Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in Chicago

Well, it's Christmas Eve, and here in Chicago we don't have to be "dreaming" of a white Christmas -- we're having one! It's snowing here, a gentle kind of snow that will whiten the already snowy lawns in my neighborhood. I took these pictures earlier this week when we had one of those crystal snowfalls that leave icy diamonds sparkling on the already frozen ground. Looking out my kitchen window, I can see the birds scrabbling to eat the last of the seed we put out for them before it's totally covered by the new snow. Sharing their late afternoon meal are mourning doves and chickadees, black-eyed juncos and ruby-red cardinals, and of course, the ever-present house sparrows. A squirrel was eating his fill earlier when our resident hawk swooped down, intent on catching his own dinner. But the squirrel must have seen him coming; he made a leap for the little tree next to our garage and escaped in a maze of branches, forcing the hawk to make an abrupt upturn that took him winging over the garage, missing the gutter by less than an inch. The hawk will probably be back; the feeder attracts dozens of birds each day. Every evening, a rabbit makes its way from the front of the house to the backyard to glean the leftovers scattered around the covered pond. It's nesting under the evergreens that flank our front door where hopefully the hawk won't find it. So far this winter we haven't seen the two red foxes that strolled through the neighborhood all summer. I'm betting they headed for the safety of the forest preserve and the dead fallen trees there that offer some shelter to creatures their size. It's been a cold winter here so far, and that's tough on the animals that call the outdoors their home. It's equally tough on their human counterparts, the homeless men and women who are lucky if they can find a bed in a city shelter, and the down-on-their-luck unemployed folks who may have a roof over their heads, but can hardly afford to pay for heat, much less rent. for sure it'll be a tough Christmas for these people. Last week we packed over 470 bags of food at our local food pantry. By the time we were done, our shelves were stripped bare. The families who received that food have experienced the economic downturn in the worst of ways. Many have lost their jobs, some have lost their homes, and the elderly among them have often lost hope that life will ever get better. Having food on the table at Christmas seems normal for those of us fortunate to have some income. For those who come to the food pantry, a Christmas dinner is a blessing they wouldn't enjoy except for the generousity of their neighbors.

So it's Christmas in Chicago, and for most of us, there's much to be thankful for. I truly wish everyone a peace-filled and joyful Christmas season.

And if you have a few bucks left over after paying off the bills for your holiday gifts, how about donating some food to your local food pantry. The shelves will be bare this winter without your help.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Reviews by Carl Brookins

The Bone Chamber
by Robin Burcell
ISBN 9781590583753
HC from Poisoned Pen Press
2009, 378 pages

Feisty independent-minded FBI forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick is off again. This time she bouncing between Washington, DC, San Francisco and various Italian locations. All the while she and her cohorts dodge international hit men. Burcell is a good writer and her varied law enforcement background gives her writing a level of authority lacking in some crime fiction.

The novel is a wide-ranging tale of intrigue, sanctioned and unsanctioned black ops, the CIA the FBI, and several other sometimes questionable agencies. Here are active old and new world mafia figures, the Knights Templar, and several world overnments. The story dredges up long standing rumors, beliefs based on very sketchy and tenuous evidence, ancient legends and involves some vast and secretive organizations such as the Vatican, Freemasonry and maybe some left-over bits of the Tri-Lateral Commission.

Conspiracies within governments, especially those involving questionable banking institutions and practices are fruitful and always interesting. That is especially the case when the venal actions of important institutions from the distant past are held up to the unblinking gaze of modern research. This novel has 'em all. And that's part of the attraction of the book. Burcell has linked in an essentially fanciful way, an incredible chain of real events that reach back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and possible implications in the modern era. The novel proves that murder, corruption and cynical manipulation with the goal of great power and wealth are not the province of our times.

If the novel has flaws it is the multiplicity of threads that wind through
the book, sometimes creating a Gordian's Knot of complexities. Nevertheless, "Bone Chamber" never completely loses its foundation in the real world of plausible outcomes. A tense and intriguing ride from start to finish.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


Fly By Wire
by Ward Larsen
ISBN: 978-1-933515-86-1
Hard Cover, 301 pgs.,
Published by Oceanview Press, 2010

An unusual and fresh plot device blends world finance, international espionage, religious zealotry and cutting edge aviation technology in a fine and mostly fast-paced thriller. It is clear that the author knows intimately the setting of his story, aviation accident investigation.

A new design, a flying wing cargo plane, has crashed in France and a former Air Force pilot, now working as an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board is sent to the crash site as liaison. His name is Jammer Davis and he's something of a hot-shot loose cannon. Think the macho pilots in the movie "Top Gun," and you get the idea. Davis's life is complicated by the presence of his teen-aged daughter-and her dating difficulties-Davis is a widower. It's a nice touch, and while Davis is in France struggling to figure out a series of odd circumstances around the place crash, his daughter occasionally calls him on his cell, disturbing and altering the rhythm of the plot. The story line is also interrupted from time to time by the machinations of the evil cabal behind the plot which serves to ramp up the tension. The author is careful to dole out intriguing information in tantalizing dollops which maintains reader interest.

That's a good thing, because there are several sections of fairly technical information which are necessary to explain the plot, but occasionally are too long for my taste. The major flaw in the novel is the somewhat old fashioned macho attitude expressed by the narrative in several places. There is at times a sense we are living once again in a simpler time when there was a perception that men and especially women had their defined roles with lines to be crossed at considerable personal risk. It was a time when enemies of the nation were always summarily dealt with. Moral ambiguities and our system of legal niceties were almost as much obstacles to getting the right thing done, as protection of the rights of everyone.

With these caveats, I found "Fly By Wire" to be a rousing patriotic story that moves along at a decent pace to an eminently satisfying conclusion. I particularly like the domestic surprise at the end.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


Friday, October 22, 2010

A few thoughts on cat baths

I don't know who first put this together for the Internet, but I had to laugh when my sister sent it to me in an email. I hope you enjoy it, too!

A few thoughts on cat baths by
The Cat

'But you said you loved me!'

'You will pay! As God is my witness, you will pay!'

'Holy crap, you call this water warm???'

'I don't think I like you anymore.'

'You Lied!!!!!!'

'E.T. phone home......quick!'

'No, I'm not your Good Little Kitty anymore.'

'Traction... .I'm losing traction!'

'I want my Mommmmmmyyyyyyyyyyy !'

'Oh, no!!!!'

Even if you're not a 'cat person', these pictures are priceless!!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

New Books from Poisoned Press

Once again I welcome reviewer Carl Brookins to Cicero's Children. Today Carl is reviewing two books published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Her Deadly Mischief
by Beverle Graves Myers
Poisoned Pen Press, 2009
ISBN 978-1-59058-233-6
286 pages

Here we are transported to the gaiety, the intrigue and the complicated machinations of the ruling classes of that Adriatic gem, Venice. By now, mid eighteenth century, Venice is in decline, and no longer the regional superpower with absolute dominion over the Adriatic. Still, her cultural climate is a world-wide force to be reckoned with. That includes her innovative grand opera.

Behind the crimson curtain of the Teatro San Marcos, difficult economic times are at work. In the lofty boxes of the well-born and the wealthy, murderous intrigue is also at work. When one of the city's celebrated courtesans, Zulietta Giardino, is murdered by a knife in her lovely chest, fingers of accusation are immediately pointed at one of Venice's leading and most desirable young scions, Alessio Pino, heir of one of the most important Murano glassmaking families. The murder occurs during an opening aria by one of the city's cultural stars, a well-known singer, the castrato, Tito Amato. Thus, Amato becomes a crucial witness to the murder and therefore a target as the plot twists along the winding and sometimes narrow canals of the city.

