Monthly Archives

September 2011

Nerdfest: Day Four

We’ve arrived at day four of Nerdycon, with more crime authors sharing spectacularly nerdy moments. Think you know them from their work? Well, you may never have seen them like this.

Today’s panelists:

*Tess Gerritsen—Tess is the internationally bestselling author known for her medical thrillers and the Rizzoli & Isles series that inspired the hit TV show. She’s won a Nero and a Rita Award, her favorite word is “cocktails,” and she was once almost arrested by hospital security while doing research.

*Jonathan Hayes—Jonathan’s series, starting with Precious Blood, is about burnt-out New York City medical examiner Edward Jenner. Jonathan is also an M.E. and forensic pathologist in NYC but finds his work rewarding and has lectured all over the world, including for the FBI in Quantico. He collects Victorian taxidermy, has been cursed with black magic, and believes the greatest gift of all is “irredeemably filthy friends.”

*Hilary Davidson—Hilary won an Anthony and a Crimespree Award earlier this month for her debut novel, The Damage Done. Her short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Beat to a Pulp. She might have a thing for feet because her stories often include foot fetishes and high heels doing kinky things.

*Duane Swierczynski—Duane recently won both an Anthony and a Crimespree Award for his novel Expiration Date. He’s also the author of the Charlie Hardie trilogy—the second installment, Hell & Gone, comes out October 31—which is so addictive, there was a secret operation to steal his laptop during Bouchercon. This was terminated when he threatened to turn one of the operatives into an explosive device.

*Lisa Lutz—Lisa writes the Spellman mysteries, about private investigator Izzy Spellman and her adventures working for her eccentric family’s PI firm. Lisa also co-wrote with David Hayward a standalone, Heads You Lose, released earlier this year. She actually has worked for a private detective agency, and hopes to play a subway thug before she dies.

The anecdotes:

A. Back in high school, whenever I wrote a horror story, I’d spend a lot of time coming up with fake blurbs to include at the beginning. Usually self-deprecating things like:

“Neatly typed.”—Kirkus

“… [good]…”—New York Times

“If you’ve ever wondered how to regrout your sink by yourself, this is the book for you. Concise, helpful, and full of lively illustrations…this may become a permanent addition to your workshop bookshelf.”—Bob Villa’s This Old House magazine

“Not to get ad hominem about it, but [this author] sucks.”—Creative Sex Drive magazine

That way, when friends would read the story and then tell me, “Man, this sucked,” I could point to the blurbs and reply: “Well, I warned you!”

B. Taught myself to read basic Egyptian hieroglyphs.

C. I wasn’t always this effortlessly cool. For a while there, in fact, I really struggled. Probably the low point came when I went to see DEVO on their Duty Now for the Future tour. I got my mother to draw an Atomic Future Man logo on my T-shirt, wore a white lab coat and weird maroon wrestling-type headgear outfitted with a brassy metal mesh visor. I can’t for the life of me remember why I thought this would be a good thing, but I wore it with pride all night. This was after my dog collar-and-“EAT FLAMING DEATH!!!” T-shirt days, and well after my All White Clothing phase.

D. Growing up I was completely obsessed with Marlon Brando. Wrote numerous unsent letters to him. I had to get the tone just right and always failed. I was certain that we were going to become close friends. When he died I got several condolence calls.

E. Looking back at my elementary school years, I’d like to think I was quirky. Seeing photos of myself from that time makes me understand why other kids thought I was weird. What eleven-year-old adds a long, floral-print chiffon scarf to her T-shirt-and-shorts combo? Me, apparently. When I was fourteen, I discovered the joys of secondhand clothes and vintage shopping. By then, I was going to school with kids who were as nerdy as me. We thought it cool to recite lines from Monty Python. Our idea of a decadent night out was to go to the revue cinema that played The Rocky Horror Picture Show every weekend. In other words, I was in my element. I felt free to experiment, and I did.

My parents, much to their credit, never once said, “You’re wearing that?” when I went out. They had rules—I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup until I was fifteen—but they accepted my experiments with lace tights and sweatshirt dresses and shiny belts and bowler hats as par for the course. They knew I was a nerd, but I was a happy nerd. As I write this, I realize that I’ve never told them how much I appreciated that. Thanks, Mom & Dad!

Put on your guessing caps! This is the final batch of authors’ nerdy stories (click to read them from days one, two, and three). Check out authors’ sites if you’re flummoxed, then leave answers in the comments. You need to get only one right to be entered in the giveaway. Come back tomorrow for all the answers, and a “Before They Were Authors” slide show featuring pictures of some of the participants!

 

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Nerdfest: Day Three

Welcome to day three of the nerdathon! (Click for days onetwo, and four.) Hope you have snacks and Gatorade to help keep up your energy. Wait a minute, aren’t we all nerds here? Keep eating those Cheetos and enjoy being hunched over your computer!

Today’s players:

* Sue Grafton—Does Sue need an introduction? She’s the creator of the popular alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone, and winner of multiple awards throughout her illustrious career, the most recent being the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Her next novel, V is for Vengeance, drops November 14. She’s been known to tell fans they can claim to be her cousin or pregnant at signings so they can get through the line to see her faster.

* T. Jefferson Parker—Jeff is the author of the Charlie Hood series, and has won the Edgar three times. The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA) even named an award after him that goes to the best mystery/thriller every year. He’s so modest, he doesn’t mention this on his website. He will admit that because he writes all his characters with respect, he’s beloved by henchmen for Mexican cartels.

