Friday, June 28, 2013

A Story Of Berry Picking

from Jacqueline

I was walking Maya, my black Labrador, yesterday, when, there ahead of me was a large overhanging blackberry bramble, laden with rich, ripe fruit.   Without further ado, I began filling a plastic bag with these most luscious sweet berries (dog owners always have a clutch of plastic bags in their pockets). 

 You know how sometimes blackberries look lovely, but almost as soon as they touch your tongue, you can taste your bitter error?  Well, these were surprisingly good. There were whole brambles filled with berries for me to plunder ... and then it happened, the sunshine and the berries and reaching for the fruit conspired to open the door to a tunnel of memories.

As most of you who have read this blog over the years might know, I was raised in the country of Kent, England, in a rural area surrounded by farms.  My mother worked on the farms when I was younger – farm work was the best job for women, because it was seasonal and you could bring your kids out to the fields in the school holidays.  It wasn’t bad for the kids, either, because not only were you outside in the fresh air, but you could earn a penny or two, especially in the summer, and especially fruit picking.  Although I would pick any fruit if I was paid to do it, even as a youngster I preferred blackcurrant picking – it was a far easier  fruit to pick than strawberries, blackberries or loganberries.  This story is about my first grand adventure blackcurrant picking, and one of the first memorable lessons in life.

 I was six years old and I wanted a Cinderella watch. I know – what the heck is a Cinderella watch?  Well, it was a fancy girls’ watch with a picture of Disney’s Cinderella on the dial, and it came packaged in a glass shoe. I think, really, I wanted the shoe.  I would pass the jewelers on my way to the bus stop after school, and I would linger there to look at the watch, my face pressed against the window.  I could almost feel that watch on my wrist, and I knew the glass shoe would be so cool and smooth to the touch.  But as my mother said when I told her how much I wanted that watch, “Now you know what it is to want.  Call it an experience.”  She had a point.  

Some time passed, then one day she said, “Well, blackcurrant picking’s coming up – you could earn your watch you know, if you want.”  I said yes straightaway.  So we came to an arrangement – I would pick fruit with her in the mornings, and I would play with all the other kids in the afternoons.  She made up a small businesslike workbook for me, an imitation of the cards given to the pickers to record the weight of fruit picked – you were paid by the number of pounds picked in a day.

Let me try to paint a picture for you of the atmosphere out in the fruit fields.  Women arrived in the morning, around half past eight, either on their bikes or pushing prams, but all carrying heavy bags with their sandwiches, bottled orange squash (OK, it’s a British thing …), and whatever comestibles would keep everyone fed and watered during the day.  There would be upwards of thirty, forty, fifty women arriving for the picking, all accompanied by children, with the older children tasked with looking after the younger ones.  You never knew who would be giving the orders, because you just paid attention to any adult or big kid who told you what to do. 

It was colorful, invariably warm and humid, and even during the picking, the talk back and forth seemed to set the rhythm for the day.  And the kids just ran through the woods and down to the stream, making up their own games and generally keeping out of the way.  But you always heard the mid-day summons – one of the women would call out, “Dinner!” and you went running back to the foot of the row where your mother was working, and where she would now be pouring tea or juice, and getting the sandwiches out.  "Dinner" was lunch, in those days, and what we call dinner now, was called tea – yep, “tea” was your evening meal, meat, potatoes and two veg.  That’s how it was in the country, then, the nomenclature was different.

So, during the summer of my seventh year, I became one of the working women, picking my blackcurrants, having my fruit weighed and checked by the farmer, who noted my accomplishments in my book, so I could see it all mounting up.  That Cinderella watch was getting closer.  Eventually blackcurrant picking ended and I had earned the grand sum of one pound, eighteen shillings and sixpence, which was handed to me by the farmer in a small brown envelope.
We decided it would be best to buy the watch in Maidstone, the country town, and we would go on market day – market day was always fun, and in any case, the Cinderella watch might be cheaper at a jewelers in the big town. By coincidence, my uncle and aunt and three cousins were staying with us, so we set off, all nine of us, on the bus to Maidstone, about twenty miles away.  It was a long journey, marked by my cousin Larry throwing up out of the bus window.  As soon as we arrived, I could not wait to get to the shop, so my aunt took my then toddler brother, and my parents and I went to the jewelers.  There was a Cinderella watch in the window.  Even writing this, I still feel the goose bumps that prickled my skin as I peered at that watch.  We went into the shop, and the man behind the counter asked my parents how he could help them.  Dad put his hand on my shoulder, and informed the man that I was his customer.  My head barely reached the top of the counter.
I explained that I was interested in a Cinderella watch. He smiled, then pulled back a red curtain to reveal the back of the window display.  He leaned in and took out the watch.  I gasped.  It was beautiful.  He set it in front of me, and I touched the glass shoe with my finger.
            “How much is it?” I asked.  My parents were at the other side of the shop – this was my money to spend, and they were letting me get on with it. 
            “Two pounds and three shillings.”
            I swallowed, and looked over my shoulder.  My dad nodded and smiled. I looked up at the man.
            “I’ve only got one pound, eighteen and six to spend,” I said, turning away, hoping the tears would not show.
            The man leaned across the counter and whispered.  “You know, if it were me, I wouldn’t be buying this watch.”
            My parents were standing behind me now.
            “When you buy this watch, what you’re really paying for is the picture on the face, and this glass shoe. I would imagine a lady like yourself would be interested in something of quality, something that will last.
            I nodded and turned around for back-up.
            “The gentleman’s right, Jackie,” said my Dad.
            The man reached into the window again and took out two watches, one a plain silver watch with a round face, neat figures and a black leather strap.
            “This is a watch for a young lady like yourself,” said the man.  “Good quality.  Fine leather.”
            My eyes met his.  I could barely speak. He nodded towards my wrist, and I lifted it up towards him. 
            “There,” he said, placing the watch on my wrist, pulling the leather through the buckle.  “Very elegant, I would say.
            “How much is it?” I asked, feeling the exquisite weight of the timepiece.
            “One pound, seventeen shillings and eleven pence.”
            I turned to my parents.
            “Do you like it?” said my mother.
            I nodded, and ran my finger around the watch face.
            “Good,” said the man.  “Would you like it wrapped, or will you wear it?”
            I decided to wear it.   Now it was time to hand over my hard-earned cash. I took my small plastic coin purse out of my pocket, unzipped the top and tipped it upside down on the counter.  Coins fell across the glass, along with a neatly folded one pound note.

