Friday, October 26, 2012

Strickly a Book Review

Dragon Bound (A Novel of the Elder Races)
by Thea Harrison
Berkley Sensation
4 spangles out of five
Contemporary fantasy, though some blurbs call it urban fantasy.

This book won the 2012 RITA (Romance Writers of America's highest award) for Best Paranormal Romance. I can see where it would get high scores. The writing is often lush, the action scenes jumping with swash. Its voice is light since its heroine is not very serious. Well, some of the time she isn't.

The cast is filled with brooding alpha males who are also shape-changers—Wyr—in that they can change into a dragon, griffin, bunny rabbit, what have you. Everyone has their own specialty and will likely get their own volume in the series. These people have lived openly (well, they're known) alongside mere humans for a few centuries now. There's even been some interbreeding, which is how we wind up with Our Heroine, Pia, who is half-human and half-Wyr, though she doesn't know what kind of Wyr she is. (Thanks to a conveniently close-mouthed mother who is now conveniently dead. Or dead-ish.)

I'm not a huge fan of these kind of shape-changers, be they werewolves or gargoyles. I rather suspect that if I'd grown up with the cartoon Gargoyles, I might be. Shape-changing gives a hero an excuse to be all growly and fiercely protective of his mate in an un-PC way, so it allows the romance genre the chance to have a 100%, unrepentant alpha male as a hero.

The book gives us a good bit of world-building for the magical elements and sort of how the Wyr & co. came to be (Our Hero's origin is very nicely presented, to the point where at times though he was portrayed as being the Biggest, Baddest Guy Around I wondered why he wasn't, well, MORE. He should be a god.), but never explains to my satisfaction how everything fits into modern society to the point where there's a readily-recognizable modern human society still extant. I'd have thought such would have skewed things radically and the two societies would be hopelessly intertwined. The Wyr still have their secrets but Our Hero Dragos, emperor of the Wyr (as opposed to the Dark Elves, the other Elves, and I forget what other enclaves), keeps his huge fortress smack in the middle of New York City with little to no effect on the human community that surrounds him. (Until he roars one day and causes all kinds of havoc.)

Our Heroine, Pia, is a frightened mouse of a (half-Wyr) woman... unless she's a spunky daredevil... unless she's a passive possession of a dragon... unless she's the most skilled and deadly woman on the planet. I wanted a character whom I would recognize throughout the book, even as she grew into her character arc. Instead I got up and down moods and abilities that let the plot determine them, instead of the other way around. She didn't grow as much as fell into her fate.

I was surprised how much the beginning of the book really grabbed me and kept me reading. I wasn't expecting such a friendly author's voice, reflecting the young, modern heroine. (An excerpt of the next novel shows the same voice at work there.) Eagerly each night I returned to it—until the Saggy Middle came into view. There we had multiple info dumps (okay, it's the first volume of a series and things need to be established, but don't we have time to dump info more subtly?), description of how ritzy and über-cool everything was, and the heroine truly went into schizo mode, embroidered with the old "this heroine is the most beautiful, daintiest, most deadly, most desirable, most remarkable person on the planet and oh, how all the men now lust after her though she never had that problem before" meme.

Most horribly of all, I could see echoes of two of my own books in all the Mary Sue-ishness. Ack! Death to Mary Sue. Kill! Kill! Luckily, one of those books is still in wip form and can be corrected toot sweet! (I do hope I toned down the other one before publication.)

There was also a recurring prose problem: I often had to reread to figure out who was doing what to whom. Antecedents and references were iffy in all too many places. Where was the editor?

But to me the book also brought out why I often dislike romances: The romance is all they've got to offer the reader. Even then, it usually goes only skin-deep. Here our hero loves our heroine because she's a change of pace, but also because there's just something about her (what?) that calls to him, and she's great in bed. Our heroine loves our hero because he's gorgeous, fabulously rich and powerful, because there's just something about him (what?) that calls to her, and he's great in bed.

But shouldn't romance go deeper than that? Shouldn't the couple share a way of looking at the world? Attitudes? Customs? A love of scrapbooking? Something that will keep them together for all eternity after the looks and sexual prowess fade or grow too familiar?

Oh, I'm not just talking this book now. I'm talking about one hell of a lot of romances, which is why instead I write books "with Strong Romantic Elements" (that's an official sub-genre, though the RWA has now turned up its official legal nose at it), and sometimes they aren't even that strong. Okay, my historical (Burgundy and Lies) was the exception, but even then the couple shared something deeper than just lust for looks.

And yet I love an inordinate number of Regency romances. There you often find just the romance, and usually a desperate one at that (women had to get married for security since they had practically zero legal status), but it's all liberally peppered with a struggle against society's rules, and the approach between the couple in question is often humorous, with clever, entertaining dialogue. Even so, when I read a Regency in which something ELSE is at stake—like perhaps the heroine is secretly a writer of a gossip column in order to earn money to keep herself and her orphaned brothers alive—a thrill runs through me and I settle back expecting a story I'll remember long afterward.

But this review is about this particular book, not romances in general. Definitely give it a try, if you're into romance and dragons in a modern setting. Much of it will capture your attention, though I don't think you'll find the rather cliché characters memorable after you close the book. They're fun for what they are. Enjoy the action and don't think too hard about logical explanations. Dragon Bound would make a very pleasurable vacation read.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

New Bern & the Outer Banks, pt. 2

By the time I got to Manteo, the sky was completely overcast and threatening. That was fine by me; forecasts had been that it would rain that night, maybe a little the next morning, but clear out for the rest of the week.

Alas, the clouds didn't break until I was halfway home. Instead for the next few days when it wasn't raining it was drizzling and if it wasn't doing any of that, it looked like it might do it at any moment.

I found my hotel with a bit of trouble, since I was thinking that Kitty Hawk was south of Kill Devil Hills and so panicked when I got to KDH and hadn't seen the right cross-street. Bogue Island consists of two north-south roads, one of which is the highway, and zillions of cross streets. Street #1 will go past House #1. The next street will run past the front of the house that is crammed up against the back of House #1.

I'm not going to tell you the name of my hotel. It was clean, the bed was comfy, the free breakfast good enough for hotel breakfasts (scrambled eggs and bacon were served in addition to the normal cereals, waffles & fruits). Signs indicated that people could NOT take their own luggage to their rooms; staff had to do it. However, no tipping was allowed. This all was because the elevator was located on the second floor. It took two VERY steep ramps to get to it, ramps that even the experienced staff managed with difficulty. Stairs accompanied the ramps, but these were definitely out of code since the tread was so lengthy.

Stairs on the outside down to the beach were also completely out of code, but this time it was the riser that was off. Those things must have been at least 11 inches high. It was like climbing a mountain. I saw disabled customers who would never have been able to make it down to the beach.

