They Just Keep Trying, Don’t They?

By Jessica castro, ia Unsplash

While Presidents submit their proposed Federal budgets each year, the “power of the purse” – the authority to appropriate money – rests with Congress, and most Presidents’ budgets are more or less ignored, except as a blueprint for that particular administration’s or the party’s agenda.

The Stiletto Gumshoe is more or less a politics-free zone, however passionate my own positions may be (and what they are…well, we won’t get into that here, unless they’ve peeked through unintentionally in prior posts). Nonetheless…

For each year of this current administration, the President’s proposed budget called for the complete elimination of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, which funds research and provides grants to museums and libraries. The IMLS is the primary source of federal funding to public libraries. Not their primary source of funding, mind you, which typically will be local property taxes, but the primary source of federal funding. Also, the proposed 2021 budget – “A Budget For America’s Future” – calls for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (the NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (the NEA).

I have my points of view and you’ll have yours about erecting walls, detention camps, cozying up with dictators, billing taxpayers for resort stays, launching a Satellite Sam space force, gutting or cutting Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S.D.A., the State Department and…well, you get my point. And I’m sure there are political persuasions that will rail against the NEH and NEA as promoters of particular ideologies they vehemently oppose. (Or choose not to understand.) So, let’s just agree to disagree.

But it’s pretty hard to argue against public libraries.

I whine about my own local library often, a lovely and well-appointed facility that unfortunately is woefully short of actual books. But complaining doesn’t mean you won’t find me in there every week or so, and leaving with books in hand.

Despite the repeated attempts to defund or eliminate the IMLS, NEH and NEA altogether, Congress has not only re-appropriated funds in each of the past years, it has actually increased funding. Sincere support or pandering, who knows?

ALA

Whether you come up a few bucks shy on your next bookstore visit, or faint when you see the online bookseller charges on your credit card statement, or routinely take advantage of your local library like me, consider popping over to the American Library Association site at www.ala.org for a handy link to reach out to your own congressional representative to voice your concern about where your tax dollars go. Or, where they don’t go. I mean, we’re talking about your local public library, for goodness sakes.

John Warner’s 2.10.20 Biblioracle column in the Chicago Tribune, “Libraries Most Popular Attraction, And For Good Reason” (link below) references a December 2019 Gallup Poll of Americans’ most common cultural activities. Surprise: Going to the library topped the list, coming in at nearly double the rate of going to the movies, and way more than attending sporting events, zoos, casinos, concerts, etc., used most frequently by lower income households and, surprisingly, shows the highest use by the 18 – 29 year old demo (and incidentally, highest regional use in the Midwest…go Flatlanders!) Warner’s column concludes with a simple message: “We don’t want a world without libraries”.

Amen to that, brother.

(Photo: By Jessica Castro, via Unsplash)

https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-biblioracle-0216-20200210-fdrdtzhlafct3jbmmohjcy3txa-story.html

Straight Talk From Courtney Maum.

Montage Half

It’s all very romantic to imagine ourselves trading witticisms with fellow creatives in a fin de siècle Paris café, Weimar Berlin cabaret, postwar Greenwich Village coffeehouse or any burg’s Boho meeting spot. I can count numerous artists, photographers, writers, musicians, actors and dancers among my coworkers, friends and even family members, past and present, and as much as we might like to picture ourselves pontificating on frightfully weighty cultural and aesthetic topics, my own real-world experiences and observations are quite different.

Shoehorn a group of artists into a barroom booth and the talk will most likely be about which art supply store has a Grumbacher promotion running or a BOGO on brushes. Writers will be trading info on paying market submission opportunities, cents-per-word rates and grousing about delayed payments…even if it’s only in contributor copies. The conversations run more or less the same among the garage band and barre-and-ballet shoe crowds.

For all the stereotypes, creatives are more pragmatic than you’d assume, even if only out of necessity – that is, the usual struggles to pay the rent, buy groceries and set aside some beer money like everyone else, but compounded by the need to fund their artistic pursuits, whether they’re buying pre-stretched canvases, stocking up on toner and 20 lb. bond, saving up for Danskins without holes, or worse, replacing a blown-out amp.

