Turkey Pot Roast?

Had a nice three-day weekend. On Sunday, we decided on the spur of the moment to spend the day in Huntsville State Park, about 45 miles north of us. It’s a place where we’ve spent time over the years, but not so much recently. We made a light lunch, packed only our folding chairs, and spent the afternoon sitting on the edge of the lake under some trees. There was a light breeze, no flies to speak of, and the sounds of families having a good time all around us. I liked watching the cranes stilt-walking through the lake, occasionally dipping their heads in to claim some food. I also wrote the first three pages of a new short story.

Then we went home and watched the debate, which was not very relaxing at all.

I had yesterday off. Our company has always given us Columbus Day, which is also Canadian Thanksgiving. In the morning I finished the first draft of the short story I’d begun the day before and in the afternoon I did some yard work. I also finished the last two episodes of the second season of Happy Valley, which is a decent crime series with the most ironic title ever. A friend commented that one of the things he likes most about the series is how the characters look so real—not at all glamorous. Warts and all. And accents thick enough to cut with a knife. The revelation of the identity of the serial killer wasn’t a huge surprise, but the way that turned out, as well as the fate of the copycat were surprises.

We don’t cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, there being only the two of us, but our grocery’s deli usually has a nice cooked turkey breast at the heating station where the roasted chickens are. When I went yesterday, the station was almost empty, but there was something they called a turkey pot roast. I had no idea what that could be, but I took it anyway. It looked like a roast, sort of oblong and roundish. I figured it would be some kind of processed turkey when I cut into it but, much to our surprise and delight, it was delicious. It was the leg/thigh portion of the turkey, all dark meat (which I don’t normally like). Very moist and falling off the bone cooked to perfection. I’d definitely try that again.

I also watched the new Netflix documentary about the Amanda Knox story. They interview Knox, prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito, a defense lawyer and a journalist named Nick Pisa, as well as the occasional other interview with DNA specialists, etc. It’s only 90 minutes and a little superficial, but I was surprised to be reminded that Knox and Sollecito had only known each other for five days before the murder took place. Also, to hear Magnini, in his own words, explain the arbitrary, random things that made him suspect Knox in the first place. None of it was based on evidence; it was about the way she acted around him. I think he read more Freud than Sherlock Holmes, although he professed a fondness for the latter.

The person who came off the worst was Nick Pisa, the British “journalist” with the Daily Mail who stumbled upon a story that suddenly got him a lot of attention. Front page stories with tawdry headlines. Everything the police fed to him, he published without any filter whatsoever. No confirmation. He comes right out and says, “It’s not as if I can say, ‘Right, hold on a minute. I just wanna double-check that myself in some other way,'” because to do so would mean that he might miss his scoop.

I think Occam’s Razor applies to this case, and the simple explanation is that Rudy Guede, a known burglar, whose DNA was found all over the victim’s room, including in her body, was the sole perpetrator. He admitted to being there but tried to say that someone else broke in while he was there and killed the young woman while he was in the bathroom. His story holds no water, and he stated that Knox wasn’t present and then changed his story when it suited his purposes. No DNA evidence placed Amanda Knox in that bedroom, even though she lived in the same apartment.

Ultimately, the perceived interference in the “sovereign nation’s” judicial system by American interests (the current Republican presidential candidate suggested boycotting Italy at the time) made the prosecutor double down and cling to his belief. The lawyer who defended Guede was equally dismissive of American intervention in the case. He points to a building from 1308, the first faculty of law in Europe, at which time, he says, people in America were in caves painting buffalo. Fortunately, cooler and more logical heads prevailed, though it took many years for the case to be dismissed once and for all and the acquittals upheld.

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Chaba the Hutt

It was an interesting weekend because we were following the track of the hurricane. Not Matthew, thought I’m aware that one is threatening the coast, but Chaba, on the other side of the world. It was of interest to us because, for a while, it had Okinawa directly in its sights, and that’s where our daughter and her family live.

The interesting thing about typhoons, unlike tornadoes, is that you have quite a bit of advanced notice, so we were able to communicate our concern and relay our advice. We’ve been through this a couple of times ourselves, here in southeast Texas, so we knew what things might be important. We had a Skype call with them on Sunday night/Monday morning, several hours before the storm was supposed to hit. Fortunately, it drifted farther west than early predictions indicated and it mostly missed Okinawa proper. It turned into a non-event for them, fortunately. Another interesting adventure living in Japan. That’s not to dismiss the storm: it caused a lot of damage and several deaths in Korea, and it is still supposed to strike “mainland” Japan, though much diminished.