The reason I'm not saying the name of the hotel is because there was no security from the beach into the hotel or the swimming pool. Card readers were placed at the outer doors, but they had been disabled. Perhaps the hotel thought that no burglar/rapist in their right mind would navigate those awful stairs!

I'd specified ocean view and got a balcony with a terrific view of the ocean, looking dead east. I'd hoped to be able to do some plein air paintings of sunrise over the Atlantic. Unfortunately it was only the final day, when I was in a rush to get on the road, that the clouds parted a bit—though I never saw the sun itself.

When I went down to check out the beach my first step managed to get about a gallon of sand into my tennis shoes. Guess I'd really arrived! I walked and walked and took a bunch of photos. Some people were flying kites down the beach, but they'd packed it in by the time I got there. On my last full day, two men set up and then kitesurfed just before dusk.

The wind was howling or close to it the entire time, and when I traveled down to Hatteras there were lots of kites peeking over the dunes. Occasionally the dunes would disappear and I'd see guys being lifted a good 20 feet into the air over the water by their kites. I also saw slews of windsurfers.

Oddly enough, I didn't see much difference in tides. I'd go out during high tide; go out during low; no difference I could see. Were we having gravitational anomalies?

I got supper in a nearby recommended restaurant: Miller's Seafood & Steakhouse. My seafood plate with shrimp, scallops and crab cake, was delicious, but the most surprising thing about the meal was the hushpuppy. It wasn't greasy! It was one of those large round kind, not the little dollops, and was crisp on the outside and cakey on the inside. Perfect. It also came with a piece of cornbread that was mostly the same as the inside of the hushpuppy and didn't really scream "cornbread" at me.

We're still talking food? First of all, I NEVER got crabs at Dirty Dick's Crab Shack, no matter how many billboards he put along Highway 64. Instead I went to Awful Arthur's Oyster Bar and had a lovely fresh tuna salad with a side of (drool) the freakingly BEST clam chowder I have EVER eaten! Imagine the best you've ever had and then triple the yummy. Woof! The waitress said she was sure the website had the recipe, but I haven't been able to find it.

The Jolly Roger had been recommended by the desk clerk. It was decorated in a combination junk yard/ocean motif/Christmas style, with one room's ceiling covered with metallic Xmas paper and hundreds of Christmas ornaments. "What do they do around Christmas?" I wondered. Immediately upon entering and getting a table assigned, the manager asked the hostess, "Why'd you give her THAT table?" in an accusing voice, though she winked at me. The hostess was startled and upset. It was her first day and the manager was giving her a hard time/learning experience in front of me, the customer. I didn't appreciate it.

I also didn't appreciate the waiter sliding into my booth as he took my order. He actually advised me not to order the strawberry shortcake for dessert (after I asked him if the berries were fresh or not), even though it was prominently displayed on the menu. I ordered another prominently-displayed dinner, the seafood lasagna, which came with (??) a side of spaghetti with marinara sauce. The sauce tasted straight out of a jar, and the lasagna held no trace of seafood taste. It was just doughy noodles and LOTS of cheese. I tried, but could not eat it. Looking around, I fully expected Gordon Ramsay to appear, flinging the f-word and spitting out food. The manager was mystified; no one had ever complained before! (Yeah, right.) She offered a gift certificate for lunch the next day and I declined. Bleah!

Down at Hatteras/Buxton I ate at the Captain's Table, an informal cafe that served a nice clam chowder and salad. For my last dinner I decided not to fool around and returned to Miller's (if it hadn't been raining I'd have gone to Awful Arthur's) for some lovely surf & turf. The final morning I had breakfast there and was kind of disappointed. The western omelet was more a large, flat crepe, with the filling chopped much too fine. I prefer the Waffle House version: light, fluffy, with big chunks o' stuff.
Can you see this well? This is Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers' park. On the left is where they took off. Then there's the lawnmower, then there are three markers marking how far the first three flights went on Dec. 17, 1903. Waaaay off there to the right is a marker for something, and the final marker with the fourth powered flight's final position should be, oh dear, I think the "something" marker is covered up. Let's just say the final marker is from this angle about as far from the 3rd marker as that marker is from the starting point. And that's with perspective. (I screwed up and didn't get it on this comp.) That's 120 feet, 175 feet, 200 feet, and 852 feet. Altitude was about 10 feet. The brothers alternated being pilot.

Here's the monument, sitting on the large dune they used to fly gliders off of. The two years previous to the powered flight were spent with figuring out how gliders worked and how one could control them. You can't tell much from this, but that is one looooong walk up there. Plus, at the time the dune was sand, not grassed. There's a picture at the base of the dune as it was back then, and even though dunes change their shape often, this is the same exact shape. I suspect that the building of this monument messed up the dune completely and someone sat there with the photo in hand and directed them on how to reshape it to look like the original. Then they slapped some grass seed on it and shot anyone who walked there until the grass took hold.

The visitors' center has a full-scale mockup of one of the gliders as well as the first airplane. It also has a piece of the actual first plane and some of the cloth from the wing that Neil Armstrong took to the moon and brought back. There's a wonderful, interactive talk the ranger gives to explain everything and encourage people to reach for their own goals in life. The site also has some larger buildings that show a movie (I didn't go), plus the two original shacks that were used as hangar and living quarters in 1903. All this for $4. They should install a funicular to take people to the top of the monument (I don't see it as accessible to folks in wheelchairs; that final climb is a killer!), and a bobsled to go down, and charge $20 for the rides. I'd pay.

The ranger said that the Wright Brothers and their crew lugged their 200+-pound glider up that dune 1000 times during 1902. Yikes!

The ranger's talk starts off with two safety admonitions: to stay on the walkways, as prickly pear and sandspurs abound, with the pear able to penetrate the soles of shoes. The second: how to handle rip currents. Huh? Oh well, apparently as long as they have the tourists, they tell them about this. Good enough.

It rained full-out that afternoon, so I finally finished Maeve Binchy's Evening Class, a very thick and slow (but beautiful) novel that gives a real emotional payoff many times in the story, but especially at the end. (sniff) It's a series of vignettes about the disparate people who take a beginning conversational Italian night course at a high school located in one of Dublin's more down-and-out neighborhoods. Recommended for those who can stay for the long run!

The next day I made sure the gas tank was full and set off for Cape Hatteras and its lighthouse. The desk clerk said it would take 45 minutes. Someone passing by said more like an hour. The actual time? Forever!

I did stop at the Bodie Lighthouse practically first thing along the road. It's undergoing full renovation, and the gray drapery matched the gray skies so well I didn't even see it as I drove by. From there the road is pretty darned empty. It alternates dunes and low scrub on either side of the road. At some points crews were out digging up the dunes on the eastern side that were trying to drape over the road, and replacing the sand a little farther out. I passed lots of dead raccoons, surprised that any animals could survive on what was pretty much sand. A display down in Hatteras said there were even deer in some places, but the animals were hard-put to find fresh water.