Drawing effectively on her meticulous and extensive research, the author brings to life not only the glittering upper crust revels of the city, and its artistic culture, but readers will come to understand the life and times of ordinary citizens of the period. The novel is well-paced, the characters are enthralling and the twisting mystery well resolved. Myers continuing series about the life of the prominent singer is a very pleasurable experience whether one is or is not an opera fan.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!

The Eye of the Virgin
by Frederick Ramsey
Pub. Poisoned Pen Press
June, 2010, Hard Cover.
254 pages.
ISBN: 9781590587607

Sheriff Ike Schwartz is in it again. Some odd break-ins have occurred in the area around the town of Picketsville, Virginia. What were thieves looking for in the studio of an iconographer? Why is an unknown individual discovered dead of gunshot, but in a chair in the Picketsville clinic? Are these incidents related? And who is the mysterious woman Abe Schwartz has been squiring about?

Sparkling dialogue and a whee of a climactic scene distinguish this crime novel. It's the xxx in Ramsey's continuing saga of the home-town adventures of ex-CIA spook Isaack Schwartz. He's retired from the international scene to become the elected sheriff of the aforesaid Pickettsville, Virginia. He's bright, sharp, aware of the ways of international espionage so when he sees it, he recognizes it. As the elected sheriff he has to deal with a loose collection of varied and interesting characters. Some of them make life quite interesting; the president of the local college, Ruth XXX for instance. Others, inept contract spooks and burglars, for example, are dangerous. Schwartz and his deputies manage to keep the peace and solve crimes in interesting if not always legal ways.

They are aided, in their tasks, as are readers who find their way to this lovely novel, by carefully thought out if sometimes complicated plots, good pace, and crackling spot-on dialogue. Threaded through the cleverness and the funny bits are thoughtful musings on the state of world affairs today in which enemies become friends and friends enemies.

An excellent enjoyable novel.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Advice from Curtis and Leroy on Elections

Advice from Curtis and Leroy:

Limit all US politicians to two terms..
One in office.
One in prison.

Illinois already does this.

And I ought to know. I'm from Illinois.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Favre Loses Both a Game and His Halo

So I'm watching Monday Night Football tonight on ESPN and wishing John Madden and Al Michaels were doing the commentating instead of Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden. Mike Tirico is good at play-by-play; he knows the game and he's fair. And I can live with Jon Gruden. He's not Madden for sure, but he's not bad either. But Jaworski drives me nuts with his gushing commentary and his know-it-all attitude.

Tonight was the worst. If Jaworski could have climbed out of the booth, gotten down on his knees, and kissed Brett Favre's feet, he would have done it. I mean, the man practically crowned Favre "King of the Universe".

Don't get me wrong. Favre was once the best quarterback in the game. And yes, he broke the record for touchdown passes and yards passed tonight.

But he also broke the record for most fumbles ever in the NFL.

Yes, folks. The "King" isn't perfect. Not only did he fumble the ball twice tonight, but he also threw an interception that sealed the win for the Jets. Mr. "Maybe-I'll-retire-maybe-I'll-play" Favre lost the game -- again.

Meanwhile, Jets winning quarterback Mark Sanchez rated hardly a word of praise from the talking heads of ESPN, even though his passing percentage was better than Favre's, he never fumbled the ball or threw an interception, and he moved his team downfield for one touchdown and five field goals. Nick Folk was treated equally badly by Jaworski and company, even though he kicked those five -- count 'em, folks: five! -- field goals.

So what gives here? How is it that loser Favre gets more attention than winner Sanchez? And why should I care if Jaworski gushes like a broken water fountain over his idol, Brett Favre?

Maybe it's because I love the game of football when it's played well, and I hate the bait-and-switch tactics of a quarterback who left the game at the right time, when he was still respected as one of the best in the business, but couldn't stay retired. Favre's ego got in the way of his common sense, and now his team is paying the price.

Favre's playing injured on the field. Off the field, he's just playing.

On the field, he's getting sacked. Off the field, he's trying to get sacked.

And now his off-field shenanigans have caught up with him. It seems the All-American Boy is just another dirty old man who can't keep his jeans zipped up. (Don't look now, kids, but you've lost another role model.)

And maybe that's why Jaworski's drooling hero worship bit didn't go over well with me tonight. Favre is nobody's hero. What he does best is throw a ball, and for that he's paid very, very handsomely. What he does worst is live up to his marriage vows, and for that he very well might pay handsomely.

First it was Tiger Woods. Now it's Brett Favre. Again, it's that old celebrity ego thing that says 'I'm so above everyone else, I can get away with anything'.

Sorry, Brett, but it's over. Try as he may, even Ron Jaworski can't rub the tarnish off you.

At least, not for this football fan.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Reviews by Carl Brookins

by Kathleen Hills
Poisoned Pen Press, January 2008
hard cover,316 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59058-476-7

The author of this novel has a strong background in rural America,particularly in the Upper Midwest. It shows in many of the nuances that affect the progress of this story. The novel is replete with icons of small towns, some of which are isolated from the mainstream.

The book is set in the tiny Upper Peninsula Michigan town of St. Adele where once again we ride along with one of the most reluctant and phlegmatic lawmen we are likely ever to encounter. His name is John McIntyre and he is the town constable. He didn't want the job in the first place and he can think of a hundred things he'd rather be doing and places he'd rather be than the sun-blasted hay field of former conscientious objector, Ruben Hofer.

Hofer has been murdered, that's plain to see. His head was blasted open by a rifle shot while he sat on his tractor raking hay. It is almost immediately clear that the man's family is one likely source of murderous intent. Hofer was not a nice man. He drove his two teen-aged sons in cruel and oppressive ways; and his eleven-year-old daughter, Claire, has already been pushed to warped and dangerous attitudes about life. His wife is morbidly over-weight and only the youngster, Joey, constantly playing with his make-believe farm in the yard outside the kitchen of the school-house-turned-family-home, seems almost normal.

Author Hills continues to invest her stories with an array of intriguing characters, although I got a little tired of the sheriff's on-again-off-again almost incompetent investigation. Moreover, the two teen-agers do not become distinct characters in this book until very late, which I found to be a weakness.

Nevertheless, the story is informed by very real human emotions and conflicts and the author's handling of the religious, political and historical elements of the book tell us she has done careful research. The book is, as is true of all her books, well-written.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!

* * *

Vermilion Drift
by William Kent Krueger
ISBN: 9781439153840
Hard Cover from Atria,
2010, 305 pages

Authors of crime fiction, like authors working in any other genre, often use their talents to work through personal issues, sometimes intensely private issues. Although it is not entirely clear, the writer may be working through some family issues with this novel. Does that matter?

Perhaps. That depends on the result. In this case, the author, possessed of well-honed, significant writing talent, has produced a novel of finely wrought proportions, multi-layered with considerable depth. By that I mean that the characters demonstrate multiple levels of engagement, and the story itself works on more than one level. Almost every character who appears in the book is involved in the story in more than one way. Some of their levels are casual or socially related, such as what may be routinely expected of law officers in Tamarack County, the Northern Minnesota location of this novel. Other characters, Henry Meloux, for example and other Native Americans; Sam Wintermoon, appears, and of course, Cork's mother and his father, Liam, all have, at different times, visceral involvement in the story.

The problem, if there is one, is that this story is much more a novel of family and community relationships than it is a novel of suspense, or crime, horrific and awful though the crimes were. Death is always the ultimate judge, from whom there is no appeal.

So, in my view, the problem is one of balance, or perhaps of categorization. The involvement of Cork O'Connor, now a private investigator, alone in Aurora, is mostly one of self-examination. The novel is one of Cork's journey of discovery. What was the meaning of his occasional nightmares? What were the issues that consumed and separated the O'Connor family in those last fateful months of Liam O'Connor's life?