            I cannot pick fruit now without thinking of that watch, or of the lesson my parents taught me – that if you want something very much, to earn with your own hard work is a sweet accomplishment.  I even wore the watch to bed that night and was indulged by my family, my aunt and uncle and my cousins, who kept asking me the time.  I have to confess, though, I dreamed of a glass shoe that night.  I would have loved a glass shoe.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My New Hobby: "Pulp Friction"

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

I have a new hobby.

I'm hosting a weekly podcast on Blog Talk Radio.  It's called "Pulp Friction" and I spend 30 to 45 minutes interviewing authors and others in the creative arts.  (Do football coaches count?)

I've joined up with the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network where you'll find archives of shows and other information compiled by AOTA Guru Pam Stack.

My first interview was with Lee Goldberg, screenwriter and co-author with Janet Evanovich of the summer blockbuster "The Heist."  You can listen to Lee's tales of Hollywood and his tips for writers here
  Next up was James W. Hall, creator of the "Thorn" series and many other novels.  We spent some time talking about his non-fiction book, "Hit List," which de-constructs a bunch of bestselling novels ("Gone With the Wind," "Jaw," "The Firm," "To Kill a Mockingbird") to find their common points.  Follow Jim's advice, and you might write the next mega-best-seller.  You can listen here.

Last week was Joel Goldman's turn.  The dapper former trial lawyer has  made a highly successful transition from traditional publishing to self-publishing and dispensed wise and witty tips for writers in both fields.  Listen here.

This Sunday night at 8 pm Eastern, Pulp Friction's guest will be the multi-talented John Schulian, whose mid-career move from outstanding sportswriter to television writer/producer is an inspiring tale.  You can read about the upcoming show (and listen to it) here.  If you listen live, you can call into the show with questions and comments.
Before long, I'd like to have all the Naked Authors on the show.  Yes, Jim Born.  Even you!

Happy listening...

Paul Levine


Monday, June 24, 2013

When Hard Work Pays Off

Patty here...

I'm posting late because I'm a bit tired today. For the past year and a half as President of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles, I've been planning a two-day writers' conference with a group of other dedicated volunteers. The California Crime Writers Conference was held this past weekend at the Hilton Pasadena to a sold out crowd. Our keynote speakers, Sue Grafton and Elizabeth George, spoke at the luncheons, inspired us with their words, mingled with other writers and signed books for fan-girls like me.

Elizabeth George taught a workshop on "Finding Your Process" to an audience that was standing room only and spilling out into the hallway. Sue Grafton donated a manuscript critique for our charity auction and Elizabeth purchased an auction item with a practiced nod of her head. Generous. Impressive. Amazing women.

Here's a photo taken by Robin Templeton of Sue Grafton, Hank Phillippi Ryan (President of National Sisters in Crime), me and Elizabeth George. Here is an article about Sue's Saturday keynote address.

I promise to write more next week. For now, I need another cup of coffee and maybe a nap!

Happy Monday!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Belated Thoughts on Moral Boundaries ....

from Jacqueline

I feel like Alice's white rabbit today - rushing around with watch in my hand saying, "I'm late, I'm late ...." but he didn't then say, "with my Naked Authors post!!"

Yes, I'm late, but I have an excuse.  You know that cold?  Well, it hung around long enough to cause a bit more trouble, and now I am on the dreaded antibiotics because it went down into my trachea - like Alice down that darn hole!  But all will be well, don't you worry! I come from hardy stock.

Just a couple of random thoughts to throw into the pot this week, I suppose about thresholds.  How do some people live life on the edge?  I know we all take risks - heck, take one look at my horse, Oliver, and you might say, "Well that woman lives life on the edge every single day!"  His feet are like dinner plates, so just one false step and I would have a crushed foot - thank heavens he is Shoeless Ollie!  But there are people who just go beyond the threshold of - what?  Common sense?  The limits of their moral compass?  And before I go on, I should preface all of this with a note to the effect that I am writing by the seat of my pants here - sort of "stream of consciousness" notes.