A ways down there was another BRIDGE OF LONG LENGTH! I caught a glimpse of the sign: Bonner Bridge, the Horror that the desk clerk had spoken of! Yet it wasn't that bad—not nearly as bad as ol' Virginia Dare—even though I was clutching the wheel pretty hard. I just checked on Wiki and it says that the bridge was built in the early 60s, without environmental impact studies; thus the state spends oodles trying to keep it and its surroundings stable. Thus the work crews dredging.

Nope, the real horror bridge occurred in another part of the drive. All of a sudden warning signs appeared telling us to slow down to 25mph. What is this? I wondered. What it was was a small bridge that looked like the Corps of Engineers had gone door to door, asking for old refrigerators and washing machines, and then stripped their backs off to make the bridge. Uneven metal plates had been riveted side by side, row upon row, to form this so-called bridge. I suppose some storm had washed part of the island out (seems to me I remember a news report after some hurricane or another) and the bridge had been hurriedly patched in. Yeesh.

Occasional towns/tourist spots began to dot the road (I saw a street named "Green Lantern Road"), and finally a bunch of store signs mentioned "Hatteras." There was a large sign by the road that had an arrow and said "Hatteras Light Facility and campgrounds," but I passed it by. Everyone knew the thing was called the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. But then I caught a glimpse of the lighthouse out the side window. I turned around.

That's one thing I noticed about the tourist sites on the Outer Banks. When you get to the actual turn-off, there's a big sign hanging over or to the side of the road. There are no warning signs: "Wright Brothers Monument, next left," nothing like that. It's just BANG, and you'd better be in the correct lane right now.

But there was the lighthouse. Yup. Cape Hatteras. There were no programs, and the walk-up had been discontinued as of the day before (I'd heard the radio announcement). No exciting references to the Graveyard of the Atlantic, no shipwreck remains. So I went to the souvenir shop, got some stuff, and decided to get lunch before I started the long trek back.


Somewhere outside of town was a fishing spot (there are lots of 'em along the way), but instead of a parking area off the road, many cars were parked in the sand along the road. I wouldn't take that chance. But they all seemed to be fine.

Except one.

A pickup truck was stuck up beyond its rear axle in sand. By the time I came by, a tow truck had appeared, to the great amusement of the assembled crowd of fisherpeople.

My hotel room's outer door allowed both breeze and the howling of the wind through, but I slept well enough. The next day was for traveling home, but I stopped by Jockey's Ridge on the way off of Bodie Island. I thought maybe I could get some great shots in of hang gliders.

One of the lower dunes at Jockey's Ridge.
They have lessons at 9 and 2, I think, with actual practice after an hour's instruction. No one had shown up today, so I wandered the grounds. They have a wind generator to power the entire site, and a nature walk that shows you all the animals and flora in the area. After that it's slog, slog, slog through the deep sand, up hills and down. This is what Wilbur and Orville had to lug that heavy glider through. There were a couple tiny fresh-water ponds that had to have resulted from the week's rain, though they had plants living in them.

Well, at least I was getting exercise to counter the long drive ahead. I wanted to see the ocean from the dunes and so climbed one. I saw larger dunes all around. Across the way, on top of one gigantic dune, was a frolicking family. When they came down I asked them if they could see the ocean from the top.

"No," Mom sniffed at me. "I saw the sound, not the ocean. There's a difference, you know." Bitch. Even so, I began to walk up. And up. And then the angle became even steeper.

You know, I'd already seen the ocean. AND the sound. I had lots of pictures. Didn't really need to see it again right now. I turned around to return to the boardwalk. When I turned around from there for a final look at the dunes, I saw a fox scampering across the sand. Cool!

Filled up the car with gas (it was 30¢ more expensive on the Banks than back at home) and took off, this time going 64 all the way to Raleigh, past cotton field after cotton field. The skies suddenly turned blue and cloudless about halfway there. Virginia Dare had been a little less daunting—though not that much—this time over. Speaking of Ms. Dare, I was too tired to check out Manteo and all the Lost Colony stuff there. Maybe next time. Of course, next time I'll come down from farther up north, where scary bridges aren't needed. I hope.
I did manage one plein air painting. This is 8x10".

Thursday, October 11, 2012

New Bern & the Outer Banks

"B" is New Bern, and "C" is Oriental.
In my quest to explore NC on the least amount possible of money (tiny bank accounts created by all the projects around the house I've managed this year), I decided to concentrate on a more northerly direction from my trip to Wilmington last year. I'd begin at New Bern, NC, hit Oriental, then stay a few days in the Nags Head/Kitty Hawk area. I'd make room on the memory chips in my cameras, pack my French easel with some canvases, and order some easy-read novels. The weather forecast was for mostly sunny weather, and as the dates approached, the amount of sun on the 10-day chart increased. (Everyone laugh!)

Vacation arrived! Mapquest could use a little fine-tuning, but actual highway signage needs a firmer clarification. Twice I veered off the road I should be on, following "Highway 70" signs that turned out to be 70 business. Hwy 70 also didn't like to post speed limits but about once every 20 miles along the more deserted stretches.

But I left Hwy 70 behind and made it around the loooong loop-de-loop bridges hanging over the rivers at New Bern to discover a lovely little city. My friend Karen D., who had offered to show me around if I were ever in the area, had chosen that week to discover Ireland instead, so I made sure to take the introductory trolley tour to get the most historic info. Turns out I made the tour with about 5 minutes to spare, as they started (at least from my hotel) an hour earlier than what I'd been told.

Alice, the woman who narrated the tour as Clancy drove, was a font of information. Seems that Wilmington is known as the "city on wheels" (at least I think that was her phrase) because all the historic places are located in the corner of town bordered by two rivers joining together. If a building was historic and located elsewhere, it soon found itself moved into the historic district.

Alice said she could clearly recall when the riverfront was filled with ugly fuel towers, cranes and commercial whatnot. Not any more! Now it has a neat little park and clean streets dotted with historic sites. She told us about the original owners of the various sites: name after name after name, and eventually we began to see how everyone fit together. She emphasized the history-makers who were Black as well as white; female as well as male. (And the strange thing is that she told us how in one night 4000 Blacks were persuaded to join the Union army during the Civil War. On the trip back home I listened on WUNC radio to a historian who'd just written the biography of the amazing man who got them to do just that. Coincidence?)

The shops downtown are geared toward tourism: quirky stores, restaurants, art galleries. And of course, the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. I didn't go there as it was getting late and frankly, colas don't agree with me these days.

Tryon Palace (the gardens are around someplace)

It surprised me that Tryon Palace wasn't the original building. It had been rebuilt in (I think) the 20s, which is why it looks so crisp and new. Its stable is original, though, and George Washington may not have slept there, but his horse did. FYI, Tryon Palace is the symbol of New Bern being the official first capital of North Carolina. (Because people were taxed so dearly to pay for it, there was a small NC rebellion centered in the county next to mine, which resulted in a bunch of hangings that are noted on some historical markers I pass every morning on the way to work.)

