June 15 @ Grousable Books: a nutty musical number, Andrea Kress, The Lady Vanishes, and more

Grousable Books Newsletter

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In this issue: A nutty musical number, Andrea Kress, The Lady Vanishes, from pantser to plotter, and Thomas Jefferson cukes.

I Think I’d Better Think it Out Again

Yes, it’s the song that Fagin sings in the musical Oliver! But I changed the lyrics to reflect my frustration with the marketing aspects of my career as a writer.

So if you want to see, and hear, something pretty nutty: 

Or watch on YouTube here

No applause, please. I know, I’m no singer. But it had to be done.

Author of the month: Andrea Kress

This month my author focus is on Andrea Kress, who writes historical cozies. This is the first of the Berkshires Cozy Mystery series, set in the 1930s. 

Murder at Highfields cover

In Murder at Highfield, nurse Aggie Burnside leaves New York to join a friend who lives in the Berkshire Mountains. She’s drawn into a case where a judge is murdered, and supplants the bumbling police inspector in solving the mystery. Take a look!

Mystery Movie: The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938), with Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, opens with a miniature train set, then takes you live into the hotel where a number of people are stuck overnight due to an avalanche. This way all the main characters (the two British men traveling together, the wealthily afianced young woman, the illicit couple, the roguish scholar, the dottering old lady) are introduced.

Still from The Lady Vanishes

The brain patient, the nun (Estelle Winwood), and the couple trying to solve the mystery of the vanished lady.

Dame May Whitty’s character (the dottering old lady) is on the train and disappears, but the afianced young woman (Margaret Lockwood) is the only one who admits to having seen her. The roguish scholar (Redgrave) helps her as a lark.

This was the film that got Alfred Hitchcock appreciated, and it contains a number of his signature tropes: playful sexuality, humor, an enemies to lovers relationship, one person believing what others don’t, shadowy hints of foreboding, random murder, and imminent dangers to characters one has come to like. There’s also a head injury that makes the main character question what she sees. Even the chugging of the steam train seems to go from reassuring to sinister. …. And yes, the fact that it’s made in 1938 does play a role in the story.  

From pantser to plotter

There’s an old saying that writers are either plotters, carefully planning out and outlining their book before they write, or pantsers, those who write “by the seat of their pants” without a plan. Most, of course, do a bit of both. 

Having done years of historical research and lecture outlines where I had to be a plotter, I was so happy to be a pantser as a novelist. And yet…

pants

If you follow my newsletter you might get the feeling I’m stuck on the prequel to the Tommy Jones Mysteries. It’s not “writer’s block” but I’ll admit I’m in a bind. I set the Murder at the Gasworks aside to do other things, including publish my cozy Bummer at Luna Beach. And when I came back to my draft, I realized I’d literally lost the thread. I think I know who done it and why (which is a first for me!), but I’m at the half-way point and don’t know what comes next.

Taking a look again, writing summaries of all the scenes, what jumped out at me were the “doubles”. Two bodies, two detectives, two women working to help, two gasworks, and one boy: Tommy Jones. Perhaps this larger idea might get me back on track!

Thomas Jefferson cukes

I’ve tried and tried to grow cucumbers, but we get a lot of gray, overcast, semi-coastal days and they don’t do well. I’ve tried different locations and different cultivars: Japanese, gherkin, lemon, English, burpless.

But last year I was given a packet straight from Monticello of Long Green Improved Cucumber (Cucumis sativus).

cucumber plant

I love Thomas Jefferson. I do. I’ve read, in additional to his political writings, his garden notebook and his love letters. Yes, I know the Louisiana Purchase was an abuse of presidential power, but I wrote a paper in college on his Embargo of 1807 and I think it did great things for American industry. He walked up Pennsylvania Avenue to get inaugurated instead of taking a carriage. I’m a fan.

Now I confess that these particular cucumbers were not grown by Jefferson. The cultivar wasn’t around until the mid-nineteenth century. But they come jumping out of the potting soil, every single blessed seed, and grow and grow. The cucumbers are delicious. The fact that they’re somehow connected to TJ’s favorite place to be just makes them better.

And more!

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.

Until next time, keep grousing!

June 1st @ Grousable Books: 20% off, Ellery Queen, SS Great Eastern

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In this issue: 20% off all my books, Ellery Queen, A Warm Mug of Cozy, June author event cancelled, and the SS Great Eastern.

Subscriber special!

Starting today and continuing for a fortnight, readers can save 20% on all my books by ordering direct at Grousable Bookshop. Use the code NEWS20. You can even get an autographed copy if you’re in the U.S.

my books

But shhhhh, for now it’s just for newsletter subscribers.

Ellery Queen

I was watching a mystery show the other day: Death in Paradise. They usually have four suspects, but this time only had two, and the murderer was one of them. I still couldn’t figure it out.

When I can’t figure it out, I always hear Truman Capote saying to the roomful of detectives in Murder by Death (1976)

You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.

And it was one of those. The vital clue was at the very end. (More on Murder by Death another time!)

I miss the tv show Ellery Queen.