Before And After The Book Deal

I thought about all of this as I read Amy Brady’s interview with Courtney Maum, author of Before And After The Book Deal – A Writer’s Guide To Finishing, Publishing, Promoting And Surviving Your First Book at the Chicago Review of Books (link below). Intrigued, I headed to the bookstore right after work, presuming I’d be ordering Maum’s new book, but thrilled to spot a copy already on shelf. One extra-large coffee to-go later, I’d already plunged in, continued through dinner later this evening, but still have a long way to go. But I’m liking this book so much I wanted to share, so I paused to bang out this post.

Browse the writing section in a good-sized library or bookstore and you’ll likely see no shortage of inspirational titles interspersed with a few annual directories and some very elementary how-to books for total newbies and writer-hobbyists. Flip through some writing magazines and you’ll likely see your share of motivational stuff about digging deeper to find your voice, creating three-dimensional characters or crafting dialog that ‘sparkles’. But I suspect many if not most writers are desperate for more straightforward nuts & bolts info about the submission/sale/publication process and are eager for frank discussion about dollars and cents issues. Because that’s precisely what they talk about in person. As do the artists, musicians, dancers and actors.

Courtney Maum’s Before And After The Book Deal is precisely that. And for all its info-packed no-nonsense explanations, it’s incredibly readable, extremely entertaining, and downright funny in a lot of spots. Example: Early on she addresses how writers have to be ready to endure rejection. A lot. She writes, “…you must make friends with rejection in order to survive a professional writing life. Rejection is going to be your zany roommate who never does her dishes, has really loud obnoxious sex, gets drunk and eats your leftovers, and uses strong perfume. Except for that one delightful year that she studied abroad in Cartagana, she’s always going to be living with you in one way or another, so make peace with that chick, now.”

Of course, any scribe whining about the indignities of the query and submission process ought to chat up some musicians, dancers and actors about auditioning.

Though Maum has three novels to her credit, many might rightly ask her “So who appointed you to tell us all about writing and publishing?” But while the author relates her personal experience and provides valuable insights, she’s certainly not adopting a professorial stance and also relies on the wisdom of over 150 contributors who are quoted throughout, from authors and agents to editors and more, all of them “sharing intimate anecdotes about even the most taboo topics in the industry”, as the book touts.

Unless her book takes an unexpected turn in the second half, I’ll wager this one can stand proudly beside Lawrence Block’s Writing The Novel: From Plot To Print To Pixel,  the standard for a truly practical writer’s book, IMHO. Pro, newbie, or somewhere in between like most, still an ‘armchair novelist’ or midway through a writer’s MFA program, you ought to get this book. Just sayin’…

https://chireviewofbooks.com/2020/01/20/finding-clarity-and-a-sense-of-humor-in-the-publishing-process/

 

The Decade’s Best (Make That Bestsellers)

by brittany markert

Normally I bypass many of the end-of-year ‘best-of’ lists populating so many blogs, newsletters and sites that I follow. This year, pad the count with extra end-of-decade best-of lists. Skimming a couple right before the holidays was enough for me, though they’re still popping up on my screen. Much as I enjoy reading reviewers’ opinions, I know that my faves won’t be yours and vice-versa, and ‘best’ will be one thing to one reader and something else to another.

That said, one list did catch my eye, albeit not a ‘best of’ list at all: John Warner’s 1.5.20 Chicago Tribune Biblioracle column, “Top Bestsellers Rail Against Patriarchy” listed the NPD Bookscan top-selling books of the decade, and he opened by asking the reader to guess the top-selling book of the 2010’s. Warning: You may not like the answer.

