Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When You Start Reading a Novel

You read and write at the office all day—text messages and emails, memos and letters, notes and reports. And there’s more waiting at home—bills and business, lists to make and do, more notes and letters to answer. With all the other demands on you—chores and errands, “quality time” with the spouse and kids, necessary “me time” in the tub—you’re lucky to squeeze in a few minutes with a good book.

Once you’ve made the choice to pick up that novel, whether genre or literary, what do you do?

Hmmm, how long is this? 365 pages. Normal-size print? A large font means less volume, less story. Good--it looks about 12 points.

Lessee, about 300 words per page? OK, this will keep me out of trouble for a few nights.

So you start the first chapter. Halfway through, because it’s pretty good, you start wondering about the author. Who wrote this, again? You flip to the front cover and catch the name. Am I supposed to know this writer? Flip to the inside back cover for the bio. Hmmm… lives in Washington, D.C. …ex-analyst for the State Department… There’s no mention of any other books. Must be her first. I’ll give it some leeway. …Ed Hoch Award for Excellence … medal from the Atlantic Mystery Writer’s Guild. OK, I’ll expect a little more from it. There’s a photo of a slender woman in a pullover and jeans standing by a tree. Casual, unpretentious. A show of humility. Okay.

Who’s the publisher? Flip to the copyright page. St. Martin’s. Pretty good for a first novel. What’s the copyright date? If you bought this book at a garage sale, there’s a good chance it’s old enough she’s written more novels since this one and you start anticipating finding and enjoying them.

And who’s it dedicated to? “To my parents—Phil and Jennifer.” Ah. Definitely a first book. Must not have a life-partner.

Everything you flipped to just now, you already logged but wanted to review to understand the author a little better. By now you’re back reading the story, a bit more informed about its creator. Wait a minute, I thought this is about a murder at the White House. What does the back cover say, again? “An undersecretary at the State Department found floating in the Potomac leads D.C. detective Romina Gale to the White House and a conspiracy—“ OK, my bad.

I have to go to bed soon. How much longer is this chapter? You flip to the end of the chapter, taking care not to read the text, just to see how much more there is to it. OK, just a few pages. I’ll stay up. And you keep reading until you look at the clock. Two o’clock. Damn! Just when she’s about to interview the President.

Before putting it down for the night you rifle the pages, feel the heft of it. You face a decision: Do I continue with this book? Because as silly as it may seem to say, a novel is a commitment of time and emotion and you've begun a relationship with its author. Do I want to commit to this novel? Is this an author I want to get to know?

I hope she is. Because you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess. You have to read many novels—some reek, some are merely bad, many are fair-to-middling, most are mediocre (and that’s after they’ve all been through the editing and publishing process)—to find a really good one. But it is such a joy when you do. And that author has made a reader for life. You scour the brick-and-mortar stores, book bazaars, yard sales, and now the Internet for all his or her work.

What do you look for when you start reading a novel?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Indiana Crime Review 2013

Edited by James Ward Kirk and Murphy Edwards
Cover design by Mike Jansen
Illustrations by John D. Stanton

With stories by:
Matt Cowan
S. M. Harding
William Cook
Brent Abell
Brian Rosenberger
Flo Stanton
Murphy Edwards
David S. Pointer
David Frazier
Ronald J. Friedman
Edward "Lefty" Lee
William J. Fedigan
David Beck
Lee Forsythe
Jimmy Pudge
Greg McWhorter
Tony Wilson
Roger Cowin

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Grave Robbers
 edited by James Ward Kirk

In the anthology Grave Robbers, edited by James Ward Kirk (James Ward Kirk Publications, 2013), forty-two authors in poetry, flash, and short fiction explore the gruesome exploits of those unholy trespassers who would disturb the peace of the dead. Besides raiders plundering tombs for gold and jewels, we find Resurrectionists in the tradition of Burke and Hare, pranksters, identity thieves, soul stealers, revenge seekers, body dumpers, cannibals, grieving lovers, demon worshippers, ghouls, musicians using body parts to play their tunes, practitioners of the Dark Arts, old and new vampires, and those who awaken the dead to hear their stories. A surprising number are children….

For some, grave robbing is a family business. Some are philosophical, imagining the violation of their own final resting places. Other resurrectionists reason they’re exercising a rough justice; the despoilers in Mike Jansen’s “A Bitch Called Payback” are only giving mortuary thieves and deviants their due. A digger in one of David Frazier’s poems feels he’s helping the economy by putting cadavers “Back to Work” serving medical science. Several tomb raiders make the rational argument that the living have more use for valuables than those who have passed on: as Cathy Bryant points out in her poem “No One, Not One,” robbing the deceased harms “no one, none at all, not one solitary living soul.”

