Sunday, December 24, 2023

My Christmas 2023 Playlist

Accurate depiction of my children every year. "*!#&* socks again."
 By Claire Booth

It’s time for my annual Christmas music list, and once again there’s no rhyme or reason to my picks. The last year I did this, readers responded with some of their own favorites, which have made their way onto my own list. Here are a few:

A truly lovely album.
“Hey, Skinny Santa” J.D. McPherson, recommended by Eric Cartner.

“She Won’t Be Home (Lonely Christmas)” Erasure, recommended by Marcus Donner.

A wonderful take on “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” by Los Straitjackets, recommended by Andrew Blasko.

“Santa’s Got a Dirty Job” Rich & Rowe, recommended by Rosanne Urban. And if you want even more irreverence, I like “Christmas Dirtbag,” a Wheatus re-take of their classic “Teenage Dirtbag.”

“Hallelujah,” specifically the version by k.d. lang, recommended by Grace Koshida.

“River” was recommended multiple times, specifically the version by Jim Cuddy and of course, the original version by Joni Mitchell herself (recommended by Danna Wilberg and Grace Koshida).

And now for my list. These songs aren’t necessarily new, but they’re either new to me or ones that have re-entered my rotation this year.

What’s that Sound?” J.D. McPherson

 “Rock the Christmas Cheer” The Bongos

 “I Want an Alien for Christmas This Year” Fountains of Wayne

 “Christmas Time” Rogue Wave

 “The Christmas Song” The Raveonettes

 “This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway

Reindeer, Jon Pardi. The best song off his new Christmas album. 

“Holiday Mood” The Apples in stereo

 “Christmas Wish,” Gregory Porter

 “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me,” Samara Joy

 “My Heart and Soul (I Need You Home for Christmas),” Suzi Quatro

A new song from The Bongos. A Christmas miracle!

 And if you’re just not feeling it this year:

“Another Lonely Christmas,” Prince

“Is It New Year’s Yet?” Sabrina Carpenter

And to readers near and far, have a wonderful holiday season, and as always, thanks for reading. - Claire


Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Abel Ferrara's 'R Xmas

Well, here we are once again, holiday season, which includes Christmas season, and among other things, it's a time, if you're so inclined, to watch your famous Christmas movies. Films with a Christmas season connection of whatever type and genre. Apropos of that, I thought it would not be out of line to mention a Christmas film favorite of mine, even though it's a film I've written about before. That piece was for the unfortunately defunct blog that Jed Ayres, film maven extraordinaire, used to administer, called Hardboiled Wonderland, and I thought I would repost the piece here, because it's a film that still somehow seems a bit under the radar when it comes to Christmas films. I'm talking about Abel Ferrara's 'R Xmas, from 2001, a film that's not all that easy to find but well-worth seeking out. It's a small gem of an unconventional Christmas film, with crime involved of course, and's the piece:

Few movies integrate a crime plot and a Christmas story as well or as completely as Abel Ferrara’s ‘R Xmas.   And it’s Christmas in a very specific time and place, as a pre-credit scroll tells us: “In December of 1993 the Honorable David Dinkins was completing his first and only term as Mayor of New York.”  I’m not sure how much these words mean to somebody not from New York City, but for those who lived in New York through the Dinkins years, from 1990-1993, it has a clear connotation.  New York City was at a low point, with both crime and economic struggle high.

Even if you’re not from New York, you sense from the words that the city could not have been thriving. If it had been, wouldn’t the mayor have been elected to a second term?

The movie opens with what’s clearly a scene from a Christmas past.  Little children wearing adult costumes, we soon realize, are performing a theatrical version of A Christmas Carol for an elementary school production during the holiday season, and in the auditorium watching are all the parents.  The school looks like one with resources; the parents, nearly all-white, are well-dressed and apparently affluent.  One father (Lillo Brancato) has his camcorder trained at his daughter, who has a lead role, and we’ll follow this father as he leaves the school with his daughter and wife (Drea de Matteo) after the play.  The daughter has brown skin, and the family speak Spanish together as well as English, since they are, we realize, Latinx.  On a horse and buggy ride downtown, as they proceed down Museum Mile on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, the mother asks her daughter what museum they are passing – the Guggenheim Museum – and they have a humorous back and forth about how to pronounce the word “Guggenheim”.  The parents seem like they are intent on educating their child well, with culture, but their manner and down to earth way of talking mark them as grounded.  They take their daughter to a department store Santa – how much more typical a Christmas thing could you do – and while at the store, the father does all he can to acquire for their girl a Party Girl doll, the must-have toy that year.  He fails at the store when another woman grabs the last doll off the shelf just before he reaches it (and he gets to watch the fortunate woman nearly come to blows with another woman who puts her hands on the doll), but that doesn’t mean he and his wife will give up their pursuit for that gift.

So far, so good.  Later that evening, grandma comes over to watch their girl, and the mother and father go out.  Good Manhattanites in a fancy building, they have little red Christmas envelopes of cash for their doorman and for the guy out front who has brought their car around from the garage.  Only after they take a long ride in this car, going past Yankee Stadium and up to what appears to be Washington Heights (northern Manhattan) or the Bronx and then walk into another apartment they have in a decidedly unglamorous apartment building do we see how they make their money, as serious, calm, disciplined drug dealers.  The father heads a crew that labels its cocaine bags “TKO”, and that coke is sold by their associates/employees on the street.  What began as a film that showed us a nostalgic view of a non-commercialized Christmas, with kids in all the parts, has turned into a movie about commercialism in different forms, both the crass commerce of Christmas and the viciousness that can breed (the two women fighting over the party doll) and the just as blunt and even more dangerous commerce that comes with drug dealing. 

