Housekeeping notes!

Did you think we were going to talk about bathtub ring? Nope, not even close. Today I’ve got a few housekeeping notes about the blog. Next Monday I’ll be leaving for London/Paris for two weeks, and between organizing for the trip and decompressing after the trip, I won’t be tending to the blog. You WILL have new content every Tuesday and Thursday, but the commenting feature will not be available. The blogs are written in advance and loaded in the queue for the entire month, so be sure to check back for our regular posts.

I’ll resume posting in real time on July 30 with a trip recap, but if you want to know what’s happening while I’m away, follow me on Instagram! The account is brand spanking new, and I’m hoping to manage at least an image a day from our travels. We have lots of lovely things planned, and I’d love to bring you along!


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Linky go-round!

It’s a veritable merry-go-round of links today–don’t get dizzy!

*Thanks to writer pal Susanna Kearsley, I discovered the Live Cam Rome/Pantheon. A quick search turned up another in the Piazza Navona. Need a little armchair travel? There’s nothing better than pulling up a live cam and pretending it’s your hotel window. Make sure you’re eating some gelato when you do!

*The Ten Paris Streets You Just Have To Walk Down. I’m hoping to stroll down a few of these next month…

*18 Incredible Places You Won’t Believe Are In London. I could set a book in most of these.

*Choral music not heard since the time of Henry VIII.  Presented as a gift to Henry VIII and his then-queen, Catherine of Aragon, this collection of music has been dusted off and recorded–likely the first time any of the music has been heard in five hundred years. It’s utterly lovely and a very fitting gift for a musical king.

*Speaking of Henry VIII, one of his favorite palaces is celebrating it’s 500th anniversary this year! Hampton Court, once the plaything of Cardinal Wolsey before being given to Anne Boleyn–is observing a landmark occasion with all sorts of festivities. Along with five other royal residences from times past, Hampton Court is maintained by the Historic Royal Palaces organization. The palaces–including the Tower of London and Kensington Palace, current home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge–do not receive monies from the Crown or the government and rely upon donations. They have a special category of membership for American supporters, and it is WELL worth purchasing if you’re planning a trip within the next year. (I worked the numbers and for us the membership will pay for itself halfway through the second palace.) Besides helping to maintain these historic properties for future generations, you also get a bit of inside info and discounts on shops and dining at the palaces as well as free admission.

*And if you prefer your history a few hundred years closer in time, then check out this great piece by the Victorian History blog on what streets sounded like in the capital in the nineteenth century.

*Need a little mysterious fun? Mystery Tribune has a list of 7 Cool Detective Games for Mystery Lovers on Android.

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Today I’m loving

We have a Loving post today, and I am smitten with my Eyebobs. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that once you hit 40, you will have to make friends with reading glasses. I turned 47 last week, and I have an entire collection of these suckers. But I keep gravitating to my Eyebobs. I chose the Fizz Ed style, a classic shape in a black/tortoiseshell mix. My husband was the one to find them and sleuth out a shop in NYC that sold them, and on our last trip we each grabbed a pair. They are 4-5 times the price of drugstore readers, but that’s because they are MUCH higher quality. I keep reaching for these instead of the cheaper ones I have lying around. They feel substantial, like proper glasses, and they come in all sorts of fabulous colors and styles. If you have to wear readers, you might as well make it fun, right?

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Today we’re watching ballet

Fair warning: I’m going to gush a bit. If you are a fan of ballet–or even just a good story–grab “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq”. A superb documentary detailing the career of Tanaquil Le Clercq, the muse of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, “Faun” provides interviews with some of her partners and friends as well as clips of her performances. Although I had known of her for years, I had never seen her dance, and it was a revelation. Le Clercq was blessed with a remarkable profile and long, long, LONG limbs she used to stunning effect during her short career. Her extraordinary beauty reminded me of the bust of Nefertiti–somehow far removed from the mere mortal–and her musicality was utterly unique.

She met Balanchine when she was fourteen, and the next year he selected her for the lead in a small ballet for a polio benefit. With Balanchine dancing as the personification of Polio, Le Clercq played the part of a young dancer stricken with the disease. The ballet had a happy ending, but Le Clercq’s story was more complicated. She became Balanchine’s fourth–or fifth, depending upon whether you count a common-law union–wife when she was twenty-three. Four years later, during a European tour, Le Clercq fell ill in Copenhagen–with polio. She would never dance or walk again. Their relationship, always turbulent, did not survive his infatuation with a new prima ballerina, and they divorced in the 1960s.