I received an email from USA Network advising that they had the entire season of Motive available for binge-watching last weekend. So I did. It’s not a very well known show, but I’ve always enjoyed it. It is produced by CTV and filmed in Vancouver, though they down-played the Canadian setting in the early seasons. ABC picked up the first couple of seasons in the US, which is where I discovered it. I’m not sure if I saw Season 3 at all, because it vanished for a long time. Then USA got the fourth season, which apparently did fairly well for them. They even decided to request a fifth season, but by then production had already shut down, since CTV decided Season 4 would be the last. The final season really does bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion.

The conceit of the show is that, during the cold open, the audience is introduced to the killer and the victim, absent any context. We don’t know how their paths will cross or why one wants to kill the other. Then the murder investigation starts and the able detectives of the homicide squad pull it all together. Kristin Lehman (The Killing) and  Louis Ferreira (Declan on Breaking Bad) are the detectives, though his character, Vega, is promoted to sergeant in the final season. Lauren Holly is the ME. Tommy Flanagan (Chib from Sons of Anarchy) appears as an Interpol agent for several episodes. Lehman is really good in this role. She has a natural style of acting that makes her seem genuine and honest. I bet they had a great time on the set. They had some strong guest stars as victims and killers in the final season, including Joanna Cassidy, Max Martini (The Unit), Alicia Witt (Justified), plus actors you’d probably recognize if you were a Canadian.

I also watched the first episode of Westworld on HBO, the series remake of the Michael Crichton movie that starred Yul Brynner. It’s a lavish series with an interesting cast that includes Anthony Hopkins (who made me think of Malcolm McDowell the first time I saw him), Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, James Marsden,  Sidse Babett Knudsen (from the Danish series Borgen) and Ed Harris as the mysterious man in black. It’s a fascinating premise, exploring the notion of when does an android stop being an object and start being an entity deserving of respect and basic human consideration. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

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The Search for Spock

My wife had to call AAA yesterday when her car wouldn’t start. They told her someone would be there in 30 minutes and gave her a hyperlink so she could monitor the responder’s location. The guy got there not in 30 minutes, but in five. And he had just the right battery among his gear to replace hers. Quite impressed with the service.

I posted my review of The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith, who is best known for his Arkady Renko books set in Russia (including Gorky Park). This is a standalone set in northern Italy in the closing weeks of World War II.

I finally (finally!) finished the fifth Game of Thrones novel, having put it aside several times to read other things. We’re about halfway through the fourth season of the TV series. We’ll probably pause there to watch the new season of Longmire on Netflix. I also have just one episode of the second season of Narcos left to watch.

We watched the documentary For the Love of Spock on VOD this weekend. It was directed by Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard. It started out as an exploration of the fictional character, but then Leonard Nimoy died in the midst of this project, so Adam decided to expand it to include some of his father’s life as well. It’s quite—as Spock would say—fascinating. Nimoy cast a wide net when it came to interview subjects, including Nimoy’s brother and daughter, many original cast members as well as the cast of the recent reboot, JJ Abrams, and a few random people like Jason Alexander. We were impressed by the massive block of credits. I only just realized that these were the people who had responded to the crowd-funding campaign to raise over $600,000 to cover the cost of licensing the photographs and video clips included in the documentary. Over 9000 people contributed, some as much as $10k, for which they got an associate producer credit.

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Netflix for short stories

This is my 27th anniversary at the day job. Technically, it’s tomorrow, but I won’t be at work on that day, so I’m calling today the anniversary. This time next year, I will have worked for the same company for exactly half my life (although the company has undergone a couple of name and ownership changes over the years). In this era, that’s a pretty good record, but I still have a couple of decades to go to achieve the longevity my father did with his company.

I finished writing another new short story by hand the night before last and dictated it into Word yesterday morning, which has become my new way of doing things lately. The story is a little over 4000 words and it didn’t change much during my first editing pass, other than to correct grammar and transcription errors. My favorite dictation error converted “Ghostbusters” to “Ghost bus tours,” although I also liked the change for “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to “Ghostwriters in the Sky.” This is my third new story in a few weeks. I have at least one more to write and a couple more markets to find submissions for. Then it’s back to novel land.

I don’t think I mentioned this review of the audio version of The X-files: The Truth is Out There. It says, in part:  “’Phase Shift’ was easily the highlight of the anthology for me, and centers around a house and its inhabitants confronted by a strange anomaly. This is a really good story with a strong, and strongly executed, premise, the ending of which highlights the particular darkness one may confront in such an odd situation. Sorry for being vague, but this is a good one to go into blindly.” I approve of this message!

