Saturday, February 27, 2021

What is the Tapestry of Books?

Scott D. Parker

It took only fifty years but I finally listened to Carole King’s Tapestry.

If you read about my regulated reading a few weeks ago, you’ll remember that I’m reading Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth, his examination about rock music in 1971. As a fun project in 2021, I’m reading the book a chapter at a time, corresponding to a month of 1971. Thus, it’ll take me all year to read this book. Shrug. It’s fun.

Anyway, by reading Hepworth’s book, I have discovered Carole King’s 1971 album, Tapestry. It turns fifty this month, so it’s been fun to read all the retrospectives written about a new-to-me album. By the way, I ended up buying it last weekend after listening to it on YouTube for weeks.

One of those essays is by Bob Lefsetz, the man behind The Lefsetz Letter. He, too, is a new discovery from a few months back. I’ve quite enjoyed his deep dives in music and other things.  

Lefsetz starts his post about Tapestry with this observation:

"It was an album for everybody.

That doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, the music business takes a giant leap forward, everybody pays attention, everybody listens, music is talked about, it drives the culture.

Last example? Adele. Her album “21” sold ten times, literally TEN TIMES as much as everything else in the marketplace. It worked for hipsters and as well as casual listeners. It was an alchemy of songs and singing, of passion and precision. “21” was a statement by an artist, not just product to support a system.

Same deal with the Beatles. At first it was a teen phenomenon. Then came “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” No one could deny them as songs.”

Lefsetz goes on to describe the phenomenon of an album for everybody. It is the album owned by the casual listeners, the hipsters, the soccer moms, the dads, the teenagers, the middle-aged, and so on.

After I finished reading Lefsetz’s piece—while listening to Tapestry for the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time, my thoughts turned to books.

What is the Tapestry of Books?

What is the book or books everybody owns? We can leave aside the question of whether or not the books are actually read. What is the book read by casual readers, soccer moms, dads, teenagers, the middle-aged, and so on?

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a short post about going to estate sales and seeing the novels of Louis L’amour on the bookshelves. But I specifically pointed out that those books were on the shelves of proto-man caves. If we were only talking about men’s novels, I’d suggest Clive Cussler or Lee Child or Michael Connolly.

But I’m going broader. I would think few teenagers or soccer moms might read the exploits of Jack Reacher. What are the books that appeal to a broad reading audience?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown instantly jumps to mind. It was everywhere in 2003 and it seemed like everyone had read it. I think James Patterson books land in quite a few home libraries, but I cannot think of a single volume of his that fits this criteria. Stephen King is another author who probably has at least one book in many, many homes, but what’s that one book? Nora Roberts is very popular, but I can’t think many guys read her books.

Another candidate is John Grisham’s The Firm. Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird?

So I’m throwing out the question to everyone. What books are for everyone? What book is like Tapestry?

Oh, and yeah, I listened to Tapestry while writing this piece. Man, is that a great album. How in the world did I never hear it until February 2021?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Locked down with Lockdown


This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at the LOCKDOWN anthology from Polis Books.

In “Lockdown,” 19 of today’s finest suspense, horror, and crime writers explore how humanity reacts to the ultimate pandemic. From New York City to the Mexican border, from the Deep South to the misty shores of Seattle, their characters are fighting for survival against incredible odds. An anthology for our time, showing how the worst crises can lead to the best of us. Proceeds from LOCKDOWN will go to support BINC, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, as it seeks to help booksellers recover from the devastating COVID-19 crisis.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Look for Patterns

by Scott Adlerberg 

I've finished three of the six parts of the new movie by  Adam Curtis, Can't Get You Out of My Head.  It's the British filmmaker's latest collage-like excursion into exactly how the world we live in today has become the way it is, both in the West and in the East (especially China).

Like with all of Curtis' films, there are loads of ideas to chew over.  But so far, the segment that struck me with the greatest force is the one that looks at Jim Garrison, the District Attorney for New Orleans from 1962 to 1973.  He's the guy Kevin Costner played in Oliver Stone's JFK, the one who investigated the John Kennedy assassination and prosecuted New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones in the film) in connection with the killing.  A jury heard Garrison's case and returned a verdict of not-guilty for Shaw after less than an hour of deliberation.  Anyone who has seen the movie knows the complexity and vastness of the narrative that Garrison wove around the Kennedy killing, a narrative that begins in one place and takes off into flights of convoluted fantasy, conspiracy theory thinking at its finest (or worst).

Wrong on the facts, Jim Garrison. 

And yet...

In his film, Adam Curtis discusses a memo Garrison wrote to his staff while in the midst of his investigations. Curtis explains how Garrison believed that modern democratic government in America was just a facade and that behind this facade was another secret system of power that really controlled the country.  But because this secret system was so hidden and powerful, you could never discover it through normal means.  Garrison wrote a memo to his staff called "Time and Propinquity" to address this situation, and in the memo Garrison explained how you could uncover this secret world.

To quote Curtis on Garrison/s memo: "You didn't bother with meaning or logic because that will always be hidden.  Instead, you looked for patterns, strange coincidences and links that may seem to have no meaning but are actually tell-tale signs on the surface of the hidden system of power underneath."

