Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Meme

Sphinx Ink tagged me for a meme, which basically involves coming up with six random things about myself that you may not know. It's been a while since I've done this, and it's always fun. But I have a lousy memory, so if I'm repeating myself on any of these points, my apologies. As usual, I'm not posting rules or tagging anyone else, although any readers who are so inclined to pursue this may consider themselves tagged. Here goes...

1. As a child, I was desperate for piano lessons. Since we moved frequently and my parents were not musical themselves, lessons weren’t a priority with them and it never happened. Thanks largely to that disappointment, when I became a parent I was pleased that both my children expressed interest in learning an instrument and encouraged (but never forced!) them to pursue it. Sam was a wonderful flutist, but dropped it after five years; Danielle still loves her piano, and gave serious consideration to minoring in music. I occasionally think about taking lessons myself, even at this late date, but apart from the problem of finding the time to devote to it seriously, I have finally acknowledged to myself that I don’t have a musical gene in my body.

2. When I was in high school, I taught myself to play the guitar. I was never anything but a rank amateur, but I always enjoyed it. I had a wonderful old handmaid Spanish acoustical guitar. I put it in storage when I was 27, expecting to retrieve it in a year. We were recently reunited, but, alas, playing a guitar is not like riding a bicycle—at least for me. Perhaps when my kids are settled, the houses restored, and I’m down to writing just one book a year, I’ll pick it up again. Perhaps.

3. When I was in grade school, I loved to take my blocks and cars and tiny horses outside. We lived in the country in Oregon for five years, and I’d find a hollow at the base of a tree and build myself a ranch, complete with house and pastures and stables and a winding lane I’d “landscape” with bits of vegetation. I could happily pass hours that way.

4. I’m a direct descendent of Mary, Queen of Scots. My nth great-grandmother, also called Mary Stuart, was the illegitimate daughter of James II by his mistress Goditha Price. When King James lost his throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Mary helped her half-brother, and then her nephew Bonnie Prince Charlie, in their attempts to regain the throne. After the Rising of 1715, Bonnie Prince Charlie entrusted the beautiful, gold-trimmed and illuminated genealogical pages torn from the Stuart family bible to my ancestor, and Mary’s son carried them with him when he fled to America, with each successive generation faithfully recording their offspring. They’re still in the possession of a cousin. But the only thing I’ve inherited from my ill-fated royal ancestors is a tendency for my hair to turn red in the sun, a proclivity toward making bad choices, and their %#@% porphyria.

5. A Spanish general whose name I never knew had his brains blown out by Communists on the front porch of the house I lived in as a child in Madrid. This ghoulish tidbit was a source of endless fascination to me. Although it had happened decades before, during the Spanish Civil War, I often gave that door an extra hard look as I passed by it, searching for vestiges of stray bits of his gray matter. What affect this had on my growing up, I’ll never know.

6. Today is my wedding anniversary; Steve and I have now been married for five wonderful, happy years.

On a side note, Nick's visit to the vet yesterday did not bring good news. More about that later. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oops! We Did It Again


It’s official: New Orleans has been branded as the city with the worst crime rate in America. According to the CQ Press "City Crime Rankings" list, this honor was bestowed upon us after New Orleans racked up a reported 19,000-plus incidences of six major crimes -- including 209 murder cases -- in 2007. This in a city of less than 250,000 people (which is far less than half the Crescent City’s peak population of some years ago). Compare this with Ramapo, New York, about 40 miles northwest of New York City, which had only 688 total crimes and no reported killings in a city of about 113,000.

When I went to Bouchercon in Baltimore last month, I scandalized some of my fellow conference attendees by going off for a two-hour self-guided walking tour of the city. “Baltimore is a very dangerous city!” they cried. (People who write murder mysteries must tend to be unusually timid folks.)

Any city can be a dangerous place, especially if you don't know where you're going. But I had maps, and a well-developed sense of what parts of a city to avoid. Besides, I told them, “I’m from New Orleans!”

On a side note: Our cat Nick goes back to the vet tomorrow, but he seems to be feeling much better so we're hopeful he's on the mend.

