Reading is Still the Best

I’m a reader turned writer, who still reads. Why? Because fiction is still my favorite form of entertainment. Not movies. Not computer games. Not TV. Not sports. It is a good book or short story. And because I like reading good stories, I started writing stories I would like to read. Consequently, I’m under no delusion that everyone will like what I write. I do know I will. And hopefully others will too.

So what do I like to read? I took a look through the BISAC subject heading list and came up with the following 10 genres/categories and listed a few favorites to go with each. The list is not exhaustive and the moment I post this, I’ll probably remember a delightful tale I forgot to include.

Action & Adventure

This is a broad category. I prefer my action/adventure to be a bit dark and touched with the fantastic or the supernatural.

H Rider Haggard so often fits the bill. King Solomon’s Mines is difficult to beat.

Robert E Howard in his short life wrote in a wide array of genres/categories. Some of my favorite stories feature his character Solomon Kane. Dark tales, touched with the supernatural, and with plenty of action.

Alternative History

I’m actually new to the genre, having come to it via steampunk. I haven’t read many alternative history stories and those I have read haven’t been overly memorable. The one I’ve enjoyed the most is Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

However, the one story that does stick in my mind is not something I read. It’s the original Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses”. A very fine alternative history story indeed.

Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic

I admit I’m fussy when it comes to this genre. What I like is the cozy catastrophe, that sub-sub-genre which focuses on the aftermath of the disaster and what the survivors end up doing.

There are some notable classics here, such as The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham and The Earth Abides by George R Stewart. Terry Nation’s book Survivors is disturbingly dark.

Fantasy

A very broad genre this, with many sub-genres. I confess I don’t read much fantasy anymore. I got burned out on all the magic and uninspired Tolkien rip-offs.

Generally I like my fantasy dark, sliding off into the horror genre, with a touch of the supernatural.

My all time favorite here is the gothic novel Dracula. However, I very much enjoyed Artemis Fowl. Very imaginative.

Ghost

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? One of the best I’ve read of late is Crispian Thurlborn’s A Bump in the Night. Very funny and philosophical.

Generally, though, I prefer my ghost stories over in the horror genre. One of the best is Robert E Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell” and he even includes a zuvembie, another name for a zombie.

Horror

I love a good psychological horror story with supernatural overtones. Slasher stories stay away. Can’t stand them.

Ben Willoughby’s recent contribution Raw Head is a well-done riff off of an old Southern legend.

One of my favorite stories is T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm” and the novel expanding on the story The Ceremonies.

Robert E Howard’s story “Black Canaan” is superb, as are so very many of his other tales. And many of H P Lovecraft’s stories are well worth re-reading, such as “The Transition of Juan Romero”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

My interest in horror goes all the way back to my elementary school years and a slim paperback of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales. Add to that Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” and I was hooked.

Mystery & Detective

I’m very fussy when it comes to mysteries. In fact, I don’t like mysteries per se because I’m not all that fond of puzzles. What I like are detective stories, preferably private detective stories, with a little bit of mystery tossed in.

I suppose Dupin and Holmes are to blame for this bias on my part. After all, they are very often more interesting than the mysteries they solve! Quite honestly, some of Holmes’ adventures are not very good and how Poe could bore us with “Marie Roget” is a question worth asking. Nevertheless, Dupin and Holmes live on. They are eternal.

My favorite private detective is Nero Wolfe, created by Rex Stout. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are my dynamic duo.

Noir

Cornell Woolrich is perhaps the noir writer par excellence. Rear Window is a modern classic. I don’t read a lot of noir. But if I do, Woolrich is first in line.

Science Fiction

Like fantasy, like mystery, the science fiction genre is huge, with many, many sub-genres. I tend to prefer space operas and harder sci-fi as opposed to science fantasy.

The Player of Games by Iain Banks and Men, Martians, and Machines by Eric Frank Russell are favorites. So is Groff Conklin’s superb collection of short stories Omnibus of Science Fiction, which contains one of the finest stories H P Lovecraft ever wrote “The Colour Out Of Space”.

Sea Stories

“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…”

Masefield had it right. The lure of the sea and a tall ship, sails filled with the wind. The list of classics is endless. Yet, as much as I love sailing ships, I haven’t read any sea yarns for quite awhile.

