Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

19 April 2021

Remaindrance


Our friend Josh Pachter has appeared in these pages before. He won the 2020 Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to writing and translating, he edited The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (Down & Out Books), The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads), and The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press). He co-edited Amsterdam Noir (Akashic Books) and The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press).

You can find Josh at www.JoshPachter.com

— Velma
A Note about Remainders
As kids, we sometimes saw comics or paperbacks with the upper half of the covers ripped off. Those were ‘remainders’, a publisher’s overstock. Likewise, bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble and Walmart are likely remainders too, excess copies deeply discounted by publishing houses. In extreme cases, publishers will ‘pulp’ books, grinding them to powder to be recycled into… books.

Remaindrance of Things Past: A Memoir

by Josh Pachter

Chapter 1: The Remainder Bind

In the Olden Days, BigFive Press would agree to publish your book. Their marketing geniuses would do the math and decide on a first printing of X copies. In principle, those copies would all sell, and BigFive would go to a second printing—and then a third, and so on ad infinitum, until you were wealthy enough to buy a little cottage on the Sussex Downs, where you could keep bees and lord it over your serfs.

In practice, though, what was much more likely to happen was that BigFive would wind up with unsold copies of your baby. Those copies took up valuable warehouse space, and if BigFive later needed that space for newer books, they would “remainder” the remaining copies of yours.

That meant that they would sell your leftovers to Wal-Mart or one of the other big-box retailers for pennies on the dollar, and Wal-Mart (or whoever) would dump them into a big bin—the dreaded remainder bin—priced higher than what they paid for them but way lower than the original retail price.

So, for example, let’s say I opened a vein and poured onto the page my magnum opus, Gone Girl With the Wind in the Willows. BigFive would slap a retail price of $20 on it and print five thousand copies. Only three thousand of those copies would sell: two thousand to liberries (remember liberries?) and a thousand to my mother, who would give them away as Christmas presents.

That meant that BigFive would be stuck with two thousand copies of a book they couldn’t sell. Those copies would sit in the warehouse for a while, until BigFive needed the shelf space for the eighth novel James Patterson “wrote” that month. At that point, they’d dump their remaining stock of GGWTWITW onto Wal-Mart for, say fifty cents a copy, and Wal-Mart would mark them up to two bucks apiece and toss them in the bin.

A win-win situation, right? BigFive got rid of some books they didn’t want to continue to warehouse, Wal-Mart cleared a three-hundred-percent profit on every copy they sold, and the customer got a $20 book for a tenth of its retail price.

Wait a second, that’s actually a win-win-win: everybody wins!

Well, almost everybody. The one loser would be me, since instead of earning a royalty of two bucks a copy (ten percent of the retail price), I’d only get a measly five cents a copy (ten percent of BigFive's remainder price)—and then I’d have to give fifteen percent of that to my agent, leaving me four and a quarter cents a copy for a book that ought to have earned me forty times that amount.

So I guess we’d have to call Remainderama a win-win-win-lose situation, with the author the one and only loser.


The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

The Beat of Black Wings anthology cover

Top Science Fiction cover

Top Fantasy cover

Top Horror cover

Top Crime cover
Chapter 2: Remaindeus Unbound

Those Sayers of the Sleuth who know me—or know of me—were perhaps surprised a couple of years ago when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I suddenly began editing anthologies.

Since 2018, in fact, I've done eight of them for six different publishers with more on the way:

  • The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads)
  • Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel (Untreed Reads)
  • The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (Down and Out Books)
  • The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press)
  • The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press)
  • The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press)
  • Amsterdam Noir (Akashic)
  • The Man Who Read Mysteries: The Short Fiction of William Brittain (Crippen & Landru)

My emergence as an anthologist wasn’t exactly “out of the blue,” though. Forty years ago, I was living in Amsterdam, and I edited half a dozen anthologies for a midsized Dutch publisher, Loeb Uitgevers. Loeb marketed four of them—Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, Top Fantasy and Top Horror—internationally at the Frankfort Book Fair, and various combinations of the four titles sold to an assortment of publishers in Europe and the Americas. Heyne Verlag in Germany, for example, did all four books in mass-market paperback editions (TSF in three volumes and TF in two volumes.) Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, and Top Fantasy were published in England by J.M. Dent & Sons in hardcover and paperback, and Top Crime had a US hardcover edition from St. Martin's Press (with one of the worst cover designs I have ever seen in my life, featuring a silhouette of a gun without a trigger — and what did that say about the twenty-five stories in the book?!).

