Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts

04 December 2023

Books, books, books. And more books.

        I guess I was a pretty privileged kid growing up, though it often didn’t feel that way.  There were plenty of challenges, that I won’t go into here, though it’s safe to say we had financial security and little danger of physical harm, despite our devotion to risky behavior and thwarting our parents’ best laid plans to keep us safe.

         One unalloyed benefit to my upbringing was we were a family of readers.  My mother, older brother, aunts and grandmothers all read like crazy.  Books were all over the houses, and easily accessible.  Many were popular fictions – detective novels and door-stop bestsellers, but there was plenty of more erudite fare, and all I had to do was reach out my hand and grab anything open on a coffee table or nightstand.

        When we were young children, we were read to every night.  I will go out on a limb and declare there’s no better way to instill a love of the written word on tender young minds.  We did it with our own son, and I think it helped form his life in the best possible way. 

         I wasn’t a very good student.  I never liked just sitting there listening to someone in the front of a room talk at me.  But because I read so much, I could make up for it in odd ways that bailed me out.  And I could always write well enough, since I’d been trained at home on the subtleties, ebb and flow, the nuances of language. 


         I read virtually everything my older brother read, since he’d pass the books and articles to me when he was finished.  Because I did everything he did, this was standard practice.  He was an omnivorous, if idiosyncratic, reader, so this also served me well.  My mother and I discussed these books, so there was instruction along the way. I developed some friendships with older kids who would also pass along their favorite books, which I would introduce into the family literary ecosystem. 


         One particularly precocious kid I knew turned me on to physics, which totally befuddled my family members, though he gifted me with a lifelong interest in the subject, little of which I’ve ever understood.  I still like reading about it, even if the comprehension is fleetingly transitory.


         In the same way, I love archeology, paleontology, geography (maps!), architecture, auto mechanics, Buddhism, European history and military strategy, by knowing just enough to keep reading, even if only a tiny bit sticks. 


        I owe it all to our mother and grandmothers reading us A. A Milne and Dr. Seuss, while I followed along, deciphering the words as she spoke.  It was magical, this transformation of thought into symbols that you could then retain, and reproduce yourself.  What a marvel, what a gift. 


        If this be privilege, then I’m among the most blessed who ever lived.  I didn’t know to seek it out, it was just delivered to me, tucked into bed and hanging on every word. 


       Not all readers write, but all writers read.  It’s essential.  The first thing a writing coach will say is, “Read.”   You need to swim in that ocean of words to be facile in conjuring them yourself.  However, just to heighten the challenge of writing, you also have to find your own voice.  I stopped reading fiction for several years so I could clean all the chattering voices out of my head, and with luck, find my own.  Though I didn’t stop reading nonfiction, focusing on the best writers I could find (Winston Churchill, Freud, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Machiavelli, Kant, Malcom Goldstein, Bill Bryson, etc.)  And along the way, I learned a few things. 


        So I’ll repeat what I’ve already written.  If you want to write, read.  And then write all the time.  Write anything, just don’t stop.  After a few million words, you’ll begin to know what you sound like, and that’s the beginning.  You can take it from there.    

28 November 2023

Reading for Gems

Some of the many
reasons Michael doesn’t
have much time for
pleasure reading.
Last year, 120 short stories appeared in projects I edited or co-edited. I’m on track to edit or co-edit projects containing a similar number of stories this year, and I have projects in the works that should have me working with a similar number of stories each year for several subsequent years.

For every short-story manuscript I read that ultimately sees publication in one of my projects, I read at least two that don’t. So, reading for entertainment and pleasure has almost disappeared because I now read a significant amount of unpublished fiction.

And I’m becoming jaded. A few years ago, when I wasn’t doing as much editing, I had time to work with stories that showed potential, and I could work with writers who showed potential but hadn’t made the leap to regular publication. These days, I’m looking for stories that are as close to publication-ready as possible.

That means I’m doing fewer open-call projects (as a percentage of total projects). (The Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir anthology series remains open call and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, when it reopens to submissions at some indefinable date in the future, will also be open call.) Instead, I’m mostly working with writers who have proven they can deliver on-time and on theme, and who have proven themselves easy to work with through the revision and/or editing process.


I’ve been involved in several discussions recently where it has been clear that writers don’t understand all that editors do. They see “editors” as people who fix spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and maybe point out plot holes and faulty story structure.

That’s part of what they do. In fact, if it’s an editor hired by the writer, that may be all they do.

But an anthology or magazine editor does much more than that. When working on an anthology, editors develop the concept and pitch the idea to a publisher (or work with an organization or publisher who presents the concept to the editor), determine how to obtain content, work with writers to ensure that content fits within the concept, prepare manuscripts for publication, and proofread galley proofs and/or page proofs. (FYI: No one produces galley proofs these days.) A magazine editor—especially the editor of a small-press magazine—does much the same.

In short, an anthology or magazine editor—especially those working with smaller presses—is often a concept generator, acquisitions editor, development editor, fact-checking editor, line editor, copy editor, and proofreader all rolled into one.