Curtis pauses in his narration and then says: "This theory was going to have a very powerful effect in the future because it would lead to a profound shift in how many people understood the world.  Because what it said was that in a dark world of hidden power you couldn't expect everything to make sense, that it was pointless to try to understand the meaning of why something happened, because that would always be hidden from you.  What you looked for were the patterns."

Indeed!  I found this fascinating (not to say extremely unusual coming from a city district attorney) because it exemplifies how a person, Garrison, could be so off in the specifics of his theory about a particular case yet lay down an overall theory that would become so prevalent.  Wrong, Garrison, but totally right in a sense.   As Curtis says about the Time and Propinquity theory, "Fragments...That's how people think now.  They make associations and there's no meaning.  That's the world we live in."

It is an illuminating moment, I thought, and I actually stopped the film and went back and replayed the section.  The Time and Propinquity theory.  How that kind of thinking has metastasized.  The obsession with looking for patterns.  A memo from the desk of a New Orleans DA to something common in the world at large, helped, of course, by social media.  

So strange really, but, you know, that's where we are.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Synonym + Antonym = Crucial Reference Tome

By Claire Booth

I do most of my writing at home, so I’m never really limited by having to pack my laptop and various things into a manageable bag in order to take them somewhere. Which means I have some truly massive reference books. 


Like the three-pound Chicago Manual of Style—painful in a shoulder bag and painful because, well, it’s the Chicago Manual of Style (yawn). And my trusty Oxford Pocket American Thesaurus, which despite its name measures eight-by-five inches and weighs more than a pound and a half. I know—compared with other Oxford reference books (OED anyone?) my little volume is the equivalent of a pamphlet. But it’s still not exactly something you tuck in your purse.

Then one day I needed a synonym while I was out in the world. So I had to use my phone. And man, is there a lot of crap out there. Half-ass attempts, or ones with a maze of links to get through in order to see a list of words. But then I alighted on It’s easy to use (i.e. quick), with a clean interface and few if any ads. And I’ve found that the Macmillan includes more phrases and out-of-left field suggestions. Now I use it all the time.

I still love flipping through the Oxford’s physical pages—my eyes landing on entries I wasn’t even looking for, getting sucked down the wonderful rabbit hole of words. But if you need something portable and just as good (if not quite as rabbit-holey), I highly recommend the truly pocket-sized Macmillan online thesaurus.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Great Texas Freeze-Out of 2021

by Scott D. Parker

Well, that was something.

As a native Houstonian, I used to look north at winter with a sense of missing out. Look, they had snow. That all changed when I spent a semester in grad school back in 1996 in Kent State University in northeast Ohio. I got a taste of winter and a new understanding came over me: I was not, in fact, missing out on anything. Don't get me wrong: snow for skiing is still awesome. But I was done with cold weather, and I vowed, as I crossed back into Texas that summer never to complain about the heat again. 

And I haven't. Partway through this week, I told my son I can't wait for August in Texas. 

Winters here in Houston are relatively mild most of the time. I kept my Ohio winter jacket but rarely need it. A few years ago, we literally got winter for a weekend. A big cold snap that killed plants but we were back to our normal Houston winter the following week. No problem.

But this week was a problem. For me and my family and millions of others. 

This past weekend was normal. My wife and I watched some television on Sunday night before she retired to bed. My son returned from his job and ventured into his room to watch some anime and YouTube. I had Presidents' Day off so I stayed up later than usual. I channel surfed before falling asleep on the couch, a rarity for me. So tired was I that not only did I fall asleep in my clothes but I didn't plug in my iPhone.

Two hours after midnight on Monday morning, the sleet arrived and the power blipped out. As a resident of the fourth largest city in the country, when our power goes out, it's usually back on in minutes or less. As a preemptive measure, I lit the gas fireplace. I didn't turn it off until Wednesday night when our power was restored. Fifty-eight hours in case you were wondering. 

Monday and Tuesday were the worst, with Monday night the coldest weather I've endured since Ohio. But at least in Ohio we had power and heaters. For two days, during the worst cold to hit the city in thirty years--some say over a century--there was no power in the house.

Our house is U-shaped. On one end was the TV room. That's where the fireplace is. It faces north which, during hurricane season (they come from the south) is a good thing. No so much for winter weather. We put sheets over the back glass door and the short front hallway. We closed the hall door to the back of the house. When we had to let our dogs out, I used the back game room as the 'airlock.' Every door in the house was opened and closed. We could literally feel the temperature drop as we went into each room. 

We stocked our essential refrigerator food into the ice chest and took it outside. Ditto for the frozen food. The irony there was that we needed simply to leave it outside. It was cold enough. We brought in the sleeping bags and the air mattress that we discovered held no air into the main room and hunkered down.

Fearing burst water pipes, we preemptively turned off the water at the house. As of yesterday morning, we still hadn't turned it back on. We wanted Friday's sun and another day's worth of home heating to warm the pipes and pray they didn't burst. For the bathroom facilities, yes, we harvested snow for the bathtub. My dad--who grew up in Tyler, Texas, and dealt with spotty electricity as something that happened frequently enough that they had lanterns around the house--reminded me of the rhyme about hygiene without water: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." 