‘R Xmas is Abel Ferrara working in top form, quietly subversive. The mother and father’s drug dealing is viewed with the matter-of-factness you’d give to any job.  It’s somewhat mundane, takes focus, and comes with aggravations and anxieties.  But it allows them to live the life they want to lead in a very expensive city.  They can support family members, and most of all make a good life for their daughter.  As the mother says at one point, without a hint of snobbery but with a sincerity you can’t but feel for when you think of the state of many public schools, she doesn’t want to take their daughter out of private school.   Their daughter is clearly the apple of both their eyes, and on Christmas Eve, unwilling to let the holiday pass without getting that Party Girl doll for their daughter, they make a trip to an outer borough to get the doll from a guy who sells them on the black market.  While the mother is at the guy’s warehouse getting the toy, her husband leaves the car to take care of some unnamed business, and it’s here that we learn there are other forces watching them who have their own nasty holiday agenda.  That agenda entails extortion, or what you might call forcing “gifts” from them.  Tis the season for taking as much as it is the season for giving.

Christmas songs and Christmas imagery – trees, lights, crosses, decorations – permeate ‘R Xmas.  The soundtrack, done by Schooly D, twists seasonal songs like “Silent Night” into menacing background music.  The urgency behind the parents getting the Party Doll to their daughter and the mother getting the demanded money to the weird extortionist (Ice-T) are almost, if not quite, the same.  And is the daughter any different than most young children who just hope to get what they wish for on Christmas?  She’s oblivious to the difficulties her parents endure on the job just as another child would be of a parent in a more conventional, but still stress-inducing, profession.  On Christmas morning, unwrapping her gifts, the girl says, “This is the best Christmas ever”.  She means it, and for her it’s true, but it’s a line that contains an irony she couldn’t begin to fathom.

At 85 minutes, ‘R Xmas is a fast, easy watch.  But there’s a lot going on in that short running time.  Everyone gives committed performances – Drea de Matteo, in particular, shines – and Abel Ferrara directs with his usual rigor.  Has the man ever made a sloppy film?  I don’t think so.  Some of his movies work better than others, but Ferrara is never slack.  You’ll find Christmas films more famous than this one, more celebrated and on a larger scale, but ‘R Xmas ranks among the most trenchant. 


Saturday, December 16, 2023

It's a Good Thing the Crooks Are Not Very Smart in The Christmas Thief

Scott D. Parker

Gather ‘round kids and let me tell about something we had back in the day. Here in Houston, there was a store that let you rent audiobooks just like Blockbuster. T’was a great store, especially in the days before digital audiobooks are everywhere.

One of the books I listened to decades ago was The Christmas Thief by Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark. What I didn’t know then was that this was the second Christmas novel that Mary and Carol wrote together. What made these books special—other than the mother/daughter relationship—was the crossover aspect of the stories.

One of Mary’s series featured lottery winner, Alvirah Meehan, and her husband Willy. She cleaned houses in New York while Willy was a plumber. They starred in four standalone novels before the four Christmas novels.

On Carol’s side, there was Reagan Reilly, a private investigator. In the first book, Deck the Halls, Reagan meets Alvirah at a dentist’s office and quickly get wrapped up in the kidnapping of Reagan’s dad and his driver.

Here in The Christmas Thief, all the characters are friends now, and they are planning a trip to Stowe, Vermont. Alvirah and Willy want to see the maple tree their lawyers bought for them—what do you buy lottery winners for Christmas—and they bring along Opal. She’s a fellow lottery winner who ran into some bad luck. Twelve years ago, Opal invested her lottery winnings with Packy Noonan, a guy who swindled Opal and other senior citizens out of their money.

Packy’s done his time and now he’s getting out of prison with a single-minded goal: travel up to Stowe and retrieve a flask full of uncut diamonds worth over $70 million and escape to Brazil.

Here’s the catch: unbeknownst to Packy, “his” tree has actually been selected to be used as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Now, the con has to figure out how to get his diamonds without anybody the wiser. That proves harder than he bargained for when all the characters show up in Stowe.

Carol Higgins Clark narrates the audiobook which I was able to find after extensive searching. She does a good job with the different New England accents. The story itself would make a fun TV movie. There’s not a lot of peril and some of Packy’s cohorts are just not that smart. I have to admit that I “cast” a certain actor as Packy as I listened to this book. He’s one of the Wet Bandits from Home Alone, and having this actor in mind made the story even better.

I’m always on the lookout for Christmas stories and now I’ve read two of the four books by Mary and Carol. I love crossovers and now I think I’ll try some of the non-Christmas books by these two gifted storytellers.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

THE SAME OLD SONG: Presenting the Introduction to Rock and a Hard Place's THE ONE PERCENT

If you've noticed there's been a suspicious lack of Paul J. Garth posting on Do Some Damage lately, well, first, I'm going to have to question your priorities in life, even if it is appreciated. But this week I'm back, and I promise my absence has had good reasons. 

You're probably thinking the reason I've been quiet is because I'm still writing my novel (you'd be right!) but the other reason is because, for the last month, me and the rest of the Rock and a Hard Place editorial staff have been nose to the grindstone working on getting our latest anthology THE ONE PERCENT: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved in tip-top shape out and out the door. 

To say we're proud of this anthology is an understatement. It is, in my opinion, one of the best things we've ever done, taking the feeling of living through a rigged game and aiming it right back at the cheaters and exploiters and vampirous freaks who would see us all reduced to livestock if only to make a 3% bounce in their chosen stock prices. To be clear, we don't think we're going to necessarily change anything, other than writing in big black permanent marker how intolerable conditions have become for those who think they're still on the guest list of the party (surprise - they aint), but still, this is a book whose assembled voices are vital. In it, we took care to not only show how little life matters to those at the top, we searched for and shaped voices that otherwise are never heard - often because of the prejudices of those captains of industry who hold our world in a stranglehold. 

We're so proud, we're presenting the foreword to THE ONE PERCENT: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved, right here on DSD. 

Check out the forward below, and when you're done, swing by your local suffocating conglomerate to pick up a copy of the book. Your screams deserve to be heard. And one thing I'm convinced of is this: No matter how many dollar bills they stuff themselves with, eventually, they will hear us. 

Buy THE ONE PERCENT: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved here


Welcome to the new order. It’s the same as the old order. 

We work hard and they get rich. We follow the rules and they flout them. 

Now it looks like tech bros on yachts and private spaceships to the moon. A hundred years ago it was oil barons and railroad tycoons. People profit from the destruction of the planet just as they did off slave labor. It’s a child digging minerals to power your smartphone just as it was young women burning to death in a t-shirt factory.

