Sunday, December 4, 2016

Time flies

And another month goes by of crazy times.

Read the latest by Bujold, Penric's Mission, which is fun, but too short, and which introduces a love interest into Penric's saga.

More Stephanie Plum novels for light reading, always reliable for a chuckle or two.

Tried Murder in the Place of Anubis, by Linda S. Robinson , as recommended to me by a friend, but found it not all that interesting after all, I'm afraid.

Finished Magic Binds, by Ilona Andrews, which was very engrossing, and kept me up long past my bedtime. It got mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I found it to be one of the better ones in the Kate Daniels series.

Read A Curse on the Land, by Faith Hunter, sequel to Blood of the Earth. Interesting buildup to a rather disappointing finale. Will still read the next book in this series - Hunter's work does have its peaks and valleys.

Created to be God's Friend, by Henry T. Blackaby, was an interesting take on the life of the patriarch Abraham. Gives one hope that we can be used of God despite, or perhaps because of, our faults and failings. I had read his study, Experiencing God, some time ago and found it insightful, so was happy to pick this book up at a garage sale.

One of my finds during my travels had to be read simply because I'd never read anything by the legendary musician, and A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffet was reasonably amusing.

Enjoyed a new iteration of Toby Daye, in Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire. A bit of a locked room mystery, solved in only the way that Sir Daye can.

I think I got The Red Queen by Jeb Kinnison recommended to me at According to Hoyt. It may be Kinnison's first novel, and it's a pretty decent read. If he continues to improve his writing as the series moves along, it will be well worth the money. This is what I would consider a "near future" novel, set in a very plausible future when political correctness and progressive policies have gotten a touch out of control, especially on college campuses. A new take on time/dimensional travel, vaguely reminiscent of Tunnel in the Sky, by Heinlein.

That's all I can remember reading in the last several weeks, though there might be more.

Sorry for no in-depth reviewage.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich

Stephanie appears, after a brief hiatus in Eleven on Top, to have returned to her job as a bounty hunter, since all of her other career choices ended badly and briefly in that novel. She is still mostly in love with Morelli, but lusts after Ranger (as do Lula, Connie, and most other women who see him).

Things are busy at the bail bonds agency, and it's a bad time to lose Ranger's services for the more dangerous apprehensions, but he jumps on a plane on personal business in the opening pages, and isn't available to help Stephanie and Lula in their shenanigans.

It turns out that someone has kidnapped his daughter, and is trying to assume his identity, as well. When he decides he has to have Stephanie, too, since Ranger has "had" her, things begin to get dangerous, and she plays stalking goat in order to find and capture the impersonator.

In the middle of all of this plot, there are plenty of the usual frolics, with Grandma Mazur joining a band with Sally and Lula, and causing her usual scenes at funeral home viewings, even for the new owners of Stiva's.

Pretty good story; a quick read.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Blood of the Earth by Faith Hunter

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It's been almost a month since I last posted something. Job changes, a divorce in the family, a death in the family...been a crazy Fall.

This novel is a "spinoff" from the Jane Yellowrock books, and I think there's actually a novelette or short story out there somewhere that tells the tale of how Jane met Nell, the heroine of Blood of the Earth. Nell is an exile from her family and her cult-like church, living on a small farm in Tennessee, and she seems to have some earth-witch type of powers which tie her to her land, to the forest and to her herb and vegetable garden. She survives mostly by trading the fruits of her labor (literal and figurative) with locals at farmers' markets and selling at a cooperative's roadside stand. She does mostly without modern conveniences; there is no cell service in the Soulwood, and the way she was raised in God's Cloud of Glory Church makes her wary of being "on the grid".

To escape what would have surely been a disastrous marriage to one of the church leaders, she entered into a polygamous arrangement with John and Leah, who lived on their own land adjacent to the church compound, and when they both passed away, she inherited the land. The new generation of church leadership would like to get the land - and Nell - back, and as the novel begins they threaten to return her forcefully to the bosom of the church.

