Tour’s Books Blog

January 5, 2016

PaperBack Swap – Update 2016 – Does ‘The End’ Draw Nigh?

Come February 15 it will be the first anniversary of the annual membership fee and bizarre ‘caste system’ that PBS so ham-handedly introduced last year.  To say the change from free to paid membership was handled poorly is not giving the still seething outrage among many members its full due.  There must be a thousand faceless voodoo dolls with ‘PBS Librarian’ getting pins stuck in it every day.  Others have composed dance routines to celebrate its almost inevitable demise.  How can a simple book swapping site elicit such strong and long lasting emotion?   Let me explain.

Once upon a time, there was an idea to start book swapping site where people could join for free and list books available for trade so they could then get books in return.  The initial programming and server maintenance and updating were handled well and the forums where members could chat about books, current affairs, make offers on large lots of books like a flea market booth, sell their excess credits ……. it was all there.  The Founders were proud of their creation and called their members a ‘Community’.  Much of the data input and maintenance was done by volunteers who keep everything from pictures of book covers to ISBN’s updated.  The funding came to PBS by members buying postage and credits that had small fees attached, members donating credits and money, or buying special ‘elite’ level programs that gave them larger wish lists, or even buying books through PBS or PBS links to Amazon, which returned promotional fees to PBS.

As ebooks gradually began eating into the print book business, the volume of books traded per year began dropping.  Naturally, the fees that PBS had been collecting on postage and other sales dropped as well.  On Super Bowl Sunday 2015 PBS members got a nasty shock.  If they actually planned to USE all those credits they had accumulated in good faith, they had to buy a membership.  Now the annual fee was not high, but along with the fee came a weird caste system that allowed only PAID members to use forums and the private messaging system and trade books freely as before.  Now the middle-class member paid less per yer, got a finite number of ‘free trades’ after which PBS assessed their standard $0.50/trade fee.  Unless you bought PBS postage, then you earned another ‘free’ trade – except you paid the $0.50 fee when you bought the postage.  Now the lowest caste could not communicate with members unless they were actively involved in a trade with that member.  AND every trade they made to get a book with all those credits now had a FEE assessed/trade and the ‘fee’ had to be paid in PBS money.  To get PBS money you ……. well had to pay ANOTHER FEE.  So credits were essentially devalued like Frequent Flyer points where that first class seat to Hawaii suddenly went from 120,000 miles to 180,000 just as you hit 110,000 and would get them in 2 months.

For those who recall their Greek mythology, this might be likened to the ‘Sisyphus effect’ – standing in water with constant thirst yet never reaching it, and having food to feed your starving body just out of reach.  It’s hardly unique to PBS, but given the tight-knit community they fostered – and even bragged about – it was seen not just as a badly managed business decision, but as a personal betrayal.  Here, the very sense of community they built ended up turning on them because they committed the one unforgivable sin – betrayal.  And what was worse – they effectively retroactively DEVALUED the credits of members.

Unlike airlines and hotels, PBS does not provide a necessary function in life.  They don’t take from the east coast to the west in hours.  They don’t give you a room with clean sheets and a nice bath and room service.  You don’t even have much in the way of competition other than Bookmooch.  The other sites are the equivalent of mom-and-pop motels.  PBS is the ‘big dog, but they are middlemen, facilitators.  Had they taken a more businesslike approach and treated members as customers, not a community of co-equals, the relationship would have withstood the change far better.  Certainly, the ebook effect would still be eroding member numbers and books traded as more and more go digital, but their demise and the lingering hard feelings would not have spun so totally out of control.

When a frequent flyer.stayer plan gets changed, we get annoyed and members do take to social media to strike back at loyalty programs that suddenly change terms because thousands and thousands of frequent flyer/stayer plans get disrupted, miles get lost, points are dropped and the ‘cost’ of those rewards get higher and harder to obtain.  But the nice things about airlines and hotels is the fact we have CHOICES.  And while we are ‘loyal customers’ giving them nice profits, we don’t actually feel like we are partners in the business who had their senior partners stab them in the back.  There never was that sense of ‘community’, just rewards for being loyal.  And if we get annoyed enough, we change to a different provider.

Airlines and hotels usually handle the backlash – something they KNOW they will get – like a business.  That is, professionally.  They realize there will be outrage at the changes and a small number of customers will be lost, but their most important customers, the business ‘road warriors, are the ones they want to keep.  Not the occasional flyer/stayer.  The hotels and airlines even had ‘elite’ levels that automatic perks that the occasional traveler envied, but didn’t begrudge.  They always had the ‘status’ based on usage, or because the paid all that extra money for First Class.  (You could buy membership lounge privileges for a fee.)

PBS had some ‘road warriors’, people who shipped hundreds of books a year and sat with high credit balances.  PBS assumed, wrongly, they would just suck up the fees to keep the service – except they forgot something.  Their choices were divisive and members saw clearly that what had been equals were no longer.  That ‘community’ was betrayed and divided into classes.  It certainly did not help their case to publish a newsletter that had a cover story that sounded like it was written by some high school drama student who thought all those ‘mean members’ has no idea how much they HURT with their complaints and acrimonious emails.  If ever a company needed to hire someone to show them how to manage a customer crisis, this was it, but no, they carried on like a ‘Dear Diary’ entry – missing only the little heart shaped dots above the ‘i’ – but including of ‘!!!!!!!!!!!’ so we couldn’t miss their terrible suffering.  I had to just stop taking the whole thing seriously as a business and just say, ‘Fine, I’ll deal with the games because I enjoy them and to hell with the rest of the teen angst revisited.’  (I was afraid of getting pimples!!!!!!!  <——– See, lots of ‘!!!!!!’ so you know it’s IMPORTANT!)

Well, Armageddon nears.  Since mid-Summer, the rate of books shipped per week has slowly but surely dropped as people like me who were rolled from Gold Key to automatic Standard membership decided not to renew, or members grew weary of the lack of offers and stopped even going to the website.  It’s called abandoned accounts.  But the big hit will happen those first two weeks in February.  That’s when the bulk of paid members first joined.  It sits there like a big, black cloud on the horizon.  PBS tried getting members to lure friends into joining by offering ‘PBS money’ or some equivalent of pocket change in cash that would cover the cost of a coffee a Starbucks.  The offer was loudly and humorously mocked off the PBS forums.

I have already been told several game moderators will not be renewing their membership using the ‘ebook excuse’, which may, or may not, be true.  We’ve lost a number of game hostesses that way too.  I also know publishers are reducing the number and depth of discounts on mass market books, and I see that every month as the number of books I pre-order drops, so the number of print books is dropping too.

Another hit is the lack of discounts for online shoppers for mass market books.  Now Amazon does offer ‘best price’ guarantee, so should you pre-order a book and the price drops between the pre-order and the release date, you get the lowest price.  Books-a-million does NOT.  Also, their discount offers are less frequent, aimed more at in-store shoppers (which means selling existing stock on hand) rather than online shoppers (many using pre-order).  Plus they avoid all the cost associated with shipping.  Not ONCE this holiday season did I get a ‘big deal’ offer of 30% off as I have in the past.  20% was the highest any offer went.  Hardcover and trade size paperbacks still have good deals associated with them Amazon, better than BAM even with their discounts.  Hardcovers are often being sold for less than the ebook price.  All of this means there are simply now fewer books to trade on sites like PBS.

