Dear friend…

I have a friend named Sherri who is quietly starting a revolution, I think. In an age of text and email and Snapchat, Sherri has been writing letters–short notes to let her friends know she’s thinking of them. Sometimes they include coloring pages with elegant swear words, and sometimes they are postcards, but they are always messages of thoughtfulness and heartfelt affection. They’ve gotten me to pick up my own pen from time to time; I’ve been inspired to dash off a few notes of my own to let people know I’m thinking about them and wishing them well. (And isn’t it FUN to get proper mail? My heart thrills just a little when I see an envelope with actual handwriting emerge from the box…)

And while I love to receive letters, I also love to read other people’s. My nonfiction rec today is IN TEARING HASTE, a collection of letters between the Duchess of Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor. The duchess was Deborah Mitford, youngest of the glamorous Mitford sisters, and Leigh Fermor was a travel writer and war hero. Their relationship was platonic and often epistolary, but their friendship was one of warm devotion. They chattered on about shared acquaintances and offered their takes from front-row seats of historic events–President Kennedy’s inauguration and funeral, Prince Charles’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer, etc. Edited by the duchess’s niece, the book is a charming relic of days gone by. (And thank heavens it’s properly footnoted because between the two of them, they knew EVERYBODY.) I picked up a paperback copy in London last year with a cover such a beautiful shade of blue that I have painted my nightstands to match…

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On the bookshelf

I’m back! Home from Bouchercon and beavering away, putting the finishing touches on the first round of Veronica’s third adventure. While I’m busy with my favorite Victorian lepidopterist, I thought I’d spend the rest of the September posts giving recommendations for nonfiction reads.

Today we’re starting with a little Americana–not my usual field, to be sure. When I was very young, my grandmother gave my mother (her daughter-in-law) a copy of a White House cookbook featuring recipes from all the First Ladies from Martha Washington to Lady Bird Johnson. (My grandmother, who was a famously awful cook, was always giving glossy paperback cookbooks to my mother, and they always featured recipes for extremely complicated food that no one in their right mind would ever cook. But I LOVED looking at the pictures.) The headnotes in this book featured little snippets of White House history, and I remember a stunningly pretty Frances Cleveland in her wedding dress and an elegant Jackie Kennedy in a sheath. What recipes were featured, I could not tell you–I’m not sure I ever read them. But I was tremendously interested in how the various presidential families engaged with the White House during their tenures. It always intrigued me that the house just carried on, sheltering all kinds of families and enduring all sorts of redecoration. I was curious as to how each family managed to make a home out of what has sometimes been an inhospitable place. (It very nearly collapsed on top of the unfortunate Trumans who had to decamp to Blair House while renovations commenced.)

My curiosity was finally satisfied when I ran across J.B. West’s UPSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE: MY LIFE WITH THE FIRST LADIES. Over the course of three decades, West was Chief Usher at the White House, serving each administration from Franklin Roosevelt’s to Richard Nixon’s. He gives a fascinating peek into the running of the Executive Mansion as it has adapted to each family’s tastes and expectations. It’s not a tell-all book; there are no juicy revelations or political axes to grind. West’s assessments of the men and women who passed through the White House are endlessly interesting on their own, as are the tidbits about the day-to-day responsibilities of the White House Staff. (Did you know that the staff moves one president out and the other one in during the two hours of an inauguration? They are nothing if not efficient.) Now I want to hunt down information on how the presidential families since the Nixons have adapted the Residence…

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When I was pondering lightness

I am out of pocket, dear readers, so I am offering up this bit from the archives from 2013. I’m in New Orleans for Bouchercon; check out my Appearances page for details. Hope to see you there!

So yesterday I turned 45. It seems like a benchmark birthday–the next round number is FIFTY, after all. But I got carded last week by a girl who thought I was in my thirties and I’m feeling better than I have in years, so 45 is absolutely fine by me. I’ve never done “birthday angst” and 30 and 40 were perfectly lovely birthdays, so I expected this one to be as well.

