What I Read in July, 2020

Friday, July 31, 2020
Bookshelves with Books

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe
Robert Goldsborough

I think this book came up in my Amazon recommendations, and since I love classic mysteries, I knew I wanted to read this one. But, since the price was slightly above my usual maximum spend for an ebook, I borrowed it from the library instead.

This is a prequel to the original mysteries written by Rex Stout, but it’s written in the same style. I enjoyed this origin story and learning how Archie Goodwin worked with Nero Wolfe for the first time. Wolfe’s particular habits are on full display here: his long sessions with his orchids, two bottles of beer while he talks with people, his refusal to leave his home, instead relying on a crew of private detectives to do his investigating for him. In the end, of course, it is his intellect that puts the pieces together and solves the case.

This time, it’s a kidnapping. The son of wealthy parents who have an estate on Long Island is taken during a brief moment when his governess is called to the telephone for an urgent call. There are a couple of murders, but those are incidental to the real crime.

I notice most reviewers thought this book was missing something, but I read the originals too long ago to make comparisons to the characters in those books. All in all, I found it enjoyable.

Relative Fortunes
Marlowe Benn

I would give this book three-and-a-half stars if I could.

Julia Kydd, a society girl who’s threatened with losing her income when her half brother, Philip, has their lawyers reinterpret their father’s intention in his original will, wagers him that she can not only prove that Naomi Rankin was murdered, but she can find out whodunit.

In 1924, while the Nineteenth Amendment has been ratified, women are still fighting for equality. Naomi, sister to Julia’s best friend Glennis, is a leader in the women’s movement. She’s severely punished for that. While her family is wealthy, Naomi lives in abject poverty in the basement of the family home with her friend Alice. Men still control the purse strings, and women often live on the beneficence, if you can call it that, of their male relatives. Their other option is to marry and be supported by a husband whom they may or may not love.

Sexual liaisons are rampant, even among those who are married, and faithfulness doesn’t seem to be a virtue. I’m not sure whether this is a true representation of the times or exaggerated in this novel for the sake of the plot.

Speaking of which, the author has certainly done her research as far as vocabulary contemporaneous with her story. Unfortunately, this means that many terms are so obscure, they didn’t appear in my Kindle’s dictionary, which was annoying.

Unlike other reviewers, I didn’t find the beginning of the novel slow going. In fact, I enjoyed getting to know the characters and the time, as well as the romantic dilemmas Julia and Glennis face. I suppose this means there’s not much mystery going on here, but I still found the read enjoyable.

No, my issue was with the latter part of the book. In my opinion, there was at least one, and perhaps two, too many twists. Yes, I know it’s traditional to do this with a killer revealed who’s not the real killer, but not always, and certainly not more than once. There’s also a reversal and a couple of back-tracks. It’s hard to describe that better without giving away too much of the resolution for the plot and various subplots, but at least in one instance, a character does an about face, and Julia doesn’t have any problem with that, which I definitely would.

Anyway, an interesting read, but I probably won’t be reading the second book in this series.

Stephen King

This is one of those books I’ve wanted to read for a while, but the cost of the Kindle version and the long waitlist at the library kept putting me off. Recently, the waitlist got a lot shorter, so I reserved the book and finished it this month.

The hero, Jake Eppington, learns of a time-travel portal from Al, the owner of a diner. Every time you enter it, you’re taken to a specific day in 1958. No matter how long you stay in the past, when you return to the present, only two minutes have passed. And every time you go back, history is reset to what it was.

Al is convinced that if the assassination of John F. Kennedy can be prevented, all kinds of other horrible things can be averted, such as the Viet Nam war. Al has tried to do this himself, but after several trips, he’s too old (having aged in the past) and at the point the novel opens, dying of cancer. So he persuades Jake that it’s up to him to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK.

It takes a couple of trips of his own and a lot of persuading by Al, but finally Jake accepts the mission. If you do basic math, there are five years between the time Jake goes back and the day on which Oswald kills the president, leaving plenty of time for Jake to have other adventures leading up to the big day.

While he’s back there, Jake decides he needs to right other wrongs. He also finds the love of his life, Sadie, the school librarian in the high school where he gets a teaching job. He also learns two important things: the past doesn’t want to change, and what changes Jake makes have unintended consequences.

There was one part toward the beginning which was a little slow, but I persevered through that and was swept up in the story by the writing as only Stephen King can do it. From about half-way, it was hard to put the book down.

I’m not sure this story could have had an ending that would please everyone, but I do know that I wasn’t totally happy with the one Stephen King chose. I won’t say anything more because I don’t like spoilers, but this book is definitely worth your time to read.