The issue of absurd wealth concentrated in the blood-soaked hands of the few is as much a constant in our history as war and racism.

With The One Percent: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved, we give you stories of those at the top. Though these stories are fictional and are individual accounts of people at the highest tiers of our economic system, we hope that collectively they point to a larger systemic problem, which is the fact that our economic system incentivizes cut-throat nastiness. Having a system that rewards people for hoarding wealth and taking advantage of others means individuals with fewer scruples are more likely to rise to the top and that those that may have some basic sense of ethics or human empathy quickly learn to abandon it in order to compete.  

To say that this is a systemic problem is not to absolve the individuals who benefit from the system from their guilt and culpability. They take part in it, uphold it, and further it for their own sakes. They’re the architects of the system, the maintainers of the status quo. 

We hope this volume serves as some small form of accountability, as a way of saying that, though we are forced to live in this system for our own survival, we are not blind to it. This is our way of saying that although they have taken the majority of our waking hours, they have not taken our creativity or our humanity. 

In this collection, you’ll read stories of glorious comeuppance. As one of our authors writes, there are spiders that “eat other spiders,” and you’ll read about people out of their depths, blinded by the promise of easy cash and paying for it in the end. But there are others still, who just get away with it, who treat people like pieces on a gameboard, and never learn their lesson—because in the end, they still come out on top.

What we tried to do is find a mix of the unrepentant and the unfazed. But we never want to glorify those captains of industry who profit from the misery of others. This anthology is about showcasing the problems of immense, unchecked wealth. It’s not our usual fare of people struggling to eke out survival, but it is still presented with the trademark RHP brand of social justice and basic fairness. In this anthology, we let our authors do bad things to bad people . . . and the results are entertaining as fuck. 

If that doesn't want to make you throw a brick through Muskrats front window, I don't know what will. If you were on the fence at all, hopefully that's pushed you to our side. If so, you can buy THE ONE PERCENT: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved here

I'll be back next week, with an interview with the one and only M.E. Proctor. Until then, stay frosty, friends. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The One Per Cent: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved

For some years now, Rock and a Hard Place, based in New Jersey, has been publishing superb crime fiction. It has what you might call a decidedly working class slant, favoring the underdogs in life, the people working hard yet still struggling in a difficult world of economic uncertainty. The magazine comes out regularly, and two years ago, Rock and a Hard Place put out the anthology called Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression. That title alone gives you an idea of where the publication's editors -- led by founders Roger Nokes and Jay Butkowski -- are coming from, and now they have a new anthology they've put out, a collection called, The One Per Cent: Tales of the Super Wealthy and Depraved.

The title explains things clearly enough, but as the editors say about the anthology, "For this volume, featuring 16 stories designed to make your blood boil, we decided to switch up the formula a little bit. Rock and a Hard Place has always been about promoting stories of struggle, to never lose sight of the human being who's at the core of that struggle. In these stories, our writers are skewering the rich, and instead of celebrating humanity, we're lamenting the loss of humanity in pursuit of obscene levels of wealth." 

It all sounds good, but wait! The way most people, or at least a lot of people, will order this book will be through Amazon, which belongs to we-all-know-who, an irony, or paradox, or whatever you want to call it -- a fact of life -- of today's world. No matter: the book remains the book, its merits to be judged not by where you buy it, but by the fiction between its covers. The quality, in the end, is the primary thing that counts. As the editors say, there are 16 stories here, detailing the doings of the rich and vile. Are there people extravagantly rich who are not vile? Of course there are. People are people, no matter their economic station. You just won't find those type of wealthy people in this particular anthology.

The contributors are C.W. Blackwell, Scott Von Doviak, Esther Mubawa, James D.F. Hannah, AD Schweiss, Thomas Trang, Meirav Devash, Eddie McNamarra, Andrew Rucker Jones, Sam Wiebe, Curtis Ippolito, Tim P. Walker, Jesse Lee, Sean Logan, Tom Andes, Steven-Elliot Altman, and Lin Morris.

And the book can be ordered (this is the way of the world) here: The One Percent.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

So That's What It's Like to Live With Your Imaginary Characters


Scott D. Parker

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer wrestling with a story? Well, have I got a movie for you.

When I first learned there was a movie based on the non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (my review), I wondered if it wasn’t merely a documentary. To some degree, it is, seeing as how the movie is based on the actual events of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol in only six weeks and publish it on his own. But the movie is more. It is a visual representation of how writers create their characters, how said characters can take over an author’s imagination, and end up becoming something more.

The movie opens in October 1843. Dickens’s finances are not what they once were, with Martin Chuzzlewit not performing as well as Oliver Twist. Add to that the author’s blank-page syndrome: he doesn’t know what next to write. When he happens upon the idea of a Christmas story, his publisher scoffs at the idea. The production time alone makes the notion a non-starter to say nothing of the fact that Dickens had not written a single word. Nevertheless, the thirty-one-year-old author charges ahead.

Anyone familiar with the novel or any of the screen adaptations will enjoy witnessing Dickens encountering various bits of dialogue in his everyday life. The famous line about the poor houses is uttered by a rich patron who dislikes Dickens populating his stories with “them,” the poor. He sees a jolly couple dancing in the dirty streets and envisions Fezziwig and his wife. And, at a funeral, he sees a man, played by Christopher Plummer, who becomes the physical embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Seeing Dickens struggle with crafting the name for his main character is fun, particularly when Dickens, as played wonderfully by Dan Stevens, zeroes in on the name itself. “Scrooge.” The look on Stevens’s face is like “Of course that’s the name.” I don’t know about you writers out there, but coming up with a name for main characters can be difficult.

But the movie really takes off when Dickens begins interacting with his creations. Plummer’s Scrooge has multiple dialogues with Dickens, and the two actors play off each other well. Stevens possesses a certain manic quality not present in his role on Downton Abbey. I could easily see him starring in screwball comedies the likes of which that made Cary Grant a star.