The novel begins with Cork once again at odds with his Ojibwe heritage. His mother, remember, was a member of the tribe. He's hired by the owners of the Vermilion One and Ladyslipper mines to deal with threats against the mine. But then he's also tasked to try to locate a missing woman, sister of the mine owner. Lauren Cavanaugh has gone missing. Finding the missing woman opens a window on old unsolved crimes from a previous generation, from a time when Cork's father was the sheriff of Tamarack County.

Sorting through old albums, records and memories, fresh and repressed, takes up the body of the novel. As with all of this author's previous novels, the explanation is logical, satisfying and meaningful. Krueger, as always, is skillful in evoking the landscape, not just its physical self, but its atmosphere, its mystical presence and its influences on the people who reside there.

In the end, this thoughtful exploration of law, truth and justice and their profound influences on all of us is a highly successful emotionally moving effort.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!

* * *

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Part Two: Multinational Corporations Take Over Publishing

Gulf and Western managed companies as diverse as auto parts suppliers, zinc mines, and sugar cane producers. In 1966 it strayed into the entertainment business by acquiring Paramount Pictures, a company dating back to 1913 when Adolph Zukor, owner of a New York nickelodeon and founder of the Famous Players Film Company, invested in a film distribution company by that name. Paramount had produced such notable films as IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, GOING MY WAY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, A PLACE IN THE SUN, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, ROMAN HOLIDAY, SHANE, and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The purchase of Simon and Schuster gave Gulf and Western an opportunity to cash in on Pocket Books’ movie tie-in paperbacks

(Left: The Simon and Schuster Building, N.Y.)

Under the umbrella of Gulf and Western (renamed Paramount Communications in 1989), S and S began expanding through acquisition. Between 1984 and 1994, it purchased more than 60 publishing companies, including the prestigious Macmillan Publishing Company. Subsequently, company revenue grew from $200 million in 1983 to more than $2 billion in 1997.

Shortly after the 1994 Macmillan acquisition, Paramount – along with S and S – was sold to Viacom Inc. Viacom (short for "Video & Audio Communications") was founded in 1971 as a division of CBS. It was purchased in 1986 by movie theater owner National Amusements, but retained its original company name. Simon and Schuster benefited from the sale by launching new imprints based on programming by Viacom’s MTV Networks.

In 2005 Viacom was split into two companies – Viacom and CBS Corporation – with National Amusements retaining control of both entities. Simon and Schuster became the property of CBS Corporation.

As part of the world’s fourth largest media conglomerate behind the Walt Disney Company, Time Warner, and News Corporation, Simon & Schuster continues to publish tie-ins to films by Viacom-owned Paramount. As one of the four largest English-language publishers – Random House, Penguin, and HarperCollins being the others – it has approximately 1350 employees, publishes approximately two thousand titles annually under 35 different imprints, is a leading audio and ebook publisher, and distributes its titles in more than 100 countries and territories around the world.

It is also the ONLY major publisher in the United States that is owned by an American corporation.

(Right: Current S and S logo)

Multi-national corporations headquartered outside the U.S. own the other five major publishers operating here. Those publishers and corporations are:

Random House with its 100+ imprints, owned by Bertlesman (Germany).
HarperCollins with its imprints, owned by Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation (United Kingdom).
Penguin Group with its many imprints (among them Viking, Putnam, Dutton, Berkley. Grosset and Dunlap), owned by Pearson (United Kingdom).
Macmillan with its imprints (Farrar Straus and Giroux; St. Martin’s Press, and more), owned by Holtzbrink (Germany); bought in 1999 after 156 years of ownership by the Macmillan family.
Grand Central (formerly Warner Books) along with Little, Brown (American publisher founded in 1837), owned by Hachette Livre (France).

How does multi-national corporation ownership of publishing companies affect writers? Clearly, as large conglomerates take over the publishing business, smaller companies either die off or are acquired by the big guys, with the result being layoffs of skilled workers and fewer publishing outlets for authors.

Simon and Schuster (CBS Corp.) posted $794 million in revenue in 2009 while employing, according to their website, only 1350 people. Random House (Bertlesman) laid off employees in 2009 and 2010 while posting $1.7 billion in revenue for 2009 and this year agreeing to pay Janet Evanovich $50 million for her next four books. Macmillan (Holtzbrink) lowered ebook royalties to authors while its St. Martin’s Press division is accused of slashing royalties under “high discount” provisions.

The bigger the corporation, the more power its affiliated publishing companies have to influence the placement of books in stores, to negotiate author rights and payments, and to limit big time advertising to a chosen few writers. Likewise, the bigger the corporation, the more it must answer to its stockholders, thus making it almost de rigueur for publishers to abandon moderately selling first-time and midlist authors and concentrate instead on titles by best-selling novelists, ghost-written celebrity tell-alls, and non-fiction self help books.

Publication by a major publisher is the dream of practically every fiction writer. Given the consolidation and elimination of publishing companies over the past twenty-five years, that dream may be harder to fulfill today than ever before. While it still comes true each year for a good number of first-time authors, many writers have abandoned the dream and instead pursue vastly different avenues to publication.

More on that next time.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Publishing's Journey from Privately-held Companies to Multi-national Corporations

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

From a letter by President Abraham Lincoln to Col. William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864.


“Do you know the only thing that gives me pleasure? It’s to see my dividends coming in.” And: “God gave me my money.”

John D. Rockefeller, 1839-1937; founder of the Standard Oil Company and the first American billionaire.


“To widen the market and narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers.”

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I (Everyman’s Library, 6th Printing 1991)


There’s not a person on this earth today who isn’t in some way affected by the growing power of multinational corporations. From retail giants to telecommunication syndicates, from energy conglomerates to international investment banks, global business interests influence how we live and work.

Writers are no less affected than anyone else by this change in the worldwide economic blueprint. American publishing companies that independently prospered in the 1800’s and early 1900’s are now mere cogs in the wheels of corporations so vast and ever-changing that some employees aren’t sure from day to day exactly who they work for.

How did it get this way? Who owns what? And how does the ownership of publishing companies affect writers?

Well, let’s take a look at Simon and Schuster. S and S was founded in 1924 after Richard L. Simon’s aunt, a devotee of the crossword puzzles printed in the New York World newspaper, asked if there existed a book of such puzzles. On finding there wasn’t, Simon teamed up with M. Lincoln (“Max”) Schuster to become the first publisher of such books. The pair marketed the books aggressively, including a pencil with each copy and assuring buyers through their newspaper ads that crosswords were the country’s next craze.

The ploy worked well. The book became a bestseller and launched S and S as a publishing company to be reckoned with. (Adding to the proof that the two men made a wise decision with this initial effort, it should be noted that even today, Simon and Schuster is the leading U.S. publisher of crossword puzzle books.)

(photo on left: Simon and Schuster logo, circa 1961)

Dick Simon and Max Schuster were not content to be just another pair of struggling entrepreneurs. They took risks other book publishers of their time were unwilling to make, spending up to ten times more than their competitors on advertising and introducing schemes that made their products highly attractive to booksellers. They are probably best known for introducing the return system where bookstores could return unsold titles for credit towards future purchases.

The pair made another good move in 1939 when they teamed up with Robert Fair de Graff to found Pocket Books, thus becoming America's first modern paperback publisher.

Paperback books actually got their start in the U.S. in the mid-1800’s with the publication of New York printer Erastus Beadle’s A Dime Song Book, a paperbound collection of popular song lyrics. It sold so well that Beadle published another “dime” book, Maleska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter, an adventure novel by Anne S. Stephens.