Now let’s look at one last nail in the coffin that is online book swapping – the cost of an ereader.  Amazon Fire has a $50 ereader with very limited storage capacity (so if you buy that extra storage disk, you find YOU CAN’T STORE BOOKS THERE) which means using the Cloud to read your books, but it’s cheap and even has a web browser built-in.  Mine is getting returned, it just wasn’t right for me, but they do offer good value if you get free – RELIABLE – wi-fi.  SO now you have a $20 fee to exchange used books with HOPE of maybe getting a book you want back, the cost of wrapping and mailing that book, and the time all this takes running headlong into a $50 ereader with a colored hi-def screen and web browsing capability. hummmmmmmmmmmmmmm

The final sad sign of the death of PBS is the School Donations program.  Since 2012 PBS has run an annual drive to get new children’s books into the hands of schools with a large portion of under-privileged students and tiny book budgets.  They are located everywhere from Indian reservations to the inner city.  I’d donate a hundred or more credits every year, plus additional cash to defray costs, none of which was tax deductible.  I never cared as getting books to kids is important to me.  PBS supplied anywhere from 16 to 24 schools a year.  Ths year they managed to complete 6 and they have 5 more active in need of cash.  Those 5 extra all have the credits, because people don’t care about them if they plan to leave.  Cash?  That’s different and even though the total cash needed is small, just a few hundred per school, they can’t seem to get it.  Over 100,000 members and not ever 1,000 are giving a dollar each.  In 2014 they completed 18 schools.  The signs are clear.  The good will toward PBS has scraped rock bottom.  The resentment lingers and even programs like this suffer.  There is no ebook phenomenon here, just members saying a very loud, “SCREW YOU!” to PBS.  I’m pretty sure the PBS powers that be are doing a sad little ‘Dear Diary’ entry about this too, complete with a frowny face and tear splatters.

It is sad.  Sad that a company was managed so badly that its own generous customer base turned Scrooge to others.  Unfortunately, that includes me.  The credits and money I normally donate – nope.  Nothing.  I do NOT trust PBS.  And there is the bottom line.  It’s the one that is rearing its ugly head as renewal dates approach.  Members no longer trust PBS to be honest about ANYTHING.  Not providing those books they promised the schools, or even being in business 6 months from now.  They broke that fragile bond last year and have done nothing to repair it.  There is no evidence of ‘We hear you’, just childish nonsense or self-righteous condescension.  They have wrapped themselves in the cloak of martyrdom – of the classic teen response of ‘You just don’t understand!’ – followed by sullen sulking and misplaced anger.  Not the way to win trust and loyalty.  And certainly NOT how you run a business that understands its customer base.  The utter lack of professionalism is just mind-boggeling.

So, is THE END nigh?  Personally, I think in 6 months, maybe sooner, maybe later, PBS will be no more.  If you’re thinking of joining or renewing, do so with the understanding that one day that ‘page inaccessible’ message will be permanent.  The membership price isn’t high, but don’t go spending a lot in mailing out books that you’ll likely get empty credits for – credits that will be lost when the site folds, because the permanent ‘page inaccessible’  day is not far off.  RIP


October 27, 2015

Some Months ………… SIGH!

Filed under: Editorial,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 12:40 pm

You know, some months are great!  October is one of my FAVORITE months of the year – May being my other favorite month.  Not surprisingly, I have come to HATE winter with its short, cold days and bad weather.  Still, even favorite months can have sad memories – my sister-in-law died of cancer on Oct 12, 1999.  A month later, Dad died.  That was a rough year, but over time the sadness dulls and the sheer beauty of a fall day can bring a smile.  You never stop missing people completely but as time passes and you face a beautiful, warm October day, you can say, “It was just like this the day my SIL died.”  Then you smile at all the good memories and feel a certain melancholy over how life takes things away yet gives something back.

I guess fall is a metaphor for the eternal cycle of life – and reminds us IT’S FOOTBALL SEASON!  Yes, I am one of THOSE people, the ones that watch college and pro football.  Why I became the football fan and not my brother, who could care less, I’m not sure.  But I am.  I’m not insane enough to sit in an open stadium in freezing weather like the folks in Green Bay, but I do watch TV and cruise from game to game if one threatens to be a blowout.  I started my last entry for the blog 3 weeks ago and, well, ahem, yes, I got distracted and was just a teeny bit late getting it done.

I am in an NCAA Football game (Doing a very mediocre job this year, though I won last year) and an NFL Fantasy game on my bookswap site (currently #1 in overall place).  I am also in a fantasy baseball game there – and somehow have managed to be the 4th highest overall scorer despite missing 4 weeks of sheer guesswork on winner selection and bonus questions and missing bonus picks for Divisional Winners prior to the season.  Plus I have no clue about what the hell I’m doing.  I must confess, I have NEVER willingly watched baseball.  Since my dad died in 1999, I haven’t SEEN A SINGLE GAME.  It’s BORING.  OK, Mets fans may quibble with me right now, but come on, I’d fall over snoring at one of those things.  Strangely, I seem to do well at guessing and apparently my ability to research stats pays off in bonus points.  (I did have to research ERA and how they are calculated for one game, so I guess there is a small learning advantage too though I promptly forgot everything I learned – BECAUSE IT WAS BORING!)  In a bizarre quirk of fate (Trust me, it was NOT skill or knowledge!), I actually WON the baseball game last year.  I’m sure there is some kind of lesson there but damned if I know what it is.

Baseball is the only game that makes golf look good – sort of – though that’s another sport that is likely more fun to play than watch.  I play golf.  OK, I play MINI-golf at places called Pirate’s Cove (your choice, Bluebeard or Blackbeard course) and Congo River (Stanley or Livingston course).  That’s the limit of my attention span.  And I played softball as a kid.  It’s one of the reasons I have come to know endodontists, oral surgeons, and family dentists so much better than I ever wanted to.  (HINT: Do NOT catch balls using your face to trap them.  It never works out well for your face.  Especially your teeth.)

So that’s why the last entry in my blog took so long.  My TV had been off for so many months I didn’t realize all my phone and internet trouble was the cable itself.  I got a new modem, but still had issues – the color on my TV was waaaaay off in pre-season.  I had to get my cable company in to run a new cable to the house because the signal was so low it affected the phone, computer and TV ……. but I made sure it was done BEFORE the regular season started.  I would like to remind you I AM in FIRST place in the football game – a game I WON last year.

So October makes me recall more than Mr October (AKA Reggie Jackson) and the heartbreak of the NY Giants losing like amateurs.  Again.   I also can revisit the caps, root canals, extractions, implants and other exciting things that are fall memories.  And today I get to see my favorite oral surgeon.  And here’s another hint – the really hard peanut?  Spit it out.  Yeah, not a nut.   Yup, October can be hell – especially on the old checkbook.

May 3, 2015

Even Author’s Have to Have Fun!

Filed under: General,Musing on life,paranormal — toursbooks @ 9:18 pm

No matter the genre, authors love having fun with their own characters – and what character is better for this than that famous privateer, Jean Lafitte.  And what better foil for the handsome Frenchman than notorious pirate – Captain Jack Sparrow.

Suzanne Johnson wrote a very short tale of Jean Lafitte’s birthday surprise in Storyland, a part of the Beyond belonging to the Fae where imaginary human characters from books, movies and TV can exist.  Read her cute entry into the Dark Fairy Tales blog.  It’s a bit like really well done fan fic, but hey, who can resist the charm of Jean Lafitte and those magnificent cheekbones of Captain Jack Sparrow?  Enjoy!

PS – Even though Pirate’s Alley was just published, her next book, Belle Chase is already finished (as of 4 months ago) and with her publisher.  I wish that damn publisher would shift their butts in gear because the expected publication date in spring 2016.  I AM NOT A PATIENT GROUNDHOG!  I might just give them all hives till they hurry up and get it out!