The “Grave Digger’s Survival Guide,” provided to C. J. Edwards anonymously, provides good advice for the aspiring looter and one can imagine a thief singing A. B. Stephens’s “Grave Robbers Chant” while he’s hard at work. A memorable chorus adds creepiness to Bruce L. Priddy’s “No Rest in Arkham Graves.” Several poems pack a short story in just a few lines, notably Brian Rosenberger’s “A Prayer to the Saint of Broken Dreams,” Robert E. Petras’s “Identity Theft,” and Mathew Wilson’s “The Keeper.” Christopher Hivner’s “The Owners of the Bones” is particularly suspenseful for verse.

There’s some good flash here. Allen Griffin’s “The Death of Silence” about a man-beast unearthed to reveal his secrets features poetic turns of phrase--“The silence, centuries old, begins to die as the shovel pierces the earth above me. Thump…thump… like the heartbeat I surrendered long ago.” Timothy Frasier’s “A King’s Plunder” moves quickly and delivers a fully developed plot for flash. There’s humor here, too, in Mike Berger’s “Big Surprise” and Hivner’s “The Ims of Hawthorne County.”

In the short-story section, Murphy Edwards’s “Ace of Spades” and Michael Shimek’s “Reclaiming Property” are absolutely delightful. The former is an entertaining tale from a veteran story-teller and the latter is a very appealing entry from an emerging writer. Mike Jansen’s “The Arrangement” is fun, too.

The period pieces are well done. Greg McWhorter brings a vivid sense of Victorian Westchester, New York to “Glint of Evil.” His matter-of-fact journalistic style lends a definite spookiness besides veracity to the story. There is “odd heathen business” afoot in the English marshland of 1837 in Sean T. Page’s atmospheric “The Marsh People.” Chantal Noordeloos’s “Angel’s Grave” about 1892 desecrators is as believable as any real ghost tale. She also builds a marvelous feeling of dread in “…fit for a King,” a beautiful story that exhibits creepy expertise in the tomb raiding profession.

Editor Kirk does not neglect the more poignant side of death. A grieving father follows an unexplained walkway in James S. Dorr’s moving “The Sidewalk.” Neil Leckman explores paternal loss in “My Hands” and P. Keith Boran delivers a horror story with romantic elements in “Some People,” as does Jaime Johnesee. Her “Old Man Death” has a sweet twist.

The most unsettling stories concern teen angst. A tormented young man wishes he was dead in Randall Rohn’s unusual “Unanswered Prayers.” The anguish in Paul Levas’s “Richie’s Night Out At the Hills Cemetery” is real and the boy’s relationship with his grandmother is heartbreaking.

The final image of editor Kirk’s “Synesthete” is beautiful and haunting. In Marija Elektra Rodriguez’s “Sotterraneo,” a Domina leads a gruesome ritual that will reveal those worthy of immortality. It is as fascinating and suspenseful as A. D. Moore’s “Just Desserts” is nicely gross. Timothy Frasier’s “Necrofreaks” and Donald White’s “Temple of the Life Givers” are not recommended for anyone under 21--or the faint of heart.

The narrator of Richard King Perkins II’s poem “Scratching the Surface” assures his love “I carry your bones closer to my heart than a piece of the true cross.” The resurrectionist in Lee Clarke Zumpe’s “Respect for the Dead” reasons that the deceased have “innumerable recollections to bequeath” and yearn “to share their secrets, tell their stories, impart their wisdom.”

Still, you would be surprised at the number of corpses angry that the living would disturb their rest and exact sweet revenge for such desecration. Some will eat the perpetrator or turn him into a vampire; others will “merely” trade places with him. As James S. Dorr asks in his splendid poem “The Resurrection Man,” “An’ wha’s tae save ye once ye’re planted ‘neath the ground?” Indeed.

Cemetery photos by Mike Jansen separate the sections of twenty-six poems, thirteen flash, and twenty-four short stories. The “Poems” section photo of two worn stones leaning toward each other is quite poignant. If the spooky cover illustration by Paul Chapman is not warning enough, the creepy foreword by contributor Jansen cautions, “be dead when they bury you.” Given the nefarious business going on under our feet, good advice.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Thomas A. Edison

You might know that Thomas A. Edison held more than 1000 patents for such inventions as the incandescent lightbulb and the phonograph, but did you know:

10. Edison had a tattoo. A design of five pips in a pattern resembling a die adorned his left forearm.

9. Edison experimented on himself. He obliterated a fingerprint to demonstrate the life force (the “immortal units” he believed inhabited all humans and animals) asserting itself, and the lines and whorls indeed did reappear as the skin grew back. But one series of experiments nearly cost Edison his eyesight—after he subjected himself continually to X-rays, his focus was off by a foot. (His assistant was not so lucky—Clarence Dally lost both arms to amputation after years of exposure to radiation.)

