Saturday, August 5, 2017

Packing Books for a Vacation

Scott D. Parker

We’re all readers here, right? This is a safe place where we can disclose our most treasured secrets about books and our habits. Well, tell me if you do something similar.

Last weekend the family and I traveled to Texarkana, Texas, for a late summer vacation before school starts. None of us had been up there and we used the town as home base as we scoured flea markets and antique stores. We also headed up to Arkansas to dig for diamonds and quartz.

Whenever I travel, I like to find a book set in or around the region of the vacation. Last year when we went to Big Bend, I read RETURN OF THE RIO KID by Brett Halliday. What would I bring this year?

Texarkana is on the border of the piney woods of East Texas and the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. I’m reading a lot of westerns as I write my own (THE KILLING OF LARS FULTON was released this week) so I had the perfect book: LONGARM AND THE OZARK ANGEL. I hadn’t read it and with it set in Arkansas, what better book to read?

But I’ve also been in a contemporary bestseller mood this summer. I read a couple of Janet Evanovich novels and wanted to keep on that trend as well. The latest paperback from John Grisham is THE WHISTLER. I haven’t read a Grisham novel in a long time, so when I was at Kroger stocking up on supplies, I threw a copy into the basket. I shrugged. As much as I like to pack light, I still want to have my bases covered if a particular mood strikes me on the road.

That was also where my Kindle came into play. I’ve got the Paperwhite chock full of westerns and a brand-new-to-me author Avery Duff and his book BEACH LAWYER. Sure I wasn’t’ going to the beach but I had a good summer read on hand.

I think I had most bases covered. I even threw in my latest copy of Men’s Journal. I brought my laptop of course. I am between books, but I wanted the Mac on hand if lightening struck.

Well, lightening struck, but not in any of the aforementioned ways.

We stopped in Jefferson, Texas, and shopped at a few antique stores. Our favorites were the ones with air condition! In one of them, I hit the jackpot. I found a motherlode of old paperback westerns, maybe two hundred or more, all for a dollar each. I ended up buying a couple. One of them was FOUR MUST DIE: A WALT SLADE WESTERN by Bradford Scott.

And that’s the book I read on my vacation. It’s a slim volume, 127 total pages. I read 110 in Texarkana and finished the morning after we returned. I reviewed it yesterday.

So much for all that pre-planning on reading material. I’ll get to those books, especially the Longarm one since the countryside of Arkansas is fresh in my mind.

Do y’all spend almost as much mental activity on what book you’ll read on vacation as you do on everything else? And do y’all stick with that reading material or find something along the way?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Marcus Sakey's AFTERLIFE

By Steve Weddle

I was quite a way into Marcus Sakey's excellent new novel, AFTERLIFE, before I understood what the title was about. 

What's odd is how much I enjoyed this book despite its doing a couple things early on which I don't much care for.

First, it opens in the past, with a sort of prologue that doesn't pay off for a while. Look, I'm certainly not anyone to give Marcus Sakey writing advice. And. you know, that's a good thing for him. Mr. Sakey, you do you, man.

And, yet, I was a little scared. But, you know, I have faith in the dude.

Then not too much later, we get a guy cop and a gal cop doing sexxxy time on each other. I believe the record will show that I'm no prude. But, you know, I'm not terribly fond of reading about two people doing sex to each other. I don't much care for detailed, play-by-play fisticuffs, either. I tend to skip along to the dialog. Also, I skip over anything too technical, such as a 250-word description of a timing mechanism someone might drop into a thriller. Gracious, is there anything I don't skip over?

Well, I didn't skip AFTERLIFE, that's for sure. Because it moves. Because I care about the characters. Because I'm invested in the story, which gets hella weird.

What's nice about, I don't know, living on this planet, I guess, is that you can hit a couple spots in a novel that you don't normally enjoy or might otherwise cause you to toss the book. And, yet, you keep going because reasons. So I did. Which is great.

I mean, the story doesn't really get going until the cop is killed.

The last thing FBI agent Will Brody remembers is the explosion—a thousand shards of glass surfing a lethal shock wave.
He wakes without a scratch.
The building is in ruins. His team is gone. Outside, Chicago is dark. Cars lie abandoned. No planes cross the sky. He’s relieved to spot other people—until he sees they’re carrying machetes.
Welcome to the afterlife.
Claire McCoy stands over the body of Will Brody. As head of an FBI task force, she hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. A terrorist has claimed eighteen lives and thrown the nation into panic.
Against this horror, something reckless and beautiful happened. She fell in love…with Will Brody.
But the line between life and death is narrower than any of us suspect—and all that matters to Will and Claire is getting back to each other

So, you know, it's kinda police procedural, thriller, love story.