December 23, 2014

In Retrospect

Filed under: Editorial,Favorite book,General,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 5:59 pm
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Looking back on this year in books – and life in general – I have to say things were neither as good as I hoped, or as bad as I feared.  I lost two friends – granted, they were people I came to know and like well over the internet, but I still felt their deaths keenly.  But I’m getting to that age where losing people you know is more common, and in many ways, more expected.  But over all, 2014 wasn’t a bad year.

The same can be said for 2014 for books.  There were a few truly awful books, some serious disappointments, a whole bunch of BLAH, a few really good ones, but nothing that reached the level of ‘OMG YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK!’  In a way, I’m spoiled.  I read enough that those rare, truly original and exciting books come along too infrequently these days.  The ‘me-too-ism’ of the movie and TV worlds has always been around books.  Now it’s epidemic.  The worst are the ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ clones.  While some are far better written, they are still trading on the mad rush of ‘mommie porn’ fans for more of the BDSM genre.

Laine Moriarty was kind of a respite from that, but her ‘chick lit’ books have an alarming sameness to them and after 2, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies, I was done.  Alyssa Maxwell had promise with her Gilded Newport historical ‘high society’ mystery, but ultimately missed the mark.  A success was Mary Miley’s Roaring 20’s mysteries, with her second book being better than the first, a rare occurrence.  I know Gone Girl was the hot book in swaps early this year, but honestly, I could not get into it all and gave up.  It was just a tedious story about people I didn’t really like.

Yes, there was a ‘worst book of 2014’ – and despite some stiff competition, Charlaine Harris’s After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse.  The title was longer than some of the ‘chapters’.  It was an all around money grubbing disgrace of absolute twaddle that would shame any respectable author, but not Ms Harris – who appears to love money more than her fans.  Certainly she doesn’t have any respect for them, but has hubris and arrogance aplenty.  A crap book at an inflated price by an author who obviously disdains her fans.  That’s a trifecta that’s hard to beat.

Some series fizzled, others got killed by publishers, one cozy series was resurrected when another publisher picked it up after a 3 year hiatus.  Welcome back to the Passport to Peril books.  Others moved to self publishing.

Readers were inundated by memoirs from former politicians, ex-spec op military, and various ‘celebrities’ (pardon me while I gag.).  The Monuments Men, which had all kinds of potential for a great read, was an over long, deadly dull book and I gave up on after 100 pages.  Despite the all-star cast, and ‘artistic license’ taken with history, the movie was lackluster too.  An oldie but goody, The Path between the Seas:  Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough and the newer Lost in Shangri-la The True Story of a Plane Crash into a Hidden World by Michael Zukoff both got thumbs up from my brother, a harsh judge of such things.  1776, also by McCullough, is a favorite of his.  I enjoyed My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach, a collection of short articles written for various publications on a wide range of topics over the years.  It had all her usual irreverent, but gentle, humor when looking at the human condition – her own included.  For my brother, he felt none of the books I sent about economics and such measured up to his gold standard, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shales.

He and I both enjoyed a number of mysteries and action thrillers and he was especially happy to have Will Thomas once again turn his hand to the Barker and Llewelyn mysteries set in Gaslight London in Fatal Enquiry.  He also loves the Crispin Guest Medieval mysteries by Jeri Westerson, with Cup of Blood published this year.  My sister-in-law began them too and much to her surprise liked them a lot.  (Told her she would, but it took some browbeating on my part to get her to give them a shot.)  Like a few others, this series moved from a traditional publication house to CreatSpace, the self publishing platform.  She also started the Lady Darby mysteries by Anna Lee Huber with A Grave Matter, a book I won in a swap game.  Another swap find that found favor was the Joann Ross series set in 1950’s Scotland by A. D. Scott.  She and I both love the Miss Fortune books by Jana DeLeon and Gator Bait will come up with me for Christmas, but that one I get back.  She also likes the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews and I’ll take up Duck the Halls for her as well.  Both are just light reads, and I think the Miss Fortune series is better in some respects.

Neither my brother nor my SIL will go anywhere near anything with vampires, werewolves, dragons or other paranormal/UF/fantasy books get shipped out to PBS members without a stopover at their house.  But Walt Longmire, Joe Pickett, and ‘Mac’ MacKenzie all stop at their house before entering the PBS bookswap world.  Author’s Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, and David Housewright all released really good books this year, Any Other Name, Stone Cold, and The Devil May Care were all quality reads, even though none blew me away.  I also have their 2015 releases on pre-order.  Action thrillers are for my brother, and his favorite this year was Clive Cussler and Justin Scott’s Issac Bell books, all set in the early 1900’s.  He enjoyed The Bootlegger so much, he asked me to order the others in the series through PBS.  My SIL did the same with the A.D. Scott books and also loved Silent Murder by Mary Miley, set in 1920’s Hollywood.

I’m finding cozies are getting on my nerves more often than not and I’m losing any semblance of patience with stupid and illogical lead characters and author’s who skip even the most basic research.  Action thrillers can do the same thing when they get so far afield it’s like watching a cartoon of real life.  Last Year’s The Third Bullet by Stephen Hunter was one of the more thought provoking, and Brad Thor seemed to predict the whole mess with the NSA in his book Black List, so action/spy thrillers can be more than just mindless entertainment, like action movies have become.

In the paranormal/UF/fantasy genres, several series ended and waaaaaaay to many installments of books in series have been delayed, some by a year or more.  The Reap the Wind by Karen Chance, was due out last month and is scheduled for release Nov 2015 – a YEAR LATE!  The follow-up to The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, Stiletto, is now out in June (had been Jan), and Pirate’s Alley by Suzanne Johnson is currently scheduled for April release, even though she finished it in 2013.  And traditional publishers wonder why readers start hating them.

On time and on the mark were Darynda Jones with 2 installments of her Charley Davidson series, Jennifer Estep with 2 installments of her Elemental Assassin series, Jim Butcher with another Harry Dresden book, and a whole lot of books by authors that aren’t in that kind of class.

Keri Arthur’s three Spook Squad novels, Memory Zero, Penumbra, and Generation 18 – pretty good reads, were all published by a small press, Imajinn Books and now Dell republished them as mmpb’s this fall at far more reasonable prices.

Possibly the most original and interesting series that came out between Nov 2013 and this year as a complete trilogy is the Paradox series by Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn, Knight’s Honor, and Heaven’s Queen.  A space opera with fantasy additions that is a worthy read.

The usual reliable authors did decent work, but none stunned.  Author’s seem stuck in a rut.  I think that’s why I’ve read more ebook series this year.  The print authors are all kind of running out of steam, especially the cozy mystery genre.  Still, I am ever optimistic and have hundreds of dollars in pre-orders placed for 2015.  Let’s hope it delivers more memorable books that make it to the special spot reserved for the best of breed – on my bedside reading pile.

Let me wish all of you a Merry Christmas – or just Happy Holiday, if you prefer – and hope that you have enjoyed your reads in 2014 and let me know if you find something you think I need to try.  I do like referrals!


I tried to get a ride up to my brother’s house, but Santa said insurance did not permit passengers.  Damn insurance companies.