Earrings and Memories

Saturday, July 18, 2020
I got my ears pierced before I went off to college. Back then, if you bought a pair of earrings at a jewelry store, you could get your ears pierced for free. They had a nurse come in once a week to do that, and she’d put your brand new earrings in the holes she made.

I tend to collect earrings from places I go, both because I like them and because they provide a reminder of different times in my life. When in doubt as to what to buy me for Christmas, earrings are always a good choice. I rarely wear any other kind of jewelry, so I make up for that with a variety of earrings.

Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse Earrings
Back in the 1980s, I was in a miserable marriage. My husband and I fought all the time, and even when we weren’t shouting at one another, there was always tension in the air. So when we finally got a divorce, I knew I wanted to do something special for my son to make up for some of that.

I took him to DisneyWorld. It was one of the best trips I’ve even been on and just what both of us needed. The minute we stepped inside the Magic Kingdom, all the worry and stress of the past few years slid away.

I don’t wear these earrings often, but I look at them almost daily and smile at the memory of that trip.


Seagull Earrings Purple Clamshell
Several years later, I started dating a Polish man I met online. He lived in Massachusetts while I lived in New York, but he drove down to see me almost every weekend. When he learned there was an annual Polish Festival in Riverhead, he insisted we go.

We enjoyed the music and dancing and the food. There were also vendor booths, which is where I found these earrings made out of clam shells. What could be more perfect than seagulls made out of clamshells?

Maple Leaf

Maple Leaf Earrings
The two of us stayed together for a lot of years. At one time we thought we might get married, but there were too many reasons for me not to and not enough to go ahead. But one summer, we took a bus tour of the Canadian Maritimes with a bunch of senior citizens. In our fifties, we were probably the youngest of the group, but it was nice to have someone else do the driving and planning and all we had to do was keep up with the guide.

One of my vivid memories was of driving through the blueberry fields. I knew about Maine blueberries, but didn’t realize Canada also raises a lot of them. And the lobster dinner. This was funny. Both Ted and I were from the east coast of the United States, so we’d had lobster dinners most of our lives. But many of the tourists were from the middle of the country, and the guide had to give a lesson on how to eat a lobster.

But best of all was going to Prince Edward Island and being immersed in the world of Anne of Green Gables. This was another fairy tale experience because we were seeing up close what I’d only read about or seen movies of before.

Fused Glass

Glass earrings green and purple
Seeing these earrings is now a bittersweet experience for me. Right around the time I moved to Tucson, my writer friend Sheila Connolly got a contract with Berkely Prime Crime to write what’s called a work-for-hire series about a glassblower amateur sleuth in Tucson.

Work-for-hire means the publisher comes up with the concept for the series, the main characters, location, pets, hobbies, etc. and generally the plot for the first book. They also decide on the name that will appear on the cover of the book. Then they hire an author to write this series. They usually get a flat fee for each book, meaning no royalties for each sale. It’s a good way for an author to break into getting published. And as you might know, Sheila went on to have a fabulously successful career as the author of several mystery series.

Anyway, since Sheila had never been to Arizona, it was convenient having me here who, while I didn’t know a whole lot myself about Tucson, had plenty of people I could ask questions of for her. In the second year of writing this series, she came out for a visit so she could see Tucson herself.

Since the series was about a glassblower, we visited the Philabaum Glass Studios as “research.” We walked through the gallery, then spent some time watching the glassblowers at work through a window partition. And then we each bought things. Of course, I had to choose a pair of earrings.

Oh—and they’re a bittersweet reminder for me now because Sheila passed away this year. I was privileged to know her.

Silver Spoons

earring made of silver spoon handles
As I’ve been working on the Shipwreck Point Mysteries, I’ve become engaged in the Victorian Age. Reading about what people wore and how they acted and what they did for enjoyment has been an interesting experience. Due to the popularity of romances set in this time period, you can find all kinds of clothing and things available for purchase. I seriously considered buying a Victorian dress to wear at the Tucson Festival of Books, which I didn’t because I was afraid it would be too hot to wear all day in Tucson.

But I also ran across this pair of earrings on Etsy and thought they would be perfect. When the Tucson Festival of Books was canceled, I put them on my Christmas list and received them as a present from my grandson.

Anyway, there you have a small selection of the earrings I own. I hope you found this post interesting. Or at least different.

The Joys of an Indie Author

Saturday, July 11, 2020
As I recently worked through my to-do list with its various tasks, which sometimes seem overwhelming, I realized I also like have so many different kinds of things to do. Twenty years ago, when I started writing again, I imagined my career as an author as being very different than what it’s turned out to be.

