you can't write a book a year, your readers will forget you and start buying someone else's books. And people like Dean Wesley Smith, who advocate self (or indie) publishing, insist that the secret to success in that world is having lots of books available for readers to buy. And Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown that, for indie published authors, series are the way to go. Readers love series. After they finish one book, they want another one to tell them what happens next in the lives of those characters.

Which is why I decided to write a sequel to my first Community of Faith mystery during NaNo this year rather than that time travel romance with the aliens. Not that I don't want to write that time travel romance with aliens. I really do. But I made a choice because I want to build a career as a writer and, much as my muse hates to hear it, there are business decisions to be made in that case. One of which I'll have to make early next year. But that's the topic for another blog.

A Walk Along the Wash

Tuesday, November 22, 2011
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.

Cooking the Wild Southwest

Sunday, November 13, 2011
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.

In case you're thinking that I live out in the wilds of Arizona, let me remind you that I'm inside Tucson city limits in a typical Southwestern subdivision. It's just that typical in Tucson isn't quite like typical in Boston or New York. The line of cars managed to pass by the steer with damage to neither steer nor cars and I proceeded on my journey to Tohono Chul Park.

I'm always interested in local foods. There's nothing more disappointing to me than going to a new place and eating at McDonald's or some other chain restaurant. I'd much prefer to sample some of the local fare. Even better is cooking them yourself. Since I didn't grow up in Tucson, I didn't learn how to use mesquite flour or prickly pear pads from my mother, which is why I eagerly signed up for a class given by Carolyn Niethammer. She's just released a new cookbook and I wanted to see her prepare these strange foods. I also wanted to know where I could buy them since I don't have time for gardening.

She started right off with the pad from a prickly pear cactus, illustrating how to remove the spines and nubs with a serrated knife before trimming the edges and stem. Then she diced them up. Apparently you can buy them already cleaned and diced from one of the markets here, but you have to use them within a day or they go bad. These are brought up from Mexico because they have a slightly different variety there and have perfected a technique to get them to sprout new pads. You can harvest pads from the prickly pear in Tucson in the spring, when they're new and fresh, but later in the year they become tough and fibrous.

While she was sauteing the diced cactus, she also passed around a plate with the raw plant and suggested that we taste it. I was surprised at the flavor. In addition to the usual "green vegetable" taste, there was a tartness that reminded me of lemon. It was actually quite good raw.

When the nopalitos were cooked to a dark olive green, she added them to a French green lentil salad. This also had peppers, onions, carrots, and herbs and was topped with a hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar dressing and feta cheese. It was delicious!

Another dish she made was tepary-basil appetizer. Tepary is a kind of bean and you can use it like most dried beans. You can also grow your own easily in the summer. The tepary plant is adapted to the monsoon season. If you plant before the monsoon season starts, it flowers with the rain and produces beans before the weather turns dry again. The dried beans have to be soaked and cooked for a long time. She had done that before the class. She showed us how she put the cooked beans and fresh basil in a food processor with seasonings. The paste was spread on crisp bread rounds, then topped with either a sun-dried tomato or olive tapenade. The red and green toppings made this a festive looking appetizer for Christmas.

She made some meatballs with a sauce based on prickly pear fruit syrup and brought some holiday bars made with mesquite meal. There was also a salad with a prickly pear dressing. After the demonstration was over, we each filled a paper plate with the different foods to sample.

An interesting fact is that at least two of these native foods are good for keeping blood sugar under control and combating non-insulin dependent diabetes. I'd heard that about mesquite flour, but it's also true of the prickly pear pads. I believe I mentioned this when I went to the saguarro harvest at Colossal Cave Mountain Park earlier this year. It's more reinforcement for eating natural, native foods.

If you want to see what some of these dishes look like, here's the promotional video for the book.

Book Review: Superior Longing by Patricia Deuson

Wednesday, November 02, 2011
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.

Zombie Apocalypse

Sunday, October 30, 2011
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.

