EAT THIS BOOK: Filthy Sugar by Heather Babcock

Heather Babcock

Heather Babcock is an  accomplished author of poetry and short fiction. She has read and performed at a gamut of live venues in Toronto.  (Read more about Heather’s accomplishments  here in Goodreads.)

I became friends with Heather through our mutual friend, Toronto Poet.   Ed and I have enjoyed her readings at Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir and The Redhead Revue. We all share a love of things retro, especially very bad sci-fi movies from the 1950s.

I was delighted when Heather Babcock’s debut novel, Filthy Sugar was published by Inanna Publications. This independent press focuses on literature by and about women and is also the publisher of two dear friends and authors, Lisa De Nikolits  and Caro Soles.

Set in the depths of the Great Depression, Filthy Sugar describes the often tawdry adventures of  19 year old, Wanda Whittle, who uses her beauty and her sexuality to get out of poverty. She ends up cruelly exploited – as a burlesque dancer, a sex worker and even as a “redeemed woman” for a tabloid – because she trusts or falls for the wrong guy.  But Wanda is a fighter and in a great twist at the end of the novel (no spoilers!), she takes back control of her own life and finds real love.

It’s a credit to Heather’s terrific skills as a writer that she can unsparingly portray the romantic traps and sad situations that Wanda falls prey to and yet embody the pages with such vitality, you can’t stop turning the pages.

Heather submerged herself in the history of 1930’s culture –  even listening to 1930’s music while writing – and her passion for the period creates magic on the pages.  (Each chapter is referenced for history buffs.) Here are just a couple of my favorite lines:

  • When the lights are dim and the cigarettes are lit, the dames look like ladies and the mugs look like gentlemen and nobody sees the blood on your shoes at the Bow Tie.
  • When the only things alive are the rats in the walls and the little vampires under my mattress, it’s high time to blow.

I especially love Heather’s portrayal of 1930’s street talk.  Some of the phrases are historical (she includes a dictionary at the end of the book) but the best ones, she created herself. Here’s a sampling:

  • Slug burger – a poor person’s burger served on stale bread
  • Crepehanger – a cynic
  • Flock of salami – bullsh*t
  • Underwood banger – a reporter
  • Filthy sugar – dirty money

Underwood banger and best of all, filthy sugar are Heather’s own phrases. History is the loser!

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. Five stars!

My Story on Audio

Great news!

My long story, “Brainworm”, is featured on Donna Carrick’s Story Stocking, Part One on July 22nd and Part Two on July 29th.  “Brainworm” first appeared in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s latest anthology, In the Key of 13.

In the story, Fiona, a middle-aged woman worn down by looking after her difficult stepmother, has a near miss on the highway during a biting winter blizzard. The shock forces her to face the danger about to devour her.

Click here to tune in to this podcast.

EAT THIS BOOK: Rolling Thunder by A. J. Devlin

I had the pleasure of meeting AJ Devlin at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver in 2019. We ended up sitting next to each other at the Crime Writers of Canada pub dinner and really hit it off. It turns out that AJ spent many years in Hollywood as a screen writer and our daughter, Claire, works in special effects so I know how tough the film biz can be. And we bonded over the challenges we’d both had to overcome to be traditionally published.

 

AJ’s first crime novel, Cobra Clutch, found a home with NeWest Press. It introduced “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead, a former pro wrestler turned private eye. I loved it! Like pro wrestling, Cobra Clutch has it all: comedy, great characters and over the top action. (The shoot-out on Lion’s Gate Bridge is my personal favorite.)

Cobra Clutch was nominated for a Lefty Award and went on to win the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award. Not bad!

So I was eager to read Jed Ounstead’s next adventure, Rolling Thunder. I’m delighted to report that it’s great fun and a great read. Jed is in fine form as he dives into the world of roller derby. The coach of the Split Lip Sallies, whose stage name is Lawrence O’Labia, has disappeared days before a critical match. (Lawrence’s real-life name is even ruder.) The roller derby team hires Jed to find him.

Running Lawrence down lands Jed in enormous danger as he searches through Vancouver’s seamy side. Is it gambling? Drugs? Larry’s secret fondness for the (gay) leather scene? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

AJ has a gift for witty names and dialogue. He populates the pages of his thriller with hilariously weird characters, among them: an effete bookie who races dachshunds, an excruciatingly amateur talk show host and a 300lb roller derby star who likes to whack men’s butts. Jed gets lots of action in and out of the ring. The fight scenes are especially well-written: gritty and visual.

Rolling Thunder hits all the marks for a PI thriller. Thoroughly recommended. 5 stars.