Back then, there was only one way to get published, the traditional way. Authors wrote stories to the best of their ability, then tried to find an agent to sell them to a publisher. You submitted query letters, sometimes with the first three chapters, via the U.S. Mail. And then you waited.

If you were lucky, one of those agents would ask for a “partial,” that first three chapters, and sometimes a “full,” the entire novel, after that. The process took months, if not years. If the agent agreed to represent you, she (or he, but most agents in my experience were women) then approached various publishers they worked with regarding publication.

There might be an interim step where the agent requested some changes to your manuscript. They’d often tell you where the story dragged or suggest a scene that needed adding or cutting. The writer would eagerly make those changes and send the revised manuscript back.

And then the fabulous day would come when a publisher accepted your story for publication. After additional revisions and editing, your book went off into the machine of the publishing company to get a cover, a description, and the interior layout designed. The author had no say about any of this. The next they knew of the book was when a limited number of copies arrived on their doorstep.

Because an indie author is their own publisher, they do all the work the traditional publisher did in the past. Some of this they’ll hire other people to do. They’ll hire an editor to make their story stronger and/or improve their sentences and a proofreader to catch typos and misspellings. They write their own book descriptions, spending hours learning copywriting so they’re strong selling tools. They’ll buy a pre-made cover or contract with a cover designer to do a custom cover. Most authors can do the interior layout, or formatting, themselves now, although you can hire someone to do that, too.

I’ve found that I like doing most of these tasks myself.

There’s something about taking a raw story through all the steps to publication that I find very rewarding. Each part of the process makes the book more mine.

I do have what are called beta readers, who read my novels with an eye toward what is confusing, where the story gets boring, and inconsistencies like changing the name of a character halfway through the book, and I often hire a cover designer. But I do my own copyediting, formatting, and even, sometimes, cover designs. Maybe I’m weird, but I even like proofreading my books by reading them out loud.

After wrestling with Scrivener’s formatting function—called a compile—for months on end, now that I understand it and have a basic format I can copy and modify fairly easily. I love picking out fleurons, or scene separators, to suit the type of book, and playing with different decorations for the chapter headings. For the print book, I usually use the font that’s on the cover for page headers and footers, but sometimes I change those up as well.

Covers are the most challenge, but in their own way the most fun. My graphics and design skills are not the strongest. I’m not expert in any of the photo manipulation programs by any means, and it takes me a long time to figure out how to do what I want in Gimp (a free program) or Affinity Photo (a relatively inexpensive, but slick one). Choosing an appropriate font or font combination and arranging the words of the title and my name and whatever else goes on a cover in the appropriate size and colors (called typography), is an entire skill in and of itself. That’s why I generally hire a cover designer.

With any luck, you and the designer “click” in your vision for a cover and a process for creating new ones. Sometimes the combination doesn’t quite gel. That happened recently, and it’s plunged me into an attempt to do my own cover for The Case of the Comely Clairvoyant. In the end, I might hire a cover designer to do that one as well, but I’m kind of enjoying the process of putting pictures and shapes and colors and typography together myself. Even if it’s taking me f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

I suppose what brought this enjoyment to mind lately was reading Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn. This is a historical mystery set in the 1920s in New York. The amateur sleuth is Julia Kydd, who runs a small boutique press that prints slim volumes with carefully chosen endpapers and covers and typesetting. There are several passages where the heroine talks about her love for doing this. It’s not about the content to her—apparently, the trend then was to choose something out of copyright or by an obscure author, but about the making of beautiful books. And I kind of feel that way about my own books. Putting the whole package together, including the prose, is something I love doing.


United We Stand

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Happy Fourth of July, America!

It was a very strange Fourth this year, with few public celebrations of our nation’s founding. Here in Tucson, the traditional fireworks show on A Mountain was canceled not only because of the coronavirus, but because of the fear of fire. A thousand firefighters spent the month of June battling the Bighorn Fire in the Catalina Mountains just north of the city. It’s still not totally contained, nor totally extinguished, so the thought of starting another fire is frightening.

But I don’t want to talk about the fire. I’ve done enough of that on Facebook.

No, I want to talk about being proud to be an American, of supporting our nation’s traditional values, and to condemn those who attack them, and by extension, attack all of us.

This has fallen out of favor in recent times. Too many people want to focus on the bad things about our nation and its history. They want to erase significant people, cultural icons, and events and replace them with a political narrative fabricated (yes, I said that) to suit themselves. The hate in our nation, and indeed the world, has become a fire threatening to eradicate all that is good and true about us.

