Tour’s Books Blog

September 29, 2012

Man Plans, the Gods Laugh – and why I have so few reviews this week

Life rarely goes as planned.  It also reminds us that regardless of our problems, others have it far worse.  A friend in the book swaps took a fall and broke her back.  Her vertebra was glued together again using the surgical equivalent of Super Glue and she’s now in a rehab center in California.  Bored and in pain, she asked me to write a story for her using my groundhog character that exists on the swap forums of PBS (Paperback Swap).    It was supposed to be a simple two maybe 3 part story.  I’m on part 8 and I have one more to go to get the loose ends tied up.

Stories have a life of their own and often surprise even me.  I read that authors say their characters just won’t allow them to do certain things.  Well, over the years, this groundhog I created has developed some very definite ideas about what she will and will NOT do.  Over time, she didn’t exactly evolve the way I was expecting, and a large part of that was due to a group writing effort in a swap where each player contributed a character and story element to the game.    Unlike a Murder Mystery Weekend, it was not a play where the victims and perpetrators were determined in advance.  It was more like trying to knit together stories of Thieves World, where writers saw the same character from different perspectives and created characters for themselves.  In the swap, called Murder They Wrote, I laid the basic framework of the story and worked each contribution and character created into the plot as best I could.  I had to get pretty creative at times!  The whole thing came out surprisingly good.  Our patient and long suffering hostess, who played the part of the owner of The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, put the final version together as book, I did some last minutes edits and an epilogue, and she emailed it to all the players.  It was a perfect setting.  One player decided she was a ghost.  Another a voodoo priestess.  There were ‘extras’ that fleshed out the story.  But we had a great and creative group.

As a result of that swap, I created a character as a partner for my groundhog in an art theft recovery company.  He became a recurring player and I started doing multi-part stories in the swaps.  Each time my books were stolen, I’d tell another part of the story.  It takes time and often bits were in different swaps.  So another player began collecting my posts in a dedicated thread.  This lead to my friends’ request to do a story just for her.  But putting stories together takes time.  More time than I realized when I started writing the one for my friend.  Each day I’d do 4-7 pages, let it sit a day, then go back next day, do a quick edit and make minor changes, then move on to the next part.

Because I did the story like episodes in a 30 minute TV show, I actually had to put all the parts together today and start reading through from the beginning to see what I had to clean up – or questions left unanswered.  I found a few errors, but over all, for something thrown together by an amateur in a week, it really was pretty well done.

Was the story what I planned?  No.  Did it play out as I expected?  No.  Only two elements came through that I planned in advanced.  One happened because I gave my friend in CA a call to see how she’s doing.  She mentioned she really liked this one character I created, the opposite to my own temperamental, short-tempered, feisty, and sometimes vindictive character.  He’s a phlegmatic Southerner, unflappable, and and very much a loaner with a real fondness for moonshine.  In his own way, he’s fond of his cousin.  So the story changed and Cousin Cleatus came into the story.  But there had to be a reason why Cleatus was there, and that took me awhile to figure out.  Plus, the whole thing added about 14 pages to the length.  So far I have close to 20,000 words.  I’m amazed.  I’m also amazed at how much time it took and how much I enjoyed doing it.

Then I got a cold.  Just in time so I couldn’t go to the annual block party without giving it to all my neighbors.  Plus colds make my brain go dead.  Give me a simple cold and I can barely write simple sentences,  so the story sat while I pouted over being the victim of a common virus.  Nearly a week later I FINALLY finished it!   There’s another thing I learned.  If you write every day, you aren’t going to have a lot of time to read.  Get sick and trying to focus on books?  A double whammy.  I have books to be read backing up very quickly.  How authors – real authors – find time to do all that reading of other author’s works is beyond me.  My brain was so involved with my own characters and plot, I found it hard to change gears and get drawn into a different story, or I was just too sick to care.

Luckily, I’m over my cold and the associated fit of sulking.

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I finally did manage to get a few of books read.

Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire.  The October Daye series was not a hit for me from book one.  I really struggled to get into this world and accept the character.  But with each new book, I’ve liked it better and better – sort of.  This installment was an exception, not because it wasn’t good, but because it had a serious flaw.

One of the ongoing elements in the October Daye books has been her relationship with Tybalt, King of the Cait Sidhe.  That finally gets center stage here.  Toby is asked to find the changling daughter of knight in her lord’s service.  Finding things, especially lost and missing children has become something of a specialty of hers, it’s true, but of all people to have a half human child, the uptight, by the rules, knight Etienne would have been last on the list.

Etienne didn’t know he even had a daughter until the woman who was once his lover called.  She’d simply disappeared on her way home from school  But there are bigger problems.  Etienne has violated his knight’s oath and the rules of Fairie.  It also meant two more things, there was human out there who knew about Fairie and he never said a word, AND his daughter had come to her powers without anyone to teach her.

A large part of the story is also about a rebellion in the Court of Cats.  Toby spends a lot of time bleeding and being healed thanks to a disgruntled Samson, a cat who hates the fact that Tybalt, their king, involves himself with her.  The two elements overlap when Sampson is implicated in the abduction of Eitenne’s daughter.

Overall, this was a good story with two main, and different storylines.  The downside was, parts became repetitious with Toby and Tybalt no more than healed when they were once again attacked by the same group.  That brought my grade down to B- (3.7*) For fans of October Daye, it’s a must for the Tybalt story alone.  A word of warning, you really do need to read most, if not all, books in the series in order to follow the story.   The world is incredibly complex and layered and many plot elements are carried over from previous books.  While not the best in the series, I liked it for finally bringing the Tybalt/Toby relationship into focus.

Now we have the opposite – a series in decline.  A Wanted Man by Lee Child ended up a huge disappointment.  If there is one word no author ever wants to see attached to a thriller, it’s BORING.  And that is exactly what this book is – boring.   And tedious, especially the opening 130 pages or so.  If you think driving from Nebraska to Chicago in the winter is boring, try reading about – for a hundred pages!!!!!!!.  GAH!

The story moves from the boring to the absurd as an FBI agent starts chasing them then joins forces with Reacher and the waitress, who is really an undercover agent, and the whole thing ends in the most absurd terrorist kill ’em all shoot out I ever read – because the whole thing was one big terrorist Ponzi scheme.  Honestly, what nonsense.

Tedious, dull, a wild ending that seemed so blasted absurd.  I have NO idea what Lee Child was thinking, if he was actually thinking at all.  Opinion on Amazon is fractured and fairly evenly distributed 1 to 5 stars.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  Obviously, hardcore fans don’t care.  People who want a good thriller were soundly disgusted.  I can give this drivel a D+ (2.2*) and strongly urge you to get it from your library, but don’t spend ANY money on this thing, certainly not the discount price of $16.38 print or $12.99 Kindle.  Move on folks, nothing worth you time here.