Last night, after watching the PBR World Finals from Las Vegas (Hey! It's research. My novel takes place on a dude ranch, so I have to study cowboys, right?), I was scrolling through the channel guide and found that SyFy was just starting to show a movie called (you guessed it) "Zombie Apocalypse". This was just too serendipitous to pass up.

It didn't take me long to think "Roger Corman". Roger Corman is the king of sci fi/horror B movies. He started directing and producing these low-budget films in the 50s and 60s and, amazingly enough, continues even today, producing three films in 2010. These films have such classic titles as "Monster from the Ocean Floor", "Swamp Women", "Attack of the Crab Monsters", and, of course, "The Undead".

"Zombie Apocalypse" continues this fine tradition. The plot is minimal. A plague has turned most of the population into zombies and a small band of heroes is trying to reach a sanctuary on Catalina Island, fighting off zombies all along the way. The zombies are laughable, walking stiff-legged with shoulders angled, faces scarred and smeared with blood. Their heads burst in fine special effects sprays of blood when smashed with a bat. I'm sure many unemployed actors were glad for the chance to earn a week's rent by staggering around the set of this made-for-TV movie.

This morning I started thinking about how this same story has been done in so very many different ways. That's another consequence of NaNo. I've been reading "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder and following Alexandra Sokoloff's blog on plotting like a screenwriter to guide me in working out the plot for my NaNo novel. Both Blake Snyder and Alex Sokoloff discuss the basic plots and name movies the exemplify them. They suggest watching these movies to see the standard structure of a screenplay. So you could also say that watching "Zombie Apocalypse" was research.

But back to how this particular plot has been done before. I tend to think of this plot as The End of the World. Maybe it's because I grew up during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war seemed imminent for years, but this plot appeals to me. The world is ending, but it's possible for some humans to survive with will and pluck.

Most recently, "I Am Legend" did this same basic plot, but in a much more artistic and serious way. In this variant, Will Smith played a government researcher who was one of the few survivors. He was trying to find the cure for the plague that had turned most of the human race into monsters.

Then I thought of "Red Dawn". Although there are no plague-ridden monsters in this film, we do have a small group of survivors battling the evil humans. In this case, it's the Communists. I suppose you could look at it as philosophy as plague. The high school students are trying to survive after an invasion. Eventually they, too, begin a trek to find the safe haven where the forces of good have based themselves to try to defeat the forces of evil.

Now, all of the above movies take place on Earth, but "Serenity", the feature film Joss Whedon made to wrap up the threads of the television series "Firefly", is the same story told in a future era where man has colonized another solar system. Instead of Zombies or Communists, we have Reavers. And, as the master of "the same but different", Joss Whedon has his characters not running away to a sanctuary, but running toward the source of the evil.

There are arguments on how many basic plots there are, but whether you think there are seven or twenty or thirty-six, the truth is that there are a limited number. However, there appear to be an infinite number of stories that can be told using them. Here's to all the WriMos creating those stories this month.

Preparing for NaNo

Sunday, October 23, 2011
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.

Book Review: Sentenced to Death by Lorna Barrett

Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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.

Fall Gardening

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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.

Then I showered, dressed, and headed off to Tohono Chul Park's semiannual plant sale. Now, this is a pretty good trek from where I live. It takes almost an hour to get there. But I'm a member, which means I get a discount, and I like to support the park. I was also hoping I'd be able to find the exact same plant that I had. The HOA has a rule about replacing any plants that die with the exact same plant that was there before. I think the intent is to make sure you use desert friendly plants instead of those that take a lot of water, but it doesn't say that.

This hasn't turned out to be all that easy. First of all, I didn't know the name of the bush that was planted at the entrance to my house. I'd made an attempt to find out in the spring with a trip to Civano Nursery, which is no more than a mile from where I live, but a nice lady and I spent a good amount of time walking around trying to match my memory of the plant without success.  I found a picture of it and sent it off to my friend the horticulture major, whose husband is employed maintaining the parks in a nearby municipality. The decided that it must be broom or sweet broom. I did some Googling and that didn't look right to me, but I hoped I could find it at the plant sale.