The spark that started this was the murder of George Floyd at the hands of some bad cops. The act was universally denounced as horrendous, and the police involved were removed from the force. You would think that we would have all come together in this situation and vowed to do better in the future.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, rioters joined the throngs of protesters and let loose a surge of lawlessness whose like we haven’t seen in decades. Worse, rather than condemning the violence and the threat to public safety, too many government officials praised the rioters and ordered the police not to interfere.

Needless to say, this demoralized the police everywhere. Those who had always had our backs found that no one had theirs. This was compounded by the movement to defund the police and use the money for social services and “marginalized” communities, as CNN calls them.

In what universe does this make sense?

I’m not disagreeing with trying to work on many of the problems at the source, but eliminating law enforcement seems to leave most people with two choices: barricading themselves in their homes or arming themselves for personal protection. Maybe both. It would be abandoning our streets, parks, and public places to lawlessness.

It is the first responsibility of government in a democratic society to protect and safeguard the lives of its citizens.

This statement, in various forms, goes back to English Common Law, and has been reiterated many times over the centuries. (If you’re the studious type, check out this document from Duke University: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3172&context=dlj )

If we abandon this principle, we are abandoning the very reason government exists. Unless you’re an anarchist, this isn’t something you want to happen.

What I keep trying to figure out is why this reaction at this time? Every other time in our past, when faced with adversity, Americans have banded together to conquer it. This was true during both World Wars. It happens every time a community is destroyed by a tornado or flooding or other natural disaster. Not that we haven’t had disagreements, mind you. But perhaps 9/11 happened too long ago for it to seem real for many people.

I will never forget that day. Radical Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial flights and flew three of them into buildings that symbolized the strength of America: the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rumor has it that the fourth was targeted for the White House, but by that time passengers on that plane had learned what was happening and fought back, forcing the fourth plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field. They gave their lives to stand for our nation.

And what happened afterwards was no less heartening. People came together to aid the victims, others joined the military with a vow to make those who had done this horrible act pay, people hung flags everywhere: on flagpoles, buildings, and even car windows. It didn’t matter what your race or creed was. We were all Americans. We were all in this together.

Make no mistake, we are now under attack by a less tangible, but no less dangerous enemy. I’m not going to go into a long conspiracy theory rant—although I could (see this for a recent article: https://news.sky.com/story/former-head-of-mi6-says-theory-coronavirus-was-made-in-wuhan-lab-must-not-be-dismissed-as-conspiracy-12021693), and sometimes a conspiracy is the simplest way to explain the facts—but I don’t believe the pandemic was an accident. Certainly, the world’s reaction to it was highly unusual.

Back when I grew up, the only vaccine that everyone got was the one for smallpox. When I was in first grade, medicine came up with one for polio. Other than those two, you just got sick. Everyone got measles and mumps and chicken pox. You got German measles (later renamed to rubella) and sometimes whooping cough and scarlet fever. While all of these could be deadly, the vast majority of children recovered with no lingering effects. (We also ate dirt, but that’s a different blog post.)

We still have a pretty good chance of getting the flu every year, despite educated guesses about what strains will be prevalent and a tailored vaccine each time. Thousands die from the flu, but it doesn’t make headlines.

An interesting piece of data about COVID-19 that hasn’t been mentioned a whole lot is the declining death rate. Despite a horrendous spike in the number of cases in the US (which the media would have us believe has nothing to do with the protests where hundreds, if not thousands of people didn’t practice social distancing or wear masks), the number of deaths has remained consistently low. The graph below is from https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus .

US Corona Virus Number of Cases Versus Number of Deaths

So why the sudden reinstitution of at least a partial shut-down? I can only think that there is some other factor at work that has nothing to do with keeping people safe. The media and the “experts” have heightened the level of fear to such an extent that we voluntarily self-isolate and give up our basic human need for association with other people. With forced unemployment causing financial stress for many as well, is it any wonder the anger is so intense?

Rather than coming together, we have turned that anger on one another.

The cure has indeed become worse than the disease.

We expected the number of cases of coronavirus would rise as we reopened our country. We expected more people would get sick, and yes, that more would die as a result. But it’s a fact of life that we all die eventually. Some of us die on the battlefield. Some in a Pennsylvania field. And some die of old age. I would rather die of coronavirus than of isolation.

I am tired of being quiet for fear of offending someone. Matters are too important right now to worry about that. So I’m going to start speaking up. Because in this country, we still have freedom of speech, and I’m proud to be an American.
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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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tagged: currently-reading