At the end, Jim Hutton as Ellery would turn to the camera and ask whether you, the audience, had figured it out. He’d remind you of all the clues, and then there’d be a commercial for you to think/discuss at home and come to your conclusion. After the commercial, Ellery would tell you (and the other characters) the answer.

Jim Hutton and David Wayne on Ellery Queen tv show

And yes, that’s David Wayne (whom I’ll always see in my mind playing the song Farewell, Amanda in the Tracy-Hepburn classic film Adam’s Rib) playing his dad.

My short story was accepted!

“No Good Deed”, a story featuring as Rosie and Lou from Bummer at Luna Beach, was accepted for the A Warm Mug of Cozy second anthology of cozy mystery stories. It’s a detective story. I can’t call Rosie and Lou detectives, though, since they’re amateurs and police detective Rory Gallardo is totally involved.

This is a major distinction in mysteries: is it “amateur sleuth” or “police detective”? Sherlock Holmes, arguably, was neither, so he seems to come under the moniker “private investigator” (which these days sounds pretty noir). Sticking to one of these categories is expected. 

Tom Barnaby (Police Detective), Jessica Fletcher (Amateur Sleuth), Sherlock Holmes (Private Detective)

So when was the last time I did what was expected? My first Victorian mystery, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, features Inspector Slaughter (“police detective”). But Murder at an Exhibition has an “amateur female sleuth”. And how do I categorize Murder on the Pneumatic Railway? It’s more of a detective ensemble – everyone has a role to play in solving it.

In my “No Good Deed” short story, Rosie and Lou are looking for a deed that will reveal who owns property on an island off the coast of California. They find much more than they bargained for, and must hunt for a murderer. I don’t know the publication date yet, but the last A Warm Mug of Cozy anthology came out in fall. I’ll let you know!

Change of plans

You may recall that I was excited about being a local author at Beach Town Books in San Clemente on June 23. Unfortunately, the event has been cancelled. They are considering a July reschedule, so I’ll let you know.

While I’m thinking about bookstores, I want to shout out to local bookshops in the San Diego area: Artifact Books in Encinitas, which hosts fantasy and thriller authors out on the sidewalk because the shop is so small. Mysterious Galaxy, whose eclectic collection of fantasy and mysteries leads to unexpected discoveries.

Mysterious Galaxy bookstore

And The Book Catapult, which has its own book club.

Did you know that when want a new book and you order through Bookshop.org, you can choose which bookstore to purchase from? You can set it to order from these, or your local indie bookstore. If they don’t have it in stock, they order from the publisher and it’s shipped to you. It’s a great way to support independent shops.

Historical research notes

Thanks to the bright-eyed readers who reported the incorrect link to my research process posts, I’ve added a second installment on the possible New Orleans short story and you can see both here.

In another change of plans, I will be setting aside the New Orleans story for now. Instead the focus is on the Tommy Jones Mysteries prequel, which has been half-written for many months. I’d love to publish Murder at the Gasworks later this year. So the research posts will now return to Victorian England, and here’s a new note.

William Samuel Parrott, Building the “Great Leviathan” (1858)

When Murder at Old St. Thomas’s begins, Inspector Slaughter greets his new sergeant. It’s 1862, and the sergeant has come over from Baltimore on the “Great Eastern”, also known in the painting above as the “Great Leviathan”. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it was 692 feet long and was the largest passenger ship in the world, and could carry 4,000 people. It featured paddlewheel, sails, and a screw propeller. (Yes, all three.)

Like other extravagant technologies, the SS Great Eastern would not fulfill the dream. There wasn’t demand for the amount of cargo it could carry, and at various times in its history the boiler exploded, there were pounding noises from the hull, and it struck a rock off Long Island that ripped a hole in the ship. Although it would help lay the transAtlantic cable, it was defunct by 1874. 

By the way, I love researching good technologies that get abandoned. My favorite airplane, the Airbus A380, also got off to a rocky start in 2000, going far over budget, requiring nations to chip in to build it, and developing cracks after ten years. Production was ended in 2021 because it was too large for the airport system.

I promise more parallels to contemporary life as I continue research for Gasworks.

And more!

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.

Until next time, keep grousing!

May 15th @ Grousable Books: Research and art

Grousable Books Newsletter


In this issue: follow my research, quick possum pic, author spotlight on Jolie Tunnell, Beach Town Books, and a bit of art.

A unique chance to watch me work

No, I don’t mean I get on Zoom and you watch me type, frown, and shuffle papers.

For my newsletter subscribers, and because I do love documenting history, I plan to blog my process of research for both a New Orleans-based short story and Murder at the Gasworks, a prequel to my Tommy Jones Victorian mysteries.

people at a bank

George Elgar Hicks, Dividend Day (1850)

The inspiration for the short story is Bouchercon 2025‘s anthology competition, which I plan to enter. The territory is new. Since the conference is in New Orleans, that’s where they’ve asked the stories to be set. All my fiction work so far has been set in England or southern California, so this will be a challenge. 