It's a weird story. You'll dig it.

“Edgar finalist Sakey follows his Brilliance Trilogy with a remarkably conceived and passionately realized supernatural thriller.…Balancing lyric romance and altruistic self-sacrifice with horrifying scenes and wrenching violence, Sakey comes up with a fascinating answer to the eternal question of why humans exist.” Publishers Weekly (starred review) “Sakey follows up his incredible Brilliance Trilogy with an otherworldly stand-alone thriller about a subterranean war between gods and monsters...employ[ing] all his storytelling gifts to craft a noodle-bender of the first order. A love story enmeshed in a twisty thriller that peels back the universe to see what lies beneath.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review) AFTERLIFE is simultaneously a beautiful love story, a grim tale of apocalyptic conflict, and an opportunity for an insightful writer to ruminate on the eternal verities. Great appeal across genres.” Booklist (starred review) “Sakey has crafted an original and unpredictable tale that puts a different spin on the battle between good and evil.” —Associated Press “Sakey has crafted a compulsive thriller.…His world-building is pretty epic, and the community of characters…reminded me of Stephen King’s The Stand. It’s amazing what a skillful writer with ‘a sense of theater’ and a brilliant imagination can do.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune AFTERLIFE drags the reader along at a breathless pace.…Excellent, addictive, and eminently re-readable fiction.” —RT Book Reviews (Five Star Gold review) “Imagine the love story in the film Ghost dropped into The Matrix. Astonishing.” —Don Winslow 

Buy it here

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Long and Faraway Gone

I was reading a great book last week, The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney, when my father-in-law unexpectedly died.

It was a good book to be in the middle of, when hit with grief, as that is its subtext. The story flips between two characters consumed by loss and survivor's guilt. One is Wyatt, now a PI, who survived a bloody robbery that while avenged, was never fully solved. Why was he left alive?

And Julianne, whose older teenage sister disappeared at the county fair twenty six years ago, never to be seen again. Julianne was left eating cotton candy, a few years her junior, and the loss has defined her life.

Berney crafts a solid story around these tragedies from 1986 that does not wallow in nostalgia, but shows the wounds of unresolved grief in realistic ways. Julianne and Wyatt are both self-destructive in ways that they don't fully understand. She is consumed with solving the mystery, while Wyatt has run away from it, until a job he needs forces him back to his home city to confront his past.

We get enough to be satisfied without an unrealistic, tidily tied up story. Which is all we can hope for in closure. I have not survived a brutal murder spree or had a loved one vanish, but like many, I've dealt with tragedy; twenty years ago, my father committed suicide. You can never really know another person, but I've tried to understand what was on his mind that day for a long time. You never get a neat answer tied in a bow, so perhaps that's why endings with varying levels of ambiguity appeal to me. A favorite is Tana French's In the Woods, which infuriates some readers, but it ends the way it should.

And so does Berney's excellent The Long and Faraway Gone.

My father-in-law's story is less a mystery, more a tragedy. He died too young, a year after retirement, after a life of service to his school district, his wife and children, and his many, many, friends. He was a fine man and a great role model, and I am better for having known him, as the world is lesser for having lost him. His wife was at his side to the end, so there is no mystery, but is there ever closure?

No, I don't think so. Unlike stories, lives often end abruptly, without meaning, with unfinished business, leaving us to fill in the blanks. Perhaps that's why we like a neatly tied bow on the end of a story, sometimes. Because it's the only way we'll get one.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Bride Wore Black

I've read some good tributes to Jeanne Moreau since she died on July 31st.  Over at his blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, Peter Rozovsky wrote a short bit about the film that made her an international name, Louis Malle's black and white crime film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958).  And at the movie criticism site, Roger, Dan Callahan presents a superb career overview:

There is one film she stars in that neither piece mentions, though, and I think it's worth talking about for crime film fans. That's Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black, from 1968. The movie, in color, is an adaptation of a William Irish (Cornell Woolrich) novel, and Truffaut makes no bones about it being an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, a director he loved and who he interviewed for a book.

In The Bride Wore Black, Moreau plays a woman who, one by one, over the course of the movie, kills five men. In each case, she assumes a different personality and look.  She finds a way to get close to each man she has targeted and, if it's helpful to her purpose, to make herself attractive to her intended victim.  One is a lonely bachelor, one a politician, one a hedonistic, partying type, and so on.  Not until near the end of the film do we learn why she has sought out and killed these men, but her reason turns out to be a good one.  It's revenge, pure and simple, for something they did to her, and in flashback we see what they did.