Available on Amazon.ca in print and e-book.

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Books #3 – The Old Dick by L. A. Morse

Older heros, where are they?

In recent years, especially in noir crime fiction, authors and editors have pushed to create  “geezer lit”.  But the sub-genre hasn’t really caught on even though crime fiction readers are an older demographic.

True enough, modern protagonists of crime fiction, especially cozies, have become slightly older, but they’re not really old.

Two notable exceptions did take off.  First of all, there’s the intrepid Miss Marple, inspired by an elderly friend of Dame Agatha Christie’s step grandmother. Miss Marple made her first appearance in a short story published in 1927.

Then more than half a century later,  author L.A. Morse introduced Jake Spanner, his 78 year old PI. The Old Dick was Morse’s first crime novel and he won an Edgar Award for it.

In the early days of Crime Writers of Canada, L. A. Morse was much admired by the membership and perhaps more than a little envied because of his smashing success with The Old Dick. Though Morse worked as an administrator at the University of Toronto, he was actually an American from Los Angeles with two degrees in English literature from the University of California.

Re-reading The Old Dick, it’s easy to understand why it was such a hit. The writing is excellent: Morse goes for the comedy, with wry observations and epigrams packed into every page. He’s channelling his inner Raymond Chandler with observations like :

  • “When you got old, you either went soft or you got dry. Fortunately, I had gotten dry.”
  •  “One of the few advantages of getting really old is that people don’t talk to you…They’re probably afraid that old age is contagious.”
  • “People have always divided the world into “us” and “them”, but when you’re old, you never fit in, so you’re always “them”.”

The Old Dick was not Morse’s first book. He’d already published, The Flesh Eaters, about a 15th century Scottish cannibal clan. He went on to write three more crime novels, all with a satirical edge. He took on Mickey Spillane with two hard-boiled  novels, The Big Enchilada and Sleaze, whose hero, Sam Hunter “made Dirty Harry look like Mother Teresa”. He then showed his cozy side in An Old-Fashioned Mystery, penned by the mysterious and reclusive author, “Runa Fairleigh”.

In the mid-1980s, Morse turned to screen writing. He was one of the writers of    Jake Spanner, Private Eye, a 1989 film starring Robert Mitchum and Ernest Borgnine. Though the movie centred on the Jake Spanner character from The Old Dick, the plot bore no resemblance to the book at all. Despite a strong cast, it failed to take off.

At this point Morse abandoned writing altogether.  He turned to another medium for creative expression: he became -and still is – a sculptor. He became an expert bird watcher and published a two volume reference book on trashy 1980s movies and videos.

BOTTOM LINE:   Abe Books lists the value of my used, unsigned paperback from $4 to $8US.

DECISION – SELL, KEEP or DONATE? 

DONATE with an ounce of regret for the good writing between the covers

 

 

 

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Knucklehead Noir by Coffin Hop Press

Strange times, readers. But happily, at long last we can attack our TBR piles. Definitely time to indulge in feel-good literature even when one is drawn to the dark side – and noir.

The answer? Black humour and you will find plenty in the terrific anthology, Knucklehead Noir ( Coffin Hop Press) edited by Robert Bose and Sarah L. Johnson. The byline says it all: When there’s no room left in jail, the idiots will walk the streets. Believe me, when you’ve finished these 15 stories (most new, some reprinted)  by leading Canadian and American noir authors, you will feel much better about your own life, family, friends, job and COVID-19.

Leading off these tales celebrating idiots is one of my personal favorites, “Two Kangaroos Chained to a Piss Pot” by Jason Pearce. Angus arrives home with the Christmas gifts he made in jail, like the shiv his little brother can use as a toothbrush. Handy! But when he robs his local grocery store of beer and smokes, things go awry in the most Canadian way.  “Honeymoon Sweet” by US screenwriter, Craig Faustus Buck, is the Macavity award-winning tale of marry in haste, repent at leisure. The same warning continues in “Work at Home Opportunity! Perfect for Single Moms” by Laurie Zottmann. Single mom, Chucky Jensen, struggles to sell stolen yoga pants at her kid’s school fair while fending off bitchy competitors and hiding the freshly dug hole in her garden from her nosy neighbour cop.

Golden Derringer winner, Michael Bracken, pens a cautionary tale about wannabee robbers of adult stores in “Sex Toys”, but Pamela Kenney gives us hope in “All in a Day’s Work”. You may change your fate if your kidnappers are dumber than you.  The criminals in Chris R. Young’s story, ” Thick as Thieves”, are certainly thick. They mess up a job -no kidding!- and get caught in a hilarious twist of fate.