“Dime novels” were all the rage in the late 1800’s and early twentieth century, but they fell out of favor in the 1920’s with the advent of pulp fiction magazines. Although cheaply produced reprints of Victorian novels continued to be sold in paperback, it wasn’t until 1935 when British businessman Allen Lane founded Penguin Books in London that good quality contemporary novels began being published in that format. At the time, modern novels were printed only in hardcover at prices above what the average worker in England could afford. Lane made books by writers like Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway available to the general public at much lower prices and sold his paperbacks not only in bookstores, but also in tobacco shops, train stations, and grocery stores.

Attentive to Lane’s success in England, Dick Simon and Max Schuster eagerly followed in his footsteps when entrepreneur Robert Fair de Graff approached them with the idea to create Pocket Books. The Simon and Schuster imprint bore the logo of "Gertrude the kangaroo" (named for the artist’s mother-in-law) and featured reprints of works by writers like Dorothy Parker, Agatha Christie, Emily Bronte, and Thornton Wilder in glued rather than stitched paperbacks. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights made the best-seller list and was one reason S and S sold more than 1.5 million Pocket Book editions by the end of the first year of production. With de Graff at the helm of the imprint, mysteries and movie tie-ins became staples of the line.

S and S took another giant step forward in 1942 by launching the Little Golden Books series in cooperation with the Artist and Writers Guild, Inc. These children’s books originally sold for twenty-five cents each and included such all-time favorites as The Little Red Hen and Mother Goose. S and S published the books for sixteen years before selling their interest in the line to Western Printing and Lithographing. Ownership of the series changed hands several times after that with Random House acquiring Golden Books for about 85 million dollars in 2001. Probably the most famous Golden Book of all time is The Poky Little Puppy, one of the twelve original titles published in 1942. As of 2005, 15 million copies had been sold worldwide.

In 1944, Dick Simon and Max Schuster sold S and S and Pocket Books to Marshall Field III, founder of the Chicago Sun newspaper (now the Chicago Sun-Times). They bought S and S back from Field’s heirs in 1957, but left Pocket Books to be purchased by their new business partners, Leon Shimkin and James M. Jacobson. Pocket Books returned to the S and S umbrella in 1966. For the next nine years the four partners varied their levels of ownership in the company. In 1975, majority holder Leon Shimkin sold Simon and Schuster to Charles Bluhdorn, founder of the American conglomerate Gulf and Western.

More on Gulf and Western's alliance with Simon and Schuster tomorrow.


Monday, September 6, 2010

New Reviews by Carl Brookins

by Justin Scott
Poisoned Pen Press
255 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 1-59058-063-X

Justin Scott has written over a dozen mysteries, thrillers and adventure novels under several names, taut, exemplary stories that illuminate and explore many of our social concerns. They are good stories, well-written with drive and panache. This is another, peopled with interesting characters, a serious underpinning, and enough crime and mystery to satisfy the most enthusiastic crime fiction reader.

Ben Abbott is a sometime private investigator, sometime real estate agent,and a full time commentator on some of the more egregious aspects of our modern society and the influence on small town America. Abbott is also one of the more pleasant and thoughtful investigators readers are likely to run across in this age. Abbott is concerned about the effects of aging on his Aunt Constance who lives nearby, he takes in children in need of adult supervision, and he worries about unrestrained development of open spaces in the Connecticut town of Newbury where he lives. That last concern forms the core of this interesting novel about crooked developers, and a badly twisted legal system.

One of the worst developers, a Billy Tiller, possessed mostly of terrible taste, monumental greed and a willingness to break the law anytime he thought there was profit in it, gets his come-uppance when somebody drives a bulldozer over him at a construction site. The perpetrator, a young member of ELF, is discovered by the local troopers sitting at the controls of the offending 'dozer with the crushed body of Billy Tiller underneath. Open and shut, but Abbott, retained by the boy's lawyer, doesn't believe it. His pursuit of the truth leads him into some interesting and stressful situations.


The Protest Singer: Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
Pub by Vintage Books, 2010,
ISBN: 978-0-307-39098-1
Trade Paper, 152 pages, including
credits, acknowledgments and testimony.

The mystery is that Pete Seeger survives and endures. In his lifetime which spans much of the turmoil of the Twentieth Century, he has been beset by some of the most vicious and evil forces we have experienced in this country and in the world. Yet, here he is, still pluckin’ and singin’ and taking on injustice and good causes, like cleaning up the Hudson River.

I suppose I’m biased. I grew up in a time when folk singing in America was in the ascendency and I have a lot of old records and memories of these folks, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, several others, and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Seeger through the good offices of my friend, another fine folk singer, Gene Bluestein. So it was great to read about all those folks, many of whom it’s easy to think of as friends, whether personal or only through their music, through the sensibilities of Seeger and Wilkinson.

It is wonderful, although disturbing, to read this elegantly written, honest look at a man, his friends and companions, his family, his trials and his triumphs, who sang his way into the hearts and memories of a lot of people. Seeger’s influence is found not just in the music world; after all, the Weavers recording of “Goodnight Irene” in 1950 sold over a million copies. It is and will be enduring.

This slender book, written in the kind of engaging style that is somehow the essence of Seeger’s approach to a principled life, is a moving tribute to him and to everything that’s right in these United States. Readers may disagree with his points of view, but you cannot disagree with the way Mr. Seeger fashioned his protest. Wilkinson has set down, in a most engaging manner, for readers everywhere, the values and the reality of a true American.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


COMING WEDNESDAY: Part One of "Publishing’s Journey From Privately-held Companies to Multinational Corporations". Part Two follows on Thursday.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

History of Publishing: Part Two

I was recently asked why it’s so important for writers to know about the history of publishing. My reply was, would you buy a house without knowing its history? A house is a big investment, so you’d want to know if the plumbing and electrical work was sound, if the roof leaked or the basement flooded every time it rained. Only a fool would buy a house without first having it inspected for problems.

Likewise, a writer invests a great deal of time and money in a book. It’s difficult to estimate the cost of time spent writing, but marketing a novel certainly isn’t a cheap enterprise. Websites, bookmarks, mailings to stores and libraries, and author tours can quickly drain away a writer’s earned income. Understanding how the publishing business got to where it is today, and using that knowledge to plan for the future, are vital for predicting an author’s success.

As related previously, Harper & Brothers (today simply called Harpers) set the foundation for modern day publishing back in the 1800’s. Colonial and post-Revolutionary printers most often acted as paid publishers, charging authors to print their work and sometimes helping to disseminate that work to the public. Harpers was one of the first companies to use its own money to publish books, paying authors after they recovered the printing costs. With the emergence of the royalty system proposed by George Palmer Putnam in 1846, authors began receiving 10 percent of the cover price of every book sold. (More on royalties in a later blog.)

Following a fire in 1853, Harpers financed two new buildings to house its publishing company. One building was reserved for management, inventory, and wholesaling operations. The other six-story building served as the manufacturing plant with each floor dedicated to a separate task. Overseen by male managers, women manned the steam presses on the first floor. One story up, boys hung the printed sheets to dry before they were folded, sewed, and stitched by workers on the next levels. Higher up in the building, workers fitted the books with covers, pasted down the flyleaves, and trimmed the edges.

This early pattern of assembly line mass production of books ensured the continued rise of Harper Bros. in the publishing business. Labor was cheap in those days, with wages amounting to ten cents per hour in manufacturing, or $1.00 for a 10-hour day. At the same time, hardcover books sold for $1 or more apiece.

To examine the impact of these figures on income, consider how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published in 1852 by John P. Jewett & Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The book numbered 340 pages. If Jewett used a cylinder printing press of the type invented by Richard Hoe in 1846, his company could print 8000 pages per hour, or the equivalent of 23.5 books per hour per printing press. In a 10-hour workday, Jewett could print approximately 235 books per press.

