31 December 2016

The Pros and Cons of "Pay to Play"


by John M. Floyd



Yes, I know, it's the last day of the year. And yes, I know everybody's talking about resolutions and the best and worst things that have happened to us over the past twelve months, etc. On the good side, my wife and I welcomed a seventh grandchild into the world in 2016, and I had 20 stories published, and 30 more in a collection; on the bad side, we all lost a number of fine authors and actors and musicians and national leaders, and we had to choose a president from two of the most unpopular candidates ever to run for office. But that's all I'm going to say about the past. I'm treating this as just another day, and this is just another column about writing. I do hope, though, that all of you have a healthy and prosperous 2017. Now, back to the matter at hand . . .



Consider this. You're a fiction writer, you've completed your short story or novel, and you're looking for a publisher. With manuscript safely on your hard drive and/or in your outbasket, you do your marketing research, you pick out a magazine or anthology (if it's a story) or a publisher or agent (if a novel), and you study their submission guidelines. And you discover that they require the payment of a "reading fee."

Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?

Here's the deal. In the case of short stories, with which I'm more familiar, writers are sometimes asked to pay reading fees in order for the publication to consider their work. (A few agents and novel publishers do, as well--they used to be called "evaluation fees"--but they shouldn't do this, and most don't.) Short-story publications that charge fees are usually literary journals that publish both print and online versions. They often say these are "administrative" fees that help defray the costs of the websites, databases, etc., that allow writers to submit manuscripts electronically. Most of the reading fees I've seen in submission guidelines are around three dollars, but some are higher.

The question, of course, is: Should you send stories to markets that charge these fees?

Before giving you my opinion (which if converted to cash wouldn't be enough pennies to jingle in your pocket), let me list some of what I've heard are the pros and cons of this issue.


On the positive side:

- Reading fees provide financial support for the magazines. It's a way that we as writers can say thanks to those editors and help them keep their publications in business.

- Since most markets now allow electronic submissions rather than hardcopy subs, a reading fee--especially if it's in the three-dollar range--probably costs the writer less, per submission, than he/she would've had to pay for the postage, paper, printer ink, and envelopes involved in the snailmail process of the Olden Days.

- Reading fees might help those publications to pay (or pay more) to writers for their stories. Some publications, many of them literary magazines, pay only in "copies."

- Fees can "weed out" writers who aren't serious about their craft. Casual or hobbyist writers probably won't go to the expense of sending in stores if they have to pay to submit them.

Negatives:

- Many of the publications that charge reading fees are those that don't pay the writers anything for their stories. And a lot of writers feel that the idea of writing for free and then paying to get published is unfair and even insulting.

- Some of these fee-charging publications have turned out to be scams. The potential for abuse is certainly there, anytime a publication takes money from the writer.

- Reading fees have the hardest impact on the least-wealthy writers. There are some who feel that fees help to create a world where the wealthiest writers have an advantage over those who are less (financially) fortunate. In an Atlantic article, "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" Joy Lanzendorfer said, "Fees ensure that people who have disposable income will submit the most."

NOTE 1: Lanzendorfer even points out that some literary magazines' tendency to publish only a tiny percent of unsolicited stories while publishing (and paying) mostly established writers has produced an ethical problem: "When a journal takes reading fees from the slush pile and then pays the writers they solicited, they've created an exploitative system where the unknown writers are funding the well-known ones."

NOTE 2: Thankfully, I can't think of any current mystery magazines that require reading fees.


My take on the subject:

Don't pay reading fees. Period. I realize it's expensive to publish a magazine, and certainly to
maintain an online submission system, etc.--but there's something I really don't like about paying someone to consider a story. It's almost the short-story equivalent of vanity-publishing a novel. If what we create is good enough, why must we writers have to pay anyone anything to get into print?

I know that position is a bit extreme. But I even feel the same way about contests. Some writing contests require an entry fee of twenty dollars or more. I can't imagine doing that, when the odds of my placing my story at a respected market are probably much higher than the odds of winning first place in a contest. Besides, contests want original, previously-unpublished stories, and those are prime candidates for the best magazines. Bottom line is, I don't submit stories to publications that require reading fees or to contests that have entry fees. Again, my opinion only.

This has become a point of argument among writers, just like outlining vs. freewheeling, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, literary vs. genre, past-tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, etc. What are your thoughts?

By the way, please send me $3 with every comment.  And . . .



Announcement: Next Saturday in this time-slot Herschel Cozine, an old friend of mine and of SleuthSayers, will post a guest column on the goofiness of the English language. Please tune in for that! (No payment required.)  






30 December 2016

George Alec Effinger

by
O'Neil De Noux

George Alec Effinger was a great New Orleans writer and should be recognized as we recognize William Faulkner, who wrote his first novel while living in Pirate Alley in the French Quarter, and Lilliam Hellman, who was romantically involved with Dasheill Hammett and wrote THE LITTLE FOXES and WATCH ON THE RHINE and Truman Capote , who was born in New Orleans, and even Tennessee Williams who wrote A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE while living on St. Peter Street. George lived quietly on Dumaine Street and other areas of the city for over thirty years and penned some of the best science-fiction short stories and novels of the late 20th Century. He took a young writer (me) and taught me how to write a short story. FYI: I've been able to sell over 300 short stories and win the SHAMUS Award for 'Best Private Eye Short Story' and a DERRINGER Award for 'Best Novelette'.

George Alec Effinger and Harlan Ellison
at the 1990 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival

George was recognized by his peers, winning science-fiction's prestigious NEBULA Award, HUGO Award, and Japan's version of the Hugo, the SEIUN Award. There are no more clever, well written books than George's SF-mystery novels WHEN GRAVITY FAILS, A FIRE IN THE SUN and THE EXILE KISS. He even wrote straight mystery novels, SHADOW MONEY and FELICIA.