I’ll also be diverting into my WIP (Work in Progress). The Tommy Jones prequel is half-drafted already, but there is still much research to do, starting with understanding Dividend Day at the Bank of England, pictured above, when stockholders collected their quarterly dividend. (And no, I don’t know how this fits into the story – yet – but there’s been some sneaky goings-on at the Bank . . . )

You can come with me (to the research posts, not the Bank). The first installment is in a secret category on my blog. 

Author recommendation: Jolie Tunnell

This month my hearty recommendation is for the novels of Jolie Tunnell, who’s a wonderful person in addition to being a wonderful author of cozy historical mysteries. I became acquainted with her sleuth Loveda Brown in her first outing, The Great Loveda Brown.

Jolie writes the Idyllwild Mystery Series. Idyllwild is located in southern California, like my Bummer at Luna Beach, but it’s up in the San Jacinto Mountains, on the way to Palm Springs. Idyllwild has long been an artists’ colony, but the town also has a very interesting history, as it turns out. 

Here’s the latest tale. Go ahead and download it. It’s FREE!

Cover of Loveda Brown: The Boston Burglar

 

Loveda Brown is a governess for a wealthy 1911 Boston family, but things are about to get complicated.

The August heat could be blamed for short tempers and frizzy curls, but only Loveda Brown would know how a dead man landed in her third-floor bedroom unannounced. Or would she? The clock ticks down as Loveda and her best friend Bea try to untangle the mystery while her future becomes dimmer than a sixteen-watt lightbulb.

Can she take the heat? Or will the truth shock her world?

Download at:  https://dl.bookfunnel.com/l55do1hfrm

Quick possum pic

I’ll make this quick because not everyone is enchanted with the species Didelphis virginiana. But surely babies are ok?

baby possums

These two joeys are two of three siblings, and they do like munching, though they are careful not to be seen by the owl. They also hide when the adult possums come by.

Coming in June

If you’re in or near San Clemente, California, come on by. I will be one of a few authors at Beach Town Books for their June Author Pop-Up on Sunday, June 23. 

Beach Town Books sign

More information as I have it! But let me give the shop a shout-out, too, and not just because they’re hosting li’l ole me. Beach Town Books has lots of used books and some new in a friendly shop with knowledgeable staff. Really a special place. 

And a bit of art

I love museums, and this year I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Smithsonian in D.C., the National Gallery of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art (free every third Tuesday if you’re a local!), the Oceanside Museum of Art, and the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum in Los Angeles.

Of course, when I go I’m attracted to Victorian-era art. From a historian’s point of view, works of art are primary sources (things created during the era you’re studying). But I’m also an art history buff, interested in artistic styles and what topics are shown in the works. I take photos of both the paintings and the tags so I don’t forget.

Brook's A Pastoral Visit

Richard Norris Brooke, A Pastoral Visit (1888), National Gallery

It’s not easy to take photos of paintings in museums. The lights tend to reflect off the varnish, so I often have to photograph from the side. That’s not ideal, but at least it’s my photo.

I like A Pastoral Visit because as I get older I appreciate genre paintings, like people at home, more and more. A family together in a comfortable room, 1888 gender roles intact, food, strong adults, children, and a cat. I tend to sit and look at paintings like this for a long time.

And more!

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.

Until next time, keep grousing!

Subscribe here to receive newsletters by email

May 1 @ Grousable Books: Possums, books, and Sisi

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In this issue: Freebies, li’l possums, Bummer release news, Sisi, a big change book cover, and a cozy anthology contest.

First, welcome to all new subscribers to the newsletter! It’s a little different from other author newsletters, so I hope you enjoy it. 

Freebies

Head on over to this Fun in the Sun BookFunnel promo page to find free book downloads (and be sure to get yourself The Dancing Colonel for free if you haven’t already). Genres include mystery, fantasy, short stories, and more!

Li’l possums

Yes, this little guy (and I think he’s a guy because his face is wider than the females) is fresh off the hillside and ready for some apple pieces.

little possum

For those keeping track of our possum geneaology, he is one of three so far, son of Bold Petunia, who is daughter of Cassie, who is daughter of Nobbie and (possibly) Panda2. Yes, it’s the Possum Begats.

How do I know who’s who? I take photos, and watch for them almost every night, and try to tell them apart using facial markings and body shapes. I can tell who’s living in the garden by how fast they arrive for food. Plus I’m a trained historian (which doesn’t help in the slightest).

Bummer release news

For my newly released book Bummer at Luna Beach, I tried to get some publicity out more widely. Early reviews are coming in at Amazon and elsewhere, and all outlets should now have the book. My huge thanks to those readers who are posting reviews!

Bummer at Luna Beach colorful ad

It’s now available in paperback, hardback, or ebook. I’m still working on the audiobook!

If you’re not in the know, Bummer at Luna Beach is what I’m calling an “eco-cozy” mystery with a beachy location. Since it’s a cozy, there’s no gore or horror, just a busybody Miss Marple-ish sleuth, a newbie police detective, a teenage environmentalist, and a grumpy newspaperman. It’s light and fun, but with recognizable underlying themes about keeping beach towns funky.

Sisi

Some day I hope to visit Vienna, so I like to watch movies and TV shows that are set there. And because I’m a historian, I like historical stories. 