Enter Rick LaFleur and his PsyLed team to alter the dynamics of the situation. They are in pursuit of a group of kidnappers who may have ties to her old church, and they recruit her as a consultant to help them investigate whether the men have joined forces with her old antagonists.

A worthwhile read. There's already a sequel out, and I'm going to have to do some research to find the story that ties it all together.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Quote of the Indeterminate Time Period

From Donna Leon's Death in a Strange Country,

"The secret of police success lay, Brunetti knew, not in brilliant deductions or the psychological manipulation of suspects but in the simple fact that human beings tended to assume that their own level of intelligence was the norm, the standard, and to work on that assumption. Hence the stupid were quickly caught, for their idea of what was cunning was so lamentably impoverished as to make them obvious prey."

Vignettes, Too

Still no time nor motivation to actually review anything in depth. I finished off five more of the Stephanie Plum mysteries, which are always good for a chuckle or three. Picked up a new series that a friend at work recommended, by Donna Leon, The Commissario Brunetti series which take place in Venice; really fun reading when you are at least somewhat familiar with the islands, lagunas and piazzas of La Serenissima.

Read Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, which was not particularly surprising in its description of the global reach of the former first family's money grubbing influence peddling, but which got me to wondering whether this isn't just the tip of the iceberg, and if most global business operates in the same corrupt fashion, with the willing collusion of the world's political class. The magnitude of the dollars, rubles and francs involved is simply mind-boggling.

Picked up a trio of ebooks by a blogger whom I've been following for years, The Grey Man series by J.L. Curtis; Vignettes, Changes and Payback. Good adventure fiction, set in the U.S. Southwest. He published a fourth novel around Labor Day. It will be on my TBR pile soon.

A couple other books that I have partial reviews written for. I'll try to finish those off and get them up on one of my better days.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Yeah, I know

Life remains extremely busy, and though I am still reading steadily, I just don't have much time to think or talk about what I've read. The birth of a new grandson, a medical vacation, and too many other things occupying my time and mind. Maybe a few more vignettes up this weekend.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

This novella, set in Bujold's world of the Five Gods, picks up the tale of Penric - all growed up, trained as a Learned now - a couple of years after the events of Penric's Demon. When a temple investigator named Oswyl shows up on the trail of a murderous shaman, the young scholarly fellow sets out to help justice be done, though perhaps not in the way that Oswyl intends.

Bujold seems to be trying to express a theme I've heard discussed in a few sermons regarding how the Gods get their work done in the mundane world - usually by sending their servants, willing or not, to go take care of things. When you whine about, "why does God allow this to go on? Why doesn't he do something?", the answer seems to be to get up off your tail and do your part, miracles may follow as required.

Not the best of her Five Gods stories, but amusing enough.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Vignettes Four

I can't seem to manage the attention span to write long reviews these days, so I'm just going to lump a few comments together about several recent reads and let it go at that. Life tasks tasks me.

Bitter Bite by Jennifer Estep is a recent addition to the series - I think she just released the latest on Tuesday - and I'm sorry to say that the whole thing has gone stale for me now. The plot, such of it as I was able to endure before closing the pages in sorrow, was far too predictable. Is Estep using too much foreshadowing, or have I simply seen it all before? I don't know, but I do know that I'm done following this series for now. Ms Estep is a really nice person and generally has been a readable author, and a good author, but I think she's just run out of new plot ideas for Gin Blanco, The Spider.

When I was younger, I found the tales spun by Patricia McKillip to be fanciful and entertaining, and read all of her books I could get my hands on. I picked up Kingfisher after a bit of a wait on the  hold list at the library, and eagerly attacked it the other night. Other reviewers may have found this book to be breaking new fantasy ground, or a mystical blending of ancient and modern mythology, but I simply found it confusing, and never really bit on a "hook" to reel me in. I put it down after a few chapters and returned it to the library. Sigh.

