Monthly Archives: December 2011

Nature’s glory







Bohemian Waxwings in the yard of Karen J. Laubenstein, who posted the photo to Facebook.


White Christmas in Hanford

A reprint of a blog first posted in 2004, my last Christmas in Hanford, California.


Photo: This World War I cannon, a reminder of the “war to end all wars,” sits in front of the Veterans Memorial Building in Hanford, California, wrapped in dense fog on Christmas morning. Copyright 2004 Pat Browning.

Christmas Day, 2004: That white stuff is ground fog, not snow. But this is Christmas Day, so the town was pretty much closed down anyway.

There are interesting Christmas stories in the papers, both print and online.

From the war in Iraq:
An online Washington Post headline: Fear Dims Christmas Eve in Baghdad. Steel barricades are up at the Virgin Mary Church of Palestine. Iraq’s 800,000 Christians have lived peacefully among Muslims for centuries, but now they are afraid to come to church. Ah, Babylon …

From World War I:
The Post also has an interesting story on the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British, French, Belgian and German soldiers came out of their trenches to sing, exchange food and tobacco, play soccer, bury their dead. Cultural historian Modris Eksteins is quoted as calling it “the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman.”

From World War II:
In The Hanford Sentinel, local businessman and Sentinel columnist Bob Case tells the special stories of two local people.

One, now a retired teacher, was in the first wave of Marines to hit the beach at Guadalcanal in 1942. He spent Christmas Eve in a jungle hospital, under blackout conditions. But after the patients had sung carols, the C.O. allowed them to light one match for just a moment as they sang “Silent Night.”

In the second story, a local woman recalls Christmas Eve 1943, when a local church group went to a nearby POW camp to sing carols to Germans who had been captured in North Africa. After the church group finished singing, there was momentary silence behind the barbed wire fence, and then the sound of 400 German prisoners of war singing “Silent Night” in the original language … “Stille Nacht!Hiel’ge Nacht! Alles schlaft … “

Small, bright lights in the darkest of times.


Christmas Eve — what’s my hurry?

I first posted this on my old blog, Morning’s At Noon, on December 24, 2004. I re-post it somewhere every Christmas Eve.


Christmas Eve. What’s my hurry? I keep looking at my watch.

I’m sipping Prince of Wales tea from a real china cup, poured scalding hot from a real china teapot. Prince of Wales is my favorite tea, a “full-bodied blend with a hint of black currant,” but I keep looking at my watch.

The Sweet Tea at the Irwin Street Inn, a landmark in downtown Hanford, California, comes with little sandwiches, scones, thick cream, lemon curd, strawberry jam. It’s cold outside, even with sunshine breaking up the fog. Inside, there’s a fire in the fireplace, and through the bayed window I can see the wandering limbs of a century-old camphor tree.

I look at my watch. It’s 11:45. I have to mail a letter, pick up a prescription, be at the beauty parlor by 12:30. I ask the old Zen question: Where am I?

Where am I? Sitting on a ladder-back chair, in the quiet elegance of a Victorian parlor, sipping Prince of Wales tea, admiring a camphor tree planted sometime between 1901 and 1909. In summer, shade from the old tree makes the yard a popular place for wedding receptions. On this winter day, leaves on the top branches are still green, and the lower limbs are wrapped with strings of tiny lights.

 I break open a cranberry scone and spoon cream over it.

 It’s Christmas Eve. What’s my hurry?


Photo: THE OLD CAMPHOR TREE, planted during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), dominates the yard at the Irwin Street Inn, an historic landmark in downtown Hanford, California. Copyright 2004 Pat Browning.











New friends: “Presley Parker”

Presley Parker is a character created by author Penny Warner in her new “party planner” series, all with California’s Bay Area settings. I recently read HOW TO SURVIVE A KILLER SÉANCE which is set in two real places – the “haunted” Winchester House in San Jose, and Treasure Island, which sits on a landfill in San Francisco Bay. Built for the 1938-39 Golden Gate Exposition, Pan American Airways launched the China Clipper from Treasure Island, offering the first commercial air service across the Pacific.