While doing all of this, editors maintain records, ensuring they know what stage each manuscript is at; maintain contact with writers to ensure all deadlines are met; and maintain contact with the publisher’s staff to ensure all deliverables are on time and in the correct format.

Editors’ responsibilities continue after publication. They may be involved with marketing and promotion, and a good editor ensures the work they publish is considered for all appropriate awards and best-of-year reprint opportunities.


What compensates for a decreasing amount of time for entertainment and pleasure reading is finding story gems in the submission queue, regardless of whether the stories were solicited via an invitation call or unsolicited via an open call, and then shepherding those stories into the world where readers can find them.

Knowing I played a small part in entertaining readers when these stories appear more than compensates for all the reading pleasure time I’ve given up.

Got Milk?”—a blog post about how Temple’s great uncle was indicted for his involvement in the Louisiana Milk Strike of 1947 and how my father-in-law’s research led me to write “Spilt Milk” (
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023)—was published at Trace Evidence.

10 November 2023

Scaling Mount TBR

Pile of booka
CC 2.0 2007 Evan Bench

Last year, I read 104 books, including audio and advanced review copies. I could make that number more impressive with the number of manuscripts I've edited. That job, by the way, is usually great fun as I get to see something before everyone else. But I don't count that. After all, it's work. It's why I don't review anymore. And while editing can be a chore at times, it's not cramming in a book to write three paragraphs.

But I read 104 books in 2022. I did it while writing under two pen names, working a fulltime job, and taking care of an ailing wife. For 2023, it's likely, but not guaranteed, I'll make 105. It's unlikely I'll read nearly as much in 2024. Why?

One of the reasons I used the lockdown to learn speed reading was to get more books in. I always believed a writer should read widely and much. Every so often, I'll come up with a list I want to get through, and those often take years. One list in particular drove this year's reading: Stephen King.

Yes, I've read Holly, unexpectedly added Storm of the Century (a screenplay, but it should have been a novel), yet skipped Faithful. (If it's not the Reds or the Indians/Guardians, I'm really not interested in baseball books.)

But to get King's canon finished this year - Fifteen years is long enough - I had to read twenty-five pages at a sitting. Hard to do during the day. Back when working at the office was a regular thing, I had to deal with interruptions: The coworker who took an open book as, "Oh, cool, you're not doing anything" and the needy manager who already sent me a Teams message and an email. (Pro tip: IT guys probably get it after the first email. Use Teams to follow up. Even a gregarious one such as me doesn't want to people much while working.) You sometimes have to steal time outside of breaks. And my wife thinks 5 PM is a hard deadline to stop work.

But I read Holly in sips. And while I devoured Rick Rubin's The Creative Act (like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, it's now an annual reread.), I'm going through Don Winslow's City of Dreams slowly. At 311 pages, I'd normally have this done in three or four days. I started it on Monday. The library already bugged me once I would need to return it or renew it.

So 2024 will probably see me read half as many books. But just as there are benefits to reading much and widely, there's a bonus to reading less and more slowly.

On some books, it cost me. I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which I loved. However, I also had the impression if I'd only read 10-15 pages in a sitting, maybe with fewer sittings, I'd have understood why that book made Harold Bloom's list from How to Read. (My problem with Bloom was how vocal he was about what he didn't like. It's like Star Wars fandom, only with classics and literary fiction. And I am so over Star Wars for that reason alone.) But I also don't remember much about A Midsummer Night's Dream. I can't remember the last crime fiction book I read, and it was only a month ago. And with editing, sometimes the manuscript blurs a little with whatever's on my end table at the moment. (Winslow is blurring with my current author, which actually put a smile on my face yesterday while working on it.)

But I sipped Holly. I'm sipping City of Dreams. By the time this publishes, I'll probably be into another Twain novel.

One thing that hasn't changed is audio. Audio imposes its own pace. And these days, I prefer audio to music in my headphones and in my car. My musical odyssey began with the Beatles, detoured into Deep Purple, and landed on jazz in recent years. I revisit the Beatles often, but good God, Purple has become fingernails on chalkboard to me. How many times can you listen to "Highway Star" before realizing you're a middle-aged man in a boring sedan? Detroit doesn't even build sedans anymore! So I listen to audio books. And I am an addict.

Audio has its own rotation: Non-fiction, fiction, banned book, and what I call “not Harold Bloom”. 2023 had spiritual books in it, which doubled the amount of ancient texts. (Side note: Those of your putting the holiest of your beliefs or apocryphal texts on audio need to hire better narrators. Some of them would have been more interesting if the guy didn't sound like he slept through it. It’s not reverent; it's just dull.) Ancient epics were the most fun. Star Trek’s Dominic Keating and the great Ian McKellan read The Iliad and The Odyssey respectively, and I found myself disappointed when both stories ended. Same with Beowulf, which I finished the night before writing this. The narrator was one I was unfamiliar with, but he was Irish, like translator Seamus Heaney. So even Heaney’s voice in an afterword came through.

I wondered if I was a freak of nature reading this many books. 104? 105? Once, getting to 100 was a badge of honor. But when it gets to be a chore, and you find yourself padding the list with a lot of filler, is it really useful or relaxing?