Four to Score, by Janet Evanovich, was everything I expected it to be - fluffy entertainment with some lovable characters, inside jokes, and the usual cast of felons to apprehend, a job which Stephanie Plum seems to mess up more often than not, but eventually she unravels something unexpected. She and Morelli finally fall into bed together in this one, but their predictably prickliness keeps them from enjoying post-coital bliss, despite the Morelli matrons' matrimonial ambitions. Need something to while away a few lonely hours? This one will do it.

I've also been working my way through the Honor Harrington novels for the third or fourth time; I've lost track. You'll find my reviews of On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen here, but I appear to have paused at that point until about the tenth book in the series, so perhaps I'll begin again with A Short, Victorious War some sweet day.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Flashman by George McDonald Fraser

A long time ago, I owned a copy of Flashman, and of one of the sequels by Fraser, Royal Flash, which I am sure I must have loaned out to someone and was never returned - a fairly common fate for some of my favorites over the years -  and when I saw that the local library system has an extensive collection of the series, I decided it was time to re-read the ones I've seen before and enjoy the rest for the first time.

There was literary device often used in pulp fiction (and perhaps earlier) where the author would purport to have found a package of letters or memoirs, left in a secret hiding place, or in a dusty old crate at auction, or some equally odd place, which he had merely translated, re-telling a true story. Such is the case with The Flashman Papers, a collection of historical novels about a fictional rogue who lived through the late nineteenth century, and got caught up in most of its battles, usually landing in a pile of ordure, yet coming out smelling of roses, Harry Flashman.

When the tale begans, Flashman is kicked out his boarding school for drunkenness, and returns home to visit his father. His father secures him a place in a cavalry regiment, and in return Harry sleeps with his father's mistress - a portent of things to come. He is doing quite well ingratiating himself with the commander of the regiment when his affair with the French mistress of another officer lands him in a duel. While he survives the duel, he is caught by the political repercussions and sent off to exile in Scottland, where he seduces the daughter of the merchant with whom he is quartered, and ends up in a "shotgun" wedding. Shortly after that, his braggadocio at a party ends with him sent off to India as the aide-de-camp to a British general.

It's one of those out of the frying pan types of stories that I've always enjoyed, and Fraser makes it quite a compelling read, with an antihero you just love to hate.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

This seventh novel in the Laundry Files series takes another detour away from the story of Bob Howard, which seems to have stalled out in the midst of the breakup of his marriage, to pick up a fresh POV in Alex Schwartz, one of the PHANGs who was recruited after the scandal at the investment bank where he was working, in The Rhesus Chart.

Alex gets caught up in an incursion by beings from another plane, upon which humans have based their stories of elves. They're not exactly the singing elves of Middle Earth, and in fact their society is very warlike. They send a spy, one of the "princesses" ahead to gather information, and she assumes the form and identity of a theater arts major named Cassie, whom Alex falls head over heels for - despite figuring out fairly quickly that she's not exactly what she seems to be.

Filled with the usual Stross drolleries like,

"She racks her brain: but Cassie has no memory of ritual castration as a tool of management in this place, unless it's symbolized by the neck-wrappings man male uruk wear as part of their uniforms."

"She doesn't have any lectures to attend until four and the weather's nice: she might as well go to college and raid the theatrical wardrobe for something fancy to wear to the end of the world."

Alex, who is definitely not warrior-class, turns out to have more up his sleeve than most people thought. The "elves" pretty much use brute force spellcasting, which uses a lot of their own energy and mana stolen from the environment, but Alex is a programmer (hmm...I need to re-read the Wizardry series by Cook) and when he sets a DO LOOP to work on gathering spellcasting power, it's a wonderful thing.

This one really gets back to some of the things I used to love in the series. Hopefully we'll continue see more of the same goodness from Stross.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Monster Hunter: Grunge by John Ringo

Oh my word! Ringo does Monster Hunters! What fun! I can't hardly think of a better person to write in Correia's universe...well, maybe Drake or Weber.