I also read Physical Education by Maggie Barbieri, the most recent in her Murder 101 series featuring Alison Bergeron, a professor looking for tenure at a small Catholic college located on the Hudson River in the northern most part of NYC’s limits.  Now married to her detective boyfriend (second marriage for both) she finds herself the reluctant step-mother of college age twin girls and an even more reluctant replacement coach for the college’s D-III girl’s basketball team.

Alison is adjusting to married life, or so she wants to believe, but one thing you never quite adjust to is having bodies put in your car trunk.  Leaving the school, the retired cop, now school security guard helpfully goes to close her trunk only to have the thing pop open – and new college mail delivery hire has been shot, execution style, and thrown in her trunk.  Flashback to when mobster Pete Miceli was after her.  Now Allison was dealing with another murder, her detective husband lying about – too much and smelling of Channel #5, and her best friend, Father Kevin halfway to be defrocked for something her didn’t do, while his ambitious replacement Father Dwyer was single-handedly trying to undo Vatican II.

Now Allison has way more questions than she’s getting answers – from Kevin or Bobby or Bobby’s erstwhile detective partner and her volunteer assistant coach Fred.  Then there’s the gun with the silencer in the fridg in the garage and supposed rats in her basement.  Barbieri takes all these elements and spins them into a fast and entertaining story with several mysteries large and small for Allison to deal with.  Satisfying as few cozies are these days, with a sensible and intelligent lead character.

Physical Education gets a solid B (4*) rating and a recommendation to buy used or as a remainder.  I paid around $9 while a new copy on Amazon is selling for $16.49 – too high for light mystery.

Molly Harper is one one of my favorite paranormal romance authors.  Her Half-moon Hollow vampire series is mostly very well done and seriously amusing.  It was her name that prompted me to buy Undead in My Bed, a three author anthology that included stories by Katie MacAlister and Jessica Sims, two other authors I usually, but not always, enjoy.

I read Harper’s Undead Sublet first.  It was the longest of the 3 novellas at 165 pages, and I think the second best of the three.  Tess Maitland is a sleep deprived, overworked head chef at a well know Chicago gourmet restaurant Coda when she hears the arugula telling her ‘Knock, knock’ jokes.  She was promptly given a ‘sabbatical’ – code for ‘she has flipped out and taking time for recover’.  Her old mentor now lives in Half-moon Hollow, KY.  As the closest thing to family she has, she heads down there and rents a small house for a month of mental health time and rest.

Only problem is, the house has someone living there, the vampire owner.  Sam Clemson became a vampire by accident.  He came yo Half-moon Hollow with his soon to be ex-wife Lindy to try and save their marriage.  After building a daytime hiding spot for a vampire, the vamp decided having a human know about his ‘safe room’ was dangerous  so he drained him and left him in the woods.  Luckily, a member of the vampire council found him and turned him time, though the transition wasn’t easy.  Lindy freaked out and had him declared dead, then started divorcing him.  The new laws were a bit hazy in some areas after the Coming Out n 1999.  Sam was not exactly adjusting well and now he had a mouthy female in his house.

That’s when the war of pranks started, and some were hysterically funny.  Tess makes friends with Jolene, Jane and some others from Harper’s earlier books, and soon finds herself enjoying life in a small town again, the kind of town she grew up in.  The romance wasn’t the core of the story, rather two folks finding their own way and maybe each other while doing so.

Undead Sublet is good, but the ending is a bit flat.  Sam’s character is pushed to a minor roll for much of the story, but as a whole, it works.  I give this part a B (4.0*).

Katie MacAlister does her turn with a Dark Ones novella, Shades of Gray.  Now Ms MacAlister blows hot and cold for me, but she hit this just right.  Grayson Soucek finds a nun climbing over the wall of his ancestral home, knocks her out, ties her up, and tries to question her.  What the devil is a human doing on his property, especially a curvy nun who is anything but nun like and claims to be a Guardian and a Beloved.  But getting answers is impossible, as are her claims of being a Guardian and Beloved.  Only problem is, she smells amazing and seems to think he does too.

Noelle is thrilled to have found her Dark One, the one for whom she the Beloved.  Grayson is less than thrilled – uncomfortably excited, but he’s been cursed by a demon and can’t afford to get involved with this attractive, though possibly insane, female.  Then he learns his abby has been leased for 2 weeks to some halfwit film crew trying to capture ‘spectral phenomenon.  The thing is, dealing with them means getting near the delectable Noelle – and that leads to one thing he was trying to avoid, a joining.

Well done, with two good lead characters and a decent supporting cast (especially the ghost of the horny monk), the plot moves quickly, is kept lean and clear, and has a great ending.  My grade is B+ (4.3*).

The final entry is also the shortest, by design to to limit the length of the book is hard to say. Out with a Fang by Jessica Sims adds to her Otherworld Dating series with Ruby, the were-jaguar looking for love after spending 4 years missing the human she really did love and had to dump – dramatically – or risk his being killed.  She was on her first date tonight – with a vampire who oddly insists she wear a blindfold in the restaurant.  But it’s a supervised date, so she has an out of it gets too weird.  Something about him troubles Ruby ………… then she realizes, the vampire is actually Michael, her old human lover, no longer human.

She walks out, Michael trailing trying to explain, but she’s having none of it.  They part – but Ruby hears something in the alley and finds Michael caught by a bounty hunter trying to kill him with garlic juice injections.  Now the human Ruby is petite and curvy, buy the jaguar Ruby is an Apex predator – and a force to be reckoned with.  A force the bounty hunter is not ready to deal with.  She drives him off and goes back to rescue Michael and keep in safe.

Now it becomes a game of trying to elude the hunters.  They want Michael dead, not because he’s done anything, but because a female vampire has decided with wants him for a blood mate, kind of husband.  But another male vamp wants the females and is happy to kill the competition.  Thing is Michael doesn’t even know the woman.

Actually, all the running and hiding does is give Ruby and Michael a chance to talk about what happened since they parted.  It’s all rather dull, really, but not angsty, just not fun or exciting.  Some action, an HEA, but not in sync with the other two.  It lacked the humor and light hand with the plot.

I always maintain, every anthology has one weak entry, and for me, this was it.  It felt misplaced after two such amusing stories.  Thankfully, it was also the shortest of the three too.  My grade is a C (3*) for Out with a Fang.

Overall, Undead in My Bed gets a B (4*) as a book and a recommended read for fans of the lighter paranormal romances.  I got the book under the 4-for-3 promotion on Amazon.