Reading should be in service to writing. It should also be relaxing (probably why I love audio so much.) When it becomes an obligation with no purpose or a time suck, then what's the point?

05 May 2023


One day while I doom scrolled Twitter, a writer declared listening to audio books to be cheating and not really reading. I may have unfollowed him or some other petty overreaction to all things social media. I also told myself he's entitled to his opinion no matter how wrong it is. 

Audiobooks are about a third of the books I consume in any given year. Last year, it was half. And while it's not reading with one's eyes, it is reading. There's even an editing technique having Word play back a manuscript. (Use that only for yourself. Edits for clients should contain track changes, and listening to that would be torture.) So, instead of whatever your inner narrator sounds like as you scan the page, you get an actor. Or several in the case of scifi author Gareth Powell.

I listen to audio books during my commutes to the office (only two a week now as we've gone hybrid.) and when I'm out taking a walk. Sometimes while doing the laundry or yard work. My listening lists range from memoirs to history to fiction off the beaten path (or can't get to with my towering stack of books and Kindle editions) to ancient texts to classics. I'm currently listening to The Iliad, read by Dominic Keating. Keating played Reed on Star Trek: Enterprise, so it's great to hear him perform something besides an overworked security chief on a balky starship. 

And often, it's the reader that makes the difference. Some, like Alice Walker, are authors reading their own work. In the case of Walker, who is also a lecturer, it's perfect. Walker wrote The Color Purple in dialect and could read it properly. Other times, it might have been nice if the author hired, if not an actor, then maybe their teenage niece or nephew who just did the high school musical.

Other times, publishers or authors hire a reader. Wil Wheaton has a thriving second career doing audio books, and he reads with a wicked sense of humor that was perfect for The Martian (after the publisher decided it didn't want original reader RC Bray, himself no slouch.) Other times, like some apocrypha I've been listening to, the reader probably needed some caffeine. I kept making fun of one reader but aping his annoying monotone as a forgotten Bible character asking God why he snored during his prayers. "Oh, Jedediah, my son. I would listen but your monotone has caused me to rest an eighth day, and lo, all the Heavenly host are face down in their lyres."

But is listening reading? Depends on how you define it. Sometimes, I choose by performer. Johnny Depp is hilarious reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, even doing a stoner Keith from the 1970s before Keef himself takes over. (And Keith is actually not a bad reader, but I often wonder how many takes he had to do, given his propensity to mumble.) One of my favorites was Jean Smart, she of Designing Women fame, when she did the VI Warshawski novels. She was VI Warshawski.

But if reading is consuming text, then yes, listening to audio books is reading. If you're adamant reading is done with your eyes, and listening is just hearing a dramatic performance (except when Mr. Monotone prompts the Almighty to nod off. Then it's not so dramatic.), then no.

I listen to Audible exclusively right now. I may roll back to the library's offerings if I slow down, and the subscription is no longer worth it. But until then...

I'm not done with the book until I hear that voice say, "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program."

28 October 2022

Unfinished Business

NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

  I generally try to finish a book when I start it. I abandoned a few during lockdown because I was locked down and didn't want to waste my time. Also, I'm usually rewarded for my efforts. But in 2022, I've ditched two: One classic, and one I'd hoped would give me insight into our increasingly narcissistic society. 

Portrait of a Lady - Henry James

This is one I read from a list of classics compiled by Harold Bloom. I had a love-hate relationship with Bloom's work. He could be full of himself, sounding like a self-appointed arbiter of what is "good" literature. I had a high school English teacher who did that, and I don't have fond memories of her.

But Bloom's How to Read, as in deep reading, is a worthwhile volume. Bloom reins in his pompous tendencies and offers up lists of poetry, drama, and novels he believes everyone should read. These are not his version of the Western Canon. 

For the most part, I've enjoyed every book so far on the list. I had to do Crime and Punishment on audio because Russian novels really don't translate well into English. This explained to me by one actual Russian and another person fluent in the language. I skipped Proust's In Search of Lost Time, mainly due to length. I want to read it someday, but when my schedule is not so pressed. And I want to reread The Magic Mountain when I can go more slowly.

And then we come to Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. I'd like to say I bailed too soon on it, but he starts off doing his own literary criticism. Now, if I post my own review of Holland Bay, Amazon is going to not only ban me from their service, they'll pull every book I have on the site, much to the chagrin of three publishers, all too small to afford the damage that would do. But he's Henry James.

I skipped the self-indulgent essay. Stephen King encourages you to do the same to him and has taken to putting the author notes at the end of his work. 

Then we get into the story. It's a bunch of Victorian bankers chatting about how superior they are. It goes on for about twenty-five pages. I took the book back to the library. But wait! I did Crime and Punishment on Audible. Maybe that would help.

Nope. I hated the book for much the same reasons I never liked Bonfire of the Vanities. I don't like any of the characters, and I don't care about the problems of rich people. 

"Wait. Doesn't your scifi series feature a trillionaire's son and a royal?"

Yes, but the son hated the gilded cage and ended up becoming a soldier. The royal hates her job and doesn't hide the fact. They're more Harry than Charles.

Well, I wasn't going to like all of them. 