April 25, 2014

Meandering Around the Past and a Look Ahead

So I’m sitting here listening to Julia Migenes sing Habanera in the movie version of Carmen (Placido Domingo played Jose, and may I just say he was a handsome devil who is, even now, a good looking guy) and thinking my tastes in music are almost a bi-polar as my taste in books.  I’m not much better about movies, except for one universal truth, I try and avoid horror and the ‘deep’ stuff.  Oddly enough, I do like Shakespeare, but I’d rather break a leg than endure Death of a Salesman or Brothers Karamazov.  And forget about Ingmar Bergman, I’d really rather watch Some Like It Hot or The Magnificent Seven.

So what does all this have to do with books?  Well, books get made into movies ………… OK, SOME books get made into movie, others just lend their title to some dreadful claptrap that bears little or no resemblance to the source material – like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series and (shudder) what was done to One Shot by Lee Child so Tom Cruise could play 6’5″ blond, blue-eyed Jack Reacher.  Oh, just kill me now.  And occasionally, current events echo the past in an eerie fashion.  The death of 13 Sherpas on Mt Everest made me think of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a great book about his own tragic experience on Everest.  Short, and much criticized by others on the mountain at the time, it reads as compellingly as great fiction.  Apollo 13, a movie that was based on another real life event was also so well done, viewers were tensely waiting to see what would happen, despite knowing the ending.  In both cases, the story was history, yet we become so involved in the telling, it’s as if it were all fresh.  And that is the gift of the best non-fiction.  Not just facts, telling an enthralling story.

My mother was a history teacher and so was her best friend.  They taught in neighboring towns and both taught primarily American history II – Reconstruction to modern times.  And both would teach summer classes, sometimes extra credit ones for smaller topics.  I was driving them both to school one summer morning (so I could have the car, of course) and Anita says to Mom, “Yesterday I was talking about WWI and really selling the whole story to this one kid who just looked bored and I noticed the guys that were supposed to be painting the windows were just sitting there listening to me.  I never knew I was such a ham!”  Mom laughed and said, “The best history teachers are all hams!”

I probably heard Mom say, “How can anyone find history boring?  It’s OUR story?  It’s great!”, a hundred times, and she really meant it.  And if you get a good teacher, it is.  Unfortunately, really good teachers are rare, especially ones that want you to love their subject as much as they do.  Well, good movies and good books – memorable ones that stand the test of time – are pretty rare too.   I’ve seen Macbeth many times, everything from college productions to the Royal Shakespeare Theater.  I still like it.  The first movies I bought for my dad when I got him a VHS player (remember those?) were Some Like It Hot, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, African Queen, and Casablanca.  If I had to pick the best movie ever, yeah, Casablanca.  No fancy sets – in fact, they’re kind of cheesy.  No great special effects.  Actually, other than squibs for guns, none at all.  But a cast, story, dialogue, direction, and acting to remember.  It also makes me realize what crappy movies they make these days.

So I got to thinking about the best books I ever read and realized that the list changes over time.  Not just because something new is better, but because, in retrospect, the book I thought was so great did not hold up over time.  So from time to time, we need to revisit our lists, and update them – and actually reread the books we on our lists.  One example is Plum Island by Nelson DeMille, a book I thought terrific.  I got a copy for my brother about a year ago, and he was ‘Meh, it was ok.’  Now he and I usually have very similar tastes in the mystery/thriller genre (Except he does not deal well with characters that are neither good nor bad, and the ending is ambivalent.)  So I went back and re-read the book myself.  He was right.  It was good, not great, and had not aged as well as it should.  I also re-read Sphere of Influence by Kyle Mills and realized it had held up much better over time for an action thriller.

My other problem is separating ‘the best’ from ‘my favorites’.  Favorites tend to have a lot of humor for me.  Wiseguy PI’s, humorous assassins, off-beat romance.  No, not great books and certainly not great literature, just best friends.  And ‘Favorites’ books tend to land on my bedside table.  I like a lot of books, but not many well enough to re-read them again and again over the years.  I can admire movies like All the Kings Men and Chariots of Fire, both best picture winners, but I’d rather watch Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov or The Great Race, with Jack Lemon chewing the scenery as Professor Fate and Natalie Wood looking great in Edith Head costumes while Tony Curtis plays ever competent, sparkling white hero.  No where near the perfection of Some Like It Hot, but it does have the best pie fight ever filmed.

I figure we all pick ‘the best’ wrong now and then.  The best picture of 1941 was How Green Was My Valley.  Sounds ok, right?  It’s competition is was tough – everything from The Maltese Falcon (my favorite) to Suspicion, a Hitchcock gem.  But the real kicker?  Passed over was the film widely regarded as “The Best Movie Ever Made” – Citizen Kane.  Yeah, we really do all get it wrong.

Same is true of books.  Winning awards may, or may not mean anything.  Barry Eisler’s brilliant John Rain series won one award.  Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series has multiple nominations and awards, some deserved, some not.  Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books are almost ALL nominated and many won a whole host of awards – and they deserved it.  And some of the lame cozies that win awards just baffle me.

Great movies, great books, and great food are very personal tastes.  My brother hates wine, he’d rather have soda.  He wants simple food, not some complicated thing.  He’ll eat Cheez Whiz.  (Yes, I just flinched writing that.)  We both like dates stuffed with Skippy peanut butter and rolled in granulated sugar, something we learned to make in Kindergarten.  We also both like Jersey wieners – hot dogs steamed then fried in deep fat till the skins are crunchy (and split a bit), get slapped on fresh bun, mustard, raw onion, and smothered in a weird meat sauce that half gravy, half God knows what (and please don’t tell me!).  Heart attack on a plate.  I like good wine and really appreciate great, but not pretentious, food.  No, I would not spend a dime on ‘molecular cuisine’.  Seriously, food is a science experiment?  GAH!  I can watch a favorite movie so many times I can do the dialogue.  And I can re-read a book till the poor thing all but falls apart.

Top of my list of rereads is Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Cruise and Bob Mayer.  It didn’t get a great review from me the first time I read it, but it just stands up to time.  Stand By Your Hit Man by Leslie Langtry hits this list too.  Part of her Bombay Assassin series, it was also one that did not impress at first, but again, has stood up to time.  Louisiana Longshot by Jana DeLeon is another funny assassin book that has created a whole fan club for its characters as well as homepage for Sinful, Louisiana, the setting for the books.  The Rook by Daniel O’Malley is there as well.  It was great on the first read and is still great.  It has some of the BEST lines ever.

“This should be a pleasant little interview. All I have to do is put on my scary face.”
“You have a scary face?” Ingrid sounded skeptical.
“Yes,” said Myfanwy indignantly. “I have a very scary face.”
Ingrid surveyed her for a moment. “You may wish to take off the cardigan then, Rook Thomas,” she advised tactfully. “The flowers on the pocket detract somewhat from your menace.” 

Seriously, how could I not love this book?  By the way, the second book is tentatively scheduled for 2015 and the proposed title is Stiletto.  It will pick up where The Rook left off.  River Road is my most re-read of the Sentinel of New Orleans series by Suzanne Johnson.  Hounded, by Kevin Hearne makes this list too.  And for paranormal romance, The Accidental Vampire and Single White Vampire, both part of the early Argeneau books by Lynsay Sands.

The most re-read mystery?  Lullaby Town by Robert Crais.  That’s followed by Janet Evanovich’s Steph Plum books 1 to 7.  After that, meh and after 13, I barely made 1 read.  And Raymond Chandler.  Yes, I have a lot of classic mysteries and I re-read them – and realize just how much we’ve dumbed down our books.

By the way, all those books make good beach reads……….. except maybe The Rook.  That one is a bit hard to put down.