There are bears everywhere! On flags, on store windows, sculpted like totem poles, playfully painted upon life-size fiberglass figures. Turns out that "bern" means "bear," and is the symbol of Bern, Switzerland, which is what New Bern is named after. You can get your picture taken next to any style bear you like in a little bear park downtown. No, I didn't see any live ones.

Because of its compactness, New Bern would likely only take a full day and a half to explore. This means I'll have to go back to check out the palace and its gardens at the very least. By the way, Karen, Clancy and Alice say they know you very well and wave hello!

The hotel clerk recommended Morgan's Tavern & Grill. I will never eat there again. The manager (? She didn't wear the same clothes as the others, and gave them orders) was wonderful and ready to take my order, etc at the drop of a hat. Good thing, because my waitress hardly ever showed her face. When the waitress refilled my tea, she didn't bother to refill the ice as well, so I was left with tepid tea. But the manager was super-efficient and friendly.

I ordered the crab cakes and a zucchini/broccoli dish. Though they were presented well, someone had added an odd herb to what should have been a simple veggie dish and rendered it, well, awful. The crab cakes tasted a bit like crab but a lot like nothing, and had no texture.

Ah, but the croissants! They served three as the dinner bread, and they were REAL croissants, not those Burger King doughy things. These were flaky and warm. At first I saw the drizzle of honey on them and said, "Honey with dinner?" and then "Honey on croissants instead of butter? Ruined!" but they were marvelous. Amazing. Heavenly. Nommy-num!

The manager saw I had barely eaten my dinner (I wouldn't have eaten any of it except the croissants, but I was starving), and comped a dessert, which I took home for breakfast. It was an experiment, bread pudding. I'd never met a bread pudding I ever liked, and this was no real exception.

But do go there for the croissants! Mmm!

The next day I scrutinized the Mapquest maps and drove to Oriental, the "Sailing Capital of NC," to get some pictures that might make good paintings. People like paintings of sailboats, right? Rain was being forecast, but for some reason it held off. Unfortunately even by the time I found a little park on the Pamlico Sound/Neuse River, few boats were out. As I left I spotted a slew of 'em leaving the marinas. Darn it!

It's a bit of a rinky-dink town, but it does indeed have a bazillion sailboats moored and ready for fun. One of these days I'll learn to sail.

I checked with a hotelier to confirm directions from Oriental to Nags Head. She told me no no no, don't follow Mapquest's instructions. Skip Hwy 171 and just go straight up 17 to 64. Okay, I did that. And by doing so, added at least 25 miles to the trip.

The roads to the Outer Banks are flat and boring. Sometimes you have 4 lanes and can go 70 mph. Often you have 2 lanes and are stuck at 55 mph with nothing but scrub forest to look at. Occasionally the state puts up "Watch for bears" signs and "Do not feed the bears." I didn't see any bears. I assume they'd gone off to find more interesting venues. (Maybe they moved to New Bern.)

There's one stretch of 64 that's 2 lane, 55 mph, and over an hour long. No rest areas. No gas stations. No civilization of any sort. God help you should you break down.

Then suddenly you're in Columbia, and there's a rest stop! It comes with a wildlife exhibit house next door, and connects with a quaint riverwalk (it's the Scuppernong River) so you can really get out and stretch. I met a 77-year-old man there who'd climbed to the top of the Hatteras lighthouse the day before. That's right, 268 steps, and he'd almost chickened out halfway up. But people kept encouraging him and he advanced flight by flight, baking in the heat of the interior, until he emerged to the cool air at the top.

He said he and his friend go around climbing lighthouses and getting some kind of book stamped for each one they finish. He was proudly wearing his Hatteras Lighthouse tee shirt, and yeah, I said 77 years old. He did not appear to be in athletic shape, but he accomplished more than I would do!

Back on the road. Dull country... dull country... SCARY BRIDGE!!!! The Lindsey C. Warren Bridge is 2.8 miles across the Intracoastal Waterway/Alligator River, and has a draw bridge smack in the middle. I breathed shallowly and kept. my. eyes. on the. center. line. Whew! Through that.

By the time my blood pressure had returned to normal what happens but THE VIRGINIA DARE MEMORIAL BRIDGE comes along and is 5.2 freaking, curving miles over the Croatan Sound. In the middle is a high, arched section. The speed limit is 55. I went 40. My hands kept trying to jerk the car to the right. Just before the large arch, I wanted to stop. After the large arch, when I saw the bridge curving away faaaar into the distance, I wanted to stop in the middle of the roadway, get out and scream AIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

Okay, so I'm a little claustrophic. At my Kitty Hawk hotel the desk clerk said she used to be the same way, clenching the steering wheel hard—so hard she had to replace it because she'd ruined it. "It's not as bad as the Bonner Bridge, though," she confided. Bonner Bridge? That must be one of those things in Virginia, I thought. Virginia has that whole ghastly Chesapeake Bay Bridge thing going, right? She told me that some of the supports for the Bonner Bridge floated and weren't connected to solid land. She and her co-clerk shuddered. Well, that was one thing I didn't have to worry about.

I would learn.

To be continued!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

It's Only Money...

It's been a trial keeping house numbers located near the road. I have a long drive, so cannot put them on the house. When I first moved in, we were allowed to have our mailboxes next to our drives. That alone ranked far too high up in my reasons to buy this place. It was so handy—a mailbox with proper numbers on it, next to the drive. If I felt particularly lazy, I could reach in from my car to grab stuff.

But someone ran into my mailbox. I worked hard to fix it. Then someone else ran into it, leaving a 4x4x24" splinter of wood and collapsed metal thing that had once been the box. (And they ruined my beautiful "Moose Crossing" sign, the one I used as a landmark to give directions to people.) The cops showed me where the person had actually gotten on the road shoulder and revved up to accomplish their foul deed.

The mail carrier says that this portion of her route has seen more assassinated mailboxes than any other place in the bi-county area.

So I got one of those "you can't destroy this" mailboxes and put it in. Someone tried; someone FAILED. Bwah-ha-ha, burn in hell!

Then the Post Office told us we had to relocate our mail boxes to the opposite side of the street. Poop! Oh well, I dug and re-cemented and even put one of those rubber mulch mats around the bottom of it to keep out weeds. It's located just beyond my neighbor's box, so you can't see the number on it if you come from the main direction.

(Over there it's still not safe. One day a rock deliverer who was approximately 150 years old, backed out of my drive right into the mailboxes. Didn't bother him a bit to do so. I had to call Scott Sand & Stone to inform them; they checked their truck for damage; they replaced my neighbor's box and repaired mine—within 24 hours, and with an apology to all parties. I love Scott Sand & Stone.) (And on a different occasion, the guy backed into one of my trees, even though I was shouting and waving at him right outside his truck to stop. He didn't think it was a big deal.)