As any writer will tell you, when you are deep in a novel, the moments are few when you are not thinking about the story. Sitting in traffic? Check. Shopping at the grocery store? Check. Watching a TV where you’re suppose to care about that story? Check. It happens all the time. So it was utterly charming when the movie portrays Dickens’s characters actually showing up in places he least expected it.

Credit the movie also with some genuine tension. The mere fact there’s a movie devoted to this book’s creation means you know Dickens completed the book. However, the movie effectively showed his struggle with the ending just well enough that you might start to wonder if Boz would get it done.

I’m not enough of a Dickensian to know if the author truly had a different ending to his Carol or not, but the movie plays with that concept. Dickens wondered if someone like Scrooge could really turn around his life in only one night. I’d like to think that almost anyone—be it Scrooge, the Grinch, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (and “Scrooge”), or even Nicholas Cage in “Family Man” to name a few—would change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming, magnificent movie about a remarkable author and a timeless story. I can’t help but wonder if this movie will, in the course of time, became a classic.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Want a New Short Story Everyday for the Christmas Season?

Scott D. Parker

We are in December now and the 2023 holiday season has begun. I’ve already been listening to my Christmas albums—always start with Chicago’s three Christmas albums—but made a fun discovery this year: Richard Marx’s “Christmas Spirit.” Boy, is that a fun song, and you simply have to watch the video.

I’ve also started my season’s readings and, for the past past five years, my annual Christmas reading is anchored by an Advent calendar of short stories.

The WMG Holiday Spectacular is the brainchild of veteran author Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She wondered what it would be like to have a new short story each day from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Now, in its fifth year, the WMG Holiday Spectacular is one of the things I look forward every year.

Rusch curates all the stories and is mindful of where in the season certain stories land. There are hard-boiled stories but not during the last days leading up to Christmas. There are other holidays in the season like St. Nicholas’s Day so if one of the authors submitted a story that goes with that day, that’s what you’ll get.

Everyday, you get an email with Rusch’s introduction to that day’s story including genre and mood and link’s to the author’s website. You can read the stories on any device you prefer. I prefer my Kindle Paperwhite but the browser experience is perfectly good. It’s especially good during lunch hours when my Paperwhite is at home and I can’t wait to read a story.

There have been some gems so far. “The Great Tamale Sauce Bakeoff” by Kat Simons mixes romance and cooking while C.H. Hung delivers a great hard-boiled story in “The Dead Ringer.” There are some nice, positive messages from Irette Y. Patterson’s “Tremelo” as well as Rusch’s own “Hidden Treasures.”

If you subscribe today, you’ll get all the stories up to now and then you’ll be in for a treat. If you need the math, it’s $25 for 40 short stories. It’s a no brainer and it’ll help enliven your season all the way to that New Year’s Day hangover.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Artistic Value, for Better or Worse

I've almost finished reading Perceval Everett's novel Erasure. I like it a lot and maybe I'll write more about it later, but I thought I'd just place here a passage from it I found funny and also quite insightful about the relationship between artistic value and commercial success or the lack of what's considered commercial success. It's a brief imagined conversation between the painter Mark Rothko and the filmmaker Alain Resnais. In Erasure itself, the exchange has nothing to do with the plot, and as a matter of fact, neither Rothko nor Resnais figure anywhere else in the book. Still, it does connect thematically to what's around it in the novel.

It goes like this:

Rothko: I'm sick of painting these damn rectangles.

Resnais: Don't you see that you're tracing the painting's physical limits? Your kind of seeming impoverishment becomes a sort of adventure in the art of elimination. The background and the foreground are your details and they render each other neutral. The one negates the other and so oddly we are left with only details, which in fact are not there.

Rothko: But what's the bottom line?

Resnais: The idiots are buying it.

Rothko: That is it, isn't it?

Resnais: I'm afraid so. They won't watch my films and believe me, my art is no better for the neglect.

Rothko: And no worse, Alain.

And as I read this passage, chuckling, I thought, "Yes, on every level, true."

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Give the Gift of Reading to Kids Battling Cancer via Evie's Holiday Book Drive


Scott D. Parker

As we conclude Thanksgiving 2023 with thoughts of all the things are are thankful for, I would like to remind you of the 6th Annual Evie's Holiday Book Drive. This foundation was created after one of our own, Duane Swierczynski, lost his daughter to cancer back in 2018. 

Read Evie's story and learn more at their website.


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Cocaine Hippos

Idea for a story: A drug kingpin, let's say in South America, gets the yearning to import exotic animals onto his vast estate. He does this purely to satisfy his own particular whims, not unlike what William Randolph Hearst did when he imported animals foreign to the United States to California to create a large private zoo at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Hearst had animals there such as African and Asian antelopes, camels, giraffes, kangaroos, leopards, chimpanzees, and tigers. He also had zebras, and for many years, apparently, Hearst's guests in San Simeon would stroll through the zoo and gawk at the zebras and all the other animals. Hearst's financial difficulties led to the zoo being dismantled in 1937, and most of the animals were sold to other people or donated to public zoos. The zebras remained on the Hearst land, however, and to this day they are there, wandering over the 80,000 acres of grassland below the castle. I spotted them in the distance myself while driving down the coast on US Highway 1 a few years ago, an odd site in that landscape even though I had read about them and was hoping, if not expecting, to see them.

Well, for this story idea, the drug kingpin brings over to his South American country four hippopotamuses from Africa, and they enjoy life on his estate. But when he dies some years after importing them, nobody knows what to do about them. For one thing, they are too large to just gather up and bring somewhere else, like to a zoo. No one provides the means to transfer them anywhere else, and to their credit, people consider it inhumane to kill them. So they live on, adapting, and a few decades later the original population of four has expanded to about 170. They have expanded as well in the territory they cover, finding wild rivers, feeding, living normal hippo lives. The country realizes that the hippos have become a dangerously invasive species in the area, with no predators of any kind to deal with and whose feeding habits and overall lifestyle are causing real problems for native animals and for the local habitat in general. The dead drug kingpin's whim has fomented something of an environmental crisis in the country. Nobody could have foreseen this, how the hippos, in effect, are part of the chain of collateral damage stemming from his long defunct drug business. And because the main drug he dealt in was cocaine, the hippos have become known as the cocaine hippos. They are the cocaine hippos of that country, and the fear is that if they are left untended, their population can reach thousands in the decades to come, a potential disaster.