The clothes I fell asleep in back on Sunday consisted of jeans, undershirt, button down shirt, and a wool sweater. Monday morning, I added a knit sweater and a hoodie. For my head, I put on a stocking cap. In the house. Despite the gas fireplace (and gas stove), the temperature continued to drop. The lowest it got in that room, with three people, two dogs, and a cat, was 39 degrees.

With no power to charge our phones, my boy and I went out to my car, which is now the oldest of the three cars and gets to spend its time in the driveway. Lucky for us. I had filled the tank and the boy and I sat for hours, charging phones, listening to classic rock radio, and getting warm. The wife opted to stay inside with the dogs and the fireplace, layered up, and read or played Plants vs. Zombies. 

Driving around on Monday with the snow and ice on the roads, some of my old Ohio skills returned. I used it as a teaching experience. We found a Walgreens open and bought some more batteries, a trio of flashlights, and some ground coffee. I buy coffee beans and grind them myself, but without power, those beans are as good as useless.

There's something to be said for being a parent and not being able to keep your child warm. Sure, he's nineteen, but there's still that part of you that knows your child will go to bed cold and there's nothing you can do about it other than offer him more blankets. Ditto for your wife. 

With no other distractions, it is amazing how long an hour can feel. Then a day, and then another day. Cell service was spotty so we'd get our news in fits and starts. We brought in an old battery powered jam box on Tuesday evening--hard to remember where it was--and we three settled into a pleasant waiting experience. Sure, it was fifty-something in the house, but you'd be amazed how warm that felt. 

Wednesday around lunchtime as the boy and I were in line for gas the wife called. The power had blipped off/on/off and then it came on. We drove to a battery store and called my parents. They had lost power, too, but it had come back on. The boy and I feared we'd get the call from the wife that the power had gone off again, but, by the time we got home, it was still on. And it stayed on the rest of the week.

Yet we still operated like we had no power. We were asked to conserve and ratio power so we did. We finally turned off the gas fireplace to conserve natural gas for others. We only used a single lamp in the TV room and didn't turn on the TV. We still used flashlights to get around the house, including when taking the dogs out. We repeated the exercise Thursday night, but did turn on the TV for news and escape. 

Speaking of escape, I got to thank my Kindle yet again. With its light feature and a lot of time to kill, I read Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt most of the way through. 

It's Friday morning as I write this. The sun is shining and I hear the sound of a chainsaw down the street. Sure, I'm still wearing three layers in the house and the thermostat shows 63 in the house--more shared conservation--but I'm hoping today will be the first normal day since Sunday. I'm looking forward to turning the water back on. Sure, we'll have to boil our water, but we'll have running water in the house. Which means we won't have to worry about mellow yellow in the toilet. Which means a shower, a luxury we've not experienced since Sunday. Had a short laugh on Wednesday night when I finally changed out of those Sunday clothes and into fresh PJs and caught a whiff of the body odor the five layers were masking. 

There will be investigations, accusations, blame, and accountability in the months to come. Our legislature is in session this spring so I hope something will be done to ensure something as severe as the Presidents' Day Ice Storm of 2021 doesn't happen again. Well, we can't prevent Mother Nature from doing this again, but we sure as hell can prepare better. 

This was my story as my family experienced it. We're going to learn a whole lot more as we get some distance. Many of those stories will be heart-wrenching and anger inducing and deservedly so. But there will also be stories of shared sacrifice people coming to each others' aid. Let's be sure to listen to them both, commiserate with those who have suffered and celebrate with those who came through. 

My family and I came through. Ain't gonna lie: it was hard but manageable. I consider us blessed to have persevered as smoothly as we did. Other did not. Let's keep them in our prayers and figure out ways to help them now and prepare us all for the next time. Because if we're talking Mother Nature, there will be a next time.

It also made us very aware of just how much electricity we use. As the boy and I drove around the west side of town on Thursday night, much of the power was back on. Office buildings and parking garages were lit up with abandon. So were various commercial places. It was a lot of power at a time we are supposed to conserve. We can't do much about those places, but already we are ensuring all lights and nonessential appliances in our house are turned off. It's a lesson we've certainly learned and will carry forward, thankful for what we have.

But I also want to leave you with this wonderful story: the family who welcomed their newborn son into the world while stuck at home without power or water. Wow.

Update: The pipes held although the water flow in a couple of the sinks have low flow. We think it is the rust of the pipes that have settled and now is clogging those little filters at the faucet. We'll have to fix that this weekend.

Update 2: As of Friday evening, the house was more or less back to normal. We still have pots in the kitchen full of clean, pre-storm water to drink. But it's a little surreal to walk through the house again, the sheets having been taken down and the sleeping bags back in the garage. It's good to be back to normal. May it last a long, long time. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Spinning plates and a diva


This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at Derek Farrell's Death of a Diva.

Danny Bird is having a very bad day. In the space of just a few hours he lost his job, his partner and his home.