At a retail price of $1 per book, the gross income per press was $235/day while the cost of labor for running that press was $1/day. Add to that the labor costs for binding, etc. and the overhead costs of ink, electricity, etc. and the cost per book rose some. Despite initial costs to publish a book, the resultant income to a company could be enormous. All that mattered was operating enough presses to do a major print run.

An old picture of Harpers’ manufacturing plant shows the first floor press room where each printing press stands cheek by jowl with another press. Given the number of presses owned by Harper, it’s little wonder they were the big boys on the block when it came to American publishing companies.

Harpers would reign as “king of the hill” until the 1927 when Random House was founded by Bennett Cerf, Christopher Coombes, and Donald Klopfer. Sold in 1965 to RCA for $40 million and then again in 1998 to German private media corporation Bertelsmann AG for an estimated $1.4 billion, today Random House is the largest English language book publisher in the world.

Next: Publishing Goes From Privately-held Companies to Multinational Corporations


Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday Reviews

I'm delighted to once again present two fine book reviews by Minnesota author, photographer, sailor, and all around good sport, Carl Brookins.

The Anteater of Death
by Betty Webb
Poisoned Pen Press
December, 2008, Hard cover
230 pages, $24.95,
ISBN: 9781590585603

This is the beginning of a new series for this veteran author. Just look again at the title. Somewhere in the back of my head there's a Shakespeare quote. Ms. Webb is an accomplished writer with several excellent novels to her credit. This one is a distinct departure for her, and it seems she is almost unable to restrain herself. There are a great many asides and some tongue-in-cheek humor that sometimes distracts the reader from a rather thin plot, although the setting is intriguing and Webb uses it well.

Theodora Bentley, the central character in this drama, is a zoo-keeper in a private enterprise somewhere in Southern California in an old seaside town interestingly named Gunn Landing. This zoo is the private plaything of some very wealthy families who have deep roots in the community. The situation is made more complex because some of those family roots are deeply entangled in their own history. Thus there is a darkness to this novel which offers some opportunities for the author to move in directions which would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

One of Teddy Bentley's responsibilities is the giant ant eater of the title, in the wild, a fearsome creature indeed, equipped with razor claws designed to rip logs open in search of ants. The book opens in the mind of this anteater, improbably named Lucy, in a highly unusual approach which has the potential to cause a number of readers to immediately close the book. I suggest that such readers persevere. Pregnant Lucy is disturbed when a male human enters her enclosure and she goes to investigate. Her investigation leads to an accusation that the animal has killed the man, a director of the zoo.

This accusation against Lucy rouses anger and frustration among the zookeepers especially Teddy. Gradually Teddy becomes snarled in the murder investigation, complicated by her own roots in the community and her past relationships with the Sheriff and several others. Eventually the smoothly written and complicated plot gets sorted out and Teddy receives lots of help from a substantial range of off-beat and even strange characters, not all of whom are caged in the zoo. Funny, ironic and sometimes irreverent, the book will give readers an inside look at zoo keeping, animal protectionism and the often distorted lives of wealthy idlers.

The White Garden
by Stephanie Barron
Random House/Bantam TP
2009, 318 pages
ISBN: 978-0-553-3877-9

I scarcely know how to begin, not something a reviewer should admit publically, I suppose. This wonderfully realized and written novel is a first class literary mystery. It deals with a three-week period in l941 that marks the end of a troubled life, the life of Virginia Woolf. It is serendipitous that this novel comes to my hand at a time that epitomizes a good deal of what she was all about. In a word, independence. Independence for women and independence for writers.

Virginia Woolf was an English writer, essayist and literary critic of the early Twentieth Century. Her parents did not send her to school. She was entirely self-taught and apparently randomly tutored by her literary critic father. She was a major influence on the kind of novels being written today, yet she was always, always, self-published. Hogarth Press, established by Woolf and her husband, Leonard, a political theorist of that era, in their kitchen, published Virginia's writings along with those of E.M. Forester, and Sigmund Freud, among many others. Growing up she knew people like Henry James, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot. Her father, Leslie Stephen's, first wife was the daughter of the novelist
William Makepeace Thackeray.

In addition to her literary credentials as an accomplished novelist, she was a prolific essayist who published over 500 essays. Virginia Wolf helped coalesce the famous (or infamous) Bloomsbury Group, a collection of social, political and economic theorists of varying stripes, including artists, critics, philosophers and writers who wrote, debated, loved, married and argued life throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Woolf was sexually abused by a relative as a child, and clearly had mental problems during her lifetime. Her companions through life, including relatives, were mostly liberated intellectuals who ignored social constraints. On March 28, 1941, she disappeared from her home. Three weeks later, her body was discovered in the nearby river Ouse which had already been extensively searched. Her body was promptly cremated and there was no funeral ceremony, public or private.

Which brings us to this novel. Sixty years after Woolf's death, master garden and landscape designer, Jo Bellamy arrives in England. She is doing research for a wealthy client who wants her to recreate a famous garden of white flowers and plants at his Long Island Estate. Jo is trying to recover from her grandfather's sudden suicide. The celebrated White Garden of the title is located at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It was created by Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.

What Bellamy discovers at Sissinghurst has the potential to set decades of literary analysis and speculation on its collective ear. Whilst grubbing about in some boxes in one of the garden sheds, Jo comes upon a diary which appears to have been written by Virginia Woolf. Well and good, the problem is the first entry is dated the day after Virginia Woolf is supposed to have drowned herself. Moreover, there appears to be a connection between the castle, the garden, Woolf and Jo's dead grandfather. Shocked and amid a growing desire to learn more about her grandfather's youth in Kent, Jo Bellamy sets out on a cross-country odyssey to try to authenticate the diary and uncover her grandfather's connection to one of the most famous feminists
and literary icons of the past century.

The novel is wonderfully written and mostly moves at an ever-increasing pace as Bellamy encounters an array of character who are far more interested in their own aggrandizement than in helping Jo. The diary is stolen, Jo has help from several people with questionable motives and engages in some pretty far-fetched antics in order to follow some tantalizingly obscure clues.

Ultimately of course, some of the questions surrounding the diary and the last three weeks of Virginia Woolf's life are resolved, but not all. The author, skillfully evoking a past era of English letters and philosophical thought, has provided a rich and thought-provoking experience.

The novel is written with grace and is rich in atmosphere and history. It is presented as a carefully wrought piece that could be true, and that climaxes in a stunning and most satisfying conclusion.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Fun Friday: New High School Exit Exam

Yep, it's Friday the 13th, and to celebrate this spookiest of Fridays, here's a blood-curdling test for you. This is a new "High School Exit Exam". You only need 4 correct answers to pass. I dare you to try it!

1) How long did the Hundred Years' War last?

2) Which country makes Panama hats?

3) From which animal do we get cat gut?

4) In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution?

5) What is a camel's hair brush made of?

6) The Canary Islands in the Pacific are named after what animal?

7) What was King George VI's first name?

8) What color is a purple finch?

9) Where are Chinese gooseberries grown?

10) What is the color of the black box in a commercial airplane?

Remember, you only need 4 correct answers to pass!!!!!!

Check your answers below ...


1) How long did the Hundred Years War last? 116 years
2) Which country makes Panama hats? Ecuador
3) From which animal do we get cat gut? Sheep and Horses
4) In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution? November
5) What is a camel's hair brush made of? Squirrel fur
6) The Canary Islands in the Pacific are named after what animal? Dogs
7) What was King George VI's first name? Albert
8) What color is a purple finch? Crimson
9) Where are Chinese gooseberries grown? New Zealand
10)What is the color of the black box in a commercial airplane? Orange (of course!)