SÉANCE is the third book in the series. The first two are HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, set on Treasure Island and Alcatraz, and HOW TO CRASH A KILLER BASH, set at San Francisco’s famed de Young Museum. The recently published fourth book is HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE, set in Colma, the Bay Area’s burial ground and home to fourteen cemeteries. All of the books offer party tips throughout, and a full party plan at the back.

The party-planning series is really just the tip of the iceberg for this multi-talented, always busy author and teacher. You can find out more about her activities on her web site at


By Penny Warner

Reviewed by Pat Browning

Event planner Presley Parker is your best girl friend. Settle in with a low-fat blueberry muffin and a double latte and let her tell you what she’s planning, how her love life’s going, and what happened at the killer séance she just produced.

It’s a killer in more ways than one. The client is Jonathan Ellington, a computer magnate who wants to launch his new 4-D holographic projector with a séance at the Winchester Mystery House inSan Jose. He plans to have Sarah Winchester, the long-dead owner, “appear” and endorse his product.

 No problem for Presley, who has loyal colleagues to help her pull off such a stunt. Jonathan brings his own crew to operate his top-secret magic machine. All goes well until Sarah’s appearance goes off the rails. At first she does fine, “materializing” to deliver her infomercial, but the program has been hacked. Sarah begins to accuse one of the guests of serial adultery and general scuzziness.

End of séance, beginning of mayhem. When the programmer operating the 4-D projector is murdered, Presley and the police turn the area upside down looking for the missing suspect.

Presley and her helpful colleagues are a likeable lot. Her romantic interest is Brad, a crime scene cleanup operator who is handy for picking locks, massaging blood stains out of carpet and hot sex. We have to take the author’s word for the hot sex. This is a family-friendly mystery with suicide, murder and serial adultery all offstage.

The setting is a colorful one and Warner manages to get in some of the history without dragging the story. The Winchester House in San Jose was the property of William Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. He died and left his widow a half-interest in the company and a $20 million inheritance. She used the money to build what became known as the Winchester House – 160 rooms haunted by the spirits of Indians who had been killed by her husband’s rifles. She slept in a different room every night so the spirits couldn’t find her.

An unusual feature of a house filled with unusual features is the “listening tube.” It looks like an exposed plumbing pipe on the ceiling but it runs the length of a wall, turns down in one corner and dead-ends halfway to the floor. Originally added so Sarah Winchester could contact her servants, the tubes became her means of listening in on their conversations wherever she happened to be. A listening tube plays an important role in this story.

Just as colorful is the location of Presley’s business on Treasure Island, which sits on a landfill in San Francisco Bay. Built for the 1938-39 Golden Gate Exposition, Pan American Airways launched the China Clipper from Treasure Island, offering the first commercial air service across the Pacific.

HOW TO SURVIVE A KILLER SÉANCE is so “current” even the diseases are trendy: stroke, Alzheimer’s, sexual addiction, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Fifty years from now someone could pick up this book and get a word picture of life in the Bay Area as it was in the first decade of the 21st century.

It’s a fun read. The author begins each chapter with a party planning tip. My favorite is Tip #8:

(quote) Once the room is prepared, it’s time to join hands and summon the spirits. Use words like, “Our beloved Spirit, commune with us.” Avoid invoking the wrong spirits by saying things like, “Yoo-hoo. Anybody there?” or “I’d like to speak to Jack the Ripper.” (end quote)

(My thanks to Penny Warner’s publicist at Penguin Group for a copy of this book.)

Billy the Kid, legend for all time










Sheriff Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; photos from Wikipedia.

So who’s buried in Billy the Kid’s grave? That’s not a trick question. DNA testing of remains there never took place. Exhumation was blocked by officials in FortSumner and Silver City, New Mexico.

 Who knows why Billy the Kid became such a legend, and why there’s so much controversy surrounding his alleged death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett? There are plenty of people who would swear the Kid lived out his life as “Brushy Billy” and died of old age inTexas.

My friend Earl Staggs picked up that idea and wrote a fascinating short story called “Where Billy Died.” It’s just under 10,000 words, but author Staggs packs a lot into this yarn about a skip tracer named Jack who outfoxes a mobster and runs into the legend of Billy the Kid. Here’s my review:

 “Where Billy Died” by Earl Staggs

Kindle E-Book, $1.99

Reviewed by Pat Browning

 Story opening: “It was June, 2001, and I’d been working as a skip tracer in Philadelphia for about a year when I leaned across the desk and said, ‘I don’t want to go toTexas.’”