* Laura Benedict—Laura writes dark, creepy thrillers and short stories, and edits the Surreal South anthologies, the third of which comes out next month. She’s the only female author featured in the Noir at the Bar anthology. She loves dark chocolate and sushi, and spends hours at Target feeling up Lego figurines.

* Eric Beetner—Eric’s the co-author of two novels with JB Kohl, and his short stories have been published in numerous anthologies, including D*cked and Pulp Ink. His novella Dig Two Graves will be released later this year. He’s sometimes confused about “blurbs” being euphemisms for sexual favors, and occasionally accosts other authors in the men’s room.

The stories:

A. When I was in fourth grade, I had a massive crush on John G., a fifth grader who was the monitor at our bus stop. Painfully shy, I had no idea what to say to him. Books were my best friends. So what better way to impress him than taking a mesh tote bag to school, filling it with every book, pencil, and crayon in my desk, and bringing it home on the bus!  Unfortunately, after I added my truly magnificent, large-format, illustrated collection of Sherlock Holmes stories to the bag the next morning, the bag fell apart, spilling books everywhere. At the bus stop.

B. A very good friend of mine is an illustrator named Marc Sasso. In addition to being friends, we used to be neighbors. He stayed up late painting and I stayed up late writing, so I used to wander from my apartment to his around one a.m. and chat. Quite often he would need someone to pose for him, and I was the closest warm body. That’s how I ended up as, among other things, an X-Man. Marc was painting a series of trading cards for Marvel at the time. I posed for X-Treme.

Who the hell is X-Treme, you say? I have no idea. This may have been his only outing. Is it my fault? Possibly. But there I was (Marvel’s description): “The mysterious alien youth known as Adam X knows little about his own origins; only that he’s inexplicably drawn to Earth, where his ability to make blood burn makes him a formidable opponent for X-Force!” I posed with my old Red Sox hat and a cardboard shipping tube as my sword. The biceps were 100% mine, baby!*

* All muscles were completely fabricated. Did I mention I’m a writer?

C. The nerdiest thing I ever did (that I can talk about without being arrested or blackmailed) happened on the first airplane flight I ever took. The meal served was chicken with a barbecue sauce on the side. I thought it was tomato soup so I spooned it right up. I noticed the nearby passengers were giving me “the look” but I had no idea what the problem was.

D. When I was about ten years old, my brother and best friend and I collected thirty big, fat, black widow spiders from up under the eaves of the intermediate school down the street. We carried the spiders home in one of the big glass mayonnaise jars that we used to steal out of Dumpsters and clean out, punch holes in the lids of, and use to keep critters in. We got home and took the jar of spiders out to the back yard and sat down and looked through the glass at them. They were nice ones, all females, none of the multicolored, smaller males. And they were nervous and aggressive, as black widows always are.

We just couldn’t figure out what they might be good for, so we decided we may as well blow them up. I went to my room and got some firecrackers that were hidden under my bed, and a pack of matches from the kitchen. One of us unscrewed the lid and another one lit a firecracker and dropped it in. We crowded up nice and close to see the explosion, faces right up to the glass. But the firecracker fuse went out and nothing happened. We groaned and unscrewed the lid and lit another firecracker and dropped it in. Another dud! When the smoke cleared, we tried for a third time. This time we held the firecracker extra long, so it wouldn’t run out of oxygen once dropped. The spiders were seething by now, a crazy, 240-legged hydra very eager to get out and bite us. We screwed the lid on and got up close. Just then Dad came striding into the yard, sized up the situation and ran over, kicked the jar away and lifted my brother and me by our shirt collars. He ordered us inside so he could “tan our hides.” Just before the licking commenced, Dad looked at me and said, as he had often said before, “Son, sometimes I don’t think you have the brains you were born with.” I don’t miss being ten.

Think you can identify each author’s nerdy secret? Remember, you need to get only one right to be entered in the giveaway. Visit the authors’ sites for more info, then rest up for tomorrow’s final blowout before answers are revealed on Saturday!

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Nerdfest: Day Two

Welcome to day two of my nerdypalooza (here are days onethree, and four).

Today’s headliners are:

* Megan Abbott—Megan is an Edgar-winning author of six novels, including the recently released The End of Everything, which has been garnering raves everywhere. She has a PhD from New York University in English and American Literature, and would happily sign your leg with a Sharpie if you ask her.

* Gregg Hurwitz—Gregg has written eleven thrillers, the first of which he sold straight out of college. He has a BA from Harvard and a master’s in Shakespearean Tragedy from Trinity College at the University of Oxford. He also writes for Marvel Comics, likes to Google “unicorn pocket watch” in his spare time, and admires women’s athletic shoes.

* Sophie Littlefield—Sophie writes the Stella Hardesty mystery series, the first of which won her an Anthony Award for Best First Novel. She’s also the author of the Aftertime dystopian series featuring Cass Dollar, and the YA series about Hailey Tarbell that has a second installment, titled Unforsaken, coming out October 11. Sophie will kick you with high heels on if you badmouth Jason Statham, and do not get between her and her kettle-cooked chips, either.

* Todd Ritter—In addition to writing crime novels, Todd has been a journalist for over fifteen years, currently at New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger. His second Kat Campbell mystery, Bad Moon, will be out October 11 and has already received starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. Todd wishes someone would make a reality TV show about sister wives who are hoarders, and he will not hesitate to cut people to get more legroom on planes.

