I read my first T.D. Stash novel while vacationing with the family at a tourist lodge on Lake Temagami. Despite being exhausted after canoeing with a 3 year old, I sat up all night to finish The Neon Flamingo. Its Florida Keys setting was as removed from Northern Ontario as you can imagine.
Gripping and smoothly written, W.R. Philbrick’s book has stayed with me, mostly because its hero, T.D. Stash, was so unusual for the late 1980s. He was a screw-up – a stoner and sometime fisherman desperate enough for cash to do favors for friends – legal or not so much. He often made dire situations worse.
I quickly read the next two books in the series, The Crystal Blue Persuasion and Tough Enough. Then waited in vain for more.
A few years later I met W. R. Philbrick at a crime writers’ conference. He happily signed my copy of The Neon Flamingo then passed on the bad news that his editor didn’t want any more T.D. Stash novels. A damn shame!
I suspect that TD Stash series was too dark. In other words, too intense, truthful and violent for 1990s readers. Like Liza Cody’s Bucket Nut, the books were fine examples of noir – and thus decades ahead of their time.
So what happened to W. R. Philbrick? I’m happy to tell you that he’s written over 30 novels under three pseudonyms, including the Connie Kale and J. D. Hawkins crime series. He’s had great success as a YA author, winning multiple awards. His YA adventure story, Freak the Mighty, was translated into several languages and is studied in classrooms throughout the world. Later it became a successful film.
The T.D. Stash books are not available on Amazon in print or digital form. Abe Books carry only a very few used paperbacks listed between $3 to $8US.
Novellas are relatively rare in crime fiction where formats are far more rigid than in literary and speculative fiction. Short story lengths greater than 5000 words are tolerated…barely. And novels must be no less than 65,000 and no more than 95,000 words.
No doubt the formats are dictated by business rather than artistic imperatives. The story or book length a publisher believes will hold readers’ attention spans.
So what is a novella exactly? A long story or a short novel? As an author whose work naturally tends to fall in this category, I believe a novella is a story with a linear plot but with more texture, atmosphere and complexity of character than can be captured in 5000 words or less.
The Orca Rapid Reads Series breathed life into the crime fiction novella. Mostly because of this series, the CWC Awards of Excellence have had enough entries to create and sustain a novella category. (CWC defines a novella as a story between 8000 and 20,000 words.)
The Rapid Reads series is aimed at adults who are ESL students, who have difficulty reading or those who simply want a fast satisfying read. Although the language is uncomplicated, the books are not simplistic. They are hard-hitting, with adult themes and they often focus on social issues.
It’s a challenge for an author to streamline their writing style without losing its essence. That’s why Orca contracted with leading Canadian crime fiction authors for the 68 books in the series, including my friend, Sam Wiebe.
Sam’s novella, Never Going Back (Orca, 2020) is one of the latest books in the Rapid Reads series. Its protagonist, Alison Kidd, is a tough young woman, a master thief who’s just gotten out of jail. She hated prison and she’s determined to go straight, but the local crime boss blackmails her into pulling off a risky job. If she refuses, her brother will be killed. Can she outsmart her old boss and save her brother and herself?
Sam’s hard-hitting, critically acclaimed Dave Wakeland series and his debut novel, The Last of the Independents, are both written very much from a man’s point of view. I was intrigued that Sam chose a woman hero for Never Going Back. Could he pull it off?
I’m delighted to say that, yes, Sam did! Alison Kidd is a terrific and likeable character. (More books and stories with strong women, Sam!) The plot has the twists and turns of a switchback highway and the suspense that goes along with it. An excellent thriller!
I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned buildings. Arrested in time, they are living ghosts, hoarders of stories. I’ve always imagined them to be located on windswept hills, next to crumbling seashores or hidden in industrial wastelands, not lurking in my neighborhood.
To my surprise, I’ve now run across several abandoned buildings close to home. I’ve even learned how to spot them. (Stay tuned, that’s for Part 2.)
About a year ago, a visitor to our cottage told us that they’d discovered a “haunted house” on their walk through town. Following their directions, I found it on my next morning run.
The house at first glance seemed to be an older Victorian whose owners loved ivy-covered walls. But a closer look revealed a seriously deteriorated roof and a badly overgrown garden. The kingdom of plants had taken over.
A danger in being abandoned is vandalism – those who seek to destroy for the pure pleasure of destruction. Worst of all is the onslaught of natural elements, water being the most lethal.