 
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September 13, 2012

Books, Food, Movies, Travel and Other Strange Tales – Part 1

Filed under: Editorial,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 8:15 pm
Tags: ,

Halloween in almost around the corner and that got me to thinking of some of my Halloween costumes.  Most were highly forgettable –  but one year, Mom, in some fit of unusual domesticity, MADE me a pumpkin outfit.  This was something she got out of Woman’s Day or Family Circle or some place like that.  Bright orange cotton with a pumpkin face done in black Mystik tape and drawstrings top and bottom – around the neck and just below the butt.  To round the pumpkin out, it was stuffed with crumpled newspaper and black tights and ballet flats to finish it off.  (Yes, she tried to stick a green thing on my head, but I rebelled.)  Too bad the idiots that designed it left no way to get your hands out.  I had a minor fit and mom finally found a way to sneak my hand out under the bottom edge so I could just barely hold a Halloween bag.  Unfortunately it was one of those paper ones.  It was wet that night, I wore a hole in the bottom and lost most of the money I got and a fair amount of candy.  I was one unhappy camper.  Mom gave up costume making.   She was just not a natural domestic, and like me, lacked the craft gene, though she could embroider fairly well, something I couldn’t do under pain of death.  I sensibly stuck with hobo’s and ghosts there on out and quit using those Halloween bags replacing them with more durable pillowcases.

Somewhere along the line, Halloween stopped being a neighborhood thing and people started driving kids in from other towns and older and older ‘kids’.  Now it’s a huge holiday with Halloween decorations second only to Christmas decorations in sales dollars.  Where once it was just Indian corn on the door and scary hand carved pumpkins with candles in them (remember the smell of burnt pumpkin when the candle was too close to the top?) and MAYBE an old sheet draped to look like a ghost, but that would be considered ‘extreme decorating’ at the time.  Now it’s fake headstones, expensive figures that stand up to 7 feet tall (Where do people store all this crap?), expensive costumes for adults and kids alike, and all these pre-lit fall/Halloween door and planter decorations.   Just go online and look at the Grandin Road catalog or google ‘scary masks’ and check the price ranges – and most of them are intended for adults, not kids.  Some places sell these action displays that run into the THOUSANDS of dollars!  That’s all a bit much for me.  A couple of small pumpkins and a pot of mums seems like enough.

Despite my childhood adoration of Donald Duck and the Witch, I’ve never been one to read real horror stories.  Oh, I do read a few now and then, and the scariest book I ever read was Silence of the Lambs.  I slept with the lights on for weeks – and I was well into my 20’s at the time.  To this day I have NEVER watched that movie and I never will.  Anthony Hopkins scared the hell out of me in the ads.  Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy is more my speed.

Yes, there are certain things that predispose me to watch a movie or read a book and by now we all know my #1 is – it makes me laugh.  That means I’m a sucker for whacked humor, sardonic humor, wise-cracking, you name it.  Yup, I like the early Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner (You haven’t lived until you’ve had a co-worker pick up his bags and move to sit elsewhere in an airport lounge because you’re reading a book titled “Slaves of the Volcano God” complete with lurid cover.), Carl Hiaasen, early Janet Evanovich Plum books, Shelly Laurenston’s Pack and Pride series, Jennifer Crusie – especially Agnes and the Hitman with Bob Mayer, Julie Garwood’s early books, early Elvis Cole books by Robert Crais, Lindsey Davis’ Falco series and John Maddox Roberts SPQR series give humor a historical note.  But none of these are actually humor.  They are all other genres that have a sense of humor woven into the story – and often a main character trait.  In many ways, it’s the unexpected laugh, the unexpected quip for the take-no-shit hero, or just the character interplay in the middle of a drama that makes it all seem more approachable and real.  It’s also why some of my favorite movies are things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, True Lies, Some Like It Hot, and the corny, over-the-top The Great Race (with the BEST pie fight ever filmed – click here) and many others.  And yes, I do own the DVD of Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy and The Great Race.  Just go ahead and laugh and get it out of your systems.

As you might imagine, I also read humor, but not that often.  My favorite humor book is The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy.  It an utterly brilliant bit of tongue-in-cheek look at world history by a man who was a newspaper columnist for years.  I also loved Twisted Tales from Shakespeare and It all Started with Columbus by Richard Armour.  Armour, known for his light verse often published in women’s magazine, was an English professor.  The quality of writing is amazing, but with Armour, the more you know about the subject, the funnier it is.  Rather like ‘inside jokes’, knowing Shakespeare and American History (yes, it pays to be the daughter of a history teacher at times) is a big plus.  Yes, I love absurdest too, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Slaves of the Volcano God, Terry Pratchett’s Disc World books, and so on.  But I don’t read a lot of humor.  Mostly I read other genres that have a humor element.

I’ll tolerate more from an author or a movie that entertains me with a laugh, than I will from one that’s determined ‘meaningful’.  I don’t deal well with unrelenting seriousness, pretentious prose, those tortured soul things or any of that claptrap well.  I get very bored, very fast.  As a result, I skip a lot of authors and movies entirely.  You will NOT catch me reading ANY existential literature.  I absolutely loathed The Scarlet Letter and I’d rip my hair out before I’d read Moby Dick.  Or that hypocritical idiot Charles Dickens.  The three hanky tear-jerkers?  Not here, thank-you.  Tourtured, guilt ridden, angsty heroes?  Nah.  Wise-cracking PI’s with a sardonic wit, now those are welcome.

Yes, I am shallow.  And to some extent predictable, as we all are to those who know us.  But like everyone, I have favorites Like chocolate, really good chocolate.  Dark chocolate Neuhaus truffles are excellent, but I admit, my favorite candy is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – the extra deep ones.  I adore a Grand Cru Chablis, but my favorite drink is Peach Fresca, unless I’m on vacation, then it depends on where I am – anything from wine to fruity rum soaked cocktails.  And now we come to one of my favorite things – vacations and books.  To me, they are inextricably wound together.  I read about places I visit, study up a bit, and use it as an excuse to read more books.

My favorite vacation islands, Sanibel, Captiva, (this is Doc Ford territory, Randy Wayne White’s first book was titled Sanibel Flats and the fourth simply titled Captiva) and and St John, USVI (the perfect place to read Thunder Point by Jack Higgins.).  All time favorite beach is Shoal Bay on Anguilla with Hawksnest Bay on St John a close second.   Both are good for snorkeling, or as a friend puts it, “Go soak your head!”  Vacations in the Keys demand the Alex Rutledge series by Tom Corcoran, and with titles like Bone Island Mambo and Air Dance Iguana, the books are as readable and unique as Key West itself.  James W Hall’s Torn books are another must, though I admit a strong preference for the less well known Corcoran.  Florida’s east coast?  Well Travis McGee of course.  John D MacDonald’s iconic character is neither police not detective, he just does ‘favors’ while living on his house boat, the Busted Flush.  Also recommended are the Max Freeman series by Johnathon King and the Zack Chasteen series by Bob Morris.  And Laurence Shames’ Florida Straits.