A couple of weeks ago, Nick Mamatas contacted me about a new project called Great Jones Street, named after a New York/SoHo street that was also the title of a Don DeLillo novel. Their plan is to become the Spotify or Netflix of short fiction. Nick was curating the mystery section of the project and solicited a couple of reprints from me. So far, they’ve been great to work with: the contract came almost immediately and payment within a week after that. My stories aren’t available yet, so I won’t name them here. Stay tuned: there’s an app for everything these days!

The cover and table of contents for the double issue (#74/75) of Cemetery Dance magazine is now available at their website. I have four pieces in this trade-magazine-formatted issue: an interview with Joe Hill (to be fair, most of the content in that piece is his, not mine), two featured reviews and one essay. But do I get my name on the cover? 😉

I finished Marcella on Netflix last week, and am now looking forward to the next season. It’s a British crime series in which the main character, a female Detective Sargent, has violent fugues when put under great stress, so she has gaps in her memory. Sort of like the alcoholic fugues featured in The Girl on the Train. Now I’m onto season 2 of Narcos and enjoying it. It’s very violent, but it’s a fascinating look at a turbulent time and place. My wife and I are nearing the end of the third season of Game of Thrones. Looks like it’s time for a…Red Wedding (to be heard in Billy Idol’s voice).

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Pate de foie gras

I finished a new short story this weekend and got it off to its potential market. I have a few more of these that I’d like to tackle in the next four to six weeks. Then it’s back to novel land, a territory I haven’t visited in a while.

We saw Sully this weekend, the Clint Eastwood biopic about Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s successful landing of an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River after losing both engines when the aircraft encountered a flock of Canada geese. Tom Hanks is very good in portraying Sully as a man who was sure of his decision but who wasn’t terribly comfortable with the spotlight of publicity.

Because the movie needed an antagonist, the NTSB investigation is depicted as confrontational. They argue that Sully made the wrong decision, that he could have made it back to La Guardia or over to Teterboro, NJ, according to all the computer simulations. The panel included Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) and Jamie Sheridan (The Stand). Laura Linney was Mrs. Sully, relegated to the wings (at home) while the drama unfolded.

The crash itself is depicted in a very straightforward manner. In fact, the entire picture is solid filmmaking without any unnecessary flash or pizzazz. There are a couple of scenes where Sully imagines what might have happened if he’d made different decisions that will probably be disturbing to New Yorkers, especially given the weekend the movie debuted. The only odd thing about the movie was the way it ended. It just stopped, after a joke made by the copilot during the NTSB hearing. Fade to black and then end credits. It felt abrupt.

At the end, the audience that saw the movie with us applauded. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that. It is a feel-good film, with a few patriotic tugs, but I wonder at clapping for a motion picture, where there’s no one present to receive the adulation. It was a spontaneous reaction. I was reminiscing with my wife afterward about how, in the very early days of air travel (in my lifetime), people used to applaud whenever a plane landed. Every time. I wonder when that stopped. Probably at around the same time that people stopped dressing up to go on a flight. (My father always wore a suit and a hat when he flew.)

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High seas

I got my semi-annual royalty check for When the Night Comes Down, the Dark Arts collection that contains four of my stories. I can now buy that pack of gum I’ve been saving up for! The book is available in both trade paperback and eBook if you ever want to sample a variety of my writings.

I also sold a new short story, which is always nice. I signed the contract but the book hasn’t been announced, so I’ll hold off announcing the details until later. I will say that the story involves a couple of characters who have appeared in other stories of mine.

My wife and I were off the grid on a four-day cruise over the long weekend to celebrate her birthday. People generally ask us where we went, but it doesn’t really matter, because we didn’t get off the ship! They used to have this thing called the cruise to nowhere, and that would suit us just fine. There was just one stop, in Cozumel, where we’ve spent time before, so we decided to avoid the throngs of tourists and enjoy the mostly empty ship. We even got in a round of minigolf on the upper deck! It was a very nice, relaxing four days indeed. We had some great meals, lots of wine, took in a couple of shows and read a bunch. The image above is the menagerie of towel animals that we ended up with in our stateroom by the end of the trip. A different one appeared each evening during the turn-down service.

After finishing The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, I read Burial by Neil Cross, the guy who created and writes Luther, a compelling crime novel about a guy who covers something up then gets involved with someone directly affected by what he covered up and then has the whole thing come crashing down around him a few years later. Gritty and tense.