Exactly one year ago (!) I reported to you on Vienna Blood, the TV show. Now I’ve just finished watching the first and second seasons of Sisi, on PBS.

Photo of actors playing Sisi and Franz Joseph

I know a little bit about the rein of Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary in the 19th century (I vaguely recall writing a chapter on 19th century European politics for a textbook a couple of decades ago). Franz Joseph’s wife Elisabeth (Sisi) was a popular but tragic monarch who may have suffered from depression. That’s not an issue in the first two seasons, where she captures Franz Joseph’s heart with a free personality much at odds with the norms of the time, and becomes a political asset. 

The costumes, though! We are at the height of the crinoline era, where skirts were held out in a huge bell shape by hoops. These were, in fact, a revelation and a relief for upper-class women, since the previous era had featured heavy petticoats. With a crinoline, you could do amazing things (like pee, and sit down) much more comfortably. The only possible historical inaccuracy I’ve caught so far is that Sisi’s maids wear them. Indeed, the costumed maids seem to be there primarily for comic effect.

It’s violent in the war scenes (lots of war in the 19th century, especially if you’re Austrian – those nasty Lombards and Hungarians are everywhere) but they saved money using slo-mo camerawork. Otherwise it’s a delight. Yes, it’s in German (and even a little bit of Hungarian), but with expert and evocative subtitles.

Big change book cover

My literary novel, Before the Time Machine, has had a generic book cover since it was published. Although literary fiction readers like the cover (they enjoy discovering what’s inside), general fiction readers can’t tell whether they want to read it. 

Before the Time Machine old cover

So I’ve worked on a new cover. Unfortunately, I lost access to the Adobe suite when I retired from the college, so I’ve created it with a combination of Canva and GIMP (the open source graphics program). The new one looks like this:

Before the Time Machine new cover

At a glance we can see that it’s about a historian and H.G. Wells, and time. We’ll see how it goes!

Cozy anthology contest

Writing contests make me crazy (not that I have far to go!). Some of them are just money makers, frankly. Folks set up a contest, charge everyone $100 to enter, give some of the entry fees as prize money, and keep the rest. Really, anyone can do this. 

But far better than an ordinary contest is an anthology entry contest. Anthologies are published as books, and are a good way to read several stories of the same genre together. Last year, A Warm Mug of Cozy was published as a collection of stories by wonderful cozy mystery authors.

A Warm Mug of Cozy Anthology cover

So this year for Volume 2, I’m entering a story. It features Rosie McMahon and Lou the newspaperman from Bummer at Luna Beach. They find a body while snooping where they shouldn’t be. The clues lead them to Koko Island to find the killer, along with police detective Rory Gallardo, a forensic technician, and a few members of the Koko Island Club. 

As you can imagine if you’re an Agatha Christie fan, Koko Island is isolated and the cast of characters very limited. I hope the tale gets accepted!

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read blog posts on history and writing, or even teaching online? See my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!

Subscribe here to receive newsletters by email

 

 

April 15 @ Grousable Books: Snafus and Saints

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In this issue: Newsletter snafus, The Saint, Astrid, the garden in spring, and author M. Culler.

Newsletter news and snafus

A big thanks to the readers who contact me when the newsletter touches them. I got lots of mail about my poor bees from good-hearted folks who lauded my efforts. Made me feel better about the whole thing!

Now for the snafu. 

Old newsletter design with backgrounds

I’ve also received unhappy notes about the formatting of the newsletter, especially how it looks on phones, or in dark mode, or other viewports where strange things happen: white text on beige background, dark text on the red brocade, etc. I can’t account for it, so I’ve eliminated all the backgrounds.

Yup, we’ve got a plain white newsletter now. I like decoration, but it’s no good if we can’t read it!

Yes, it’s The Saint

Awhile back I was at Footnote Books in San Diego, and picked up an old paperback of The Saint in Europe by Leslie Charteris. Why? Because I like the TV show with Roger Moore, which I watch on occasion. But I’d never read the books.

The Saint books

As you can see here, I’m kinda hooked now. No reason to go elsewhere (it’s one of those fabulous old-fashioned shops with used books piled to the ceiling), so I returned to Footnote and got three more. The first two covers match The Saint in Europe. I could have gotten all matching covers, but that 25 cent Avon paperback was too cool not to buy.

Very few things are “dated”, to my mind, and these stories certainly aren’t. I found surprisingly few anti-female passages (which are common in spy books from this era). In one story I was a bit shocked at The Saint killing someone as coolly as he might order dinner, but overall the stories were varied and interesting. Just when I thought there was a formula, Charteris would break it. 

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that the Saint, a man trying to help people out while he has some fun (and profit) for himself, would still work in our times.

For those who like author notes: Leslie Charteris was half British and half Chinese, so couldn’t establish residency in the U.S. due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. It took an act of Congress to give him and his daughter permission in 1942, one year before the appeal of the Act. Charteris became a U.S. citizen after World War II.

Neurodivergent mystery TV

While fiction and media have always featured neurodivergent characters (Sherlock Holmes counts!), the past decade or so has brought more differently-abled mystery characters to our attention. The most popular literary example might be Nita Prose’s The Maid (which to me seemed to come rather late to the party).