The photographs in the documentary–along with the performance clips–are stunning, but the most moving interludes are the conversations with her former partners. In particular, Jacques d’Amboise fairly vibrated when he talked about her. Her allure is undimmed, and “Afternoon of a Faun” is an extraordinary look at an extraordinary life. Must see.

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Digging through the archives…

Today’s archived post comes to us from 2007! This is what happens when a writer of murder mysteries gets bored…

Last week I attended a middle school choir concert, and as usual, I amused myself by composing a list of methods of murder. (Don’t judge–you weren’t there.) Long-time blog readers may remember a similar list compiled during the last choir concert. Alas, that list was eaten by the WordPress archive, but it gives us a chance to start anew. I feel compelled to add a disclaimer: don’t do this. It is wrong to murder other people. It is, however, amusing to THINK about murdering other people, and if you put it in a book, you will get paid for it AND you won’t go to prison.

*Defenestration: a personal favorite, both for the rhythm of the word and the finality of the method. There is a nice metaphor between shattering glass and ending a life.

*Suffocation: think “The Cask of Amontillado”. Not to be confused with…

*Smothering: pillows, stuffed animals, plastic bags.

*Garrotting: piano wire, underwire, barbed wire. The possibilities are endless.

*Blunt instrument: a distinct lack of subtlety here. Anyone can go around bashing people on the head. There is no elegance to such a crime, unless the instrument is later cooked up and served to the police a la “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl.

*Exsanguination: absolutely my favorite method to SAY. It sounds like something the Protestants would have fought the Catholics over, doesn’t it? I have read that it is a gentle way to die, provided the wound causing the blood loss is not too painful.

*Animal attack: by a trained animal assassin, of course. Think “The Speckled Band” or “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. (Conversely, a faked animal attack is also an interesting twist as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle demonstrated.)

*Anaphylaxis: an acute allergic reaction brought on by bee stings, ingesting peanuts, that sort of thing. Very useful in that the villain need not actually be present at the time of the crime.

*Arranged accidents: switching medications, removing treads from a dark staircase. Care must be insured that the accident is reversed before the investigation commences.

*Exposure: might seem like a good idea, but one must take a cautionary look at Greek myths to realize how often exposure actually failed to kill unwanted princes of prophecy.

*Manual strangulation, drowning, stabbing, falls–more common methods, but not without possibilities. Manual strangulation can be accomplished with the drapery cord of a common enemy, thereby removing TWO parties at once. Drowning ought to be accomplished simply by heaving someone overboard and sailing peacefully away. Holding the victim’s head underwater is messy and potentially dangerous. Drowning men are said to possess unholy strength. Stabbing is to be avoided on the same grounds, unless a more subtle variation can be devised. One need only look as far as history and Luigi Luccheni’s assassination of Empress Elizabeth to see how it might be done. Falls may be arranged from staircases, balconies, cruise ships, but care must be taken not to become entangled with the victim on their way down.

*Foreign substances: I have read about ground glass being slipped into a victim’s food, but I have my doubts. Wouldn’t the dinner guest note the odd texture before enough had been consumed to do any real damage?

*Poisoning, burning, and shooting: another batch of common methods, difficult to get away with in these days of excellent forensic techniques and lacking in imagination.

*Psychological murder: the most insidious and diabolical of all, driving another either to murder or suicide. Difficult to prosecute, almost impossible to prove. One must be careful not to leave either incriminating letters or the victim’s diaries behind.

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Today’s post is about writing

And it’s one of those times that I want to laugh hollowly at the idea that I have anything to say upon the subject. I’m curled fetal under my desk, whimpering. This is my eleventh full-length novel for publication, and some things are just routine–like the mid-book existential crisis. The first draft of this book (the second Veronica adventure) is done; I’m tearing it apart to make it cohesive. This is the Frankenbook stage, where scenes are cut and replaced, stitching into a new spot to make the book better, stronger. It’s an ugly process. Things get cut that I like, things I don’t WANT to cut.

But I am relentless, snip snip snip. Have you ever heard of the Moirai of Greek mythology? You might know them better as the Three Fates. They were sisters, Clotho, who spun the thread of a person’s life, Lachesis, who allotted the appropriate length, and Atropos who went SNIP with her scissors and cut off the thread at the point of death. I’m in full-on Atropos mode right now, wielding my shears without pity. If something doesn’t work, no matter how much I love it, no matter how much I want to plead with myself to keep it, IT GOES. The bits I save get patched in to new places and suddenly the book takes a different shape, related to the first draft, but not identical. Siblings, not twins–and sometimes only cousins.