I've been thinking about this notion of a moral threshold from different angles.  Maybe that comes from being a writer who - like it or not - deals in death (most mysteries have a suspicious death somewhere along the line).  Here's one thing I've been thinking about this week - that former Nazi guard and all round nasty piece of work (and a naturalized US citizen, I might add) who was discovered living in Wisconsin.  Not only do I wonder how it is that these these Nazis live so long (wasn't the last discovery a man in his nineties?  This one is 83), but what does it feel like every day, living with the memories of what you've done, and wondering if you're going to get caught? I mean, it's one thing keeping a low profile in Uruguay or Bolivia (which is where they seemed to go en mass after the war, as if south America was a latter day Ellis Island for former Nazi guards) - but Wisconsin?  Land of the cheese?  Land of really friendly people?  Ah, there you go - friendly people.  Many of them blonde. People who think the best of their neighbors.  I think the Nazi has been deported now. Good. I hope it was at the back of the 'plane on a very bumpy flight.  But who would want him?   Maybe there are people in the world who can just shut it all out, the fact that they had done something so heinous. Maybe they don't see the terror in their mind's eye every single day.  But if it was me, I couldn't take the pressure of what I had been involved in for one single minute. I would have to kill myself.

Onto something completely different.  Living on the edge takes all sorts. Yesterday I drove up from southern California to the Bay Area - a good 400-mile drive.  Now, anyone who has been along Highway 101 in recent years will know that the California Highway Patrol hunt in packs along great stretches of the route.  Do not assume they cannot see you, even in that bit in the middle where you never quite know where you are (around Camp Roberts).  King City used to be the hot-spot, but now, you had just better mind your p's and q's.  And why rush anyway?  It's a lovely drive and perhaps I have reached the stage in life where I just want to eventually get to where I am going.  My rallying days are over (and you think I'm kidding?).  I was somewhere in the region of Salinas when a guy in a white BMW went racing past, probably around 85 miles per hour.  "You'd better watch yourself, pal," I thought.  I even mentioned it to the dog, who had woken up for a quick look to see where we were.  I noticed the car because I used to have one of a similar vintage - a  1996 model, though mine was a stick-shift 345i, and it was the Ultimate Flying Machine.  My husband hated that car and said it was like a tank.  I digress.  I passed the BMW a short time later - he had been pulled over by the CHP.  Fifteen minutes after that he went zooming past me again.  Around Gilroy, I passed him, pulled over by the CHP.  Same thing again, no sooner had he been allowed to go on his way, than he went flying past in his white Beemer at a silly speed, and sure enough, I saw him once more by the side of the road having what was surely a very interesting conversation with the CHP.  If it were me, I would have just kept going and made my way straight to San Quentin - cut out the middle man and just get yourself put inside.  Makes you wonder though, doesn't it?

I think some people are simply adrenalin junkies in a really negative way - to say the least.  Life on the edge.  I remember, years ago, when I was in my teens and going through a Leon Uris phase, I read his novel QBVII, and one of the things - perhaps it was in the dialogue - that struck me was the notion that we all have a capacity for evil, and that in some people there are circumstances that allow for that evil to flourish.  Take the Wisconsin Nazi.  Maybe it's to do with thresholds and limits, and that when we break through our own moral threshold, there are no limits, no boundaries any more.  And I wonder how one lives with that, afterwards.  The guy in the Beemer obviously thought "f**k it" after the first ticket (I would have been mortified), so he'd crashed through some threshold of responsibility.  Speeding kills, and maybe that's OK if all you want to do is experience the thrill of teetering on the edge of a monumental automobile wreck that only involves you.  But what about the other lives you are likely to take with you on your way to wild-ride heaven?  It makes me have a good deal of compassion for the CHP and emergency services - they're the ones who have to deal with the aftermath of an idiot who has lost his grip, so when it's so blatant, no wonder they get ticket-happy.

I remember once, when I was about fourteen, I did something at school that I never thought I would do. Now, first of all, I will tell you that I was a good kid. I never gave a teacher any lip and I did as I was told.  There was a part-time drama teacher at the school who was a bit of a fop, a dandy, a man in his sixties, probably, who always seemed as if he'd dropped out the the court of King George IV. He wore linen suits in the summer and always a droopy bow tie.  But he was essentially harmless.  One day he called me out of the assembly hall for talking to my friend.  I wasn't the only one talking, but he called me out - it was during rehearsals for the annual school play.  He stood in front of me just going on about the talking, and I said, "Oh for God's sake, will you just dry up?  You're getting on my bloody nerves."  And he did not know what to do.  I was a good girl, not like Maxine whatever-her-name-was with the dyed blonde hair, or Cheryl whose last name I know but wouldn't dare to mention in case she sees this post and still sharpens the edge of her steel comb, just in case someone ticked her off.  He just looked at me and started shaking, which of course set me off and I began to laugh.  Then I just walked off and returned to my seat.  I had broken through my moral boundary - and I knew it.  Not only that, it scared the heck out of me, really. I didn't apologize - I was probably too embarrassed and sick of myself - but I never, ever did anything like that again.  You do something once, and it can be an anomaly, an error, perhaps.  Twice, and you've got yourself a habit.  That's what happened to Maxine and Cheryl.