Sounds a little absurd, but it's all true. Somehow I had no idea any of this was going on until I came across it in the news the other day. The country with the problem is Columbia and the drug kingpin who brought the hippos over from Africa years ago to live on his estate was Pablo Escobar. Of all the kinds of stories you could come across even tangentially related to crime and criminal activity, this is not one you'd anticipate. Probably the officials in Columbia didn't either, and they have in fact rejected the idea of just killing all the invasive hippos. Instead, they have begun a program to sterilize many of the hippos to prevent a population boom, but as anyone can imagine, sterilizing a hippo is no easy task. First, you have to shoot enough darts into a hippo's thick skin to knock it out, then you have get the hippo in the right position for the procedure, then do the procedure. The whole thing takes a team of people who know exactly what they're doing, and they have to do it quickly, before the hippo wakes up.

A somewhat bizarre story, and you probably could do something with this as fiction in these times of concern about the environment. Who knows? I just hope the Columbian hippo sterilization project goes well.

There's a good bit about this online, but here's a link to one story on it that I came across.. It goes into detail about what's going on right now with the hippos: 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Not All Turkeys Are On The Table in Turkey Trot Murder by Leslie Meier

Scott D. Parker

If it seem like I just reviewed a Leslie Meier book last month, then you are absolutely correct. But the number of Thanksgiving-themed mysteries are rather small, so I read one of Meier’s two helpings.

Time Jumps and an Aging Protagonist

A more logical reader might read each book in a long-running series in order, but Turkey Trot Murder (2017) was the only audiobook available at the library. It is Meier’s 24th (out of 30 by next year). As a result, I had a bit of whiplash when I landed back in Tinker’s Cove, Maine, and our heroine, Lucy Stone.

She’s now a full-time report for the local weekly, but she and her husband, Bill, are now empty nesters. When I last left them in 1996’s Trick or Treat Murder, all the kids were, well, kids living at home. Lucy had to juggle all her various duties—mom, wife, reporter, friend—while still trying to solve that Halloween mystery.

Here, however, it’s just her and Bill, and she’s the catalyst for the entire story. It was Lucy, out running and training for the annual Turkey Trot race, who stumbled on the body of a young woman, face down in an icy pond.

I know that allowing characters to age in real time is nothing new, but I’ve actually read few long-running series so I found it rather refreshing. The youngest child is eighteen and in college while the oldest has already made grandparents out of Lucy and Bill.

Current American Trends Slip Into a Cozy Mystery

In the less-than-a-dozen cozy mysteries I’ve read to date, there is a common factor: despite the technology, many of these stories take place in a time you really can’t nail down (unless you read the copyright page and know what year it was published). Still, so many of these stories are timeless, in that they could land in almost any year of the last thirty or so years.

But Turkey Trot Murder lets in some things that were actually going on before 2017 and to this day. One of the characters is an American-born restaurateur whose heritage is from Spain. He appears Hispanic and nothing he says dissuades a certain subset of the population.

That subset are exemplified by a desire to make sure this restaurateur does not open his restaurant in Tinker’s Cove. “America for Americans” is the slogan these people chant over and over again, and it’s enough to make you cringe. It made Lucy and many of the the other characters cringe as well, and I appreciated the counter-arguments made to oppose this slogan. It was here the First Thanksgiving was referenced more than once, but it fell on deaf ears.

It’s Like General Fiction With Crimes Thrown In

Like I mentioned last month, Meier’s books are almost general fiction in that we spend a lot of time just in the everyday lives of Lucy and the other residents of Tinker’s Cove. It’s charming, to be honest, and it really makes you want to visit or, perhaps, look at your own town and see something similar.

There are crimes to be solved and Lucy, with her press badge, easily puts herself in the middle of everything. And, just like a good protagonist, she starts the story with the discovery and she ends it as well. Quite satisfactorily, I might add.

The mysteries of Lucy Stone by Leslie Meier have rapidly become comfort reading. I love visiting Tinker’s Cove, and I encourage you to plan a trip there. There are nearly 30 different novels, most surrounding a holiday. Pick one and dive in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A Tricky Business

Pastiche in fiction is a tricky business. I tend to find myself leery of a story or novel that makes it clear that it is imitating a certain writer or style or form, because why would I want to read the imitator when I can go to the earlier works? There have been so many Sherlock Holmes stories written over time since Arthur Conan Doyle died, and yet as much as I love Holmes stories, I've read very few of the pastiches because nobody can match Doyle. On the other hand, there are always exceptions, and as much as any pastiche of any kind I've ever read, I love Nicholas Meyer's The-Seven-Percent-Solution. It has a brilliant conceit, for one thing, and captures the voice and flavor of the Holmes stories almost perfectly. 

Of course, there is no true originality in fiction so the lines between pastiche, homage, tribute, parody, and plain literary influence are amorphous. To use the Conan Doyle example again: something like Michael Chabon's The Final Solution is something I would not call a pastiche per se, since it takes the Holmes character and uses him in a way that is Chabon's own, not in strict imitation of Conan Doyle. Anyway, don't all writers draw upon their influences when creating their own work? Yes, obviously, they do, though some more overtly than others. So what's a pastiche and what the mere product of a writer's influences, developed by the new writer in his or her specific way, can not only be hard to determine but also a moot point. In the end, who cares really what the work is if it's engaging and you enjoy it?

These were some of my thoughts when I read Tom Mead's Death and the Conjuror recently. I'd gone into a bookstore I sometimes frequent and said to the staff I was looking for a particular novel. I mentioned that I've been reading a lot of locked-room and impossible crime mysteries lately. I used to read them often many years ago, I said, and have now gotten back into them again. It's the fun of the puzzle, the rigorous logic, and just the pure escapism. The staff member recommended Death and the Conjuror, and I said I'd heard good things about it. What I didn't say was that I hadn't before been all that interested in picking it up because it looks so clearly like a pastiche of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of the Golden Age locked-room mystery, down to setting the story in 1930s England. Nothing against 1930s England, but it's such familiar mystery land territory. One reason I've been so liking reading Japanese fair-play mysteries the last couple of years is because of the (to me) fresh setting and approaches these stories take to a well-known form. But regardless, the staff member said Tom Mead's book is quite well done – "elegant" is the word he used  with not one impossible crime in it but two, and I took his word for it. Besides, the book has a handsome cover.