An SF-Mystery Novel

Living in constant pain from lingering illnesses most of his life, George died in near poverty. It took nearly 20 years for the New Orleans literary community to even acknowledge a writer of his stature was living and working here and even after, he was labeled a 'New Orleans based writer' because (as most New Orleanians know) if you weren't born or raised in New Orleans you're not a New Orleanian no matter how long you live here. George arrived as an adult. That label bothered him. For someone who laughed so much and brought laughter to his friends, his was not a happy life.

The final insult came from our local newspaper (a paper who neglected him for most of his life) who described him in their obituary as a Cleveland native. The accident of a man's birth does not make him a native of that location. George was from New Orleans, man, like few others.

Effinger's Futuristic French Quarter - another time - another place

Here's another irony. I've read many books by New Orleans writers acclaimed by critics and reviewers with far less feel for our city that Effinger did transposing the French Quarter to a futuristic  Arab world. Take a walk along the dusty, Raymond Chandleresque streets of the dark Budayeen, starting with WHEN GRAVITY FAILS. This a unique mystery series.

Thank you, George. You are remembered and your writing cherished. Inshallah!

29 December 2016

I've Got a Little List – 2016 Edition

by Brian Thornton
"I've got a little list, I've got a little list!"

I don't know about you, but I hate 'em.

End-of-Year lists.

You know what I'm talking about: those completely arbitrary lists, usually skewed toward coverage of celebrities (or, in many cases, what passes for them in this age of social media-driven PR campaigns).

Who was what?

Who did what?

What was "Best"?

What was "Worst"?

Who dated whom?

Who had babies?

Who lost that post-baby weight?

Who bombed?

Who triumphed?

(And that perennial favorite: "Who bounced back in a spectacular fashion after a supposedly career-ending bomb"? Because Americans love a good bounce-back story, with a fallen champion, now humbled, pushing through to success.)

Says Who?
Who broke through?

Who broke up?

Who reconciled?

Whose break-up is guaranteed to screw up the rest of their career?

What music was great?

What music sucked?

Which moves were the best?

Which movies sucked?

And so on.

And so on.
Ummm there isn't one.

And who gets to decide what makes this list and what gets left off? And who picked these people put in charge of making these lists? And just what is the selection process for these would-be tastemakers?

And by the way, who really gives a damn what made which list? I mean, isn't art at its best a deeply personal thing? And in this age of ever expanding choices for how to spend our artistic consumer dollars, shouldn't we care less about the artistic opinions of someone we don't know, whose taste might (as my sainted grandmother was wont to say) "all be in their mouth," and care more about what moves/intrigues/stirs/inspires us?

Which brings me to my own little list for 2016.

Now, I have a young child in the house, and a full time non-writing gig. Plus a life outside of writing. So for me, time is at a premium  these days. I have a finite amount to invest in frivolous activities, and they sure don't, as a rule, include clicking through to clickbait crap like the above.

So, in the interest of providing you, our loyal blog readers, with a year-end list that might actually be worth the time it takes to read, I humbly (no sarcasm) offer the effort below.

BRIAN'S CATCH-ALL YEAR-END LIST:

Best New Music:

Anything I was able to listen to all the way through, and having finished, wanted to listen to it more than once.

Best New Movies:

Anything I was able to watch all the way through either because it held my interest or because I didn't get called away by either my son or my schedule. More likely some combination of all of the above.

Best New Books of 2016:

Any of the ones I finished. And I started WAAAAAAAAAY more than I finished.

Best New TV Series of 2016:

"Stranger Things." (See what I did there?)

I guess my point is that this sort of thing is sooooo completely subjective, and nowadays, more than ever, it seems as if we have would-be tastemakers coming out of the woodwork to tell us what is and is not good, and why we should either embrace or ignore it, and to that I say, "Phooey!"

Look, I've written seven books, co-written a couple of others, and acted as collector/editor of two book-length anthologies (one non-fiction, the other fiction.). All but two of these have gotten published. One of those was my first (mistake) novel and the other was one the publisher requested, and got, only to decide they couldn't sell it because of in-house competition from one of the big bookstore chains. (I found it really tough to be cut up about that one. I didn't want to write that particular book anyway, and so I asked for way more money than they usually paid for a project of this time, and they paid up. So win-win.)

As far as I'm concerned, in the entertainment business, if you can do what you love and get paid for it, you've already won the most important prize.

So can you imagine what kind of thoughts you'll get from me during award season (the Oscars are only a couple of months away!)?

Just some food for thought in this, my final post of 2016.

Happy New Year, and see you in January!


28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE

David Edgerley Gates


I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.


I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.


Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.


It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.


Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.


I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.


Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.



27 December 2016

The Best Protagonists Resolve to Take Action

by Barb Goffman

As we head into the new year, thoughts often turn to making resolutions. To drink more water maybe. (I often pick that one.) To exercise more. (I don't often pick that one.) Maybe to read more books. (That's a good one!)

Resolutions ultimately are about taking control over your life, improving things by effecting change, not waiting for someone else to do it for you. That make-it-happen attitude is great for real life. And it's also great for mystery protagonists. It's much more
interesting to read about a damsel who saves herself rather than waiting for the knight on his horse. In the same vein, it's more gripping to read about an accused murderer who sets out to find the real killer rather than watching him waiting and worrying, hoping the cops and prosecutors--or even a jury--realize they've blamed the wrong guy.

Both my short stories published this year have characters who make things happen, for better or worse. In "Stepmonster," a woman blames her stepmother for her father's death, so she sets out to avenge him. In "The Best Laid Plans," the lifetime achievement honoree (LAH) of a mystery convention is dissed publicly by the convention's guest of honor (GOH) just weeks before the event begins. The LAH responds by saying nothing publicly, trying to appear the better person. But she also plans some non-lethal dirty tricks so that the GOH suffers during the convention. Or so she hopes.

The protagonists in both stories might not be reacting in an emotionally healthy manner to their situations, but that's okay. In fact, it's better than okay. It's great. By resolving to get revenge, they set in motion a stream of events that are, I hope, page-turning. (You can find out for yourself. Both stories are available on my website for your reading pleasure. Head over to www.barbgoffman.com and click on each story title from the links on the home page.)