Then I read Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, translated from the French. It’s the second book in a trilogy, but it was the first to be translated into English of the three. It starts with a kidnapping, but by the end of the first section, you realize that the person who took the title character had understandable motivations and the victim is more than she seems. By the end of the second section, there’s another reversal and you come to the conclusion that the victim-cum-villain had her own particularly understandable motives for what seems like a rash of random crimes. The book deftly plays with the readers sympathies. It has some quirky characters and a very tight plot. I went from there straight into Irene, the first book in the trilogy. Alas, I know the ultimate fate of the title character, but the story doesn’t start with that situation, but with another set of gruesome murders. Good stuff.

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The Hip

I finished the first draft of a new short story this morning, my first in a while. The draft took about seven days, and the story came in at about 4900 words, which is quite a bit longer than I expected. However, it was over 5000 words before I did a pruning edit on it yesterday, and that was before I added the final two pages this morning.

I hand-wrote the first 4000 words and then I dictated it into Word on Monday morning so I could work on the computer from that point forward. I always have to proofread very carefully after I do that because the built-in voice recognition module of Windows 10 is quite good, but not perfect. I still have a couple of plot details to reconsider, but then it’s on to the proofing/revising stage. I have a week to get it ready for submission, but I hope to have it mostly done by the end of the weekend.

I moved away from Canada in the late 1980s, so I mostly missed out on The Tragically Hip. However, with all the publicity around their final concert tour, culminating in the final show on Saturday night, I’ve been re-educating myself on their music. I picked up a copy of “Yer Favorites,” a 2-CD collection of songs selected by the fans, which is a good introduction to their most popular songs. I watched some of the simulcast of the final concert on the CBC YouTube channel on Saturday, too.

I met Michael Koryta a couple of years ago at NECON and we’ve become friends ever since. He came into Houston for a signing at Murder By the Book last Friday. He almost didn’t make it: his flight was scheduled to land around noon, but that was the middle of a torrential downpour, so he got diverted but finally made it into Houston with a little time to spare for the 6:30 event he was doing with local author Bill Crider. Afterward, we went out to dinner with a couple of the MBTB people, which was a lot of fun. If you haven’t read any Koryta, check out his latest two books, which are part of a trilogy: Last Words and Rise the Dark. My introduction to him was The Prophet, which I can also highly recommend. Also high on my list: Those Who Wish Me Dead. I need to catch up on some of his back list.

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Murder on the High Cs

After five or six consecutive days with the temperatures exceeding 100° and the heat index in the mid 100-teens, we’ve had some relief. In the form of torrential rain, but we’ll take it. After a very soggy beginning to the year, we’ve been a while without any precipitation at all, so it’s a welcome return.

It rained a bit during the day on Saturday, but it was Saturday evening when the heavy stuff started. We could hear it from inside the movie theater at the local multiplex, pounding on the roof. When we got out, our car was in the attached parking structure. It wasn’t raining at the moment, anyway, so we contemplated going somewhere to eat. One glance at the dark, dark skies (it was 6:20 pm) had us reconsidering, so we headed toward home, thinking we might stop somewhere closer to the house. Then the skies opened up in a deluge, so we went straight home. Unlike many of our neighbors, we actually use our garage to store our cars, so we managed to avoid getting wet at all.

We saw Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory). Streep played the title character, a real-life socialite who aspired to being an opera singer despite having no talent or aptitude whatsoever. By carefully curating the attendees and excluding any critical media, she manages to produce a number of engagements over the years, including a final event at Carnegie Hall where a more true response to her painful caterwauling bubbles to the surface. (I wish I could take credit for coming up with today’s subject line, but someone else beat me to it.)

Helberg plays a young pianist hired to accompany her (apparently Helberg actually plays the piano throughout). His reactions to that first practice session are worth the price of admission alone. Afterward, we debated whether her husband (they had a chaste marriage because she developed syphilis thanks to her first husband when she was 18) was an enabler or was truly devoted. He allowed her to get into these situations and helped shield her from criticism by doling out wads of cash to compliant journalists. (By the same token, he was a mediocre actor and she confessed to hiding some of his worst reviews from him, too.) In the final analysis, she was happy doing what she did, so I guess there was no harm done, except to some eardrums and some musical sensibilities! Streep is her usual very good self, and Grant is a definite step above his usual bumbling, stammering persona. We won’t, however, be buying the soundtrack.

I got caught up on some delinquent book reviews recently. Check out Onyx Reviews for the following:

I’m working on my first new short story in a while, too. Writing it longhand. I have no idea where it’s going, but I’m getting there a day at a time.

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Turned in my 40th column for Cemetery Dance magazine last night. That’s a lotta words, especially factoring in how long the early ones were.