So the verdict? Death and the Conjuror is pastiche, tribute, hommage  call it what you will – done right. Set in London in 1936, it follows retired stage magician turned part-time sleuth Joseph Spector as he and Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Flint do  in fact solve two crimes: one, a locked room murder of a prominent psychiatrist, and two, the "impossible" robbery from a house party of a famous painting. The puzzles themselves are confounding, the suspects an interesting and theatrical lot, the atmosphere enjoyably macabre when appropriate in the story. But what I especially liked was the book's style, which is not a slavish imitation of an older style, which a writer might have used back in the 1930s, but a brisk prose that reads like a slight updating of an older style. It sounds fresh and has a contemporary pacing while at the same time avoiding anachronisms, phrases, and attitudes that sound like they would come from 2022 (when the book was published). 

Adding to the pleasure is the way Meade leans into the tradition he is writing in and signals that awareness to the reader. This is especially true in a chapter in which Joseph Spector gives a brief disquisition on the locked room problem and cites, while speaking, the original chapter that is a lecture on impossible crimes and locked room problems in John Dickson Carr's 1935 novel The Hollow Man. Later, just before the solution, Mead addresses the reader directly much as Ellery Queen did in his early books, though the author acknowledges that "these days such practices are antiquated and rather passe". Still, as he says, who is he "to stand in the way of a reader's fun?" 

Who indeed? He has not in any way hindered a reader's fun, certainly not this reader, and I'm on board to read some more of his inventive nods to a tradition of literary misdirection.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Two Keys to a Successful NaNoWriMo

Scott D. Parker

I’ll admit something: I’m a little bummed I’m not doing Nation Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, in the official way. I really enjoy the camaraderie of writers all channeling their energies into creating 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. It’s a blast and I’ve already booked November 2024 as my next official NaNoWriMo.

But this year? I’m not trying to start a new book. I’m actually trying to finish one. Thus my own spin on the name: NaNoFiMo. I’m driving to finish a book by 30 November. I didn’t start the month on fire with daily word count, but I am about to have some time off on Thanksgiving week and I think I can make up time.

That’s one of the keys to a successful NaNoWriMo:

Stay Flexible

If there’s one thing you must keep in mind as you write your story this month is to stay flexible. Writing a novel is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Each day, however, can feel like a sprint, and you treat them that way. The sprint is the 1,667 words. But here’s a huge weight you can lift off your shoulders.

Don’t get too bogged down in the daily weeds. Maintain the overall goal: 50,000. Some days, you’ll blow past the 1,667 daily benchmark. Others you may fall short. You can make it up. Don’t lose sight of the end goal: a completed story. In the end, it won’t matter if you didn’t reach your daily goal for a third of the days and exceeded it on the rest. All that matters is a 50,000-word completed novel.

You know another key to a successful NaNoWriMo?

Have Fun

In every NaNoWriMo novel I’ve written, there is a wonderful urgency to get the words down. That’s good. But you are also the first reader of the book you are writing. Entertain yourself! Have fun.

My writing times are always in the early mornings before the day job starts. I rise at 5:00 am for these writing sessions.
The family is asleep and I am by myself with my characters and story. I open the laptop and start the daily writing. And I am gone out of this world and into the world of my story.

And I’m grinning at times. My heart races at other times. Heck, I’ve even teared up writing certain scenes. The thing is, I’m wholly invested in the tale.

It is one of the best feelings out there. We’re writers, after all!

So have fun, stay flexible, and enjoy NaNoWriMo.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Now Available: Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery

Scott D. Parker

Well, this is fun.

After a long gestation period, one of my favorite books has now been published.

What’s It About?

Here’s the short elevator pitch:

During an investigation to ferret out corruption on the home front in World War II, Senator Harry Truman not only finds himself embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project, but must also confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.

Here’s the longer book description:

As a U.S. Senator, Harry Truman led a congressional committee dedicated to ferreting out corruption during World War II with a simple credo: help the country win the war and bring our soldiers home.

In the spring of 1944, Truman receives a series of ominous letters from a lawyer out in Hanford, Washington. His client, a farmer who lost his land when the government confiscated it for a secret project, has been silenced and drafted into the Army.

Truman personally leads this investigation, bringing along former policeman Carl Hancock. Soon after they start looking into things, Truman and Hancock witness a pair of brutally murdered corpses, a town clouded in secrecy, and more than one person who’d prefer to be done with the pesky senator.

But the investigators are tenacious, and in no time, Truman and Hancock not only find themselves embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project but also must confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.

Where Can You Find It?

It is currently available as a ebook in all major online stores. For those of y’all who prefer paperbacks, those will be available soon.


Read an Excerpt

April 17, 1944
4:13 p.m., Pacific War Time

McLeod led Truman and Hancock out into the parking lot after the two travelers had refreshed themselves. As McLeod was getting his keys from his pocket, Truman said, “This is your car?”

“Yes, it is,” McLeod said, a hint of pride in his voice as he admired how the sun shone off the chrome grill and the midnight blue paint. “It’s a 1941 Lincoln Continental, the last major line produced before the war started.” He ran a hand along the roof on the driver’s side. “This baby really purrs, too. Smoothest riding car I’ve ever known.”

He opened the back door behind the driver’s seat and placed both suitcases on the seat. He leaned in and unlocked both passenger doors. The other two men climbed in, Truman in the front. McLeod slid behind the steering wheel and started the engine.

He paused with both hands on the wheel and looked over at Truman. “I deeply appreciate you both coming out here. I know you don’t know me from Adam and I’m not even a constituent. But it’s reached the point where I don’t trust anyone official over in Richland.”