So, with spring FINALLY rearing its colorful head, we can start picking our next reads.  On order and top of my TBR when they hit the door?  Sixth Grave on the Edge by Darynda Jones, the latest in her excellent and original Charley Davidson series.  Next up will be Shattered by Kevin Hearne, his latest Iron Druid book, first hard cover, and the one where his old mentor is brought back, Arch Druid Owen Kennedy.  YEAH!  Skin Deep by Jim Butcher’s latest Harry Dresden, and Hidden by Benedict Jacka, and Alex Verus are on the list too as is a new series by Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road.  It will be August before the next Spider book is out by Jennifer Estep, Promise, Promise.  Better Homes and Hauntings by Molly Harper is due in June.

On the mystery front, a new David Housewright, The Devil May Care, and a new Craig Johnson book in his Longmire series, Any Other Name will hit my hot little hands soon.  Yeah, there’s kind of a dearth of good mysteries.

Keep reading and revisit those old favorites and see if you change your mind too!

February 25, 2014

A Simple Dish

Filed under: Editorial,General,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 4:51 pm
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There’s one place a cook can never hide anything, from skill to freshness of ingredients – in a simple dish.  There is nowhere to go if its wrong.  Everything hinges on a good ingredient, and quick simple preparation.  No sauce, no spices, no heaping pile of herbs, to bury it under.  Just the food.  Unfortunately, somewhere we, as a country, lost our way and only in recent years discovered the joy of being a ‘locavore’.

One of the reasons food tastes better in season is because it’s local and allowed to get riper on the plant, tree, or vine.  Peaches, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, melons, green beans, corn, you name it and fresh picked is amazing.  My mom taught American history and I can remember her telling us early settlers would have huge pots of boiling water at the edge of the fields to immediately cook the corn, because the sugars turned to starch so quickly and changed the flavor.  Yeah, it really does matter.  Who knew we were ‘locavores’ before there was such a thing?  At the time, everyone was a ‘locavore’.  The very fact it’s named speaks volumes about how much our food supplies have changed over the years.

Millions of people today don’t have the chance to get fresh picked fruits and vegetables, especially home grown.  It’s not like city high rises come with big gardens.  I was lucky, my dad loved to grow food.  I was always more of a flower person, but even I grew tomatoes, bush beans, zucchini, and spinach.  There is simply nothing like picking tomatoes and just standing in the garden with fruit still warm from the sun in your hand, and biting into it.  You immediately start picking up the differences in flavors of each variety and the huge gap between ‘store bought’ and ‘grow your own’.  Best apple pie I ever made was from these smallish apples of unknown variety from the tree in our yard and every year I put up 32 quarts of spiced pears from our over productive Bosc pear tree.

Not all veggies are easy to grow.  Corn needs multiple rows, or circle planting, to get the pollen spread.  You can’t plant members of the extensive cabbage family in the same place each year.  Tomatoes also need rotation or extensive soil amendments.  Spinach, lettuce, cabbage (including broccoli and cauliflower) do best in cooler areas.  Corn, tomatoes, green beans, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant all need lots of sun and water.  Blueberries and raspberries need pruning and proper support – and often netting to keep birds from eating everything.  No, gardening isn’t just toss the plant in the ground and water when you think of it.  It takes a lot of work and is anything but cheap.

Many of us have neither the time nor the space for our own gardens, or the skill sets and patience to keep them properly.  Local farmer’s markets are a treasure trove of locally grown food, and all you have to do is drive there.  Commercial farms must grow produce that can withstand the rigors of transport and storage, not to mention a fairly long shelf life.  Engineers customer design seed to produce durable, stable produce – and they sacrifice the single most important factor – taste and very often texture to improve durability and maintain an appearance.  Local farmers grow tastier foods and pick them close to their peak flavor.

As we all too slowly move into spring (ASPARAGUS!), get local stuff whenever you can.  Farmer’s markets often don’t open till late June, so try and find a farm stand for early stuff like asparagus, broccoli, spinach and other cool weather veggies.  The taste is just so much better.  Vegetables should be firm, crisp, and juicy.  Fruits should SMELL like fruit.  The beautiful box of strawberries – big, perfect, and red, that have no smell, will have the taste and texture of cardboard.  Raspberries, blueberries, same thing.  Just sniff the package.  No strong fruit scent, no sale.  Even melons, sniff them – well, not watermelon, the rind is too thick, but cantaloupe and others should SMELL SWEET and smell like the fruit.  You’re better off with frozen berries than fresh ones that look great and have no flavor.

Vegetables should be firm, not flexible.  Green beans are meant to SNAP when broken, not bend.  Corn – the best eating corn IMHO being Silver Queen – a sweet white corn with a fairly short season – or, butter and sugar corn – a yellow and white hybrid with a much longer season, should have very firm kernels tight to the cob and the crowns rounded with moisture that spits when you break the skin.  The lack of a full ear of kernels usually indicates lack of water in the growing season.  It’s not awful, but make sure what’s there is in really good shape. Cook and eat it fast, and always cook with sugared water, not salted.  Same for peas, even if you buy frozen (the one veggie that’s usually a far better choice frozen than fresh), use sugar.  Why?  Corn, peas, carrots, and onions, especially pearl onions, have high sugar content.  In short, they are SWEET.  They can get tough if cooked with salt, so add a couple of tablespoons of sugar to the vat of water you boil to cook your corn in and use unsalted butter then salt as you eat.  Amazing flavor.  Remember, these are starchy vegetables because their natural sugars covert to starch after they’re picked – and it happens fast, so try and get the freshest you can.

Tomatoes are the quintessential summer food.  For many years feared poisonous because it’s related to belladonna, tomatoes are a native American favorite.  Italian food as we know it today owes a lot to Mesoamericans, along with potatoes, corn (maize), and such diverse things as cashews, pecans, wild rice (a seed), peanuts, other goodies.  Columbus may not have found the gold. silver, and spices he sought, but the food alone would end up feeding millions.

I can make a meal of good bread, fresh tomatoes sliced and salted, maybe with fresh cucumber, and some cheese.  What a great meal on a hot day with fresh lemonade.  When I’d go up and see my dad during summer and early fall, we ‘d go pick our meal from his garden – corn, tomatoes, green beans, and walk in the house where I cook it while he grilled steaks.  As often as not, we’d pig out on all the fresh vegetables and forget the steaks, using them for sandwiches the next day.  Since I often stopped at a neighbor who sold fresh raspberries by the pint from an old card table with an honor jar for paying, we’d have just fruit and ice cream for dessert.  It was incredible.  I never had better in a five star restaurant.

One of the early vegetables, along with spinach, is asparagus.  Now asparagus requires a LOT of work to establish, but once set, beds yield for 20 years or more.  It’s inexpensive and plentiful.  Good, fresh asparagus does not need sauce, and it shouldn’t have shades of grey going on, or be so hard it’s like wood.  To keep bitterness away, get out the vegetable peeler and peel the skin.  Yup, sounds silly, but tastes great.  Learned that trick over 40 years ago watching one of the early cooking shows on PBS and never stopped using it!  I never use some custom asparagus pot to cook it either – who has room for all that crap?  Get out the 12 inch skillet with a glass lid, arrange the spears no more than two deep, add a LITTLE water (quarter inch max), a dash of Kosher salt, and steam quickly – shaking the pans to move the spears around.  Another trick learned from PBS – The Galloping Gourmet, I think. Cooked asparagus should be bright green and barely fork tender when done – depending on thickness, 5 minutes or less.  No hollandaise, it’s unnecessary, and personally, I think it ruins good asparagus.  Use  a little squeeze of lemon or some lemon zest if you like.