Selfie - William Stohr

I had high hopes for this one. It started off well enough, with a look at Eastern and ancient views of "self." 

Aaaand then we get a chapter on suspect seventies psychotherapy fad that still exists, a muddled theory that - because humans moods and motivations shift and a section of the brain drives impulsiveness - humans have no free will and are not a single entity, and a whiny self-indulgent passage about the author's neuroses. 

I can read Philip Roth for that, and I like reading Roth's work. My wife saw me reading and said, "You don't look happy." I wasn't. The book went back to the library after I'd only read a third of it. After I dropped it off, I thought about it. Did I give it a fair chance?

The recommendation came from a friend's Goodreads page. I'd picked some interesting books from his shevles: Ohio: A Novel, Lincoln Highway, Don't Know Tough, and Under Color of Law. Some of his nonfiction picks were quite good, especially those around music. So, this was a safe pick, right? I just got impatient?

It's not even on his shelf.

It's odd. When I start a book, I feel committed to finish it. It's why I switched from print to audio on Crime and Punishment. But Portrait of a Lady wasn't just heavy - So was The Human Stain and The Magic Mountain. - it was tedious. Audio didn't make it any better. Or maybe Twain and Hemingway have spoiled me (along with Washington Irving.) But then I skipped Melville's intro to Moby Dick and jumped into the story. The episodic nature of it made the story easy to follow.

Maybe I'm too invested in crime or science fiction, but I'm also plowing through the canon of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and William Shakespeare. So, no, that's not it. I love history. I love contradictory history. Jennifer Paxton, a professor of medieval studies, has a vastly different view of English history, especially the Anglo-Saxons, than Mark Morris. Yet I get a lot out of their work. Joseph M. Marshall III, a Lakota historian (and not a bad audio reader) is saying some uncomfortable things about the European incursion into indigenous territory. And to be honest, I can't wait to hear what he says next.

27 January 2022

Same Old Rodeo

It's a bleak cold January day, up here in South Dakota. The legislature has been called into session, and the usual barrage of anti-transgender, anti-abortion, anti-CRT, anti-academic freedom, and anti-[insert title here] bills are flying around the Capitol like the snowflakes they are. 

The impeachment hearings for AG Ravnsborg are on-going.

Governor Noem took time out of her busy schedule to go to a gun show in Las Vegas.

Somehow I believe that the firearms and ammunition business would continue to thrive out here, even if she hadn't attended. But she got on TV!

The Summit Arena in Rapid City, SD is going to host the Black Hills Stock Show from January 28-February 5th. This event generally hosts 200,000-300,000 attendees, and so the announcement was made: "As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, there are no health requirements or mandates in place for the event. The Monument officials encourage everyone to stay home if they are sick and be respectful of others." (KELO)  Which makes perfect sense when you realize that right now 1 out of every 25 South Dakotans has an active case of Covid-19. Come for the fun, stay for the ventilator…

So, how to chase the blues away in dark January? Watch TV!

My latest recommendation is Mr. & Mrs. Murder, an Aussie comedy-mystery on Netflix. "Nicola and Charlie Buchanan run an industrial cleaning business specialising in crime scenes". They're also funny, quirky, and it's always sunny and bright. Only one season, but 13 episodes, so enjoy!

Available now on Prime: the Death in Paradise Christmas Special.  

On my soon to be watched list are a couple of police procedurals: Bergerac (Britbox), set on the Isle of Jersey, and Candace Renoir set in France.

And I've just heard that the 4th Season of The Good Karma Hospital has dropped in Britain, which means it will be coming soon to Acorn, which I watch via Prime. TGKH stars Amanda Redman, which makes it a must-see in my book anyway.

Not so cheerful, but fantastically well done is the 1987 production of Carr's A Month in the Country (set in post-WW1 Britain) starring unbelievably young future stars Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh in their first screen roles, & Natasha Richardson in her second. The uncovering of the medieval mural is an experience in itself, along with the eventual discovery of who / what / why...  

Another wonderful walk down nostalgia lane is Cider With Rosie - there's one version, with Timothy Spall (2015), available for free on Amazon, and another (1998), with Laurie Lee (the author) narrating it available on Tubi.  On a dark January day, either is worth it for the wildflowers alone...

And let's not forget Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot:  Evil Under the Sun (1982) where he's joined by Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Jane Birkin, Roddy MacDowell and/or Death on the Nile where he's joined by Bette Davis, David Niven, Simon MacCorkindale, Jane Birkin, Olivia Hussey, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and Mia Farrow all over-acting their little hearts out.

Back to Netflix and comedians:  we laughed our heads off at Russell Howard's Lubricant, Jim Gaffigan's Comedy Monster, Nate Bergatze's The Greatest Average American, Gina Yashere's stand-ups, including her on the new season of The Standups, and many, many more. Plus I just keep Tom Papa's You're Doing Great on file, ready to cheer me up on cold, gray days like today.


10 January 2021

B2020 and A2020: How 2020 has influenced what we want to read and what we will write.

As we are bombarded with news of COVID-19 deaths, the rising unemployment and the latest attack on Capital Hill - many of us wonder how this can happen and why do some people not care?