What do you mean, you failed???

(Me, too! And if you try to tell me you passed, you LIED!)

We both should have done our homework! Pass this on to some brilliant friends, so they can feel useless, too!:)


Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Short History of Publishing in the U.S.

“He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.”
(Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 1833)

Publishing as we know it today got its start back in 1450 when German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, best known for the Gutenberg Bible, began printing poems and tracts using his newly invented movable-type printing press. Two centuries later the first printing press to hit the shores of the American colonies arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638.

Although still hand-operated, this up-dated version of the Gutenberg invention could print up to 240 pages of one impression in a single hour. Stephen Daye put the press to good use when, in 1640, he printed The Whole Book of Psalmes, the first English-language book to be published in the colonies.

Philadelphia joined the Boston-Cambridge area as a center of American publishing when, in 1685, master printer William Bradford established a printing company there. His publication that year of Samuel Atkins’ almanac Kalendarium Pennsilvaniense led to one of the first cases of government censorship of the press in America when it drew the ire of Governor William Penn. Bradford was directed to print only material approved by the Pennsylvania Council.

Two years later Bradford again ran into trouble with the authorities. This time he was ordered not to print anything about Quakers unless they approved it. When he was officially reprimanded in 1689 for publishing William Penn’s original charter for Pennsylvania, Bradford threw up his hands in disgust and left the colony, returning to his birthplace in England.

In 1690 Bradford returned to Philadelphia, resumed his print and publishing business, and built the first colonial paper mill to service his printing needs. It wasn’t long before the long arm of the law descended once more on the spunky Bradford. In 1692 he published a tract, or pamphlet, that incensed the city’s Quaker community. Quaker leaders soon demanded the arrest of Bradford and John McComb, a tavern keeper who distributed the pamphlet. Both men were jailed and Bradford’s press was seized.

Bradford’s arguments for freedom of the press resulted in a split decision by the jury at his trial. Released from prison, Bradford left Philadelphia and moved to a more hospitable New York where he began publishing books as well as printing the city’s first newspaper, the New York Gazette.

Probably the best-known colonial printer/publisher was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin opened a printing operation in Philadelphia in 1728, publishing English novels in addition to the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack. A lover of the printed word, Franklin set up the Library Company of Philadelphia, the colonies’ first lending library, in 1731.

Although Franklin was out of the printing business by 1748, it’s fair to say the American Revolution couldn’t have taken place without the help of Philadelphia printers who published political pamphlets written by men like James Otis, John Adams, John Dickinson, and Thomas Jefferson. Stephen Hopkins’ The Rights of Colonies Examined and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense are two of the best-known works published in the form of political pamphlets prior to the Revolution.

Following the Revolution, New York City quickly became the leading publishing center in the country. In 1817, brothers James and John Harper extended their NYC printing company into a full-fledged publishing business called J & J Harper. They were joined by two other Harper brothers in the mid 1820’s, and changed the name of the company to Harper & Brothers in 1833.

Much of Harper’s early success was due to their publishing of pirated copies of books by British authors. While American authors were covered by a federal copyright law enacted in 1791, it wasn’t until the Berne Convention of 1886 was followed up by the International Copyright Act of 1891 that foreign copyright holders were protected in the U.S. Thus, British author Thomas Babington Macaulay didn’t make one cent in royalties when, prior to the 1891, Harper published and sold 400,000 copies of his History of England from the Accession of James II.

Charles Dickens was another British author who fell victim to Harper’s pirating. In 1842 Dickens journeyed to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to secure royalties from the Harper brothers. While he returned to England no richer than when he left, Dickens did gain enough material during the trip to write American Notes for Circulation. Like with his other books, Harper also pirated this one.

At the same time Harper was prospering in New York, George Palmer Putnam and Charles Scribner opened their respective publishing companies in that city. The introduction of Richard Hoe’s steam powered rotary printing press in 1843 and the change over to rolled paper for continuous feed to the presses gave these publishers an advantage over other local book printers. The three firms could print millions of pages in a single day, which meant they could mass produce books like never before. Combined with the ability to use the Erie Canal for shipping to western markets, mass production reduced overhead costs for the three publishers and allowed them to lower prices on their products.

Similar to what's happening today in the bookselling trade, the competition provided by Harper, Scribner, and Putnam put many smaller printing companies out of business. At the same time, these companies were responsible for New York out-powering Boston and Philadelphia to earn the title in 1850 of “Publishing Capital of the Nation”.


Next Wednesday: U.S. Publishing from Civil War Times to Now


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Every Writer Should Know About Publishing

Last night I read an article about a woman who complained she felt cheated after self-publishing her novel with a large online company. The woman admitted to being “very ignorant about the publishing industry” when she agreed to a proffered contract, but said she believed the hype on the company’s website, including a promise that her book would be available through major bookstores.

The hard truth hit her when she tried to set up a signing in a popular chain bookstore. The store’s assistant manager keyed the title of the book into her computer, but after one look at the publisher’s name, immediately nixed any talk of a signing. Why? Because the publishing company would not accept returns.

Try as I might, I couldn’t summon up a whole lot of sympathy for this woman, and I’ll tell you why.

Despite all the information available both in public libraries and on the Internet, she didn’t do her homework before signing away her rights to a company that many in the writing business call an ‘author mill’ for unsuspecting novices.

A little digging on the ‘Net would have revealed that the company in question has a checkered past that includes lawsuits by disgruntled writer clients. While calling itself a ‘traditional publisher’, it provides few of the services furnished by legitimate presses large and small, like comprehensive editing, access to wholesalers and distributors, and accommodations for bookstores to return unsold stock. In short, this ‘author mill’ survives by publishing anything sent to them, then pressuring the authors to buy their own books for resale through ‘special author’ deals.

The uncomfortable truth associated with the above story is this: like the woman featured in the article, too many ‘wannabe’ authors toil for years writing and rewriting their novels while devoting little or no time to learning the ins and outs of publishing.

I was once a wannabe author. Unlike the woman in the article, I began to educate myself about the business side of writing long before my first novel hit the bookstores. I didn’t learn all I needed to know at the time, but I made a good start at it, and I continue to study the publishing industry as it evolves into a much different animal than the one I first became acquainted with fourteen years ago.

I certainly don’t claim to be the last word on publishing; there are people who have been writing for decades who could expound on the subject much better than I. But just as others in the business have shared their knowledge with me, I’d like to share what I’ve learned with those who hope to someday see their work in print.

With that objective in mind, I’ll be writing a series of blogs on “What Every Writer Should Know About Publishing”. I’ll be covering topics such as the history of publishing in the U.S.; the consolidation of publishing companies by multinational corporations; the rise of the small press world wide; understanding publishing statistics; royalties and advances; publishing terminology; services provided by agents and editors; e-book and print-on-demand technology; book promotion and niche marketing; contracts; bookstores and libraries; and media savvy re print and Internet advertising.

I welcome all comments and suggestions from readers of this blog. Please add to the discussions here by sharing your knowledge of the publishing industry with us. Feel free to correct me if I occasionally make a blunder; mystery is the genre I work in, so romance, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror writers – among others – may look at some aspects of publishing differently than I do simply because of the varying demands of their genre.

I'll be making new posts to “What Every Writer Should Know About Publishing" on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Mondays on Cicero's Children are reserved for book reviews while the week still ends here with "Fun Fridays".

Hope you can join me on Thursday when I open this series with a brief history of U.S. publishing.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Monday Reviews

Once again I'm happy to welcome author and reviewer Carl Brookins to Cicero's Children. Carl has chosen to review two recently released titles from Poisoned Pen Press for us.