Monday, November 17, 2008

One of Those Weeks

Ever have one of those weeks when it begins to feel as if anything that can go wrong, will? This past week…

My daughter ripped the bottom out of her low-slung sports car on one of New Orleans’s Katrina-ravaged streets. While it’s in the shop being repaired, she’s driving MY car (down those same Katrina-ravaged streets). Then…

The washing machine in my mother’s house broke down. Since it’s old, I decided to go buy a new one--not easy when I don’t have a car. Then,

Our cat Nick, one of the stupidest but also one of the sweetest felines in the world, went into kidney failure. We’re hopeful he’s going to recover, but he’s not out of the woods yet. He’s only eight years old, poor guy. Then…

I broke my toe. Without a car (see above), I’d been walking. No more. Then…

My washing machine broke down. Fifth time in two years. Grrrr.

And then, although it was technically not in the same 7-day streak, Steve and I did a booksigning at a local independent bookstore this past Saturday and sold not a single book. Not one. In all my years as a published author, I’ve never been skunked at a booksigning. I guess there’s always a first. I’m not taking it personally—I’ve talked to huge NYT bestselling authors who fly into a town for a signing and don’t sell, so I know it happens (plus we were able to sign a lot of stock). But still…

The good thing is that with the exception of Nick's health, these are all pesky (although in some cases, expensive) irritants. I know life could be so much worse. Nevertheless, here’s hoping for a better coming week!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

You Can’t (Usually) Go Home Again

One of my favorite books of all time is M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind. I fell in love with it when I was quite young, and have reread it with equal pleasure several times over the years. So when I came upon Kaye’s Death in Zanzibar at the recent Friends of the Library Booksale, I considered it a find.

If you’re not familiar with the two books, Death in Zanzibar is a whodunit from the fifties, very much in the style of Agatha Christie. In writing the “modern” murder mystery, Kaye conceived a backstory involving a rakish nineteenth-century English outlaw/privateer, a prudish American do-gooder, and a trove of hidden treasure. In one of those fascinating twists of the creative process, she found herself so obsessed with her “backstory” that she later went on to write that story, too, in a sprawling historical novel that became Trade Wind.

I remember checking Death in Zanzibar out of my local library in the seventies, and being swept away by lush descriptions of the island and its culture. So I thought I was in for a real treat when I started reading it last week—“thought” being the operative word in that sentence. To begin with, where’s the island? I’m now half way through the book, and we’re still on the plane! Why didn’t I remember that part of the book? Obviously, because it wasn’t memorable. Yet I intend to continue reading, not because I’m enjoying the story (I’m not) , but because the book itself is an eye-opening period piece.

First of all, it’s taking our heroine days to get to Zanzibar; that’s what international travel was like in the fifties. I myself have vague memories of flying back and forth to Europe as a child and having to stop and spend the night in the Azores (okay, I know I’m really dating myself here!). Yet if I were to read this book without looking at the copyright date, I suspect I’d guess it was written in the thirties, rather than in the fifties. Ladies wear lovely linen suits and hats, and young women traveling alone are ever-so-careful of their reputations. A flamingly gay secretary is caricatured in a most politically incorrect way, as is the Westernized Oriental Gentleman (aka Wog, for those of you familiar with overt mid-twentieth century British racism), who is portrayed as a sinister character largely by virtue of being labeled a “nationalist” who wants to kick the benevolent British out of their God-given colonies. Oh, and then there’s all the talk about the evil “Reds.”

Sadly, Death in Zanzibar is a novel that has not aged well in the way of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn, or even Kaye’s own Trade Wind. It occurs to me now that all three of those novels were actually “historicals” at the time they were written, even though the first two were set within the remembered lifetimes of their authors. Which is a thought I hope to ponder, at a later date.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


It’s been a hectic month. The LA Bookfestival, Bouchercon, out-of-town guests, newspaper, TV, and radio interviews, booksignings, and a three-week bout of the flu I’m just beginning to recover from. But this past weekend, Steve and I grabbed the chance to go up to the lake and just sit on the porch and soak in the beauty of changing leaves reflected in still water.

It was our first visit to the lake since Hurricane Gustav two months ago. When we left, the power was still off and we abandoned huge piles of broken limbs, so we’ve been anxious to get back up there and make sure everything was all right. It was, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay as long as we’d have liked, since we had a TV appearance scheduled for first thing Monday morning.

And, as if life weren’t hectic enough, Where Serpents Sleep is released today. Somehow, given the election-day timing, I doubt too many people will be rushing out to buy it! I don’t know about you, but I am soooo glad this election is almost over. I’ve been finding it very hard to concentrate this past week. And I have Book Number Five in the series due so soon I can’t breathe when I think about it. I need to go back to the lake…