Ever the optimist, Danny throws himself headlong into his dream to turn the grimmest pub in London into the coolest nightspot south of the river. Sadly, everything doesn’t go quite as planned when his star turn is found strangled hours before opening night.

Danny becomes the prime suspect in the crime, and then the gangster who really owns the pub starts asking where his share of the takings has gone… it seems things are going to get worse for Danny before they get better.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Heath Lowrance and Raccoon Books

 Stolen from Heath Lowrance's IG:

“So, Heath, why ‘Raccoon Books’? What’s that all about?”

Well, since you asked: I am not a patient man. I love working with the small presses, and in the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best; New Pulp Press, Snubnose, Beat to a Pulp, Shotgun Honey. They’ve all been very positive experiences. But a small press, like any business, has its own agenda and its own schedule. And since the world revolves around ME, clearly, that often clashes with MY projected schedule.

At the end of this year, THE BASTARD HAND will see print again from an established small press, and my agenda involves releasing some short story collections leading up to that release. I can’t in good faith expect any small press to fit that in their schedules in the way I want.

So... I started my own press. It’s nothing, really. It’s just a name to work under, to put this stuff out in the manner I want. #heathlowrance #thebastardhand #digtengraves #raccoonbooks #noirfiction #speculativefiction #author #shortstories

The first release from Raccoon Books will be DIG TEN GRAVES, coming in the next couple days, the first of three projected volumes of short stories over the course of the year. After that... who knows?

“No, no, Heath, I mean... why do you call it ‘Raccoon Books’?”

Oh. Well, because I like raccoons, man, that’s all.

Follow Heath here 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Importance, or Not, of Asking Why

By Scott Adlerberg

Scott Adlerberg
Yesterday, a holiday, I went for a long walk with a friend of mine.  This is something he and I do every month or so.  He's someone, about 10 years younger than me, who I've known a good 27 or 28 years now, a guy who has been teaching a long time at a public university in New York City.  He's a fully tenured professor who got his doctorate in Speech Communications, which is the department he belongs to at his school.  It was in relation to job stuff and his experience over time on various things from grading students to conflicts with colleagues that he revealed to me, during our walk, that he has given up on asking people the question "why" when someone tells him something about themselves or about their actions that he doesn't understand or agree with.  

"It serves no purpose," he said.  "Gets me nowhere."

I realized that I've become similar in how I deal with people.  This goes especially for people at work or anyone I'm not close to.  Asking why usually accomplishes nothing other than annoying the person you're talking to; the question itself often provokes a defensive reaction, as if the person asked thinks you are criticizing their belief or thought by merely bringing up that interrogative.  I said what I said or did what I did or believe what I believe. That's enough for you. How dare you ask "why".

On the walk with my friend, I thought about how different this is than the world of fiction, where psychological and emotional understanding of people is a key part of the experience.  A writer may have the most eccentric or deluded or disturbed characters, or characters who live more or less humdrum lives without outre personality traits, and that writer does everything he or she can to make their actions understandable to the reader.  How often, in crime fiction, in horror fiction, in any sort of darker-tinged fiction, do you hear a reader say, reflecting what a certain type of writer shoots for, "I don't need to like a character as long as I can understand them."  

So this has to be yet another area, I'm thinking, where fiction serves as a counterbalance to life.  Much is made of the eternal appeal of detective stories where a figure or a team, within the limited realm they inhabit, solves a crime and thus brings a measure of order and justice to an otherwise chaotic and unjust world.  Fiction as consolation.  That's one of its greatest appeals.  And this emphasis on "why" in fiction seems related.  A person in your day-to-day life does something stupid or selfish or hurtful.  A person says something repugnant about race or expresses a political view you find abhorrent.  They sound off on social media with disinformation and hostility.  Someone at work goes about their business in such and such a way, clearly not helping the overall process.  Do I really need to know the "why" behind their actions or speech?  I don't.  In regular life, with too much to do and not enough time to do it in, where most transactions of any kind are about a result that needs to get done, bringing up "why" puts a kink in things.  Occasionally, the question helps, it fosters a meaningful conversation, but those times are the exception.  I'm less concerned about a person's motives than in doing what needs to be done in whatever is the most beneficial way, the most effective way, with that person.  For a deep dissection of the "whys" that compose another human being, people I like and those I find disagreeable, even horrible, I go to fiction.  It offers that interest and solace.  It is the great playground for the exploration of motive.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Cicely Tyson



“And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” 

–Cicely Tyson 


by Cicely Tyson 

Cicely Tyson passed away January 28 at the age of 96, just two days after the publication of her first memoir, JUST AS I AM.

This remarkable and beautifully written account reveals to the reader the full and epic life of Ms. Tyson before and during her fame and the often turbulent, historical times that played backdrop. Written with Michelle Burford, who has also worked with Alicia Keys, Toni Braxton, Diane Guerrero, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, and Paralympian Amy Purdy, the book is divided into three parts, each telling the legendary actor’s amazing story. Planted. Rooted. Bountiful.

