Category Archives: cats

The Dark Side of the Screen, the Dark Pages of my Novels

Growing up watching films from the ’30s, 40’s, and 50s, often in the dark hours of Seventhbthe night, I was deliciously haunted by the noir-inflected, melancholy, shadowy worlds of Val Lewton films, the eerie displacement of Universal and Columbia horror, and the mind-twisting mysteries exploring the dark side of society and the human heart.  Those were perhaps the major impetus for my desire to recreate shadowy even eerie realms with my own writing. For the chiaroscuro worlds of the mystery and horror delightfully lingered in my imagination.
Specific films influence each of my novels.  With Bait and Switch, I was inspired by those exercises in noir that voiced homefront fears of Nazi fifth columnists infecting our security from within.  So, when Jessica Minton finds herself caught in the middle of a espionage plot that is either a gambit to flush out a fifth columnists or a fifth columnist’s plot to trick her into saving his skin, such films as They Live by Night, The Fallen Sparrow, and Confessions of a Nazi Spy inspired my creation of slippery deceptions, unclear loyalties, and sudden death in a world of slick, dark mean streets; fog rolling off the Hudson, through the New York waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge; crumbling, sinister rows of buildings lowering on the wrong side of town; and deserted theatres.
Of course, I was not inspired merely by the dreamy darkness of these films but by the quick wit and humor peppering many of them.  Perhaps the most influential in that department was All through the Night, a fast-moving tale of Nazi infiltrators inhabiting the stylish but shadowed upper echelons of New York Society – as well as the dark recesses of obscure warehouses and secret panels leading to command centers.  Cutting through that sinister atmosphere is the sharp wit of Humphrey Bogart’s semi-gangster, Gloves Donohue, and his sidekicks played by the fast-talking likes of William Demarest and Frank McHugh.  Of course, there is romance, as well, with a damsel in distress.  I love to spice Bait and Switch with the same sort of irreverent, sardonic humor.  And, though Jessica Minton may find herself caught in distress, she’s hardly a damsel. She holds her own when in danger, though a little help from her vis à vis does come in handy – that and a banana cream pie.
Letter from a Dead Man is more straight noir.  No Nazis, but plenty of intrigue and unexpected conflicts stemming from hidden identities fatally revealed; stolen jade; romantic intrigue; a femme fatale who’s in the chips now (socially and financially) but will do anything to prevent the exposure of her sordid past; a frame job for murder; two tough cops, just this side of jaded; and an F.B.I. agent from Jessica Minton’s past who has his own agenda.  Images and even passages from specific films noirs imbue Dead Man.  The seductive manipulations of Helen Grayle fromMurder, My Sweet inspire the deadly web that Alanna Tewkesbury weaves around the Minton sisters, and those they love, to keep her secrets intact and to get her hands on stolen treasure.  Imagery from The Seventh Victim, Woman in the Window, The Fallen Sparrow, Scarlet Street, and Manhunt live on in the darkened, deserted offices; lonely, rain-slicked streets; deadly lurkers in late-night subways; and even behind the hulking, cold stone of the New York Public Library Lions!
Dead Man is not all darkness.  It’s lightened with the sharp reparté you’d expect from the mouth of a Rosalind Russell, a Joan Bennett, or an Eve Arden.  Plus, there are some truly Lucy-and-Ethel-worthy moments of slapstick, with Jessica and Liz forced to hide in a closet from Alanna and her tough-talking torpedoes, friend Iris leading a room full of party-goers in a madcap conga to cover up an argument between Liz and her boyfriend that will put him at the center of a murder investigation, and Jess donning disguises as a maid to recover a stolen gun and as a shady lady in need of reform to snare a vital witness.
This leads to the third, soon to be released, novel in the Jessica Minton mystery series: Always Play the Dark Horse.  Though this book shares much with its predecessors, there’s a different take on the noir world of mystery, fifth columnists, darkness, and doubt.  Dark Horse is more inspired by the dreamy nature of Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, Lewis Milstone’s Guest in the House, or Orson Welles’s The Stranger.  Scenes on the Connecticut beach at night; in the foggy advent of a storm; the presence of a mysterious rider on a magnificent black horse along the shore; the battered ghost of a beached ship where forbidden lovers once met; the twisting corridors, warren of offices, dark-paneled rooms, and hidden stone staircase of a college building, all capture the dreamy world of those films, especially Woman on the Beach.  As in Renoir’s film, I found myself caught up in creating a world formed in tune to the haunting mood of Debussey’s music.  The story of dark love, vicious personal conflicts, uncertain loyalties, cruel memories of war’s horrors, and the threat of a Nazi resurgence, however, edge that dream uncomfortably into the realm of nightmare so effectively created in The Stranger and Guest in the House/