On PBS, there’s Astrid. She’s an adult who’s been dealing with severe social anxiety forever, and her job is designed to keep her from having too much human contact. She knows she’s on the autism spectrum, but has special abilities. She can remember most of the case files she copies in Criminal Records, finding parallels and connections.

Still from Astrid TV show

Her counterpart is a creative and disorganized police detective, and the story is as much about how they work together as it is the mysteries they solve. In French with great subtitles that capture the essence of phrasing, not just the words. Highly recommended. 

The garden in spring

Of course, I don’t have to watch TV, because I can just look out the window. I saw one rabbit jump over another rabbit’s head. They did it three times just for fun. We seem to have a dove ménage-à-trois after a hawk attack took out one of a pair, we have more wrens than usual, and one sparrow spends all day, every day, trying to attract a mate by screaming bloody murder from a nearby tree.

the garden in april

Between the sparrow and my cat, it’s taking a very long time to record the audiobook for Bummer at Luna Beach. Even with my best efforts, those animal sounds sneak in. And some animal sounds I’m putting in on purpose–I’m thinking of having the sound of seagulls between the scenes. They’re French seagulls, so pretend you don’t notice. 

Author of the month: M. Culler

In the middle of each month, I like to share an author whose work I’ve gotten to know or who writes in genres similar to my own. Writers who write well, and whose work I like to read, are highest on my list.

This month I’d like to introduce you to M. Culler, writer of cozy mysteries that are bright and intelligent. Take a look.

M. Culler and her book

Her A New Year’s Cat-aclysm features a feline, of course. The main character is the new owner of an animal shelter, and the biggest donation goes missing. As with many of M. Culler’s books, there’s a bit of romance there, too.

M. also runs the Book Dragons readers group on Facebook. Like me, she writes in several genres. If you like cozy mystery or romance or fantasy, I think you’ll enjoy her books.

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read blog posts on history and writing, or even teaching online? See my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!

Subscribe here to receive newsletters by email

 

 

1 April @ Grousable Books: Bodies and Bees

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In this issue: Bodies, grouse news, and The Story of the Bees.

Bodies

There was a time when I didn’t review any shows from pay services, but now it’s almost impossible to watch anything without using one. Pay channels are the new studios, and many have the resources to engage in deep levels of historical research to create high production values. 

Bodies is a Netflix production, the story of a body that appears, naked and with an eye missing, in four different timeframes. The first of these, chronologically, is Victorian, which is why I watched. 

Victorian detective leaning over a body

Copyright Netflix

The narratives set in 1890 and 1941 feature brilliant production design by Richard Bullock, who also did Peaky Blinders (set in the 1920s). Each of the four eras was filmed in a way that indicate the time. So there’s more sepia for 1890, more flat grays and blacks for 1941,  natural color for the present, and blue for the future. This is cinematic time design–photographs and movies have made us think of these eras in these colors.

Grouse news

Yes, there is grouse news, a first! The US is proposing plans to protect the sage grouse. Some say it’s too little, too late to save their habitat–it is nevertheless a good step. 

sage grouse

Although this is not the Grousable Books breed (that’s a Black Grouse), the bird is extremely similar. Rarely employed as a hunted game bird to be frightened by beaters, it is nevertheless an important species for the health of nearly 70 million acres of land in the western United States. 

The Story of the Bees

First, the neighbor texted, worried about a swarm of bees on our common fence. By the time I got out there, the bees had made a beard on the underside of the compost bin lid, and were busily creating a comb. I assured the neighbor (who has a small child) that I could get them to leave by the next day. It was a small group so calling in someone was silly.

Late that night, I went out and opened the lid, tipping it back against the fence. They would be cold, I thought, and when the sun rose they would fly away. Exposing the group usually does the trick (if they’re out of the sun, I’ve used a halogen light at night to the same effect).

bees clustered on compost bin lid

But they didn’t leave. In the morning, they simply all moved to the underside of the lid, bearding and building. I went out and had a word with them. They were the gentlest bees ever, and while they listened patiently it was clear they would not acquiesce to my request. I’d become fond of them and kind of wanted them to stay, just not right there. We created a “bee box” with cardboards and three hastily purchased comb frames, put it up against the bin, and waited. They ignored it.

So as the sun was setting on the second day, I came up with the clever idea of removing the whole lid and moving it to the other side of the garden.  If you have read my novel Before the Time Machine, and think I may have things in common with the character Katherine, I do: clumsiness. I dropped the lid.

Beekeeping enthusiasts may be worried at this point about what I was wearing. No, I am not a beekeeper. In fact, I’ve been afraid of them most of my life. (I grew up in the era of films like Killer Bees and The Swarm–do you remember the ending with the Volkswagen and the Superdome?) I wore long sweatpants, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, my Dodgers baseball cap, rose gloves, and an over head/under arm strapped netting thing I bought for mosquitos.