More and more we are hearing stories from the frontline, from the unemployment line, from lines at food-banks and, from homes where seniors live. We are hearing about policies that thoughtlessly harm others and we ask - didn’t they even think about these people’s lives?

After living through 2020 – and face it, 2020 might just be a prologue to the book  “The Horrors of 2021” - we will never be the same and I suspect that what we want to read is forever changed. 

Literature changes because readers change. 

When I was a child, I would often rummage through my father’s extensive library. I remember some old books, where the room would be meticulously described, from the sun dappled curtains to the chair with slightly worn arms. These descriptions would often be a page long. I remember wondering if I was simply less observant than most people or if these descriptions were simply overdone. Being a curious child, I watched my friends and family carefully. I decided that none of them spent enough time observing to be able to write a page of details and that the people in these books had a different life, were different people or the author just made up stuff. I would still read some of those books but with a stern skim over the sun dappled this, the intricate patterns of that and any other such useless info. 

There are many takes on the immense suffering we have seen in 2020, but I suspect many readers will be drawn to different writers. Just as none of us have patience for a page long descriptions as characters enter a room, I believe we will have less patience for characters who wander the world doing things, noticing things but failing to empathize with people. Let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes was delightful, but who is going to write a book today where the characters notice the hair, that came from a rare species of cat, owned by only two families in the city, coupled with a smudge of brown dust from a particular type of stone, found in the statues of lions that sit by the doorway of one of those families? Yep. No one. Most of us read it, but we don’t write like that anymore. 

I think that many readers who have lived through this year - and the worse year that is coming - will demand characters with empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. 

The definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

This stands in contrast to sympathy defined as: sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

If 2020 has made many of us yearn for anything, it is for people who have empathy and can imagine and feel what someone else is feeling - without having to be explicitly told and without having to have felt it themselves. Why? Because we are not all 90-year-old women, living alone in a care home, unable to see anyone. We are not all a single mother, with children to feed but with no money to feed them after we lost our job. We are not all ICU doctors, struggling to cope with losing patient after patient nor are we those who have to transport body after body to refrigerated trucks. We are not any of these people but we want someone, any one, to care about these people and tell us about them. 

What about sympathy – understanding the feelings that we actually have? This feels a little self-centred and, these days more than ever, the self-centred are at best unpopular and at worst, the villains of 2020: from anti-maskers to those who care only about staying in power.

I suspect many of us, who read voraciously,  and who have lived through this time , will want books with more characters who understand and feel what others are feeling and put us in their shoes. Detective novels highlighting not merely action but also empathy might become much more popular. I suspect this is true for all types of writing, from news stories to medical writing. I suspect we might have had our fill of self-centred characters, and I also suspect that they will often be cast as villains because, goodness knows, it feels ugly now. I have found that news stories, articles and - one could argue - political choices seem to already incorporate empathy more than before this dreadful year.

One could argue that good writing has always put us in the shoes of others, immersing us in their worlds. Somewhat true - but it is about the weight one gives to certain things. Do we devote pages to describe a room when a character enters it? Not anymore. So writing may have many elements in common but weight given differs. Weighting empathy heavily would change what we read. 

This may just be my new perspective but I doubt it. However, from a personal point of view, I am eager to read the new types of articles, books and characters born from 2020. I also look forward to new ways of telling the news, writing medical articles - any type of writing that tries to reach people who have lived this terrible year and await, with some trepidation, the unveiling of 2021. 

Whatever happens with various forms of writing, I believe that there will be fundamental changes in what writers write and readers read because we will never be the same after 2020.

25 August 2020

The Next Best Thing to Being There

We’re all hunkered down these days under house arrest. Some people are binging on Netflix, others catching up on all the cute cat videos they’ve missed. Others still are too anxious to do much of anything productive. I’m lucky in that my life hasn’t changed all that much on a day to day basis since I’ve worked at home for ages. I still walk the dog/s. Do my writing. Listen to music. Watch the old black and white movies that I love. Read. The one big change is that my wife’s been working at home since March. Luckily we seem to get along. Blame that on her more than me 😉.

But, as writers there have been some changes, most notably that in-person events have been cancelled. Most of the conventions and conferences that we enjoy have been zapped, Bouchercon, West Coast Crime (right in the middle of the actual convention), and others. In-store book events and launches have largely disappeared for now. But we live in an age of new-fangled thingies, an amazing age, an age of the internet, Zoom, Skype and other modern marvels.

My virtual acceptance speech for Ellery Queen Readers Award

So, the other day, as I was doing a Zoom panel for a writer’s conference, it dawned on me how cool it is to be able to do this. Not all that long ago it couldn’t have happened because the technology wasn’t there. With something like the Covid pandemic the event would just have disappeared. But with Zoom, Skype and others they just sort of morph into something virtual.

Since the lockdown began I’ve done several Zoom events. I haven’t yet hosted one though I’m thinking about doing that for the Coast to Coast: Noir anthology that I co-edited that’s coming out in September. That will be a new learning curve. But before that I had to learn how to Zoom as a guest. It’s not hard – and it’s really cool and fun. I also did a short (non-Zoom) video for Ellery Queen on coming in second in their readers poll since they, too, cancelled their in-person event in NYC. And I’ve done several panels and interviews and even virtual doctor appointments. As I write this a bit ahead of its posting date just a few days ago I did a Skype interview for a radio station in England. Could we have done that even twenty years ago? Maybe by phone, but with much more difficulty and expense.