Early on Ms. Tyson faced challenges. Born to West Indian parents, racism and hatred were typical elements in her young life. Her home life was often filled with fighting and she had a difficult relationship with her mother. Eventually, her parents divorced. Then, at the age of 17, before she could graduate high school, she became pregnant. Forced to marry the father, after two years they  divorced, and Ms. Tyson became a single mom. Though she had big dreams and a love of the arts she took jobs in offices and typing pools. It was while working downtown for the Red Cross that she was discovered. This chance meeting brought her to her first role and gave us all a great gift.

JUST AS I AM is a graceful telling of Ms. Tyson’s personal and professional life. Although she is one of the most famous actors of our time, only now, with this memoir, do we learn intimate details she had previously kept private: the abuse her mother endured from her father, the lack of meaningful and equal payment for some of the most iconic roles in movie history; SOUNDER, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of MISS JANE PITMAN and ROOTS. We read about her delicate and fiercely protected relationship with her daughter and her rocky but resolute relationship with Miles Davis. The life she lived was filled with hard work and hardships, and made all the more poignant by the racism and sexism she endured and survived.

She details her life in New York City with her fellow artists of color that gathered and created there. There are tiny tales about remarkable people: Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Ossie and Ruby Davis, Louis Gossett Jr., Richard Pryor, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Michelle and Barack Obama. Tyson also shares details on her important friendships with Diahann Carroll, Roxie Roker, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, and Viola Davis, who wrote the foreword for JUST AS I AM.

Cicely Tyson’s life was epic and historical. She received an honorary Academy Award, three Emmy Awards, eight NAACP Image Awards, a BAFTA and a Tony Award. She was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2015 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.

Ms. Tyson leaves a large legacy, one filled with momentous roles, great loves, and stellar examples of perseverance and determination. And though this memoir is personal and candid, it is also revelatory of a much bigger picture; for Cicely Tyson’s story personifies the difficult life all women of color face and shines as an illustration of the bravery and fight they find or create within themselves to simply live their lives.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Enrolling in Cozy College


Scott D. Parker

I’m going to school again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I call it Cozy College, a year-long look into cozy and traditional mysteries. And I even have a professor.

My Preconceptions

Even though I spent my youth reading novels featuring The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys, I didn’t truly become introduced to mystery and crime fiction as an adult until 2001 when I read Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I liked the harder-edged material and started to amass a list of like authors. Couple this reading with my discovery of pulp novels and authors of the past and I was firmly in the realm of the hard stuff.

When it came to traditional mysteries—the kind whose Golden Age was between the world wars, usually featuring a quirky detective with violence largely off-screen—I just never got into them. Throw in cozy mysteries with their cutesy titles and eccentric hooks and I dismissed them out of hand.

But something changed over the past few years and it all started with television. Masterpiece Mysteries and online streaming services showcase fantastic programs from around the world and many of them, while not cozy, are certainly firmly ensconced in the traditional mystery field. I’m thinking Unforgotten, Broadchurch, The Killing, Hinterland, Elementary, and, most recently, Knives Out and Before We Die. What they showed me was there didn’t have to be a lot of violence, blood, and language to create some rich characters and stories.

These shows were traditional mysteries, but not cozies, so something else needed to be added to the mix.

The other thing that helped change my mind also involved television. It begins with the word “Hall” and ends with the word “Mark.” Yes, I’m talking Hallmark, specifically Hallmark Christmas movies. In past years, I’d kinda sorta check the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas lineup and watch barely a handful, many of them unmemorable. In 2020, I went the opposite direction. I actively sought out and watched as many of them as I could. I would earmark certain movies and make sure to watch them or tape them. I’d set the VCR (yeah, really) to record the ones I wanted to finished if I had to go to bed on work nights. I started to recognize the actors, where they showed up in other movies, and basically had a field day in the coziness of a Hallmark Christmas.

That’s when I basically looked over at the mystery genre again with a decidedly open mind about cozy mysteries. Maybe they weren’t all that I thought they were.

The First Step

In December, seeking to merge my love of Christmas, Hallmark, and mysteries together, I went over to Houston’s Murder by the Book bookstore and picked up a couple of cozy Christmas mysteries. I finished one during the season, Dachshund in the Snow by David Rosenfelt. With a title like that, my preconceived ideas were all cutesy things where the titular hound solves the case. I was prepared for saccharine.

Didn’t get it.

I got a darn good book with a good mystery and a likeable narrator who is a chip off the block of past detectives like Donald Lam and Archie Goodwin. The novel was traditional but not necessarily cozy. Nonetheless, I was definitely intrigued, so much so that I went to my Libby app (for public libraries) and downloaded another audiobook in the series. And I decided to spend 2021 reading a lot more traditional and cozy mysteries. But I would need a guide to help chart my course.

Tthat’s when I got the email.

Murder by the Box’s Subscription Service

Just in time for Christmas, the owner of the bookstore, McKenna Jordan, sent an email describing the new Murder by the Box subscription service. In either 3-month or 12-month choices, readers can choose one of three themes and receive books. There is Best of the Month (a new hardcover), Crime Fiction Legends (two trade paperbacks) and—yes, I literally scanned the email quickly to make sure it would be a choice—Cozy Corner.


I was set. One mass market paperback in the cozy/traditional genre per month. I eagerly signed up in December—it was my Christmas gift to myself—and waited for January.