* Meg Gardiner—Meg is the Edgar-winning author of the Evan Delaney and Jo Beckett series. She holds both an undergraduate and law school degree from Stanford. Stephen King is a fan of her work so you know she’s badass. She’s been suspected of bank robbery and fought seagulls for hamburgers, and she would hurl herself out of moving vehicles for the love of Foo Fighters.

The stories:

A. First, there are so many [nerdy moments] to choose from. There’s the time I fought my way through a rowdy crowd at the London Planetarium to get a seat for a lecture by two theoretical physicists. (First row for Michio Kaku and John Barrow. Woo!) And there’s my visit to a Star Trek exhibition, where I wore a Captain Kirk shirt. (I was outnerded by a friend who wore Ferengi ears.) But the nerdiest thing I ever did was to read a 500-page reference book in 90 minutes. In a car, on the way to Hollywood. I got a crazy headache from cramming my brain with trivia at 65 mph. But a couple of hours later I also got the correct response when Alex Trebek said, “Australia was originally called ‘Terra Incognita Australis,’ meaning this.” I hit the buzzer and said, “What is ‘Unknown Southern Land?'” I won three times.

B. I have read every single annotation in The Annotated Lolita. Twice. And just recalling it makes me think it’s time to do it again!

C. When I was in high school, I waitressed at a Howard Johnson’s. Some shifts were slower than others, and occasionally I got stuck with one of the dead shifts—weeknights after the dinner hour. We were not allowed to read on the job, and sometimes entire hours would pass with no new customers. To relieve the staggering boredom, I’d take a paper place mat and calculate square roots on the back. The trick was to start with a big number that looked like it might be a prime or at least have few divisors. Something like—say—723,591,117. I’d just pick a number that seemed it might be in the ballpark and give it a try, doing the math with my waitress pencil, then try again and again, narrowing in on the answer until I’d calculated it out to as many decimal points as the remainder of my shift allowed.

D. I am an incurable Disney geek who decided to go to Bouchercon in San Francisco only because I knew The Walt Disney Family Museum was there. I went and it was incredible. The museum, I mean. Although Bouchercon was fun, too.

E. I have a keyboard that I love. It’s REALLY clackety so it’s a lot like writing on a typewriter. In fact, when I’m pounding away, I feel like I’m building something. After six novels, it finally gave out. When I went to order another, I discovered that it had been discontinued and its parent company shut down. After driving to about ten stores, I realized that all the new keyboards are very quiet. I can’t write on a quiet keyboard. I thought my career might be over. I fretted. I stayed up nights. I paced. Then I got determined. After a series of investigative calls, I found myself connected to the night security guard in charge of the warehouse of the former company (which now stored the electronic goods of a new Silicon Valley company). When I offered to Western Union him a goodly amount for weekend beer, he said he’d go on the hunt for me in the dark recesses of the warehouse. Lo and behold, in the back, hidden beneath a tarp, he found a mound of my beloved keyboards. So I bought forty of them. I have them stacked all around my office, like backup security blankets.

Who said what? Leave guesses in the comments and you could win some of these books. Or just play for fun! If you need more info, visit the authors’ websites.
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Third Blogoversary Celebration: A Nerdfest and Giveaway

This Saturday, October 1, is the third anniversary of the day I woke up and decided to start this blog, despite knowing nothing about blogging. I did have loads of experience in being a nerd, though, so PCN was born.

I never imagined it would lead to my life being enriched and my world being expanded so greatly. I shudder to think of all the wonderful people I never would have met and the experiences I would have missed out on if I had, oh, gone back to sleep on that day three years ago instead of spending hours researching WordPress and dashboards and HTML and such. To all those who have read, commented, supported, and hung out with me this long, I thank you deeply. I hope your therapy bill hasn’t increased much because of it.

To help me celebrate, I asked a group of kickass ninja crime authors to answer the question: What’s one of the nerdiest things you’ve ever done? For I believe no matter who we are, we’re all united in nerdiness.

The giveaway: I’ll run the authors’ responses all week, a few a day, and have you guess whose story is which. If you leave your guesses in the comments and get at least one right each day, you’ll be entered to win four ARCs of your choice from my stash (see list here). I’ll randomly choose two winners from all those eligible; first name picked gets first dibs on the selection. If you’re international, you’ll receive a $20 gift certificate from Book Depository, which offers free worldwide shipping. The giveaway ends this Friday, September 30, 9 p.m. PST because answers will be revealed Saturday.

You can enter once daily, but if you’ve been following and commenting before today (and not only when I had giveaways), each of your entries will count as three. Call it a bonus for putting up with me longer.

I’d like to thank all the generous authors who contributed nerdy anecdotes. Some even dug up photographic evidence that will be featured in a slide show on Saturday with the answers. Knowing they were all busy, I had no expectations when I sent my requests, but the enthusiasm with which some responded confirmed that crime fic writers are among the nicest in the business.

OK, let’s start the Nerdfest!

Today’s participants are:

* Karin Slaughter—Karin received the Silver Bullet Award at this year’s ThrillerFest. She writes the popular Atlanta and Grant County series (which were recently merged) about Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Will Trent, his partner Faith Mitchell, and his paramour Sara Linton. She’s an advocate for saving libraries, and isn’t overly fond of the Danish word for author—forfatter.

Brad Parks—Brad is the creator of the Carter Ross mysteries and was the first author to win the Nero and Shamus awards in the same year for his debut, Faces of the Gone. He believes that advertising his books on bikinis worn by small Asian women would be a wise marketing strategy.