Heading to California?  Is there anything better than getting reacquainted with the brilliant Raymond Chandler?  The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Long Goodbye – each a classic and part of an all too short series of Phillip Marlowe books.  You can even enjoy the movies – with Humphrey Bogart being the ONLY actor to play both Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe.  Marlowe, however, was played by several other actors as well – including Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery.  (Mitchum and Bogart were the two best IMHO.)  Naturally, there is the ultimate wise-cracking detective in Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and his deadly, silent partner, Joe Pike.  A personal favorite is Lullaby Town, which actually takes place mostly in Connecticut and NYC.  (I love it when Pike goes and stands in the driveway doing the ‘tree pose’.)   For a cop buddy tale, try Marshall Karp’s The Rabbit Factory.  Though the subsequent books aren’t as quite good, this first one is great.

Heading to the Southwest?  Tony Hillerman is a must read.  So is Michael McGarrity.   Rick Riordan – who has now turned to young adult fantasy with great success – and made a lot more money than he ever did with his Tres Navarre series, wrote some damn good mysteries.  Texas has a ton of quality authors like D. R. Meredith (her Sheriff Matthews and John Lloyd Branson series were both good), Bill Crider, and the new author Diane Kelly.  New England is owned by Robert B Parker’s Spencer and Jesse Stone, though the grim and dark Dennis Lehane is almost as well known.  Jeremiah Healy is a terrific author often lost in the shuffle.  William G Tapply and his Brady Coyne books are better known, but only to hard core mystery fans and Bruce DeSilva has just broken into the scene with his Providence, RI based Liam Mulligan books.

NYC is the most visited US city and I grew up just 13 miles away, so I did a lot of wandering there as a kid, it’s also crown jewel of the mystery genre, especially for tough guy PI types. police procedural, and borderline horror/mystery.  Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder is an iconic character in the gritty tough guy genre – with titles like 8 Million Ways to Die and A Walk in the Bone Yard.  Andrew Vachss’ Burke series are about as grim and gritty as it gets and F. Paul Wilson puts a horror spin on this with his Repairman Jack series.  But you can find the more lighthearted side in Block’s other popular series, the Bernie Rhodenbarr Burglar books.  Even Tim Cockey took up a pen name and wrote two excellent books set in NYC as Richard Hawke – the Fritz Malone books, both of which are really good reads, though minus the humor of his Hitchcock Sewell books.  And that all time classic, The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett.  By the way, despite the movie series, Hammett wrote just the one book, just as he only wrote one Sam Spade book, The Maltese Falcon.  Go ahead, watch the movies, they’re good!  (Yes, I own them too.)

There must be something in the air in Minnesota, or maybe it;s just those cold winters, but the state produced a remarkable corps of quality mystery writers.  Steve Hamilton, John Sanford, William Kent Krueger, David Housewright and others.  We steam on the streets of New Orleans and bayou country with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux.  We walk in the rain and fog of Seattle with G.M. Ford and J.A. Jance’s J.P Beaumont, or down the mean streets of Detroit with Loren D Estleman’s Amos Walker.

In a way, reading is travel in itself.  Books have the unique ability to transport us to different countries, and different times.  So here’s some recommended reading to enhance vacations outside the usual US/Canada destinations.

Vacations call for something special.  Some a bit more.  And the bigger the trip, the more I read.  Vacations have amazing moments that I’ll always remember.   Japan – Visiting Katsura Imperial Villa in Japan then going for a traditional Japanese lunch at small inn.  Thank heavens we had a translator.  Finding a tiny restaurant down an alley in Kyoto that served the best tempura ever.  Suggested reading, Shogun by James Clavell, the Sano Ichiro books by Laura Joh Rowland.

Egypt – Sitting on the dark top deck of a small Nile steamer where it was pushed into a sandbar for the light, listening to the crew do live entertainment while watching locals sit on the sandbank by a fire enjoying the music, moving away only when the music stopped.  Every time I see Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov and David Niven, the scene where they disembark to visit the temple and people take donkey’s and camels up the hill, was actually shot at that spot by the temple of Kom Ombo, though the rest of the segment was shot at Luxor.  Sitting outside the Mena House in Giza watching the full moon rise over the pyramids than seeing the Sound and Light show sitting near the Sphinx.   Suggested reading, The Lost Pharaohs by Leonard Cottrell, The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, the early Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters.  The suggested movies, The Egyptian, The Ten Commandments, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Death on the Nile – both versions (the Peter Ustinov big budget film and the BBC version with David Suchet).

The UK is the palce I’ve been more than anywhere other than Canada.  I think I’m up to 7 or 8 times.  I can get to London a lot faster than Honolulu.  Going to England for the first time decades ago, I completely enjoyed visiting the Tower of London and seeing the crown jewels (drool).  Seeing Windsor Castle, wandering London, doing the maze at Leeds Castle, FINALLY getting to Stonehenge, standing in Hastings where the couse of England’s history changed when a Norman bastard duke defeated a Saxon King, then going to the beach to see concrete gun bunkers from WWII still pointing at the shores of what was Occupied France.  Sitting in a small inn in Perth, Scotland watching the salmon jump in the river, walking various castles – often being the only one there.  Driving along Loch Ness and seeing the ruins of Urquhart Caste – but not seeing Nessie.  Taking friends to Stratford and walking back to our hotel after a performance Richard II and finding myself the reluctant center of attention as I explained the history around the plot of the play and the War of the Roses.  (See what happens when you read!)  Suggested reading – The History of the Plantagenets by Thomas B Costain (non-fiction and 4 books – The Founding Family, The Magnificent Centuary, The Three Edwards, The Last of the Plantagenets), The Black Rose also by Costain, but a fictional story and a good movie with Tyrone Power, Jack Hawkins, and Orson Wells.  The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, the Barker and Llewelyn series by Will Thomas, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes books.  Nigel Tranter’s The Bruce Trilogy, Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicals (she is amazing), and for a good laugh mixed with history, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books.  Recommended movies – The Lion in Winter, Beckett, The Black Rose, Braveheart, and if you like, any of the Regency books by the Bronte sisters that have been tured into excellent BCC productions and movies.

Seeing dragon boat races in Hong Kong in the pouring rain, then 2 days later getting caught in a sudden downpour at the Botanical Gardens and running into the US Consulate for shelter and asking, “What’s the duty on rain?”  Without a missing a beat, the young man’s response was, “10%.”  Landing at night at Kai Tak airport coming in from Thailand and flying low over the harbor thinking, “This is just like the movies!”  Taking the funicular up Victoria Peak and expecting Clark Gable to get on at any moment.  Recommended reading Tai Pan and Nobel House by James Clavell as well as The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett.  Movie – Solider of Fortune with Clark Gable.

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While there will be a part 2, I did want to share this one experience with you.  On September 9, 2001 I arrived at Newark Airport late at night.  We took a strange approach, normally landing patterns come in from the north, but instead we came from the south and we got to see the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers all lit up.  I turned to the young woman next to me and said, “It looks like home.”