The ones that stick in my mind are The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe, and Conrad’s The Secret Sharer and The Nigger of the Narcissus.

Of course there are many more great stories I didn’t list. Share your favorites. I’m always on the lookout for a good story or book to read.

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Favorites

Agatha Christie came to loathe Poirot and finally killed him off. Doyle grew to hate Sherlock Holmes, killed him off, brought him back to life, and finally retired him.

Personally, I find it difficult to hate my children. Perhaps, though, they haven’t been with me long enough. I haven’t chronicled adventure after adventure to the point where I’m sick of the chronicling. To the point where I feel them to be too intrusive or where they’ve moved in and taken over. Hopefully, though, that day of loathing will never come.

However, even though parents aren’t supposed to have favorites amongst their children, I admit that I do. And the two who are my favorites have lived in my imagination the longest. They are Justinia and Harry Wright. That intrepid sister and brother team of private investigators doing their best to make sure the most exciting thing in Minneapolis and St. Paul is vanilla ice cream.

Why are Tina and Harry my favorites? I’m not sure I can say exactly. For I am certainly very fond of Lady Dru Drummond. My spunky, very modern journalist, who knows what she wants and does her best to get it. I very much like her 1950s alternative history world, with all those retro-futuristic gadgets and, of course, airships.

And what about Bill Arthur? My anti-hero turned superhero (well, almost) of The Rocheport Saga, who, after the apocalypse, does his best to stop at least a portion of humankind from descending into a new dark ages. Bill is very likable. He’s unassuming, makes mistakes and owns up to them, is devoted to his adopted and natural family. He is human, all too human. An ordinary guy in very unordinary circumstances. I like Bill and his world very much.

One of my newest children is Rand Hart. Rand Hart and the Pajama Putsch was an enjoyable tale for me to write and I enjoyed reading it as well. Who can’t love this slightly roguish professional gambler with the touch of ennui searching for the antidote to his loneliness? And there be airships here, too.

Or George? Poor George, in Do One Thing For Me, slowly realizing he’s descending into old age dementia, beset by the unending grief over the death of his wife and taunted by the promise Beth offers him. Or is Beth just a figure of his dementia?

I love all my children. I just love Tina and Harry more. Is it because I enjoy most writing up their adventures? Recording the sibling banter between them? Dreaming of what it would be like to live their somewhat dreamy lifestyle or to enjoy one of Harry’s fabulous meals? Perhaps.

Tina grew out Raleigh Bond’s Athalia Goode, with a dollop of my sister, and pinches of Modesty Blaise, Lara Croft, Nero Wolfe, and a sprinkle of myself to round out her creation. Harry is the faithful Watson and wise-cracking Archie Goodwin all rolled into one, with perhaps too much of myself included for good or bad measure.

Perhaps that’s it. I’m personally invested in these characters. There’s something of me in them that isn’t in my other children. Maybe that’s the reason that drives me on to write about their lives and their campaign to fight crime.

Book 3 in the Justinia Wright series, But Jesus Never Wept, should be out in time for your Christmas shopping pleasure. And if the Muse is kind I may also have a freebie story available for Christmas.

I’m 15,000 words into Book 4 and have 645 words written to start Book 5, which follows Book 4 immediately in the Justinia Wright timeline. Both should make their appearance in 2016.

Now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, I’m hoping Bill, Dru, and Rand don’t get too sulky about it. After all, I do love them. They, too, are my children. Tina and Harry, though, are my firstborn. Hm. I’m a firstborn…

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Harry Wright’s Mac and Cheese to Die For

I confess right here and right now — I love to eat. The aromas and flavors of meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit, grains, spices, herbs, cakes, pies, bread are as delightful as a walk through a scented flower garden. But not only do I love to eat, I also love to cook. Consequently, food appears in some shape or form in all of my novels and many times in my stories.

Undoubtedly, one telltale sign I’m a foodie is my cookbook collection — hardbacks, paperbacks, and ebooks. I also have bookmarks on a wide variety of internet recipe sites. Another indicator is the near ecstasy that is evident when I venture into a grocery store or a cooking supply store. When I write, a cookbook is always nearby.

