Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We're All Mad Here

Let me make something perfectly clear.  I am Southern.  Through and through.  In fact my sister once studied the genealogy of our family and discovered that, since crossing the Atlantic, the furthest north our people hail from is North Carolina.  We are solidly below the Mason-Dixon line.  And I'm great with that.  I love the South and all its trappings.  The words "hon" and "bless your heart" feature prominently in my vocabulary.  "Y'all" is not a colloquialism in my book.  It's...you know...a word.  (Non-Southerners, I don't understand how y'all get along without it.)  I am an avid runner, not only because I habitually birth babies and have to keep on top of the corresponding waistline, but also because country gravy and fried okra are staples in my diet.  I have a permanent flip-flop tan line.

My love for my native South aside, though, I was blessed as a child to be a Navy brat and spend some of the most magical years of my life in Scotland (where, as it turns out, our people also hail from...genealogically speaking).  I never wanted to leave.  Yes, it's cold and rainy and there is a shortage of grits.  But it is one of the most beautiful places on earth, full of some if the world's most wonderful folks.  Scots are cranky and funny and full of life and I could listen to their melodious accents forever.  So even though it's been many years since I've stepped upon her banks and braes, a piece of my heart is forever in the Highlands.

Consequently, there are a few British quirks mixed into my Southern-ness.  An over-fondness for pickled onions, malt vinegar, and beans on toast.  The trunk of a car is forever a "boot."  I've forced myself to stop referring to french fries as chips and the ladies' room as the toilet, but it took a lot of work and no small amount of embarrassing moments on the part of my pre-teen self.  One of the most enduring habits and one I will never give up is the taking of afternoon tea.

Tea-time.  Seriously, why don't more Americans get in on this?  It's not like we're opposed to extra eating...right?!? It's the perfect little meal before all the madness of extra curricular activities.  Why fill that space with frozen pizza bites and juice boxes, when you could just as easily enjoy a few finger sandwiches, a biscuit or two (that's cookies by the way...yummy, yummy cookies) and a lovely cup of tea?  It doesn't have to be English Breakfast tea, though why on earth anyone wouldn't want it to be is beyond me.  There are lots of teas to choose from in an infinite array of flavors from fruity to puts-hair-on-your-chest.  And kids love nothing more than to break out the china and clink cups.  It's a win-win!

So my kids have grown up familiar with high tea.  In varying degrees of fanciness.  Sometimes we have cucumber sandwiches and scones and clotted cream.  Sometimes it's Girl Scout Cookies and Ritz crackers.  But we have tea, darn it!  My big kids have excellent manners and have finally stopped adding so much sugar to their tea that it tastes a bit like syrup.  Toot on the other hand...well, let's just say that you've got to roll with the punches.  It's not going to be tea at the Ritz around here (crackers excluded).  He recently decided the event was pants-optional.  But, hey, The Full Monty is a great British flick, right?  Our tea parties tend to resemble the Mad Hatter's more than the Granthams' but they make me happy.

Speaking of things that make me happy, let's talk historical romance.  Yes, I'm talking about bodice-rippers.  I haven't been able to read much during the past month (teething baby, streaking toddler and homeschooled ninjas...'nuff said) but when I steal a moment I have been enjoying the sexy little short stories in Christmas Brides by Suzanne Enoch, Alexandra Hawkins, Elizabeth Essex and Valerie Bowman.  I won't be writing a full review because my perusal has been stopped short by the arrival of a new sci-fi/fantasy e-book (with instructions to drop everything and read it NOW) so I'm setting Brides to the side for the time being.  But wanted to give it a mention for those of you who enjoy this genre.  The tales I've read thus far are just what they should be:  light and sweet with just the right amount of steam.  A bit like afternoon tea.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Cold Dish

Oh, my dear reader friends, there is nothing like a good mystery.  And Craig Johnson's The Cold Dish:  A Longmire Mystery isn't a good mystery, it's a great mystery.  In it we meet Walt Longmire, sheriff to the small town of Durant, Wyoming, a sleepy town whose usual crime reports read of smashed mailboxes, stolen snowmen, and the occasional drive-by egging.  Sheriff Longmire is still haunted, however, by the ghost of a far more serious crime, the gang-rape of a young Cheyenne girl, and the light sentences ultimately handed down to her attackers.  His ghosts begin to come alive when one of the rapists is found dead and signs begin to point away from a mere hunting accident and toward a killer bent on revenge.

Let me begin by saying that I am picky when it comes to crime novels.  Back in my glory days, in that long lost age when I kept my highlights as current as my fashion choices and my tags occasionally read "Dry Clean Only", I was a criminal attorney.  I practiced several years of criminal defense (keep it nice, people; everyone hates a criminal defense attorney until they need one) with a brief but memorable stint in prosecution.  I loved criminal law.  If I'm to be honest, I still love criminal law.  Seedy?  A bit.  Disturbing?  Often.  Hilarious?  More often than you'd think.  Each case is a puzzle to be solved and the stories are interesting stories.  So there is no excuse for a boring crime novel and I expect the plots of fictional scenarios to hold a candle to those in which I've played a nominal role in real life.  I also expect them to be realistic.  No "that would never EVER happen in real life" law enforcement moments please.  I get enough of those from CSI.  I will abandon your book and never look back.

All of that being said, The Cold Dish met my expectations and then exceeded them.  Johnson's handling of the ins and outs of crime investigation are spot on and the mystery held my attention and kept me guessing until the very end.  And his characters. Oh, his characters.  No two dimensional stock characters here, my friends.  From Longmire himself, who by the story's end I felt a kinship with like a long lost (rather grumpy) uncle, to his best friend, the charismatic Henry Standing Bear, to the waitress at the local diner, Johnson gives each person life and depth and sparkle in their eyes.  I find myself wondering what they are up to these days.

One of the greatest characters in this novel, though, is Wyoming itself.  I love it when a novelist makes his landscape come alive and I've never seen it done better.  Aside from a brief pass-through on the way to North Dakota when I was a teenager, I know Wyoming as well as I do the dark side of the moon.  After reading the combined descriptions of the countryside, the people (both those in Durant proper and the Native Americans on "the Rez"), and even the weather, I feel like I've vacationed there.  I can smell the snow on the sharp wind coming down from the mountains, hear the plaintive bleating of sheep.  Superbly crafted.

Last but certainly not least, this book is funny.  Laugh-out-loud, annoy-your-spouse-by-reading-random-passages-out-loud, funny.  Johnson weaves hilarious circumstances and witty dialogue throughout the mystery without sacrificing a shred of realism.  To the very last page, nay the very last line of dialogue, this book had me smiling.  If all the books in the Longmire series are as excellent as The Cold Dish, I simply cannot wait for a second helping.