Colin Cotterill—An international guest of honor at this year’s Bouchercon, Colin writes the Dagger-Award-winning Dr. Siri series, among many other books. He introduced a new series character this year, a young female journalist named Jimm Juree, in Killed at the Whim of a Hat. He’s also a cartoonist and questions the necessity of a 27-inch penis.

* Elizabeth Duncan—Elizabeth’s series, set in North Wales, features Penny Brannigan. Her first book, The Cold Light of Mourning, won both the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished writers and the St. Martin’s Press/Malice award for best first novel. Her third, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales, comes out October 25. Elizabeth loves ice cream and sandwiches and her lavender disco pants.

* Brett Battles—Brett is the Barry-winning author of the Jonathan Quinn thrillers, as well as the Logan Harper series, the Project Eden series, the YA novel Here Comes Mr. Trouble, The Pull of Gravity, and several short stories. It’s possible he also wrote whatever you read right before coming here, even if it was just graffiti on a park bench or the instruction manual for your ShamWow.

The stories:

A. In high school, not only did I participate in our school theater program, I was drama club president. As such, it was my job to direct the fall children’s theater production. In the past we’d done Hansel & Gretel, Rip Van Winkle (I was Rip), and Tom Sawyer. I, of course, wanted to do something on a grander scale. So what did I direct? The musical version of The Hobbit. That’s right—musical version. We went all out: the dwarfs marching in from the audience, a giant head and neck of Smaug the dragon operated by ropes and pulleys, and an ogre fight on our wicked 3-D set! I know you probably didn’t retain any of that last part, so let me reassure you: yes, a musical version of The Hobbit.

B. My amateur sleuth somehow got nominated to be part of an online competition to determine the world’s greatest sleuth. Because I teach writing in a college lab with about 40 computers, I thought I’d switch them all on and vote. For myself! After about two rows, the task seemed monumentally tedious so I packed it in. I figured, what’s the point? Jack Reacher’s in the competition.

C. I was, it has to be said, a jock, and a skinhead jock at that. We were the sworn enemies of nerds mainly because we could beat them up without fear of them pulling switchblades on us. But there was a dilemma in my soul for I was a closet Boy Scout. Not only did I don my little shorts and woggle my scarf once a week, I had arms full of badges. I was a walking billboard of proof that I could tie knots, rescue small animals, make an emergency bivouac out of discarded underwear…and cook. Then, one Sunday, as my troop marched gayly to a jambouree, we rounded a corner and came face to face with the boys from my football club…armed. It was ugly. A massacre. I was the last nerd standing.

D. I had an interview in Amsterdam during the Month of the Thriller a few years back. It was a pretty big deal—a packed house, lots of cameras. The lights were dimmed low, and as I was being introduced, I kept looking at the stairs going up to the stage and thinking, “Don’t trip and fall on your ass in front of all these people.” Which of course I did. I still think the risers were higher to better accommodate freakishly long Dutch femurs.

E. I’m a peculiar subset of nerd: a community theater nerd. At least once a year, I hop up on a local stage to sing, act, and dance my heart out. Yes, I’m basically Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman, except I comb my hair to the side.

Think you know who said what? Hit the comments! Stumped? Visit their websites to maybe find helpful hints.

Come back all week for more nerdy stories and chances to win! (UPDATE: Stories from day twothree, and four are now up.)

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Bouchercon Adventures 2011

There’s been a thousand Bouchercon posts already everywhere but I figured no two experiences are exactly the same, right? So, if you’re not tired yet of reading about it, below are my highlights.

For those unfamiliar with B’con, it’s an annual world mystery convention for authors and fans. And by “world,” I do mean people come from all over, such as Thailand and Scotland in the case of international guests of honor, Colin Cotterill and Val McDermid, respectively.

So much happened and some of it is a blur, but among the things that stood out:

Meeting authors I’ve gotten to know a little online and finding they’re just as charming and funny in person. It was a pleasure having tea with Laura Benedict, though I didn’t actually drink tea and just ate a cookie half standing up. Seeing her, as a panel moderator, handle an audience member who talked endlessly without actually asking a question was also quite satisfying.

Squeezing into a photo booth with Ben LeRoy (of Tyrus Books and F+W Crime) and my friends Christine and Lauren to take goofy pictures. Ben’s passion for life and efforts to make the world a better place neutralize the damage done by at least twenty a**holes.

Being packed into the Meshuggah Cafe for Noir at the Bar with some of the best crime writers working. They have sick, twisted minds, just the way I like ’em.

Eating Vietnamese food and sharing cab rides with Brett Battles, Meg Gardiner, and Lauren that threatened to turn into Noir on the Streets. Our driver Jill started talking up the local asylum to us and I couldn’t blame her.

Having breakfast—and coffee, and brownies, and nuts—while talking with Mike Cooper, who raised my IQ.

Hearing Matthew McBride, who writes brutal fiction, fret about his bowling skills, afraid he wouldn’t be good enough for the tournament. (He did just fine.)

Witnessing Hilary Davidson win her Crimespree and Anthony Awards for Best First Novel. I’m hoping she’ll wear the plaques as earrings at next year’s B’con.

Sitting next to Taylor Stevens at the Anthony Awards brunch and seeing S.J. Rozan and Laurie R. King come up to her to introduce themselves; gush over her book, The Informationist; and offer to blurb her future novels.

Chatting with Katrina Niidas Holm and observing her husband Chris‘s petrification when an idol of his, Daniel Woodrell, sat with us in a booth in the hotel bar.