Many other crime stories were published this year with protagonists who take charge. Here are a few from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (in which "Stepmonster" appeared):

  • In "Cabin Fever" by Timothy Bentler-Jungr, a young woman trapped by a blizzard with her abusive boyfriend takes desperate action.
  • In "Stormy, With a Chance of Murder" by Alan Orloff, a weatherman takes advantage of a bad rainstorm to try to win his ex-girlfriend back.
  • In "The Last Caving Trip" by Donna Andrews, a reluctant caver seeks to rid himself of a frenemy.
  •  In "The Gardener" by Kim Kash, when a lawn-maintenance man mars her garden oasis repeatedly, an avid gardener strikes back.
  •  In "Parallel Play" by our own Art Taylor, a mother in a deadly situation learns how far she'll go for her child.
The key in all the stories is the protagonist isn't passive. She takes action. And it's those actions from which the story unfolds. Have you read any great short stories this year with protagonists who make things happen? I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments.

In the meanwhile, get busy on those new year's resolutions. I hope one of them involves reading.

26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles

by Steve Liskow

Titles matter. What would have become of the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic if he'd called it "The Tale of the Green Monkey-like Creature Who Decided to Be Mean and Steal Presents from a Small Village"? Obviously, we'll never know, but is there anyone under the age of five who hasn't seen or read How The Grinch Stole Christmas?

I'm still amazed that one of the major plays of the 1960s, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, ever reached the stage, mostly because the title was too long to fit on theater marquees. Most people can't give you the full title, but theater groupies call it Marat/Sade, which does fit on most posters. Not that anyone performs the play anymore.

So, what is a good title and how do you come up with it?

A good title catches the reader's eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, crimson. The early Ellery Queen mysteries featured a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery and so on. Sue Grafton's alphabet titles are approaching "Z" and Janet Evanovich is up to number twenty-three. A letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number tells us Stephanie Plum is back.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable followed by "Time." Drive Time, Face Time, etc. Lynne Heitman's books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing. Karin Slaughter often uses one-word titles that suggest violence: Fractured, Criminal, Fallen, Broken, Undone.

Early on, my cover designer told me short is better, not just because it's punchier, but because it's easier to fit the words around other artwork.

Simple, huh?

But what if you don't have a series yet? OK, what's a major event or object in your story? Use it. That's how we got Rear Window, Mystic River and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O'Connell does in Mallory's Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher's Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up in Heidi's Room and Get Shorty. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets Oedipus the King, Electra), and Shakespeare named many of his plays after characters (extra credit question: name all twenty-seven of them).

If you don't want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have looked to the Bible or mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Tree of Smoke and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), Thackery's Vanity Fair (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost's "Out, Out--," Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tape into children's rhymes: All The King's Men, All Through the House, Along Came a Spider...

Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). The late Ed Gorman used oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie,
and Sandra Scoppetone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey. Evan Lewis pays homage to earlier mystery writers with a play on Dashiell Hammett: "The Continental Opposite."

My wife hated the original title of my first novel, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and we agreed on Who Wrote the Book of Death? The play on the song title suggests violence and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the first title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.

What was that title? Ghost Writers in the Sky.

When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I began a still-growing list of song titles as starting points. Most of my stories use songs that suggest the story line, including "Running On Empty," about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving, and "Stranglehold," about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string. The first rock and roll mystery became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the 70s, and the PI eventually became Chris "Woody" Guthrie.

The sequel was going to be Hot Rod Lincoln. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in Detroit, where the story took place, so I thought it was perfect. But the car thief in question became a minor character in the revisions and my cover designer and I struggled for the flip side. We tried most of the other car songs we could think of: Spring Little Cobra, Little GTO, Little Red Corvette (Why are they always little?) and they just got worse and worse. Pink Cadillac? Neh. My designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai, which we loved even though we knew it was only a place-holder.

At the last minute, my wife--the brains of the outfit if you haven't guessed already--came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz. The caper involves a car thief, a stolen Mercedes, an embezzled fortune, and a pregnant stripper, so the title captures everything we needed. As the Three Stooges would say, Poifect!
My genius cover designer put up with a nine-word title because he could arrange the short words around the strong graphic he'd already chosen.

Remember, you can't copyright a title, so you could call your book David Copperfield or The Great Gatsby if you wanted to--although I wouldn't recommend it. Ditto Gotterdammerung. And you can uses a working title while you hammer out your first draft and change it when you discover what the story is really about. Most of my works are out there in at least their second title, and some their third or fourth. My most recent novel, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here (a line from Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"), may be the only book that kept the same title from the very beginning.

Who knows? Maybe I'm finally learning how to do it.

Now, how do YOU pick your titles?

25 December 2016

Christmas Past & Present

by R.T. Lawton


Since this is Christmas Day and many of you will be busy with friends and family, I will merely use today's blog to share some Christmas cards with you. The following are custom made Christmas cards based on some of my short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for certain years, one card a year for fifteen years. These cards are created by a friend of mine (Mike) with some great artistic talent, but then Mike can also fly a Huey over, under or around things while using a delicate touch on the stick. Each card is then mailed to Linda Landrigan in AHMM's office in Manhattan during the month of December for that year as part of my marketing plan. Hopefully, these cards will keep me in the editor's mind, remind her that she published at least one of my stories that year and then prompt her to think kindly of me when she reads my next story in her slush pile.

So, here's the artwork part of the card for this year. It's based on the escape of The Little Nogai Boy and The Armenian from the Chechen leader's mountain fortress in "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue. Santa doesn't appear in the story, just in the card to give it a seasonal flavor. Part of the mystery in the story was where the rope came from for the escape.




























This one is the artwork from last year's card featuring "Ground Hog Day" from the Holiday Burglars in AHMM May 2015 issue in which Yarnell and Beaumont tunnel into the mansion of a crime lord to steal a painting. Naturally, nothing goes the way they planned.
































Here's one from "False Keys" in my 1660's Paris Underworld series (AHMM December 2006 issue) involving a young orphan who survives as an incompetent pickpocket in a community of criminals.