The Bride Wore Black is not a great film and it's certainly nowhere near being Truffaut's best.  As you watch and the killings occur, with Moreau's character crossing another name off the list of five names she has in a notebook, it becomes clear that she will almost certainly eliminate each man she wants to get.  The film doesn't have all that much suspense. But once you realize that, you allow yourself to indulge in the pleasure of watching her character carry out a self-appointed job with wit, ruthlessness, and precision.  The role allows Moreau to play act a different type of woman each time she closes in on a target, and it's fun to watch her operate.  She is by turns reserved, playful, seductive, reflective, coldly murderous,.  And it's apparent from how she transforms herself to appeal to each man she hunts that she is a master psychologist.

The initital critical reaction to the film, at least in France, was poor, and Truffaut wound up expressing dislike for the movie. Audiences disagreed with the critics and him, however, and The Bride Wore Black did well at the box office.  It deserved to.  It's not a masterpiece, but Truffaut working at slightly below his best is still better than almost everybody else. And if you like Jeanne Moreau, chances are you'll enjoy the film a lot.  Playing about six different women in one woman, she employs her intense expressiveness to maximum effect. Revenge has rarely been served up more satisfactorily. 


Monday, July 31, 2017

Lessons I've Learned About Publishing

(The writing advice comes at the end.)

I grew up knowing there were things girls couldn't do, because they were girls.

I really wanted to take karate. The parental veto quashed that. Karate, I was told, wasn't for girls.

It's forgivable. It was a different time, and changing people's perspectives wasn't quite as easy. Small town people like us could live small town lives, surrounded by neighbors with the same skin color and back then, you kept your nose out of other people's business. Nobody told anyone how to raise their child. You could see a crying kid dragged down the road, being told to just wait until they got home, and people wouldn't interfere. It was nothing to spank a child in public.

It was nothing to rape a wife. I suppose legally it likely wasn't even possible to be charged with such an offense.

For all our alleged progress, sometimes it seems little has changed. Oh, laws have impacted the way kids are disciplined, but it comes to gender issues, one doesn't have to go far to see that women are still treated as inferior; consider the fact that women are more likely to be killed by a partner than men are, and that 1/3 of murdered women in the U.S. are killed by a current or former partner.

Overt and subtle sexism exists within the world of entertainment as well. A few years ago, it was gamergate:

Gamergate started with a man lashing out at his game developer ex-girlfriend through a blog post crafted to incite the Internet against her. The maelstrom of subsequent accusations and threats sent Zoe Quinn into hiding. The furor soon sucked in anyone associated with her and those who sought to defend her. Targets were barraged with hatred via email and social media. Their employers were pressured to fire them. Sometimes their home addresses were publicly disseminated. Harassers made fake 911 calls to dispatch SWAT teams to their targets’ houses. (Link)

Over the weekend, an editor was attacked for posting a selfie.

As my own Facebook friends are aware, I had an issue last week with someone who had submitted a story to Spinetingler Magazine. Despite the fact that our submission guidelines are clearly posted, this person sent an incomplete submission.

Now, our system is set up to send an automatic reply, and that automatic reply reiterates how important it is that story submissions be complete. It actually states that incomplete submissions may be deleted without notification and that they will not be considered for publication.

I thought I'd be nice and take a minute and email the writer to let them know that unfortunately, we couldn't consider the submission as it was and it had to be deleted, and advised them to refer to our submission guidelines. I mean, all they had to do was complete the submission and resend it.

Instead, I received this:

I took the rare move of sharing it on Facebook because I have privacy settings in place, and because the name was so generic that it didn't paint a target on anyone's back. After being told to shove Spinetingler up my ass, I wrote back and informed the individual that further correspondence from them would not be read. They have also been informed that they are banned from submitting to the magazine.

The response?

I have not written back to this individual since; however, they have continued to email Spinetingler. When they did not receive a personal reply, they changed their email address and emailed again.

And again.

I haven't read them in full, although while filing all the documents in case of pursuing legal harassment charges, I did notice I'd been called shit-for-brains.

Such a way with words. I mean, I must seriously regret not fawning all over this individual the minute they graced our inbox with their so-called writing.

In this midst of this, some possible blame was thrown my way on Facebook by someone who seemed to think that the person's behavior could potentially be excused if I hadn't expressed myself clearly.