Except there has been a difference. For some inexplicable reason, I want to be unburdened. I am thinking of all the creatures that shed off the old and unwanted and start a new chapter, bright and renewed and carrying only what really matters along for the ride. (There’s an obvious metaphor here about snakes and shedding skin which I am NOT going to make for the sake of the woman who bore me and has such a phobia that when I was a child we referred to them as “nakes” in our house because it made them sound less slithery. But you get the idea…)

Loads of things in nature hunker down for quiet period of reflection, seeming to rest or even sleep. But things are never entirely still; something is stirring under the surface, changes are being knit up, and when the time comes to open up again, something cracks or peels away and what’s left is newer, fresher, ready for challenges.

45 feels like that. My daughter is leaving for college in a matter of weeks which means our relationship has already begun to shift. I’m no longer the Person In Charge, the first contact for everything. There are now forms and emails that come to her to be filled out, permissions she has to give, contracts she gets to sign. For months now we’ve been subtly changing how things are done, giving her more control as my husband and I have stepped back. We’ve been practicing for our new roles–think “support red” rather than “command gold”.  It’s liberating. And with that liberation comes a reluctance to be tied down to anything that doesn’t reward your efforts with pleasure.

What’s not giving me pleasure right now? STUFF. Our square footage is modest compared to some, enormous compared to others. But regardless of whether you live in a bungalow or a mansion, it’s the stuff that will get you down. The buying, the maintaining, the shedding. It’s exhausting, really. And what I’m craving right now is LESS STUFF. I’m tired of keeping things for the what-if moments. I have a habit of buying the make-do and buying it too quickly and too cheaply. These things never truly make you happy, do they? They break or wear out too fast, and if you chose them too swiftly, they are usually not quite what you wanted in the first place. I’m wanting classic and quality and FEWER.

So I’m embarking on a purge. I am taking each shelf, each drawer, each groaning closet, each shelf of books and considering every item I own. Do I love it? Do I use it? Do I absolutely need it? And into the donation bags or trash can it goes if I can’t justify why I should keep it. (I should point out that I purge my own items and household goods, but in the interest of family harmony I never purge things belonging to anyone else in the family.) I’m clearing out the mending basket–honestly, if I haven’t cared enough to fix something in three years, I don’t need it all that badly. I’m tossing out spices I can’t actually remember buying and makeup that almost but didn’t quite work. I’m rounding up all the bits of broken jewelry to be repaired or donated but not left in limbo any longer. I’m clearing the pile of books off my nightstand to be replaced with ONE. (I finally realized, I don’t need a bigger nightstand. I need fewer THINGS. Honestly–who needs three types of lip balm and seven bookmarks in a nightstand drawer? NO ONE.)

I’m paring down what I carry around with me too. The bag with all the essentials for every eventuality has been trimmed down to a wallet (still searching for one slim enough because now I find even my wallet is too demanding–so many pockets!), an iphone, lipstick, keys, handkerchief, mints, and rosary. (I’m not Catholic, but I got in the habit of carrying the rosary years ago and it makes me smile to see the bright blue beads every time I open my bag.) Throw in sunglasses or grab an umbrella as the weather demands, and I’m good to go. Those few items will tuck into a clutch, which means my hobo bags are heading out the door in favor of smaller, more structured bags. There’s something terribly freeing about not leaving the house encumbered, weighed down like a turtle with all you own. Men don’t. Have you ever noticed? Yes, their clothes are likelier to come with good pockets for stashing what they want to carry, but the average man doesn’t worry about blotting papers and stain remover and hand sanitizer and a snack and the other million and one things women burden themselves with. And if I’m in a situation where I need to be prepared for any eventuality–say, a day-long outing in New York where I’m going from meetings to a research trip to the library to a walk in the park, I can always drop a clutch and whatever else I need into a tote and then check the tote. For my day-to-day life, I’m never so far from the car or a shop or a bathroom that I can’t find what I need–spare band-aid, water bottle, mirror. In the meantime, I’m FREE, or at least closer to it than I used to be.

 

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On paring down and just getting things done

I am out of pocket, my dears, and so I bring you this post from the archives…I’ll be appearing at Bouchercon this week, details on my Appearances page.

