Strange times indeed. Normally in March and April, I’m training for The Ride to Conquer Cancer, to support cancer research at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, one of the top five centres in the world.
2020 would have been my 13th ride. Alas, not to be. The Ride is in limbo along with the rest of our world. Hard to see how an event of 4000+ sweaty riders plus 1000 volunteers, all served by well-used porta-potties, leaking buckets of energy drinks and pawed-over treats, could happen in this epidemic year.
No matter what they decide about the Ride itself, the donations will go to cancer research, if not this year, then in 2021. If only cancer went into quarantine! Happily though PMH has officially joined the war on CORVID-19 with researchers working on a treatment / vaccine.
What to do in the meantime? Luckily because I’m a runner and cyclist I’m not housebound. No rules against either activity…yet. Public health authorities encourage everyone to get fresh air. But where?
My favorite training loop, Mt. Pleasant cemetery, is closed, but city trails are not. And the streets are eerily empty of traffic. Surreal to be sure. My intrepid fellow companions are: dog walkers, families with small children, senior citizens and other crazy cyclists and runners. Waved to a gym buddy – an 82 year old grandmother and long distance runner who grew up during the Battle of Britain.
My British blood stirs. This is our boomer moment, I guess. Crap! And it’s spring and reason for happiness.
One of my favorite bike routes runs along the Beltline. Uplifting to discover that its interesting street art is not only intact, but restored.
Wildlife may be reclaiming their habitat judging by the sign spotted near the end of the Beltline. Stay safe, my friends!
In business school, I learned that my job-survivalist strategies in the bureaucracy had a name: NETWORKING. To push through the inertia of the Ministry, I had to call on my friends for help. And trade favours for favours.
It took years to build my network, to gain friends from shared job successes, catastrophes or bosses from hell. But business profs urged a more active approach: Get out there, meet more people, throw your business card to the winds, attack and build your NET.
So I did – and discovered that gold, when it landed, always came from an unexpected direction.
Me? In the movies? NO WAY! Unlike the Ellen Burstyn character in Requiem for a Dream the last thing in the universe I want is to be on TV. Radio is fine (and I had a fab time as Alison Dore’s guest on Sirius) but the shock seeing of myself as others see me – GACK!!
Cat and my dear friend and author extraordinaire, Lisa De Nikolits, connected right away. They invited me for coffee and I thought, why not? Coffee and company, what’s a better way to spend an hour NOT writing!
The hour turned into three hours of lively and thought-provoking discussion. And after I viewed Cat’s wonderful documentary, Biker Bob’s Posthumous Adventure, I knew I had to make the Mesdames film happen.
The first hurdle: money! Cat planned to approach the CBC. Oh, well, I thought. I have several friends and my own daughter, Claire Callway, is in the film biz: the chances of a film ever getting financed are really low. BUT CBC came through.
Over the next several months, Cat and crew filmed miles of footage, interviewing many Mmes individually, including myself. How would Cat distill all this material into a coherent 15-minute film?
We had a lot of fun, including a garden party at my house where the weather cooperated beautifully. The atmospheric picture above is from the footage shot at the wickedly macabre Darling Mansion decorated mostly like a Victorian bordello. Here are some pics: a visit is highly recommended.
In my former life as a management consultant, I grew comfortable with chaos. When you walk into a work place experiencing problems, you’re overwhelmed by the trees of a prickly forest: the client’s urgency, too much or too little of the right data, human emotions, office politics. Fortunately, I liked to dive right into the metaphorical shark pool and swim around until patterns emerged. And soon I’d hear a phrase that crystallized those patterns into a solution.
Ironically, for our film, the person who uttered the key phrase was me. Cat had asked me why I liked writing crime fiction. To me, I said, it’s spiritual comfort food. When I open a mystery novel, I know that no matter how horrific the crime, by the end of the story justice will be done. And we all know life isn’t really like that.
In Cat’s film, The Mesdames of Mayhem, she shows that early life traumas propelled us to create crime fiction. There we can serve up justice to those who so richly deserve it! Cat focused on four of my friends: Jane Burfield, Melodie Campbell, Donna Carrick and Lisa De Nikolits. I’m there, too, flitting in and out: I even get to show off our latest anthology, In the Key of 13.