The book was brand-new: Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders. With the book came a postcard with a welcome message, the reason the book was selected, and immediate recommendations for similarly themed stories. Like Rosenfelt’s book, Batch and Witch was a good mystery but definitely more on the cozier side. I enjoyed it and am definitely looking forward to each month’s selections.

Maybe all those preconceived ideas I had about cozy mysteries were wrong from the jump. I hope this reading list of 2021—and the jumping off points—prove me wrong. It’s already started.

The Professor Is In

But what makes the Cozy Corner special is the person selecting the books, the Professor at Cozy College. John McDougall is the Event Coordinator at Murder by the Book. If you’ve seen the many author talks via the store’s YouTube channel since 2020, you’ll recognize him. He is the resident cozy expert. I reached out to John this week to ask him a few questions, including how this subscription idea came about and what drew him to cozies.

“A few years ago when Helen Ellis (author of American Housewife) signed at the store, she said she wished I could send her a cozy every month, and that's what unofficially started it. As subscription boxes became more popular, McKenna started playing with the idea of starting one for the store, but we never got all the logistics nailed down. In one of those weird coincidences, I mentioned to McKenna that I wanted to start something more official for the Cozy of the Month and she told me that she had also been thinking about wanting to start a subscription service. We were both really excited to get the program started for the holidays and offer the three different options.”

The genesis of his love for cozies stemmed from him reading Posted to Death by Dean James. “At that point I was just a customer at the store and David [Thompson] gave me a copy because he knew I liked other paranormal mysteries. After that I devoured the Ghost Hunter books by Victoria Laurie and I was hooked.”

“The thing that draws me to cozies is the character development. Cozy authors have to quickly create a main character you'll fall in love with, and a community that you'll want to return to over and again. But there's also depth there that people might not expect based on the covers or by calling them cozies. A prominent trope in the cozy genre is the main character going through a bad breakup or divorce and returning to her hometown to start over. A lot of times, that breakup is the thing that allows her to follow her dream, and the dream is usually starting her own business and rebuilding her life on her own terms. The genre has a lot of heart to it, in addition to some really stellar plots.”

In light of the chain of events and mindset shifts I had experienced, John’s words in this last paragraph really hit home for me. Here I was, having a predefined idea of what a cozy was, and basically, I was wrong. And the two books I’ve read so far have proven John’s point. I have already returned to the Andy Carpenter series and the second book in the Witch Way Librarian series will be published in September.

I haven’t been this excited about “reading assignments” in a long time. I am eager to learn more about the cozy genre, and I’m happy to have Professor John McDougall as a guide.

And it’s not too late to join Cozy College for 2021. The February book hasn’t been released yet. If you subscribe now, you’d have to buy Bait and Witch on your own, but you’d get every book from here on out on your 3- or 12-month subscription. If you’re in Houston, a full year is only $99. For twelve books! It’s only $135 if you're out of town and need the books shipped to you. The other themes have different prices, so I encourage you to head over to their website and have a look for yourself. 

You never know. Maybe one of your preconceived notions will disappear just like mine did.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Beau goes apocalyptic

This week, Beau takes a bit of a turn.

Who doesn’t love a good apocalyptic story? They come in all kinds, from the nightmare terrors of superflus and zombie invasions to quieter, more reflective tale of loss and survival. Stories that feature people struggling through the end of the world or fighting to survive in what little bits of civilization still remain are always compelling. What better way for readers to safely explore the extremes of the human condition without actually having to fight off the ravening hordes themselves?

APOCALYPTIC features stories from fourteen old and new favorite ZNB authors: Seanan McGuire, Aimee Picchi, Tanya Huff, Nancy Holzner, Stephen Blackmoore, Zakariah Johnson, Violette Malan, Eleftherios Keramidas, James Enge, Leah Ning, Thomas Vaughn, Marjorie King, Jason Palmatier, and Blake Jessop. Flee the Baboon King, die of thirst in the White Mountains, brew up a bubbling blob of nanotech road kill in the back of a garbage truck, or, worst of all, try to reintegrate yourself back into society as a former zombie. Then ask yourself, would you survive the Apocalypse? Would you even want to?

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Return of Rudolph Fisher

What excellent news it was last month when a brand new edition of Rudolph Fisher's 1932 mystery novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, came out.  Set in Harlem, it is, of course, the first non-serialized full-fledged detective novel ever published by an African-American, a novel with nary a white character in it, and it's both a very entertaining mystery story and a rich witty look at its time and place. I won't go into detail about it now because I wrote a piece about it a few years ago for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- a piece you can find here,, if you're interested.  I will say that if you haven't read Fisher's only mystery novel, you're in for a real treat if you pick it up.  The Conjure-Man Dies holds up extremely well today, a mixture of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers style plotting with hardboiled, as in Dashiell Hammett-like, realism.  Social observation and commentary are fully embedded in the characters and the story.  And it's loaded with humor; as Langston Hughes said of Fisher (in the language of the time clearly) Fisher was the "wittiest of these New Negroes of Harlem.  [He] always frightened me a little because he could think of the most incisive clever things to say, and I could never think of anything to answer."  There is much to chew on in The Conjure-Man Dies, but Fisher almost always delivers even serious points lightly.