E-flyer from Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles first House Arrest virtual reading
Remember long distance phone calls (and long distance could virtually be just across the street in some cases). They were ridiculously expensive. You’d call the operator before your call and request “time and charges,” then when the call was over the operator would call you back and tell you how long the call lasted and how much it cost. And you’d get sticker shock.

The "good old days".
In the near last minute my wife suggested doing a virtual launch for The Blues Don’t Care in June since there were no in person events happening. So we had to scramble to figure out how to do that. We weren’t sure if we should try Zoom or another service or stick to the old standby (yeah ‘old’ standby) of Facebook, which is what we ended up doing. And it turned out better than I had expected. We had a big group of people and questions flying back and forth. Plus I’d toss out tidbits of info on various things related to events that took place in the novel, like the gambling ships that lay off the SoCal coast back in the day. It was fun, if a little hectic, and I think people enjoyed it.

So we make do as best we can. And we don’t have to shower or drive to get to our meetings 😉. It’s also kind of cool to just see someone when you’re talking one to one with Zoom or Skype or other services. My wife’s family reunion was cancelled this year because of Covid but her and some of her cousins get together semi-regularly with each other via Zoom. Like they used to say, it’s the next best thing to being there.

So what’s next? Virtual reality meetings? Holograms? Mind-melding? Beam me up Scotty! There seem to be no limits to technology, but there is still something to be said for meeting people face to face. Standing close enough to whisper something, closer than 6 feet apart. Laughing, talking, sharing good food (and drink!) and good stories. So until we can do those things again, at least we have the virtual world, which is the next best thing.


And now for the usual BSP:

I want to thank Living My Best Book Life for this great review of The Blues Don’t Care. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full review:

"The Blues Don't Care by Paul D. Marks is a mysterious historical fiction set in the WWII time period. It tackles topics like corruption, racism, and many others that we are still facing today. I was taken aback by Paul D. Marks's talented writing style. This story is powerful and Paul did a wonderful job developing his main character, Bobby Saxon...

…I was captivated from the very start. This author tackled so many subjects that few care to bring up. The detail of the story gave me an insight on all the injustices in the 1940's. I appreciated the heart of the story; a person chasing their dream and never looking back. Bobby Saxon is a well-developed character that was able to learn, grow, and hone in on his craft. There is a main secret of Bobby's that I didn't see coming. This is such a fascinating historical fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed!”

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02 June 2020

Outside the Three-Mile Limit

As many regular readers here know, I’m fascinated with Los Angeles history. I post about various aspects of it from time to time. I use it as background in much of my fiction. And one of the most fascinating aspects of L.A. history are the gambling boats that used to anchor off the shore, just outside the three mile legal limit.

The Rex
Bobby in the just-released (yesterday) The Blues Don’t Care has more than his share of adventure on one of those gambling ships. In the novel, Bobby and the band he’s in get a gig on the Apollo, one of the gambling ships off the Los Angeles coast. They find more than a little trouble there that really sets the plot in motion.

Cops dumping slot machines off the Rex
The Apollo is based on the real gambling ships that used to lay off the SoCal shore, just outside the three-mile limit. I’ve taken a few liberties with the Apollo. It’s much nicer than the real gambling ships, which, while they had their amenities, weren’t always as glamorous as you might think. But when gambling was illegal I guess they were good places to go and get your fix.

                  The interior of the Lux
The most famous of the real gambling ships was the Rex, run by Tony Cornero, A.K.A. The Admiral. Cornero had a checkered career, to say the least. During Prohibition in the 1920s he was a rum-runner (I wonder if he knew Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.?). He moved much of his illegal booze on ships, so had a background on the bounding seas for when he decided to open up the gambling ships later on.

When Prohibition was repealed, Cornero made the easy slide over to gambling. In 1931 when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas, he and his brothers set up there, opening up The Meadows Casino and Hotel, beating out Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas venture by over a decade. Unfortunately, Lucky Luciano got wind of it and, since Cornero wouldn’t pay extortion money, the Meadows was torched. Hmm, no connection to old Lucky there, right?

Tony Cornero aboard the Lux
So back to L.A. Cornero went. And in 1938 he bought two ships, the SS Rex and the SS Tango and converted them into gambling boats. By running them outside the legal limit he could skirt US law. The ships included gourmet chefs, gunmen to keep the peace, waiters, waitresses and—wait for it—orchestras. And that’s where Bobby and the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra come in.

Cornero was a constant thorn in the side of authorities, but things went along swimmingly until The Battle of Santa Monica Bay—yeah, that’s a real thing. The authorities tried raiding the ships. The Rex held them off for nine days, but eventually lost and Cornero, to make a long story short, hightailed it back to Vegas, where he built the Stardust Casino and Hotel, which I stayed at many times. At the time, way back when, I knew it was mob-connected, but I didn’t know then about the Cornero connection, which I find intriguing.