Harry Wright is private detective Justinia Wright’s brother. He is also her majordomo, chef, and assistant. With the alacrity of a juggler, Harry turns out fabulous gourmet dishes on a daily basis. Dishes such as Porcini Parmesan, roasted veggie with goat cheese sandwiches, caramelized onion tartlets, ratatolha niça, and Cock-a-Leekie.

At times, though, Harry will take a walk down the comfort food aisle and then we see dishes like NuNus and Hot Dogs and Mac and Cheese. Sometimes Harry leaves the dish simple and sometimes he fancies it up.

Today I thought I’d give you his Mac and Cheese to Die For recipe, which appears in the forthcoming Justinia Wright, PI novel But Jesus Never Wept. He doesn’t call it that. For him it’s simply Mac and Swiss Cheese with Bacon Crumbles.

The recipe below is a composite, he tells me, of several recipes out there on the World Wide Web. Let me know if you think it is to die for. Enjoy!

Mac and Swiss Cheese with Bacon Crumbles

Ingredients

Macaroni – 1 pound (Harry uses elbows)

Butter – 5 tablespoons

Flour – 1/4 cup

Milk – 3 cups (Harry uses whole milk)

Salt – (Harry uses about a 1/2 teaspoon)

Black Pepper – (Harry uses fresh ground and about 3/4 teaspoon)

Mustard – 1/4 teaspoon dry (Harry prefers a good English mustard, such as Coleman’s)

Swiss Cheese – 3/4 pound shredded

Monterey Jack – 3/4 pound shredded

Bacon – 6 slices, cooked crisp and crumbled (Harry’s been known to add a couple more slices)

Parsley – for garnish

Basil – for garnish

Rosemary sprig – for garnish

Directions

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions and your liking. (Harry only cooks his pasta al dente.)
  2. Warm milk on stove or in microwave.
  3. Melt butter over medium high heat and whisk in the flour. Continue to whisk to make sure there are no lumps and to cook flour, about 2 or 3 minutes.
  4. Add the warm milk and whisk the mixture until smooth. Reduce heat and gently simmer for four minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. When the sauce has slightly thickened, add salt, pepper, and mustard.
  6. Add cheese and stir until sauce is smooth.
  7. When pasta is cooked, drain, and reserve a 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
  8. Add sauce to pasta. If sauce is too thick, add a little of the water to thin.
  9. Top with the bacon crumbles and parsley, basil, and rosemary sprig.

Good eating!

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Justinia Wright and the Maltese Falcon

Who doesn’t enjoy working a puzzle to a satisfying ending? That written, I have to confess I’m not a big fan of puzzles. I enjoy mahjong and I play chess and that is about the extent of my puzzle solving endeavors. So why do I enjoy reading mysteries? A good question that.

I have to confess, when it comes to mysteries, I’m pretty fussy. They pretty much need to be private detective stories told in the first person by the “Watson”. Third person narrative puts me right off. I’ll accept a story told by the detective in the first person. It’s just that it bugs the life out of me when he or she says he or she knows who did it but it won’t tell us.

The other thing I’m fussy about when it comes to mysteries, is that I don’t care a fig about the mystery. We all know the detective is going to solve the crime. So big deal. No matter how puzzling, the detective will undo Gordian Knot.

What I find fascinating is the detective him or herself. If he or she isn’t an interesting person, then the author has lost me. That’s because any story I read must have interesting characters who deal with the nitty-gritty of life. Machinations of plot hold no interest for me. It’s the people. After all, isn’t it people who make life interesting? And if people make life interesting, it is also people who make fiction interesting as well.

So if I don’t particularly like puzzles, why do I write mysteries? After all mysteries are considered to be literary puzzles. I write mysteries because crime and murder are part of life. The dark side of people interacting with people. Macbeth murders the king and sets off a chain of events. We know he won’t get away with it. What interests us is how his life falls apart.

We know Sherlock Holmes will solve the problem. What’s interesting is his interaction with Watson, the suspects, and how he goes about collecting clues.

When I watch a movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu, there is barely any plot to speak of. What’s of interest is the interaction of the characters and how they go about attempting to solve whatever is the problem in the story. And the problem is usually rather mundane.

For me, writing a mystery is no different than writing any other novel. I either start out with the characters or I start out with a scene and then people it. Then, as Ray Bradbury advised, I let my characters do their thing and the result is the story.