We watched a fascinating movie on Netflix called The Birth of Sake, a documentary about the sake makers at the family-owned Yoshida Brewery in northern Japan. For seven months a year, these men devote their lives to all the steps needed to convert rice into wine. They live at the brewery and get two days off a month during this period. Some of them get up at 5 am every day to tend to the vats. Others have to check on things every couple of hours during the night. It’s an intensive process, far more demanding than normal wine making. Many breweries have automated the process, but Yoshida is one of the few that still does it the traditional way. You have to believe that their attention to detail produces a significantly superior product in order for their sake to be competitive in the marketplace, but boy it sure does look like a lot of hard work.

We also watched Miles Ahead, the Don Cheadle-driven (co-written, directed, co-produced, starring) biopic of Miles Davis. I saw Davis at the JVC Jazz Festival in June 1991, three months before he died. At that time, he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak when he was on stage. He held up placards with single words on them from time to time. In this film, Ewan McGregor plays a putative reporter from Rolling Stone who wants to get the big story of Davis’s prolonged hiatus. The McGuffin is a tape of Davis’s most recent recording sessions, claimed by the studio but stolen by Davis at gunpoint. A lot of people are after that tape, and viewers hope that there’s something worth hearing on it. Unlike many biopics, this one doesn’t show much of Davis’s life overall, focusing instead on this very brief period in the late seventies, with the occasional flashback. It’s almost a gangster movie, with shootouts and street chases. Fun stuff.

Getting out of the house, we saw the 3D version of Star Trek: Beyond, which was fun but not terribly memorable. We only opted for 3D because that showing fit with our schedule. There aren’t many 3D moments in the movie, but there is a level of added depth. Probably not worth the surcharge. I liked the Jaylah character quite a bit. Idris Elba was virtually unrecognizable save for his voice throughout much of the movie. There were entire minutes that I had no real idea what was happening because so much was going on at once. A little bit chaotic and dark.

I finished my re-watch of Stranger Things yesterday, in preparation for doing a tag-team review with Hank Wagner for Dead Reckonings. It was every bit as good the second time around.

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The Little Things

It’s always gratifying to receive an Honorable Mention from Ellen Datlow. In the introduction to the newest Best Horror of the Year, she mentions notable fiction in October Dreams II, including my story “The Boy in the White Sheet.”

And here’s a trip and a half: someone posted this photograph on Facebook. Its from Guillermo del Toro’s book At Home with Monsters, part of his massive library. Someone else observed that the tall volume with the silver spine on the second shelf is  my book, The Stephen King Illustrated Companion. How cool is that?

We watched Hello, My Name is Doris on the weekend. It’s an indie film starring Sally Field as a woman of a certain age who has been looking after her mother for many years. The mother has just died and she’s now faced with all the possibilities of effectively being liberated from incarceration. She’s worked for the same company for years, doing data entry, and essentially being ignored. One day, a new, young coworker speaks to her in the elevator and she becomes infatuated with him. She has Walter Mitty-like fantasies about him and learns from the 13-year-old daughter of a friend (Tyne Daly) how to make a fake Facebook page to learn more about him. She pretends to like his favorite band, and they end up going out on the town a couple of times. He sees her, but he has no romantic interest in her. In fact has a girlfriend. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, it’s not a tragedy…it’s hard to say what it is…except it’s good. Field is fantastic in this part. She’s a hoarder and an eccentric, but she becomes fully alive despite her brother’s efforts to “fix” her. Peter Gallagher has a small bit as a motivational speaker (impossible = I M possible), Stephen Root plays her brother and Max Greenfield is the object of her obsession. Natasha Lyonne is severely under-utilized as a background character, my biggest gripe with the film.

We also finished the first season of Quantico. It has taken us a long time to get through it, what with kidney stones and trips to Japan and all. I have come to the conclusion that the big problem with network TV series is that there are too many episodes. This means they have to pad out plots and concoct too many fake cliffhangers and plot twists to keep things going for 22-23 weeks. I have the same issue with The Blacklist. I have become increasingly fond of the 8-12 episode series. Quantico is okay—we’ll probably dip into the second season—but the acting is spotty, and the series verges on being soap-opera-esque at times. The final reveal made sense, but this was after the suspicion had been shifted onto literally every other character at some point in the season, so we were a little bit red herringed out by the end.

We’re also watching the second season of Marco Polo on Netflix. The thing Kublai Khan does at the end of the second episode almost put us off continuing, but we decided to give it another episode and we’re back on track again. It’s a good replacement for Game of Thrones. Similar sorts of intrigues. I’m three episodes into my re-watch of Stranger Things, too, prepping for the conversational review Hank Wagner and I are doing for Dead Reckonings.

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