I couldn’t help being curious about the reasons behind the house’s deterioration. An official notice was posted close to the “no trespassing” sign. Perhaps the inhabitants grew too elderly or too poor to maintain the house. As per COVID, one day would slide into the next, each as unremarkable as the other until decades had passed.
I spotted signs of an attempted clear-out. Was there a forced eviction? Two of these sad signs below.
Over the summer, I observed attempts to clear and/or repair the house, apparently by someone working singlehandedly. Not much progress as you might expect for such an overwhelming task.
This summer, a year later, curiosity led me past the haunted house again. Massive changes had happened: the ivy was gone, the extension had been demolished and the entire garden had been ripped out. Nothing was left but an empty purged shell.
This has been a strange year indeed. Most of all, I miss connecting with you and my fellow crime authors in the Real World.
Just in time for Christmas, Amazon delivered my print copies of A Grave Diagnosis, Donna Carrick’s spooky and appropriate anthology for Anno Horribilis, AKA 2020. It never gets old to see one’s work in print! And a special Christmas decoration, 3D-printed here at home, that captures the world’s feelings about much of this year. Look closely for the message!
Stay safe and looking forward to a much brighter and happier 2021 in the Real World!
I was a bookish child and so inept at sports that my friends would fight to NOT have me on their team. But two amazing women got me to love sports – and changed my life forever.
In university, my sister-in-law got me into hiking, biking and downhill skiing. (We also had adventures dinghy sailing.) And my friend, Marian Misters, co-owner of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore, introduced me to road running.
Hard work and perseverance accomplished more than I dreamed of: I’ve run a marathon, regularly biked 120 km at a stretch and skied black diamonds without dying! But I remain in awe of ultramarathoners, adventurers and mountain climbers whose exploits I devoured in the late, great Outside magazine.
Jon Billman, is a search-and-rescue expert, a former wildland firefighter and regular contributor to Outside. In The Cold Vanish, he explores how and why people continue to go missing in the wilderness. It’s been said that the solution to an enduring mystery is often sadly banal. That may be true of the many cases Billman writes about, but like Jon Krakauer, he unveils the tragedy behind each story – and a warning. Venturing into the wilderness requires an abundance of caution.
Billman’s book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down. The overarching story centers on Jacob Gray, a 22 year-old cyclist who disappeared in Olympic National Park in Washington State. He’d embarked on a cycling journey but shortly after leaving home, his bicycle was found abandoned by the side of the road, all his gear intact. Close by was the fast-flowing Sol Duc River. Searchers assumed the worst: that he’d tried to fill his water bottle, fallen in and drowned.
Billman formed a close friendship with Jacob’s father, Randy, who never gave up hope of finding his son. They searched for Jacob for over a year, chasing scenarios from Jacob being involved in the drug trade to joining a cult to simply walking away from the world. (No spoilers, you must read through to the end of the book to find out what really happened to Jacob.)
The reasons behind these disappearances range from murder to accidents to running away. Billman interviews scientists – there aren’t many of them – who research how and why people go missing in the wilderness.
So how do people go missing? Much of the time accidents are to blame, usually falls when the person was on their own. The other main reason? Simply getting lost and dying from exposure, which usually means dehydration or hypothermia. People greatly underestimate the amount of water they need when hiking, especially in the heat. And even temperatures as moderate as 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) can lead to hypothermia.
Sadly the vast majority of the cases do not end well. Billman does include a miraculous rescue, that of a young yoga teacher who went missing in Hawaii for over two weeks. She wandered off the marked trail in a nature preserve and got lost. She survived a fall and a broken leg, but knew enough about nature to stay dehydrated. Search planes found her by chance in an area of the preserve far outside the search range. She’d wandered much farther than anyone had predicted.
The takeaways from the stories: those who go missing for a long time are found by chance and by people unassociated with the original search and rescue team. Often as not, the missing person is in a location logic did not dictate.
Important to remember that our predominantly urban society is spectacularly underequipped to deal with the wilderness. It’s not Disneyland. When exploring the wilderness, listen to the advice of forest rangers and park wardens. Don’t wander off marked trails. Take the right amount of water, food and supplies with you. And never go alone.
My rating: 5 stars Eat this book!
A Footnote: In 2016, at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix, Arizona, I took a tour of the Apacheland Movie Set museum. Our guide told us how a hiker had died the day before of heat and dehydration. He’d wandered off the beaten track and gotten lost, one canyon looking much like another. Also that day, three German tourists had set off into the desert with umbrellas to ward off the sun, but greatly underestimated the quantity of water they needed. Fortunately they were rescued, dehydrated but alive. Read the full story here.
