Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Year in Review From Castle Schadenfreude

 2021 was better than 2020, which is like saying Al Pacino is taller than Danny DeVito. Maybe using Pacino as an example is selling 2021 a little short. Let’s say Michael Keaton.


We’ll get the unpleasantness out of the way first. We had to cancel another trip to New Orleans because of the virus. This time was a double whammy, as the delta variant forced a cancellation of Bouchercon, so not only did we not get to visit Dr. Sole Heir™ and Lieutenant Son-in-Law™, but we also missed the largest crime fiction conference of the year. I have strong opinions on the topic, but this is neither the time nor place for them.


That, along with the myriad of things the virus subjected us all to, was the downside.


To 2021’s credit:


·       No one close to us died. That made the year better right there.

·       I retired on January 1. I thoroughly enjoy having more free time, though it has been an adjustment. I worked from home the previous ten years, so there was no obvious change to my routine. My natural laziness has served me well in this regard.

·       My vision appears to have stabilized. The frequency of injections has dropped from every four weeks to six. What I lost is gone forever, but I’m not losing anymore, at least for the time being.

·       A new Penns River novel, Leaving the Scene, came out in May, courtesy of Down & Out Books

·       In preparation for our big western trip, we made an overnighter to Pittsburgh to buy fish and pick up some local water, an important component to replicating a family recipe for Syrian bread.

·       The year’s Big Event™ was a 5,000+ mile western trip that included

o   An authentic Western town

o   The Badlands in South Dakota

o   Custer State Park (also in South Dakota)

o   Devils Tower (drive-by; the line to get in was hellacious)

o   Yellowstone, for two glorious days

o   Buffalo Bill’s Museum of the West

o   A rodeo (Now Corky can truthfully say, “This ain’t my first rodeo.”)

o   A great and relaxing weekend with my brother’s family in Colorado

o   Three days in Hamilton MO, the Quilting Capital of the World. Corky went into every shop owned by the Missouri Star Quilt Company (twice), and then some. If you’re ever in Hamilton, be sure to hit the Levi Garrison tap room. We ate there all three nights, even though we had to have the food delivered and Corky doesn’t drink beer.

o   The Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum

o   The Kentucky Horse Park


I can recommend everything on this list with a clear conscience if you’re ever in one of these areas.

·       We finally got to go to a conference again, as Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity resumed in September. Everyone was with the program on vaccinations and safe conduct. No one – no one – got sick.

·       Another overnight trip, this time to Yonder Bar in Hillsborough NC for a special, horror-oriented Noir at the Bar for Halloween.

·       A weekend in Pennsylvania, where we met up with my brother’s family, Dr. Sole Heir™, and her mother to say good-bye to Mom. It was a true celebration of her life, and everyone left with good feelings.


In other family news:

·       Dr. Sole Heir entered her final year of residency at Tulane. She made it through the delta variant surge Version 1 and is looking forward to graduating in June of 2022. She’ll begin a cardiology fellowship at the University of South Florida in Tampa in the fall.

·       The Sole Son-in-Law earned his pilot’s wings. His new USCG permanent duty station will be in Clearwater FL flying helicopters.

·       They are this close to buying a house in Tampa, which will allow them to live together full-time for the first time. (They were married in May of 2018, so yay for them.)

·       They got a puppy, a yellow Lab named Reny. “Puppy” is now a stretch, as he’s up to around 80 pounds


So maybe using Michael Keaton as 2021’s avatar was a little harsh; lots of good stuff happened. Let’s say the year was Kevin Costner. Not Shaquille O’Neal, but still pretty well up there.


The Beloved Spouse™ and I hope your year was at least as good.


Stay well, and let’s be careful out there.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Fall's Best Reads

 Fall of 2021 was a good three months for my reading. The highlights:


The Killing Look, J.D. Rhoades. Rhoades’s first Western, and a winner right out of the chute. Combines the best elements of Western and modern thriller with a story and characters one can only hope is the prelude to a series. The Jack Keller books prove Rhoades has series chops, and it looks like he’s primed for another. (Not that Keller needs to go away, mind you.)


Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose. Decided to re-read this after The Beloved Spouse™ and I re-watched the HBO series. All the good things anyone has said about the book are true. Wonderfully, though practically, written, it humanizes everyone in Easy Company, both for better and for worse. Reads like butter, funny and wrenching by turns, a wonderful book.


Heroes Often Fail, Frank Zafiro. Book 2 of the River City series, and I’m definitely in for the duration. Parts of this book were hard for me to read, as it deals with child abuse; disclosing the nature of the abuse would be a major spoiler. It’s not graphic, but I have a low threshold for such things and glossed over some pages. Nothing is gratuitous, and the story as a whole is compelling, especially as it shows cops as imperfect, even when they’re heroes.


Blood of the Wicked, Leighton Gage. Gage first came to my attention when I was asked to review this book for the New Mystery Reader web site. This is the first of the Chief inspector Mario Silva series, following the cases of a member of the Brazilian federal police. A fascinating look into a country with its own set of laws, crimes, and customs, written by a master.


The Thicket, Joe Lansdale. Another book only Joe Lansdale could have written. This story of a teenaged orphan and his kidnapped sister reads like an extremely violent Tom Sawyer story. The cast of characters that travel with Jack includes an erudite midget, a Black bounty hunter who has issues with drink (but not what you might expect), and a 600-pound hog. A delight from start to finish.


A Red Death, Walter Mosley. The second Easy Rawlins book. Not as solid as Devil in a Blue Dress, as the story tends to ramble. This one isn’t so much about the story as it is about how Blacks lived in Watts in the 50s (which is true of all Mosley’s books), but also how the Red Scare affected aspects of American lives we don’t ordinarily think of.


The Magdalen Martyrs, Ken Bruen. The Jack Taylor books are typically more about Jack than they are about whatever case he’s working on; this is no exception. That’s okay. Bruen combines prose that borders on poetry with a sparse, hard look at life’s underside, spices everything with humor, and leaves one with a reading experience like no one else.


The Drop, Dennis Lehane. Among my favorites and close to a perfect book. I read it when it first came out (a rarity for me), and skipped the bar the first night at a conference so I could finish it. Been a while, but it holds up very well. The book is adapted from Lehane’s screenplay for the movie, which is ass-backward from the typical sequence, but it works to perfection.


With a week to go, I’ve read 46 books tis year. A little below my average since I started keeping track, but all tings considered, I’m fairly well pleased.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Inexorable Decline in the Quality of Home Entertainment

 As my father aged, he was prone to say “I’m glad I won’t be around to see…” and then complain about some aspect of the decline of civilization. I made a conscious decision never to do that. Keeping this promise is harder some days than others, especially during the covid era, but I’ve done well in general.


That’s not to say I ignore things I don’t like. I’ve mentioned today’s topic before, but events have conspired to prompt a re-visitation. I understand this is all trivial, entertainment-related stuff. Still, with all the other things going on, entertainment fills a greater role than it might otherwise.


Let’s start with home entertainment, by which I mean television, by which I mean streaming services, as what’s shown over the air (read: cable) is rarely worth the time to read the program guide. Streaming services are pay to play, but that’s not stopping them from starting to sneak in commercials.


Here's the thing, boys: HBO and Showtime set the standard for pay TV, and the standard is we already paid, so give it to us straight. Hulu’s old TV shows don’t bother me as much; the creators built in commercial breaks, making the ads less obtrusive.


The other night we watched an Australian Western, The Proposition, using Amazon Prime as a portal to IMDB TV, which was “free with ads.” We can live with Hulu’s ads, so we gave it a try.


I’d like to give the movie a thumbs up or thumbs down, but I can’t. The ads appeared seemingly at random, and so disrupted the continuity I can’t make a fair assessment. The movie is mostly atmosphere and tone. Random breaks for dog food, makeup, and, worst of all, promos for what a fine service IMDB TV is, killed any mood we might have built. Some were timed so badly we wondered if they’d just let the movie run behind the ads. They hadn’t, but some of the cuts were so dramatic it was a valid concern.