After the lower level was stolen.

So I went to Lowe's and got some fancier-than-average cement blocks, the kind with the little lip so that successive levels sit back in a sturdy manner. I purchased four number tiles and a frame to put them in. Special glue stuck everything together, and I even included some heavy-duty wire so people couldn't pull my number plate out of the shebang.

One day I came home to find that someone had taken the entire bottom course of blocks. Left everything else, though. But now the numbers sat one layer lower, practically on the ground.

Sitting in my office, which sorta faces the road, I can always see delivery people trying to find me. A truck will drive slowly down the street and about 40 seconds later, they'll return to turn in my drive. Sometimes they'll be coming in backwards. They couldn't see the numbers well and had to logic things out.

This was not good for an emergency.

Last week I came home to find tire tracks coming out of my neighbor's drive. For some reason though we're in the middle of the block, people turn into her drive and back out to turn around. My drive doesn't line up perfectly with hers. Guess what does? Cement blocks and tiles were scattered hither, not to mention yon. Why should I repair this when it would only happen again?

I got a mason to come out. He was a surfer dude and didn't quite look sober, but he had a nice-looking portfolio and an upcoming vacation before which he said he could get the job done. Besides, he was the only mason in the book whose number hadn't been disconnected.

At my old place I had a HUGE rock wall/planter that I gave up on halfway through, which was about 5 years into the job. The guy I hired to finish showed up a couple of times over a series of months and then asked for the entire final payment when there was still quite a bit left to do. "Sure, when you're finished," I told him. A week later HIS FATHER calls me. Dad was also a mason, but one with a sense of ethics. He begged me to pay his son and assured me that the son would indeed finish the job. (Son had to go to Nashville to be a music star.) "Sure," I told Dad. "After the job is finished."

That night, all night, with his radio blasting (argh) C&W beneath my bedroom window, Son finished the by-god job. And I paid him on my way out the door the next morning. He had done fine work, too.

This Surfer Dude struck me much the same way, but this was a TINY job. Surfer Dude had forgotten to bring a contract but was enthused about writing one out for me. It even had all the information I needed on it. I gave him half the money.

We had discussed the project, which would not be a stone wall, but rather a boulder. "They'll notice it," Dude assured me, and showed me approximately how big it would be. We discussed how an impact monitor might be installed on it to activate Giant Killer Steel Ginsu Blades o' Death that could slash tires and a good part of a car/truck's back end.

"I'll see what I can find," he assured me. As I pondered the question, I thought that deer, dogs and/or kids might harm themselves accidentally on these. Perhaps they'd be best left off.

Dude returned three days later with the world's loveliest house number boulder! Isn't it great? I'm glad he didn't include the tile frame, as that might have cheapened the effect.

So I'm happy; people can find the house easily. Now I'm googling and discovered these. Yes? No?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Hairy Subject

About a year ago I finally had some professional headshots made. As a member of RWA, I am constantly reminded of the need for professionalism. Having that headshot available is a necessary evil.

I got the photos done at JCPenney (never again!) and requested no retouching. I've seen too many portrait photos with awful Photoshopping. Even I could do better!

And I believe I did. (Check my website.) But the sad fact is I had to add an awful lot of hair to my head via the clone stamp. I was losing hair in patches, and it bothered me enormously. Bless his heart, my dad often made it a habit to point this out. Loudly, and in public. I had to keep my hair very short so that the natural curl filled everything in. But when I was too lazy to color my hair, the gray-white against the pale white scalp made things look even worse than they actually were.

A co-worker had gone the wig route but wasn't all that pleased with it, though she looks great. I began to look at wigs. Raquel Welch—now, she had the looks I wanted! Take twenty... okay, fifteen years off her, and that's what I want to look like from beautifully-coiffed top to firm bottom.

Years ago I'd checked out the Hair Club for Men and Women. You know, the commercials have the guy on it who says, "I'm not just the owner; I'm a client, too!" Back then they'd said they could put me on a minoxidil & something else treatment for just $1500 a year and GUARANTEED my hair would grow back. (How could they guarantee medical results?) But did I have that kind of money? Heck, no!

I might be able to dredge up some now, so I hied myself over to Raleigh to do another consultation. They have a camera with high magnification that they run over your head and show you pictures. You compare the bald spots with the hairy ones. The ones on your head, that is. That is, if one has hair on one's head.

Nope, they now told me, these follicles are d-a-i-d, daid. Ain't comin' back, even with minoxidil. (Note: hair regrowth creme is in testing stages, should be available in slightly under 10 years.) I asked, how about a hair transplant? I'd heard that since women have smaller areas to fill in, their procedures are much cheaper than those men go through.

Nope, I was told. Actually, women's procedures are much more expensive AND they aren't guaranteed. (No, I haven't researched these claims. My bad. This is what HC told me.) In fact, they're practically guaranteed not to be permanent, because women's hair is different from men's, and the hormone whatevers don't match up. Most men have "permanent" hair in the horseshoe region of the head that can be transplanted and will grow permanently. Women don't.

But I could try a "permanent" hairpiece. It's actually a toupee, stuck on with really tough double-sided tape so that you can shower and swim, no prob. They told me that if I signed on, I'd never pay more for a hairpiece than I would during this first six-month introductory period. What about continuing the program? Would I be able to afford it? I told them what I could afford.

"No problem," the con... I mean, saleswoman assured me. "We can work with you. We have programs that will fit every budget." Well, how much would it be? "We'll have to see how you wear your hair, how quickly you go through it, and suchlike. Later on, we'll be able to give you prices." How about the hair itself? "We'll sit right here and get it just the way you wanted. You won't leave until it'll be perfect every day you have it."

All these statements were lies. When will I learn? Salespeople will look you straight in the face and lie, lie, lie.

The try-out contract runs for six months and includes three hairpieces. They made a "mold" of my head out of plastic wrap and tape, sent it off, and assured me my hair would be in within 8 weeks. Ten weeks later (this was when we were going through all the mess with Mom and Dad, so I was distracted) I called them up and asked when it would arrive. They told me they'd call me back. A day later I called again. They would look. Four hours later I called again. "Oh, we were just about to call you," they lied. Then they scheduled my appointment—four weeks from that day.

On New Year's Eve I left Raleigh with a new head of hair. They had told me it was made from someone with naturally curly hair, as every head of hair I received would be. It looked great!

Two days later it began to look not that great. Feverishly I followed the shampoo/rinse/enzyme regimen they'd told me about. I watched the DVD, which had a different regimen. Eventually I tried that. But my hair flattened out. (I asked about the "naturally curly" hair, and they assured me it was NOT made of such.) It was dry and ooky-looking.