And, here's "Across the Salween" (AHMM November 2013 issue), from my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia in a time of opium warlords and mule convoys with armed guards to protect them from rival warlords. The Chinese on the card is supposed to say Merry Christmas, but then I neither speak nor write Mandarin, Cantonese nor Simplified Chinese.


Well, hopefully Santa will find you and yours, wherever you happen to be during these special holidays.

In any case, regardless of your religion or personal feelings for this winter time period, I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Joyuex Noel or whatever else you choose to celebrate at this time.

Have a good one !!!

24 December 2016

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All

Melodie’ll be right with ya. Christmas Eve and there I am at the shop and whadya know. In drops Santa. Seems in Brooklyn, somebody stole the hubcaps off his sleigh, knowhatimean? So just happened to have a set in stock, came in fresh this afternoon, a perfect match, indistinguishable from the originals, if you get my drift. Vinnie slapped them on while Solly helped cinch down the loot, er, gifts in the back. Solly didn’t do so good ’cause when Santa lifted off, whadya know… there’s a few items what fell off the back of the sleigh.

We was real heartbroken about that, especially when Gina and Velma walked in and gave us hell. Don’t mess with Velma. My coglioni still hurts from last year when I told her, “Baby, I got yer yule log right here.”

Gina was a little mollified when Santa sorta dropped his December issue of Ellery Queen and there was a Steve Steinbock report all about her. Well, not exactly her, but her mouthpiece. Ya got to add the word ‘mouth’ to that or she gets all unaccountably insulted. Anyways, this is what the review gotta say:
Melodie Campbell, The Goddaughter Caper, Raven Books, $9.95. Gina Gallo tries to steer clear of her family's questionable business dealings. But when she discovers the body of a local Peeping Tom in the alley behind her shop, fate forces her hand. She and various cousins find themselves in a topsy-turvy mess of missing bodies, a surplus of coffins, and geriatric misbehavior. Campbell's writing is always funny. The Goddaughter series, of which this slender novella is the fourth volume, is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads imprint, making it a fast, fun read.
That put her in a lot better mood and she didn’t dislocate no more body parts. She thinks you might enjoy it too, maybe find one in your stocking, capisci?

— Pietro ‘the Limp’ Peyronie (as dictated to Velma)

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl… only not so bad today)

Last year, I had the honour of being guest speaker at the Hamilton Literacy Council AGM.  This wonderful organization provides one on one tutoring to adults in Hamilton who don't know how to read.  The teachers are marvelous.  They are mostly volunteers.

The theme for the AGM was all about wishes.  Dream Big.  That sort of thing.  And so the staff came up with a brilliant idea for centrepieces for the AGM.  Each table had a crystal globe in the centre of it, like a snow globe.  Each globe had a different note inserted into the middle.  And on the note was the dream of one of the students from the literacy council.

I picked up the globe on my table. The note inside it read:

"I want to work in a store someday."

I felt my throat constrict.  My eyes started to tear.

Many of us work in stores when we are in high school or college.  It is our 'starter job' - the one we can't wait to leave after graduation from school to get the better job for which we trained.  I remember working at a mega grocery store.  Eight hours on my feet, unrelenting noise, and lots of lifting.  I was so grateful to leave it.

I thought about our student who wrote that note.  What she wanted most in the world was to become literate so she could work in a store.

Because she couldn't work there now.  She couldn't read labels.  She couldn't read sales slips.  Most stores have computers.  She couldn't read the text on the computer screen.

She couldn't even fill in the application form to work there.

Literacy has always been a cause dear to my heart.  I write a series of crime books for adult literacy students who are reaching the advanced certificate stage.  I donate all the proceeds from my book launches to the literacy council.  But at the AGM, this student opened my eyes and reached my heart.

In our society, we expect everyone to be able to read.  Jobs today require it.

All my life, I have imagined how sad it would be to be unable to read a book.  Imagine how it would feel to be unable to fill out a job application.

My fervent wish this Christmas is the gift of literacy for everyone.  May everyone in my town, Hamilton, and my country, Canada, be able to read.  May everyone in the world have the chance to learn, and may teachers and tutors everywhere continue to make it happen.

Merry Christmas to all.

23 December 2016

Keeping Resolutions (at least the reading one)

By Art Taylor

Back in January at Criminal Minds, another group blog I've been a part of, I talked about the importance of New Year's resolutions and listed my own for 2016. As the year progressed, I've been better about some of those resolutions than about others: we fell down, for example, on the plans for our four-year-old son to plan and cook meals once every couple of weeks, though he does still enjoy helping from time to time (reminder: don't try to make resolutions for others), and the cats and I still have a testy relationship sometimes (because, you know, cats). But one resolution I did stick with was reading War and Peace—all 365 chapters, one chapter a day.

I've long been a fan of Anna Karenina—one of my favorite novels, in fact, and I've read the whole thing three times—but War and Peace had always seemed daunting. The first time I tried to read it, several years ago, I made some brief headway then lost momentum as other things got in the way. Eventually, I just moved it back to its place on the shelf. But when I discovered—a fluke—the number of chapters in the book... well, suddenly a plan presented itself. Bird by bird, as they say—or in this case, chapter by chapter. And since the chapters are so short (most of them), it couldn't take any more than a few minutes a day.

As it turns out, that's exactly what it took—not much more, even with the occasional longer chapter. I had both a hard copy of the book on my nightstand and then an e-book version, both on my Kindle and on my phone, which basically meant that I could fit in the reading whenever it was convenient: sneaking in a chapter first thing in the morning before the day got started or checking off that day's chapter late night before turning in; reading a chapter on my phone while I was waiting somewhere (including long, long stoplights); even reading an occasional chapter aloud to our four-year-old son when he was having trouble getting to sleep—and to his credit, he began to follow the characters and plot, asking at times for more stories about "that girl that everyone likes." (He did eventually learn that her name is Natasha, and he was as charmed by her as everyone else, it seems).