This new edition comes with an introduction by mystery writer Stanley Ellin, and these five or so pages are themselves interesting to read.  Written for a 1971 edition of the novel, Ellin's comments are surprisingly bare-knuckled.  Commenting on the way Fisher's novel stood out and broke new ground when written, Ellin says, "The mystery novel of that day, where it dealt with Black people at all, played both angles.  They were either servitors or hardboiled crap shooters, take it or leave it.  Hardly surprising when one considers that, first, the mystery novel is popular fiction, and popular fiction tends to cater to popular prejudices, and second, that the genre itself had, by and large, used as its subjects the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle and upper classes, always acknowledging their superiority to the non-WASP world without question."

Ellin says a bit more along these lines, his tartness refreshing. 

As an added bonus, this edition also has the one other work, besides The Conjure-Man Dies, featuring Fisher's NYPD detective Perry Dart and his friend, Dr. John Archer. It's a 45-page short story called "John Archer's Nose," published in a magazine a month after Archer died, at age 37, in 1934.  The story involves a killing in a Harlem apartment building that the two investigate, and while following the rules of a Golden Age mystery to the letter -- a limited setting with a small cast of suspects and a touch of the improbable about the crime -- skillfully touches on a theme Fisher delves into deeply in his mystery novel:  that is, the tension that exists in people between rationality and superstition,  It's a tension that existed in the Harlem he knew, and well, seems to still be around now, and not only in Harlem.  It's worth noting that Fisher himself was a doctor by profession and placed a high value on reason and science, though not in a way anyone would call doctrainaire.  

Gotta give credit where credit is due and thank the publisher, the Collins Crime Club, for putting this new edition out.


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Lupin—c'est fantastique

By Claire Booth

Netflix has been upping its global game lately, and I don't mean by exporting American entertainment to more and more places. I mean by exposing Americans to more and more international content. Hooray! 

I'm here today to enthusiastically endorse Lupin, the French limited series thriller that pays homage to the great French books of that name about a “gentleman thief.” It’s also suave, sexy, fun, and paced as well as anything I’ve seen in a long time. Sure, it sometimes stretches the bounds of plausibility, but what heist movie or book doesn’t?

Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, whose father, a Senegalese immigrant, gets a job as chauffeur for a wealthy businessman. Things end badly, and Assane grows up vowing revenge. Not guns-blazing revenge; that’s not his style. Instead, he molds himself into the hero of his favorite childhood books, Arséne Lupin. (Tip for those who, like me, didn’t take French in high school: it’s pronounced Lou-PAN.) Lupin was the refined burglar and master of disguise who could solve any problem and steal any object.

Sy has been some English-language movies, including Jurassic World, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The magnetic French native is truly at home here on the streets of Paris, whether it’s outside a tenement or in the courtyard of the Louvre. And I love that he’s of African descent. The casting of Sy adds a whole other rich layer to the show, with the problems of class and race that exist in French society. Plus, he’s perfect for the part – meticulous yet mischevious, and with a cat-burglar grace that not a lot of tall men can pull off.

The Arséne Lupin series by Maurice Leblanc, featuring the exploits of the “gentleman thief,” began in 1905 and lasted for 23 books. In other words, there’s plenty of material to inspire Sy’s character for many seasons to come. And based on Netflix’s assertion that more than 70 million people worldwide have at least started to stream an episode (which is more than even other hits like Tiger King or The Umbrella Academy), it seems likely the company will keep it going.

In fact, the second part of Season One (i.e. the other five-episodes of the ten that have been shot), will be released on Netflix sometime this summer, the streaming service said last week. Don’t wait that long to start. Watch it now. It’s perfect how’s-he-going-to-pull-it-off escapism for the dreary days of winter.

And don’t make the mistake I did. I just clicked play and it came through dubbed into English. Horrible. Bad voice acting in addition to the usual awfulness of the lips you see moving not matching the words you’re hearing. Switch to the French with subtitles. It’s less distracting that way, I swear. And more – how should I say? – l’original est magnifique.


Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Joy of Unexpected Discovery


Scott D. Parker

Y’all are going to laugh at the irony of this post.

How often do you discover something (or experience something) completely on your own?

It’s happened to my three times in the past week or so. The first was the latest book in my science fiction book club. It’s called Space Team (my review). I make it a personal policy for books my club members select that, if I don’t know the book or author, I read no reviews. I just read/listen to the book and let the story wash over me how the author wrote it. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Other times, like with Space Team, it is fantastic.

And it all came without any preconceived notion.

The next two are music related. Like I wrote last week, I’m reading Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year Rock Exploded. I’m onto the February 1971 chapter and the first third of it was about Carole King’s Tapestry album. Carole King, I thought. I think I know who that is. The one King song on the author David Hepworth’s February 1971 playlist was “It’s Too Late.” I listened and instantly recognized the tune. Curious, I went out to YouTube, located King’s official site, and queued up Tapestry.