I’m still paring down around here, tightening up the book while I’m tightening up everything else! I hauled four bags of clothes out of my closet the other day, and that wasn’t even a proper clean-out. Articles on decluttering always tell you to take every single thing out of the closet and then scrutinize each carefully, but let’s be real–that’s a project that takes HOURS and I don’t have that right now. I also don’t want to wait until I do have that sort of time to bring some order to things. So I’m adopting a different method altogether; I’m doing as much as I can when I can. And here’s how I’m making quick decluttering choices:

1. Dealing with paperwork. I’ve let a few piles accumulate, and now I’m diligently working my way through the stacks. Business receipts and personal receipts are getting filed. Thank you notes from people are either getting tossed or put into a Tiffany box I keep for special correspondence. (I had been hanging onto the thank you notes because I was going to respond, and then I realized how absurd that is. Am I really going to thank someone for their thank you note? No, of course not. It would never end because then they’d thank me for the thank you I wrote for their thank you. It’s a Mobius strip of gratitude. Instead, I read them over again, appreciated their kind sentiments, and dealt with them.) I’ve whipped out my label maker and have created a few new files for things that need a home. It takes thirty seconds to make a label and stash something, but that’s an item that is now properly housed and waiting for friends to be filed with it.

2. Filling a bag with as much stuff as I can find in a quick sweep through my closet. Again, not the method preferred by anyone who knows anything about decluttering, but I don’t care. It’s getting things DONE. I take a single grocery bag and hit the closet, tossing as I go. Some things are obvious–like the gold cocktail dress with the bubble skirt–and somethings are just tired, like the long-sleeved t-shirts I’ve been wearing for the last four winters. They’ve seen better days, and I never really liked them anyway, so out they went along with a pair of jeweled flip-flops that feel like walking on concrete.

3. One drawer at a time. I tidied my makeup drawer in fifteen minutes and tossed a bagful of old or duplicate cosmetics. Last week I found the perfect blush–L’Oreal mousse. It replaces the Lancome mousse blush that was discontinued a few years back and is miles better than anything I’ve made do with in the meantime. So out went all the cream and powder blushes I didn’t like. Drugstore brands, NARS, Lancome, they all got passed on or trashed. I chucked out every dried out lip balm or gloss that was past its prime, and all glittery eyeshadows got passed to my daughter. (Eighteen is the perfect age for glitter.) I kept the Naked palette from Urban Decay and a soft black that can be smudged into smokiness. Everything else went. I ditched half my makeup brushes–the half I never use because OMG, what are they FOR? And I got rid of lipstick colors that didn’t really suit me. I will admit to keeping far more red lipsticks than any woman should ever own, but I also don’t have to go shopping for red for a good long while.

4. Purging while waiting. If I’m waiting for something to print, load, bake, spin dry, or connect, it’s the perfect chance to do a micro-purge. It may be one drawer. It may be one ITEM. Doesn’t matter. If I can skim one clipping and toss it or file it, if I can pull one lipstick out of my purse, if I can toss one raggedy towel, I’ve accomplished something.

I’ve always been a sort of “all or nothing” kind of girl. If I couldn’t do all the trimming in the yard, why bother doing any of it? If I couldn’t give the dog a full haircut, why get out the scissors? Why answer emails if I can’t empty the entire inbox? The result of that is a whole lot of stuff just not getting done. Now I’m not focused so much on the end result, but on the process itself. I’m using the odd few moments here and there to get things done, and it’s actually working. Of course, the dog looks a bit mad with half-cut hair, but it will get finished in the end, I promise. And breaking things down into smaller bites really does help you to eat the elephant. I don’t have to take the entire morning to deep clean the bathroom. I can take two minutes to clean the mirror or swish the brush around the toilet and that is an improvement. I don’t have to take everything out of the linen closet; I can toss one washcloth that’s seen better days. I can polish one piece of silver instead of every bit I own. I can take an hour to trim ivy in the yard and get done as much as I can in that time. Instead of viewing everything as a major project, I’m simply doing what I can when I can and finding much more is actually getting done this way. It’s contrary to everything I’ve ever read about how to tackle decluttering or organizing projects, but it’s working, so there you go.

Now, if only I could figure out how to let go of books in my TBR pile that have been lurking there for YEARS unread…

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Indulge me, will you?