Two days later I was at my desk when one of my engineers walked in with a confused look on his face and said, “A plane just flew into one of the Towers.”  I told him the news must be wrong.  I had seen the city just 30 minutes ago and everything looked fine.  I went on the internet and by then, the second plane had hit.  Our building was not that tall, but we could look all the way down the Hudson River Valley to Manhattan.  It was such a glorious day.  I stood there, stunned.  From our angle the two towers sat slightly overlapped, one just in front of the other.  Gleaming columns with a mushroom cloud on top.  I stayed there till they fell and watched the city disappear in a cloud of dust.  Then I went in sent my guys home.  They needed to be with family.

We all remember where we were that day, just as my parents generation remembered where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor.  Some lost family, friends, neighbors.  We all lost a piece of ourselves.  I often think of that young woman sitting next to me on that flight.  Does she remember what would be the last time we’d ever see the Twin Towers?  The last time they’d welcome us?  She seemed so disinterested.

2001 been a hard year for me.  I even had a thallium stress test due to chest pains that wouldn’t quit.  I argued with the doctor about taking time off, knowing the work would just pile up and they’d call me at home every day anyway.  I hadn’t planned to take the rest of my vacation that year, there was too much work.  The nation seemed to be in shock – I found it hard to concentrate.  Finally, I decided I was taking the time owed me and I went to St John, USVI over Thanksgiving.  It was so quiet traveling.  People were afraid to fly.  The folks in St John were grateful to see the people who came.  I was sitting there, enjoying the sun, the sea air, and reading a book when I realized something was different.  It took me some thought to figure out what it was.  For the first time in months I didn’t have any chest pains.  I totally enjoyed that trip.  It was quiet, relaxing, maybe a tad somber, yet I found peace.  It was only in retrospect I knew why.

For years I had wanted to quit and work for myself.  I was offered a promotion and raise to stay – along with promise of change.  I stayed.  Three years later the changes they promised never happened and things got worse, not better, with more work and fewer resources.  But after I got back from St John in early December my guys kept saying how I was so different, mellow, not concerned about things, not as frustrated with management.  I saw my brother at Easter and told him I was thinking of quitting.  Now he’s a very practical and pragmatic guy.  A real, “Suck it up and move on!” type.  He looked at me for a long moment and instead of the argument I expected, all he said was, “Good.  When?”  I said I had a project to finish and his surprising response was, “There’s always another project.  Just do it.”  He understood.  He quit a tenured teaching job to open his own machine shop and never looked back.  I know how much he agonized over doing that.  I was near early retirement age, I had a lot more to lose.

That Monday I walked in and quit.  My last day I saw my family physician and he asked me what was new – he always did.  I told him I had quit and this had been my last day at work.  He stopped, stared at me, then said, “Thank God.  You would have been dead in a year if you hadn’t.  That job was killing you.”  Gee, I could have used that information a little sooner while making my decision!  🙂  Looking back, I knew why I was different when I came back from St John.  I made the decision to quit then.   Life was just too short.

It hasn’t been easy.  Great years, good years, bad years, and now companies unwilling to pay for technical help, willing to risk regulatory and legal problems rather than do what’s needed.  But on mornings like the ones we’ve had this week – beautiful, clear, cool, just like 9-11-01, I know there are worse things, and I know life only gives us so many chances to do what we really want.  And remember what happened in just a few hours on a glorious September day, and I know I’m where I’m meant to be.

Life is short, live well.  Embrace it and enjoy it.  Live each day.  For those of you who lost friends and family that day, or in all the military activity since,  may you find inner peace in life.  Mine came reading a mystery in a rental villa on St John .

September 2, 2012

Perfect Pairs

Some things just go together.   Chocolate and fruit.  Mac and cheese.  Rib roast and potatoes.  Lobster and butter.  Pasta and tomato sauce. Gin and tonic.  Reading and travel.  And is anything better than peanut butter and chocolate??????  Combinations so fundamental, they’re ubiquitous.  You can’t find a burger place, regardless of how snooty and high end, that doesn’t serve potatoes.  And most lobster lovers will stab you with their fork if try and steal their butter.  Some other pairings need a bit more ……………. ummmmm, developed tastes.

I confess, I like peanut butter (Skippy All Natural Super Chunk) and crispy bacon (Schaller and Weber hand cut thick slice) on toast – or a toasted roll.  It really is good.  No, REALLY!  OK, not ……… normal perhaps, but amazing.  I know Elvis liked fried peanut butter, banana sandwiches, but I’m not a big fan of bananas.  Bacon, GOOD bacon, that I love and it goes so well many things, including peanut butter.  I also love creamy peanut butter stuffed dates rolled in sugar – the very first food I ever learned to make in kindergarten – and perfect for my brother’s cooking skill level – nil.  My brother and I make them every year at Christmas.  Even his wife likes them.  (She’s Polish and eats stuffed cabbage, so keep that in mind.)  You’ll notice the peanut butter trend.  Yes, it is my safety net food.

One thing any business traveler will tell you is to have some non-perishable food handy – and bring a book, print, ebook, even a game.  For me, the food is cheese and peanut butter crackers and maybe some Nutter Butter or Oreo’s in those small packs.   The hours wasted in airports is mind numbing – and often ass numbing as well.  And occasionally, when stuck somewhere in a small airport, there’s nowhere to eat – or worse, sitting on the tarmac waiting for your flight to be released due to weather, flights attendants are unable to serve food even in first class.  Those packages of crackers have saved more than just me from starvation.

Books are what will keep you entertained – or maybe video games.  I like having both new books and rereads when on long flights.  I read fast, so thick books can easily be finished by the time we touchdown if I fly to the west coast.  I read Point of Impact on a trip to Arizona.  A friend needed a book, so I passed it on to him.  He still remembers that nearly 20 years later.  Like me, he read the other Bob Lee Swagger books and when he called in my office, I made sure to have a pile of books for him to pick from.  Every once in awhile, you start a book and hate it, well, go to the back-up reread.  It’s not like you can stop the plane and go look for something better – unless you have a wi-fi Kindle or other ereader.  Frankly, I cannot imagine any business traveler without one these days, even if its a Smartphone.   I kind of hate watching movies on planes, even on those personal screens, (It has to do with seeing Godzilla too many times on Asia flights.  As aversion therapy, it works.), but you can watch them if you hate reading.

Fall was always a favorite travel time for me, especially for vacations.  Kids are back in school, so the mad summer rush is over, the weather cooled off, and I can extend summer by heading down to the islands or enjoy a long fall by going up to New England and following the changing leaves south.  I read on a plane, but NEVER in a car.

Ever since I was little, I’ve been prone to car sickness.  The smell of leather will forever be associated with memories of being sick as a dog for me.  Mom had a Chrysler Imperial Highlander with red and blue plaid wool upholstery insets in maroon leather, a black exterior, and the approximate curb weight of a tank.  It also could not be easily killed, so we had that thing a LONG time.  I now have a car with leather interior, but it took me decades to reach the point where I didn’t get the instant urge to vomit the moment I smelled leather.  Now I can wear leather coats and own a car with leather seats – not by choice, it’s the way it came.  They’ve worn like iron and I’m ALWAYS getting leather from now on.  Too bad buying cars is only slightly less desirable that root canal without Novocaine.