Holy. Cow. That was a remarkable album. Even though it was a fifty-year-old piece of music, it was brand new to me. Before listening, I didn’t go to or any other site. I just pushed play. I listened to it twice on Monday and every day since. I’m going to have to buy a copy now, maybe even on vinyl. 

The last was just yesterday. The new Foo Fighters album, Medicine at Midnight, was released. I’m a casual Foo fan, a greatest hits guy who owns none of the albums (although my wife does so, I guess, I actually do own some). The lead single, “Shame Shame” was good, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t click.

Until yesterday. 

I queued it up on YouTube and listened to the album. Three times. Having read no reviews, I didn’t know what to expect other than the style of music featured on all the other Foo songs. Boy was I surprised. Happily surprised, mind you. These songs are great and a nice departure from many of the traits associated with the Foo.

What am I getting at? How often do you open a book, push play on a record, or attend a play or movie knowing next to nothing about it? That is, how often do you experience a thing without a review ahead of time?

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Scott, you review stuff all the time. Yes, I do, and I thoroughly enjoy sharing the fun stuff I’ve discovered. It’s my hope that a few words from me might introduce to other this cool thing. And I do read reviews. But, and this is a new thing for me, if I can help it, I don’t read reviews ahead of time. I let a book cover sell me, a movie trailer convince me the film deserves my time, or that there’s a new album by a veteran act that might be the benchmark for album of 2021.

I’ll never stop reviewing things nor will I stop reading reviews (or watching Beau's). I’ve discovered plenty of awesome books, music, and movies from recommendations and reviews. It was a review, after all, that introduced me to my favorite new band, The Struts. 

But those moments when you hear or read or watch something without any preconceived ideas and the thing wows you? Those are priceless moments. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Beau, Charlie, Rose, and Jo

This week, Beau takes a look at DEAD IS BETTER, a Charlie and Rose story, from Jo Perry.


Charles Stone is pretty sure he's dead. He has bullet holes in his chest, and there's a ghostly dog that seems to be his new companion. Unable to interact with the world of the living other than watching and listening, he and the dog-whom he names Rose-have nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it. When Charles and Rose try to unravel the circumstances of Charles's death, they uncover a criminal who is raking in millions of dollars by cruelly exploiting, and sometimes killing, his victims. But what difference can a ghost make? And what does the dog have to do with all of this?


NOT Not Beau's Book Nook

 As you know, Beau Johnson is an talented author, award-winning dancer, and tireless book reviewer.  

Whether online or in person, Beau has been promoting authors pretty much every stinking day for a long while. Today, the internet shows its appreciation. This is a developing story. You're more than welcome to join in.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Cops, Whistlers, Betrayals, Money

A while back, I posted here about the Romanian film Police, Adjective, a cop story that climaxed not with a shoot out or any other action scene, but with three cops in an office debating the meaning of words in a dictionary.  This excellent film came out in 2009, and since then, the director, Corneliu Porumboiu, has made a number of films, including his most recent, from 2019, a sort of follow-up to Police, Adjective, called The Whistlers.

To the strains of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger", a police officer arrives on Gomera, one of the Spanish-run Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and he quickly makes contact with an attractive woman named Gilda, who tells him that what she did the last time they met, in Bucharest, she did for the benefit of the surveillance cameras.  It doesn't take us long to get a flashback to this last encounter, when, in the cop's apartment, he and Gilda had sex together.  But it's clear that what she has told the cop, Cristi, on Gomera, is true: the activity in Bucharest was a result of something they are both involved in and their knowing that the police, the same force Cristi belongs to, are watching them.    

Cristi has been sent to Gomera by the cops to infiltrate a gang behind a robbery in Bucharest.  However, the gang believes he is on their side, and doublecrossing the cops, and they teach him to learn the language of El Silbo, a language of literal whistles that sound like bird calls.  A whistled language?  Yes, and it's real.  If you go to Wikipedia and look up Silbo Gomero, also known as El Silbo, you find this: "a whistled register of Spanish used by inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island. It enables messages to be exchanged over a distance of up to 5 kilometre."

As in Police, Adjective, though in a lighter vein, Corneliu Porumboiu puts the use of language at the core of his crime plot, and we learn, among other things, that one can whistle in different languages.  The group of thieves is made up of both Romanians and Spaniards, and there is a key part, quite amusing, where Cristi whistles to someone in Romanian who passes on the message to someone else in whistled Spanish.  All this during a busy sunlit day in Bucharest.

Vlad Ivanov, who played the cop talking grammar in Police, Adjective, is the lead cop here, and he seems to make a reference to the drug case from the earlier movie.  Still, The Whistlers has a more tongue in cheek tone than Police, Adjecive; that was a procedural and The Whistlers is a noirish caper film.  Nearly every character in it is duplicitous in some way, and there is corruption and negotiation at every turn.  The film unfolds in non-chronological fragments, forcing you to try piecing the puzzle together, and there is just enough meta-movie awareness -- references to Gilda as well as Psycho and The Searchers, among other movies -- without that awareness becoming annoying.

For droll, crime film escapism that has familiar notes but is not cookie-cutter, you can do a lot worse than The Whistlers.