I think that's where I'm going with this ramble - that there are people out there who, in one way or another, break through a personal boundary, a moral, human boundary.  I've occasionally thought about that teacher over the years. And the fact that over 45 years later it still bothers me now and again makes me wonder if that Nazi lost any sleep about that most dreadful of moral boundaries he crossed, and how he lived with himself - and for so darn long!  And is the guy in the white Beemer clutching his head today and thinking, "Geez, what was I thinking?  I could have killed someone."  (He will soon be thinking about it - when his license is revoked, that's for sure).  But I suppose there are people everywhere with their secrets, harboring knowledge of a boundary ruptured - be it to do with respect for others, a personal code of kindness, or a belief that killing another person is wrong.  And that's probably why so many people read mysteries and thrillers, because as writers in this genre, that's one of the things we're exploring all the time - the crossing of moral boundaries.

Drive safe, won't you - really, being late doesn't really matter.  Just don't make a habit of it - leave a bit earlier.

And have a good weekend!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Roses are red, violets are blue; I love poetry, how about you?

Patty here

I can’t remember exactly when I became enchanted with the rhythmic compactness of poetry. Maybe it was the delight I felt when my mother read one of my favorite toddler tales about the “funny little bunny” or Dr. Seuss's addictive meter in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Many of those early rhymes stuck in my head because of repetitive rereading, but in 5th grade I consciously set out to memorized Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The story drips with suspense, which is accelerated by a setting imbued with darkness, coldness and aloneness. Dramatic questions abound, which is what we writers aim for because questions keep readers reading to find answers: Who is this person? Why is he stopping in this remote area? What are the promises he vows to keep and who may be harmed by them? Even after all these years, I'm still drawn to Frost's words.

As I child, I had a vivid imagination. For a time, my career choice was: spy. Even at 7 or 8 years old I knew the downside. If I ever got caught, I was likely to spend some time in prison. I needed a way to entertain myself in solitary confinement, so I began memorizing other poems: Frost’s the “Mending Wall” (Good Fences Make Good Neighbors), and Carl Sandberg’s “Chicago” (Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders), and his in-your-face “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter,” tough talk that was sure to intimidate my captors.

You come along. . . tearing your shirt. . . yelling about
Where do you get that stuff?
What do you know about Jesus?

Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few
bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem
everybody liked to have this Jesus around because
he never made any fake passes and everything
he said went and he helped the sick and gave the
people hope.

You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist
and calling us all damn fools so fierce the froth slobbers
over your lips. . . always blabbing we're all
going to hell straight off and you know all about it...

Over the years, I squirreled away copies of the poems I loved best, which I still have in a large plastic envelope. Recently, I thumbed through the pile. The paper is dog-eared from handling and yellowed with age. Inside, I also found a college essay I wrote on Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and a dreadful poem I wrote at age eighteen or so. Some of my favorites were typed on my mother’s old Royal manual typewriter. Some are on mimeographed sheets from a poetry class I took in college. When I pulled those out of the envelope, I put my nose to the pages, hoping to rekindle that intoxicating fragrance of mimeograph ink but the scent had gone missing.

 I also found “Portrait of a Southern Lady” from John Brown’s Body, Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem about the American Civil War. The excerpt, which I had originally read in a textbook, was hand copied onto lined and hole-punched paper and written in my careful school penmanship. Years after I had fallen in love with his portrait of Mary Lou Wingate, I found the whole work in a used bookstore. It will always be part of my permanent collection because this is one of the most moving and compelling character sketches I have ever read:

…Mary Lou Wingate, as slightly made
And as hard to break as a rapier blade.
Bristol’s daughter and Wingate’s bride,
Never well since the last child died
But staring at pain with courteous eyes.
When the pain outwits it, the body dies,
Meanwhile the body bears the pain...

Stephen Vincent Benét

Many of my favorite poems are philosophical. For example “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley taught me not to overestimate my impact on the universe, something all writers learn sooner or later.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.' 

Another poem in the pile is a bit of a mystery. It’s called “The Clue,” circa 1970s. I can’t remember where I found it, but it impressed me enough to retype the entire text on the Royal, all four and a half pages of it. The anonymous author pressed every hot-button, angst-filled issue of that era with references to race, war, greed, literature and T.S. Elliott. I found no references to “The Clue” on the Internet. Maybe I have the only surviving copy? It starts:

Maybe we believe it, and maybe we don’t
But on we sing: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God…"
Sure He is
But with reservations…
We need the Lord, when we’re in hot water But Otherwise,
Back to your golden roads and squawking harps…
You know: “Don’t call us…we’ll call you”…
Christianity is for…”crutch-needing” people, old people And kid stuff like that,
We’re past that state; this is the age of technology.
Anyway we’re kicking old Zen around,
Giving it a whirl. 