Word was that Cat’s film would make you laugh – and make you cry. On October 25th, I opened up the YouTube link and watched The Mesdames of Mayhem alone in my studio. It was a brilliant, emotionally intense experience, the work of a gifted professional.
I laughed, I cried! And you will, too, dear readers. HERE IT IS:
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.
A well-kept secret in Toronto is that our city actively promotes street art. There’s even hope that Toronto can become a go-to destination for followers and fans.
One interesting sideline is the beautification of our plain, military-grey hydro boxes. Hell, the city even pays artists to do this. Here are some neat examples spotted on my cycling forays. Click on each image to enlarge it.
It’s been a chilly spring and I’m still wearing my winter bike gear in May! But riding through the wind and rain toughens you up to any adverse weather on the Ride to Conquer Cancer. As always, the City of Toronto keeps closing bike routes and the repairs are s-l-o-w. This year it’s the southern part of the Don Valley trail, which I normally do on every training ride.
But there are rewards. Cruising down a Leaside street and crossing north over Eglinton en route to Sunnybrook I discovered Graffiti Alley North. The street runs parallel to Eglinton now torn up by the light rail construction. Feast your eyes, readers!
I’m home from Hawaii and a most enjoyable Left Coast Crime. Back on the bike, too, training for my 10th Ride to Conquer Cancer. Always good to see spring struggling through on the Belt Line Trail.
Had to touch the usual icons of street art on the way, Uplifting Homily and Toronto’s own, Boaty McBoatface.
School kids are getting into it. Crossing through Cedarvale Park I spot this though it’s marred by some cynical graffiti. Met an elderly dog walker who recognized – and approved – of my recording street art. As a volunteer, he’s been an advocate for the park for 30 years. He pointed out the escape hatch from the subway, cleverly hidden in a rock pile just off the trail.
As always, part of my regular route is inaccessible due to repair. This year the middle Don Valley trail from Pottery Road to Riverdale is closed with dire warning to trespassers that the police are patrolling. But the lower part is open and I was rewarded by new art.
Little do the motorists atop the ramp from DVP to the Gardiner know what’s beneath them. Feast your eyes, readers!
K2 is the world’s second highest mountain. Though 800 feet shorter than Everest, it is a far more challenging technical climb. As one injured climber famously said: “K2 is a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”
It has a nasty track record. It has the second highest climber mortality rate for mountains over 8000 feet: 77 deaths for 300 summits or roughly 1 in 4 climbers die. The dubious title of ultimate killer belongs to Annapurna at 61 deaths for 191 summits or 1 in 3. Everest gets more publicity for its deaths but in fact, its fatality rate is relatively low: 54 deaths for 3000 summits.
K2 got its name during the The Great Trigonometric Survey of British India. Thomas Montgomerie, perched on Mt. Haramuhk 200 km south of the Karakoram mountain range, sketched two prominent peaks and labelled them K1 and K2. K1 had a name, Masherbrum, but K2 didn’t, probably because of its remote and inaccessible location. Local people simply called it “Chogori” or Big Mountain so the name K2 stuck.
Now for the opening of the surreal trapdoor! The first serious attempt on K2 was a 1902 British expedition led by the infamous occult leader, Aleister Crowley! At the time Crowley was a mop-headed, British gentleman of independent means, channelling his inner Alan Quartermain. Despite being hampered by lack of roads, modern equipment and an understanding of the devastating effects of high altitude on human physiology, his team managed to reach 21,407 feet. Miraculously no one died in the attempt despite the frigid temperatures and gale force winds.
The team suffered considerable hardships. Crowley went 85 days without bathing and was plagued by malaria, lice and snow blindness.He was too ill to attempt the summit, which probably saved his life.
Unlike his friend, Oscar Eckenstein, who was a careful, methodical climber, Crowley attacked mountains the way he approached sex, drugs and other pleasures in his life – with wild, mad intensity
He attempted one more big climb, Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and third worst killer of mountaineers: about 22% die summiting its peak. After three of his team died in an avalanche, he gave up climbing over 8000 feet for good.