Yes, it was E. L. James Fifty Shades of Grey. But it gets worse. The number two and three titles? Also E.L. James, with her sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

Now this was a bestselling list, not a ‘best-of’ list. If you’re disappointed that cumbersome mommy porn sold so well when your own lovingly crafted projects may have languished in relative obscurity (consider that just the returns for the Fifty Shades books surely dwarfed most writers’ total sales), there’s still news in the decade’s top-sellers. In order, the top selling books in the 2010’s according to NPD Bookscan were:

Fifty Shades Of Grey, E.L. James

Fifty Shades Darker, E.L. James

Fifty Shades Freed, E.L. James

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Divergent, Veronica Roth

brittany-markert

Whether you read or liked all or even some of the list, you can see that it’s overwhelmingly dominated by women writers and with books featuring female protagonists. Noteworthy? You bet. Someday, tallying women writers vs. men writers simply won’t be a topic, any more than women directors, musicians, artists, etc. Someday. But for now, there are still decades (centuries?) of male dominated pop culture and fine arts to rebalance. After all, the publishing marketplace (publishers, editors, literary agents, etc.) is comprised mostly of women. And, most books are bought by women. So, there should be no big revelation in the decade’s top seller list.

No one’s saying the books’ protagonists are all heroic women or even positive role models. It would be a stretch to claim that each title on the decade’s bestseller list necessarily ‘railed against patriarchy’, as John Warner put it in the Tribune. That’s the makings of another conversation. Still, the stats are illuminating, and it’ll be interesting to revisit this ten years out when we see what the 2020’s top ten will be, who’ll have written them, and what changes may or may not have occurred in readers’ tastes and the industry’s output.

Photos: Brittany Markert

 

See You In The Next Decade.

Montage copy

The Stiletto Gumshoe will be away till the next decade (2020), enjoying an overdue holiday-over-the-holidays.

This eerily foggy Christmas Eve morning feels more like Autumn than December, likely to hit the mid-50’s this afternoon. But last I checked, there’s just a whisker-shy of two feet of snow on the ground where I’m headed, and that ought to be suitably seasonal. While I won’t exactly be ‘off the grid’, I’ll be darn close, with no cable, satellite dish, streaming or internet/email, and wi-fi’s a ten-mile drive away. Heck, cell/text is a bit spotty. That might not sound good to you, but I can’t wait. The halls have already been decked with boughs of holly…or at least, a tree, wreaths and other stuff. Ample provisions have been stowed away, a good supply of firewood piled up, a selection of Xmas CD’s and movies have been packed, the latter a mix of Christmas classics and darker noir and neo-noir-ish faves set at Christmas time (The Stiletto Gumshoe can’t survive on White Christmas alone).

Family will be close at hand. No skiing or snowmobiling planned, but with an aged but beloved furry four-footed friend likely to be having his last Christmas, there’ll be some romps among the snow-covered pines, I’m sure. What there won’t be are day job commutes, last minute client emergencies-that-aren’t, mall trips, parking lots, UPS/FedEx tracking of overdue presents, obligatory extended family get-togethers or jousting with MAGA hat wearing relatives. And no querying, blogging, texting or emailing. If I get the urge, I can always fire up the laptop to pound some keys beside the tree. Fireside reading in a comfy chair? I’m bringing Benjamin Moser’s hefty 800+ page bio of Susan Sontag, Sontag – Her Life And Work, Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon and Marcos Martin’s Batgirl – Year One: The Deluxe Edition hardcover and my first-ever Danielle Steele novel, her new release, Spy. And odd mix? Yeah, I suppose so.

There’ll be a merry missive here tomorrow, but that aside, this is it for 2019. So, my very sincere holiday wishes to all visitors, lurkers and especially my followers here at thestilettogumshoe.com both at WordPress and Tumblr. See you in 2020!

Order Up.

Lit Hub Screen Grab

Katie Yee’s 11.8.19 Literary Hub piece “Here’s Why You Should Preorder All Your Books From Independent Bookstores” opens by asking “Who doesn’t love an independent bookshop?” and reminds us about charming bookstores from popular films like You’ve Got Mail, Notting Hill and Funny Face. Yee’s article (link below) directs us to Andrea Bartz’ recent Twitter on this very topic as well as Celeste Ng’s 2018 “Bookstores Are The Center of The Literary Ecosystem”, both strongly encouraging (or even admonishing) book buyers to make their purchases from independent booksellers, preordering forthcoming titles in particular, since preorder data can impact booksellers’ ordering choices and even bestseller lists. For those who shrug and point out that they simply don’t have an indie bookseller nearby (which I’m certain comprises a lot of people) there are still alternatives like Indiebound.