There’s very much the feeling of a lonely traveler on a dark and misty road at this stage. Wolfish deadlines nip at the heels, so there’s nothing to do but push forward into the unknown. The only consolation is the knowledge that you’ve come this way before. Not the exact path, not the exact creepy woods on either side, but this wandering way is familiar. There’s almost a comfort in knowing that you’ve suffered for a book before and you will suffer again. You begin to worry about NOT suffering, but no worry: this book will torture you as much as it can. But you make friends with it in spite of its prickling ways, and by the time you come out the other end, you’re companions together. You’re glad to part company for awhile, but you miss its complaints. Until it decides to pay a visit and demand you revise it. But that’s an agony for another day.

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It’s time to make a plan…

So I have a capsule wardrobe plan for the London/Paris trip next month. Will I stick to it? Heaven only knows, but I want to. I LOVE the idea of packing a smallish bag with plenty of room for souvenirs. (Sorry, I misspelled “books” there.) Much will depend, with apologies to William Carlos Williams, upon the weather. It’s been chilly and damp in England and hot in Paris, so I’ll have to keep a cautious eye on the forecast and perhaps adjust my list accordingly.

The capsule consists of ten pieces, all of which can be mixed and matched. We will be gone 14 days, and the trip includes research, pleasure, and business meetings. We’ve rented an apartment in London for the first nine days; after that, we can’t do laundry, so ten pieces should serve.

Here they are:

2 prs skinny jeans–one black, one dark blue

1 dress–black shirtwaist with full skirt, 3/4 sleeves

1 blazer–black

1 long-sleeved shirt–denim

2 blouses–one black and white polka dot (3/4 sleeve) and one cream silk, safari style

1 3/4 sleeve t-shirt–black and white stripes

2 t-shirts–one black, one white

Not included in the ten items: scarf, lariat necklace, Longchamps tote (everyday) small black crossbody (alternate everyday), snakeskin clutch (business/evening)

Shoes: black Coach sneakers, black and cream pointed-toe Tahari flats w/t-strap detail, black and white polka dot driving mocs, black mary janes.

If it’s hot, I will add white cropped jeans; if cold, in goes a very thin grey sweater. If it’s wet, I will toss in a short black trench. Everything can be layered with the denim shirt doing duty as a light jacket, and everything works for casual sightseeing and research. For business meetings, I will pair the black skinnies with a black t-shirt, black blazer, Tahari flats, snakeskin clutch, and a lariat necklace. It’s comfortable, sleek, and the accessories are doing the heavy lifting style-wise.

Final tip: with a limited palette for a travel wardrobe, red lipstick is essential. It also does a superb job of mitigating the effects of a jet-lagged face!

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An ancestor with a sticky end…

The family name of de Braose isn’t exactly a household word these days, but in the times of the early kings of England, the de Braoses were movers and shakers. As a player in the Norman Conquest, William I de Braose was given lands in Sussex according to the Domesday Book. They became Marcher Lords, clashing frequently with the Welsh, and they married into the Marshal, Mortimer, and de Clare families–all power players in the high-stakes game of medieval politics. The de Braose family alone is worth a year’s set of entries, but the most interesting to me is Maud de Braose, a Frenchwoman born Matilda de Saint-Valery.

Records claim she was tall and beautiful–do the records ever say otherwise?–and she married William III de Braose, author of the Abergavenny Massacre, earning him the soubriquet, the Ogre of Abergavenny. William was with Richard I when he was slain at Chalus, but he soon clashed with the new king, John. John was not, according to strict application of male-preferential primogeniture, the obvious successor to his eldest brother. John was the youngest of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany was an elder son and he had left an heir, Arthur, and after raising a rebellion against his uncle, Arthur was imprisoned and later disappeared. (Interesting to note that Edward V and his brother were not the first adolescent heirs to go missing…)

Arthur had been under the care of William de Braose at the time of his disappearance. There’s a juicy story about King John getting lavishly drunk and stalking down to the dungeons to kill the boy with his own hands before dumping his weighted body in the Seine–a body that was recovered by a fisherman and secretly buried for fear of reprisals by the king. Was it true? Possibly. John certainly didn’t hesitate to use brutality when it served his purposes, as it did against Maud de Braose.