Why should anyone ever have to open email that is this abusive? This person initiated contact with us. This person even admitted that they knew the submission guidelines and ignored them.

But it's my fault they started swearing at me?

Others speculated that the reason this person was acting that way was because I'm a woman. When I go online and see a Marvel comics editor being harassed for being a woman, it's hard not to think that's a reasonable conclusion.

Lawmakers don't seem to treat this issue seriously.
When discussion of online harassment exploded into the mainstream a few years ago after Gamergate, I thought it would mean change was on the horizon. Today, I can see these years have been an utter waste. A federal bill to punish “swatting” sits in limbo. Reddit is still convulsed in the same battle with itself that it’s been fighting since 2014. A handful of bad actors are permanently banned from Twitter (though white nationalist Richard Spencer was un-banned this week). (Link)

Where does that leave us? Well, Spinetingler has always been a labor of love. The odd bit of money generated hasn't come close to covering costs of investment over the years.

And let's be real; nobody wants to pay for these things. We talk about artists being expected to give their work away for exposure, and I've experienced that as a writer as well. However, with Spinetingler, there are people reaching into their pockets and others banking off hours upon hours of time to keep things going.

We've watched ezines and magazines fold one by one, and from the glory days of online ezines promoting crime fiction, few of us are left.

We can celebrate being the first venue to publish a number of writers who've gone on to great success. James Oswald is one; Mindy Tarquini is another.

But the inference from someone that there was any justification at all for this person's continued harassment had me start thinking it was time to pull the plug after 12 years. I have my 9-5 responsibilities. I have a family. I have my own writing, and that's the main thing that gives out when I work on Spinetingler. While I'm certainly sad to see places shut down and don't want to pull the plug, there's an issue with how professional women are treated, and the backlash over a Marvel comics editor's selfie is proof of that.

If anyone's looking for a woman who may be occasionally seen but not heard, they've got the wrong woman here.

I don't want to believe that in 2017, women still need to have a platform extended to them because they're less than equal, but a lot of things lately have demonstrated that's the reality of the world we live in.

Do I ban books by male authors from being reviewed?

Do I prepare a female-only issue of Spinetingler?

This issue that I'm working on is a tester. If it can't generate ad or sales revenue to break even on the costs of paying writers and artists involved (no pay to editors, no contribution to website costs) then it may be the last we ever do. We've been toying with an option to put it into print, but I'm reluctant to do that because I'm not sure we'll be continuing next year.

Working as an editor has schooled me as a writer in ways I never could have imagined when I started out. What I learned that every writer should know before they submit material anywhere:

1. ALWAYS follow the submission guidelines.

2. You are not the exception to the rules.

3. Editors are very busy. Don't email them every few weeks to check on the status of your submission. (I have writing I submitted to publishers six months ago that I still haven't followed up on.)

4. Professionalism and courtesy will go a long, long way in the publishing business.

5. Editors will reject stories because a writer is difficult to work with.

6. Writers unwilling to make corrections to their work or consider developmental editing suggestions earn a reputation of being difficult to work with. (See #5.)

7. The publishing world is small. Chances are, if you've make a horrible impression on one editor, they've told at least three others.

I referenced this writer being banned. Spinetingler has a shitlist. I'd bet cold, hard cash that other publications do as well.

Editors don't put rules and guidelines in place because they're anal or because they enjoy tormenting writers. They do it to ensure that writers have the best chance of success with their submission. I learned years ago to include strict formatting guidelines because I accepted a story that wasn't properly formatted. The writer had used a hard return at the end of each line like a typewriter, and that meant that all of those hard returns had to be extracted... Only they refused to do it.

I gave up hours of my time to do it, and in the end, after talking to some other editors, I realized I had made a mistake by coddling this writer and wasting my own time. Any writer who won't correct their material will be unaccepted.

I hold firm on that to this day. Occasionally, I still get to read a story that blows me away and I instantly love it, but within what we accept there are a number of stories that went through a period of time where they were simply under consideration. They may have been similar to another story in terms of theme. There may be technical writing issues that need to be corrected. Error-free and original stories will always rise to the top, but many stories simply just edge another story that's comparable out because we have to make decisions.

That's taught me that for every piece of writing I send out, there are a hundred others who've submitted and are fighting for the same slot. The odds are against even those of us who've been traditionally published. Nothing is guaranteed to anyone in this industry.

Whether you're a man or a woman, you have to work for what you get.

And if you really are a sexist asshole, you'd best keep that on lockdown while dealing with professionals in the industry.