That’s not to say you’ll need uppers to get through Dark Horse!  The quick wit and strong sense of camaraderie that I portray in the other novels percolates here as well.  I really enjoyed developing the married relationship between Jessica and James, showing their support and love for each other seasoned with their playful humor.  They may not always get along or be perfectly happy with each other; but, as grown ups, they work things out.  That partnership and humor are what help them resolve their case.  I also enjoyed Jessica’s bond with her friend Rose.  An educated and intelligent working woman (professor) and mother, Rose is a loyal, funny friend who helps Jessica stay ahead of the game.  I always like to show the power of girlfriends in my books!  Last, but never least, where the dog – e.g. Asta – has traditionally been the animal sidekick in mysteries, I once again return Dusty to her feline glory!  She plays a major role in all three novels:  a pal but not a drippy one.  And there ends up being nary a mouse in the cottage by the beach where Jessica and James must do their part against murder, betrayal, and Nazis.

Screen shots from The Woman on the Beach and The Seventh Victim are from the author’s collection.  RKO videos
Still photos from Scarlet Street  and The Woman on the Beach are from the author’s collection
Image of Dusty and images from book covers from the author’s collection
Image from Murder, My Sweet from unknown source
Image of New York City from New York in the Forties, Andreas Feininger (Dover Publications, 1978)
Banana cream pie image courtesy of  https://www.pngkey.com/detail/u2w7u2e6q8e6t4r5_pies-clipart-slice-pie-lemon-meringue-pie-drawing/

 

 

Christmas with the Yangs -human and feline

Christmas day approached and so did Rosalind to the manger.  Would the baby Jesus be safe?  One year Natasha ran off with one of the sheep!

Whew!  All is safe in Bethlehem, until Natasha decided that the fake snow on the roof looked delicious.  This leads me to an important question:  what’s with all this snow on manger roofs that we’re always seeing on cards and in manager displays?  How much snow do they get in the Mideast?  I know:  it’s a miracle!

 

Christmas day, the girls were absolutely delighted with their presents from my friend, Kathy Healey.  Both Natasha and Rosalind liked the Jackson Galaxy-approved “base-camp mat.”  Natasha was the more taken of the two.  And both had fun with the cat-nipped toys also a part of their feline care package.

 

 

 

 

After human and felines had opened all our presents,  the turkey having been cooked,  it was off to St. Matthews for the Christmas service.  We had a lovely service, with Mother Judith Lee presiding.  The 10:00 service was the third of three services held over two days (Christmas Eve included), so there was a small number of people attending.  That only made the experience even more homey and congenial than usual.  Yang and I both were the lectors!  Yang did the two readings and I did the Intercessions.  We’re lucky to be part of a church that makes us feel at home and happy.

Back home, we put together a wonderful Christmas dinner to share with each other.  I love cooking the Christmas and Thanksgiving meals with Yang.  It’s perfect teamwork, sharing the chores of preparation – and we haven’t dropped a turkey on the floor yet (knock on wood!) ! Of course Natasha was impatient to get her share.  She pulled that turkey right off Yang’s plate!  Little devil!

 

 

 

Here she is getting some turkey in a more acceptable manner – from Yang’s hand.  Kathy Healey take note!

I saluted Yang and the girls before we all tucked in!  It was a yummy meal, suitably stuffing everyone.  And speaking of stuffing, that’s my Mom’s simple but delicious recipe. The squash was my own, with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, along with walnuts.  The meal was followed by a long walk around Millbury, checking out Victorian houses and Christmas decorations.