In writing my forthcoming Justinia Wright mystery, But Jesus Never Wept, I started with a scene: Tina and Harry’s client has just been murdered by seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide. That is what I started with. Along the way my daughter told me about the Yakuza, Japanese organized crime, I liked the color it could provide, and it entered into the story. How the Yakuza fit in I wasn’t sure, but figured that’s Tina’s job. She’s the detective, after all. I was over halfway through the book and had pretty much exhausted my list of characters before I figured out who did the murder and why. I was on pins and needles wondering if I’d finish the tale without solving the murder. Not really. Because Tina gets the culprit. It’s what detectives do.

Near the end of my short story “Minneapolis’ Finest”, Tina tells Harry:

“First off, Harry, you read too many mystery novels. Every case in those books is a complex puzzle and things blow up and people are being murdered left and right. Real detective work is, for the most part, dull routine. Boring even. If mystery writers wrote what really happened, they wouldn’t sell a damn thing. Cozies are the worst. I pray to God you don’t read cozies.”

“I don’t.”

“Good. Detective work is dull routine mostly because criminals are dull and boring twits with big egos.”

And I think that is very much the case. Real crime is boring. Therefore mysteries, to be interesting, are for the most part fantasy. Fictional murders are complicated, done by a mastermind for nefarious ends. No mystery writer writes about a normal murder. If they did, who’d read it?

Because most mystery readers are looking for the puzzle aspect, I don’t specifically call my mysteries “mysteries”. Justinia Wright is a private detective. The books are subtitled “A Justinia Wright, PI Novel”. The focus is on her as a person, not the puzzle. I think of it as I’m writing character-driven private eye stories.

In some ways I see The Maltese Falcon as the model. The Maltese Falcon is full of interesting characters, none of them, including Spade, are particularly likable. I think the mystery itself is weak, overshadowed by the MacGuffin. Did Brigid really kill Spade’s partner? Or did Spade just throw her under the bus? The story is a classic not because of the plot, the puzzle, in my opinion, but due to the interesting characters. And that’s why I read mysteries. And write them, too.

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The Fabulous Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope stands as one of my favorite authors. A Victorian giant. In some ways larger than life. If one had his novels on that proverbial desert island, one would need no other entertainment.

What is it about Trollope that is so appealing? For me, it is his characters. They are real people, dealing with real life issues. Unlike Dickens, who dealt in fantasy and tear-jerker scenes, Trollope simply presented middle-class Victorian life. The few times he deviated from a middle-class setting, he did not stray from a straight forward presentation and let life itself speak.

His first novel, The MacDermotts of Ballycloran, gives us a picture of the horror that was Irish poverty with no fanfare or editorializing. How can one read The MacDermotts and not weep at the plight of the poor? The inhumanity to which they were reduced? Or read his short story “The Spotted Dog” and not be moved by the power of alcoholism to destroy lives? Or feel for Archdeacon Grantly as he wrestles with his guilt over wishing his dying father would die sooner so he’d be appointed bishop to replace him?

These are real people with real problems drawn from Trollope’s personal observations. Nathaniel Hawthorne noted Trollope’s novels were “as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were being made a show of.”

Trollope loved his characters and lived with them constantly. Probably why he could write 250 words every 15 minutes, non-stop, for 2 1/2 hours every day. He was a character author and had little use for plot, other than to show off his characters. Which is another reason I so like Trollope. For me, a story is about its characters. The plot, if there is one (and I do think plot is overrated), is only there to make the characters shine — to make them real for us.

In his personal life, Trollope was a driven man. For most of his writing career he also worked full-time at the post office. He is generally credited with inventing the British post box. He was disdained by his mother, who openly favored his brother. His mentally ill father could not support the family, which lived in near poverty. Writing was a means by which Trollope could get the attention and money he craved. And in his case, it provided him both.

Over the years, Anthony’s star has somewhat faded. Although there is a current revival of interest. I heartily encourage you to check out Mr Trollope. His Barchester novels are a good starting point.

Oh, one other thing, if you like reading or writing a series, you can thank Trollope. He invented the novel series.