They say your strongest memories are triggered by smells, and that’s why you bake bread or pie when selling a house.  It smells like home.  Oh course, our house generally smelled like wet dog, but oddly, that’s not a selling point.  Fall smells differently that other seasons.  No, I honestly don’t remember the smell of burning leaves, but fall always smelled like apples to me.  Trees get dressed if the fanciest colors, the air turns dry and cool, pumpkins start showing up everywhere along with pots of mums in colors that match the trees, and produce stands smell like fresh apples.  As I said before, mom wasn’t a cook, so if we had fresh baked apple pie it was thanks to Mrs Smith, but she could manage things like chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin bread – a quick bread made with Bisquick.  To this day I make a version of that, only mine is modified from a recipe from Madia Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, and a perfect fall cake – all moist and rich with pumpkin, spice, raisins, and nuts.  If Spring is rhubarb and strawberries, fall is pumpkin and apples – and cranberries.

The Halloween candy hit the food stores in August.  (Talk about rushing the season!)  And it’s that time of the year when books, especially mysteries and thrillers, get a surge of new releases.  The summer doldrums are over and the beach reads mostly gone, the scare new releases of mysteries during July and August suddenly burst out in full bloom.  In just the past 2 weeks, I’ve gotten about 10 new ones, cozies mostly, but a Brett Battles book came and the new Jack Reacher book arrives tomorrow – something I face with some trepidation as Lee Child hasn’t been all that reliable with one of my favorite fictional characters.  I have piles for new releases sitting on Mt TBR, but I also tried to clear out some of the older books and added a few ebooks to list.  So here we go ………….

Paradise By the Rifle Sights by Leslie Langtry is one of her Bombay Assassin Greatest Hits novellas and ebook only that I bought for my Kindle.  Now understand, this series was a true original, funny romantic assassin stories not exactly being thick on the ground.  While not the best in the series, Stand By Your Hitman is one of my favorite rereads.  I didn’t even hesitate to buy Paradise By the Rifle Sights.  Good thing it only cost $2.99 or I’d be foaming at mouth right now.

Like Stand by Your HitmanParadise By the Rifle Sights puts a Bombay on a reality show – only instead of being a rip-off of Survivor, it’s one of those Bachelor romance shows and it’s Paris Bombay stuck with it when his sister, who was assigned the hit, convinced him him to cover for her because of her kids.  Seems the producer of the show is a human trafficker and all around sleazeball.  What the heck, Paris has nothing to do, is longing to find someone like his cousins have, and frankly, he’s a bit bored.  So even though exchanging assignments is against the rules, Paris fills out the bachelor application online and ends up getting called for the audition.  On the flight out to LA, his seatmate is an attractive woman that he manages to insult then ignore.  He has a job to do.

At the studio, Paris finds himself whisked into the interview room and is madly thinking about how he can get into the control booth where his vic is sitting behind a one way glass , while giving the worst interview in history.  In the end, the killing is both loud and messy, not the usual Bombay style, but it gets done.  That should fold the show too, since the vic was the only moneyman funding production.  He manages to fake two additional interviews from the booth then leaves like nothing happened, fully expecting news of his vic’s death to be all over the next day’s news.  Nothing.  Except one thing ………….. he’s the new star of Bachelor.  And by the way, read the fine print on those applications.  The contract is BINDING.

He’s whisked off to the overdone mansion where the filming will take place and since his contract also requires the production company make him happy and comfortable, he fills out the form for his ‘requests’, asking for things like mud baths, Mongolian goat meat, and F Troop to be on all TV’s all day.  And a yoga instructor that only speaks Hindi.  Oh, the things we regret.

To this point, the story was similar to Stand By Your Hitman, but suddenly the plots started getting too much alike as production schedules where pushed up and things got weird.  In the last 70 pages, it all fell apart.  The ending was lame, the ‘romance’ never developed, he marries a barely there bit player in the story, and it all just seemed dumb.  A huge disappointment for a book that had me laughing out loud at times.  It read like a book that was 2/3’s done then just wrapped up as quickly as possible and sold as an ebook because the author had written herself into a corner that only a complete re-write could fix.  Kind of like a straight to video movie.

Paradise By the Rifle Sights had a good beginning, funny first quarter, good second quarter, then started a decline that accelerated to and ending that is best summed up with “WHERE THE HELL DID THE PLOT GO?”  My grade, D+ to C- (2.5*) and even at $2.99 NOT a recommended read.

Things didn’t improve with Ms Langtry’s supposedly humorous look at a marriage falling apart in The Adulterer’s Unofficial Guide to Family.  Nearly as I could see, the amusement was all in the title and then on it was boring to downright insulting.  Molly Harper’s One Last Thing was funny and sad and rang true.  This was just a first person over-indulgence in revisiting a first love under implausible circumstances.  Amazon called Adulterer’s Guide ’emotional and spicy’ and they got the spicy part right.  Emotional, not so much.  Just hypocritical and self indulgent.

The story, told in the first person by a narrator who doesn’t even have a name, just Mike’s wife and , for pages till we finally meet Laura Smith, part time professor, mom of twins, and wife of an ad exec who is married to his job – with a few side benefits.  Of course, it’s not like she has room to complain having had a fling of her own.  Her life is dull, dead, and predictable.  Her PhD dissertation on adultery in literature (another irony that pushed the boundaries of credibility) is going nowhere fast.  Perhaps the story was meant to be as dull and lifeless as Laura feels.  In that it succeeded.  It was as exciting as watching paint dry.

Anyway, the big family vacation to ‘the happiest place on Earth’ – though Disney is NEVER mentioned directly – is the big family event that will save everything – and at the last minute Mike backs out pleading work commitments and a big account.  Laura and twins head down alone, and she ends up moving rooms so they don’t have the endless walks to the resort bus.  (ever been to Disney World?  Those walks ain’t for the tired.)  She ends up in a room next door to her first love, now a successful play write in NYC, Alan.  His wife Susan, a successful lawyer, also backed out at the last minute leaving him with his 4 and 5 years olds.  What are the odds?  (Eye roll)

The tedious story drags on thru predictable events, choppy memories of Laura’s past affair, the unhappy life she allowed herself to fall into, and then allowing herself to fall for the fantasy of first love returned.

I suppose this is a romance, albeit an angsty, improbable, and cliched one.  The HEA is about as likely as winning the lottery and lot less exciting.  Dull, kids marginalized to non-entities, spouses barely there, this self-adsorbed story managed to be annoying, boring, and brainless all rolled into one – despite the sex scenes, including the one in the limo.