Booksotre 2

There was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t pass an urban shopping strip or suburban mall without a chain bookstore. At their peak (if I’ve read accurate sources), there were over 3,200 chain bookstore locations in the U.S. Now there are fewer than a thousand, those being some 600+ Barnes & Noble and 250+ Books-A-Million locations.

B. Dalton (a B&N subsidiary), Borders, its Waldenbooks subsidiary, Crown, and Hastings have vanished. The book distribution arena has also changed, with consolidation among some smaller and regional distributors, and most notably, Baker & Taylor departing the trade book business altogether. Until quite recently, there wasn’t a single independent bookstore near me. I now have one very close by, and a charming store it is. There’s another not too far away, part of a small local chain, though neither of these can boast superstore level title selections. I do have three Barnes & Noble locations reasonably close to home or work.

Support local independent booksellers? I do, and encourage you to do so too. But I won’t hiss at anyone who also shops Barnes & Noble and/or Amazon.

Bookstore 3

I don’t go along with the anti-superstore attitude. Like it or not, Barnes & Noble (under new ownership itself now) is the only standalone operation with enough muscle to pose any credible opposition to Amazon’s complete takeover of the bookselling marketplace. And while I never chase discounts, I do buy from Amazon as well, though typically oddities or OOP titles unavailable elsewhere. Friends and family members in remote rural regions rely on Amazon for books and more, and I suppose if I resided elsewhere, I would too.

I’ll continue to pester bookstore clerks with my screen-cap printouts and scribbled notes to order/preorder books, some few that they’ll be getting anyway, some others that require deep digging to locate. But I won’t feel guilty strolling the aisles at Barnes & Noble, particularly the sprawling magazine racks. And if I can only get some smaller-than-small press title or ancient used book from the behemoth in Seattle, I’ll be glad Amazon exists. Where I get my books isn’t my problem.

Where the hell to keep them all at home is the real challenge.

https://lithub.com/heres-why-you-should-preorder-all-your-books-from-independent-bookstores/

Where Do The Bad Books Go?

By Christopher Lowell 2006

Where do the bad books go? With hardcover fiction ready to top thirty bucks a pop, trade paperbacks routinely going for seventeen/eighteen dollars and so-called ‘rack sized’ or mass-market paperbacks becoming a vanishing breed, where the bad books go really ought to be the fiery furnaces of hell. Bookaholics browsing their credit card statements can get queasy, particularly if some of the bookstore and online charges were for books that kind of, well…sucked.

Of course, a bad book to me could be a cherished favorite of yours…and vice-versa.

My own cozy writing lair (which really is cozy, fortunately, now that Mid-Autumn’s pretending to be a prematurely snowy Winter) has an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling bookcases behind me and a long row of four-shelf bookcases on another wall, all of them jammed full. Only the ‘keepers’ end up on those shelves. There are lots of books bought and read that I’m just not interested in holding onto. Example: I’ve read more current events titles the past three years — things being pretty ‘eventful’ – but will be pleased to consider those books obsolete soon…one way or another. For those and others that I’ve enjoyed but simply don’t wish to keep, there’s a big carton out of sight beside my printer stand for books destined for periodic disposal.

And that’s where the bad books go.

Edson Rosas

Recently I was asked if I love every book I read, since a visitor here only sees rave reviews.  First, to be clear, I don’t think of any of my book posts as ‘book reviews’ or myself a reviewer. I’m just sharing remarks about recently read books with followers/visitors who likely have similar interests. But, it’s true: You won’t find much in the way of negative ‘reviews’ here. Karma, baby. I’ve never understood why self-appointed unpaid book ‘reviewers’ want to bad-mouth books. I’m of the ‘if you don’t have something good to say, say nothing at all’ persuasion. I’ve violated it a time or two with older postwar paperbacks, but those novels were decades old, the authors long deceased. With so many good projects to chat about, why spend time being snarky about the bad ones? (Once again, keeping in mind that my good might be your bad, and vice-versa.)