Frantically Googling how to make bee smoke as they flew around in confusion, I ran inside and got my stainless steel kettle, filled it with pine needles and toilet paper roll, lit it, and used the smoke to manually move the bees. They were all trying to recreate their bunch on the bin lid. I talked quietly to them, and tried to scoop some off the uneven surface into an orange Home Depot bucket and put the lid on fast. I caught about half, and the others flew up–not at me, just up.

It took me two hours to move about 95% of them to the other side of the yard. By the end I was using yogurt containers to get barely a dozen at a time. And if they ever do make honey, it will taste like burnt pine needles.

aI didn’t get stung. Not once.

They all found their way back into a bunch on the lid, now safely across the yard, as the sun set. When I went out early next morning, they were asleep. I set up our faux bee box and put a little cardboard ramp so they could walk the plank. I saw them check it out later that day, then I left the house for two hours. When I came back, they were gone. There was one bee left sitting on the box, looking dazed.

Is there a moral? Well, I should probably have waited one more day instead of feeling pressured by the neighbor’s concern. Terrified someone would start bringing out poison spray or something, I moved them further than they could safely move (the limit is three feet), and when I dropped the lid I had to move them all manually. There were fatalities, but not as many as I feared. I hope they don’t let their bee friends know what I did, because I want my garden to be a welcoming home to living critters. 

I miss them. 

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read blog posts on history and writing, or even teaching online? See my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!

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March 15 @ Grousable Books

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In this issue: Gosford Park, The Alewives, 30% off pre-orders for Bummer at Luna Beach, a new revision of the Wells book, and flowers.

Gosford Park

As readers may recall, I’m not a huge fan of current movies. Too much detailed violence, characters in pain, angst and dark psychology for me. I like the bodies to be dead when I get there.

So I recently had the pleasure of rewatching Gosford Park (2001), a film that had trouble getting funded (two of the participating actors contributed) but is one of the best Agatha Christie-style films of all time.

Scene from Gosford Park

It takes place, naturally, at a manor house shooting party. Not only is it directed by Robert Altman and written by up-and-comer Julian Fellowes, but the cast is nothing short of astonishing: Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, and more. Using the “Upstairs, Downstairs” motif that would later feature in Downton Abbey, the cinematography is gorgeous, the acting sublime.

And the story? The murder doesn’t happen till significantly into the film, which I love. (Avid readers may have noticed that my mysteries work that way, too!)

Book recommendation: The Alewives

It’s not easy to write a believable novel set in the 14th century, but Elizabeth R. Anderson has done it with The Alewives: take a look!

Cover of The Alewives

Particularly appropriate for Women’s History Month, three women in dire financial straights after the Black Death set out to make their way as alewives. It’s a charming medieval murder mystery (bet you didn’t know I was a medievalist before I became a Victorianist) and timely—they are trying to reconstruct their lives after the plague. 

Writing stuff

Wondering what I’ve been up to, author-wise? Gearing up for the April 20 release of Bummer at Luna Beach! I’m even creating flyers and mailers for this one, since I expect it to be popular in coastal California. You may have already seen my virtual “billboard” for the fictitious town of San Benno.

Welcome to beautiful San Benno for the most on the coast

And yes, a few versions of this cozy mystery are available for pre-order now: Amazon (Kindle e-book) and Barnes & Noble (hardcover).  The paperback will be available everywhere soon.

OR you can pre-order the e-book or or signed paperback nwo directly from Grousable Bookshop and it will ship April 20. (For newsletter readers only, use the code NEWS30 for 30% off when you pre-order from Grousable Bookshop!)

In other writing news, I just finished re-editing my academic reference work, H.G. Wells on Science Education, 1886-1897. The revised edition will be released well before the man’s birthday in September. Those interested in reading work Wells wrote before The Time Machine (actually quite delightful even though it’s all about science teaching) should wait for the new release. Revised editions take a while to propagate through the system.

Flowers

After all the rains, the flowers in my garden went crazy. The little apple tree in the middle has never been this covered in blossoms. (For SoCal low-chill gardeners, those are Anna and Dorsett Golden types.)

So left to right, sparaxis, apples, Dutch iris. If you’re not familiar with sparaxis, it’s one of those South African bulbs that does really well in the alkaline soil and sunny conditions in southern California. Plus they take care of themselves, and come up every year. Can’t ask for more than that.

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read blog posts on history and writing, or even teaching online? See my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!

Subscribe here to receive newsletters by email

1 March

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Seeing Stars

In this issue: Poor Tommy Jones, production design awards, early spring in the garden, seeing stars.

Poor Tommy Jones

It’s not enough that he’s a nice kid on mean streets, but he’s being ignored by his author (that’s me). And here he is supposed to be the star!

Tommy was a curious kid in Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, a source in Murder at an Exhibition, and the main detective in Murder on the Pneumatic Railway. But Murder at the Gasworks will be a prequel, showing how he became the ward of Inspector Slaughter and his wife, Ellie. There’s a murder (possibly two) and two Sergeants and a feud between the City of London Police and the Met. 