Now spring and Easter always meant a ham dinner for us.  I had an aunt born in April who requested the same dinner every year, ham, homemade scalloped potatoes, baby peas, and for dessert, rice pudding with apricot or raspberry sauce, brown sugar shortbread, and cranberry orange nut quickbread.  With drinks, I usually made spanakopita turnovers with phyllo dough, fried zucchini with a honey mustard dip, and usually one or two other special requests.

Fourth of July was grilling time, usually game hens or chicken, cold tri-color macaroni and shrimp salad with a yogurt and mayo dressing studded with pieces of green and red sweet peppers and bits of sweet onion and sprinkled with slivered green onion, a big plate of garden tomatoes, early corn if it could be found, and for dessert a huge deep dish blueberry cream tart made with fresh Jersey berries.

August was steaks, tomatoes, steamed (on the grill, wrapped in foil) new potatoes with sweet onions, corn on the cob, and whole green beans.  Dessert was ice cream and fresh fruit, usually peaches.

Come early September another aunt chose her birthday menu and she liked pork loin.  We’d have corn on the cob and tomatoes again because we wanted all we could get before they stopped being available.  Pan roast new potatoes with onions with rosemary, carrots, and steamed broccoli.

Later in fall I’d cook the meat outside as long as I could before putting the Webber Kettle and hardwood charcoal away for the winter, but all the rest would be done inside.  Apples wrapped in pastry would show up, or a big pan of apple crisp.  Through all those months, the meat was enjoyed, but sometimes forgotten while we wallowed in the seasonal fruits and vegetables we’d be doing without in winter.  Yes, imports keep fresh food in our markets year round, but its no match for locally grown in flavor or texture and you pat dearly for lower quality.

OK, how did I learn all this?  Well, gardening I learned from Dad and extensive gardening books.  Cooking from books.  Yes, Mom was a brilliant teacher and thought Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was a gift from God.  All her cakes were born in a box.  No, I did not learn to cook from Mom.

In learning to cook, I read many books about food, the ones that were most helpful were ones that explained HOW food cooks and WHY you do things a certain way.  When I was really young, A&P offered the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cooking.  Tall, slim hardcover books that were filled with photos, instructions, great reference materials on everything from varieties of apples (and what they are best used for) to basic how to cooking techniques.  It was a surprisingly well done series that I own to this day.  Naturally, I had The Joy of Cooking, but it was Vincent and Mary Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes that really got me going.  Their own recipe for Chicken Sweet and Hot, modified by me (as most are), became a family favorite.  For learning how to make all kinds of desserts, no one does a better job with detailed instructions than Madia Heatter.  Her Book of Great Desserts proves that easy can be amazing, though her Black Velvet Cake was amazing – and took considerable time, patience, and skill.  I’ve been collecting and using regional cookbooks for years.  The Romagnolis Table is just excellent for Italian and their rolled, stuffed veal breast recipe is amazing, one of my all time favorites.

Cookbooks focus on fresh ingredients.  In simple dishes, like scalloped potatoes, you have little room for error.  No, scalloped potatoes are NOT born in a box.  You use thin skinned new potatoes, waxy and very firm, peal them, slice them, DRY EACH SLICE, and the hard part is done.  Butter a large shallow baking dish, finely mince some shallot, place potato slices overlapping slightly in the dish, sprinkle with shallot and bits of butter, salt, and a few grinds of pepper, if desired.  Repeat for no more than 4 layers.  Heat 2 parts heavy cream and 1 part whole milk with sliced garlic.  Strain over the potato layers and bake at 400F till brown, bubbly and the potatoes are fork tender.  The trick?  THINLY SLICING AND DRYING THE POTATOES!  Yup.  Simple as that and using heavy cream with higher solids than milk.  You need to get rid of all that water, so you need to peel and slice quickly, never put them in cold water, have the warm cream mix ready and – BAM – scalloped potatoes.  Some like to layer grated Gruyere in the middle and on top and finish with a touch of nutmeg (technically Potatoes Dauphinoise).  I prefer not to, but go with your choice.  It needs no starch to thicken it, and the waters cook off and natural potato starch with thicken what’s left.  There’s not a lot of ‘sauce’, nor is there supposed to be.

Is there any dish easier than baked potato?  Apparently, we’ve had a whole generation grow up thinking baked potatoes get wrapped in foil.  NEVER, EVER WRAP A POTATO IN FOIL TO BAKE IT!  Baked potatoes should be light and fluffy, the skins crispy and tasty, it should not be hard inside!  Wrapping potatoes in foil leaves the insides, hard, wet, and blah.  They need to release steam as they cook to have the right texture and flavor.  A good baked potato doesn’t need piles of sour cream, cheese, chives, bacon or anything else.  When the potato comes out of the oven, split it open while piping hot and release any additional steam.  Here are simple directions for the perfect baked potato.  Get long Idaho russet potatoes that are heavy and firm and free of eyes.  Scrub them well under cold water and dry completely using paper towels.  Now use a very thin, sharp knife or meat fork and pierce the potatoes through on both sides multiple times so all the steam (natural water content) can escape.  Rub the skin with a little olive oil and set the potatoes on the rack in a HOT oven, about 375-400F for an hour to 90 minutes depending on size.  Immediately split open and let additional steam escape.  Fluff up the filling with a fork and add butter, salt and pepper to taste.  My parents would cut the potato in half, scrape out the soft inside, let us add the butter and salt or gravy we wanted and put pats of butter in the crispy skins.  We weren’t allowed to eat the skins till after we ate our vegetables.  Would we eat fast!  The skin is the best part!

Other tricks?  How about tomatoes?  NEVER REFRIGERATE TOMATOES!  It causes irreversible chemical changes that dramatically lowers and changes the flavor profile.  Never buy tomatoes offered for sale from a refrigerator case.  You’re better off with quality canned tomatoes to make sauce than crappy fresh one.  Peaches – ok, here’s news, fresh peaches, once picked, don’t ripen, they rot.  That’s why they get soft.  Buy ripe local ones and do the sniff test.  It they don’t have a strong peach scent, they’ll be tasteless.  Never use sweet onions in long cooking dishes like soups and stews.  Sweet onions have a very high water content, which is why the spoil, unlike long keeping Spanish and yellow onions.  They literally disappear in long cooking dishes and the their very mild flavor just won’t stand up.  They are perfect for salads, quick saute’s, even for doing foil wrapped steamed veggies on your grill – a place I use them all the time.  But you need to use different ones for cooked foods.  Corn on the cob – you need a big pan of water that you sugar as it boils, drop in the ears of corn, time maximum 5 minutes, remove the corn and eat immediately with butter and salt.  No, you don’t wait for the corn to boil again, it’s cooking in the near boiling water and fresh corn stays sweet and crunchy, never mushy.  The longer you cook it, the mushier and strong the flavor.  Overcooked corn is the most common bad food served in restaurants – along with undercooked veggies that frankly would taste better if cooked a bit longer.

Fresh food, plain and simple.  It will be the best you have all year and is worth the effort to find.  It will be the food experience of your life.  Try and find a good source for crusty bread with a dense, moist interior, a formerly common product now scarce as hens teeth.  There is just no substitute for good bread, the perfect foil for summer tomatoes.  Maybe salt, pepper, butter (I only use unsalted, but my brother thinks it ‘tastes funny’.  Actually, it tastes like BUTTER!), or sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, that’s about all fresh fruit or veggies need.  The flavors are intense – and amazing.  And unforgiving of over-cooking or mishandling.  That’s it.  No elaborate sauce, no complicated preparations needed, no fancy pans or advanced cooking skills.  Now go out and learn how to be a ‘locavore’ and enjoy the simple pleasure of plain, delicious food.