Chad is a hard core Marine, who joined the Corps to irritate his liberal, hippie parents, but who really became an excellent warrior along the way. When he is killed in the Beirut barracks bombing, he is given a choice by a guy named Peter - go back to Earth to do the Big Guy's works, or take the easy way out and pass on to his final reward (as the song says, probably guarding the streets of Heaven). Of course, it woulda been a really short story if he had taken the easy way, now, wouldn't it?

After his medical retirement from the Marine Corps, he spies a sign for a tent revival, and decides to check it out. When the revival is interrupted by a resurrection - of a whole bunch of zombies - Chad destroys all the Zulus and gets "read in" to the truth about monsters, and gets offered employment with Shackleford's MHI.

After Parris Island, Chad never wants to work in a hot, humid area again, so he opts to take a job in Seattle, and settles in hunting down zombies, wights, liches, vampires, werewolves, ogres... and anything else that makes a habit of taking human victims.

There's a really funny scene in here where Ringo exploits the idea of the blue screen of death, when daemons are climbing out of the monitors in the sub-basement at "Microtel".

Not nearly as many graphic sex scenes as we're used to with Ringo, and Correia must have done some fairly extensive editing. He mentions in the forward that he had to tell JR, "hey, my kids read this stuff!" All of the raunchy stuff takes place offstage, in the dark, as the moon passes behind a cloud.

The whole books is written as if Chad is putting together an instruction manual for noob monster hunters. He gives advice on different monster species that one should befriend, in order to have confidential informants; like Harry Dresden pays the pixies for information with pizza, Chad pays the gnolls (who dwell in the sewers) with rotten, smelly fish - which they love, and the sasquatch get Hersheys kisses.

Good fun, and there's a sequel coming!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich

Uncle Mo is a candy store owner in Trenton, beloved by the children of the "burg" and his neighbors, and Stephanie catches a lot of flak over her quest to bring him in to face the charges of carrying an unregistered weapon.

There's a pretty funny bit of interaction between Stephanie and her second grade teacher, who lives next to Mo's store. Stephanie is still terrified of the woman, twenty years later.

Morelli is working a parallel case involving a lot of drug dealers turning up missing, and eventually the tangled and humorous web that Evanovich weaves brings Stephanie to the realization that Mo has gotten caught up with a bunch of vigilantes.

As always, she can't leave things alone, and has to suffer a series of mishaps before the case is solved.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich

Just another light and amusing read by Evanovitch wherein Stephanie is assigned to locate and return Morelli's cousin, Kenny Mancuso, to jail, so he can stand trial for shooting a friend in the leg. He and  friends turn out to be involved in a conspiracy to steal and sell military weapons from a local base.

In what appears to be a side issue, Stephanie is hired by the director of a local funeral home to track down some missing coffins.

We begin to get to know Grandma Mazur a bit better, and follow along with her main social opportunity, attending funerals. Grandma seems to have a fixation on viewings, and gets a bit peeved when the funeral is "closed coffin".

At the conclusion of the tale - semi spoiler- Stephanie and Grandma manage to burn down the funeral parlor, which leaves Stephanie with a lasting reputation in "the burg".

Monday, August 1, 2016

Profiteer by S. Andrew Swann

I had this trilogy called Hostile Takeover sitting on my TBR pile for a very long time, and thought I'd give it a try. I almost feel like I missed some early short stories, since the tale begins with two brothers who have been lethally at odds with one another for a very long time, Dom and Klaus (neither one of their real names). Dom has gone underground on a planet filled with anarchists, Bakunin, and is the CEO of a large company, while Klaus is a Colonel in the Terran Executive Command, the power behind a group of solar systems with a common defense, trade and political structure. Klaus has been assigned a mission to get the planet of anarchy under Confederacy control, and the added bonus is he gets a shot a killing his brother as part of the deal. The first attack pretty well destroys the corporation, but Dom has a plan to steal back some hidden resources and make a comeback. He encounters a hacker girl named Tetsami when they are both in the custody of a militant religious order, and they team up with some of her confederates to pull off the heist. This religious order had some interesting practices, and it would have been fun to explore that and other aspects of the planet, Bakunin, filled with anarchists of various stripes, as Michael Z Williamson did with a Libertarian planet in Freehold. Kinda fun, but it didn't hold my attention enough to make me finish the trilogy.