There were lots of plants to choose from. I wandered around for a while, but found nothing labeled "broom." I found a docent and asked if they had any. He was horrified. He said broom was invasive and I didn't want that growing on my property.

Hmmmm... well, I'd already come to the conclusion that I'd probably have to find a substitute shrub for in front of the door. I had a couple of requirements: it should be about the same size and more cold-hardy than whatever had been planted before.

 So I walked around some more. Eventually I found something that seemed to meet my requirements. It even has small white flowers like the previous bush. It's also supposed to have small, edible, red berries in the fall that the birds like.

I came home from church today and immediately got out my shovel to put it in the ground:
Western Sandcherry

 I'm looking forward to watching it grow.

I Should Be a Horror Writer

Sunday, October 09, 2011
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.

A few weeks back, I heard a series of explosions in the middle of the night. There were two at around 11:00 PM, one at midnight, and another at about 1:00 AM. Just as I'd start to relax, there'd be another one. Each time I got up, walked around the house waiting for another bang so I could pinpoint where it was coming from, but nothing happened. Until I sat back down in front of the TV and relaxed for a while. I went outside to see if my neighbors had noticed it. All the houses were dark. I was the only one prowling the yard, shining a flashlight up on the roof to see if anything had fallen on it.

After the midnight explosion, I went to the garage and got the ladder so I could see up in the attic. All I could think of was that there was gas accumulating in the furnace until it reached the explosive point. I mean, the whole house shook on the first explosion, so it must have been close, right? Since there are no basements in Arizona, furnaces are in the attic or the garage. Mine hangs from the roof beams. I couldn't smell anything or see anything, but I also couldn't get up into the attic. I only have a ladder tall enough to reach the vent to change the air filter and I am too short to boost myself up through the hatch in the ceiling.

At 1:00 AM, knowing I would never get to sleep, I woke up a couple I know from church and asked if the husband could come over and check out the attic for me. He did. No gas. No critters. He did the same examination outside my house that I'd done with the flashlight and couldn't find anything wrong. Eventually, he left.

Two days later, there was a story in the paper about the explosions. It seems that there were some leaking containers from Raytheon that needed to be detonated immediately, so they were taken to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and set off there. In the middle of the night. Exactly at the times I had heard them. Lots of people had called the police about the explosions, recognizing that they were occurring somewhere not inside their own homes.

 This happened to be the night after there was a total lockdown on the base all afternoon, supposedly because there was a mysterious gunman. There was no access for hours, even to the point of not letting the school children leave. Afterwards, they said there had been no gunman.

So I start playing my "what if?" game and thinking that the gunman story was a cover and that the real problem had been that some top secret weapon had gotten out of control. They had kept the base closed so no one would see what was really going on. And they detonated whatever it was in the middle of the night for the same reason. I stopped before I got to the scenario that they really hadn't gotten it under control and it was still a threat to detonate in the middle of some other night and blow up the neighborhood. Barely.

Then I found a small snake, tiny really, in a glue trap the exterminator had put near the garage door. Immediately the phrase "nest of vipers" came to mind. I had to mentally beat down the image of a bunch of writhing snakes living in my yard before I started obsessing about it.

And now I find I have ground squirrels out of control. Now, I've been of the live and let live opinion regarding these creatures for the past couple of years. I'd noticed a couple of holes but, as long as they didn't come in the house, I was willing to let them stay.

Only they got greedy this summer. While it was too hot for me to work in the yard, they apparently decided to invite a bunch of their buddies over. They started eating the flowers off one of my plants every time a new crop of blossoms bloomed. They've dug a pretty good-sized hole next to the slab at one corner of the house. It was time to take action.

So what do I do? What anyone in the 21st century does. I Googled "ground squirrels." This is when I learned that they aren't as benign as I thought they were. Not only are they rodents that carry disease, they can undermine your foundation with their tunnels.

So now I've got this image in my head of a maze of tunnels weakening the structure of my house. Some day the weight of the house is going to be too much and it will collapse into a big sink hole. I'll climb out of the rubble and stand there shaking my head, wondering how such little animals could do such damage.