I had monthly appointments and each time I went I saw a different stylist (the stylists are all very sweet women), who gave me a different regimen to use. Every time I left, the hair looked very nice, except for the times when it was left so wet that you couldn't really tell. And a day or two later... Bleah.

Once I was one full hour out of the salon on a non-windy day and attending a Heart of Carolina Romance Writers meeting. One of the writers turned around and told me, "My god, you look like you just walked through a lawn sprinkler!" ACCK! How mortifying! As soon as I could, I checked myself in the library bathroom mirror. She was right.

For my final wig, they did as much of a perm to it as they could. "If you don't like that," the assistant assured me, "next time I'll perm it on toothpicks!" Don't know how perms are done (having naturally curly hair I've never had to do the perm thing except once when I was a stupid kid and used that awful, stinky Toni home perm. What was I thinking? Everyone was doing it, so I had to as well), so I'm not sure what the actual process is, but for a good month, I had downright SPRINGY hair.

The co-worker with the wig pulled me aside. "It looks just like your real hair," she whispered furtively.

Over time it's calmed down and really does look like my own hair, except that it's less fussy, and even on its worst days (my fault), it still looks 3000 times better than my own hair on a medium day.

The regimen is not that bad now that we've whittled it down. Three times a week I wash my hair in the shower and kitchen sink: shampoo, rinse, enzymes. (The enzymes clean your scalp under it all and keep the itching down.) On Sundays I use a special shampoo to strip all chemicals off, then a special creme to put protein back in, then rinse and enzymes. Because the hair is so short and well-permed, it doesn't require much styling besides lining up the three bottles of spray product I have: spritz-spritz, spritz-spritz, spritz-spritz, go down the line and make sure all layers of the hair get some. (I wet the hair each non-shampoo day and then do this as well.) Then scrunch everything, trying to arrange it around a part-like feature, scrunch some more, and take off for work, hoping for the best.

That picture shows the hair still a bit wet, shot in the reception room of Hair Club. I'm told that my hairpieces don't have to be this length at all. I can go to shoulder-length or longer if I want. This is what I want:

So we started to approach the end of my 6-month intro. Each time I went in, I asked what the fee for continuing would be. "We have to wait to see how your hair works," was the answer I got every time I called, even though the program turns out to be quite standard. Three months to go, and the con... I mean, saleswoman told me that the prices were on the booklet I'd been given in my introductory packet, a booklet she personally tucked into every packet.

"If that were so," I replied, "you could have given me prices when I first signed up. Besides, I've received two introductory packets from you all, and neither has contained this pricing booklet."

The next time I showed up, lo and behold, the pricing booklets were on the coffee table in the waiting room. (They have not been there since.) "I can't afford this," I told them.

"We can work with any budget. You can afford this." They pointed to the $300/month lowest level of membership.

I then got out a notebook and pen, and asked them how much it would cost to get the hair taken off on my last appointment. Yes, just taken off, I assured them. And if I brought a wig with me, could I get it applied and styled by them? After all, it would be my first time with a wig, and I'd be leaving from the place to go out in public.

Within eight minutes, the con... I mean, saleswoman came into the salon room. "I talked to my manager," she told me, and then named a price a bit under the $300/month.

"Sorry," I said with a sweet smile. "Can't afford it. I told you what I could afford before I signed my contract. You said that would be fine."

Five minutes later she comes in with a new price. What was this, a used car dealership? I thought. And thought some more. At that time I thought I'd have to buy about three non-Hair Club wigs during the course of a year (wrong; since then I've been told it would be just one a year, unless I wanted a range of styles), and I knew what Raquel's wigs cost, plus their maintenance materials. Still, not having to apply a wig every day would be a better experience. If I scrimped and scrimped some more...

We signed the contract. It's an "unlisted" program, but I found out later it's also a "lie" program. Within the month, the con... I mean, saleswoman called me to ask if I could shell out an extra $100 just for that month (like she wouldn't be calling for the same thing month after month), because someone was doing an audit, and you know, they'd signed this new program for me as if I were a man, because men's programs are cheaper, and changed my name on the contract to "Carl."

"No, I didn't know that," I said. "You never told me. Can't afford the extra C-note. So sorry."

So I'm signed up for another year. Actually, it's just 11 months, since they screwed me out of a month with doubletalk, but they gave me an extra salon visit, which I thought was an acceptable substitution as long as it was just the one time. I'll be seeing them every 2 months now, and I'll get 3 heads of hair over the contract period. Product costs extra, of course, and said product is offered only by their company, no generic form available. (One of the stylists proudly told me, "Our products are chemical-free, unlike everyone else's." Yet the products' labels show lots and lots of questionable chemicals.)

I have extra glue and tape (tape works better, I've found) for when the hair loosens before it can be reapplied. Yes, they shave the part of my head that's under the hairpiece (they asked permission first) so the tape gets a better grip. I stare at myself in the styling mirror and make Lex Luthor jokes as I wait for the re-styled hair to be returned.

If you compare the cost to the cost of going to a hairdresser and getting your hair professionally dyed every month or so... Okay, and styled with maybe a manicure thrown in, it comes out close to the same, so that's a consolation. Only thing is, I was used to getting a box of dye from Walmart for under $10 and going to Great Cuts every 6 weeks for $12.

But part of the profits go to giving free wigs to kids who, for whatever reason, find themselves balding. That's worth shoveling out a little extra, thinks I. Too bad I can't write it off my taxes. And I do notice that it's close to impossible to get an appointment at the joint. Six weeks out is not enough time to guarantee you your choice of times. People come up from Wilmington and down from Virginia to find an office.

The thing is: yes, it costs a lot. But (despite the pic up there) it looks a helluva lot better than my regular hair. I used to worry about 13 hours out of each day about how my hair looked (that is, if I was out in public), and now that's down to maybe 1/2 hour, if that much. If I were really serious—and I plan to get that way soon—I'd repair my hair a few times a day like normal people do, and then it would be JUST FINE.

So if you're balding or facing an upcoming time of balding, you might want to check out the Hair Club. Just be sure to get everything in writing and doubt whatever comes out of a con... I mean, salesperson's flapping lips. And whatever you do, insist that they note that Carol A. Strickland of the Raleigh office recommended you visit. They'll give me some $$ credit for referrals!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Plein crazy!

Woo hoo! It was Wednesday and instead of going to work, I’d be attending a “turn your plein air painting into a large studio painting” class, conducted by Rick McClure at Nicole’s Studio in Raleigh.

“Plein air” is painting outdoors. The official phrase is “painting en plein air.” That’s French and sounds better than “painting outdoors,” even though bugs, wind and ever-changing light are involved in both.