Drawing the Retorts at the Great Gas Establishment, Brick Lane (1821)

W. Reed, Drawing the Retorts at the Great Gas Establishment, Brick Lane (1821)

These characters have been set aside for months as I prepare for the release of Bummer at Luna Beach, a contemporary SoCal cozy that has nothing to do with Tommy or Victorian England. The prequel was half-drafted when I got into this cozy craziness. 

Then there’s always the question: are the Tommy Jones Mysteries cozies? or are they more Traditional mysteries? I don’t think Tommy will care. He sits on the hard stone floor at the gasworks waiting for his story to be told. 

Production design awards

As you know, I love movies, and in particular I’m a fan of good production design. That’s where the look and mood of the movie comes through, in the set decoration (what objects are in the shot and how they’re arranged), scenic design, costuming — pretty much anything visual that isn’t cinematography. I’m afraid I don’t care as much about the movie stars.

Set of Maestro

Set of Maestro

I follow the Set Decorators Society of America, which gives awards. See the full list of nominees and winners for 2023.

Early spring in the garden

You have no doubt heard about the storms that have flooded parts of SoCal over the last couple of months. It wasn’t that much water, just a lot for here, and in some ways we just aren’t prepared for it. I don’t even have a rain barrel to collect it. I used a trash can. And a trug. And a bucket. 

Animals arrived waterlogged at the food bowl I set up under an umbrella near the back door. They came spiky, especially the punk possums, and were grateful for dry food. This is my star possum at the moment, Shy Petunia (it turns out there were two Petunias, one bold and one shy).

possum

Possum in the rain

As the days lengthen, those previously waterlogged bulbs and trees have also recovered. Once again, I’m working on creating some English Country Garden in my chapparal scrub suburb. Wish me luck!

Seeing stars

Quite a few people have read my novels, and hundreds have downloaded my short stories, “The Dancing Colonel”and “Murder Steampunk Style”. That’s great!

5 stars

Indie authors love reviews, but I’m also delighted with stars. Please consider giving my work some love on GoodReads, Amazon, or wherever you shop? It helps other readers, and me too!

Love e-books?

All my e-books are half off at Smashwords March 3-9. Enjoy!

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read blog posts on history and writing, or even teaching onlien? See my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!

Subscribe here to receive newsletters by email

15 February

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In this issue: Lessons in History, helping a katydid, Black Orchid Blues, panning Belgravia, and promo time for e-books.

Lessons in History

I am currently reading (later than many others, I know) Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.

Lessons in Chemistry book cover

In portraying the challenges of being a female scientist before second-wave feminism really got going, the book is teaching readers about history. Readers and movie viewers are continually surprised by what is revealed to them in a story set in the past. Often they go look things up to find out what really happened.

After 30 years of teaching history to college students, I can tell you that one can teach historical themes and events, but that doesn’t mean they’re being learned. 

Fiction books and films can play a huge role in teaching people. Narrative is a great way to learn, because following a story is natural (following an argument, like in a history book, is not). Movies like The Imitation Game, The Help, and Hidden Figures, and books like Lessons in Chemistry, help us understand the past even if they’re just one modern-day interpretation. It’s our doorway to learning some history.

Helping a katydid

I was sitting out in front on a cold night, looking up above the door. There was something up there, something ugly dragging a leg and what looked like a wing. A cricket? cockroach?

It was a katydid, missing its back leg. Digging out a box with holes in the lid, I took him in for the night. He rapidly ate a piece of apple, then went to sleep. I read up on injured katydids (as one does) and discovered they can survive missing a big back leg. Though they don’t grow them back, they learn to rebalance in a couple of days. 

Katydid on a flower

Next day, he was climbing up to the top of the box and clearly ready to leave my comfy accommodation. And sure enough, three days later, he stood on a tall flower to show me he was ok.

Recommended book

Allow me to introduce you to author Persia Walker. Her book, Black Orchid Blues, is a complex historical thriller with a completely different pace than my books, but great historical detail.

Persia Walker, Black Orchid Blues cover

If you’re looking for a book that grabs you into the story right away, I’d recommend it! Described by Publishers Weekly as a “dark, sexy novel”, it takes the reader on a fast-paced ride through the underbelly of 1920s Harlem.

Panning Belgravia

I don’t usually pan movies and TV shows, but I confess being disappointed by the first episode of Belgravia. It has fans, I know. I should be one, since it’s written by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey and other good stuff. Plus it’s set in the 19th century.

Belgravia cast

Look at those costumes! There’s Harriet Walter, one of my favorite actors (on the left with the parasol)! It’s got to be fabulous.

Unfortunately, Belgravia is too soap-opera-ish for me. The first episode begins in 1815 in Brussels, so if you know your history it’s clear what’s coming. Napoleon is about to meet his Waterloo, so all the British troops are off to confront him. Luckily, we are not subjected to the battle itself (if you’ve seen Waterloo with Christopher Plummer as Wellington and Rod Steiger as Napoleon you’ve seen the best already). 

I’m glad not to view the dying up close, and I appreciate the focus on women left at home, but very quickly we’re into who was in love and shouldn’t be (due to class, of course), who got pregnant, who acted inappropriately, and who shouldn’t have been invited to the Duchess’s tea party. Plus a tiny historical tidbit of the Duchess of Bedford inventing afternoon tea (which may well be a manorial legend). It’s like Downton Abbey speeded up, where we’re supposed to mourn the dead before we even know who they are.