 Later, it reads:

Being alone---
That’s what I don’t like
Because then the questions come thick and fast:
Where am I going?
What am I doing?
Riots in Algeria,
The Wall
The freedom riders
Conservation in Maine
The swim
The twist
The men in space
Ban the bomb
The Beatles
“Black Like Me” !!! 

And still later:

Back to the books
The prelims
The papers
Back to course 322…
On how to out psych the Prof.
Back to Econ.
And Soc.
Always coming at us in a mad swirl.
No time to stop.
No time to think.
Keep going.
Keep up.
Keep in there…
A thirst for knowledge.
A search for truth.
Don’t make me laugh...
I want that piece of paper that leads to
10 Harmony Haven
Home of the split level
And the split personality...

I often wonder about the author of this piece, who he/she is and what prompted this outpouring of anguish, much of which seems universal even today. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to know who wrote it. Perhaps the words are enough.

 The word according to Virginia Woolf

Happy Monday!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Confessions of The Original Bling Ring Girl

from Jacqueline

I know blog posts are supposed to be short and snappy, but this is more of an essay, a confession, a short story, about me.  And seeing as three of my fellow Naked Authors are connected to the law, perhaps Patty, Paul – and especially Jim - should not read any further (I know they will now ...).  But anyway ….

I’ve not seen the movie, The Bling Ring, but I remember reading about that LA teen gang in the newspapers – and how they broke into celebrity homes, taking belongings that the likes of Paris Hilton never even missed.  And in the same way that a person might taste their first glass of wine and know it would take just one little tipple too many to turn them into an alcoholic, I understood that, when I was their age, had I taken my little hobby of entering empty houses just one tiny step further, I could have been a bling ring girl.

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with empty properties.  They don’t have to be posh, upscale homes, but they need to have something interesting about them – griffon statues at the gate, a pile of old, yellowing mail easily viewed on the front doormat, or something left in a room, visible when I pressed my nose to the window and cupped my hands around my eyes to get a better look into a shadowy deserted spaces.  I was raised in a community where there were many interesting houses, from the manor house, to grand estates, to medieval farmworkers cottages and terrace homes constructed for the men who came to build the railway in the mid-1800’s.  And it wasn’t unusual for those homes to remain unoccupied for months at a time, because so many of the locals were elderly – when they died it took time to sell the house, or remove the contents for another tenant to move in.  My brother and I were the only kids in that hamlet, so it was a distraction to go looking into empty houses – it was for me, anyway.  I could make up whole stories about who had lived there and what had come to pass in that house.

I wonder, now, when it was that I first began finding ways to enter an empty house - and when I say, "empty" I mean a house with no current resident, except, perhaps, the ghosts. I think it was a deserted cottage in the Bedgebury Forest – a place that always held a fascination for me, not least because there was an ancient wishing well deep in the woodland, a place where I had divested myself of half my pocket money on many an occasion in my quest to have a horse to call my own by any means.  I wish I knew then how much pocket money it takes to keep a horse!!! 

People can get careless about empty homes. Perhaps not those in a sub-division, where there’s a real estate agent’s lock box on the door, neighborhood watch and burglar alarms, but in quieter areas, or even in the middle of cities you’ll find that people can get careless.  It was the open window that called to me, and I remember shimmying up the gutter down-pipe, and pushing the window wide open, clambering in and feeling as Alice might have felt when she slid down the rabbit hole.  I discovered old newspapers from the days of rationing, and a collection of letters from a sweetheart at the Western Front in the Great War – letters I read and put away with care, tying the ribbon in exactly the same place where the knot had rippled the fabric.  I took nothing, and left all as I found it.  But I spent as much time in the empty cottage as my bravery would allow.  Then I oozed myself out of that small window, slid down the pipe and was away on my bike before anyone knew.  Luckily, being a country kid, parents never asked how you managed to get scrapes on your elbows or knees, or cuts and bruises – it was part of the business of adventure, and adventure was always encouraged in our house, as long as you didn’t have to pay for it.

The Georgian house at the end of the lane at the edge of the hamlet was another target almost as soon at the family moved out. They’d been London people with notions of living a country life at weekends, but soon the business of having two homes bankrupted the upwardly mobile townies, and the house was abandoned in a moonlight flit.  People moving fast tend to leave more behind. I remember pushing against the back door until it eventually gave way to me – I could tell the lock hadn’t done its job because the wood had shrunk in the hot summer sun.  The floor in every room was uneven, so if you placed a bead at one end it would roll towards the other.  A bead?  In the back bedroom I found a necklace of oval wooden beads stained in deep burgundy.  The string was broken and several beads had come free, so I ran them across the floor to measure the grade. I wondered if everyone in that house felt ill all the time, because I felt pretty weird.  A pile of bills, unpaid, past due and with the promise of legal action emblazoned in red had been left on a kitchen table still bearing the stains of cups and plates.  I thought they were dirty people, these London stockbroker types.  I left the house by the same door and pulled it back into its uneven place.  It was the only time I ever came away with treasure – one of those burgundy beads.