Having fallen out with the king over money, the de Braoses had their estates seized and received demands from the king to hand over their sons as hostages for their good behavior. Maud would have none of it. She declared that she would never surrender her sons to a man who had murdered his own nephew–not the most tactful of words under the circumstances, and the de Braoses were forced to flee. They divided up, with William scarpering to France disguised as a beggar. Maud was not so fortunate. She was captured, along with their eldest son–another William–in Ireland and hauled back to England in chains where popular tradition has it that they were flung into prison and starved to death. The grisly end was supposed to have taken place at Corfe Castle, and legend says that when the dungeon was thrown open, the marks of Maud’s teeth were visible on her son’s cheeks.

Somewhat more kindly, legend also says that she built Hay Castle–the de Braose stronghold–in a single night and without aid by carrying the stones in her skirts.(Impossible as we know that to be, it demonstrates the regard in which she was held that such a story would be fabricated at all.) The Welsh, often on the receiving end of de Braose brutality, claimed that she wore armor and sometimes led her husband’s troops against them. It’s also a tribute to her legacy that in the Magna Carta, signed after Maud’s unjust imprisonment and death without trial, there is a clause that states explicitly that it is unlawful for any man to be imprisoned or executed without the judgment of his peers. I like to think that John was thinking at least a little of Maud when he signed it. (Note: King John was also my 23rd-great-grandfather. Interesting that his blood mixed with hers just three generations after he had her hounded to death.)

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It’s Reading day!

The days I do book recs are always fun for me, and I thought I’d give this one a twist by adding a theme: PAPAL THINGS. I have long been fascinated by papal history; the intricate plots of Vatican politics are far beyond even the abilities of the most diabolical thriller writer to conjure. So much power! So much intrigue! If you feel the same, here are a few books that might interest you.

*THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO. Don’t be put off by the heft. Hubert Wolf does a masterful job of relating the dark deeds behind convent walls in 19th century Italy. It all begins with a novice–born a German princess–who insists she’s being poisoned by the novice mistress. From there it spins out into a story about holy visitations, sacred mysteries, secret love affairs, blackmail, and murder. It’s superbly written–and tremendous credit to the translator as well. Here’s a great review from the Independent that actually uses the phrase “lesbian killer nuns”.

*THE POPE AND MUSSOLINI. David Kertzer’s newest chronicles the long and intricate relationship between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. (Kertzer also wrote an excellent book–PRISONER OF THE VATICAN–about the papal withdrawal to the Vatican after the unification of Italy. Did you know that for 59 years, the popes didn’t leave the Vatican? They refused even to set foot in St. Peter’s square or give blessings from the balcony of the basilica.) Kertzer was able to draw upon newly-released documents covering the activities leading up to and through WWII–documents that disprove MUCH of what people have believed to be true about Vatican attitudes towards fascism and Mussolini in particular. This one just won the Pulitzer and it was WELL deserved.

*MISTRESS OF THE VATICAN by Eleanor Herman. Chronicling the life of Olimpia Maidalchini, the sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X, Herman’s book explores the life of a woman who loomed large on the international stage. She crafted policy, made appointments, and even influenced the outcome of papal conclaves. Innocent may have reigned, but Olimpia ruled, and she is a woman who deserves not to be forgotten.

Still looking for a book fix? Check out Penguin’s First to Read program! You can get information, excerpts, and even galleys of the hottest books before they hit the shelves.

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It’s a linky roundup–get your ropes and saddle up!

Today’s link roundup features all sorts of yummy things that I think you will enjoy.

*Courtesy of The Toast (via Murder by the Book’s weekly newsletter) Signs that Agatha Christie Is About To Murder You.

*Also courtesy of MBTB (have I mentioned lately how much I love them?) Miss Marple vs. The Mansplainers. Kudos in particular for the parallel between Christie and Austen.

*Miss Fisher is coming to the big screen!

*From the Paris Review, one of the most sincerely terrifying things you will ever hear.

*From Brain Pickings, How To Pack Like Nellie Bly. Intrepid world-traveler and reporter Nellie Bly was one of the inspirations for Veronica Speedwell…

*Bake like a queen with QEII’s scone recipe–the one she graciously sent to the Eisenhowers.

*In need of some art? The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made 400,000 high res images of its collections available free of charge.

*Superb royal blogger Ella Kay has struck again! After the delights of her hat and jewel blogs, she is presenting The TiaraPedia, a celebration of our favorite and gaudiest bauble.

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