I’d loaded the car the night before (I’m no fool), and turned on Channel 11 to get the weather. The class schedule was to paint plein air Wednesday, then paint in the studio Thurs-Fri. “Big Weather,” ch. 11’s morning weather guy, stood in front of a radar screen and proclaimed: “No rain today!”

Behind him, the radar showed a huge expanse of green with bands of yellow and orange, heading in Raleigh’s direction.

“No rain!” he repeated, though I had to turn up the volume because the rain outside my place was making a racket. Okay, whatever.

Hit the road with my Mapquest printout. I’d never been to Raleigh’s Pullen Park. Nicole informed us that the park wouldn’t be open when class began, but there were bathrooms nearby at fast-food places on Western Blvd.

McDonalds and Wendy’s were indeed open, but they were quite a ways from Pullen Park, so I had to turn around to hit them and then come back to the park. It was drizzling pretty well.

Rick had set up class under some large trees that blocked some of it, and proceeded to do a demo. At one point his picture was gorgeous, but then he rubbed out all this magnificent stone work and redid it to demonstrate a technique. After he finished the lovely painting, he took a rag and wiped his board clean so he could begin another painting.

Ack! I know writers say, “Kill your babies,” but this was ridiculous!

Anyway, we adjourned into the now-open park to do our own paintings. I scouted, then got my equipment out the car and set up shop next to the paddle-boat pier. The two park employees there watched me most of the time until they got bored. After about an hour, the sun peeked out. Then five minutes later, one would have been hard-pressed to find a single cloud in the blazingly blue sky.

Before and after
It was my first time out painting in over a year. I did wretchedly. Bleah! But the final half-hour I managed to pull the image out from being absolute barf. Rick hadn’t been by to check on me. (He said he couldn’t find me, and had no class list to go by.)

Andy and Opie were there!
Broke for lunch. The Pullen Park café has a pretty large menu. You can choose from healthy stuff or more traditional fare. They use as many local ingredients as possible. I went for the Carolina dogs with a fruit cup as a nod to nutrition. The first bite of the piled-high dogs sent chili and slaw all over my tee. Sigh.

Hiked around looking for a good spot for painting #2, and was getting tired. Found a spot, retrieved my equipment (I’m not going to hike while carting fifty thousand pounds of art supplies), set up, and tried to do the world’s fastest painting, as I had only 2 hours left in the class day.

The small versions.
Finished a half-hour early. Rick had made it by twice this time. I was right next to the kiddie train track, and every time it came around nice people would shout, “Lookin’ good!” to me. The park’s visitors (and staff) were quite curious about all the artists painting.

The next day was for the studio. I’d asked Nicole for directions, and she kept saying, “As you know” to talk me through. Though I’d lived in Raleigh back in 1981 about two miles from her studio, I’d never been down that way and no, I didn’t know. Another woman gave me easy directions.

Despite a traffic jam on I-40, I made it in time Thursday morning and set up along with the class. Rick gave us a demo and then we went to work on our own larger paintings, done from our smaller plein air stuff and the reference photos most of us had rushed out the night before to get developed at Walmart. Thank heavens for digital photography and one-hour processing!

Rick was primarily interested in teaching us to utilize contrast. High contrast at our focal point; lower the farther we got from that. Contrast can be in value (white vs black), color (contrasting vs analogous), temperature (warm vs cool), detail (highly vs not), that kind of thing. Plus a painting should be primarily one thing: one value, one temperature, etc.

He told us what kind of support he used for plein air (marker board, cut up. Turns out it’s archival if gessoed on its non-white side), and that the Gamsol people now make an oil varnish you can apply as soon as the paint is dry to the touch, instead of having to wait up to a year to do so. This time lag was a major reason why I’d switched from oils to acrylics in recent years. That and the smell/health problem with oils.

But I had a stash of new alkyd (very fast-drying) oils and painted as hard as I could go. Rick did make the rounds of the class, though it seemed to me that no one got particularly in-depth tutoring. Still, I've seen MUCH worse. He'd often go to the front of the class and give great mini-lectures that applied to many of us.

I think I learned a lot. We'll see. Thanks, Rick!

That day I ate down the block at “PieBird” restaurant, which specializes (surprise!) in pies. Chicken pot pie the first day with a salad—fabulous! And the second day I had that same salad but with a peppery quiche (let me wipe the drool from my lips) lorraine. O!M!G!!! Yum-zilla!

Packed up after Friday lunch so I could leave quickly. My target was 3:30, so I could hit The Avengers across town. Theoretically class ended at 4, but they were trying to wrap things up early because the gallery was having an opening that night and needed to clean/set up. Movie time was 4.

We started the class critiques at 1:15 or so. They went in depth in places; other places, not so much. I’d thought I’d finished with some fairly okay paintings, but once I lined ‘em up with everyone else’s… Well.

I can fix ‘em. They’ll turn out fine.

Rick called me the “queen of gray,” since I didn’t use bright colors. Funny; I looked at the paintings and saw bright green, green, green. I’d fought hard to utilize atmospheric perspective—that’s where things blue/lighten up the farther they are from you, due to the atmosphere piling up between you and the object—which was also a thing Rick had stressed. Apparently I’d done it too well? Me, whom a teacher had once sniffed at and muttered, “Oh, we have a colorist here.”

Oh well. Like I said, I can fix the paintings and in fact am looking forward to doing so.

3:30 came and went. As soon as he finished the final syllable of his “glad to have been here; class is over” speech, I grabbed my four canvases and shot out the door (with everyone else).

I’d checked Mapquest to see how to get to Western Blvd, where the Mission Valley Cinema was. Go south on Blount until you hit it, then turn right. Simple enough. But no intersection said “Western Blvd.” I went past so many familiar-sounding streets, and then past Martin Luther King Blvd—what, Raleigh has an MLK Blvd? I never hear it mentioned—and didn’t realize that MLK turns into Western about a block from Blount.

After about four tries at different routes, I headed toward State because I knew that Hillsborough St. bounds it on the north and Western Blvd, on the south. The problem there is finding a cross-street. I turned at a couple of lights only to find the street suddenly becoming a dead-end parking lot. Finally made it to the theater by 4:10. So I’d miss some previews, so what? “We don’t show previews,” the ticket guy told me. “Maybe one. Not two.”

Great. The only theatre in the US that doesn’t show previews. Still, I’d only missed the very beginning of the first action sequence and could figure out what was going on. It was a pretty darned good movie with a richly comic book feel. I mean, by the end I felt I was wearing my old Fangirl boots and was really getting into it—even if it was Marvel and not DC. Is DC planning on making any good movies with their characters? Shouldn’t they be? (No, I don’t like the dark Batman movies that much, and heard the reviews about GL.)

I’d had to bring my solvent in with me, since I didn’t want it sitting out in the hot trunk for hours. Clank-clank. No one questioned me about it, thank goodness.