Waving at Clare from Criminal Element at the auction and almost losing $300 because auctioneer Mark Billingham thought I was bidding on something.

Encountering Jonathan Hayes in the elevator and having him say, “I didn’t know you were Asian!” I also got “I didn’t know you were a woman” from some but let’s not go there.

Running into Robert Crais in the hotel lobby within minutes of my arrival. ‘Nuff said.

From L.: Naomi, Paulette, Michael, Christine, me. Not pictured--Jen and Carolyn.

Finally meeting super Craisie Naomi and her friend Carolyn, as well as hanging with the rest of the gang—Michael, Jen, Paulette, Lauren, and Christine—culminating in dinner at Mosaic. I shall think of you whenever I lick spicy ice cream. (For more on the Craisies, go here.)

Briefly spending some time with my friend Rae, one of the classiest people I know. (She chaired last year’s B’con.)

Meeting the extremely thoughtful Sabrina, who’s about to make someone’s day, if not month.

Rooming with the divine Christine, who is just beyond words as a human being.

The risk of doing one of these posts is that I omit someone, so I apologize if I got to meet you and failed to mention you. Please know I had an over-the-moon experience and you contributed to it.

Many thanks to Jon and Ruth Jordan, Judy Bobalik, Jen Forbus and all the other organizers for putting on such a fantastic show. I heard that some people thought they were paid; they were not. They did it purely out of love and isn’t that the best reason to do anything?

I’ll leave you now with a set of videos regarding the Joe Pike vs. Jack Reacher debate. At last year’s Bouchercon, Lee Child was asked who would win in a Reacher-Pike fight. I captured his answer in the first video. This year, Gregg Hurwitz asked Crais for a rebuttal, which you can see in the second clip. The video quality isn’t great because I recorded it on my photo camera, but I think his answer is loud and clear.

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More Mini Reviews of New Fall TV Shows

Went through the DVR again today and here’s what I saw.

Prime Suspect

Phew, it’s not terrible! I’m sure I wasn’t alone in approaching this with trepidation. The original BBC version and Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison had such a huge impact on me, how could this American adaptation measure up? By being a different show. After a few minutes, I stopped comparing the two and settled into appreciating Maria Bello’s performance as New York homicide detective Jane Timoney. Bello is a ball buster and has the acting chops to make Timoney tough without looking like she’s trying too hard. Bello’s presence is strong enough that she’ll elevate the show just by walking and talking.

It did seem anachronistic that the male cops in the precinct were so sexist toward her, insinuating that she slept her way onto the squad. What year is this? Granted, it’s based on a show that first aired twenty years ago but this version is set in the present. Male chauvinists are probably still everywhere, but since Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson has been commanding a whole division of male detectives with respect on The Closer for years, the sexism felt like a step backward in time and not a very interesting source of conflict. Let’s hope Timoney proves herself to them soon and that storyline can go away. Nerd verdict: Bello is in her Prime.

Person of Interest

There are many impressive names attached to this show—Jonathan Nolan (Oscar-nominated co-writer of Memento and the Batman movies with his brother Christopher), Oscar-nominated Taraji P. Henson, Lost‘s J.J. Abrams and Michael Emerson, etc. But the MVP is star James Caviezel. He can be the most interesting person in a scene without saying anything. At the beginning of the pilot, his character, John Reese, is sitting on the subway looking like a homeless man, minding his own business when a bunch of thugs get on. Reese is completely still and may even be drunk or half asleep, but somehow Caviezel manages to exude an intensity that lets you know an explosion is about to happen. That intensity and stillness are what make him so riveting. His eyes are more expressive than his words sometimes, and when he does speak, it’s often in low, soft tones that just make him more intimidating. The premise of two men having foreknowledge of crimes and teaming up to prevent them is different enough to make this show intriguing, and I hope the formidable Henson will get more to do in future episodes. Nerd verdict: Caviezel makes Person very interesting.

Charlie’s Angels

I don’t know where to start with this one. The atrocious acting? Cheesy dialogue? Just overall what-the-hellness? The original was no masterpiece but it was campy fun. This one played it straight and was determined to give us one cringe-inducing moment after another. Worst offender was Ramon Rodriguez as Bosley. He must have gone to the Adam West school of acting because he kept pausing in weird places while saying his lines, as if he were waiting for his closeup before he would complete the dialogue. Minka Kelly has one facial expression and a monotone that indicated no emotional inner life. Rachael Taylor has the two most dreadful lines in the pilot: “We’re angels, not saints,” and “I didn’t know my heart could hurt this much.” I didn’t know my head could hurt this much until I watched this show. Nerd verdict: Lifeless Angels.

Unforgettable

This is the type of show I’d probably watch if it were the only new programming among a night of reruns. Poppy Montgomery stars as Carrie Wells, a former NY cop who has HSAM—highly superior autobiographical memory—which allows her to remember everything she’s ever experienced. Well, except who killed her sister when they were kids playing in the woods. Apparently the trauma is blocking her memory. Anyway, she helps solve the murder of a neighbor and it looks like she’ll be back on the force by the next episode and working alongside her former flame, Detective Al Burns (Dylan Walsh).