“Well you can trust us,” Truman said, his finger idly tracing the curve of his hat, now on his lap. “Your letters, taken as a whole, amount to something we’ve not encountered. Usually, we get the company cheating the government and hampering the war effort with cheap products. Yours was, well, unnerving.” He glanced back at Hancock. “Carl?”

“It’s certainly unusual, I’ll give you that,” Hancock said. “But I’d like to hear some more details, if you don’t mind.”

“We have the time,” McLeod said, putting the car in gear and backing out of the parking space. “We have a little drive back up to Richland.”

Hancock said, “That reminds me. Why’d you have us meet you here in Oregon? Ain’t there a train station in Richland or some other town near there?”

McLeod looked at him in the rearview mirror. “I think I’m being watched. Those two hoods convinced me of that. I wanted to get out of the spotlight and meet somewhere where no one knows who I am.”

“You give your name to anyone here?” Hancock asked.

“No.” McLeod thought. “Yes, to the ticket man. I introduced myself and asked whether or not your train would be on time. Why, was that wrong?”

“Not necessarily, no, but it might’ve been better if you hadn’t.”

McLeod frowned. “But we’re more than an hour away from Richland. Why would it matter if I gave my name down here? Besides, I live in Seattle so Richland’s not even my hometown.”

“But you’ve been in Richland for a few weeks working for your client.” Truman said, seeing where Hancock was going. “You’re probably known around town, too. You aren’t just some worker. You’re the attorney for a man suing the federal government. Word spreads in small towns when out-of-towners come in. Back in Independence, the whole town would know if so-and-so’s uncle or aunt were visiting almost as soon as they arrived.”

Hancock said, “Mr. McLeod, I’ve come late to this party. I just read your letters this morning. And I don’t know what else you and Harry’ve talked about. Why don’t you fill in some details while we’re driving?”

“I didn’t leave much out of the letters. I had to make a compelling case to get some help out here. As I wrote in the last letter, I’ve gotten to where I don’t trust anyone official out here, even Ira, the local sheriff.” McLeod shook his head. “Ira. That one’s hard to explain. He’s such a straight arrow. Nothing bad ever happened to him except for the loss of his wife back in ’37. My wife and I were at Donald’s house for Christmas and he’d invited Ira over so he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas. He’d even…”

“Why were you at Mr. Bumble’s house for Christmas?” Hancock asked, his gaze never leaving the passing scenery outside his window. “I thought you were just his lawyer.”

McLeod’s face reddened at the question and Truman, half facing McLeod, leaned in closer. “Is there something you’ve left out of your letters, Mr. McLeod?”

“It’s not important, really,” McLeod said, “and it doesn’t have any bearing on my standing as Donald’s attorney.” He eased off the gas as he approached a slow-moving truck carrying crates of apples. “I didn’t think you’d come out here if I wrote it in a letter.”

“What is it, Mr. McLeod?” Truman asked, a bit more firmly.

“Donald, or Donnie, as my wife likes to call him, is my brother-in-law.”

Truman sat back and Hancock let out a little chuckle. “Let me guess. Your sister didn’t want to live on a farm for the rest of her life so she got outta there as fast as she could. ‘Cept that left Mr. Bumble as the only one to tend the farm when dear old mom and dad went to the great orchard in the sky. Then, when the government took the land, your wife got all guilty and ‘persuaded’ you to represent her brother.” The word “persuade” was said in such a way that each man, husbands all, exactly knew the meaning.

McLeod eyed the Texan sitting in his back seat. “That’s about eighty percent correct. How’d you know?”

“Because I was in a similar situation. Me and your wife played the same part and my sister and Mr. Bumble played the other part. ‘Course, in my case, it was the other war. Took me away from the farm and I never went back, despite what I told my sister. She hated me for a while, too. Spent the first Christmas after the war stuck at my podunk apartment in Austin.” Hancock turned from his window and looked at McLeod through the rearview mirror.

“What changed your sister’s mind to invite you back the next time,” McLeod said.

“Oh, she didn’t. After that, I met my future wife and she invited me to celebrate Christmas with her family.” Hancock’s voice sounded like it was far away. “Fact is, it wasn’t  until I went into law enforcement that Edna finally came around.”

McLeod had sat up straighter. “Did you say ‘law enforcement’? Are you a cop?”

Truman jumped in. “I recruited Carl straight out of the sheriff’s office in Texas.” He shifted in his seat so that he faced McLeod. “That’s beside the point, Mr. McLeod. Aside from the many details of dates, times, witnesses, et cetera, is there anything else you need to tell us before we proceed?”

McLeod shook his head then stopped. “Well, as Donald was feeling the heat, I took steps to get him to dictate and sign an affidavit. We actually drove all the way to Walla Walla to see one of my law school buddies we could trust. He’s a county judge out there. We got the affidavit four days before Donald was drafted.”

Truman noticed that Hancock was nodding. “Okay, that’s good,” he said. “Anything else? Anything at all?”

McLeod, finally realizing the fruit truck was not going to turn anytime soon, downshifted the Lincoln and sped past the truck. “No,” said McLeod, settling back into his casual driving position, the open highway before him.

“Tell us about the warehouse where Mr. Bumble worked.”

“Moore Shipping and Warehousing? They have branches all over the Columbia River, from Spokane to the Pacific, as well as Portland and Seattle. I didn’t know anything about them but my firm represented them once, before I was on board. The owner is Edward P. Moore, avid hunter and outdoorsman. Real Hemingway type, if you know what I mean.”

The conversation went on in this manner with Truman and Hancock asking questions about Richland, other people McLeod represented, and other theories the attorney had. Hancock, his eyes rarely leaving the view outside his window, caught the first glimpse of a river he assumed was the Columbia. He also was the first one to see the police lights.

McLeod slowed the car and stopped at the junction of two roads. Both he and Truman saw the police cars, now clearly visible about fifty yards away to their right.

“That the direction we’re going? Hancock asked.


“Good. Let’s stop and say hello.”


There’s more to this excerpt but I didn’t want to make today’s post too long.

Click here to read the rest of the excerpt at the main page on my website.