More inept wannabees appear in Tom Barlow’s, “Hic”. Andy tries to outdo his jailed brother, while sleeping with his brother’s devious ex, but his nerves set off a fit of hiccups and disaster.   Jaclyn Adomeit’s story, “Scratch and Sniff”, skillfully blends suspense and humour in hero Nathan’s quest to smuggle drugs into an oil drillers camp. And the sad irony continues in Brent Nichols’ “Go Fish”, where a poacher steals a drowning victim’s cell phone only to find out that the vic has powerful friends bent on a watery revenge.

Another personal favorite is “Johnny Money”, by Steve Passey, where hardened gangster, Johnny, looks out for his vulnerable younger brother, Ricky. American noir author, Steve Brewer, shows his humorous side in “Cemetery Plot” where a trio of idiots try to kill each other off in a graveyard. Convenient because who looks for a murder victim in a cemetery?

Events turn downright bizarre in the cross-genre story “Soft Opening” by Will Viharo. Porn merchants learn that it’s never a good idea to cross an alien.  In “Beer Run” by Scott S. Phillips, Radio Ketchum fights to retrieve a beer shipment stolen from his terrifying mother’s bar. And in Axel Howerton’s “The Aluminum Eagle”, we travel back in time in a thoroughly enjoyable homage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. And rounding up the collection is the flash story, “Liner Notes” by editors Sarah and Rob where a hapless photog learns the hard way that his pics may be a goldmine, but not in the way he dreamed.

Bottomline: 5 stars  – Eat this Book!

 

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Mystery Writers #2, Jonathan Valin

Greetings Readers!   
Why do I write crime stories? Because I read little else!  
When e-books appeared, I became an early adopter if only for the storage. Digital space = many orders of magnitude of real world space.
My office is crammed with my beloved crime books. Sadly and inevitably, I have run out of wall space for yet another IKEA bookshelf. It’s time. Each book is a tangible totem, a record of my time well- spent or well-wasted.  No doubt that’s why it so hard to decide whether to: 
 GIVE AWAY, SELL or KEEP.

I’ve been a customer of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore since it first opened in Toronto on Bayview Avenue  and I’ve followed it through four moves to its present location on Millwood Road.

I started out reading the classics (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham) but quickly gravitated to darker crime fiction, which remains my strong favorite. So on J. D. Singh’s recommendation, I tried the Harry Stoner series by Jonathan Valin and quickly became a fan.

Like most enduring PI heroes, Harry Stoner hides his human side and lives to deliver justice for his disempowered clients – through violence, what else? His city is Cincinnati (Sin City?), a dark gritty place ruled by grifters and gangsters thriving in the worst sin: snuff films, pornography, pedophilia…you know the list.

In the 1980’s, PI novels had far more rigid conventions than today. The Stoner series checks everything off the list: Stoner is a (Viet Nam) war vet. He bears mental and physical scars (he looks like a broken Roman statue).  He’s big and strong and lethal with his fists. His PI office lies in a funky old building. He drives a wreck of a car – a (mercifully) non-flaming Pinto. He’s constantly short of cash. He lives on a diet of alcohol, steak and coffee – and survives more physical abuse than is humanly possible (beaten up, shot, etc.) He also gets a ton of sex.

On re-reading, The Lime Pit, the first book in the series, the limited roles of the women characters really got to me. They were straight out of a 1950s Mickey Spillane adventure. Good girls or bad, they only existed to have sex with Stoner.  Their defining characteristics: compliant and horny.

So what was Valin’s appeal for me? His writing! It’s breathtakingly vivid, visceral and cinematic – just the way I like it. Here’s an  example:

“Morris Rich was a sly, sentimental man of about fifty…but he was first and foremost a thief. He was a short man with a smooth, hairless head, the exact size of a schoolyard kickball and the bright, famished eyes and tiny upturned mouth of a rat.”

From 1980 to 1995, Valin wrote 11 novels in the Harry Stoner series of which I own the first eight. A TV movie was made of Final Notice, the second book in the series, starring actor Gil Gerard with Cincinnati played by Toronto (really??). The film didn’t catch on, which often as not happens with crime series: witness the failure to translate Louise Penny’s terrific Gamache novels to the screen.

Maybe that’s why after 11 books and 14 years of hard work, Valin switched to editing Fi, a music review magazine and left crime writing behind.

Valin won the prestigious Shamus Award in 1989 for his 8th Stoner novel, Extenuating Circumstances. He was nominated again in 1991 for Second Chance. Previously in 1986, Life’s Work was a runner-up for the Anthony award.