Do join me and my fellow crime writers for the Zoom launch of Carrick Publishing’s new crime fiction anthology, A Grave Diagnosis. This collection of tales of murder and malaise appropriately launches on Halloween!!
AND a special Halloween treat – here’s our video on YouTube! Thank you, editor and publisher, Donna Carrick!
My friends and I have embraced Zoom. It’s become an indispensable tool for authors during these dystopian COVID times.
Since the run-up to Christmas is a strong market for book sales, I pitched the idea to the Mesdames that we run a series of Zoom book launches. They loved idea and the Mesdames’ Book Launch Marathon took off!
First author was my friend, Rosemary McCracken who just published the 5th book in her popular Pat Tierney series, Uncharted Waters. By all accounts our Zoom launch was a terrific success. Our three secrets? Planning, planning and planning.
Rosemary shares her excellent write-up about successful Zoom launch planning from an author’s point of view on her blog, Moving Target. Read it here.
Even better, watch our video of the whole launch!!
Here are my pearls of wisdom from the moderator / techie side:
For an audience greater than 40+ people, the moderator and the techie must be two different individuals.
Work closely with your author before the launch to:
develop interesting questions
make a list of invited guests for vetting during the event
support each other before, after and during the launch!
Make the launch interactive to engage the audience
allow lots of time for Q& A
have contest questions throughout the launch
Email the links to the author’s book(s) on Amazon, etc. to all invitees.
Our next marathon event is the launch of Carrick Publishing’s new crime fiction anthology, A Grave Diagnosis. Appropriately enough the launch date is on Halloween! Saturday, October 31st, 2pm. And as a contributing author, I can kick back, relax and be a guest this time!
Saturday August 29th was the 2020 virtual Ride to Conquer Cancer – and my 4th and final pledge ride of 50 km.
On Friday I picked up my official blue jersey from the mid-town Ride office. Distancing in the line-up, I happily ran into a friend from yoga class – and fellow rider. We almost didn’t recognize each other with our masks on.
The virtual event was a new experience. Saturday morning I dutifully logged onto YouTube to listen to the opening speeches, which were inspiring – and short. I learned that 4000 Riders would be cycling throughout Ontario – and indeed all over the world, even in the mountains of Columbia.
Speeches done, I set off on my final 50 km. It felt strange not to see Niagara Falls at the end and to ride solo. The sky looked ominously dark. The weather report called for scattered thunderstorms. But so what – I’ve ridden through thunderstorms on The Ride before.
I cut down through Leaside and entered Sunnybrook Park through Lyndhurst Hospital. The big hill down was slick from the night’s rain and my sunglasses fogged up immediately from the humidity. I took it slow.
The sun came out as I passed the dog park and paused to wipe off my glasses. Then off for a beautiful, easy morning ride through the park. Very few people about. I met my first fellow Rider halfway along the trail. The poor guy was fixing his punctured tire, but kindly refused my offers to help.
Thinking, been there, did that on Ride #3 and wishing him the good luck I had, I reach “The Teeth” and turn south onto the Don Valley trail.
The Upper Don Valley trail is getting busy. MAMELS, runners, dog walkers, other cyclists. I wave to a corporate team of Riders at the Pottery Road crossover and embark on the equally busy Lower Don path.
Sad to see the official, i.e. commissioned, street art murals steadily defaced by “tags” this past season. The murals in the tunnel of the Belleville underpass are pretty much obliterated.
At Lakeshore, I turn east and head under the concrete arches of the Gardiner toward The Beaches. I pass many icons: Ashbridge sewage works, the movie studios, Canadian Tire mega store and the skater’s park with its cool art.
It’s now mid-morning and the beaches are getting really crowded despite the many signs warning to “keep ur distance”. Pedaling feels remarkably fluid and fast. I know from experience that this means strong headwinds from the west behind me. I zoom along in top gear, thinking smugly how well my training has paid off, but when I turn around…
At the turnaround by Balmy Beach I prepare myself for a slog.
Riding against a headwind can be a humbling experience. I cope by gearing down and “spinning”. In other words, my feet go round and round the pedals in low gear like a hamster on a wheel. Several stony-thighed MAMELS pass me, but they may not know an endurance runner’s secret: always conserve energy.
I reached the 25 km halfway mark at the Beaches turnaround. Delighted to rendezvous with Ed at Balzac’s cafe in the Distillery District to nosh down my reward of coffee and delicious chocolate banana muffin!