Of course, this isn't going to happen. I've got some bait traps and the recommended poison that I'm going to put out later this afternoon so when they come out for their nocturnal feeding they'll find a deadly feast. So now I'll get to fantasize about dozens, maybe hundreds, of dead squirrels rotting under the ground. Don't go there!

It's at times like this that I understand how Stephen King comes up with his story ideas. While I quash my fantasies as quickly as possible so I won't have a stroke, he just goes with them. It also explains why Poe was an alcoholic. And I never want to know what it feels like to be H.P. Lovecraft. I'll just stick with my nice, cozy mysteries thank you.

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

Wednesday, October 05, 2011
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.

I confirmed that my being overwhelmed by the number of characters wasn't exactly my fault. At the back of the book there is a list of all the major characters and their affiliated minor characters. This goes on for pages. And pages. This saga employs a cast of hundreds, if not thousands.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written. Quite the contrary. There are places where the words are stunning. I wondered how Martin comes up with some of the vivid descriptions he uses. And there are some characters I'm thoroughly invested in: Jon Snow, Danys, Tyrion, Arya. I really do care what happens to them.

I think you need more than an hour during lunch to read this series in the way it should be read. They're the kind of books you should sit down with in the morning and keep reading until you turn off the light at night. Unfortunately, I no longer have days like that in my life.

I also found myself comparing A Clash of Kings to books in the other epic series I enjoy reading, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. I realized that there's a distinct difference between the two. While each book in the Outlander series stands as a complete story by itself, you're always acutely aware that you're only reading an installment of a continuing story when you read A Song of Ice and Fire. It's really one mammoth book in separate volumes. Going in you know that the story won't be over with when you finish the book. It reminds me of my experience with Dan Simmons' Hyperion.

I probably won't read another in this series for a while. Yes, I am invested in some of the characters, I would like to know what happens in the rest of the storyline, and Martin writes some incredible scenes. But I find the length and amount of detail too much work to get through to find that one bang-up scene that makes reading the book worthwhile. At least, for now. Perhaps if I had a two week vacation and could read a book straight through, I'd start the next one.

Loving My Mac

Sunday, October 02, 2011
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.
My biggest stumbling block was my inner editor.  I suffer from PERFECT. I expect that what I write--the first time I write it--will read like Hemingway or Dennis Lehane or Agatha Christie. That's nonsense, of course. Even Agatha Christie's writing didn't read like Agatha Christie the first time she wrote it. My expectation of perfection crippled my ability to write anything.

That's when I discovered NaNoWriMo. In case you've never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide effort by thousands of people who have always wanted to write a novel "someday" to actually write a novel. It's not a long novel--only 50,000 words--but the catch is that you have to write all of it during the month of November. The whole point of NaNo is quantity, not quality. If you are going to meet the daily quota of 1667 words, you haven't got time to fiddle around with each sentence or paragraph or chapter and make it just so. You have to write. Fast. You can't delete anything or you'll fall behind. You're encouraged to write nonsense, silly sentences, unlikely scenes, all with the goal of "winning" by finishing your 50,000 word novel in thirty days.

NaNoWriMo was a godsend for me. I learned to turn off the inner editor and just keep writing. I've done it five of the last seven years, winning four times. That means I've completed four "novels" for NaNoWriMo in addition to two novels of traditional length. I sometimes think my NaNo novels are better than my "real" novels.

On the NaNo forum boards, which, of course you go to when you're trying to avoid actually writing or as a reward for completing your word count for the day, there's a section for writing tools. People talk about what they're writing their novel on. It's amazing the variety of devices and programs people use. This is where I learned about the Alphasmart (now rebranded Neo), a handy portable device that, at the time, was much cheaper than a laptop, lighter, and perfect for just writing text. Being the nerd that I am, I opted for the sister Dana, which runs the Palm OS and could use applications developed for the Palm Pilot.

The other tool I learned about was Scrivener. People raved about this writing software. It sounded perfect for writing novels. But it only ran on a Mac and I, being the business application programmer that I was, had a Windows XP machine. (They now have a Windows version, still in beta, but didn't then.) So I did my planning on paper and wrote in Word and tracked my word count in Excel for several years.