 Jack’s wife Beverly, owner of the Liberty Bail Bonding Agency, sends him anyway. She’s tired of looking at him and they need the money. Resolved to stay out of trouble Jack heads to Hico, Texas to look for Billy Joe Raynor, a clean cut lad who took part in a bungled robbery and jumped bail.

 At a diner in Hico, Jack meets Ollie, a rumpled old man who claims to have known Billy the Kid and offers to show him Hico’s tourist attractions. Leaving the diner Jack realizes he’s been tailed by a brute named Turk, an enforcer for Sal Marino, a mob boss who has bad history with Jack. Here’s Jack’s idea of staying out of trouble:

 Quote: “When I was directly opposite Turk’s Honda, I threaded my way through the trees, crouched, and crossed a patch of grass to its rear end. Then I eased around to the driver’s side, held the two-by-four behind me in my right hand and tapped on the window with my left. When Turk turned his head and recognized me, I said, ‘Hello, you stupid pile of puke.’ He jerked the door open, but before he could get out, I whipped the two-by-four around and whacked him on his bald head.” End Quote

 Turk gets the upper hand and is on the verge of killing Jack when Ollie picks up the two-by-four and knocks Turk out cold.

Shortly after, at Ollie’s spiffy cabin in the wilds outside Hico, Jack hears yet another version of Billy the Kid’s legend. Billy Joe Raynor makes his appearance, Turk shows up, and the ending is a pip.

New friends: “Ivy Malone”

Ivy Malone is a character in INVISBLE by Lorene McCourtney. I had this book in my Kindle for PC file for weeks and finally began reading it and loved every page. Ivy Malone is my kind of gal. Here’s my review.

INVISIBLE by Lorena McCourtney

Revell 2004

Free Kindle E-book

Opening lines: “The sign arched over the gravel driveway proclaimed Country Peace in rusty wrought iron. Beyond the sign, the havoc in the cemetery challenged that claim of serenity.”

Ivy Malone and her best friend Thea arrive at the cemetery to find headstones almost destroyed by vandals. At the police station, while they wait to report the vandalism, Ivy sorts through magazines on an end table, and muses, “I read about how some young woman acquired a belly that looked flat enough to iron on.”

I liked these characters immediately, and especially I liked Ivy, her wry sense of humor and her no-nonsense way of dealing with situations. She has worn a whistle around her neck since a woman was mugged in a grocery story parking lot. After an hour of being ignored in the waiting room at the police station, she picks up the whistle and gives it a mighty blast. The cops come running.

The cops are solicitous of the two old biddies reporting cemetery vandalism but their budget is strained, they don’t have the manpower for a nightly stakeout, yada yada yada.

Thea is especially upset. As Ivy muses, “Thea was so strongly tied to the past. She kept in touch with schoolmates back to the Truman era.”

There’s a monstrous storm during the night and next day Ivy finds Thea dead in her bed. Nothing suspicious. She had a bad heart. But Ivy is bereft without her friend. As she makes her mundane rounds alone nobody pays the slightest attention to her. With her gray hair and wrinkles she is “an island of invisibility in a bright sea of youth and energy.”

She briefly considers using that invisibility to shoplift caviar, rob banks and smuggle jewels across international borders. Not her style, but there’s one place she can use her invisibility – the cemetery. If the cops can’t stake it out, Ivy Malone will do the job.  

She goes the route, even putting brown shoe polish on her sneakers so she will not show light anywhere. For several nights she sits up against a tombstone shaped like a Volkswagen and nothing happens. Then a big car pulls up and two men cross a little bridge and dump something in the river. An old fridge, perhaps, or microwave? People dump stuff there all the time.

About that time a young neighbor, a rather mysterious character, goes missing and Ivy can’t resist poking into it. After all, she was a nice young woman, kind to Ivy and Thea, although there was something – something odd about her.