Distinguished author and screenwriter, Stuart Kaminsky wrote this about Valin’s writing and I can’t help but agree: “All [his novel] are gems. They never caught on, never got an audience, while far lesser talents became best sellers… I would read them all again and recommend them to all lovers of hard-boiled mysteries.” 

My friend, Sam Wiebe, who was recently listed for the both Shamus and Hammett awards, shares the same hope – as do I – that in the end quality is what matters – and endures.

BOTTOM LINE: What are my paperback copies worth?

The low end is disappointing for books of this quality but that’s the marketplace.   The lofty numbers are seller-specific. In other words, like Terry (Mr. Brainwash) in the documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, ask $500 for a ratty 1970s T-shirt and some mark might bite!

DECISION: Sell as a set for $25US

TITLE ABE BOOKS – $US E BAY -$US
The Lime Pit $4 to $39.99   
Final Notice $1.50 to $39.99  
Dead Letter $3.34 to $44.59 $20.95
Day of Wrath $2.95 to $39.99  
Natural Causes $2.99 to $39.99 $3.32
Life’s Work $2.99 to $13.14

$1.91

Fire Lake $1.11 to $43.39 $7.93
Extenuating Circumstances $1.00 to $42.20 $1.31

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher

In February, Ed and I made our annual ski trip to Stowe, Vermont. Though old Stowe is rapidly disappearing due to the monolith monster condo development at the ski hill (now owned by Vail Resorts with concomitant sticker-shock pricing), vestiges of its old charm remain.

That includes our favorite hotel, The Green Mountain Inn, with its Shaker décor, warm fireplaces and afternoon tea and cookies. Locals  grab coffee and nosh down bacon and eggs at  The Café on Main next door in the Depot Building. Other must-eat noms: the over-sized chocolate chip cookies and superb fresh muffins.

While sipping Green Mountain’s dark roast eye-opener, we tried to resist the pleading eyes of a charming pug – and failed. He’s the resident pet in the best bookstore in Vermont: Bear Bond Books.

 

 

 

I’m trying to downsize my library but a visit to Bear Pond guarantees failure: I never leave without buying a book. Bear Pond promotes local authors, including crime writers: here’s where I discovered Archer Mayor and the Joe Gunther series.  This February, I struck more gold.

Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher intrigued me. The back cover outlined an adventure in bootlegging Canadian liquor across the US border during the Prohibition: an honourable part of our national history. And the novel drew on the intermingling of French Canadian and Vermont culture at the time. The hero’s name is Quebec Bill Bonhomme.

I’d anticipated that the border was once porous. Who knew how much? I was about to find out.

After the first page, I realized that I’d stumbled upon a gifted writer with a wildly exuberant imagination. Disappearances isn’t a mere adventure: it’s magic realism that reinvents and invigorates the tall tale.  It begins with our heroes’ visit to an asylum run by a mad, alcoholic doctor and an encounter with hermaphroditic twins and veers off into a series of Picaresque disasters. Crazy violence on par with noir author Johnny Shaw,  innumerable car crashes, an albino villain named Carcajou or “Wolverine” who won’t stay dead. Oh and did I mention that this is a comedy? I loved it! 

Disappearances  earned rave reviews from the Washington Post and Harper’s Magazine before winning the New England Book Award for fiction. In 2006, it was made into a film starring Kris Kristofferson and Genevieve Bujold. I’d never heard of it despite the cast.  It has a score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes – in other words, mixed reviews. According to IMDB, it failed spectacularly at the box office, costing $1.5 million to make and bringing in only $300,000.

Perhaps the wild, over-the-top fantasies work best on the page: a fever dream shared intimately between reader and author. We’re glutted by fabulous CGI and overblown violence on screen every day. Who remembers Tim Burton’s film, Big Fish even though it was a critical and financial success?

Howard Frank Mosher wrote 11 novels, many of which were turned into films by Jay Craven, an indie film-maker and native of Vermont.  And in case you doubt the influence of Quebec, what does “Vermont” mean? Vert mont or green mountain, right? Green Mountain range, Green Mountain Inn. Sometimes it takes 30+ years for the penny to drop.

In the meantime, EAT THIS BOOK!

 

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: The Charming Predator by Lee Mackenzie

I am a true crime junkie. Ann Rule is one of my favorite non-fiction authors: I have read everything she’s published – and re-read it.   l love that her histories are moral tales and that the perpetrator is always caught and punished. She delves deeply into the motivations behind the crime and is especially compassionate to its victims. 

Not all of  my crime writer friends enjoy reading true crime. For many, murder must stay in the realm of make-believe and real life is more akin to horror. Other friends draw on true crime to make their work more believable. So why does true crime fascinate me? 