Though Carrie’s ability is unusual, this is a pretty standard police procedural, in which you can figure out who the villain is at the half-hour mark and aren’t thrown by any of the red herrings. The pacing is somewhat slow and dreamlike, especially when she’s revisiting her memories to bring up facts. Montgomery needs to relax into the role more; right now she’s doing a lot of affected readings. The most interesting thing for me is that actress Marilu Henner is a consultant because she has HSAM (for more info, go here) and will be appearing on the show later this season as Carrie’s aunt…who has Alzheimer’s. Nerd verdict: Unforgettable‘s title is hyperbolical.

Did you watch any of these? What’d you think?

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Mini Reviews of New Fall TV

The official start of fall isn’t until tomorrow, September 23rd, but the fall TV season has already begun. I love this time of year because there’s so much new stuff to sample. I know most of it will be awful but I’m always hopeful. Below are first impressions of the new shows I sampled.

The X Factor

This show was a giant mess, including everything from a guy who made Paula physically sick with the sight of his penis, a 61-year-old woman wailing “I Touch Myself,” and a 70-day-sober trash collector who performed a song he wrote called “Young Homie.” That last one, Chris Rene, did a decent enough job to go through to the next round, but there were many moments during the show when I was bored out of my mind or horrified by what I saw and not in an entertaining way. The feud montage between L.A. Reid and Simon Cowell, showing them disagreeing on many of the wannabes, was ridiculous filler, trying to play up drama that isn’t there. American Idol has many flaws, but at least that show doesn’t give the singers backing tracks, nor does it allow them to sing entire songs when auditioning. When an act is obviously bad, like 70-year-old Dan and 83-year-old Venita giving new meaning to the word “unchained” in “Unchained Melody,” they should be cut off after a few bars to prevent our ears from bleeding. Nerd verdict: X as in wrong.

New Girl

Zooey Deschanel is naturally quirky and likable, but the humor seems forced and, worse, not funny. Deschanel’s character, Jess, actually makes her glasses pop up and down on her head and makes cartoonish noises to show how she’s checking out a hot guy. Really? And her three male roommates would let her commandeer the TV for hours at a time to watch Dirty Dancing over and over? I don’t think so. And I’m saying this as someone who also loves Dirty Dancing and once lived with male roomies. None of the guys seems very interesting—one shouts at women, another insists on removing his shirt, and the last is still moping over being dumped by his girlfriend. The funniest actor of the three, Damon Wayans, Jr., has been replaced since his series Happy Endings got picked up (that show is much funnier), which makes me even less interested in seeing future episodes. Nerd verdict: Not exciting or New.

2 Broke Girls

Kat Dennings is appealing as Max, the cupcake-making waitress, and Beth Behrs does what she can as Caroline, the rich girl whose Madoff-y dad turns her into a broke social outcast. It’s not the actress’s fault that Caroline is a little annoying, though I suspect she’ll have more colors as the season progresses. Caroline supposedly went to Wharton so at least she won’t be a dumb blond. The show is unremarkable, but it’s helped quite a bit by Dennings’s warm grounding presence. Nerd verdict: Girls should just have more fun.

Ringer

I read in Entertainment Weekly that this show was inspired by Blood Simple. Huh? The Coen brothers’ movie was dark and so suspenseful, I left deep finger marks in the armrests of my chair at the theater. This show is melodramatic without even trying to play it as camp. That scene showing Bridget making the decision to assume her twin Siobhan’s identity while saying in voiceover, “I had no choice!” was soapier than my Irish Spring.

And what’s with the weird green-screen effect while the twins are in the boat right before Siobhan disappears? They’re supposedly speeding along the water but the background looks about as realistic as the scenery through the back windshields of cars when people drive in old ’40s movies. Sarah Michelle Gellar is watchable, but her costars haven’t made much of an impression yet. Kristoffer Polaha, who plays Siobhan’s lover, has never impressed me in anything so I’m not holding my breath for him to get interesting. Though the show is not really my style, it does have me wondering what the heck these twins are up to, so I might tune in again and fast forward through the cringy stuff to get to the answers. Nerd verdict: Needs more noir for viewers to Ring(er) twice.

Modern Family

This is obviously not a new show (hooray for its Best Comedy Emmy!) but I wanted to check out the new Lily since Ella and Jaden Hiller were replaced over the summer by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons. Though I was a little concerned by how unresponsive the Hiller twins were to stimuli (at least on camera), I loved their stoic little trouper faces, as if they had to suffer the shenanigans of the silly adults around them. Now, Lily talks and smiles a lot more. At first, I thought Anderson-Emmons might be too conventionally cutesy, until the second episode when she turns into an infanticidal toddler, which is hilarious. Cam and Mitchell are thinking of adopting another child and Lily’s not having it. Best line of the night came when Mitch asks Cam, “Why are you saying ‘thing’ instead of baby?” and Lily muttered from off camera: “Kill the baby.” By the end of the two episodes, I was on board with this new Lily. Nerd verdict: Good for Lily to have more Family interaction.

Which shows have you seen? Got any favorites yet?

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Craisie Spirit

I’ve been AWOL for the past week or so because I was in St. Louis for Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention during which crime fiction authors and fans mingle, celebrate the genre, drink heavily, and, ah, gain fodder for their novels. A big reason for my desire to go was because Robert Crais would be one of the American guests of honor and a contingent of Craisies (diehard fans of his writing, if you’re new to the term) was gathering to celebrate him. I’ll be sharing other wonderful Bouchercon memories later this week, but today I’m talking Craisies.