My point here may seem to be about time management—breaking down big projects into bite-sized pieces—but there was another lesson here. Many times when I'm reading a book, I push through it at a much stronger pace: some novel I'm reading for class, for example, or a book I need to review, deadline-driven in both instances. And even with the books I read for pleasure, I often find myself eager to finish them for one reason or another: enjoying the plot and rushing to find out what happens next; wanting to move on to other books calling to me (always a long TBR list); or just feeling like it's been hanging around the nightstand too long, and I simply need to get it done.

But my purposeful pacing with War and Peace forced me into a different way of reading. It's not just that I only had to complete one chapter a day; it's that I completed only one chapter a day—never deliberately moving ahead to the next, even if I suddenly had extra time or some greater interest in what lie ahead on the next page. (It seems, however, that I wasn't diligent enough in keeping track of my pace at times, since I've finished the book a week early—so likely I read a chapter in the morning and then another at night some days, forgetting to mark it off on my to-do list.)

In any case, reading at that  pace meant that I was immersed in War and Peace for longer than I've ever spent with a book. I lived with it—and in it—for nearly a full year.

I'm not certain that I can fully express how this changed my experience of it, though I did feel that I got to know the characters in a different way (so many of them in this case!) and that I inhabited the scope of the novel more fully by letting it expand in time, so to speak, in the time in which I dwelled inside of it. And the reading did become habit—to the point that I'm already feeling the absence of the book in my life, something missing now.

...which leads me to wanting to repeat the experiment with some other big book on my want-to-read list: Bleak House is tops there probably, and East of Eden too, one of my wife's favorites and one she has long wanted me to read. Or then, maybe, a big group of short stories read in deliberate progression: all of Chekhov perhaps or all the Father Brown mysteries or....

I'm just musing over possibilities now, of course—but also curious if others have every tried such a thing, to live with/inside a book for such a prolonged period of time, and which book, and what you thought of the experience. Looking forward to hearing your own stories in the comments section!

A HOLIDAY BONUS

From one extreme to another, here's a much shorter bit of fiction as a free gift to readers of the blog: my story "Parallel Play" from the recent anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. It's not hardly a seasonal story (no tinsel, no gifts, no glad tidings, little gladness at all), but it might be just the thing for some cold, dark winter night ahead—since it's definitely one of the darker stories I've ever written, and one of the coldest too maybe. I've posted it on my own website here, and I hope you all might enjoy!

22 December 2016

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain

by Eve Fisher

As I happened to mention last year ("Ghoulies and Ghosties"), ghost stories were one of the key features of a Victorian Christmas.  And Dickens wrote more than one of them for the holidays:

One thing "The Haunted Man" shows is how obsessed Dickens was with memory, and his analysis of how memory fits in/creates who we are.  From the opening scene, where he describes a portrait with the motto, "LORD, KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN", to the very last moment, it is a novella about memory.  It has what is perhaps the first experiment in memory erasure in literature, which makes it a forerunner of Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".  Although in this case, it isn't love that makes our self-induced amnesiac go for the darkness.  Mr. Redlaw, brilliant professor of chemistry, comes back from his overflowing lecture halls to his lonely abode and sits and broods among his beakers about the endless, unbearable wrongs that have been done to him.  Depressive, full of resentments, letting his mind feed and fester on them like rats in the walls, Mr. Redlaw is ripe to the point of rotten for any promise to get his own back. And what comes, well - here's Dickens:

Christmas Eve!  (No chains clanking, no wailing in the hallways - but on the wall, where Milly Swidger (his landlady) put it), "the healthy holly withered on the wall, and dropped—dead branches."

Image result for the haunted man dickensThen, "As the gloom and shadow thickened behind him, in that place where it had been gathering so darkly, it took, by slow degrees,—or out of it there came, by some unreal, unsubstantial process—not to be traced by any human sense,—an awful likeness of himself!"
[This Spectre, this Phantom, listens to Redlaw's litany of woe, and, finally, offers him a solution]:
“Hear what I offer!  Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” Redlaw repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre.  “Say!  Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand.  “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others.  What shall I lose, if I assent to this?  What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections.  Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.  But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.  “Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment!  I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me.  If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others.  But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them?  If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly.  “I would forget it if I could!  Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation?  All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble.  My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice.  Yes, I close the bargain.  Yes!  I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is!”
It is.  And take this with you, man whom I here renounce!  The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will.  Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach.  Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it.  Go!  Be its benefactor!  Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.  Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you.  Go!  Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly

In case you can't guess, this does not end well.  Mr. Redlaw finds that, as he goes out into the world, he does indeed have the power to transmit the power of complete oblivion of all memories of wrong, hurt, sorrow, trouble of any kind:  and the results are horrific.  
He goes to the deathbed of Milly's brother-in-law, a man dying of alcoholism and vice, who calls to his father (old Mr. Swidger, Milly's father-in-law) “Father!  I am dying, I know.  I am so far gone, that I can hardly speak, even of what my mind most runs on.  Is there any hope for me beyond this bed?” 
But just then Redlaw touches him, just to help...  With the result that the man closes his eyes; puts his hands over his face, and then emerges, and shouts out, scowling, “Why, d-n you!  what have you been doing to me here!  I have lived bold, and I mean to die bold.  To the Devil with you!”  And dies, unrepentant, unreconciled, unloving and unloved...
And it spreads - touching the dying/dead man makes old Mr. Swidger and Milly's husband, William Swidger quarrel over the deathbed as to which of them is the more selfish, old Swidger for still being alive or young Swidger for not giving him enough, i.e., everything.

And it spreads - to everyone Redlaw touches, even with his shadow, all lose all sense of gratitude, goodness, charity, hope...  until finally even Redlaw knows that he is an infection, and he is horrified by himself.  He flees back to his lonely room, withdrawn from everyone - from the Swidgers, from a poor student he was meant to help, from Milly...  But he can't escape himself, and the worst is, perhaps, when he realizes that he destroyed all the good within himself when he sent his memory away with the Phantom. 
Redlaw and the BoyThe only one he cannot hurt is a homeless orphan off the streets who Milly Swidger took in:  "A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s.  A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life.  Bright eyes, but not youthful.  Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy,—ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them.  A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast."  
This boy never changes.  Hard, starving, snatching, growling, snapping from beginning to end. Redlaw's touch makes no difference to this feral beast:  and, when the Phantom returns, Redlaw begs to know why.  
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!” 
Only one creature can touch the boy; only one creature can save the people whom Redlaw has damaged and destroyed; only one creature can (perhaps) heal Redlaw himself:  Milly Swidger.  Milly, the angel in the house, whose only child died immediately after birth, who has the answer that Redlaw has never even thought of as to why humans need the memory of trial and trouble:  
Read "The Haunted Man" and find out what that answer is.   
‘LORD!  KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN!’ 