The end of the day gave us a glorious sunset, which I have to share with you in some spectacular shots.

“I’m Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille!”

 

We’ve been seeing lots of beautiful birds as we move into June.  Many of the usual suspects are still showing up.  I managed to get some interesting close ups and Yang took some videos, so our birds are moving-picture stars!

One day when I was exercising in the parlor, I was lying on the floor, and when I cam up to window level, I saw the Rosebreasted Grosbeak up close.  So, I snuck off to get my camera and managed to take some wonderful close ups!  You’d swear he knew what was going on and decided to pose!  We’ve been so lucky to see one of the males almost every day.  We often see one male and one female together, while sometimes we also see a lone female.  We can hear their birdsong quite often.   I suspect they may be nesting fairly close by.  Maybe they’ll bring the kids to brunch some day.

 

We’ve also been blessed with some frisky catbirds who mainly love to chomp down on suet from the two such feeders we have in the yard.  I and the cats often watch them through the sun porch windows.  Today, one was chattering to me  while I was hanging out the clothes on the line. Anyway, here are some shots that Yang took for me.

 

 

The Downy Woodpeckers also like to feast on the suet as well.  Yang got a few shots of one doing so.  We haven’t seen many Hairy Woodpeckers this year – or Flickers or Yellow-bellied Woodpeckers.  Maybe the latter were too scared.

 

Yang also took some videos.  Here, we have The Adventures of Cardinal with special guest star Rosebreasted Grosbeak and a cameo by English Sparrow  Roll ’em!

 

We also have some mammals in our yard as well.  I managed to get a few shots of a baby rabbit, from which we strenuously held back both Rosalind and Natasha on separate occasions.  Enjoy watching him/her nibble.

Someone else enjoyed watching the bunny, as well.  She thought he looked delicious, er, adorable.  We made sure that she was restrained.

 

Old Friends Return!

The snow has finally been gone for some time now. Even though it’s raining and chilly today, we’ve had a whole week of sunshine and warm weather with just a touch of rain to treat the thirsty plants. And our spring birds are back! April brought a caravan of wild turkeys, one at a time, through my yard and past my sun porch. Though I was too busy watching them to take a picture, I did get some shots of one of my favorite avian harbingers of spring, the Redwinged Blackbird. He showed up at first on March 3rd, then I gradually saw more males flashing their yellow and red epaulets. They sometimes get resistance from another spring returnee, the Boat-Tailed Grackle, but the Redwings are pretty staunch in defending their places at the feeder. Just over the past week or two, I’ve been seeing the female Red-wings show up as well.
I mustn’t forget to mention the multitude of Gold Finches. They do tend to stay around all year, though the number of their appearances dwindles in the winter. However, in March and April I would see more and more of them. I loved watching their dull winter coats turn gleaming yellow as the spring progressed. I like that they are feisty and don’t let the bigger birds bully them off the feeder.
Another of my favorites is the Catbird. I first spotted one this year on May 5th, but this day I was lucky enough to catch two together, feeding with a Mourning Dove. I love how the Catbirds have such a plethora of different calls, many so musical. For me, it’s fun that one of their calls, though not of the musical variety, is “Sharon!” They’re always looking for me. It’s nice to be wanted!

 

We really hit the jackpot this week! Shortly after spotting a sleek, coppery fox gamboling in my yard, Rosalind focused my attention on the backyard feeder, and what did I see but a male Rose Breasted Grosbeak (5/8)! The next day, I heard a lovely birdsong (not Cindy) in the trees, and when I investigated, I saw the Grosbeak again! I’ve seen him at least once a day since, usually feeding on suet or black oil sunflower seeds. He’s quite the cheeky fellow, for when I was feeding the fish in our small pond, he sang me a song. When I repeated it back to him, he popped over to the nearby birdfeeder and chowed down for some time. This morning, he finally brought Mrs. Grosbeak to one of the feeders. I’m glad that these Grosbeaks are not easily intimidated by Grackles, Blue Jays, or Mourning Doves.
In the same week, (5/9) Yang called me to look at the backyard feeder, and what did I see but a Baltimore Oriole! He also appeared for a snack on the suet feeder by the side of our house, as well. I haven’t seen him in a few days, but my neighbors usually report on him. Of course for all these birds, I may not be seeing the same one every time, but it is fun to note that they seem to show up at almost the exact same date every year. It’s lovely to see old friends!
Of course, I have lots of help bird watching.