But, are there bad ones? Good God, yes. Lots.

Bad books usually find their way home with me because of eye-catching cover art. I’m easier to hook than a hungry fish. Good covers are often wrapped around bad books, or books that just don’t interest me once I plunge in. Cozies masquerading as something grittier (or steamier) are frequent culprits. Pretentious self-indulgent ‘literary’ fiction runs a close second.

Adult Architecture

The most painful and recent example that comes to mind wasn’t a particularly expensive mistake. I eagerly looked forward to a novel that caught my eye at multiple sites and print venues. The $16 trade pb sported handsome illustrative retro-pulp cover art and was set in a familiar hard-boiled mystery/crime fiction milieu (or so I thought). But it turned out to be something quite different, and not far in, I began to skip tedious (and shockingly frequent) expository paragraphs and intrusive stop-the-narrative backstory. Nearing halfway I was already skimming, and soon just jumped to the end to see what the resolution of the mystery was (not that I cared very much by that point). For me, that was a bad book. A really, really bad book, but made all the worse when I spotted the author’s thank you to her agent in the acknowledgements…an agent who’d recently rejected me. Let’s assume the agent considered my project a bad book. Or enlisted an intern to crank out thanks-but-no-thanks emails to unread queries…who knows? And no, I won’t mention the title or author name here. But I’ll admit – that one left me bruised (and out the sixteen bucks).

Bad books and just-not-keeper books used to be donated till I learned that they weren’t sent to literacy programs or needy libraries, but merely pulped for pennies-a-pound. Now the baddies are turned in at a used bookstore chain, with whatever I earn (no surprise) usually spent before I can escape. And ‘round here, that’s where bad books go. Hopefully into the hands of readers who don’t think they’re bad. After all, someone thought they were good, good enough to get an agent, acquisition editor and retail buyers’ approval, right? So, I like to think those ‘bad’ books became someone else’s good books. Unless, of course, I see them back on the used bookstore’s shelves a few weeks later.

(c) 2009 Holly Henry

Top photo: Christopher Lowell, 2006; Bookstore window by Edson Rosas, Above (c) 2009 Holly Henry.

One Good Deed

One Good Deed

We’ve been here before. If you’re a fan of postwar paperback originals, you’ve been probably here quite a few times, in fact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be here all over again if a talented writer can make it worth the trip.

A stranger arrives in a made-up big town/small city, typically in some vaguely Midwest or southwest locale, only to wind up in trouble with the local law, corrupt power brokers and – inevitably – the resident femme fatale. It’s been a standalone mystery/crime fiction novel staple since the 1940’s. Paw through musty paperbacks in a used bookstore and you’re bound to come up with one or more. Familiarity (even occasional redundancy) doesn’t undermine this viable noir-ish story setup, any more than seascapes, still life’s and figure studies would be invalidated simply because painters frequently explore them like an artistic right of passage. Two examples of this type of story that immediately come to mind are Ross MacDonald’s Blue City from 1947 and The Long Wait, a rare non-Mike Hammer novel from Mickey Spillane in 1951. And I bet you could name some others.

Blue City MontageThe Long Wait Montage

So, there’s nothing surprising about David Baldacci giving this time-honored theme a go in his current One Good Deed, other than the fact that this NYT bestseller already knocked out nearly 40 novels (his first novel, Absolute Power, adapted to a successful film as well) before contemplating his first retro postwar setting. Based on some online reviews I’ve spotted, it caught a few of his loyal fans off-guard. Well, they better get used to it, since it sounds like One Good Deed is the first in a new series Baldacci has planned.

In 1949, Aloysius Archer steps off the bus in Poca City in ill-fitting clothes, a measly few dollars in his pocket and a three day stay prepaid at the only hotel. He’s due to meet his parole officer, find a job and start over after a three-year prison stint on trumped-up charges. But Archer (which is the handle he prefers) endured far worse as a decorated infantryman in WWII’s Italian campaign, and is a man to reckon with.