Now, you would think I would have grown out of this little failing of mine, wouldn’t you?  I have remained fascinated by the idea of being in other peoples' houses, uninvited and alone, as if I were some latter-day Goldilocks.  Did you ever see The Bee Season, with Juliet Binoche as the woman who collected a whole storage locker filled with glittery things taken from homes she had calmly walked into and out of without being seen?  That is the slippery slope, and I think I might have come close to the edge before pulling myself back.  I remember, when I was in my mid-twenties and a sales rep for an academic publishing company, I traveled extensively staying for several days in university towns throughout the UK. It seemed fun at first, living in hotels, doing this great job that I loved.  Then with winter, the loneliness set in, and I would often take a walk after my work was done, stepping out into the cold evening air in a strange town, stopping in my tracks to look through windows into warm houses, at the families together eating supper or watching TV.  Sometimes there would be an empty house with just one light on, a room waiting for an owner not yet home, and I would wonder what it would be like to just find a way in and sit in a cozy chair until I heard a key in the lock, at which point I would sneak out the back door.  Of course, I never crossed that particular threshold.

It was a couple of years ago, while out biking with my friend, who shall remain nameless because she’s a teacher, and it wouldn’t do to out her on this, that we discovered we were both drawn to empty properties.  It started when we passed an abandoned house and she said she had always wondered what it was like inside.  So had I.  Like a pair of kids we hid our bikes around the back, and then, seasoned breakers-in that we were, we both eyed the same unlocked door and entered the house.  We only stayed about five minutes, or was it ten?   Enough time to study each room, wondering how anyone could have read books like that, and to open a few closets – there’s often a gaggle of empty hangers in the closet of a deserted house, and perhaps two or three solitary polyester dresses dating from the 1970’s or, curiously, a tuxedo with dusty shoulders.  Then we closed the door and went on our way.  Another house we came upon was probably the most interesting we’ve found – an old stone cottage with a lock box on the front door, but the back entrance left ajar. We crept in and found that the adult children of the deceased had obviously taken everything they thought was of value, but left so much that was interesting.  A pile of magazines from the 1950’s with one thing in common – the same stunning blonde on the cover, head back, lips pouting. There were photos of the woman in the garage, and we soon realized that, yes, it had been her home and she was a debutante, but clearly one with a career in Hollywood's early glittering heyday.  We found two guns leaning against a sofa, and that was when we decided to leave.  This time we took care to do what no one else had done – we locked that door.  The house was too close to a high school, and those guns were quite visible from the windows – so we set them down so no-one could see.  We wouldn’t want a youngster to give in to temptation.

I've not entered an empty house unbidden in a while now, and I probably never will again.  But that’s not to say that I won’t think about it.  It’s the fascination with abandoned places and the people who were there - the storyteller in me likes to give them a past.  It’s been said that writers begin as curious children, but perhaps it begins with being just plain nosy.

If my brother reads this post, he will laugh, I know, though he still blames me for the telling off he received from a policeman when we were discovered in the old abandoned railway station close to our home when we were kids.  I told the policeman that I only went in to find my brother, who was trying to rescue an injured cat.  John says it was the way the lie just tripped off my tongue that almost made him faint, especially as it was he who received the stern warning about entering railway property, derelict or not.  He was five years old. I was nine.  It had been my idea to go in via a broken window.  Yes, me, The Original Bling Ring Girl.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The world outside crime fiction by James O. Born

I read a lot.  Any writer who doesn't read is at a huge disadvantage.  Now, I will probably part ways with my brothers and sisters on this blog.  I don't read much crime fiction.  I like the unusual and quirky.  The fantastical and in probable.  In short, I want to get away from the crime fiction I write and the crime fact I live.  So let me clue you into a few books off the beaten path and certainly not associated with crime fiction.

I just finished a book by the science fiction/fantasy imprint of the Hachette Book group.  Red Hook only has a couple of books out, but one is named Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon.  It is a historical fiction based set

during the Norman wars of England, which is the late 11th century.  I found it to be a rousing and interesting adventure as a small party travels from England to Iceland then across Europe to modern-day Turkey.  Sweeping and dripping with details of the time, it is a great first novel. 

Now I have switched gears slightly and I'm reading a fantasy by Felix Gilman called the Rise of Ransom City, which is a sequel to his excellent the History Of The Half Made The World  To put it simply the books cannot be classified or summarize.  I just like them. 

For real, old school science fiction, I love John Scalzi's series that started with the Old Man's War.  Despite the awkward title, it is a military tale of war and regret in the far future.  The sequels are all of the same high caliber with a new one just released.

Science fiction breeds loyal fans and attracts smart, discerning readers.  Scalzi deserves the praise and success he had found.

A classic, which is required reading for many high school students, and has as many different covers as Seth Macfarland has animated shows is Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.  I've noticed this is a particular favorite among some of my survivalist friends.  In short, it is a simple tale of survival of the family outside of Orlando after a nuclear attack in the 1950s.  No giant spiders or mutants, just an important tale told from an interesting perspective.

And finally, to prove I don't read just read fantasy, I'd like to point out the excellent historical novel, Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters.  Peters is a retired Army colonel and I can recall reading one of his novels about the future of warfare more than 20 years ago called War in 2020.  But this novel about actual events with many real people makes you feel like you're part of the great battle that occurred in western Pennsylvania in the summer of 1862.  I heard Colonel Peters speaking on book TV and he explained that nonfiction tells you about an event while fiction makes you experience that event.  Good book, good writer.  You can go wrong with that combination.