Then two years ago (remember how I started this?), when I found a job a lot quicker than I'd expected to and still had severance pay in my bank account, I made a decision. I wanted to use Scrivener. In my mind I was transitioning from a career as a programmer to a career as a writer, an artiste, if you will. So I bought a MacBook Pro. Macs are cool. Macs are fun. But they're not Windows PCs. You have to relearn habits built over years. And I bought it right before NaNo started.

It didn't take too long for me to find how I needed to do the minimum on my Mac in order to use it for the things I commonly use a computer for. I switched from Outlook to Mail without too much effort. I downloaded Firefox so the browser was familiar. I'd tried Open Office on the PC previously because I knew in my heart the change to a Mac was coming, so I immediately downloaded OO for the Mac. The functionality there was a little different because it used Mac conventions, not Windows, and it was frustrating in that most of the instructions and messages on the OO forums talked about the Windows and Linux versions, not the Mac version. But I could use the word processor for most things. And I downloaded Scrivener.

Okay, there was a whole lot of learning curve involved in all of this. New computer, new software and NaNo coming. There was too much to Scrivener, a genuine Mac application, to learn it before NaNo. I wrote that year's NaNo novel in Open Office, which was enough to deal with. And I fumbled along with using the Mac as best I could.

This month, two different things happened. The Guppies decided to form a Scrivener subgroup to share tips and ask questions about how to use this software. With the Windows version being tried by a number of people and many of us Mac people not using the program to the extent we knew it could be used, we figured a group of us discussing it was a good idea. That got me interested in looking for functionality and actually (gasp!) reading the manual.

Now, in my real geek days, I would have taken the manual to bed with me. I thought IBM technical manuals were terrific bedtime reading. And, no, they didn't put me to sleep. But I wasn't about to take my MacBook to bed with me and the only manual that comes with Scrivener is a pdf that you read on the computer. Even the suggested third party books are ebooks. Now, I love my nook, but I prefer to read non-fiction in paper. I need to be able to flip pages and stick my fingers in three different places to figure manuals out. You just don't have that kind of functionality in an ebook.

As long as I was into manuals, I decided it was time to get one for the Mac. One of the paper kind where I could highlight and stick my fingers in the pages (see above) and have it open beside me as I sat at my computer. I'd read in a set of blog comments that "Switching to the Mac the Missing Manual" was a pretty good resource, so I ordered it from Barnes and Noble. Yesterday I started reading it.

Oh. My. Word.

I'm only on page 20, but already I am loving it--and my Mac. I have learned so much in those first pages. What I suddenly realized is that I have been using my MacBook and always thinking in terms of what I wanted to do on a Windows machine, then figuring out how to do it the Mac way. I haven't learned to "think Mac" or, as the ads used to say, "Think Different."

It's kind of like when you take a foreign language in school and have to answer the teacher's questions in that language in class. You think of the answer in English first, then translate it in your head into the equivalent in the foreign language. I took four years of French before I started to formulate those answers in my head in French rather than English.

The Missing Manual has opened up a whole new feeling about my Mac. I realize now why so many artists and writers are in love with the Mac. While a computer and technically a left-brain object, the whole way it works is much more right-brain. It's not all logic and formulas. It's movement. It's freeing. I can't believe it took me two years to get to this point. I wish I had found this book earlier, but at least I found it now. I'm going to have a lot more fun on my computer than I have in a long time.

Is Faith the Same as Church?

Sunday, September 25, 2011
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.

Book Review: My Blood Approves by Amanda Hocking

Wednesday, September 21, 2011
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!

And the Rains Came

Saturday, September 17, 2011
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.

Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Wednesday, September 14, 2011
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.

September 11th

Saturday, September 10, 2011

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.


Number One on My Bucket List

Monday, September 05, 2011
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?

Book Review: Murder on the Rocks by Karen MacInerney

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
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.

Doing What You Love

Saturday, August 27, 2011
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.

Book Review: Choke by Kaye George

Tuesday, August 23, 2011
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.
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A Clash of Kings
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