Ivy is soon running down a stolen ID, befriending a cop, dealing with a death threat,  hiding out in a small Arkansas town celebrating the annual Perseid meteor shower, and surviving an encounter with a junkyard dog, among other mishaps.

I loved every page of this delightful book. It’s listed as a Christian mystery but the author doesn’t hit the reader over the head with it. Ivy tries to live up to her faith and always has a Bible quote handy, but she’s not above quoting bumper stickers, too. In a philosophical discussion about creation of the universe, Ivy offers: “God said BANG and it was so.”

New friends: “Bubba Mabry”

Bubba Mabrey is a character in Steve Brewer’s novella, a short, sweet read about Christmas fun and skulduggery at the mall.

P.I. Bubba Mabry needs Christmas cash to buy his wife, a newspaper reporter, a laptop computer. He takes an undercover job at Albuquerque’s new mall, where all he has to do is monitor Santa’s workshop for shoplifters, pickpockets, lost kids and perverts posing as Santa. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Here’s my review.

SANITY CLAUSE by Steve Brewer

A Bubba Mabry novella

Kindle edition, 99-cent Special

P.I. Bubba Mabry needs Christmas cash to buy his wife, a newspaper reporter, a laptop computer. He takes an undercover job at Albuquerque’s new mall, where all he has to do is monitor Santa’s workshop for shoplifters, pickpockets, lost kids and perverts posing as Santa. “Albuquerque loves the ‘new’ the way a monkey loves a shiny penny,” he says of the hordes flocking through the doors.

Unfortunately Bubba has a Santa phobia dating back to when he was 5 years old. It gives him the creeps but that’s nothing when Daniel Gooch, the Santa team’s best man, is murdered. Santa? Murdered? It gives new meaning to the seasonal chaos.

Bubba’s wife Felicia, ever the intrepid reporter, shows up pen and notepad in hand, to interview Bubba. Gooch is big news, a famous inventor who gives all his money to charities and is a Christmas nut.

 Bubba’s caught in a conflict of interest; can’t talk until okayed by the guy who hired him, the ever-smiling Milt Jablonski, head of mall security. Milt promptly fires him.

 Everyone was after Gooch’s patents and money. His lawyer Marley plans to invoke a sanity clause in the will. Gooch’s much-married sister stands to inherit millions if the will is broken. Charities called Joyous Noises and the Holiday Food Bank will fold without Gooch’s money.

 Hopwood, manager of the food bank, says, “Charity organizations are a funny business, Mr. Mabry. Very courteous, very circumspect. Never do anything that might upset the donors because they’ll take their dollars elsewhere. There’s a limited pool of giving out there, and an ever-growing number of charities trying to survive. Out front, everything’s sweetness and light, but behind the scenes, it’s a cutthroat business.”

 So who knocked off Gooch and tries to knock off Bubba? Good question. SANITY CLAUSE is a short, lively read for anyone needing a break during the holiday rush.







Old friends: “Sterling Paisley”

Paisley Sterling is a character in one of my all-time favorite books, THE PAPER DETECTIVE by E. Joan Sims. I don’t know whether the author E. Joan Sims is still writing, but there are at least four other books in the Sterling Paisley series: Cemetery Silk 2005, The Plague Doctor 2005, The Poisoned Pen 2007, and The Cradle Robber 2007.

My 2005 review is another nugget from my old computer files.


By E. Joan Sims

Reviewed by Pat Browning

 I opened THE PAPER DETECTIVE about midnight, thinking I’d take a quick look before going to bed. Four hours later I was still turning pages. I know better than to stay up all night, but I couldn’t rest until Paisley Sterling got out of her latest predicament.

 This is the third book in the Paisley Sterling series, but my first to read. It has everything I needed and wanted in a book that night: characters I can like, a Southern tone and setting, a story with twists and turns.

 Paisley is 42, with creaky knees and a contrary streak. She gets into dangerous situations more by accident than design. She’s back on the family farm after her husband’s disappearance during a revolution and her daughter Cassie is home from university for the Christmas holidays, all to the delight ofPaisley’s mother Anna, the eternal Southern Belle.

 Paisley writes hard-boiled detective stories under the pen name of Leonard Paisley. No problem, until now. A phone call from her literary agent in New York seems more of an annoyance than anything, but it sets a nightmare in motion.