Crowley’s interest in the occult and “magick” began in 1898 when he joined the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn. The occult and mysticism became the focus of his life. In 1905, he founded his own religion, Thelema. Throughout his life, he remained controversial because of his multitude of male and female lovers and his appetites for opium, heroin and cocaine. Some biographers believe that his libertine ways covered up the fact that he worked as a spy for British intelligence throughout his life.
K2 was finally summited by an Italian team on July 31, 1954, a little more than a year after Hillary and Tenzing topped Everest on May 29, 1953. More understanding of the dangers of high altitude and bottled oxygen made these ascents possible.
Mike Conefrey, the author of The Ghosts of K2, is a documentarian who has worked mostly with the BBC. His passions are mountaineering and exploration. He approaches writing non-fiction as a dramatist, which makes Ghosts of K2, a page-turner that stays with you.
Life does indeed imitate art – but, hey, Windigo Fire did it first!
In Windigo Fire, my villain, Santa is the owner of a seedy roadside attraction, Santa’s Fish Camp. Of course, he has a large crop of marihuana plants flourishing in the “service area”.
I got the idea after we visited Santa’s Village in Bracebridge, Ontario with our then 4 year old daughter. She absolutely loved Santa’s Village, but as a mom chasing after an active kid, well, my thoughts turned dastardly. As I tell aspiring writers: ask the “What if” question. What if this clean, family-friendly attraction masked a grow-op?
Thus the seeds of Santa’s Fish Camp were planted so to speak. But now Legoland UK has followed suite!
Recently, a grow-op was discovered at Legoland UK. Two enterprising b*stards planted 50 thriving marihuana plants inside a cottage at the boundary of the theme park. Even cheekier, the ambitious herbalists accessed the cottage through Crown Estate lands – at Windsor Castle where the Queen lives!
Read the full story in the Huffington Post here. As they say, man, Legolize It!
I’ve been offline for much of January doing what writers do: writing! Finished up two short projects and now I’m re-attacking Danny Bluestone’s next adventure, Windigo Ice.
Lots to look forward to in 2017: the launch of the Mesdames of Mayhem’s third anthology, 13 Claws; Left Coast Crime in Hawaii; Limestone Expo in Kingston; Word on the Street; and Bouchercon right here in Toronto!
But of course my fingers strayed over to the internet from the time to time and I came across this retro gem though: what happened when engineers stopped Niagara Falls in 1969?
When I was a kid in school, my science teachers were preoccupied with the demise of Niagara Falls. If Something Wasn’t Done, the Falls would deteriorate post-haste into a series of rapids and precious tourist dollars would evaporate. Rock slides in 1931 and 1958 had dumped a sh*tload of rubble at the base of the American Falls. The Niagara Falls Gazette created a fervour by predicting the Death of the Falls and the cause was taken up by a zealous senator and congressman.
And so on June 12, 1969, the US Corps of Engineers did the unthinkable: they stopped Niagara Falls for the first time in 12,000 years. (Well, not exactly. A half a dozen ice jams have blocked the flow over BOTH sets of falls, most significantly in 1848, but only for a few days each time.)
Once the water dried up, what a desolate and unattractive site it became!
To dry up The Falls, the US army dumped 27,800 tons of rock upstream across the Niagara River, creating a 600 ft cofferdam that diverted the water away to flow over the (to my mind) far more beautiful Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Over the next six months, army engineers mechanically bolted faults and drilled holes in the riverbed in hopes of delaying further erosion.
As a crime writer, I was curious to know what workers found UNDER the falls once the water dried up. Well, at first, lost coins drew a ton of fortune seekers. Eventually tourists stayed away in droves, because the falls had become, quite frankly, ugly.
Sadly, two bodies were recovered: the first a man, a recent suicide. The other, the skeletal remains of a woman wearing a red and white striped dress and a narrow gold wedding band with the inscription “Forget Me Not”. There’s a story there certainly.