Craisies at the LATFOB

In 2001, a group of fans who had become friendly via Crais’s website converged upon the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to meet each other and spend some time with him. Helen baked cookies, Eddy brought Mardi Gras beads, Sheila gave us Craisie caps, and many wore Hawaiian shirts to represent Elvis Cole’s favorite wardrobe choice.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the kindness of people I was face to face with for the first time but who were definitely not strangers. I wasn’t surprised, though, because Crais and his writing attract the most generous people. Several became true-blue friends of mine and we have remained in each other’s lives, sharing joy and sadness and all the things between.

At Bouchercon 10 years later

Ten years after that first CraisieCon, a new gang descended upon St. Louis wearing love on its sleeves. Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts was inspired by Novel-T to come up with the idea of baseball jerseys with names of characters from Crais’s novels. Naomi from Drowning Machine then designed and found a place to make them after we decided on what names we wanted. The breakdown: Jen–Starkey, Michael (le0pard13)–Stone, Naomi–Watrous, Christine–the Cat, Carolyn–Holman, and Paulette–Chenier (her number was double zero). I asked for Dolan but Jen pointed out that she’s dead. I said, “It’s okay. I’m used to being a flash in the pan.”

In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands when Naomi sent me a jersey that said “Cole.” My first reaction was, Wha? I’m not worthy. Then I realized I want to be worthy; the Craisies make me want to be better. Crais has often said he has the best readers in the world. I’m not there yet but about the others, he is spot on.

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Guest Post & Giveaway: HELP! FOR WRITERS

I am a fan of Roy Peter Clark‘s The Glamour of Grammar because he makes grammar fun. He has a new book out next week called Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces (one says you should reward yourself after your first hour of writing so I’m all over that). I was very happy when he agreed to do a guest post about:

Three fun things to jumpstart your writing that won’t get you arrested.

1.  Steal magazines from the doctor’s office or barber shop.

Don’t feel guilty. Chances are you have been waiting for more than an hour for a grumpy nurse to call your name. All you get for your inconvenience is a stack of crispy or soggy magazines, some that are months and months old. Get some payback and a good story idea at the same time. Flip through some of the mags, especially ones in a category that you may not often read. Look for something that grabs your interest, a surprising trend that can be localized. If you feel bad about snatching the magazine, quietly rip out the relevant pages.

2.  Read an alternative weekly newspaper, from the back to the front.

The back has the best stuff: ads for adult businesses dominate (so to speak), but they mix gloriously with ads for astrological readings, pain management, outpatient drug detox, cheap rooms to rent. Pay special attention to items you don’t understand at first glance: What is Bhakti Massage or Watsu? Bingo: “Lingerie models needed for Comedy/Horror videos. No nudity required. No thongs or g-strings. Ladies with large visible tattoos need not apply. $200 cash for 5 hours.” Hmm. With Halloween approaching…

3.  Go to an event and watch the audience instead.

Take any event, from a campaign speech, to a high school football game, to a recital for young musicians, to a church service. We are so used to seeing events from predictable vantage points that we miss the opportunity to check the rear view mirror. It bugs my wife when I turn around in church and watch the congregation behind me. I’m sure it puzzles others in the pews. But what a revelation to see churchgoers in all their variety: teenagers whispering and flirting; farting oldsters lost in their rosaries; the guy wearing the golf pants checking his watch.

Roy’s tips are fun and creative, and if you think you could use a copy, you’re in luck. Hachette has allowed me to give away three copies. Enter by leaving a comment about something you often struggle with in your writing. I’ll take entries until next Friday, September 23, 5 p.m. PST. US & Canada only.

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Book Review: THE CRADLE IN THE GRAVE by Sophie Hannah

Originally reviewed for Shelf Awareness, printed here with permission.

TV producer Fliss Benson, who specializes in what she calls “fluff stuff,” is suddenly put in charge of a documentary about three mothers wrongly incarcerated for the murders of their babies. Fliss has deep personal reasons for not wanting the job, but one of the women insists she’ll only tell her side of the story to Fliss. Then one of the other mothers is found shot to death and another is attacked at knifepoint, both left with cards on their bodies containing a strange series of numbers. When the police discover Fliss was sent an identical card, they suggest she halts production on the documentary, but she believes getting to the truth might prevent more people, including herself, from getting killed.

This is the fifth novel to feature Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse and former Detective Sergeant Charlie Zeiler but the case stands alone. It’s a sad one of babies dying in their cribs, on their own or maybe not, so the quirky characters provide much needed levity. Fliss makes observations about “men at the bar who look likely to have chloroform-soaked hankies in their pockets,” and a detective admits that running “was something he’d considered taking up, before deciding he couldn’t be bothered.”

Hannah constantly keeps readers guessing and challenging our assumptions about the guilt of all involved, including the vilified doctor whose expert testimony sent the mothers to prison. The ending leaves one question without a definitive answer, but sometimes the truth is simply whatever we perceive it to be.

Nerd verdict: A complex psychological thriller Cradled in humor

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A 9/12 Memory

I haven’t been paying attention to all the 9/11 retrospectives because I’m not sure I can handle revisiting those images and feelings yet. I don’t think any of it would be easier to process now than it was then. But I also don’t want to ignore the fact that today marks the tenth anniversary of a life-changing event. So I thought I’d share this memory, and hopefully you’ll find it more inspiring than sad.

The morning after 9/11, drained by grief but tired of feeling helpless, I called the local Red Cross chapter and was asked to come down to help process people arriving en masse to donate blood. I’ve never been able to give blood because I’m underweight and have a paranormal phobia of needles, but I could check people in and escort them to the food station for cookies and juice after they gave.