Friday, July 29, 2016

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

After enjoying one of the more recent Stephanie Plum mysteries as a book on tape a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well go back to where it all started and read my way through the series, so I reserved a copy of One for the Money at the library. Somehow or other, Evanovich seems to have leapt onto the scene with this first book as nicely turned out as her more recent ones. Perhaps she has been writing for other genres or in other series before beginning this one.

In some ways, the books gave me an immediate impression of seeing familiar faces, as we encounter Stephanie's cousin Vinnie, his secretary Connie, detective Morelli, bounty hunter Ranger, and even Lula, who is a streetwalker at the beginning of the stories. We also get to meet her close family for the first time; Mom, Dad and Grandma Mazur.

Stephanie blunders her way through her first few apprehensions in the new job, and stirs up a lot of trouble in her main case, which involves bringing in her old neighborhood nemesis, Joe Morelli,  Morelli, a cop, is accused of murdering a confidential informant. He swears it was self-defense, but the perp's gun seems to have disappeared, and witnesses are rapidly doing the same.

Obviously, Stephanie's rookie apprehension skills are not enough to outwit Morelli, so he and she dance around the issue, while they uneasily work together to find his witness and get her bounty

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

I've read and re-read the Vorkosigan saga over the years, but this is the first time, since encountering him in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, that I noticed Lieutenant Jole in Aral Vorkosigan's entourage. I had wondered a bit if Bujold had simply introduced him created out of whole cloth, and was reassured to find he had been there all along.
Note: He appears in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, as well.

Anyway, that has nothing much to do with the plot of The Vor Game, but I found it interesting, at least.

The book begins with the inclusion of a novella detailing Miles' first assignment after completing military training when, instead of being given ship duty he is sent to be a weather technician at Kyril Base, amid a wasteland of frozen tundra. The base is commanded by an Old Army type who turns out in the end to be a homicidal lunatic, and Miles' trainer is a hopeless alcoholic. In the pursuit of his duties, Miles nearly dies when his ground car is submerged in a bog, discovers a body in a drainage ditch, and is arrested for mutiny. And that's just the first 10% of the book.

To keep Miles out of further trouble, Aral and Ilyan decide to keep him on a short leash, and he is assigned to Ilyan's ImpSec. Fat chance!

When Admiral Naismith's Dendarii Mercenaries turn up to enforce a blockage in a nearby solar system, Miles is escorted by some very unimaginative officers to the Hegen Hub, where his assignment is simply to once again assume the persona of the little admiral and to order the fleet out of the area, which is crucial to Barrayaran interests.

This simple mission manages to rapidly go off the rails when Miles is falls afoul of some arms dealers, ends up as indentured labor, and discovers that Emperor Gregor has run away from home, and landed in the Hegen Hub!

The story of how Miles rescues the Emperor, gains and loses and gains command again of the Dendarii, double-talks some psychotic murderers, and foils an invasion attempt by the Cetagandan fleet, is absolutely delightful, in the manner we've already come to love from Bujold and Miles Vorkosigan.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Dragon Conspiracy by Lisa Shearin

SPI operatives and partners, Mac and Ian, attend a pre-auction gala to display the Dragon Diamonds, a set of ill-fated jewels comprising a magical relic originally owned by each of the goblin and elvish races, and five cursed merely "human" stones (think Hope Diamond) with no supernatural powers to speak of other than their bringing ill fortune to their owners, who included the Romanovs of Csarist Russia. At the unveiling of the stones, a statue of three harpies suddenly comes to life and the bird women abscond with the stones, but not before a newbie "gem mage" tries to stop them, and gets himself and Mac knocked senseless in the process.

The being behind the thievery has some diabolical plan to use the stones to kill half of the supernatural population of New York City and to "out" the rest to the human population, so SPI, its dragon chairman, Vivian Sagadraco, and our heroes rush around to try to discover the villain's identity and thwart the plot.