By the time we’ve finished our coffee break, the skies have cleared. I head west in brilliant sunshine, cross over Lakeshore and take the crazy-busy Queen’s Quay bike trail. At least no construction trucks today.
I pass and wave to many Riders wearing the blue RIDE ON bike jersey. The headwinds have subsided somewhat. At Princes Gate the southern half of Lakeshore Blvd has been closed off to traffic, allowing more space to humans. (Maybe Toronto’s imitating Paris which closes the road along the Seine every Sunday morning so that cyclists and walkers can enjoy the river bank in peace.)
This is too good to pass up. Besides, for every Ride, the City of Toronto closes Lakeshore Blvd to allow 5000 Riders to get to Mississauga. The weather turns stormy again by the time I reach the end of Exhibition Park.
For nostalgia, I cross through Exhibition Park. Normally the crazy, sleazy Ex would be in full swing now. Ed loves it, especially the “Pure Foods” like deep fried butter and Canada’s favorite, Tiny Tom donuts. Sadly, Tom Brazier, the founder died earlier this year but his family will be carrying on his well-loved business. (See the history on video on the Tiny Tom Donut website.)
I return to the lakeshore trail via a handy pedestrian bridge and turn east for home. I’m already at 42 km!
Because it’s Saturday, I decide to try the bike lanes through downtown Toronto. At Spadina, I take a new trail through the generically-named Southern Linear Park, pass The Dome and the Aquarium (you can get Tiny Tom donuts there) and pay tribute to the great Steam Whistle Brewery.
Since the very first Ride in 2008, Steam Whistle has been rewarding thirsty Riders with TWO beers at the end of each day. (Ed as road crew gets his beer!) Here’s me celebrating the end of my very first Ride.
I’m really impressed with the new bike trails through downtown. I remember biking to work during various TTC strikes wondering if I’d make it home in one piece. Now I spot Bike Share everywhere. Progress at long last!
Up Simcoe, a short dash along Queen St., then onto Bay St. with its single lane reserved for buses, cabs and cyclists. I definitely feel rain drops now and eye various options for shelter just in case.
Despite the thundery-looking heavens, I take a minute to salute Queen’s Park, my old employer and IT client. At the site of what was probably the ugliest government building in Ontario, there’s an enormous multi-story wrapped in flapping construction paper like an erstwhile Christo / Jeanne Claude artwork.
The building I remember – where we IT consultants were consigned – was a square cement low-rise, dingy, poorly lit and without a single bit of decoration. For years, it housed the Ontario Publications book store on the ground floor. (Please contain your excitement!)
The most remarkable thing about the building was its survivability. Perhaps its dowdiness convinced taxpayers the Government of Ontario wasn’t wasting their money (ha!ha!).
But even the most hardy disappear in the end. I’m not sure if this glass tower will be housing civil servants or condo dwellers.
Up Bay Street and down Belmont Avenue, the site of the legendary Toronto Truck Theatre where Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap had its longest run outside of London, England. The Canadian version of Mousetrap opened on 19 August 1977 and closed on 18 January 2004 after a run of 26 years and over 9,000 performances. The only person who ever guessed the murderer was our daughter, who was about 9 at the time, because she noticed that…sorry, no spoilers.
Up Yonge Street, dodging traffic, aiming to cut through the St. Clair reservoir. No luck, it’s still under construction – for nearly two years now.
I steel myself for more risk-taking adventures (Yonge does not have a bike lane) and turn in to Mt. Pleasant cemetery just north of Heath St. I finish my ride in the calm and peace of its roadways. No traffic, the sun bursts out and before I know it, I’m home and done.
At 5pm I logged back on to YouTube for the closing speeches. This year The Ride raised $7 million, nearly 50% more than the organizers had anticipated.
Beautiful morning on Monday, August 24th for the third of my pledged four 2020 Rides to Conquer Cancer.
In Ride #2, thunderstorms drove me back closer to home, so today my goal was to head west along the lake shore to the Humber River trail. But the best-laid plans…
I zipped down Bayview extension, passed the warning raccoon and opted for the section of the Don Valley trail that runs along the eastern edge of Bayview. I ride past the Brick Works (and the sadly closed Cafe Belong) down to Rosedale Valley Road.
Happily I discover that Toronto City has put in a bike path along Bayview itself as far as River Street. Traffic is a little hairy, but manageable.
Up the hill to River Street and the falling cranes thereon (read article here). Scary to think that the day before the accident, my cycling buddy and I rode under this crane. Holy dodging a bullet!