Final Approach
by Rachel Brady
Poisoned Pen Press
HC, 250 pg, October, 2009
ISBN: 9781590586556

A fine debut novel with an unusual plot line. Emily Locke is recovering from the loss of her husband and infant daughter. It is clear from the get-go there is something askew in that whole incident. Now four years later, the detective who was disgraced and dismissed from the local police department as fall-out from that calamity, is back in Emily's life. He wants her help on a case he's working on. A leap of faith is required of readers here. Is she the only person in the country the detective can count on to infiltrate a questionable sky-diving club located over a thousand miles away?

And why is Emily so available? After all she has a full-time job and is still pretty fragile from the loss of her daughter and husband. Still, the detective, not her favorite person, presses the right buttons and off she goes to Texas.

What follows is a tension-filled emotional novel of exquisite detail about sky-diving in all the right places, introduction of necessary and useful characters and enough action to satisfy the most ardent thriller aficionado. Emily is strong and distressed at all the right places; there are no real down sections of the novel.

This is a fast read, and although some of the danger Emily faces doesn't reach my punch level, Emily is an interesting woman and the sky-diving is an unusual platform on which to build a crime novel. One of the more interesting aspects of Final Approach is that readers will, from the beginning, feel as though they have been brought into an ongoing story. There is occasionally a feeling of the need to catch up with background as a way to evaluate current happenings. It's a style that adds to the tension and pace. A satisfying novel with a fine twist at the end.

by Peter May
Poisoned Pen Press
Hardcover, 312 pages,
ISBN: 9781590586068

Fourth in the author's China Thriller series to be published by this press. Make no mistake this is one scary and thrilling book. So thrilling, in fact I had the sense toward the end of being carried just a bit over the top. The novel brings back two of May's most endearing characters, forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell, American, and Beijing detective, Li Yan. But they are no longer in China. Campbell is now the county medical examiner based in Houston, Texas, and Li Yang is learning about and dealing with America's multiple and complex law enforcement agencies as a member of the Chinese Embassy staff in Washington, D.C.

Until a major tragedy brings them together, Campbell is not even aware that they are again in the same country although still thousands of miles physically and culturally apart. The tragedy that brings these two together are the deaths of scores of illegal Chinese immigrants being smuggled to the United State via the same pipeline and organization which smuggles drugs from South America to the U.S. In this incident, the dead are found in a refrigerated truck abandoned in Texas. Those deaths appear to be accidental until it is discovered the bodies have all been injected with a dangerous virus that has no known antidote.

Now the race is on to determine what the virus is, who is behind the multi-million dollar smuggling operation, the Snakehead of the title, and Li Yan and Margaret must try to set aside their own emotional difficulties in order to help literally, save the nation from a devastating plague.

The pace is fast, the writing always to the point, the characters are genuine in their language and their emotions, and most worrisome of all, the science is real. This is a novel with the potential to scare the pants off you. It's timely, international in scope, a whirlwind of a thriller.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


Friday, August 6, 2010

Fun Friday: Our Yearly Senior Citizen Test

A friend of mine sent me this. As a dues-paying member of AARP (just call me Mrs. Senior Citizen), I couldn't resist passing it on here. Have fun!

Our Yearly Senior Citizen Test

It's that time of year for us to take our annual senior citizen test.
Exercise of the brain is as important as exercise of the muscles. As we grow older, it's important to keep mentally alert. If you don't use it, you lose it!

Below is a very private way to gauge how your memory compares to the last test. Some may think it is too easy but the ones with memory problems may have difficulty. Take the test presented here to determine if you're losing it or not.

The spaces below are so you don't see the answers until you've made your answer.
OK, relax, clear your mind and begin.

1. What do you put in a toaster?

Answer: 'bread.' If you said 'toast' give up now and do something else..
Try not to hurt yourself.

If you said, bread, go to Question 2..

2. Say 'silk' five times.. Now spell 'silk.' What do cows drink?

Answer: Cows drink water. If you said 'milk,' don't attempt the next question. Your brain is overstressed and may even overheat.
Content yourself with reading a more appropriate literature such as Auto World.
However, if you said 'water', proceed to question 3.

3. If a red house is made from red bricks and a blue house is made from blue bricks and a pink house is made from pink bricks and a black house is made from black bricks, what is a green house made from?

Answer: Greenhouses are made from glass. If you said 'green bricks,' why are you still reading these???
If you said 'glass,' go on to Question 4.

4. It's thirty years ago, and a plane is flying at 20,000 feet over Germany (If you will recall, Germany at the time was politically divided into West Germany and East Germany ). Anyway, during the flight, two engines fail. The pilot, realizing that the last remaining engine is also failing, decides on a crash landing procedure. Unfortunately the engine fails before he can do so and the plane fatally crashes smack in the middle of 'no man's land' between East Germany and West Germany ... Where would you bury the survivors? East Germany, West Germany ,
Or no man's land'?

Answer: You don't bury survivors.
If you said ANYTHING else, you're a dunce and you must stop. If you said, 'You don't bury survivors', proceed to the next question.

5. Without using a calculator - You are driving a bus from London to
Milford Haven in Wales . In London , 17 people get on the bus.
In Reading , 6 people get off the bus and 9 people get on.
In Swindon, 2 people get off and 4 get on.
In Cardiff , 11 people get off and 16 people get on.
In Swansea , 3 people get off and 5 people get on.
In Carmathen, 6 people get off and 3 get on.
You then arrive at Milford Haven ..

Without scrolling back to review, how old is the bus driver?

Answer: Oh, for crying out loud!
Don't you remember your own age?
It was YOU driving the bus!!

If you pass this along to your friends, pray they do better than you.

PS: 95% of people fail most of the questions!!


Saturday, July 31, 2010

The line-up of featured authors for Love Is Murder 2011 includes Michael Allen Dymmoch as Local Guest of Honor. Michael is well-known in the mystery writing community, especially that part of it that calls Chicago home. Not only is she a prolific writer, but she's also served as President and Secretary of the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and as newsletter editor for the Chicagoland Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Minnesota author Carl Brookins reviewed one of Michael's books on his website, He's given permission for me to reprint that review here.

Death in West Wheeling
by Michael Dymmoch
Five Star Mysteries, Hardcover,
182 pages, Hardcover, $25.95

Who knew author Michael Dymmoch, who has written such solid noir mysteries
as "White Tiger," "The Fall" and "M.I.A.", could put together such a funny,
even hilarious novel as this one, set in a small town in West Virginia, or
somewhere close by? Homer Deter is currently acting sheriff and he has to
investigate the mysterious disappearance of a teacher at a local missionary school.

This case is just the start of something bigger. Before long, Acting Sheriff Deter is faced with three more disappearances, an odd-acting ATF agent in search of illicit stills, a few apparently random motor vehicle accidents, and including a twenty-three car pileup right in the middle of town. And the funny thing is, all these incidents eventually connect. That even includes the full-grown escaped tiger locked in the post office.

Author Dymmoch has some trenchant things to say about relationships between
men and women, and about the state of our society. It's all wrapped in fine writing, a really excellent if skewed sense of our society, and some dandy plotting. Pick up this good short novel. You'll be glad you did.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!



Thursday, July 22, 2010

Grace Under Pressure: A Review

Julie Hyzy follows up on the success of her White House Chef Mysteries with another deliciously enticing entry in the amateur sleuth field. Grace Under Pressure is the first in Julie’s new Manor House series featuring Grace Wheaton, assistant curator of historical Marshfield Manor.