 A magazine has offered $10,000 for an interview with “Leonard.” Paisley convinces retired police chief Bert Atkins to impersonate Leonard. Again, no problem, until certain nasty types read the published article, which includes a color photo of Bert “looking handsome and sleuthlike in his black turtleneck and tweed jacket.” Even worse, a PR klutz has posted a photo of Bert’s secluded lakeside cabin on a Web page.

 When someone tries to kill Bert, Paisleyconcludes that her paper detective has a flesh-and-blood enemy. Her latest book was inspired by information left on the hard drive of a used computer bought by Cassie. Paisley’s reexamination of files on the disc sends her off to the army base outside of town. Before she can say “A-ha!” Bert has disappeared and she’s running for her life from members of a covert paramilitary operation.

 I didn’t mind losing sleep to read this one. I’ll read it again and again, while I’m waiting for the next one in this lovely series.


Old friends: “Molly Tunstall”

One of the funniest books I ever read was SHOVELING SMOKE by Austin Davis, published by Chronicle Books in 2003. Austin Davis was a pseudonym for Steve Garrison, a college professor in Edmond, Oklahoma. Garrison apparently is still writing. Quoting results of a recent Google search:

 “Steve Garrison’s novel Shoveling Smoke was published under the pseudonym ‘Austin Davis’ by Chronicle Books in 2003.  He is currently working on a novel set in a small Oklahoma town in the mid-1960s.  A professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma, Garrison is married to Dr. Constance Squires, the director of the M.F.A. degree program in writing at UCO.”

The book is out of print but still available through You can read excerpts at Google Books:

 Here’s my review, first published in 2003:

 SHOVELING SMOKE by Austin Davis

Chronicle Books 2003

Reviewed by Pat Browning

I kept putting this book down so I could laugh without spilling coffee all over it. Maybe I have a warped sense of humor, or maybe I just love goofy places likeJenks,Texas– “a one-horse town with a two-block business district and a Dairy Queen.”

Clay Parker’s first day in Jenks would send most people running for their lives. Clay, who burned out as a tax lawyer in Houston, has no place to go except to his new job at the offices of Chandler and Stroud, neither of whom is anywhere in sight when he arrives.

Gilliam Stroud’s in the drunk tank. Hardwick Chandler has dallied with a woman who handcuffed him to the bed before walking out. (This will not be the worst that happens to him. At a later rendezvous with the same woman, he’s kicked half-senseless by an emu.)

This law firm makes melting Jell-O look substantial, but somebody has to show up in court to defend a client who has already confessed to murder.

That leaves secretary Molly Tunstall and Clay, who blew Houston with no shoes except the flip-flops he’s wearing, to bail out Stroud and prop him up long enough to get the client off. A rambling wreck of a once-great trial lawyer, Stroud can still deliver the goods, drunk or sober.

Clay Parker is a likeable character, trying to find his footing. A sleazy client is about to pullChandlerand Stroud into a malpractice suit involving insurance fraud. Clay gets a crash course in ways to make dirty money as a horse trader and cow kiter. He learns firsthand some of the wild and wonderful ways that lawyers, clients, judges and expert witnesses can screw up a case.

 As someone who worked for 20 years in a country law office, I sympathize with the character Molly. The author makes the usual disclaimer about characters resembling actual people, but I will swear that Molly lives. Any Tuesday, she bails Gilliam Stroud out of jail, sprays him with Garden Mist air freshener, and drives him to court in his old black Lincoln Continental.

 This is a first novel by Austin Davis, a pseudonym for Steve Garrison, an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond. The cover is a joke too far, but I love the title, from a quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Lawyers spend a great deal of time shoveling smoke.”

A Little Irish In The Coffee

Some say it’s a waste of good whiskey and good coffee. Maybe. But it’s the only thing I drink, and that seldom. I like the whipped cream on top. I like the conviviality, and a good memory it brings back.

Back in the day, a friend took me to the Buena Vista on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. We were jammed in like sardines but the atmosphere was light and bright and everyone was a friend.

Irish Coffee. Don’t mind if I do.