21 December 2016

The Superhero Slept Late

by Robert Lopresti

I usually write these things weeks in advance.  Had one all set up, but I'm kicking it aside because of something that happened today (Tuesday).

7:30 AM.  Still dark out.  I was rushing around getting ready to go to work, when the doorbell rang.

It seldom does, and at that hour of the morning?  Almost unheard of.

I opened the door.  There was a girl, or young woman.  Middle or late teens.  I had never seen her before.

The term is flat affect; I looked it up.  No expression.  Monotone voice.  Symptomatic of schizophrenia, depression, autism, or brain injury. 

Not that I'm a diagnostician, of course.

"I was wondering," she said, "if you could give me a ride to Ferndale."  Ferndale is fifteen miles away.

"No," I said.

"Okay.  Thanks."  And she walked away.

I shut the door and immediately started second-guessing myself.  What should I have done?  What would  I have done if I was more awake and not rushed?

Drive her to Ferndale?  Not  a chance.

Invite her in?  I don't think so.

Ask her what was going on? (What was that lost soul doing, walking up or down my hilly suburban street in the dark on a chilly morning at, did I mention, 7:30?)

"The Mask" by W. H. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfgangfoto/3206913459
Offered her something to eat?  Offered to contact the social workers (which at that time of day, would have meant calling the cops)?

I realized, eventually, I should have offered to give her two bucks, which would have paid for a bus to Ferndale.  Maybe that's what she was hinting at/hoping for.  If she had asked for busfare I like to think that I would have  shelled it out, even in my semi-sleepy condition.

But by then she was gone.

I read crime.  I write crime.  My brain cranked out a dozen plots to explain the event, some with her as victim, some as villain.  I'll never know what really happened.

But I'll tell you this.  I think we all wonder from time to time how we would react in an emergency.  I seem to have gotten an answer, and it's not one I'm proud of.  This is, after all, the season to err on the side of trusting people.

Maybe I could have been a little more up-to-the-occasion if I had been more awake.  Maybe not.

But merry and happy to you and yours.





20 December 2016

Remembering Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in Books and Movies

by Paul D. Marks

When Raymond Chandler talked about a man neither tarnished nor afraid navigating the mean streets, I have no doubt he was talking about that man walking the streets of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood.

For my first SleuthSayers post on February 24, 2015, I wrote a column called Adventures in La La Land (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html), where I talked about Los Angeles, how it influences my writing and memories of growing up here. One area that I didn’t mention then was Bunker Hill. That is Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast.

And since my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill appears in the December, 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (though I think it’s only available on newsstands until today, the 20th) I thought I’d take this opportunity to rectify that, especially as Bunker Hill has influenced both that story and my writing in general.



If you’ve been to the Music Center in downtown L.A. you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. If you’re into film noir, you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Numerous film noirs—as well as movies in other genres—were shot there: Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, Joseph Losey’s M, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, The Glenn Miller Story and Angel’s Flight, an interesting, gritty, ultra low-budget noir. And L.A.’s Bunker Hill has stood in for many other cities as well.

Bunker Hill in transition
Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After WWI the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. The wealthy.

By the time Raymond Chandler, who had lived there a couple of different times in his life, was writing about it he was calling it “shabby town”. In The High Window (1942), he said:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
―Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Bunker Hill is also where John Fante (and his character Arturo Bandini) lived when he first moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The struggling writer wrote about that experience:

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight photo by Rarmin
And Bunker Hill is where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was. As a kid, I got to ride the original Angels Flight, which was a thrill then and still is in memory. I guess Bandini preferred to walk alongside it instead of riding in the little cars:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia. Scared of high places too, and of blood, and of earthquakes; otherwise, quite fearless, excepting death, except the fear I’ll scream in a crowd, except the fear of appendicitis, except the fear of heart trouble, even that, sitting in his room holding the clock and pressing his jugular vein, counting out his heartbeats, listening to the weird purr and whirr of his stomach. Otherwise, quite fearless.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put in, but it closed not too long after it opened. So it might have been new, definitely not improved. And it makes me think of the old saw about how they don’t make ’em like they used to. I talk more about it in the Adventures in La La Land post and in Ghosts of Bunker Hill:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


***

Fante also described Bunker Hill like this:

The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

It was a tough life in the tough part of a tough city for the young writer and his alter ego:

Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the secondhand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. an old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

In the late 1950s and 60’s, the Powers That Be decided they wanted to get rid of the “blight” and modernize downtown. To that end, they began a massive redevelopment of the area, including leveling or flattening some of the hills, changing street configurations, removing and demolishing houses and other buildings. So by the late 1960s/early ’70s it was all torn down and redeveloped and progress was achieved.

In Ask the Dust, Fante said, “I crossed Hill Street and breathed easier when I entered Pershing Square. No tall buildings in the square.”

Bunker Hill today, photo by Lan56
Today’s Bunker Hill would be unrecognizable to Bandini. But maybe not completely to Fante, who lived till 1983, though he was dealing with serious complications from diabetes so he may not have seen what it became. As the narrator in Ghosts of Bunker Hill says,

Bandini had said there were no tall buildings in the Square. He should see it today. Steel and glass spikes sprout from every available space. And when nothing’s available the wrecking ball makes a new empty lot. Much of the park greens have been cemented over, with little pinpricks of green here and there, like a garnish on the side of your plate.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

***

I may have a somewhat romanticized view of Bunker Hill. We do tend to romanticize the past, don’t we? I’m sure it was a hardscrabble and even dangerous life for the people who lived there after the swells moved out and it became “shabby town”. But with its gingerbread elegance and the “secret passages” of Clay Street (which no longer exists), with the winding roads going up and down and the hills, I have to say that I love the old Bunker Hill. And I’m glad so much of it is preserved in movies and writing.