When I arrived, I saw hundreds of people standing in lines that stretched down the block and around the corner. Some had brought lawn chairs and newspapers and were settled in for the long wait.

I went inside and was instructed to put on a sticker name tag identifying myself and what languages I spoke in case they needed interpreters. I then approached the volunteer coordinator.

“Hi, I’m here to volunteer and was told to check in with you,” I said to an attractive woman in her mid-fifties with coiffed blond hair.

“Yes, I’m Val and welcome. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.” She looked at my name tag and startled me with an exclamation. “Oh, my goodness! Do you really speak Vietnamese?” I had written that beneath my name.

“Yes,” I said, puzzled about her excitement.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” she continued. “We had a Vietnamese man here this morning who desperately wanted to give blood. He had been in line since 7 a.m. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English well enough to answer all the screening questions. We had to turn him away but he said he’s coming back. Bless his heart. Now that you’re here, you can interpret for him when he returns!”

Val then made a general announcement to all the coordinators and volunteers to keep an eye out for this man and to hook him up with me when he came back. I suddenly felt important. I was needed here even before I arrived!

I busied myself with paperwork, checking in potential donors and maintaining a wait list. Everyone I talked to had the same general feeling: They were eager to do something to ease the sense of powerlessness.

Hours flew by and I finally took a break at the food station, sneaking a couple of peanut butter cookies (maybe a ham sandwich, too) from the table while watching the latest news updates. I soon became aware of someone calling my name.

“I’m over here,” I said.

Val hurried toward me. “That man is back! Could you please come help?”

I brushed off crumbs from the front of my shirt and got up. “Let’s go.”

She led me down to the lobby area where people were crowding in from the street. A gaunt Vietnamese man wearing a dirty T-shirt stood up when he saw me approach. He smelled faintly of sweat.

“Co phai la nguoi Viet khong?” Are you Vietnamese?

“Yes, I am,” I replied in Vietnamese. Again, I was filled with that sense of importance. The way my chest puffed up, you’d think I were an interpreter for the U.N. “I’m here to translate and guide you through the screening process so you can give blood.”

“Oh, thank you!” He grasped my hand with both of his. His hands were weathered brown and calloused, probably the result of long years of manual labor. There were crescents of dirt embedded beneath his nails. “I came here this morning but they wouldn’t take me because I couldn’t understand all the questions. Then I had to go to work and was going to come back with an interpreter but I couldn’t find anyone to come with me. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I’m happy to help.” I led him over to a seat at a long table where other potential donors were filling out their forms. I sat across him, picked up a form, and started reading the questions.

“Your name?”

“Nguyen Van Minh,”* Vietnamese style, last name first.

“Age?”

“Fifty-five.”

After we got past the basic information, the questions became more personal but they were necessary to help the Red Cross determine whether or not to accept someone’s blood. I managed to get through “Have you traveled to England or a Third-World country within the last six months?” and “Have you gotten a tattoo within the last year?” Not only did I have to translate them, I had to explain why the questions were being asked. I think the England reference had to do with mad cow disease and the tattoo thing was about possible dirty needles (that, or it was to determine if he belonged to a biker gang). Mr. Nguyen seemed satisfied with my explanations so we continued.

Next question on the form: “Have you had unprotected sex with prostitutes?” Whuh? I have to I ask him that? I’d just met the man.

I sat there, mortified, but he was waiting. Maybe I could phrase it less bluntly. “Do you like…paying for women?” I asked.

“You mean, buy them dinner? Sure.”

“No, I mean, pay for the women.” He looked confused, so I added, “To have sex with them. With no condoms. As in hookers.” So much for the subtle approach.

His eyes went wide. He took a second to recover but then said, “No.”

“OK, it’s a no,” I said, relieved we could move on.

But then I saw the next few queries: “Have you engaged in homosexual activity?” “Do you have any sexually transmitted diseases?” “Have you ever taken heroin or other illegal substances?” “Did you get piercings recently?” (I may be paraphrasing but not exaggerating.) They only stopped short of inquiring if you’ve ever been in a Turkish prison.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Nguyen asked when he saw my expression.

I wanted to say, You look like my uncle and I don’t want to ask you these things, I also don’t know the Vietnamese word for homosexual or heroin, but instead I said, “The questions are going to get really intrusive from here. I apologize in advance if this makes you uncomfortable but I do need you to answer them before you can give blood. If you want to stop now, I’d understand.”

“What kind of questions?” His shoulders were hunched but his eyes were sharp.

“About your, um, sexual history and any past drug use. And…some other things.”

He thought about it for a moment, staring off into space. I waited.

He finally turned back and looked me straight in the eye. “I want to do my duty as an American citizen. I love this country. I was in the South Vietnamese Army in Viet Nam and fought alongside the Americans against the Viet Cong. We lost but I got to start a new life here. I have been fortunate. Now that my new country is in trouble, I have to help. I am too old now to join the army here but I can still do this. Ask whatever you need.”

I gaped at him, speechless. I couldn’t think of a proper response then and don’t have the words now to describe exactly how his words made me feel. I simply nodded, looked down at his form, and started invading his privacy.

A few minutes later, he was cleared by medical personnel to give blood. He waited patiently for another half an hour. When it was his turn, I went with him to the table to translate the instructions from the attending nurse. After the needle was inserted and the pouch started filling with his blood, he looked up at me, gripped my hand and said, “Thank you.”

I held his hand and felt a little less helpless.

*Not his real name

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