But I digress. A couple of years later, I was living in what was then still West Germany and teaching for the University of Maryland's European Division on American military bases. One day, I got a snail-mail letter from J.M. Dent, notifying me they were about to remainder the last thousand copies of the hardcover edition of Top Science Fiction to W.H. Smith & Sons for something like a quarter apiece—and, as a courtesy to me, they were offering me the opportunity to buy some at that price.

I remember that I was in my kitchen with this letter literally in my hand, trying to decide whether to buy twenty-five copies or fifty to give away as Christmas presents, when my phone rang. On the line was the director of the UMED textbook office: another instructor wanted to use my anthology as the text for a course in the literature of science fiction, but he wasn’t sure where to find copies and wanted to know if I could help.

“As it happens,” I said, “I own all remaining copies of the book, and I'd be happy to sell you as many as you need.”

The caller was hesitant, because (he said) he usually bought texts in enough bulk that the publisher was willing to offer him a discount.”

“How much of a discount,” I asked, “do you usually get?”

Twenty-five percent off the retail price, he said.

“And how many copies do you want to buy?”

A hundred, he told me.

“Well,” I said, “I can give you a twenty-five-percent discount, but I’ll need you to take two hundred copies.”

And I’ll be damned: he agreed!

I hung up and immediately called Dent in London. “I got your letter,” I said, “and I want to buy some copies of Top Science Fiction at the remainder price.”

How many did I want?

“I’ll take all of them.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Finally, the voice asked if I realized how many copies that was.

“Yes, I read the letter,” I said. “I’ll take them all.”

Another pause. Did I realize how much storage space I’d need for a thousand hardcovers?

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I’ll take them all.”

An even longer pause. Did I realize how much the shipping charge for a thousand hardcovers would be?

“If you sell the lot to W.H. Smith,” I said, “you’ll comp them the shipping, so I expect you won’t charge me for it, either.”

And that’s the way we ultimately worked it. I bought a thousand books for two hundred and fifty dollars including shipping, having pre-sold two hundred of them to UMED for something like three thousand dollars plus shipping, making me the only person I’ve ever heard of who actually made money off a remaindered book.


Chapter 3: The Remainders of The Day

There’s a little more to the story.

Over the next couple of years, UMED reordered Top Science Fiction several times … and, each time, I told them the price had gone up. By the time I moved back to the US in 1991, I’d gotten them to buy almost all of my thousand hardcovers—and I’d also picked up the entire remaindered stock of the paperback edition.

I shipped the last of the hardbacks and several hundred of the paperbacks to the US, and I still have some of each in the attic—including one box of paperbacks that’s moved from Germany to New York to Ohio to Maryland to Iowa to Virginia over the last thirty-one years and is still factory sealed.

It’s a pretty cool anthology: twenty-five excellent stories by twenty-five of the greatest science-fiction writers alive in the early 1980s—Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, A.E. Van Vogt, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, more than a dozen others—each story selected and introduced by its author as their favorite of the stories they’d written up to that point in their careers.

Anybody wanna buy a copy? I make you good price, my friend!

22 August 2020

The Case for Award Juries (why checklists are not enough)


I was once on a jury for a major award with the late, great Ed Hoch.  We did the usual thing; each of us read the entries and came back with a longlist of 10 and a shortlist of 5, and then met by phone and email to discuss our choices.

I was shocked to find that my number one story - the one I thought was a shoe-in for the award - was not even on Ed's top five list.  (It was on his top ten.)

When I stated my dismay about this story not making his shortlist, Ed said two words.

"Convince me."

And so I did.  I pointed out the brilliance of the setting - a near perfect depiction of a famous train - The Canadian - racing through the Rocky Mountains.  You could feel the train moving, hear the squeal of wheels on track.  I pointed out that the plot was unique.  No, it didn't have car crashes like the typical thrillers that win. This was a locked door mystery - one of those clever, quiet stories that led to a smiler at the end.  I had never read that plot before, and neither had he, he admitted.