The Battle of Santa Monica Bay
And, of course, some pivotal scenes in The Blues Don’t Care are set on the Apollo, just a water taxi ride from the Santa Monica Pier:

“A fine briny mist bit Bobby’s skin as he waited in the throng of people on the Santa Monica Pier for the water taxi that would take him to the gambling ship Apollo. The little cartoon-like ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawing glared at him from the water taxi shack. Kilroy was everywhere these days. He had to shield his eyes from the fiery late afternoon sun, wished he had a pair of sunglasses. Only movie stars and musicians wore sunglasses. Maybe he’d get a pair of shades.”

Below, Bobby describes seeing the Apollo’s ballroom for the first time:

“Bobby peered over the sea of faces in the ballroom—white faces in expensive suits and chic dresses. The Apollo wasn’t the biggest or fanciest or the most seaworthy ship in the world. But if she went down, half of Hollywood, the Los Angeles political establishment, and business movers and shakers in the Southland would disappear into Davy Jones’ Locker. That didn’t stop the people who ran her—gangsters everyone knew—from decking out the main ballroom as if it were Versailles. The ceiling was tall and sparkled with lights under a false ceiling with a gauzy, azure-painted sky. Below it, the dance floor in the center of the room, surrounded by gambling tables—craps, roulette, blackjack, and the like. And in rows behind the gambling tables, dining tables.”

The La La Land gambling ships also make appearances in one of my favorite books and a movie from one of my favorite series.

Raymond Chandler talks about them in Farewell, My Lovely. In the novel, Philip Marlowe is told that Moose Malloy might be hiding out on one of the gambling ships outside the three mile limit. Marlowe sneaks aboard and persuades Brunette, the gangster who runs the ship, to get a message to Malloy. Farewell, My Lovely was made into the movie Murder, My Sweet (1944). The 1942 B movie The Falcon Takes Over is also based on the plot. And in 1975 Robert Mitchum starred in a remake.

And much of Song of the Thin Man, the last Thin Man movie (co-written by my friend Nat Perrin) is partially set on one of the ships. A benefit is happening on the gambling ship Fortune. The bandleader is murdered. Guess who has to figure it out. Song of the Thin Man should be called Farewell, My Thin Man as it’s the last in the series and unfortunately not the best by far, but it has its moments.

Mr. Lucky
Another movie that takes place on a gambling ship is the Cary Grant-Larraine Day flick Mr. Lucky. Not his best, but I like it. And you can check out my close encounter of the first kind with Cary Grant at my website.
The book was released yesterday. Hope you’ll want to check it out. Here’s what some people are saying about it:

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."

“Award-winning author Paul D. Marks hits it out of the park with this finely-written novel bringing WWII-era L.A. alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended.”
     —Brendan DuBois, New York Times bestselling author

“Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40's L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. There's sex, drugs, and jazz and an always surprising hero who navigates the worlds of gambling, music, war profiteers, Jewish mobsters, and a lonely few trying to do the right thing. Marks has an eye for the telling detail, and an ear that captures the music in the dialogue of the times. He is one helluva writer.”
      —Michael Sears, award-winning author of Tower of Babel, and the Jason Stafford series

"While The Blues Don't Care is a complex, sometimes brutal, story, it also has its glimmers of beauty and joy. Those glimpses come from Bobby's passion for music, and his awe when he sees celebrities such as Clark Gable and Billie Holiday. Wander into Bobby Saxon's world in Paul D. Marks' latest book. It's a world you won't easily forget."
      —Lesa's Book Critiques,


And now for the usual BSP:

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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...

03 May 2020

20 to Go

The Rule of Four (novel)
Experts suggest the COVID-19 coronavirus took root in the US sooner than believed, possibly as early as January. Personally, I believe it infected state and federal executive branches much, much earlier.

I’ve been astonished to learn of deep-seated efforts to fire Dr Anthony Fauci. Thus explaineth the lovely Haboob:
Far left and right conspiracy theorists reach remarkably similar conclusions. Both insist Dr Fauci masterminded a Clinton Foundation-funded Deep State effort to develop a virus fabricated in a Wuhan lab. Their profit motive was to make lots of money selling the world a co-developed vaccine, but the virus got away from the Chinese. Parting from the left’s hypothesis, the ultra-right maintains that the greatest intellect the White House has ever known leapt into action, averting an Obama-driven disaster in which tens of victims might have perished were it not for this great man who saved the planet. Or something like that.
We don’t do politics or low crimes and misdemeanors, just death and destruction. It takes great writing to top the tales coming out of national and state capitals. Gathered here are twenty exquisite murder mysteries, some new, some classics, some unusual, many recommended by others (thanks Sharon), most lengthy for that immersive read.

As viruses simmer in the summer cauldron, enjoy reading in a cool arbor bower.