Avoiding all the ethical and moral issues here, the story was just lifeless, stupid and pushed the reader into trying to believe in something that was fairy tale bull.  Mostly, I just felt my intelligence had been insulted and all of the characters were pretty much morally questionable at best.  Mike actually came off as the most mature and reasonable.  The epilogue HEA was slightly less believable than the Easter Bunny.

The Kindle edition was $4.99 and not worth it.  In print it’s an insane $11.99.   The Adulterer’s Unofficial Guide to Family is a sleeping pill in print.  Miss this book.  My score is D- (1.8*) and a strong recommendation to avoid it at all costs.

OK, moving along to stories that have no pretense of ‘slice of life’ reality – Elizabeth Lapthorne’s Desperate Fantasies a book that had a short novella, Desperate and Dateless followed by first of the Montague Vampire stories, Heated Fantasies, a short novel.

Like most novellas, especially the short ones, the plot was simple, Vlad, a Vampire Prince, is coming into heat, something vamps do infrequently, and it’s the only time a male vampire is fertile.  It also sends them searching for their mates.  Vlad finds his at the Desperate and Dateless Ball in the from of a security guard named Vicci.  Since this was written for Ellora’s Cave, you can cue the hot sex and HEA in 60 pages.  Only a writer with Lapthorne’s skill could make it readable and modestly interesting.

Heated Fantasies was the highlight here as Lapthorne had 200 pages to develop a futuristic type novel introducing the Montague Vampires some 200 years from now.  Clare Rooney is a present day librarian avoiding an oily come on from an unwanted admirer when she starts shelving books, only to find a very old book she’s never seen before – a book on vampire anatomy.  Tracing the odd inset, she reads the even stranger words – and finds herself on a whole different world hundreds of years from her time and no way home.

The book appeared to be an ancient text on the anatomy and anthropology of vampires – and she lands on a world where they are very real. Taken in by two scholars, she finds herself slowly acclimating to this strange place and working in what passes for an antique bookshop – until the day Simeon Montague comes in looking Graveel, the vampire that rescued her and went looking for answers to her problem, leaving her with his kindly, though absent minded friend.

Simeon was expecting many things when he went hunting for Graveel, but finding his mate was not among them.  Now Simeon has to convince Clare she really is his mate, beat off his interfering brothers who nearly botch everything for him, and try and figure out where Graveel went with this mysterious book.

Amusing, good characters, decent world building, this is what a good erotic romance should be.  Largely ignoring the novella up front, I’ll give this a B- (3.6*) and suggested read for erotic romance lovers.  Both stories can be purchased as ebooks from Ellora’s Cave website.  The print book containing both, I got thru a book swapping site, but can be found used on sites like Half.com

Powdered Peril by Jessica Beck is the latest in the Donut Shop mystery series – and first one I actually liked.  Where I usually find the plots silly and the characters annoying, this time, the plot actually worked and characters stayed within sane limits to very near the end, and that didn’t spoil it, just annoyed me a bit.

Suzanne Hart is a classic divorced woman finding her second life and a lot of fulfillment owing a donut shop in her small hometown of Alice Springs.  Her best friend Grace has caught her boyfriend cheating on her – and apparently everyone else.  Seems Peter Morgan was kind of a small time con artist that skirted the very edge of the law, cheerfully screwing over business partners, friends and family.  Anything for a buck.  And with the attitude that his victims ‘deserved it’ for trusting him, he’s not a likable fellow.

Well Grace trusted him and until she caught him out, by of all things, his cell phone.  A phone with all his OTHER girl friends on it.  Grace, kicks him out and then goes and cries on Suzanne’s shoulder.  But Suzanne keeps very early hours, so Grace leaves for home and Ben and Jerry’s therapy.  Suzanne’s mornings start in the middle of everyone’s night, so she’s off to make the donuts – except the police are everywhere behind her shop.  A man had been murdered – Peter Morgan.

Grace is one of many suspects, but pretty much top of the list.  Plus she feels guilty.  After she went home, Peter came back, drunk and repentant, wanting get a second chance.  Grace sent him away.  Now she feels like her actions might have contributed to his death.

But Peter’s life turns out to be a lot more complex than anyone thought.  To help her friend find peace and also to try and find the killer, Grace and Suzanne start asking questions – and the answers leave Grace even more disillusioned and wins the women no friends.  It’s when their car is run off the road that they realize just how serious someone is about finding Peter’s secret.  The secret that would let him blackmail someone with a lot of money and a lot to lose.

Though the killer does toss out the clue you need, the story of Peter is really the core and overall, I found this entry a lot more satisfying than the previous books.  I think it’s because this tie, there was a very real personal link to the victim, and the story worked on several levels at once, rather than just a question to be solved.  Powdered Peril gets a solid B (4*) from me a suggested read for cozy lovers.  Under Amazon’s 4-for3 program, I bought this for $5.99.  Try and get it at one of the big discounters, like Walmart, for a good price.  At the $7.99, it’s a bit high.

Brett Battles hit the action thriller scene a few years back with a terrific first book, The Cleaner – the start of his Quinn series.  While the series has had its ups and downs, Battles has branched out and with his Logan Harper series he opted to do as several well known authors have lately and use Create Space, Amazon’s self publishing platform.  The first book, Little Girl Gone I bought in print.  Unlike his complex Quinn books, Little Girl Gone is a basic, straightforward thriller of limited complexity and very fast moving.

Logan Harper is a man with a past he’d just as soon forget.  Now he works at his dad’s garage fixing cars and living quietly in central California.   But his simple life is destroyed when he interrupts the assault and attempted murder of ‘Tooney”, the local Burmese immigrant who has run the coffee shops for decades.   A man his father and his father’s cronies, 70 to 80 something Viet Nam vets, have called ‘friend’ his whole life.  Logan saves Tooney, but the old man begs him not to call police, just call his father instead.

After pushing his dad, Harp, and the still silent Tooney, he can’t get them to budge on calling the cops.  But Harp asks Logan to drive to LA and check on Tooney’s granddaughter, Elyse, who was due at her grandfather’s house that afternoon but never showed up.  Not really understanding, but seeing how upset all the men are, Logan agrees.  A simple call at her apartment leads to her neighbors who claim she spent the night before with her boyfriend.  This leads to a house – one that is now empty and smelling of disinfectant and bleach.  Next day the house burns down, the apartment where the neighborhood boys were hanging out with Elyse’s roommates  is empty and as clean as the house – even the trash is burned.  And one of Eylse’s roommates is lying.

Stories begin unraveling and using his one contact at Forbus, the ‘security’ company that fired him, he finds the flight that’s taking Elyse out of the country.  The story moves to Thailand and the politics of Burmese military government meets the greed of oil companies.