"You've convinced me," he said.  And it went on our top five list.

A similar thing happened when my book, The Goddaughter's Revenge, won two major awards in 2014.  After the Arthur Ellis ceremony, one of the jury members told me that there was some discussion about whether a caper with no gravitas should be considered for the top spot, even if "deliciously unique."  But one of the jurors pointed out there was indeed a darkly deeper theme in the book:  You are supposed to love and support your family, but what if your family is this one?  How far do you go, and no farther?

It's true that Gina Gallo, a mob goddaughter, struggles with this in every book.  She won't cross a line.  But what is that line?

After jury discussion, it was a unanimous decision.  The book won the award.

We can argue that a book shouldn't need to be serious to win awards.  There are numerous subgenres of crime writing, and surely heists can be written as well and be as entertaining as noir thrillers.  If not, why do we even bother to let them enter?

However, my point is this.  In both cases, jury discussion was necessary for these two stories to reach the podium.  If we went strictly by a checklist point system, with no discussion by juries, we risk the chance that some excellent stories would be lost to consideration.

Ed Hoch reminded me that jury discussion is valuable.  In discussing the merits of a story with others, we see things we may not have seen before.  This is a huge reason why we discuss stories in schools and universities.  Why have profs like me, in classrooms leading discussions, if sending everyone my lecture notes would accomplish the same thing?  Discussion is where the magic happens.

I would say the same for award juries.  Just like in a classroom, discussion adds richness to our comprehension.  Our appreciation of an entry can increase ten-fold by listening to what other jurors find in a story that we might have missed.

Checklists alone can never do that.

Melodie Campbell writes seriously funny capers that have won some awards.  She didn't even steal them.  Available at all the usual suspects.    www.melodiecampbell.com





25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain
"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?
Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

25 May 2019

Why I Chose a Traditional Publisher


Students often ask me why I don’t self-publish. 
I try to slip by the fact that I was a babe when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Meaning, I was writing long before self-publishing on Amazon and Nook etc. had even become an option.

Having a publisher and agent before self-publishing was a 'thing' has certainly made a difference, I'm sure.  But now we have a choice. 

Why do I still stay with a traditional publisher?

Gateway Endorsement

There’s no getting away from this:  a traditional publisher, no matter how small, is investing THEIR money to produce YOUR book.  They believe in your book so much that they are willing to risk their own money to see it published.

What’s more, readers know this.  They know that if your book has a publisher, then it has gone through a gateway of sorts.  Someone in the business who knows about the book trade – someone other than the writer - has determined that this book is worthy of being published.

They believe in your book.  That’s a huge endorsement.

You may believe in your book.  I hope you do.  And you may decide to self-publish it.  That’s your choice.  And it may be just as good as any book that is released from a traditional publisher. 

But the reader doesn’t know that.  Further, they don’t know if you’ve already sent the book to a dozen publishers and had it rejected.  In many cases, they assume you’ve done just that.  They assume that no publisher  wanted it.  Therefore, they figure they are taking a risk if they buy your book.  And most readers don’t want to take risks with their money.  (Some will, bless them.  We love those 
readers.)

Distribution and Promotion

Traditional publishers – particularly large or mid-size ones – get your paperbacks into national bookstore chains.  They will also include your book in their catalogue to the big buyers, create sales info sheets for your book, and perhaps buy ads.  They arrange for industry reviews.  We authors complain they don’t do enough promotion.  But they certainly do these things that we can’t do.

We, as authors, can’t access the same distribution networks.  We can’t easily (if at all) reach the prominent industry reviewers like Library Journal and Booklist. 

And then there’s the whole problem of bookstores insisting on publishers accepting returns.  So if your book doesn’t sell, your publisher has to pay the bookstore back the wholesale price they paid for the book.  Independent authors can’t work that way.  We authors would go broke if we had to return money to every bookstore that shelved our paperbacks but didn’t sell them.  Remember, you don’t get the book back.  The cover is sent back and the book is destroyed.  Yes, this antiquated system sucks.

All the other crap

I’m an author.  I want to write.  I don’t want to spend my cherished writing time learning how to navigate Amazon’s self-publishing program, and all the others.  I don’t want to pay substantive and copy-editors out of my own pocket.  I don’t want to seek out cover designers (although I admit that part might be fun.)  I don’t want to pay a bunch of money upfront to replace the work that publishers do.