I do love a good indulgence, don’t you? A little luxury can make the difference between drudgery and pleasure, turning something as mundane as bill paying or grocery shopping into a bearable experience. I keep a running list of things I enjoy, not just for myself; favorite treats are also a good way to let someone else know I’m thinking about them and who doesn’t like an unexpected present? Here are a few of my favorites:

*Candles. I know people who only light them at night or on holidays. I’ve been known to fire them up at breakfast, especially on a grey morning. (It taps into the Danish principle of hygge, the enjoyment of all things cozy. I’m not Danish; I don’t even know if I know any Danes, but I strenuously approve of embracing the cozy.) I tailor my candle scents to the season: citrus in the hot weather months; apple, pumpkin, or bonfire in the fall. For winter, I turn to peppermint or evergreen, and spring is usually a light fruit or floral. I like sandalwood for the bathroom, but I stay away from heavy florals in any room. I pick up most of mine at TJ Maxx or HomeGoods, and I usually opt for soy since they burn cleaner than others. Don’t like candles? Try a few drops of essential oil in a burner. I like a mix of grapefruit and rosemary for energy.

*French pastry or chocolate. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so when I indulge, I like it to be worth the wait. A properly-made French macaron is a thing of beauty, and if you live in a city with a Laduree, you’re a fortunate soul. (I have been known to eat three of their macarons for breakfast when in New York…) Something beautiful from their shop or Maison du Chocolat is a perfect little gift for yourself or someone else special. Let them wrap it and take your time savoring it. There is a WORLD of difference between a little bit of artistic confectionery and a sad muffin from a convenience store. The lovely thing is that even the tiniest token from one of these shops is wrapped with care and is a gracious offering for someone you like.

*A split of champagne. Some months ago I broke up with alcohol, but I still think a split of champagne is a lovely way to turn an ordinary day into something special. I am particularly fond of the bright pink cans of Sofia sparkling wine with their little pink straws, but any fizz will do. To complete the experience, pour into an old-fashioned coupe and enjoy every bubble. A delightful gift for an unsuspecting pal.

*Flowers. I have fresh flowers in the house every day. My grocery store is always stocked with roses, but mini-carnations, daisies, lilies would do just as well. I like something with a bit of fragrance to brighten the room. I keep changing the water and cutting the stems, a morning ritual along with opening the drapes and feeding the fish. I’m told they will keep fresh for twice as long if you stick them in the fridge at night, but I never remember. Don’t like cut flowers? Try a flowering plant. A few times a year I’ll buy orchids instead–again from the grocery store.

Reminder: it’s almost time for Bouchercon! As I mentioned in the last post, I’m appearing on a stupendous panel with Tasha Alexander, Laurie R. King, C. S. Harris, Susanna Calkins, and Lyndsay Faye, moderated by Andrew Grant. If you’re in the New Orleans area, pop over to my Appearances page for details!

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September!

It feels as if 2016 were slipping by at a cracking pace, and I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking, FINE. Bring on autumn and bonfires and falling leaves and sweaters and pumpkins and foggy mornings. But those seasonal delights are still a few weeks away for us, and I should probably focus on enjoying the last golden days of summer.

Have you tried any of my August book recs? I love to recommend series because–as a reader–there’s nothing I love better than discovering a delightful new book and then finding out it has FRIENDS.

Speaking of friends…today is the DVD release of LOVE & FRIENDSHIP! If you missed this film on release, now is the time to rectify. Based on Jane Austen’s novella, LADY SUSAN, the movie is a revelation if you’re not familiar with Austen at her most calculating. It has none of the sweetness or sentimentality that people like to play up in her other works; this one is all about the business transactions underpinning the marriage market in England. Kate Beckinsale is a deliciously outrageous Lady Susan, and the supporting cast does a tremendous job of keeping up. It’s witty, pretty to look at, and decidedly worthwhile. Highly recommended.

Don’t forget–it’s a new month which means new prizes on the Contest page! Every month we’re giving away a book club set of signed paperbacks, so be sure to pop over to the Contest page and enter. Also, I will be appearing later this month at Bouchercon in New Orleans on a panel with C.S. Harris, Tasha Alexander, Laurie R. King, Susanna Calkins, and Lyndsay Faye, moderated by Andrew Grant. It promises to be a whale of a time, so please check the Appearances page for details. Hope to see you there!