This is yet another example of the inexorable creep of advertising into our entertainment. The compact used to be that the viewer had to put up with commercials as the cost of the entertainment. Now it feels like the providers only have programming because they don’t think we’ll tune in just to watch commercials. (Yes, I know this was always true. They just weren’t as obvious about it.)


Take sports. Baseball has long had the green screen ads behind home plate. Now the fields have ads along the baselines and TV superimposes corporate logos onto the backs of the pitcher’s mounds. I saw a game last season with a large ad superimposed on the Green Monster at Fenway Park, and another where a TV-only ad covered the hitters’ background.


Hockey is even worse. There have been ads between the blue lines for years. Now they are also in the corners. Some TV outlets started superimposing ads on the glass several years ago. Now everyone does it near the blue lines in both offensive zones. Corporate logos started appearing on helmets a couple of years ago. This year the Washington Capitals have logos on the uniform jerseys. Soon everyone will.


Why does this bother me so much? Probably because I used to be able to use sports as my refuge away from the outside world. Now they not only have ads everywhere, TNT runs the odds for proposition bets on the screen during the game. The event has become an excuse for advertising in the spirit of too much money is never enough.


Which brings to mind another point. Everywhere we look, some business is complaining about how there isn’t enough money. We can’t afford to pay minimum wage / hire new workers / provide benefits / improve customer service / you name it. Then where does all this advertising money come from? The cart is no longer before the horse. It’s rolling down the road on its own


I have no solution. I’m old and cranky. Next week I’ll still be old, but I’ll have reading recommendations.


For now, get off my lawn.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

An Interview with Joe Ricker, Author of All the Good in Evil


Joe Ricker is a favorite interview of mine. We’ve never met in person, but he’s a fascinating character who is an honest and forthright interview. I’ve interviewed him before (June 2015 and June 2020) and they‘ve always been a treat. His new book, All the Good in Evil, dropped in October from Down & Out Books


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back, Joe. Your new book, All the Good in Evil, launched a couple of months ago. Tell those who are late to the party a little about it.

Joe Ricker: All the Good in Evil is my fourth book with Down & Out. It’s gritty, hardboiled, and there’s no shortage of violence. Basically, a couple of bouncers in Southern Maine supplement their income by robbing drug dealers and construction materials.


OBAAT: Amos Swain can’t catch a break. Where did you come up with the character and what inspired you to write of his fall from promising college student to convict?

JR: The idea for Amos Swain as a character came years before I’d ever tried to write a work of fiction. In a lot of ways, Amos is an amalgamation of my own history, and a couple of guys I grew up with. When I did finally pursue All the Good in Evil as a work of fiction, I thought back to the summer before my sophomore year of college when I got arrested for armed robbery. I remembered sitting in jail and thinking that I’d fucked my entire life up, and there would be no future for me except for something criminal. That’s where Amos originated.


OBAAT: I’m not going out on a limb when I say you write dark. What is it about such stories that appeals to you and keeps drawing you back?

JR: I grew up a little rough and that made me pretty unstable for a long time. Too long, probably. I started writing as a way to curb some of the “unhealthy” tendencies that I had, which I felt was very mature of me. I guess I leaned more toward darker fiction because that’s where I felt most comfortable – that’s what I knew when I started writing.


OBAAT: You mentioned in our previous interview how those you cite as influences on your writing has evolved. Is your list still changing? What kinds of things have changed in your writing as your influencers change?

JR: I’m always adding to the list. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Sexton. I think that the writing I’m doing now is a little less dark. It’s more apparent with All the Good in Evil coming out, because I wrote that book so long ago. Some Awful Cunning, Walkin’ After Midnight, and Porcelain Moths were all books I wrote after All the Good in Evil.


OBAAT: You spent two years living in your car while traveling the country. Your web site indicates you settled down, or are at least staying in one place. Do you still get the itch to hit the road? If not, what is it about Reno that keeps you there? (Editor’s Note: I have been to Reno, though only for a few days and over fifteen years ago. I liked it.)