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Introducing Gwen Poisson

One of the joys of writing is being able to create people you’d love to meet or who espouse causes near and dear to your heart. Such a character is Gwen Poisson.  She’s a minor character in Festival of Death, the first novel in the Justinia Wright, P.I. series.

Harry Wright, the narrator in Festival of Death, says of her:

Gwen is forty.  She stands five-four, with an average frame, and wears her dark chocolate hair in a pixie cut.  She worked ten years out in Silicon Valley, another three as a professional hacker, before becoming a PI.

He could have added, she is warm, friendly, and faithful, Tina Wright feels a special kinship with her, she’s a vegan, and her favorite drink is cucumber-infused water.

Gwen does wage a quiet and continual campaign to convince Tina and Harry of the efficacy of veganism.  She states the issue quite clearly in this comment to Tina  over a pizza supper.

“We have to stop eating our fellow creatures,” Gwen said. “We are wiping out wild stocks; we are engaging in massive pollution of groundwater due to animal waste from feed lots; and excreted hormones, drugs, and antibiotics are wreaking havoc on wild animals — both on land and in the sea.”

Harry is quite sympathetic to Gwen’s position.  In the forthcoming novella, “Love Out of Death”, we learn that Harry is cooking up quite a bit of a vegetarian storm because it’s best if one doesn’t eat something that has the 3 Bs:  breath, blood, and brains.  Tina, as with most of us, isn’t convinced.

While I must confess I’m still an ovo-lacto-carno vegetarian, Gwen espouses a dietary and lifestyle choice I admire and would like to make my own.  I’ll admit meat can be pretty tasty.  But vegetables and grains, fruits and nuts are pretty doggone tasty, as well.

But there is more to the issue than taste.  There are the issues of pollution, extinction, cruelty, and negative energy.

As in the quote above from Gwen, the production of meat is the cause of mass pollution.  Waste (i.e., excrement) pollutes our land and our water.  Corporate farms and massive feedlots generate more waste than a farmer can use.  It is pumped into holding tanks and often enough, the tanks leak.  Not good for us or the environment.

Over fishing is destroying sea creatures in such alarming numbers it is quite possible our seas may be mostly barren in a few short years.  Just as hunting wiped out the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and nearly wiped out the bison, over fishing is wiping out wild stocks of the ocean’s inhabitants.  Fish farming is a possible solution, but it has it’s own issues and negative effects on wild inhabitants of the sea.

Living in a feedlot can’t be a pleasant experience.  I’d hate to try it for even an hour.  Yet we force animals against their nature to spend their lives in such caustic environments.

And this leads to my last issue, which is negative energy.  When treated harshly, the animal holds within itself negative energy.  Animals are not “dumb beasts”.  They are surprisingly intelligent creatures.  Pigs are smarter than dogs.  Cows have a language of vocal sounds and body movements.  Animals feel pain.  They can get angry.  They know who likes them and who doesn’t.  They also know fear.  Especially the fear of death, they smell at the slaughter house.  Honestly, do you or I want to eat the hormones generated from the fear and anger of mistreated animals?  Do I want that negative energy inside me?

Please don’t take this as a diatribe against farmers.  Because that is not what I intend.  Having lived amongst farmers, I know they struggle to make ends meet.  They struggle to make a living.  Often having to hold down another job in order to make the farm profitable.  So, no, I’m not criticizing farmers. If anything, I’m blaming an economic system which doesn’t give the farmer a fair shake.

I think people are ultimately to blame.  As Gwen points out in “Love out of Death”, there are simply too many people.  Too many people on the planet means we can no longer humanely raise animals for meat to feed the burgeoning population.  Our only alternative to effective feed the planet is to go vegetarian or vegan.

In addition, we in the West live in luxury.  Even our poor are better off than most of the other inhabitants on this planet.  I think the day has come where we need to start viewing meat as a luxury we can no longer afford.

Through Gwen Poisson, I have the opportunity to quietly present a position I think is beneficial to all humanity.  We all want to eat.  The amount of grain given to cows to fatten them up will feed a whole lot more people than that cow will.

Vegetarianism takes a bit to get used to simply because it is different, but it’s not impossible to do so.  Hindus don’t eat meat and Indian cuisine is quite delectable.  So it can be done.  And done in style.

One of these days, I’m going to drop that carno.  Stop eating things with the 3 Bs.

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