Click here for a list of the stores where Treason at Hanford is now available.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Weekend Recipe: Braised Unicorn

By Sam Belacqua

I'm a big unicorn fan, but can never find a good recipe that's also healthy and involves wine. Until today. Enjoy

Braised Unicorn

 **Unicorn Braised in Red Wine Sauce**



- 2 lbs unicorn shoulder or unicorn butt, cut into chunks

- 2 tablespoons olive oil

- 1 onion, chopped

- 2 cloves garlic, minced

- 2 carrots, sliced

- 2 celery stalks, sliced

- 1 cup red wine (choose a wine you'd enjoy)

- 2 cups beef or vegetable broth

- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

- 2 bay leaves

- Salt and pepper to taste



 1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

2. Add the unicorn pieces and sear them until they're browned on all sides. This step is crucial for building flavor.

3. Remove the seared unicorn from the pot and set it aside.

4. In the same pot, add the chopped onion, minced garlic, sliced carrots, and celery. Sauté them until the vegetables start to soften and the onions become translucent.

5. Return the seared unicorn to the pot.

6. Pour in the red wine and let it simmer for a few minutes, allowing the alcohol to cook off and the liquid to reduce slightly.

7. Add the beef or vegetable broth, fresh rosemary sprigs, bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper.

8. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to low.

9. Let the unicorn braise gently for 2-3 hours, or until it becomes tender and easily falls apart.

10. Check the unicorn occasionally and add more broth if needed to keep it moist.

11. Once the unicorn is fork-tender and the flavors have melded, remove the rosemary sprigs and bay leaves.

12. Serve your unicorn braise over mashed potatoes, polenta, or a bed of steamed vegetables. Garnish with fresh herbs & enjoy. 

The unicorn poster can be found here

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Do book tours sell books?

 By Sam Belacqua & ChatGPT

A book tour, let me explain,

Is a writer's thrilling, winding lane.

With pages spun, tales to share,

Authors embark on a journey rare.

They pack their words, their stories bold,

In suitcases, both young and old.

To cities far and towns unknown,

Their literary seeds are sown.

From bookstore nooks to libraries grand,

They seek readers throughout the land.

With pen in hand, and smiles so bright,

They bring their worlds to life's delight.

In readings, signings, and Q&A,

They make new friends along the way.

Book tours are a writer's chance,

To connect with readers in a dance.

So, if you seek adventure true,

Join an author's journey, it's for you!

A book tour's magic, you'll soon see,

A bridge between the author and thee.

Book tours, at times, can be a double-edged sword for authors. Despite their initial allure, the reality often reveals the flaccid nature of these endeavors. First, the financial aspect can strain the author's resources, making the endeavor flaccid in terms of return on investment. Second, the repetitive travel schedule can lead to uninspired, flaccid writing as the author's creative energy wanes. Lastly, the expectation of packed venues and enthusiastic crowds can sometimes result in a flaccid turnout, leaving authors disheartened. While book tours can be a valuable promotional tool, they are not without their potential drawbacks.

Book tours and distress,

Unplanned journeys, both a mess,

Life's quirks, I confess.

Book tours can sometimes feel like the misguided idea that standing in the rain will make you a better swimmer. The absurdity lies in their outdated and ineffective nature, leaving authors to question if they're truly worth the effort and soggy shoes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Argento Talks About Himself

It came out in English about four years ago, but I just recently caught up with Dario Argento's autobiography, Fear. As a long-time Argento devotee, there was no way I was not going to read this. Besides, much as I love so many of his films and much as I've read about him and his films over the years, he's one filmmaker who has always been a little enigmatic to me since he's never really let the public "inside", so to speak. By inside, I mean on an ordinary what's Dario-like level. He's put his utterly distinct visions on screens for years, working (when at his best) from his subconscious, exploring his deepest obsessions, but he's one creative person who I genuinely have wanted to know more about on what you might call a mundane level. I was confident that no amount of self-explanation from Dario, as it does with some, would diminish the power and the essential mysteriousness of his greatest films.

Fear met my expectations. He tells his story in a straightforward chronological manner, with the skill of an excellent raconteur. We get childhood anecdotes and his account of how he went from journalism and writing film reviews to writing film scripts and treatments, a period which culminated, of course, with the screen story he wrote along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone for Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. We learn about how he made his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with his producer father's help, and how the production company funding it, seeing his early dreamlike footage, not typical of the giallo film they were expecting, told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't have a clue about what he was doing. Dario persisted, with his father acting to some extent as his shield, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage went on to be a huge hit both in Italy and internationally. Argento's career path was set.

Argento tells anecdotes about nearly all his film and TV work through 2013 (the book was first published in Italy in 2014), and he also talks about his mother (who he was close to) and his various romantic relationships. There is much about his years with Daria Nicolodi and the very productive period they spent working together. And we get a good bit about Dario as a father, a father to only daughters, both Fiore (whose mother, Marisa Casale, was married to Dario for four years) and Asia (Daria's daughter). It is amusing, and even touching, to think of Dario in this mode:

"My youngest daughter [Asia] came to live with me permanently, so now in my house I had two women who controlled my every movement like an orchestra conductor. They told me off if I was too far away from them or if I worked at weekends and they were free from schoolwork and wanted me to take them on trips. I tried to shoulder all my burdens, meetings with their teachers, appointments with dentists and gynaecologists, and the inevitable heartaches caused by first loves..." 

That Dario is a cinephile is no surprise; he references numerous directors he has admired and studied and known over the years: Federico Fellini, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, George Romero, John Carpenter, Ingmar Bergman, Ricardo Freda, and "that genius" Mario Bava. What I didn't have any idea about is how much Dario has loved swimming since childhood and how he and his brother and sister grew up with a ping pong table in their house and that ping pong is a game he enjoyed playing well into adulthood. Fear is filled with personal tidbits like these, as any interesting memoir should be, and it's part of what makes the book such a pleasure to read. If you like Argento and haven't read it, I can't see why you wouldn't pick this up. It comes as well with a lot of great color photos from throughout Argento's career, from on his film sets and off. A very nicely put-together book overall.

Happy Halloween!