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.


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.


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.


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 .

August 28, 2012

The Reason Why I Always Travel with Books

Filed under: Asleep at the wheel,General,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 5:51 pm

Get a bunch of business travelers together with nothing to do and invariably they will start swapping ‘war stories’ about things that happen on their trips.  Things that are entertaining only when viewed in retrospect.  Lost luggage, diverted flights, aborted take-offs, blown engines, hotel staff strikes, food and drinks spilled all over you, having Jeeps with machine guns challenge your tour bus – you name it.  I’ve had most of those happen to me (including the machine gun thing) – as have most travelers – but I do get a lot of attention when I announce, “Well, I spent the night under the craps table at the El San Juan hotel.”  Yup.  That’s an attention getter.

I’ve been traveling for years – decades.  Actually, more decades than I care to count.  Pleasure and business have taken me many places around the world, though I still have a long ‘bucket list’ of places I haven’t seen.  I made a point of hitting the ones that mattered most to me early and I’m glad I did.  Arthritis, which started young for me, has taken its toll, so climbing the Acropolis at Lindos on two different trips 20 years apart won’t be happening again.

Business trips rarely allow for much sight seeing.  Maybe a quick day trip here or there if you’re lucky.  I drove all over Wales to see Harlech and Caernfon Castes with a colleague, then taking him up thru back roads to see Mt Snowden.  Little did we know he would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and die less than a year later.  Made me glad I did all that driving I cursed at the time.

I also got to see the temples at Nara, the oldest wooden buildings in the world, the glass works at Murano, had hot chocolate at Florian’s on St Mark’s Square, took a canal cruise in Amsterdam, and dragged two guys to the diamond district in Antwerp where I got asked by one, “Can you tell these two stones apart?”  I glanced at them, told them which was which and why – and I was dead right.  They stared at me like I was insane.  I kindly explained knowing diamonds came with estrogen.  (The sales woman had hysterics.)  Then there was Pittsburgh, Evansville, ID, and Pottstown, PA  – far more often than not.  But I have to admit, the one place the company had the devil’s own time getting me to travel to was Puerto Rico.  Yup.  They hauled my butt half way around the world and back again, but getting me from NYC to San Juan turned into a nightmare for them.

I’d spent 20 years artfully avoiding any business trip to PR, sending my guys, pleading other commitments, but my boss put his foot down and said, “You HAVE to go, you’re the only one we trust to get this done!”  I had become something of a legend for evading a trip that others fought to take – actually many were begging to go in my place and I waved them a happy good-bye.  So now that I was finally trapped,  I was traveling ‘under protest’.   As we go into our landing pattern at San Juan airport, the always calm pilot comes over the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen (there were maybe 30-40 of us on a flight that carried 180+), if you look out the left side of the plane, you’ll see Hurricane Hortense.”  Let me tell you, a Cat 2 hurricane looks damn impressive from the air.

A little background on how I found myself in this mess.  I was sleep deprived from being in AZ for a week, arriving home late the night before, renting a car to drive home, getting 6 hours sleep, the rushing to toss out dirty clothes for clean ones before racing BACK to airport for the flight to San Juan. Hadn’t seen the Weather Channel or any other TV for several days, but once at the airport, I hear there was a hurricane off St Thomas. I think, “Damn, the flight will be cancelled and I’ll have to call the car service to take me home. I got up early for nothing!”  (I admit, the part that really pissed me off was getting up early.)  Nope, they board us on time on a nearly empty flight – except for business people like me. Now I shamelessly eavesdropped and these folks were saying how it was nothing, they were in and out of PR a dozen time a year and it’s all a bunch of hysteria. So on the flight I get.  (Was this my second or third mistake?)

Ours was about the last flight they allowed to land. (obviously, everyone was nuts, me included). I check into the El San Juan, where they looked at me like I was crazy (How the hell did I know about Hortense? I’d spent the last 7 days 3,000 miles away in the damn desert of AZ!), had dinner with the vendors (who were at a different hotel) had drinks at the lovely lobby bar and chatted with stranded folks trying to get to various Caribbean islands, and went to bed dead tired.

Then came a midnight call.  It had me so confused.   “Get your pillows, a blanket and comes to the casino NOW!”  I kept flipping the light switch, but the damn room light wouldn’t tun on.  I’m cursing a burnt out bulb, I grab the flashlight I always have when I travel and staggered around trying to figure what the hell I was doing.  I got semi-dressed by flashlight, packed my little clock-radio, several  books, and a super large beach towel into a backpack, grabbed 2 pillows, a blanket and staggered into the hallway that was filling with complaining guests.  In my somewhat disoriented condition, I’m wondering why the lighting looks so odd and then I realize that the emergency lights are on.  But the elevators are running so down we go, expertly herded by staff to the still fully lit casino.  Each person was given a dreadful old lounge cushion and told to find a spot on the floor to sleep.  Apparently, when the hurricane hit the island it blew out some of the windows in the rooms, so for safety reasons, all guests has to go to the casino. Even in PR, casinos have no windows, so it was the safest place, plus the governor had closed the bars and casinos at 9PM, so they weren’t losing any business.

You were wondering about the beach blanket, right?  Well, having spent a lot of time in tropical areas, I smartly wrapped the old lounge pad COMPLETELY in the heavy terrycloth.  Even smarter, I parked myself under a craps table where I could prop myself up against the leg and read and maybe cat nap.  I also used my little clock radio to try and get a local weather report – which I did.  Too bad I don’t speak Spanish.

BUT – I had my books!  So knowing I wasn’t actually going to sleep, despite my state of exhaustion, I did read.  Except for one problem.  In any crowd, there will ALWAYS be one problem.  Keep in mind, the bars were CLOSED and had been for hours, but we all know some people will still find a way to get drunk, and despite 4+ hours in a room with sandwiches, water, cold drinks, and juice, this one guy managed to stay that way. He was loud, abusive to the hotel security staff, almost started 2 fights, and generally behaved like a world class a-hole. While I found the ‘floor show’ mildly diverting, I did have the urge to pick up a chair and beat him to death with it. I was not alone, but the staff managed to keep relative peace – despite the outraged mother who confronted the idiot for screaming obscenities near her small children.  Since he was like 6’4″ and maybe early 60’s and she was about 5’6″ and mid-30’s, my money was on her because man had she had it.

Then there were the whiners, there always are, but I figured the last thing staff needed was a hard time. They couldn’t be with family, were stuck taking care of idiot tourists and hapless business travelers and had to stay pleasant at 3AM when they were as tired and fed up as we were, and probably a lot more worried about what was happening at home. So I got to spend a memorable night under a craps table in the El San Juan Hotel during a hurricane, mostly watching two guys play cards and listening to the loud drunk yelling about ‘being illegally detained’, while reading.

Finally, around 6AM we were allowed back to our rooms.  At 7 AM, the phone rings.  It’s my boss.  The man who forced me to go to this stupid island was checking to see if I was OK.  Peachy, I was just peachy.  And so damn thrilled at be being woken up AGAIN!  If he’d been in walking distance, he would have died at my hands in about 90 seconds.  He, however, was safely back on the mainland because HIS FLIGHT WAS CANCELLED!