Newel Post "borrowed" from Bunker Hill
I also feel very lucky that I could explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even "borrowed" the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past, it’s a prized possession.

Los Angeles isn’t known for venerating and preserving its past. Everything here is new or wants to be. People come here to start over and every few years the city tries for a rebirth. But parts of Bunker Hill were preserved. Some of the old Victorian houses were moved to Carroll Avenue near the Echo Park section of L.A.. The characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill live in a restored Victorian on Carroll Avenue and appreciate what they have:

Every time I walked those creaky wooden floors, I felt the presence of the past. The people who’d lived there. Not ghosts, but history, something Los Angeles often doesn’t appreciate. Carroll Avenue was close to downtown, where I worked. But the whole short street looked like something out of early 1900s L.A. I loved everything about it. 
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

Haskins house on Carroll Avenue, Photo by Laëtitia Zysberg

So I hope you’ll give Ghosts of Bunker Hill a shot and if you like it the sequel, Bunker Hill Blues, will be in a future issue of EQMM.

###

19 December 2016

Basketball

by Jan Grape

Yes, I know football season isn't completely over but round ball has begun. Way back in the dark ages when I was in high school, girl's basketball was rather boring. Pardon me while I loosen my corset. We could only play half the court. In other words there were three teammates on one half of the court and we were guards. We had to guard the forwards of the opposing team. When we got the ball we could dribble the ball to the center line that divided the court and pass the ball to our forwards who could then work the ball down to take a shot. I guess they were afraid we'd have a sudden case of the vapors and swoon and fall to the floor and have to be revived before the game could continue. But in all honesty beginning in the 1890s when women started playing BB, they had to wear long skirts, Only their heads, feet and hands could show. I'm assuming they had to wear corsets and petticoats so guess the idea of swooning was not actually a bad idea. I'm not sure when girl's were allowed to play five man, full court basketball. Everything I found on google mentioned 1971 but I know that wasn't correct in Texas. Seems like it might have been late fifties. One of my younger sisters played all through high school in the mid to late 60s and played by boy's rules.

My oldest son, Phil Lee (not my oldest child) played basketball in Junior high. His son, (who was Phil's oldest child) Jarred born in '89 played in junior high and his daughter, Jackie was born in '93 also played in junior high. Think they both started in Little League Basketball leagues before Junior High. Jackie was a very good player and had an excellent coach early on. She wasn't big enough to play high school or college ball as they wanted girl's who were close to six foot tall. But Jackie wanted and hoped to coach basketball when she graduated from College.

Jackie graduated from Texas State University in December of 2015, a short year ago. She got married in January of 2016 and her first teaching coaching dreams came true this past September, She's the Girl's Freshman Coach at Hays High School in Buda, Texas. Buda is a bedroom community just a few miles south of Austin, TX.

Jackie's Freshman Girls team played in a tournament, this past Saturday, Dec 11th at Bowie High School in Austin. I was excited to be able to attend and watch my granddaughter coaching girl's basketball. Talk about being thrilled. I had watched my son play, both grandchildren Jarred and Jackie play and now getting to watch my granddaughter coach was awesome.

Not only did her girls play. they won the Freshman Girls tournament. And it wasn't easy either. They played their first game at 1:30pm. If they won, then they would play the second game at 4 and if they won the 2nd they would play the third game at 6:30. The idea being you keep playing if you win. And the Hays Freshmen Girls won all three games.

Jackie's Mom, Dad and Maternal Grandmother came from Fort Worth to watch. My youngest son, Roger Grape, and youngest grandson, Lucas Grape-Kreuger who both live in Austin attended. So with myself, the Paternal Grandmother, in attendance, the coach had almost as many fans as the team did to root and clap for them.

This was just an awesome experience for me and I wanted to share it with all of you.

Merry and Happy to each and everyone of you. May your holidays and the New Year be the Best Ever.

18 December 2016

The Tattletale Doll and other Tales

by Leigh Lundin

IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to the interconnection and integration of electro-mechanical devices (‘things’). It’s often thought of in the context of home automation (heating and air conditioning, lighting, door locks, entertainment, security, and even the promise of a digital butler), but the growing IoT can be used in numerous and yet unimagined ways.
The robots are coming and they can’t be stopped. At first blush, you won’t recognize them. They don’t possess arms, legs, or even wheels. They don’t have scary or friendly faces– they don’t have faces at all.

To be sure, development of what we think of as robots is proceeding apace. Bipedal ’bots can run, jump, gently lift an egg or crush a steel can. A few years ago, the US Army sponsored deployment of a creepy-looking headless, mechanical pack mule.

The devices I’m talking about may be called voice agents or digital assistants. Physically, they may more closely resembles a carafe, a thermos bottle, or a cigar box. Compared to R2D2, they have more in common with the cutsie robotic dogs and dolls seen in toy stores. They’re verbal assistants.

The Next Voice You Hear…

Artificial intelligence is still in the Model T stage, but it’s come a long way since the famous Eliza program that carried on a conversation of sorts. The new devices not merely entertain, they can help with small things. Not many things yet– they have limitations and a long way to go, but they can control your lights, thermostat, entertainment center, and home security. They can wake you up and put you to sleep.

Most can read you the news, make notes, look up recipes, set timers and answer simple questions. “How many teaspoons in a cup? How many grams is that? Halve that recipe. Repeat. What should I do for heartburn?”

Each plays games and tells goofy jokes. They can play music through your stereo or their own surprisingly decent speakers. Ask, and they can tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Davis, or TV’s the Jeffersons. If you zero in on a musician, ask the gadget to play their music. Some of these devices remember the context of the previous question.