If you self-publish, then you become the publisher as well as the author.  I asked myself: do I want to be a publisher? 
  
This was my decision, and you may choose a different one.  You may love being a publisher.  But I find it hard enough being an author.  Adding all those other necessary factors to the job just makes it seem overwhelming to me.  I may be a good writer.  But I have no experience as a publishing industry professional.  I have no expertise.  So I publish with the experts.

You may choose a different route.  Just be aware that when you self-publish, you become a publisher just as much as an author.  It’s all in how you want to spend your time.

Good luck on your publishing adventure, whichever way you choose to go!

That's The B-Team, a humorous heist crime book that is a finalist for the 2019 Arthur Ellis award, in the photo below.  You can get it at B&N, Amazon and all the usual suspects. 

ON Amazon

25 September 2018

Not a Dry Eye in the House


I cried.

I screamed loud enough to be heard on the far side of the house. Then I cried.

My reaction to the email from Otto Penzler notifying me that my story “Smoked” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 was not the reaction I would have anticipated had I ever thought inclusion was a real possibility. I screamed across the house for my wife, and, by the time she arrived in my office, I was crying. All I could do was point at the computer screen and let Temple read the email herself.

I’ve had many reactions to acceptances and publications, but crying has never been one of them.

DREAM

Having a story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories is a dream that began when I read The Best American Mystery Stories 1998, the second edition of the now long-running series, and I own and have read every edition since.

As an editor, two stories I first published made the 2002 “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list (“The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women” by Michael Collins and “Teed Off” by Mark Troy, Fedora), and one of my stories made the 2005 list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” (“Dreams Unborn,” Small Crimes).

But actual publication in the anthology? I never thought it was a possibility.

DREAM COME TRUE

Each time my wife and I visit her family, we spend much of the three-hour drive brainstorming story ideas while Temple notes them on a legal pad. Shortly before one such trip, I read the submission call for Level Best Books’ Noir at the Salad Bar, which sought stories that featured “food or drink, restaurants, bars or the culinary arts,” and during that trip my wife filled two handwritten pages with every food-related story idea we could imagine.

Then she suggested barbecue.

By the time we arrived at her family’s home, I knew the story’s setting and primary characters. While Temple visited with family, I filled several more pages of the legal pad with notes, and I created a rough outline. But after inspiration comes perspiration, and the story required several drafts before becoming “Smoked,” the story of an ex-biker in the Witness Security Program after turning state’s evidence against his former gang members. Relocated to a small Texas town, Beau James has opened Quarryville Smokehouse. Then his cover is blown when a magazine food critic names his smokehouse the “best-kept secret in West Texas” and his photo accompanies the review.

Shortly after publication, Robert Lopresti reviewed “Smoked” at Little Big Crimes, and he described the story better than I ever have: “The story takes place in modern Texas, but it has the feeling of an old-fashioned Western, with the bad guys getting closer and the townsfolk having to decide where they stand.”

LIVING THE DREAM

My wife insists “Smoked” is one of my best stories (and believes it would make an excellent movie for Amazon or Netflix!), but she’s obviously biased, and I learned long ago never to trust my own judgment.

So, I had no reason to think “Smoked” had any more of a chance to be selected than any of the many other stories I’ve sent Penzler over the years.

That I was emotionally overwhelmed when Penzler’s email popped up in my inbox is an understatement. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I’m not: I cried with joy.

In addition to “Smoked” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, my story “Texas Hot Flash” appears in the first print edition of Tough and my story “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile appears in Shhh...Murder!

01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again


Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.
And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

Wow...just...wow.

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

18 November 2017

A Book and a Movie


For my post today, I'm making two recommendations: one for a novel I recently read and one for a movie I recently watched. Neither one is a traditional mystery, but both qualify as mysteries since they're both suspense/thriller stories in which crimes are central to the plots. In fact, murders are central to the plots.

The first is Fierce Kingdom, a 2017 novel by Gin Phillips. I think one reason I so enjoyed this book is that I'd heard nothing about it beforehand. I happened to be in a bookstore, noticed the cover, read the inside jacket copy, and bought it. That kind of thing doesn't always work out well for me, but this time it did.