A Breath of Autumn

 

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Here’s a melange of interesting autumn images that I’ve come across this past September. One Friday afternoon, while riding the bicycle trail from Coventry, Yang and I came across these funky caterpillars. We’d seen them last fall on the same trail, so apparently these are their main stomping, er crawling, grounds. Does any one know into what they ultimately metamorph? Notice how they have prongs on their derrieres, no doubt to confuse predators as to which end they are biting. We wonder what these guys are.

The following weekend, we did 22 miles on the Nickerson Park Trail on the Cape. What should we see on the trail but this adorable quail! I suspect s/he is domesticated because the little critter did not seem at all unnerved by passing cyclists or walkers. I’ve seen pictures of domesticated quails on line, and this little guy seems to match up. Nevertheless, I’m counting him/her as one of my bird sightings for the year. I hope you can see the little guy in the center of the picture to left on the trail, almost in the leaves. Click on the image for a bigger picture.

 

Though not nearly as cute, here are some pictures of me in Brattleboro, VT. Every year this house creates a tunnel of enormous sunflowers. We went up last weekend and took these shots. The house used to also have a hutch for chickens and bunnies, but alas, those adorable creatures are no longer kept there. I’m not quite so adorable as a bunny, but I like to think I have some charm. Yang staged the photos nicely, don’t you think? Is there anything he can’t do?

 

 

 

Finally, Natasha desires to send you the best of autumn holiday greetings!

 

Rosie wants to photo bomb Natasha’s greeting – and Natasha is NOT amused.

 


 



All Hail Dusty!

Dusty, the feline star of my novel Bait and Switch, is based on a cat with whom I grew up.Dustyk

Dusty came into my life as a kitten when I was seven years old, and despite my occasional lapses of trying to saddle her with tack from my toy horse, Thunderhead, we were actually great pals. Dustye Especially since I would sit through thunderstorms when she hid behind the couch and try to calm to her.  I’m afraid singing was involved, but unlike Rosalind, she didn’t think my singing suggested I was in pain.

 

Dusty gets credit for inspiring what may actually have been my first venture into literature:  writing her biography, illustrated with pictures from a Purina Cat Chow book on cats.  It was mercifully short.  However, I did learn that Dusty was a silver or grey tabby from my research.

 

Inspiring the wise aleck attitude of her literary incarnation in Bait and Switch, the real Dusty was quite the character. Dustya Not only a top-flight mouser (which will come into greater play in the third Jessica Minton novel), Dusty also taught the neighbor’s dog an important lesson in inter-yard relations.  As my mother related the story, Spot (there’s an original name) had a bad habit of chasing Dusty, until one day her nibs stopped short, turned around, and, as if to embody that she’d had it with being a victim, unleashed her very sharp claws right across her pursuer’s nose.  He never bothered her again –– even though she would occasionally sit on her side of the fence between our yards and do the cat version of “Nyah-yah!”

 

She also was undeniably the boss of us. Dustyi If my brother or I spent too much time late at night sitting, talking in a car with our friends outside the house, Dusty would circle the vehicle growling, until we got out.  Then she would march us to the back door and into the house, before she galloped off to handle the rest of her catlly night duties.  Humans are so hard to take care of!

 

Also like her name sake in Bait and Switch, Dusty was quite the gourmand.  She also delighted in Polish ham, liverwurst, or fresh turkey and chicken.  Dusty additionally had some more unusual tastes for a feline:  peach ice cream; potato chips;  Dustydand, as you see here, corn still on the cob.   Note that her place setting has four bowls:  water, milk, and two types of cat food!

And woe to you if you didn’t feed her fast enough. My sister-in-law Dusty2 Pam got a sound smack on the hand once for not moving that chicken with sufficient alacrity.