Early in my career at the Ontario Ministry of Health,  I was assigned to the team investigating a series of mysterious deaths at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. This scientific study ran parallel to the ongoing police investigation. Because Ontario didn’t have the necessary expertise and resources, the Ministry engaged the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta who led the team.  In the end, the scientific study agreed with the police investigation: the hospital deaths were due to homicide. Unfortunately, the murderer was never caught and punished.

The study changed the lives of everyone who worked on it. The Ministry made epidemiology and disease investigation a priority, which greatly helped to protect the public during the notorious SARS outbreak. My boss, Rick, left public health to become a forensic psychiatrist. And I developed a life-long compulsion to uncover the “why” behind crime and eventually took up crime fiction writing.

This rainy holiday weekend I visited Fincher’s, our beloved bookstore in cottage country, which has an interesting True Crime section. The Charming Predator caught my eye. From the first page, I was hooked: this book reads like a thriller.

Lee Mackenzie worked for 21 years as a broadcast journalist and news anchor. While backpacking around Wales as a young girl trying to find herself, she met the charming Kenner Jones at a local tourist office. They struck up a friendship that blossomed into romance and marriage.

Kenner had a way with words. Like many conmen, he possessed remarkable verbal skills and bamboozled dozens of people out of their life savings, including Lee while they were married.

Lee chides herself throughout the book for her innocence and lack of self-esteem which led her to ignore her misgivings and to overlook Kenner’s many lies and outrageous fabrications. Eventually she broke free of him. How? You must read her book to find out!

The Charming Predator is a warning to those of us who grew up protected and were taught to believe the best of people. After reading this book you will be especially wary of pious people who hang around politicians.

And so arm yourselves, readers and eat this book!

 

 

A Fairy Tale Authors for Indies

The Village Bookshop, Main St., Bayfield ON

Saturday, April 29th was the third annual Authors for Indies, a day on which authors and booksellers together celebrate independent book stores. In previous years, I’ve had a great time at Books and Company in Picton and Book City at the Beach in Toronto.

So imagine my delight when I learned that the Village Bookshop in Bayfield was one of the participating indie bookstores this year. Bayfield lies 10 minutes south of our family cottage in Goderich (of tornado infamy) and this was a great opportunity to meet some Huron County writers.

Spring flowers

The Village Bookshop has a fairy tale setting in the heart of Bayfield, one of the prettiest towns in Ontario. Many years ago, this lovely yellow building housed a bakery and tea room. Sadly, it closed, but happily The Village Bookshop moved in. Golden hardwood floors, an eclectic mix of books for all tastes, a children’s play area and an emphasis on local authors -what’s not to love!

Bayfield’s bookstore has a long tradition of supporting authors. A few years ago, my friends Cathy Astolfo, Janet Bolin, Alison Bruce, Mel Campbell and I had a wonderful time as authors at a mystery-themed literary festival.  

 

Wine, beer, Culbert’s goodies and Glow Grass!

Martha Beechie, the present owner, loves to support local authors. She spoiled us on April 29th by serving sparkling wine, local craft beer and pastries from Goderich’s beloved Culbert’s Bakery!

I joined local mystery author Judy Keightly and Andy McGuire, poet and new father, in meeting local readers. Windigo Fire sold out immediately as well as all my consigned copies of Glow Grass and 13 O’clock. (Should have brought more!)

In between writing mysteries, boating as well as creating and producing plays with Bayfield’s community theatre, Judy and her husband are embarking on a new adventure. They are the new owners of a vineyard. Huron County promises to be the next wine-growing region of Ontario.

 

Martha and Munro

The Village Bookshop shares space with an artist who teaches painting during the summer months. Luckily, the only fox in the area is the one decorating the studio wall because Martha owns a brood of chickens who provide fresh eggs every second day. A pretty, fluffy-feathered breed, Martha has named each bird after a distinguished author.

My personal favorite was Munro named after Huron County’s most distinguished local author: Noble prize winner, Alice Munro who wrote her world famous stories in nearby Clinton, Ontario. Martha let us in on a secret: Ms Munro slips into The Village Bookshop from time to time to sign her books.

Next time you are visiting the Grand Bend or London area, drive a few miles north and Eat the Local Books in the Village Bookshop.

 

 

 

 

BIG SALE for LEFT COAST CRIME!

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GREETINGS READERS!

As part of Left Coast Crime, my e-books will be on SALE on Amazon from March 16th to March 23rd at 12:00 am. The discounted price for each book is $0.99.

So if you haven’t had a chance to read my books on Kindle, you can now get ’em cheap.

ENJOY and many thanks!!