If these books tend to skew towards the Tor/Forge line you have to remember that they are one of my employers and I tend to get a lot of free books from them.  That doesn't diminish my appreciation for books whether they're given to me or, (God forbid), I pay for them.  I hope you have time this summer to try one of these gems. 

What about you guys?  Any hidden finds in the book world?

Until next time, which obviously I have no idea when that will be,
 your loyal servant,

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Summer Passion: Leaving Miami

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Last Fall, I moved back to Miami after 13 years in Los Angeles.  Ah, what a glorious winter it was.  And oh, how summer arrived with squalls and thunderstorms and swarms of mosquitos.

So, the smart Miamian heads north whenever possible as soon as stone crab season ends.  (May 15).

The first part of this summer's sojourn is in the mountains of western North Carolina, just outside Asheville.  Here's Marcia at our summer cottage:
No, wait!  That's the Biltmore mansion in Asheville.  It has 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms, and was built at a time when few people had ANY indoor toilets.  This is where we're staying:

Though the cabin is on a gravel road in the woods, we do have indoor plumbing and direct access to the Blue Ridge Parkway where we take our academically challenged mutt to hike. 
We're going native, eating deep fried pickle slices.

Enjoying nature.
And generally just happy to be out of South Florida during monsoon season.  There are lots of Miamians in these here parts.  Just up the road in Boone is novelist (and Edgar winner) James W. Hall.  I'll be interviewing Jim this Sunday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern on my "Pulp Friction" podcast.  Maybe we'll discuss the best way to grill bison burgers...and maybe talk a little about books, too.

Monday, June 10, 2013

National Doughnut Day: the hole story

Patty here...

Friday, June 7, was National Doughnut Day, which is celebrated each year on the first Friday of June. Out of respect for Jim Born, who is not a fan of cops-eating-doughnuts humor, none will be included here.

 Okay, so maybe just this one little picture.

Today, the holiday is mostly known for offers of free doughnuts from retailers but that’s not what the day is all about. The holiday was first observed in 1938 as a depression-era fundraiser to honor the 250 Salvation Army “Doughnut Lassies” who were dispatched from the U.S. to Europe during WWI to make pastries for service men. Doughnuts were a no-brainer because they were easy to make. The only supplies the lassies needed were the dough ingredients, grease and an upturned helmet to deep-fry them in. Perhaps that WWI influence is why a couple of my favorite doughnuts are named Bismarck and Pershing.

 Consider this:

Soon after the US entrance into World War I in 1917, The Salvation Army sent a fact-finding mission to France. The mission concluded that the needs of US enlisted men could be met by canteens/social centers termed "huts" that could serve baked goods, provide writing supplies and stamps, and provide a clothes-mending service. Typically, six staff members per hut would include four female volunteers who could "mother" the boys.
These huts were established by The Salvation Army in the United States near army training centers. About 250 Salvation Army volunteers went to France. Because of the difficulties of providing freshly baked goods from huts established in abandoned buildings near to the front lines, the two Salvation Army volunteers (Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance) came up with the idea of providing doughnuts. These are reported to have been an "instant hit," and "soon many soldiers were visiting the Salvation Army huts." Margaret Sheldon wrote of one busy day: "Today I made 22 pies, 300 doughnuts, 700 cups of coffee."

Hmmm, I can imagine how the combination of "mothering" and doughnuts would be irresistible to young men far from home...

Back in my college days, I worked in a bakery hawking pastries and scraping sticky bun goo off the floors in order to pay tuition. I know my doughnuts. My favorite is the apple fritter, that dense, crunchy, amoebic-shaped glob of glazed wonderfulness.

Another favorite is the Pershing, a cinnamony-fragrant spiral of heaven topped with maple frosting.

 Or the squishy custard-filled Bismarck, topped with maple frosting.

Or the majestic Maple Bar, topped with—what else?—maple frosting. Leave the bacon off mine, thank you very much.

I was going to wax poetic about my favorite L.A. doughnut shops but I think I'll save that for another day. Raised? Cake? Plain? Frosted? What's your favorite doughnut and where can I get one?

 10948 Weyburn Avenue, West Los Angeles (Westwood Village)

 2918 Sawtelle Boulevard, West Los Angeles (at National Boulevard)

Happy Monday!

Friday, June 07, 2013

Yet More, Silly, Random Thoughts ....

from Jacqueline

I still have my cold, though it is abating.  My sinuses are raw, my ears ringing, but I have tried your wonderful recipes for hot toddies and other cold rescue drinks – thank you, all ye who left contributions – and they are all wonderful.  Particularly interesting was the experience of going for the Nyquil after a toddy with a liberal lacing of whisky. Slept like a log!