 

Dusty may have had a secret scandalous life.  She did give birth to three kittens (Tiger Butterball, Jr; Mitzi Gaynor; and Midnight –– I didn’t name them!). Dustyf We also suspected she might have had a drinking problem.

 

 

 

 

All in all, Dusty was a dear and sympathetic pal, Dustyjgoing for walks with me in the yard, nuzzling me when I was down, playing with me when I needed some exercise.  She lived all the way up to sixteen, one day waiting for my mother to come home before taking her leave and making a final journey to the great beyond.  I have many more stories about her to tell, so mayhap we can have some more Dusty blogs.  I would love it if anyone else who remembers Dusty would share.  I just hope my novels are a fitting tribute to a truly cool cat!

 

 

Dustyc

Summer Birds and Beasts One

Yang went to pick up the watering can for the plants the other evening, and this is who greeted him. Frog2My friend Sarah tells me that he/she is a grey tree frog! We always have plenty of toads in the yard. In fact one used to sit on a floating platform in the fish pond and sing away the afternoon. However, I didn’t even know we had these guys in our yard! Quite the cutie, isn’t she/he?Frog1

Here, you can see, from left to right, a Blue Jay, a Mourning Dove, Birds1and the edge of a shy (or hungry) Red-bellied Woodpecker’s wing. I always get them mixed up with the Common Flicker. I can tell the difference in how they look; I just can never remember which name goes with which bird. Ah, here he is peeking out at us!birds2

 

Here’s a Downy Woodpecker. It could be a Hairy Woodpecker. I know the latter is bigger, but I can’t exactly make the comparison here.DSCN2839 I also know the Hairy has a longer beak, but unfortunately the picture is not quite sharp enough. We get both types, as well as Flickers and Nuthatches. No Piliated Woodpeckers, though!

 

 

Next are a Cardinal and a Mourning Dove. Some of these images aren’t as clear as they could be because I had the screen down on the window and had to shoot through it.birds4

 

Darned old Mourning Dove with a Red-winged Blackbird. The Blackbird is hard to catch. He comes by all the time, but always seems to see me and fly off before I can get a good shot.birds7 I’ll have some more bird pictures later with him in it –– as well as other birds. I would also love to get a shot of our Catbird. She is forever landing nearby and popping around looking for food or getting a drink from the bird bath near the fish pond. All I have to do is hold still and she’s my buddy. I’m happy to say that on our bicycle rides, Yang and I have seen a plethora of Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Song Sparrows!

Oh, and by the way, Yang and I aren’t the only ones in the house who like to bird watch.birdcat

 

Plymouth, NH Trip – May

When we went to Plainfield for me to participate in the Sisters in Crime panel on creating mysteries, we stayed over night in Plymouth, NH at one of our favorite places, the Red Carpet Inn.  For years Yang and I, myself alone, or myself and a pal had stayed there for the Medieval and Renaissance PlymouthForum when it was at Plymouth State University.  It’s always been pleasant.  Look at the beautiful view we had from our window!

 

The next day, we drove over to the Red Hill Cemetery where Claude Rains is buried with his wife Rosemary. Plymouthmay3 He has a beautiful epitaph:   “All things once are things forever, Soul, once living, lives forever.”  His wife’s is a variation on lines from Christina Rosetti’s “When I Am Dead” Sonnet –  one of my favorite poems.  We always try to pay a visit.  Just a simple way of saying, “Thanks for the great celluloid memories.” DSCN2816 It’s a special treat to know that my favorite actor is resting near me.  It almost feels like we’re neighbors.  Don’t they have a beautiful view? That’s Red Hill in the background, which Yang and I try to climb in good weather –– we’re tired afterward, but it’s worth it.DSCN2813

 

 

 

 

 

When we stopped in Center Harbor, I found a neat independent book store, Bayswater Book Co.  (12 Main St.).  Of course, I scoped out the lovely little shop –– and ultimately managed to make arrangements to give a reading Dustyaand signing on Saturday, July 9th, from 1:00-3:00.  Drop by and meet me.  Bait and Switch‘s Dusty will be be on the lookout for you!