Plenty of good twists and turns, and the addition of a few new characters to the series. This isn't particularly deep reading, but it's just unpredictable enough to be fun.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Habits of a lifetime - I've never been one who "customizes" his possessions. I buy stock vehicles, don't add cosmetic accessories, don't put stickers all over them, etc. At best, I may add a camper shell to keep the rain off of the bed of the pickup, add trailer brakes, that sort of thing.
So, I was thinking the other day that i ought to put something on my iPad (white white white) to distinguish it from every other iPad out there. I have this Pyramid Brewing sticker sitting in a basket in the kitchen, and I decide I should just put it on the back of my Pad...I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Am I in a rut, or what?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mea Culpa

Once again, I feel I must apologize for the lack of book review posts. The motivation simply hasn't been there. I do have one queued up for Monday, and have finished eight books that I need to finish writing reviews for, so at some point a flood of backlog should appear.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Spycatcher by Matthew Dunn

Somewhere in my readings I ran across a reference and recommendation of this novel, which is former MI6 employee Dunn's first novel. He's followed it with some more, and with any luck at all, his skills will have developed a bit as he continued writing. I found the plot intriguing, the action realistic, but the dialog was a bit too forced, and the hero, a British assassin named Will, just a bit too tortured and conflicted for my liking.

So I came to a point about halfway through the book where I simply didn't care anymore what happened of the characters. It sat on my nightstand for several weeks and soon it will be time to return it to the library. Ah well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

There's no Toilet Paper by Doug Lansky, ed.

So, I picked this one up thinking it was going to be some funny travel stories, like we all have, and was disappointed to find that it was a series of stories by professional humorists, like Dave Barry, and sarcastic travel writers, like Bill Bryson, and not merely humorous anecdotes regarding travel mishaps and misunderstandings. "Too over the top".

Monday, June 27, 2016

Disrupted by Dan Lyons

This is the story of a middle-aged man who loses his job as an editor of a prestigious print magazine, and takes a new job with a high tech startup, filled with twenty-something hirelings, and run by a megalomaniacal duo of entrepreneurs. Things go just about as one might expect, with a clash of cultures that a man in his 50s will not win, in the long haul. At least he got a semi-amusing book out of the deal.

Lyons' style reminds me a bit of Bill Bright, who has written a number of travel diaries. He doesn't seem to have a lot of respect for anyone he encounters, and his cynicism shines through, loud and clear.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nefarious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich

My wife and I listened to this audiobook on our way to the coast last weekend, and it timed out just right around nine hours of driving. I have never read any of the Stephanie Plum mysteries before, but it didn't seem to be a requirement to understand "all that has gone before" in order to enjoy this one. The characters in the book were fun and amusing, especially Plum's sidekick, Lula, an enormous black woman with a very strong personality to match her opinions.

The mystery wasn't all that mysterious, but spun out slowly and with enough twists to keep Plum's character guessing, at least, and the entire story was liberally spiced with a great deal of humor. I might have to check out some more of Evanovich's books.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Dog Days?

Are we in the summer publishing doldrums, or what? I've had a difficult time finding anything new by most of my favorite authors for a couple of months now, it seems, so rather than hunt up something new and fresh, I've simply gone back to some of my old favorites, like Lois McMaster Bujold, working my way from Warrior's Apprentice all the way up through Komarr, at this point.

My wife and I also began listening to Skin Game, by Butcher, on audiobook, returning from our recent wedding anniversary trip, but didn't make it past Chapter 25 on our nine hour drive, so I picked up my personal library copy of it late last night and chewed on that for a bit, since my memory of the ending was a little fuzzy.

And this is why I amassed such a humongous library in the first place - you just never know when you'll get the urge to re-read an old favorite.

I do hope, though, that the drought of new books ends soon.