But the performances were excellent considering a rather thin script, and the costumes and sets simply gorgeous. 

Promo time for e-books

FREEBIE: From February 7-March 10 my short story “Murder Steampunk Style” is free at BookFunnel’s Dark Night/Bright Light cozy mystery giveaway. And oh yes, there are books there written by other authors too!

Only a few days left for Kobo’s Great Reads Under $5 e-book promo for Murder on the Pneumatic Railway. That’s the one where Tommy Jones must help get his old biology tutor, Samson Light, out from under the charge of murdering a railway clerk. Victorian London and Durham at their finest. You can get it here. This one is for readers from Canada, USA, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

BOGO at Kobo is still going on for Romance books through the end of the month, so that means A Heart Purloined and many others. Here’s the list for historical romance

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read blog posts on history and writing, or even teaching onlien? See my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!

1 February 2024

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In this issue: Proof copies, Kismet, a possum report, The Night Circus, a romance (plus one) for February.

Proof copies

One of the crazy things about publishing is you get a choice, albeit a small one, of where to print your books. I requested proof copies from both Ingram (which feeds bookshops) and Amazon to check the quality. 

I’m very pleased with both, but proof copies give me a chance to check things. Like here, the gutter (the part of the page near the middle) is too small, so you have to open the book wide to read it. I’ll be adjusting the margins to be smaller on the outside, bigger on the inside.

The Night Circus

This novel by Erin Morgenstern was my read for this fortnight. Written in 2011, and winning prizes for fantasy fiction, the tale is about the people involved in an unusual circus that is only open at night. There are few acrobats and no elephants. Each tent offers guests a different experience.

I’m glad I didn’t know it was a fantasy before I started it; I read it like literary fiction, because the prose was so evocative. It was like total immersion into a different kind of circus–black and white instead of flashy colors, real magic instead of tacky illusions, and a bizarre and varied circuit of appearances. From the clockmaker to the fortune teller, the characters are deeper and less stereotypical than I expected, with their own talents and desires.

Some suspense was created by having two of the characters, unbeknownst to themselves, set into a competitive game by a surreptitious authority. It’s a competition that won’t end until one of them is killed, presumably by the other or as a result of competing magic. Yet the word “magic” is rarely used in the book; such powers are accepted as belonging to certain people, and their use is to delight rather than harm. An excellent read, more steampunk than fantasy.

Possum report

I name the possums that come into our backyard, of course. When a large gray one appeared, I named him Cassius because he was always hungry (see Shakespeare on this). But once his belly dragged on the ground and I saw multiple tiny tails, I realized he was a she, so she’s Cassie. Two of her kits have stayed in the yard. One is bold and the other shy, but they look alike so I’m not sure which one this is on the left:

It’s Cassie having some water on the right. So this means all the possums in the yard right now are female (they have the pointier faces). Last night, I heard one clicking in the night. That’s the sound adults make to let their kits know where they are, so there may be more out there than I think!

Film review: Kismet

While my days aren’t ruled by what’s on Turner Classic Movies, I do find gems there that are worth giving up an evening of writing. Kismet is one of those gems.

Yes, it’s a 1955 musical, so you get the high-waisted costumes and hair sprayed within an inch of its life. There are songs and dances that only tangentially play into the story, and many poorly disguised sexual entendres are broadly delivered. But it has two aspects that make it quite special. 

The first is the source of the story. Hajj the Beggar, his heights of wealth and power alternating with the depths of poverty, seems straight out of the Arabian Nights. Don’t expect any historical “accuracy” — Kismet is set in a “fictional Baghdad” from the tales, not an actual place. This gave the art directors (including Preston Ames, who also did An American in Paris) free reign to create fantasy sets and outrageous costumes.

Market scene from Kismet

Anne Blyth as Marsinah and Howard Keel as her father Hajj. And yes, that’s Jamie Farr in a small role as a marketplace merchant.

In addition, the basis of the story was a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock, with the role of Hajj seemingly written for Oscar Ashe, a Shakespearean actor/manager (not unlike my character Cyril Price in Murder at Old St. Thomas’s). On Broadway in 1953, Alfred Drake played the role, and Howard Keel plays him in the film–clearly, an expert who can ham it up is needed!

The second extraordinary thing is the source of the music. Although the lyrics/book were written by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, the music is primarily adapted from work by Alexander Borodin, a 19th century Russian composer. Songs that became known, such as “Stranger in Paradise”, were based on his musical themes, which makes me smile whenever I hear Borodin on classical music radio. (An American in Paris did something similar, but with the music of George Gershwin, which was very different.)

BOGO at Kobo

In the mood for a bit of historical mystery romance? Kobo is offering a Buy One Get One special through February, and guess what’s on the list?

Silver Medal: A Heart Purloined

So you can get A Heart Purloined and another romance book together. Kobo is where I buy my e-books too!

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read my blog posts on history and writing? They’re on my Lisahistory blog.

Until next time, keep grousing!