Marshfield Manor has long been a showpiece of the South Atlantic region with its gorgeous gardens, cozy tearoom, and endless exhibits of antiques. Lately, though, tourism has been down, and reclusive collector Bennett Marshfield’s lawyers feel an infusion of new blood is needed in the Manor’s administration in order to bring the place back to its former days of glory.

Enter Grace Wheaton, a native of the area who returned to Emberstowne to care for her ailing mother and now lives in her deceased parents’ home. Grace has family ties to the Manor and has always wanted to work there. As the newly hired assistant curator, she faces stubborn resistance from head curator Abe and his administrative assistant, Frances, while earning only grudging respect from Mr. Marshfield.

All that changes when Abe is murdered during a freak disturbance in the tearoom. Grace is temporarily thrust into the top position where she works closely with chief of security Terrence Carr to assure the safety of Bennett Marshfield, whom the police believe to be the killer’s actual intended victim.

Bennett’s testimony in T. Randall Taft’s Ponzi scheme trial may be behind the attempt on his life. A new motive comes to life, though, when Grace discovers Bennett has been receiving blackmail letters. Can Grace get beyond Bennett’s refusal to discuss the letters and somehow make sense of the tangled affairs at Marshfield Manor? It may seem an impossible task, but Grace is determined to save both her job and her employer, even if it means risking her own life.

In Emberstowne's Marshfield Manor, Hyzy has created an intriguing setting based on the work of foundations that save historical buildings and entire estates by turning them into self-supporting tourist attractions. The cast of characters who live or work in and around the Manor are equally distinctive; Hyzy has given them personalities that work well alone or in combination with their fellow characters. Grace is an especially appealing protagonist, determined but not pushy, curious but not nosy. Her quest to solve Abe’s murder is understandable given that her very livelihood depends on Bennett’s continued existence; no boss means no job, and no job means Grace could very well lose the home she grew up in.

The plot of Grace Under Pressure is somewhat convoluted, but honest clues exist, making the ending satisfyingly clear. The complications in Grace’s life as introduced by the author also work well as an introduction to the series. Fans of her previous series will both welcome and enjoy this latest effort by the very talented Julie Hyzy.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Battle Continues

So this morning I stepped outside to check my peach tree, and what should I find but two peaches lying on the ground, one eaten to the stone and one hardly touched at all.


This was definitely not the work of the bunnies, those lovers of clover and fine vegetables.

No, this was the work of...SQUIRRELS!!!!

I should have known better than to stake the tree yesterday. BUT, it was leaning to the west, the branches on that side so ladened with peaches that they were actually weighing the tree down. So I wrapped an old elastic bandage around the trunk (the worn out ones are perfect for use in supporting plants in the garden), tied a blue cord to the bandage, and tied that to a stake I then drove into the ground. The tree was again upright, the branches not waving dangerously close to the ground.

Of course I forgot that squirrels are notoriously good at tight-rope walking. Obviously, some furry friend simply scampered up the cord, bypassing the metal collar previously attached to the tree to ward off pesty critters, and jumped onto a branch where breakfast was conveniently waiting.

Grrrr again.

So okay, it was either come up with a plan to discourage the squirrels, or simply admit defeat and plan on eating far fewer peaches this year than originally expected.

Those who know me well know that I rarely admit defeat, and never to a squirrel. It didn't take me long to come up with an ingenious plan to discourage the little guys from feasting on my tree. After a quick trip to the garage, I was back at the tree holding a can of brake grease. I slathered the grease on the eleastic bandage and blue cord, then twisted four sharpened plant stakes into the bandage, making sure the pointed ends faced out and down towards the cord.

I stood back with a smile and admired my handiwork. Squirrels would have a hard time climbing that greased cord. Most likely they'd fall off, but just in case one did make it up to the trunk, he'd never get beyond the plant stakes with their sharp points.

It's now three hours later, and so far, no squirrels have approached the peach tree. I know it's too early to call this a complete victory on my part, but I'm crossing my fingers that I've won this most recent battle with nature.

I'm crossing them really hard!


Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Attack of the Baby Bunnies!

So I walked outside a couple of nights ago to check on the sky -- was it going to rain or not?? -- and low and behold, I inadvertently interrupted the dinner plans of two baby bunnies. Until I appeared, the pair was contentedly nibbling away at the clover on my front lawn. One look at me and they froze like a couple of fuzzy gray statues.

Reverting to my Doctor Dolittle personality, I began what turned out to be a totally one-sided conversation with my furry guests.

"Hey, guys, there's no reason to get nervous. I'm perfectly harmless, just one of the humans who happen to live here."

Total silence reigned as two pairs of beady brown eyes focused suspiciously on me.

"No, really, fellows. Just pretend I'm not here. Enjoy the grass, but do me a favor and leave the flowers alone, okay?"

More stony silence. The larger of the two bunnies flicked an ear in my direction, but that was the extent of his response. The smaller rabbit took a cue from his partner and also held his peace.

"An occasional dandelion is fine. Just no flowers. And no vegetables, either."

It might have been my imagination, but I could swear I saw the little guy frown when I said 'vegetables'. The bigger bunny definitely raised an eyebrow. It hit me that they hadn't yet visited the backyard and therefore didn't know about my garden. Big mistake on my part even mentioning what grew back there.

"Clover's ever so much sweeter than flowers or -- ha, ha -- vegies," I said as, trying to appear casual, I sidestepped to the right, effectively blocking my guests' view of the hardy cucumber plants enthusiastically giving birth to baby cukes in a large white flower pot on the back stairs.

My ploy didn't work. The rabbits abandoned their statue pose and slowly inched closer to me. Their tiny noses twitched in anticipation of a better meal.

While they smelled food, I smelled trouble.

I didn't want to do it, but seeing the sparkle in their beady little eyes, I suspected there was nothing for it but to bring out the big guns.

"One step closer and I'll call the CAT!!!"

That got their attention! Ears flicking madly now, the bunnies backed off a respectable distance. Their eyes were still glued on me, but I could tell they were thinking.

"Your relatives ate every one of my fall asters last year," I growled. "They nibbled the leaves down to the stalk on the lilies, and then they decimated my carnations. I WILL NOT STAND FOR IT this year!"

The bigger bunny scratched his ear with a back foot as if to say, "Your hard luck, lady. Rabbits gotta eat."

"Not in my yard you don't! You're welcome to the clover in front, but step into the backyard and you're dead meat! CAT will see to that!"

The second mention of CAT seemed to convince them I meant business. The littler guy slunk off to my neighbor's front yard to hide in the bushes. His big brother glared at me a moment longer before taking the same route south. No hiding for him, though. He made quite a show of investigating a bed of marigolds lining the sidewalk before finally settling down to snack on a patch of newly planted grass.

I stood my ground near the cucumbers until both bunnies tired of the game and hopped off to search for better pickings across the street. Satisfied they wouldn't return any time soon, I was about to go back inside when out of the corner of my eye I spied a squirrel gazing hungrily at my peach tree.

"Don't even think about it!" I hissed. I leveled a finger in his direction. "CAT climbs trees, you know. He'll catch you and feed you to his babies for dinner!"

The squirrel just grinned before scampering up the tree and grabbing a half-ripened peach. He peered down at me from his perch high on an upper branch and twitched his tail in that particularly frenetic way known to squirrels everywhere as "doing the Victory-Over-Humans dance". With the peach still clasped to his chest, he chattered away, the gist of his message being this: "Those guys were dumb bunnies, but I'm a smart squirrel! As I recall, CAT went to cat heaven last year, so this summer the peaches are mine, all mine!"

I swear I heard him laughing madly as he leaped from the peach tree and disappeared into the night. Well, he wouldn't be laughing tomorrow, not when he saw the little surprise I was planning for him.

A gift wrapped tree. Heh, heh, heh!