The Cartel Don Winslow
Cult X Fuminori Nakamura
The Eighth Girl Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
The Historian Elizabeth Kostova
The Honourable Schoolboy John le Carré
L.A. Confidential James Ellroy
The Last Tourist Olen Steinhauer
The Luminaries Eleanor Catton
The Man Who Loved Dogs Leonardo Paduro
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Natchez Burning Greg Isles
The Rule of Four Caldwell & Thomason
The Secret History Donna Tartt
Shantaram Gregory David Roberts
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama
Three Hours in Paris Cara Black
What’s Left of Me is Yours Stephanie Scott
The Witch Elm Tana French
2666 Roberto Bolaño
and the novel that started it all…
A Study in Scarlet Arthur Conan Doyle

What are your favorites?

10 March 2020

Paperback Writer

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear,
And I need a job,
So I wanna be a paperback writer…
            — John Lennon / Paul McCartney

I always wanted to send a query to an editor and start it off with those words. Probably would have worked better a while back when more people would have recognized it than today. It still seems like a fun thing to do.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today. I am, however, writing about the Beatles.

Most people who know me for more than five minutes or more than just on the surface know how much I love the Beatles. I could run on and on here about just how much. But the main point is that, even though they’re music and I’m a writer, they had (have) a great influence on me.

The main thing they gave me (along with many other things) is a desire to be the best. I do play some music and if I had my druthers, if I could ever figure out what the hell a druther is, I would have wanted to be a rock star. Who wouldn’t? But as much of an ego as I might have—or had cause it’s shrinking all the time…—I knew I didn’t have the chops to make it in music. I had some fun. I played in some bands. See the home made, or should I say artisanal, card here from our first band. It might be artisanal, but I’m almost embarrassed to show it—very DIY. Anyway, I knew enough to know I couldn’t be a professional musician.

So I had to figure out something else to do with my life. Hmm? Astrophysicist. Architect. Archeologist. Anthropologist. Astronomer. Astrologer. You see whatever it was it had to start with an “A”.  Well, actually one of those might be something I considered. It might have had something to do with designing buildings. But I never really pursued it.

My parents, of course, always wanted me to have a “real job” and something to fall back on. But being the rebellious sort I went my own way. And that way took a left turn at Hollywood and Vine, especially since I was born the proverbial hop, skip and jump from there. So maybe it was fate that I wanted to try my hand at writing.

It wasn’t an easy row to hoe. And without going into specifics, it took lots of persistence, many rejections, some chutzpah (and if that isn’t a Hollywood word I don’t know what is). But eventually I carved a niche for myself doing rewriting. And the day I got into the (screen) Writers Guild was one of the best days of my life. However, my father never really understood what I did because I got no screen credit and without something tangible like that he didn’t quite get it.

From there I branched out to writing short stories and novels. And again started with many rejections and lots of persistence. Each rejection made me angry. After all, wasn’t I the greatest writer since Charles Dickens, or in our field, Hammett and Chandler? These people who kept rejecting me clearly had no taste. But after my little tantrums I would go back to the drawing board and either rework the rejected story or work on something new. I wanted them to be good. I wanted them to be good enough to sell.

And the Beatles, because I love them so much, and because they were so good and always pushing the envelope and trying new things, made me want to be better every time out…like them. I’m not putting myself in the same rarified air as them, just saying that they inspired me. Of course, they weren’t the only thing that lit the fire in the belly, but they were certainly part of it.

The time I made a producer cry after leaving him a treatment because it touched him so much was a highpoint for me—to get that kind of reaction meant I was doing something right.

There’s a bit in the movie As Good As It Gets, where Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt:

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson): I've got a really great compliment for you, and it's true.

Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt): I'm so afraid you're about to say something awful.

Melvin: Don't be pessimistic, it's not your style. Okay. Here I go. Clearly a mistake.

(shifts in his seat uncomfortably)

Melvin: I've got this, what, ailment? My doctor, a shrink that I used to go to all the time, he says that in fifty or sixty percent of the cases, a pill really helps. I hate pills. Very dangerous thing, pills. Hate. I'm using the word "hate" here, about pills. Hate. My compliment is, that night when you came over and told me that you would never... all right, well, you were there, you know what you said. Well, my compliment to you is, the next morning, I started taking the pills.

Carol: I don't quite get how that's a compliment for me.

Melvin: You make me want to be a better man.


Carol: (stunned) That's maybe the best compliment of my life.

And just as she made the Nicholson character want to be a better man, the Beatles (and others) made/make me want to be a better writer. A better paperback writer.

I’m not saying I’m the greatest writer in the world, far from it. But listening to the Beatles, and reading great mystery and fiction writers made me strive to be the best that I could be. And when I’d get rejections I’d be upset, but it would also make me try harder with an “I’ll show you” attitude. I’m still not where I want to be, but I keep working on it. And what I am saying is shoot for the stars and maybe get the moon or even just a mountain top. Shoot for nothing and you get nothing. But while you’re shooting for the stars, hone your craft.

And I’m writing this not to talk about myself per se but to share my experiences for others who may be on the same path and might need a little encouragement. I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.


And now for the usual BSP:

Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books - The Blues Don't Care:

“There are all the essential elements for an engrossing read: good guys, bad guys, gangsters and crooked policemen, and through it all, an extremely well written sense of believable realism.”
            —Discovering Diamonds Reviews, Independent Reviews of the Best in Historical Fiction (

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