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Books, books, and more books…

Final series recommendation for August, and I’ve saved something special for last, my dears–Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series. If you haven’t read these books, I hardly know how to describe them; they are unlike anything else I’ve ever found. Witty, engaging, occasionally malicious in a delectable way, the series follows the amateur detective exploits of Oxford don Hilary Tamar and the young barristers of 62 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn. The books are so cleverly written that Tamar’s gender is never revealed in the course of the series, and the supporting characters are some of the most memorable and delightful of any series. Unfortunately, Caudwell died after completing only four novels in the series, but they are jewels. They are perfectly readable out of order, and THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED is my favorite. (One of my characters in NIGHT OF A THOUSAND STARS used the pseudonym Cantrip in homage to her scampish barrister Michael Cantrip.)

Have you signed up for my monthly newsletter? They’re dispatched on the fifth of every month and you’re just in time to get your name on the list for September! Just use the handy widget on the right-hand sidebar of this page and you’ll be all set. (We do not share your information with anyone, and we only do mailings once a month.) Newsletter subscribers get exclusive content and sneak peeks before the goodies are posted on social media, so sign up today!

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A lamentation

Some writers are just taken too soon, and that is a heartbreaking fact. Kate Ross, author of the Julian Kestrel series, died in 1998 at the age of 41. Because of her tragically young death, there are only four books in the Kestrel series, but WHAT BOOKS THEY ARE. Julian Kestrel is a Regency-era dandy and amateur sleuth, and he is so beautifully drawn that I remember being distinctly sad I’d never meet him in real life. Rich with period detail, the series is lively and engaging, and has stayed with me for twenty years. I have made a point of never rereading them, but I have no doubt they are as clever and well-crafted as I remember. The first in the series is CUT TO THE QUICK, but the most ingenious is the final book, THE DEVIL IN MUSIC.

Hey, hey–don’t forget about the Writerspace Beach Party on August 28! The fun begins at 8pm eastern, and you can win all kind of fabulous prizes and chat with your favorite authors. Come join the fun!

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Beach Party a go-go…and another series to rec!

One of my favorite cozy mystery series is the Southern Sisters set by Anne George. Set in Birmingham in the 1990s, the books feature retired teacher, Patricia Hollowell, and her unforgettable sister, Mary Alice. They are warm and funny, and hugely nostalgic for me since Patricia is an almost perfect rendering of my grandmother–also a Patricia. These are the ultimate comfort read for me, and I was delighted when the publisher made them available on Kindle. The series can absolutely be read out of order, but the first is MURDER ON A GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT. (George, who passed away some years ago, was also a Pulitzer-nominated poet.)

Hey, hey–don’t forget about the Writerspace Beach Party on August 28! The fun begins at 8pm eastern, and you can win all kind of fabulous prizes and chat with your favorite authors. Come join the fun!

 

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From tiny acorns, grow mighty oaks…

Time to catch up, chickens! First, if you haven’t dropped by the Contest page on the site lately, DO. Every month we’re giving away entire book club sets of signed paperbacks. (And you can find the reading guides for each book on the book’s page here on the site.) Prizes change on the first of each month, so be sure to check back.

Also, for a chance to win some SUPERB prizes, check out the Writerspace Beach Party on August 28 starting at 8pm eastern. I’ll be dropping by to give away a signed trade paperback of A CURIOUS BEGINNING, but there are LOADS of great things to win and you can chat with some of your favorite authors.

For the rest of August, I will be posting about some books I love–specifically series you might have missed. Today’s shout-out goes to the Agatha Raisin books by M.C. Beaton. (You might also know her as Regency novelist Marion Chesney.) Beaton has two ongoing contemporary British cozy series, the Agatha books, following a pugnacious retired PR executive as she sleuths through the Cotswolds, and the Hamish Macbeth mysteries set in the Scottish Highlands. The Agatha series is my favorite–quick, funny reads with an outrageous and frequently unlikable main character. (You might not like Agatha, but you will always root for her.)

The Agatha Raisin TV series debuted in the UK this summer and is now available for streaming in the US on Acorn TV. (I’m particularly excited because the producer responsible for the Agatha series is currently developing the Lady Julia books for TV.) The Agatha series has gotten a fabulous response in the UK and I can’t wait to check it out! If you’re looking to start reading, the first book is AGATHA RAISIN AND THE QUICHE OF DEATH.

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