I zoom past the Toronto Humane Society, where I volunteered as a “cat groomer” many years ago then cross through the Canary District to get to Lakeshore.
Funnily enough the legendary Canary restaurant was one of the most celebrated dives in Toronto. Whenever we drove by it, I dared myself to eat there, but I never had the guts –ha, ha– to do it. The building has a storied history – warehouse, school, artist apartments – and even starred in films shot in Toronto. (I’ll be writing up the late, great Canary in a future blog.)
A new street through the Canary District takes you under the Gardiner Expressway. There I ran across Underpass Park, one of Toronto’s better efforts to beautify the grottiness under the cement arches the raised highway. There’s a children’s playground and lots of interesting street art.
I carefully heed the pedestrian signals to avoid getting flattened by the mad traffic on Lakeshore Boulevard. All going well all, as I ride along the Queen’s Quay when thump, flap, flap, flap! It’s a sound cyclists know all too well – I’ve a puncture in my rear tire.
Punctures are an unhappy reality for urban cyclists. Bits of broken glass, loose screws, hard plastic, sharp rocks – all are lurking to destroy your inner tube. Earlier this season, I had a “snake bite” puncture: if you go over a curb too hard, the inner tube can twist and you get twin holes. Sigh.
I wheel my bike over to Balzac’s in the Distillery District and enjoy an early coffee break while awaiting rescue via Ed in the Mazda. Slight panic when the internet tells me that my usual bike shop has closed for summer holidays. Then I remember passing by GEARS bike shop on my way through Canary. A short drive over after rewarding Ed with a latte. Terrific service – they replace my inner tube and I’m back in the saddle within 20 minutes.
By now, it’s late morning and the two-lane Queen’s Quay bike trail is bustling with MAMELs, biking families, mums and babies in strollers. Hard to pass so I settle in to the slower flow. Unbelievable amount of construction with high rise condos going up everywhere.
It’s hard to spot Cinesphere, where I’ve seen so many great films. I hope it survives COVID as well as my fav landmark, the windmill demo project. Only a mild headwind today so it isn’t turning.
The crowds thin out slightly. I have to stop for a flock of Canada geese crossing the trail and spot an encampment only 10 feet away from the thunderous traffic on Lakeshore. The Sunnyside Bathing Station is surprisingly open despite COVID.
At long last the “millennial” white pedestrian bridge over the Humber is in sight signaling the turn north onto the Humber River trail. Close by the bridge are the twin Palace Pier towers.
In 1981, Patrick Kelly, an undercover RCMP officer, tossed his wife off the 17th floor balcony of the building. He was convicted of first degree murder in 1984. His trial revealed that he’d turned to the dark side, working with organized crime to fund his extravagant lifestyle as well as his extra-marital love affairs.
He made parole in 2010 only to have it revoked in 2012 because of his relationships with women and insisting on cash payments for his antiques “business” in Prince George. By 2016, he was out again, living on Vancouver Island. Caveat emptor – indeed caveat everybody.
The trail along the western edge of the Humber River is lightly travelled today. I’ve had it easy so far since the roads have sloped down to the lake. Now I’ve got a few heart thumper hills until I emerge at Old Mill and Etienne Brule park to tackle the toughest climb yet.
Even at my fittest, I’ve never made it all the way up Humberview, a killer hill complete with hairpin bend, impatient drivers, etc. I walk up my usual bit then dive into the shady alleys of Baby Point.
A friend lives nearby. I’d always pronounced it “baybee” but in fact, it’s “Babbee”, the name of French fur trader, Jacques Bâby. Not a very nice guy though.
Recently the plaque below appeared near the stone gates of the enclave. It was created and funded by a white person with a social conscience. Not a comfortable truth to learn that Canadians also enslaved Black and indigenous people.
From here it’s a long hot ride along Annette and Dupont over to Summerhill. I stop along the way at one of my fav Starbucks at Christie for a cold drink. It’s housed in a former bank, but of course, the usually crowded cafe is much diminished because of COVID. There’s no place to sit down outside so I take a walk break and enjoy the street art along the way.
For many years, this Summerhill landmark, the former North Toronto station stood neglected. Built to rival the downtown Union Station – the tower is copied from the Venetian bell tower in St. Mark’s Square – it fell into disuse by WW2 though it continued to function as a liquor store. It’s now one of LCBO’s flagships. Read its full history here.
Finally I’m on the home stretch. A shady cool ride through Rosedale, Moore Park and Mt. Pleasant cemetery. I do a short loop past The Boys and reach home for 50km!