Fierce Kingdom is about a woman and her small son who are visiting a local zoo and are caught up in a killing rampage by (at first) unseen shooters. It's almost closing time, the place is shutting down and night's approaching, and the mother and child find themselves alone and fending for themselves until the outside world can find out what's going on and intervene.

Another thing I liked about this book is that--like a long-ago movie favorite of mine called Wait Until Dark--the characters here know something the killers don't: the mother and child are frequent visitors to the zoo and are familiar with its grounds, even its nooks and crannies. This inside information of course comes in handy as the drama unfolds.

Needless to say, this reader became quickly invested in these two characters, and there were some seriously tense scenes. I loved every minute, and I'm now on the lookout for more novels by Ms. Phillips.

The other welcome surprise I discovered recently was the movie No Escape (2015), with Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. (Not to be confused with the 1994 No Escape with Ray Liotta, though I liked that one too.) This is a story of a businessman (Wilson) who has accepted a job position in a third-world country and is in the process of moving there along with his wife and two young daughters. While in a hotel the family (and Brosnan, a fellow traveler who comes to their aid) suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bloody revolution where Americans are being rounded up and executed on the spot. I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Owen Wilson . . . until now. I was impressed with his performance in this film, along with that of Brosnan and of Wilson's character's wife, played by Lake Bell.

For the writers among you, the script is especially good, and the story moves at a fast pace, with plenty of action and some breathtakingly scary scenes--in some cases because the story (like Fierce Kingdom) involves children in jeopardy and parents' overwhelming love for those children, which is a sure-fire generator of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. Or at least the biting of my nails and the edge of my seat. I mean, I really, really wanted these kids to come out okay, and almost everyone in both the book and the movie seemed to be trying to catch these families and kill them. And yes, I know, it was just fiction--but it was good fiction, so it felt real.

Part of my enjoyment of No Escape was probably due to the fact that I could relate to it, in a way. My IBM travels took me to some far-flung locations, and immediately after one of those trips (to the Philippines), I sat here at home in my recliner and watched a machine-gun-blazing coup take place just outside the Manila hotel where I'd stayed only a couple of weeks earlier. In our screwed-up world, violent uprisings like this do happen, popping up out of nowhere, and it's easy to believe that it could happen someplace at the same time an unsuspecting American family arrives there to start a new life.

So that's my report. Was this the best book I've ever read or the best film I've ever seen? No. Have they won any earth-shaking awards? Not that I know about (although Fierce Kingdom is still recent enough that it might). But I do know they were both interesting and entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. At least to me.

Have any of you read this novel or watched this movie? If so, I'd like to hear your opinions.


As of this writing, Fierce Kingdom is still prominently displayed in bookstores and No Escape is still available for streaming via Netflix. Give 'em a try.

28 October 2017

Uses for a Kindle (from a book addict) (Okay, Bad Girl)


by Melodie Campbell

Kath: Have you got a Kindle?

Me: Of course I have a Kindle!

Kath: Do you like it?

Me: It’s very pretty. It has a pink cover. And it makes a great paperweight.

Kath: But do you actually use it?

Me: I used it once as a flashlight during a power outage. Everyone should have one.

Kath: Why not get a flashlight for that?

Me: Flashlights make lousy paperweights. They roll off the table.

I am a Dinosaurette. In spite of that, I have a Kindle. It wasn’t my idea. People keep foisting them on me at Christmas. It’s the 21st century version of fruitcake.

Not only that, they multiply. The first died within months, probably from neglect (I didn’t kill it – honest.) The second was a prize from my publisher for top sales. I also have a Kobo. It was a Christmas present. It’s around here somewhere.

As you can see, I am not addicted to my Kindle. In fact, it is my opinion you have to be barking to be emotionally attached to a slab of machinery that displays words. That would be like being addicted to a printing press.

But Lord Thunderin’ Jesus, how I am addicted to books! Real books, that is. I see a pile of books on my bedside table, and I get excited. (Men, take note.)

Oh, the delight of holding a real book in your hand. The tactile feel of the paper, the visual lure of the cover… And the smell of the glue that binds each little paper together…(minty is best)

Bliss.