Satisfying, believable, but without the complexity of plotting usual for this genre and no weird twists at the end.  But is it worth nearly $14.00 in print?  Not really.  AT $3.99 for the ebook, it’s a bargain.  By rating B (4*) and recommended for ebook (you can get an app for your computer, ipad, or Smartphone if you don’t own a Kindle) only or used in print.

Finally, I grabbed a book that had been sitting in mt TBR pile for nearly a year.  Burning Down the Spouse by Dakota Cassaidy was yet another look at marriage gone bad, closer to Molly Harper’s One Last Thing than Leslie Langtry’s fiasco.  Despite the snarky dialogue and some good characters, it was as predictable as sunrise in the east.

As with One Last Thing, Burning Down the Spouse opens with a very public meltdown of a wife who learns her husband is unfaithful and has her meltdown on live TV at the beginning of a national cooking show.  Walking away from 18 years of marriage with little more than the clothes on her back and dog she rescued from a dumpster, Frankie Bennet indulges in an extended bout of depression, sleeping her days away in her Aunt’s spare bedroom in her senior community in NJ.

Her Aunt Gail gets a friend, Maxine, another former Trophy wife who had to remake her life, to drag Frankie out and back into life.  In this case, a job as a prep chef in a diner kitchen.   Nikos Antonakas is the stuff of Greek legend – tall, dark, handsome and with a loud, boisterous family that seem determined to pull Frankie back to land of the living – and those who bathe regularly.

It quickly apparently that Chloe, a waitress, is none to pleased to see Frankie.  Gradually with the job and going to group therapy, and making a friend of stunning blond Jasmine Archway, another ex-wife who has a knack for numbers and keeps the books at an exotic dance club, Frankie slowly starts living again.  Nikos’ friend, a gorgeous blond ex-quarterback who was blinded in a freak accident, originally goes for Jasmine for revenge, but changes his mind and just chases her for himself.  And Nikos finds himself chasing Frankie.  But both men are hiding things – things that will come back and bite them.

Meanwhile, Frankie’s ex, the would be Emeril, is back and asking her to come back to his show.  Wait a minute, since when do you get asked back to a show that you – quite literally – set fire to?  Turns out, his audience was largely female and his cheating and subsequent round of talk shows where he painted Frankie as a nut, caused a huge drop in ratings.  He needs her back, but this new, still fragile Frankie, knows a line when she hears it and refuses.

Then we have a missing family recipe, the expected accusations, lies about cancer, and all kinds of ‘truth will out’ before we hit the sort of HEA.  As I said, predictable.  Entertaining after the first 60 pages or so, but I guess as someone who always worked for a living, the whole ‘trophy wife’ thing is a bit beyond my understanding.  Anyway, it was OK for what it was.

Amazon and PBS diverge on ratings for this book and I can see why.  It isn’t as entertaining as say, Suzanne Enoch’s Samantha Jellico series, or some of Rachel Gibson’s books, or even her own Accidentally paranormal series, but it was good.  My rating is C+ to B- (3.5*) and buy it used used of as a remainder for about $4 and get your money’s worth.

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OK, so I said Fall smelled like apples, but not many of us have time to make things from scratch these days.  One shortcut I use is frozen puff pastry.  Have you ever SEEN the recipe for puff pastry?  The famous one that opens with, “On a cool, clear, dry day ……” and estimates prep time at 36 hours?  It’s all that refrigeration between roll outs and folding of the dough.  While I have spent 3 days doing a few desserts, making puff pastry is beyond my skill level and I’m a better than average cook.  Thankfully, Pepperidge Farms sells it premade in your freezer case.  No, not as buttery as the real thing, but if it were, you couldn’t afford it.  Just go buy the stuff.  You’ll need 1 box for 2 people, so buy as many boxes as you need.

Now go to your produce department – or better still a local farm stand.  Buy 1 large FIRM red delicious apple for each person.  Put the puff pastry in the fridge for an hour or so to defrost.  Meanwhile, peel and core the apples and put in cold water with lemon juice.  In a small bowl mix (for 4 apples) about 1/3-1/2  cup light brown sugar, dash of salt, some chopped walnuts, chopped white and dark raisins (roll them in extra fine sugar and they’re easier to chop), some fresh nutmeg to taste, a dash or true cinnamon (not that cassia crap), some lemon and orange zest and mix it together with your fingers.  I do this by sight, but figure a couple of tablespoons each of nuts and raisins – and chopping them if really optional, they just fit better – and you can substitute cranraisins for nice change.  Some people use chopped dates, but I find them too sweet for me.)

Take a sheet of the dough and carefully unfold on a LIGHTY floured surface using a lightly floured rolling pin.  Take one of the apples and DRY IT INSIDE AND OUT completely!  Place in the middle of the pastry sheet.  Pull up the opposing corners to make sure it fits.  Now stuff the core with sugar, nut raisin mix and cover with a generous pat of sweet butter (the real stuff, please).  Using a pizza cutter, square off any excess pastry, but save the bits in the fridg in plastic container or covered bowl – and DO NOT mash them together.  Using a pastry brush, ‘paint’ the edges of the pastry square with ice water.  Press the edges of the sides as they meet and if you can, add a decorative twist at the top.  Place the bundle on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining apples.  If making more than 4, keep them in the fridg so the pastry stays cold.

Bake at 400F for 30-40 minutes, or until the apples are tender.  Smaller apples take less time and Yellow Delicious take less time as well.  DO NOT try and use Cortland or Macintosh apples.  They turn mushy.  Rome Beauties look great, but have low flavor levels.  If you can find them, Pippin and Northern Spy are my favorites, but they are smaller than Delicious, but might be more suitable for portion control and honestly, they have a terrific flavor.  Great for pies, too.

Now, about the leftover strips of dough – grate some good sharp white cheddar, and GOOD parmesan from Italy in about equal amounts.  Sprinkle lightly with Kosher salt, and McCormick Italian Herb blend, or use some sweet marjoram, dry basil. and a LITTLE GREEK (not Mexican) oregano, and some fresh ground pepper.  Blend with your fingers till everything is mixed.

Lay out the dough strips, brush with melted SWEET butter, cover generously with the cheese and herb mix, lift the ends and twist.  Some cheese will fall off, jut put it on the exposed sided.  Bake at 400-425F till browned.  These keep well in airtight containers, but better still, serve them hot with your favorite Italian meal and some extra sauce or with appetizers.

The baked apples make a perfect dessert plain, with whipped cream (not the canned or frozen crap, beat heavy heavy with powdered sugar and skip the damn vanilla, that a French thing and technically cream Chantilly) or good quality vanilla ice cream.   They go with nearly any kind of food.  If serving plain, mix about a cup of Confectioners sugar with 1-2 tbls of milk add gradually as the sugar thins) and a dash (1/8-1/4 tps) of vanilla.  when thin enough to drizzle, use a spoon to carefully drizzle on each apple package while still warm – but not hot.

Easy to make, tasty, and low skill levels – but high points for a special treat for the family.

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