Keep an ear out for occasional jokes, little ‘Easter eggs’, so to speak. For example, ask Google Home who shot the sheriff, and she replies, “Bob Marley, but he didn’t shoot the deputy, if that makes a difference.”

The current players are big names you already know: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. I’ve been living with one of these gadgets for the past couple of months. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but that day will soon arrive. One is on my shopping list for friends.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, aka Alexa

Amazon Labs market the Echo, its little sister, the Tap, and the family baby, the Dot, all with personalities known as ‘Alexa’ but can also be called ‘Amazon’. Prices run $140 for the Echo, $90 for the Tap, and $40 for the Dot.

The company claims a skill set of 3000-some tasks, including reading audiobooks to you. Unlike the competition, it can order items from Amazon, (“Alexa, quick, order toilet paper, same-day service.”)
  • You can’t miss a question posed by an Amazon customer: “I have 2 children, one named Alexa and the other named Amazon. Will this present any problems?” The 100+ answers are a riot.

Apple Home Kit
Apple Home Kit, aka Siri

Siri can be found on the iPhone, the iPad, the latest Sierra MacOS 10.12.x, and now aboard the Apple Home Kit. Unlike its main competitors, Apple doesn’t offer a stand-alone device, which can be regarded as both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s nice to have one or more go-to spots without pulling out your phone. But it's convenient if you’re in your basement and want to adjust the thermostat without running upstairs: simply tell your iPhone or Android to switch on the furnace and adjust the temperature. Your kids arriving home can turn on the lights and unlock the door with their phone.

With an iPad, Siri controls devices like lighting, iTunes music, and Apple TV. Apple is rumored to have a ‘smart dock’ in the works, so they may make it possible to have both a central location and the ability to carry around the controller. Apple also has the largest ‘ecosystem’ and best integration, although that may change rapidly as Google and Microsoft gear up.

Google Home
Google Home Assistant, aka Hey Google

Unlike the competition, the $130 Google Home doesn’t have a catchy wake-up name like Siri or Alexa, but it features a plucky female personality. Ask her to play trivia, and she becomes downright excited, bouncing off the walls of her tiny Genie bottle.

Google Home connects with Google Chromecast and can entertain you with Netflix, play internet radio and music, flash family photos on the screen, or show you a movie without your leaving your chair. One advantage is that home owners can place more than one device in the house, so a person can carry on conversations room-to-room.

Considering its massive search engine, Google would seem to have advantages over the competition, but it lags in areas, even though it has been buying up controls companies like Nest and investing in IoT research for home automation. One of the apparent issues is that Google was slow to reach out to third-party developers, so its non-home-grown actions number in the dozens compared to Apple and Amazon’s hundreds of tasks. Expect that to change sooner than later.

Microsoft Cortana
Microsoft Home Media Center Voice Assistant, aka Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, has received good reviews for understanding human language. However, with the fewest connectable devices, Microsoft is playing catch-up in the smart-home market.

The Redmond company has teamed up with Insteon, a player in the IoT scene. At present, the companies expect users to control their home automation with Windows computers, tablets, or Windows Phones, which seems to severely limit the market. However, Microsoft has brought Cortana and their search engine Bing to the iPhone and Android platforms, so they may intend future synergy there.

I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t leveraged their popular X-Box into a home control system, but the company may be way ahead of me. Considering the source of the name Cortana, they should have a natural fit…

Apple and Amazon users seem happy with the Siri and Alexa names. Fans of other platforms appear less pleased with ‘Hey Google’, and downright hostile to the name Cortana. See, the name comes from the robotic AI in the first-person-shooter game, Halo. The game is fun, but bloody and violent, so many consider the awkward name inappropriate in a family setting… not that anyone expects their house to burst forth with an alien invasion.

The Others

Other companies are known for components or infrastructure in the home automation and IoT markets, including the venerable X-10, iHome, and a broad range of firms. Lack of cooperation among the major players may be offset by the interchangeability brought by the smaller team players.

A sampling of participants include mControl, HomeSeer, SmartThings, JDS Technologies, Vivint, and Iris. Honeywell, Nest, and others make thermostats and HVAC controls. Z-Wave and Zigbee are known for general controls and home IoT networking.

Concerns

All of us should be concerned these devices constantly listen. Supposedly they ignore anything until their name is called, “Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa.” But the question arises about any listening post in your own home: How difficult would it be to imbed a listening device within your listening device? What if the police, or your opponent’s political party, or China where these things are made, or Mother Russia wants to listen in? But wait… a military contractor already does… listen in, that is, to your children.

Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to earn the trust of their customers. Thus far their reputations appear to be well deserved, but how difficult is it to hack any of these devices? Moreover, unless you tell them not to, all these companies upload dialogue to the cloud for voice analysis. The purposes don’t appear nefarious– yet. If you disable cloud processing, voice recognition will be less than optimal, but you can decide the risk.

Let me introduce to you two devices that listen to your children and upload the data to a military contractor.


Cayla, the Doll with i-Que

Meet My Friend Cayla. She and her brother i-Que Robot are clever playthings from Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys. Cayla is au fait with Disney and Nickelodeon, so the little conspirator can urge your small one to tug your skirt and demand more and more product.

These dolls ask for considerable information, learning your child’s name and your name. Thanks to your IP address, they know where you live, but that doesn’t stop them from asking your child for their hometown and school. Aww, it’s so cute to see your child interacting with a toy recording device.

Because that’s exactly what it is. The dolls upload conversations of anybody in the room to a Boston defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Your child’s talk… and yours.

Additionally, its internet connection is insecure and can be easily subverted and hacked. Bad guys could sit outside your home and listen to your conversations.

If you already own one of these dolls, consider what to do. If you hang on to it, take a couple of safety steps. First, the doll communicates through the internet via Bluetooth, probably through your phone or laptop. Disable that connection when it’s not in use. And shut off the damn doll.

Sorry to go all bah-humbug on you. But really, I want you to have a happy Chanukah and a wonderful Christmas in the privacy of your own home.

Is there already a voice assistant in your home or perhaps your Christmas stocking? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts?

“Hey Alexa, Siri, Google… read my award-winning story back to me.”