The trouble with an eReader is that every story you are reading on it looks and feels exactly the same. And that changes the experience for me.

I realize that a lot of people love to read on Kindles. I might even like some of them (people. Not Kindles.) But I highly suspect they are the same sort of people who actually like salad.

Thankfully, there are alternate uses for eReaders. (If you like salad, stop reading NOW.)

BAD GIRL’S USES FOR A KINDLE:
  1. Kindling. (okay, not really, despite the similar sounding name. Probably not the best way to start a fire. A Samsung phone is much better.)
  2. Murder weapon. (Whack the cheating bastard over the head with it. Continue whacking and alternately reading from 50 Shades. That should do it.)
  3. Frisbee. (see Murder weapon above.)
  4. Hockey puck (I live in Canada, eh.)
  5. Dog Toy (leatherette covers works best for this.)
  6. Fly-swatter (editor’s note: works great on spiders)
  7. Plus all the obvious uses: flashlight, paperweight, hot pad, furniture shim, bookmark, ruler, rolling pin, cutting board, door stop.
Finally, I would like to point out that you can’t decorate with Kindles. “Oh look at that beautiful bookcase of Kindles, Gladys!” said no one, ever.

Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup. People usually sit down to read her funny books. Sometimes they fall down. The latest:

26 September 2017

Favorite Books of 2017


by Barb Goffman

I love reading, but I can't ever seem to find enough time to do it. And when I do read, I'm often playing catch up. When it's time to pick up a new title, instead of going to my personal library and picking one of the hundreds of unread books on my shelves, I'm going to a list of books and stories published in the prior year and nominated for awards.

Agatha teapots
If it's February, March, or April, I'm reading a work nominated for the Agatha awards that year. I don't vote in a category if I haven't read all the nominated books and stories, and between best novel, best first novel, best historical novel, best children's/YA novel, and best short story, my reading dance card is full. (Some years the nominated books are announced and I've read several of the finalists, but I still usually have at least a dozen books to read. And yes, there's a best nonfiction category, too, but I never get to those books.)

So Malice Domestic comes, the Agatha awards are given out, and then I have a month or two to choose my own reading. Heaven! Until the Anthony and Macavity award nominees are announced, and it's off to the reading races again. I read Anthony- and Macavity-nominated books, stories, and novellas until Bouchercon, which occurs in September or October. (And this is a perfect time to give a shout out to my fellow SleuthSayers Paul Marks and Art Taylor, who are up for the Macavity Award for best short story this year, and to Art once more, as he's up for the Anthony for best short story. And let us not forget the wonderful late B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens, who is up for the Anthony for best novella.)

Anyway, Bouchercon eventually ends and the awards season is over and I get to read what I want to read. YAY! Not that there's anything wrong with the books and stories I read for the Agathas, Anthonys, and Macavitys (they're usually great--that's why they're nominated), but there's something to being able to pluck a book off the shelf just because I want to read it. And that period is coming. I'll get to choose my own books!

But what should I choose? There are so many options.

In preparation for making my choices, I reached out to some friends and asked them what books they've read recently that they loved. I asked them to focus on newer books that I might not yet have purchased. There's always room for more books on my shelves. Here are their recommendations:

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz -- my friend described it as "a treat for any tea-drinking, Anglophile, Agatha Christie fan--or anyone who enjoys a traditional mystery."

The Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah -- the new Poirot

Pulse by Felix Francis -- this book comes out next month, but my friend got an early copy.

The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace

The Good Byline by Jill Orr

Double Up by Gretchen Archer

Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Later Gator by Jana Deleon

The Ex by Alafair Burke

I've already read The Ex and recommend it heartily. How about you, dear reader? What books have you read recently that you adored? Bonus points for books published this year. I'd love to get ahead on my awards reading for next year!

24 June 2017

How I Became an Overnight Success in 26 years


Three years ago, I wrote a crazy little book that won two crime writing awards. (Okay, not three years ago. It won the Derringer and Arthur Ellis three years ago, which means I wrote it two years before that. Trad publishing takes time… but I digress.)
That year, I also won a national short story contest, with prize money of $3000. The year after, I was shortlisted along with Margaret Atwood, for another fiction award. (That was the year pigs learned to fly in Canada.)