A few weeks ago, my fellow Naked Author, Ridley Pearson, gave you a series of great posts about using your iPad. I was so impressed, so very awed by the fact that he was using his iPad in such a creative and industrious manner.  I wish I could say the same for me and my iPad

I was very excited about my iPad, when I bought it about 18 months ago – that would make it a first generation iPad.  Actually, it might have been two years and six months ago – time flies, doesn’t it?  I expected my iPad to revolutionize work when I traveled.  But even though I bought Docs To Go and a couple of other apps for scriveners like myself, I never managed to write a word outside of emails.  I gave myself a painful wrist during a brief addiction to solitaire (I believe there will be a whole generation of kids with serious repetitive motion injuries due to excessive use of these instruments), and I downloaded a few books along the way, which certainly lightened the carry-on load when I boarded a plane.  But now, my iPad languishes for weeks and I don’t even pick it up. 

There are no photographs available of iPads languishing unused. They've probably all been removed from the internet by Apple.

I bought the Vanity Fair app because I like the magazine – I harbor a secret dream (not so secret now) that one day I will get a call from editor Graydon Carter asking me to join the list of “contributors” to the magazine.  What he would want me to write about isn’t really clear to me, though I am sure we could rustle up something together. I was never really put out by the fact that it hadn’t happened, after all, with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens, William Langewiesche and other literary luminaries writing for VF, it would be a bit of a miracle if Mr. VF suddenly clutched his head and said, “Get me Winspear on the ‘phone … I must have Winspear on the masthead.” 

Then I read last week that Pippa Middleton has received the call.  I have nothing against the Middleton family. I think they have comported themselves with a great deal of grace and dignity in the face of all sorts of criticism since the royal wedding - but heck, Hitch would roll in his grave.  I will stop my digression right there, because that was not terribly nice of me to take issue with Pippa and Vanity Fair.  

There are no photographs available with Pippa Middleton and Vanity Fair, but buy the July issue and you may see one or two.  You will see her name on the masthead, that's for sure!

I don’t know why I purchased the VF app, because I buy the printed version anyway.  I like the actual paper magazine because it gives me a kick to start by tearing out all the advertisements before I begin reading.  I wonder if I’m the only person to be so destructive. It all started when I became really fed up with not being able to find pages indicated on the table of contents because there were so many unnumbered pages of ads.  So, I began taking out the ads before attempting to read further, and I have never looked back.  I know … I definitely won’t be getting any calls from Mr. VF now.

This brings me to books.  One of my reasons for my iPad acquisition, was to be able to take multiple books on my travels and not put my back out in three places just getting the hand-baggage in the overhead locker.  And though I have bought a fair few ebooks, the fact remains that I am a book person who likes paper and board, who uses stickies to mark pages and who likes to share a good book with friends and family. The fact that the iPad has been sitting under a pile of books for about a month without being touched should tell you something. Perhaps this is something to do with the fact that I was born of a generation in Britain who were raised in the days when Carry On was a series of hilarious slapstick movies, not something you staggered under on your way to your flight.

My best purchase, really, is my Mac Air.  Light, easy to carry, great to work with – now that really is a piece of useful technology.  My much older, heavier, MacBook is now The Mothership – she stays home and keeps everything safe. She babysits the iPad, makes sure he doesn’t get above himself.

I confess, before I leave my iPad musings, that I was sorely tempted by that natty small iPad when I picked it up in the Apple store a few weeks ago. I wanted to hold it in my palm and stroke it – it was that cute!  Then I remembered The Forgotten iPad under the pile of books, and went along to my favorite bookstore for some real indulgence.  You can really browse in a bookstore. 

Onto the more serious matter of my personal safety.  I have come to the conclusion that for the past year or so I have not been paying sufficient attention - perhaps to life itself – to keep myself out of trouble.  You know the story of the flying horse manure that went into my eye, and my subsequent eyelid problems. They continue, but – believe it or not – acupuncture and 3000mg of fish oil per day are helping, as is a hot water compress with an herb called “eyebright” in it. 

But I wonder what’s going on with me sometimes.  Take yesterday.  I wanted to go through the house with my vacuum cleaner at some point in the evening – I know, I know, but it is June, so someone has to do it.  I placed the aforesaid vacuum cleaner in the bedroom, then sort of became engrossed in something else (probably searching for my iPad).  Then my friend called to ask if I wanted to go for a walk.  So, by the time I’d hiked for over an hour, arrived home, had a shower and then a bite to eat, it was dark.  I went into the bedroom – without turning on the lights - and as I walked in I fell over the vacuum cleaner, crashed into the wall, bashing my right arm, (yes, the one with a steel rod in it from a previous accident)  Then I rebounded and was sort of wrapped around the vacuum cleaner, which jettisoned me to the ground, whereupon I whacked my right leg  (the one with the hamstring tear from three years ago that still hurts) and bashed my left knee (the one that was operated on in February).  You’re beginning to get the picture here, I know.  Today I have a bumpy bruise on my thigh that makes me look as if I have had an eggplantectomy.

 Or for my friends in the UK, a case of Auberginitis.

So, having planted this image in your minds, I bid you farewell – until next Friday.  Have a wonderful weekend, wherever you are.  And let me tell you this – the friend who told me to get a Miele vacuum cleaner because it will stand up to a beating, was right.  I tried to beat the you-know-what out of that thing – with my good arm, of course – and it still stands there, sucking up the abuse.