8. Edison was almost entirely deaf by age twelve, the aftereffects of an early bout with scarlet fever. His deafness allowed him “to work with less distraction and to sleep deeply, undisturbed by outside sounds.”

7. Edison was homeschooled. After a teacher deemed him “addled” (perhaps because of his deafness, insatiable curiosity and hyperactivity), his mother, an accomplished schoolteacher, pulled him out and taught him the three Rs.

6. Edison invented an “electrographic vote-recorder,” the electric car, the pneumatic stencil pen (the ancestor of the tattoo gun), the magnetic iron-ore separator, a vacuum food preserver, the concrete house filled with concrete furniture, and the talking doll. (As Simpsons fans know, Edison’s estate gave the Wizard of Menlo Park credit for the tippable chair and electric hammer Homer invented but left behind at the Edison museum in New Jersey.)

5. Edison and Henry Ford were BFFs. Ford worked for an Edison lighting company as an engineer and met the Wizard at a convention where he explained his gas-powered car. “Young man,” Edison said, “that's the thing! You have it! Your car is self contained and carries its own power plant.” Ford credits this encouragement for motivating him to continue. The carmaker admired the inventor and felt Menlo Park, the first industrial research lab in the US, should be preserved. He reconstructed it in Greenfield Village and named the institute that operates the village and his own museum after his friend.

Ford bought the estate next door to Edison’s in Florida and when Edison became confined to a wheelchair Ford got one, too, so they could race around the neighborhood together.

From The Detroit News:
Together with John Burroughs, naturalist Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone and occasionally, President Harding, Ford and Edison participated in a series of camping trips…En route to a new campsite on a rainy day, the Lincoln touring car carrying Harding, Ford, Edison, Firestone and naturalist Luther Burbank bogged down in deep mud on a back road in West Virginia. Ford's chauffeur went for help and returned with a farmer driving an ancient Model T. After the Lincoln was yanked from the mire, Ford was the first to shake the farmer's hand.

 “I guess you don't know me but I'm Henry Ford. I made the car you're driving.”

Firestone chimed in, “I'm the man who made those tires.” Then he introduced two of the campers: “Meet the man who invented the electric light -- and the President of the United States.”

Luther Burbank was the last to shake hands. “I guess you don't know me either?” he asked.

“No,” said the farmer, “but if you're the same kind of liar as these other darn fools, I wouldn't be surprised if you said you was Santa Claus.”

4. Edison did not allow clocks in the workroom. “I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.” He worked a 90-hour week himself and urged his teams of “muckers” to invent something minor every ten days and something major every six months.

3. Edison’s love for telegraphy and Morse code showed up in some eccentricities. He nicknamed his first two children “Dot” (Marian) and “Dash” (Tom, Jr.) and proposed to his second wife in Morse code.

2. Edison suggested many uses for the phonograph besides its primary purpose—business dictation. He foresaw letter writing, phonographic books for the blind, a family record (recording family members in their own voices), toys, clocks that announce the time, and a connection with the telephone so communications could be recorded. The only use he left out was for recording music.

1. Edison was a ghostbuster. Although often called an atheist because he had contempt for organized religion, Edison believed humans and animals were endowed with “immortal units” that survive death. In a 1920 essay he wrote, “I have been at work for sometime building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us” and that same year told American Magazine he was working on a device so sensitive it could record communication with the dead. Because no schematic or prototype for such a device was ever found, however, many speculate he was joking.

It's possible, though, that Edison kept his notes and blueprints for such a radical invention hidden until he could announce a successful device to the world, as he publicized only his successes.

Then there’s the article in a 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix that describes a bizarre evening when Edison gathered a group of spiritualists who tried to lure ethereal forms to register their presence on a photo-electric receiver. “It does not matter how slight is the effort, it will be sufficient to record whatever there is to be recorded.” Although nothing happened that night, Edison's interest in the afterlife continued.

On his deathbed he said to his doctor, “It is beautiful over there.” A rack of empty test tubes from his workbench in the Chemical Room sat close to his bedside and were sealed as soon as he passed on. They were given away as memorials and possibly contain some of the life force he believed could never be destroyed.
Edison commented frequently about hard work and persistence. In addition to the familiar “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” he said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work,” “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” “To have a great idea, have a lot of them,” and the delightful “Hell, there are no rules here–we're trying to accomplish something.” But my favorite has to be, “I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun.”