Experts soon realized the enormous cost of removing all the rubble from the base of the Falls. On November 24, 1969, the workers dispatched the coffer dam in front of 2500+ spectators, restoring the flow of water, the Falls’ beauty – and collective sanity all at once.
For more details about this engineering oddity, follow this link.
The media’s consensus is that 2016 was the Year of Crap. Mad violence, racism, gender wars, the sanctioned rise of tyrants and unbridled greed, more wars…nice, huh? No wonder so many crime writers are turning to noir. Makes me proud – and relieved – to be a Canadian.
Despite the mayhem on earth, 2016 treated my family, friends and myself pretty well. One of the biggest highlights was my 9thRide to Conquer Cancer with my best buddy, Marc, in support of cancer research at Princess Margaret Hospital. The doctors, medical staff and researchers at PMH are truly the A-team. Because of them, many of our friends have beaten back this horrible illness and continue to live happy and fulfilling lives.
I devoted much of 2016 to building my social media presence via my website and Twitter. Blogging has been immensely freeing, allowing me to explore and share my love of street art, travel and the weird and wonderful.Readers around the globe and as far away as Macau have visited here though most of my followers live in Canada, the USA, Brazil and Germany. As of now, I have 1600+ followers on Twitter: mostly fellow writers or fans of crime fiction and street art.
Windigo Fire continues to draw interest. Seraphim Editions sent me my first royalty cheque, which was more than my initial advance. Wow! I also received my first payments from Public Lending Right (libraries) and Access Copyright. In December, I learned that WF was being studied by a high school English class as an example of Canadian literature – and the teacher invited me to meet his students in the New Year. Will the students be scarier than a roomful of hostile IT clients???
This year I participated in 20+ author events, flying solo or teamed up with fellow crime writers through our group, the Mesdames of Mayhem or with Crime Writers of Canada. I gave several workshops on How to Get Published at the Toronto Public Library as well as at my friend, Rosemary McCracken’s Novel II course at George Brown College. And I attended three literary conferences – whew!
Left Coast Crime in February in Phoenix, Arizona was terrific. I was honoured to be on the short crime fiction panel and I partied with new and old friends at the Short Fiction Mystery Society reception, Noir at the Bar and the Meet the Canucks event hosted by CWC. I met two of my favorite authors, Ann Cleeves and Tim Hallinan. Even fitted in a sightseeing tour of wild west ghost towns and rattlesnakes! (See my previous blogs on both subjects.)
Limestone Expo in Kingston, Ontario last July, was an intimate, multi-genre festival organized by horror author, Liz Strange. Ed and I made a fun weekend of it, staying at a haunted B&B, the fab Rosemount Inn and connecting with friends, old and new. I was delighted to share a table with speculative fiction author and aardvark lover, Ira Nayman, who in another life was our daughter’s film professor at Ryerson University! Thoroughly enjoyed being on the multi-genre panel, Monstrous Imaginings.
Bouchercon 2016 took place in September in New Orleans, Louisiana. The exotic location drew in thousands of crime fiction authors and fans from North America and overseas. Easy to get lost in the crowd as a newbie Canadian author, but also great to be in the Mardi Gras parade, to nom down Creole treats at publishers’ events and to hear some of the best Noir writing ever at the Voodoo Lounge. (See my blog on Bouchercon) And during the swamp tour, we learned that gators love marshmallows!
NaNoWriMo in November got me back to doing what writers are supposed to do: to write. Under the guiding hand of my friend, TO Poet, I hunkered down and got to work. Impossible to match TO Poet’s staggering output of 75,000+ words, so I settled on a focused approach this year and drafted two short stories and more chapters for the WF sequel, Windigo Ice.
December was devoted to family, friends and Christmas. Much to look forward to in the New Year. Several public events coming up as well as friends’ book launches and Left Coast Crime in Hawaii and Bouchercon right here in our own city of Toronto.
We Mesdames of Mayhem will be releasing our third anthology, 13 Claws, featuring dastardly, animal-centred crimes. For the first time, we have a contest to discover one or more authors previously unpublished in the crime fiction genre. Stay tuned and hope we survive 2017!!