Monday, June 13, 2016


In Italy, take every opportunity to use a free, and CLEAN, restroom possible, even when you don't think you need to. Decent bathroom facilities are few and far between, and can range from squat toilets with no paper available - always carry pocket packs of tissues!, to more American-style fixtures if you're lucky. Carry 1 Euro coins for the pay toilets, which are generally a little better-maintained than any you will find for free. The trains usually have bathrooms available, so it's always wise to use them about ten to fifteen minutes before you arrive at your destination - the stations' restrooms may be "pay" style.

Zip Loc baggies are a wonderful thing to pack. Throw in a couple of quart, gallon, and sandwich sized. If you buy some food item that isn't completely sealed, you can put it in one, you can store a wet washcloth, or other clothing item in the large size, or you can use them to keep snacks for munching on while you're walking around. Also, if you happen to freeze a water bottle so that you have cold water to drink all day long, you can slip it inside a gallon sized bag and keep the condensation from getting other things in your purse or backpack damp. Rubber bands and paper clips take up little room, also, and can be used to re-seal food packages.

While it may prove difficult to get out to the outskirts of places like Rome, Florence or Venice to where the "real" people live and shop, I think the prices are much lower there, if you do get a chance. The markup on goods sold in the "centre storico" is unreal. You have to make at least a token effort to haggle, or you'll miss out on an easy discount, and if you're serious about buying something, you'll probably spend as much time really dickering over the price as you do making your selection, and you still probably won't get anywhere near cost, but we routinely saw discounts of 40% and up when we spent a little time at it, and simply asking, "Can you make me a better price on two?"or "That's too much" will get you a few euros off nearly anything.

While for the most part I found Italy and the Italians charming, friendly and fun, there were a few grumpy grocery checkers, waiters, and salespeople, too. I find the same thing back home some days. I try not to let the bad experiences, like the leather salesman who got angry with me for not buying the perfect jacket, and the gelateria girl whom I believe intentionally short-changed me - we had been at that shop before and listened to an American accusing the other man there of short changing him, then giving up on it when his wife undercut him, so when it happened to me on a later visit, I kinda had to figure it was something they tried there every once in a while, counting on confused tourists not being willing to push things in a foreign country. The street vendors can be a bit pushy, and some of them will try to run a con on you to get money, like the East African who gave us "gifts" because he "loves America", then demanded money for them moments later, but there are just hordes of them out and about, so you have to take it in stride. Again, I see the same thing in U.S. tourist traps, just not in the same sheer numbers, plus it's illegal here for unlicensed vendors to sell and for tourists to buy from them.

For every Grumpy Gus, there seemed to be many an amiable soul who went the extra mile for us, like bringing us shots of homemade limoncello, gratis, after our meal, leading us all the way to the right bus stop several blocks away, comp-ing us some mind-blowingly good sorbet, sending us to amazing wineries, chatting with us about their families, describing the process and materials used in producing their hand-made wares, and many other small kindnesses.

One of the most important things that I feel one should do when traveling is to engage. So many folks are rushing from attraction to attraction, trying to tick the boxes on their bucket list du jour, and missing some of the richest experiences available. Now, to be perfectly fair, it seemed to me at times on this trip that we were rushing around, trying to squeeze in too many must-see things into too short of a time period, but we really did try to slow down and enjoy the pace of life, and to get down to a deeper level of engagement with people here.

GPS sucks. There's no other way I can put it, really. The mapping applications on the local phone my friend loaned me, my own iPhone and iPad, were never really reliable out in the field. If you have wifi access in your hotel or apartment, you can get the maps to pull up, and give you directions to your destination, but out in the maze of streets of Rome and Florence, GPS signal is sketchy, and when you need it the most, it can disappear entirely. I finally learned to get my directions pulled up before I left the house in the morning, write them down "old school" on my pocket notebook, and then when the mapping app went belly-up, I could still get where I wanted to go. Forget e-maps, and buy a Michelin guide. Lesson definitely learned. 

Holy Flying Pizza Pie! Italian motorists, motorcyclists, scooter pilots and bicyclists are absolutely and completely out of their minds!