 

I always wonder if this pun carries exactly the right connotations to bring in customers.  It must work, ’cause it’s been there for like 20 years!Plymouthmay1

 

Once we got home, we were happy to see that, on occasion, sleepingcats2Rosalind and Natasha can rest peacefully together.  The Moe will lie down with the Curly.

River Hawks Bookstore Lowell – Reading on My Old Home Turf

 

So, on May 28th I gave my final reading of the month at my alma mater’s bookstore, River Hawks.  It wasn’t exactly a trek back to Tara, but it was a wonderful experience for seeing so many old friends at UMass Lowell.Lowell4

First of all, the day was a scorcher:  in the 90s!  Of course, I had to have a hot cappuccino before my performance!  Thank God this place is air conditioned – but the nice, comfortable kind of air conditioning, not the Arctic temps that make polar bears shiver, which you find too often once May rolls around.  Lowell5Here, I’m sitting, looking over my notes and finishing my coffee in the lobby.  The building is really nice, with lots of windows and airy space.

Ham bone that I am, I had to get a picture of myself with the display for my book! Lowell1 The young woman clerking at the counter was nice enough to do the honors.  Like the dress?  Yang made it for me by copying a vintage dress I’d bought on Ebay.  This way we get the beauty of authentic vintage design combined with the convenience of material you can hand or machine wash!  There’s not much he can’t do:  from using physics to move boulders to building an oxygen R08chamber for a kitten recovering from double pneumonia.  Note the luxurious quarters:  litter box, bed, blanket, toys, and inspiring pictures (Rosie the Riveter, Rosalind in AYLI, and Rosalind Russell).

Before the session, I had a nice chat with Abbey and Christina, who had taken charge of setting up the space for me.  As you can see from the pictures, it’s a great area for doing a reading.  Lowell7What I could really kick myself over is that I had such a wonderful time seeing old friends that I forgot to have my entourage (Yang) take any pictures of folks.  Damn! Not even a group shot!  So, who’s on the red – or here royal blue-  carpet?

Sue Thorne-Gagnon and her husband Bobby were first to arrive.  Sue and I were at ULowell together at the same time, but darned if we never met until years later when we were working at BASF systems before we both went back into teaching.  She’s a wonderful teacher and flutist.  Next came Lisa McCarthy and her daughter Hedda.  I’ve known Lisa since the late seventies, and we’ve been through everything together from rambles around Boston, hikes through the woods, and Star Trek conventions.  My nephew Phil and his wife Steph also appeared on the scene.  Steph is responsible for addicting me to Psych; Monk; Murder, She Wrote; and Miss Fisher’s Mysteries.  Can I get her hooked on Murdoch?  Steph is a teacher and Phil is a filmmaker – check out his co-production of My Name Is Jonah.  When he and his older brother were kids, Sharon&GeoffI used to hold them under the arms and swing them in a circle, which they loved.  Now they can do it to me, but not at the reading. Here’s a picture of my giving Geoffrey a whirl.

After the reading started, I was so excited to see, first, Barbara DeMeuth then Mary Lou Beausoleil slip in!  These guys have been my friends since grammar school!  Clearly, they have much forbearance.  It was fantastic that they came to support me!  Barb is actually my oldest friend – not in age but in duration.  We met when we were going into the fifth grade.  Mary Lou is only a few months behind.  But we can’t get together as much as we’d like, so it was fantastic to catch up!  Mary Lou was one of the earliest readers of one of the earliest versions of Bait and Switch – and she still came, anyway!  Barb and I have managed to stay in touch on the phone or over an occasional lunch lo! these many years.  Both have wonderfully wicked senses of humor!

It was an absolute delight to see people I care so much about, and who showed me they cared by being here to share in the success of Bait and Switch. And thanks to Maria Shusta, Christina, and Abbey at River Hawks for doing a wonderful job of setting everything up for me and making the day run so smoothly.

So, if you’re a friend from the Merrimack Valley, old or new, who missed the reading but still would like to get Bait and Switch, they have copies awaiting you at the Dusty1River Hawks Bookstore, 220 Pawtucket Street, Lowell.  Dusty from Bait and Switch will be watching for you.