An ill-advised but understandable urge for a forbidden drink and some barroom banter with a local lounge looker are among his first mistakes. Followed by a bigger lapse in judgement when he agrees to collect a debt for Poca City’s big shot, Hank Pittleman, who owns the local bank, the town’s only industry (a hog slaughterhouse), the hotel Archer’s staying in…hell, even the cocktail lounge they’re drinking in. And the girl who’s got Archer’s head spinning. As will happen in such tales, Archer winds up in bed with Pittleman’s seductive mistress…the same night Pittleman’s murdered, his throat slit ear-to-ear. All of which finds Archer in one hell of a lot of trouble with the local law, the State Police homicide investigator who takes over, and Archer’s own parole officer…who just happens to be an intriguing woman with a mysterious past and is every bit as alluring as the Poca City bad girl he’s already mixed up with.

There’s enough small-town drama and family secrets to fill both a Grace Metalious novel and a Tennessee Williams drama here, mixed in with a puzzling murder mystery (and a few other dustups and deaths along the way), all capped off with a climactic courtroom scene, which may sound like a bit much for any one book, but then Baldacci’s a real pro and more than up to the task. I’d never read one of his novels before, but knowing he plans more Archer novels after One Good Deed, I’ll be watching for the next one. The fact is, when I stumble across some musty old paperback by a long-gone writer in a used bookstore with some other loner stepping off the bus in a made-up town’s Main Street, I’ll probably give it a try too, no matter how many times I’ve been there already.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora

Fifty Shades

I enter keywords like ‘private eyes’, ‘femme fatale’, ‘female detective’ and a host of other mystery-crime fiction-noir related terms when I’m hunting up new books. So I can’t figure out why The Private Eye Writers Of America Presents: Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora edited by Robert J. Randisi popped up for the first time just a couple weeks ago, even though it was published in 2015. I definitely never saw it on shelf in a bookstore, but then, so-called hybrid, small press and micro-publisher titles are usually rarities on retailers’ shelves, even in the independents and specialty shops.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora isn’t a tie-in to the E. L. James books (love them, hate them or just be indifferent) or dealing with dominant/submissive relationships or any form of BDSM. Rather, the anthology aims to illustrate “that sex and crime not only go hand in hand” but actually provide a “sexy, bawdy spin on the art of detection and the law of attraction”.

The sex and crime connection’s a bit thin in a couple of the tales, but that’s okay. The anthology includes Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, here reluctantly involved in a high stakes Russian technology theft after giving a high school career day presentation. John Lutz offers an unexpected and funny spin on how federal grants are mis-spent in the hallowed halls of academia. For someone with a couple of bookshelves dedicated to Max Allan Collins, his Nathan Heller tale would normally be my automatic favorite, this one blending fact and fiction as they usually do, Heller assisting pre-WWII era Cleveland Public Safety Director Eliot Ness with a deadly hit & run insurance racket. It loses out only on a technicality – I already have this story in his excellent 2011 collection, Chicago Lightning – The Collected Nathan Heller Stories. So my favorite in Randisi’s anthology was M. Ruth Myers’ “The Concrete Garter Belt”, with Myers’ Shamus Award winning Depression era Dayton, Ohio private eye Maggie Sullivan guilted into investigating a woman’s disappearance which at first leads her to a hardly rare case of workplace harassment that turns into something much more heinous. And no, there really isn’t a ‘concrete’ garter belt involved. Lets just say that the uncharacteristically fancy blue silk one P.I. Maggie Sullivan treats herself to with a recent client bonus ends up being a life-saver in a shoot out. Not unlike this Private Eye Writers of America anthology itself, I haven’t seen M. Ruth Myers’ books in stores, but my introduction to her Maggie Sullivan series character induced me to whip out the credit card and start ordering.

Maggie Sullivan Books

This was a fun bunch of stories, mixing some classic hard-boiled material with more edgy contemporary tales, some getting pretty steamy and explicit, others kind of tap-dancing around the sex and crime theme. The Riverdale Avenue Books release is a POD edition, and pretty obviously so. I hope in the four years since it came out that the publisher — helmed by well-known agent Lori Perkins and by all I’ve skimmed online doing well and well-regarded — has mastered the art of formatting text files and proofreading typo’s and punctuation a little better…yikes!

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