Hortense wasn’t a really awful storm at Cat 2, but parts of Puerto Rice that are normally desert like, got over 20 inches of rain and catastrophic flooding.  Even San Juan was badly flooded and we were pretty much confined to the hotel by security, like a lock down, due to looting and things like that.  The airport stayed closed for 2 days.  We ate pretty much the same buffet food breakfast, lunch, and dinner, though at dinner we usually had something like baked ziti added.  I figured the staff was doing the best they could.  The rooms had no lights, so housekeeping left us votive candles. and even made the beds and left fresh towels.  We did have flushing toilets and hot water.  Taking a shower by the light of 2 flickering votive candles sounds a lot more romantic when you read about it than it is in real life.  With no power, I sat out on one of the verandas and ……. yes, read a book.  Actually, I read several books and the ones I finished got snapped up by fellow guests grateful for the diversion.  It’s not like we had TV.

The bars reopened late the next day and by then, many of us sort of bonded a bit and exchanged ‘why the hell I’m stuck here’ stories that ranged from ex-pats trying to reach their Caribbean homes to a guy who had been called to testify at a trial on Anguilla.  It was a pleasant evening at beautiful bar and I tipped all the staff generously.  They deserved it.  The whiners left little or nothing, apparently unable or unwilling to understand 5* service just wasn’t possible when hurricanes hit.  I did, however, manage a laugh at them.  One of the women who did a lot of whining was on my floor in an oceanfront suite.  She came up to me in the hallway and asked if I was bitten by bugs.  I politely smiled and said no.  And that, dear friends, is why Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells you to always travel with a towel – or in my case, an oversized, heavy beach towel.  Fleas.  Somehow, the dear whiner picked up the fleas from the old lounge pads and managed to bring them back to the room in her jammies.  Ah, poetic justice.

Today, in the day of Kindles, air books, e-readers, and Smartphones, why carry books?  Obviously, when this happened none of those existed, but without a way to recharge and functioning cell towers and wi-fi signals, you can’t get far with electronics when you’re days without electric.  A good book – well all I needed was enough light to see.  Hey, reading is VERY useful and has lots hints about avoiding pests like fleas.  heheheheheheheheh And you thought Hitchhiker’s Guide was just humor!  LOL  While ‘the whiner’ was showing off her bites, I just smiled pleasantly and nodded now and then in sympathy.  Don’t know what happened to the drunk, but never saw him in the bar – or anywhere else.  The books I finished moved on to other Caribbean islands  or back home to the mainland with my fellow travelers.  I FINALLY got a flight out, to a different airport.  As I told the guy at the ticket counter, “I don’t care if you get me to Kansas, I can always get home from there, even if I have to drive.”  And thank heavens for car service.

Here at home, we got hit last fall by a Cat 1 storm that caused epic flooding and then a month later that weird 19″ snow in Oct that took down tons of trees, and both times we had folks in town without power for 7-10 days.  They had no cell phones, internet, water pumps for their wells – so no water (and that means no flushing toilets), nothing.  The town opened various centers where folks could shower, recharge electronics and such.  That’s the great thing about books, you never have to plug them in, and those new LED reading lights work after dark and take just 1 battery, so it’s easy to have spares.  Even now, when not having a computer with internet access makes me edgy, when my ISP goes down, I just grab a book.  Yeah, I have a Kindle, and yes, my laptop has many ebooks on it, but even the most energy saving laptop or smartphone will die within hours.   Better to save them for communication and entertain yourself with a book.  You never know when you’ll find yourself spending the night under the craps table during a hurricane!

April 23, 2012

Reading Challenge – Lessons Learned

Filed under: Editorial,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 3:00 pm
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On the long list of foolish things I’ve done so far this year, joining a reading challenge ranked fairly high.  Luckily, the risks were low as it was on PBS and all that was at stake was a few credits.  The 5 week long challenge allowed for print books only and rereads didn’t count.  Neither did books you started, didn’t like, and tossed to one side.  (Page counts were not included)  Naturally, I read several ebooks and did a few rereads.  No, I’m not being contrary, just business as usual.  What shocked me most was the fact that I read 6-7 print books a week fairly consistently.

I was NOT the most prolific reader.  Yes, there people who read more than I do.  I find that comforting.  I was feeling like the world’s biggest book addict for awhile now and I’m reassured that others are actually worse than I am.  It was also run during tax season, which cut reading time for a lot of folks.  What did I read?  Well, let’s take a look.

Week 1

A Perfect Match Shelly Bradley
If You See Her Shiloh Walker
Highway 61* David Housewright
Fire Engine Dead Shiela Connolly
If Looks Could Chill Nina Bhruns
Heat Rises Richard Castle
No such Thing As a Good Bind Date Shelly Fredman

Week 2

Protector Catherine Mann
Bear Meets Girl Shelly Laurenston
Wanted: Undead or Alive Kerrelyn Sparks
Taming an Impossible Rogue Susan Enoch
Afterglow Cherry Adair
Generation 18 Keri Arthur
Penumbra Keri Arthur

Week 3

Bad Boys Do Victoria Dahl
A Devil is Waiting Jack Higgins
The Art of Duke Hunting Sophia Nash
50% Off Murder* Josie Belle
Werewolf in Seattle Vicki Lewis Thompson
The Taking of Libbie, SD* David Housewright

Week 4

Blood on the Bayou Stacey Jay
About That Night Julie James
The Calling Kelley Armstrong
Something About Witches Joey W Hill
Let Them Eat Stake* Sarah Zettel
Betrayal Christina Dodd

Week 5

A Bite Before Christmas Sands and Frost
The Probability of Murder Ada Madison
Devil’s Punch Ann Aguirre
Kill Me if You Can* Patterson and Karp
If You Know Her Shiloh Walker
Taking a Shot Jaci Burton

Most of the books I bought myself, but a number were through PBS.  What did I learn from this exercise?  Well, first, my favorite author can write lemons (Shelly Laurenston), a not al all favorite author can write a good book (Kill Me If You Can) – though in fairness, Marshall Karp’s humor gave it positive edge and the plot was could have held more surprises, and the vast majority of the books I read are average to good.  David Housewright made it all the way up to very good, but not a single book in 5 weeks made it to my Keeper Shelf.  Not one made me sit up and go – WOW!  The best of the lot?  Those are marked with an asterisk.  There were a few that just missed, Stacey Jay’s Blood on the Bayou, Kelly Armstrong’s The Calling, and Richard Castle’s Heat Rises.  I found Heat Rises much better than expected and The Calling disappointingly unsatisfying.  Blood on the Bayou had many of the same problems as Dead on the Delta, namely a choppy writing style and ‘heroine’ that is difficult to like or care about on so many different levels.  So 32 books and not one of them blew me away.  David Housewright’s two MacKenzie books came closest.  His writing style in mature, with lean prose, wry wit, sardonic humor, and lots of twists and turns in his plots.  They are what really good mysteries should be.  James Patterson take note.   Not that he cares given he’s now James Patterson, Cottage Industry Bank and Trust.

A few of the books above were reviewed in previous entries here, the rest probably won’t get reviewed.  Mystery fans, buy David Housewright!!!!!!!  Sarah Zettle’s Vampire Chef mystery is worth watching and reading.  Jenn McKinlay – writing as Josie Belle – is getting formulaic in her mysteries.  Her Cupcakes mysteries are still the best.  Christmas stories that include killing a long lost relative just aren’t my idea of festive fun and make me wonder what the hell the editor and author were thinking.  And Vicki Lewis Thompson needs some new ideas.  By the way, the ebook, Beneath the Skin (de la Vega Cats 3) by Lauren Dane gets a big thumbs up from me as well.  One of my favorite series by her, this entry is new and available as ebook only at the moment (so not listed above).  Try the Samhain web site or Amazon.

So, that my report for the month.  READ ON!

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