The Toronto Sun called to interview me. They titled the article, “Queen of Comedy.”

“You’re famous!” said an interviewer. “How does it feel to become an overnight success?”

“That was one long night,” I said. “It lasted 26 years.”

This blog post was inspired by Anne R. Allen

Not long ago, Anne had a post on her Top 100 blog: 10 Reason Why You Shouldn’t Publish that 1st Novel

(It’s terrific. Check it out.)

But that got me thinking about my own “overnight success.”

Here’s the thing. I started writing fiction for money in 1987. (Nineteen Eighty-Seven!! Big shoulders and big hair. Wasn’t that two years before the Berlin Wall came down?)

I won my first award (Canadian Living Magazine) in 1989. By the time my first novel hit bookshelves, I already had 24 short stories published, and had won six awards.

Plus The Goddaughter’s Revenge – the book that won the Derringer and Arthur – wasn’t my first novel published. It was my fifth.

My Point:

I’ll drill down even more. It wasn’t even my fifth novel written. It was my seventh. The first two will never see the light of day. One has gone on to floppy disk heaven. Although if God reads it up there, he may send it to hell.

I would never want ANYONE to read my first two novels. Writing them taught me how to write. I got rid of bad habits with those books. I learned about the necessity of motivation. The annoyance of head-hopping. And the importance of having a protagonist that people can like and care about.

Yes, my first novel had a TSTL heroine who was naive, demanding, and constantly had to be rescued. (For those who don’t know, TSTL stands for Too Stupid To Live. Which may occur when the author is too stupid to write.) Even I got sick of my protagonist. Why would anyone else want to make her acquaintance?

In my first two novels, I learned about plot bunnies. Plot bunnies are those extraneous side trips your book takes away from the main plot. Each book should have an overall plot goal, and ALL subplots should meander back to support that one plot goal in the end. My first book had everything but aliens in it. All sorts of bunnies that needed to be corralled and removed.

Speaking of bunnies, I’m wandering. So back to the point:

IN 2015, some people saw me as an overnight success. I was getting international recognition and bestseller status. One of my books hit the Amazon Top 100 (all books) at number 47, between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.

But that overnight success took 26 years. I had one long apprenticeship.

I tell my students to keep in mind that being an author is a journey. No one is born knowing how to write a great novel. You get better as you write more. You get better as you read more. You get better as you learn from others.

Being an author is a commitment. You aren’t just writing ‘one book.’ You are going to be a writer for the rest of your life. Commit to it. Find the genre you love. Write lots.

And you too can be an overnight success in 26 years.

(The Goddaughter. She’s a much more likeable protagonist, even if she is a bit naughty.)


On Amazon

05 May 2017

First Signing like a First Kiss


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the seventh in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by O'Neil De Noux


Like a first kiss - there has been nothing as good as my first signing. GRIM REAPER was released in 1988, and a local bookstore (back when local bookstores carried my books) had a signing for me. My publisher, Zebra Books coughed up some money (money I later discovered came out of my royalties) and I brought food and drink. My father brought beer of course.

We hoped to sell 30 books and the bookstore (part of a small chain) had 300 shipped in. The big surprise came quickly. A lot of my friends and my family showed up. I come from a big family - my father was one of 12 and my mother was one of 12. At that time, I had 95 first cousins and most of them had kids.


My brother is the tall one in this picture. The one non-family member is the third from the right. She was a retired nun. She was the principal at my grammar school, Our Lady of The Holy Rosary. She sent a note after reading the book, wondering who taught me to curse like that. I blamed it on the Christian Brothers at Archbishop Rummel (where I went to high school). Gotta love a Catholic education. I spent two years at a Jesuit university.


These are some of my aunts, a cousin and one of my sisters. They got all dressed up for this. My Aunt Earline (in red) lived to be 99. My Aunt Bess (second from the right) got married again when she was 80 years old.


My 2-year old son pitched in.

Well, we ran out of books. Sold 300 paperbacks. Never happened again, although my family continued to come to my signings through the 1990s. They don't come anymore. My books are too hardboiled and they haven't given the historicals a chance. You can only read so many curse words, I guess. Such is life.

But I'll always remember that first kiss.

PS: I did not write the promo on the flyer. Vendetta of blood?

www.ONeilDeNoux.com