JR: Being on the road for that long was the most liberating experience of my life. I’m always yearning to go back on the road, but I won’t be doing that again for a few years. I’ve been in Reno for a little over three years now, and it suits me. A lot of the old Reno is gone, because developers have basically leveled the weekly hotels to build luxury apartments that nobody working in Reno can afford to live in. But, I practically live on the Truckee River, where there’s excellent fishing, and I spend a lot of time in the mountains. Living in Reno gives me a lot of access to all of the other things I like to do.


OBAAT: When we spoke in 2015, I asked what you were working on. You replied, “Faking my own death.” How did that work out for you, or is it still a work in progress?

: I totally forgot about that. That’s when the first version of Walkin’ After Midnight came out. But the funny thing is that while I was working on ideas for that, I came up with the idea for Ryan Carpenter in Some Awful Cunning, my first novel with Down & Out. I guess I’m still considering ideas on how to drop off the grid/fake my own death, but I’m pretty content with being Joe Ricker right now.


OBAAT: When we were setting up this interview, you mentioned at one point, and this is a direct quote, “this strip club gig is a lot of late hours.” There’s no way I can’t ask you how that gig came about, and how it’s working out for you?

JR: A lot of luck, actually. I met the GM of the club at a bar I hung out at. He needed a guy to manage a couple shifts. I’d done some security work in the past, so he gave me a job. I was teaching at UNR, but I got beat out for a full-time position for a spousal hire. So, I was pretty annoyed with academia and just stopped teaching for them to work at the club. That turned out to be a better choice for me. The money is better, and I don’t have to work as much. It’s been a great gig, so far, despite the occasional violence.


OBAAT: Time for the obligatory wrap-up question: What are you working on now?

JR: I’m working on the sequel to Some Awful Cunning.


Mare of Easttown

 A friend suggested I watch Mare of Easttown because the setting and atmosphere resemble my Penns River books, though from the other side of Pennsylvania. The show and my books have many similarities, though there are also crucial differences.


The parallels are easy to see. Easttown is hilly and mostly semi-rural, with a small downtown. The winter weather is cold and damp; the sun shines about as often as Tucker Carlson makes a lucid statement. Those who live there are predominantly working class, though a few are doing better.


The primary difference is that no one in Easttown – no one – is having any fun. Their lives are a daily trudge from one unfortunate occurrence to another. Even good news comes with tragedy attached. Penns River is much the same, but its residents take their misfortune with a healthy dose of ironic humor, and every so often something funny happens. Life is like that, and Mare could use more of it.


The show in general is good, not great. All HBO shows have excellent production values; Mare is no exception. It’s filmed on location in and near Drexel Hill PA, and the visuals take full advantage. The acting is uniformly excellent, led by Kate Winslet as Mare. Kudos to her for having the courage to age naturally. I know her mostly from Titanic (which I didn’t care for), and her performance here is a revelation.


The plotting falls prey to a couple of TV quirks. When confronted with choices, characters too often take the one more likely to cause the most, and greatest, complications. I know it’s good for conflict and drama, but most people are smarter than that. Let them show it.


The second annoyance is that each episode has a different favored suspect until they finally get it right. It’s one thing to work through possible candidates, but cops prefer not to arrest people, or make serious accusations, until they’re pretty damn sure they have the right person. It reminds me of watching a House marathon with the then Sole Heir (now Dr. Sole Heir) many years ago. She was already thinking of medical school and was trying to guess if House had the diagnosis right. It was his second or third try of the show, so I was confident in saying he’s still wrong. When she asked how I knew – aware I never watched House except with her – I pointed to the clock. “He’ll get it wrong at least once more before they miraculously save this guy as the first two wheels of the gurney cross the threshold of death’s door.”


My overall feelings about Mare are positive. I’ll watch a second season, if there is one. The main story line is intriguing, though some of the police procedure is questionable. I’m willing to forgive that because

A. They’re matters of omission. It’s not like they have a bunch of CSIs running around with guns or car explosions.

B. It’s not really a cop show. It’s a family drama where the lead character happens to be a cop. While not outstanding at either – no one will confuse Mare with The Wire or Little House on the Prairie* - it’s better than competent. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5.


(* - As you probably guessed, I don’t watch a lot of family dramas.)