I’d decided to stay the night at the Ramada across from the State Fairgrounds as a relaxing treat. During my search for the theater I’d discovered Blue Ridge Rd and so took that as a short cut. Ah, so that’s where that end of it goes. I’d been down the other way a million times.

The Ramada is sorta a cross between a motel and hotel. Two stories, very nicely decorated, at least in lobby and restaurant, and it has a sweet little pool. All rooms have balconies. But there’s only one elevator waaaay in back for maids, etc. If your leg is screaming at you the way mine was at me (and that night it went into full-out tantrum), and your room is on the second floor in the front, you have to walk a looooong way. I’d also been looking forward to ordering room service for breakfast, a treat I like to have at hotels on occasion when I feel deserving.

But in order to get the menu, you have to go down to the front desk and pick up one, which is only good for what they’ll have for the next three hours. No, you can’t pick up a menu for breakfast. There isn’t one, or there isn’t one yet. So I had to drag myself down to the dining room early Saturday morning for breakfast. (Breakfast was free.) It was a bit greasy but okay. There were unlimited refills (or maybe just one) on the OJ, something I’ve never run into before, but the OJ was watered down quite a bit.

Comfy bed and quiet, though. And dirt-cheap. Also, on my way out the lady at the desk gave me a room key with Thor on it. (I'd asked if they were giving away their keen if small Avengers promotional stand-up piece.)

After I’d loaded the car I headed off downtown for the annual Raleigh Paint-Out, sponsored by Local Color Gallery. As usual I missed the Blue Ridge exit for Wade Ave. (don’t know what it is about that, but if something’s blocking the signage, as it was this time, I always miss seeing the overpass and think it’s one light farther down than it is) and couldn’t recall which street the turn-off for Crabtree Valley was, so went all the way down to Glenwood to turn into town.

Got to the gallery, signed in, got my canvas stamped, and glanced around outside. Where would I set up? We had from between Peace and Hillsborough to paint, with a block either side of Glenwood. From the steps of the gallery I saw some interesting gingerbread on one house that was catching the low morning light. “Good enough,” said my aching right knee, so I set up camp nearby.

This section of Glenwood was incorporating the paint-out with buskers (had to google that one) for a low-level street festival. They’re thinking of doing this every 4 months or so. The Hybernian Pub gave everyone involved free lunch. Yum! Great cheeseburger and tea! I’ll have to return and actually pay for a meal there to thank them for their generosity.

Dan Nelson stopped by while I was painting. He was looking for a spot to set up as a busker. I mentioned (okay, maybe ten times) just how terrifically handsome he was that day. (He's judging the paint-out and I couldn't afford a monetary bribe.)

Got near to finishing my painting and realized that I hadn’t made much effort to transfer what I’d learned in class to it. Decided on painting some yellow trim blue-green in order to change temperature around the focal point. That looked kinda funky. Hm. Oh well, it was finished enough. I always know when a plein air painting is finished. Conditions fulfill one of three criteria:
1) I'm starving
2) I have to pee
3) I'm starving and I have to pee.

I grabbed a frame and my framing kit and went into the gallery. “Do we have to put the entire address on this, or is the street good enough?” I asked the staff, the people who had relieved those who greeted us and had set the whole thing up but who had left around noon. These folks didn’t realize that all paintings had to have the address of whatever we’d painted on them, so the gallery can send out invitations (and hopefully get sales) to the owners of said addresses. I had to point this out in the contest rules to them. Also, paintings have to be priced, artist identified, etc. They knew nothing about this and indeed had just checked in two paintings that didn’t have any of that info on them. Whoops.

As I filled out final forms, a woman came up from outside. One of the buskers had done her portrait in charcoal, and she wanted to enter it in the contest. Well, the contest said that you had to have had your canvas stamped before you started (so they knew you hadn’t started painting say, the day before), you had to be the artist, the painting had to be framed, and that paintings were landscapes. But the staffers assured her she could enter. Wonder how that’ll turn out.

Repacked the car, drove to Cameron Village, parked in the shade (those cans of solvent!), and caught the final 20 minutes of Leanne Banks’ workshop on brainstorming techniques for romance writers. Sounded like it was interesting stuff, and I got the hand-out for it later.

Home again, home again, collapse on the bed! One of these days I’ve got to take a vacation and you know, vacation with it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Flipping Nora!

Just got back from a trip (see below) and wanted to report my reading. I've tried "Queen Nora's" books a couple times before, once as Nora Roberts and once as J.D. Robb. Couldn't get past the first chapter or two on either.

For some reason I recently put out a call about a Nora recommendation, and discovered that people—or at least the ones who responded to me—thought her Chesapeake Bay series was her best. The best of that, people said, was the first volume, Sea Swept.

Said volume has been sitting on my TBR pile, frowning at me for some time now. I finally determined to face it, come what may, and used it as my traveling book for flying to Tennessee. (Couldn't use my Kindle because the electronics gag order kicks in when things get scariest.)

And I loved it! I noted the head hopping—kept to a minimum—and some passive sentences. But I also tried to notice the exacting word choices, the volume turned up on full for what others would write as ordinary circumstances. She molds her characters expertly and there's an honesty in her writing that I've found only (so far) in SEP, Julia Quinn, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Jenny Crusie.

So when I finished that book and faced another set of flights, I couldn't see myself reading Robert McKee's nonfiction Story. Instead I went to a bookstore and found Vision in White, which is vol. 1 of Nora's "Brides" quartet.

An added perk was the free bookmark I got with the book: that advertising Dr. Sanjay Gupta's House Call CNN TV series. Stick it behind the cover, and suddenly our headless bride smiles out at us.

I dislike the headless torsos on romance novels. Perhaps it comes from a rule we used to have at Adam & Eve, in which such were prohibited because they depersonalized the model and made them into an object. Objectifying was a no-no in those days.

I understand that this technique in romance is to make the main character more identifiable to the reader. Theoretically they could look just like the reader, or be the very image of their fantasy, like Joan Wilder's blurry Jesse cover images leave a lot to be filled in by the reader. But in looking at this cover I know that I am not a slender, youthful, stylish blonde. (Note: the heroine of this book is a rather skinny, short-haired redhead anyway.) I do not resonate in any way with this cover and in fact am a bit repulsed by the headlessness. So thank you, Dr. Gupta!

Vision in White is also excellent. It too teaches us about what its lead characters do for a living. In Sea Swept, we learned how to design a boat. Here, we learn how to do a wedding shoot and then process the photos with Photoshop. It's a very satisfying character story as well, but while I've ordered vols. 2 & 3 of the Chesapeake Bay series to see how the overarching plot works out, I'm not going to read vols. 2 & 3 of this series. But I will order vol. 4, Happily Ever After, which should be Parker's story. I want to see how she'll break away from her tight schedules.

Have you ever had second thoughts about an author? I can recall trying The Curse of Chalion THREE times before something clicked and I could not put it down!