Tuesday, March 9, 2021

24-hour bus rides and libraries 7,000 miles apart

 Craig - Tuesday

Today, Murder Is Everywhere is going to start offering its readers something new - in fact, at least two things that are new.

To start off, I'd like to introduce our new blogger, Craig Sisterson, a gentleman that many of us have known for some time, usually from hanging around bars at crime and mystery conventions.

First, he fills a void on the map that we've tried on several occasions to fill, namely what the Brits started calling The Antipodes because it is on the other side of the planet. Craig hails from New Zealand, where he's been intimately involved in the world of mystery writing. He'll tell us more about that. I'm sure he will introduce us to writers we don't know but will enjoy reading.

Second, although a prolific writer, he hasn't written any mysteries or thrillers. Nor has he penned any romances. Craig is best known as a critic and reviewer of our genre. And a good one he is. He has also written the definitive treatise on crime writing in New Zealand and Australia, titled Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of Australia and New Zealand, which came out about six months ago. 

I'm very excited to have Craig on board because he will provide a foil to those of us who are occasionally (and sometimes not so occasionally) prone to toot our own horns. 
I'm hoping he will keep us all grounded.

Please give Craig a big welcome and feel free to bombard him with questions and comments.



24-hour bus rides and libraries 7,000 miles apart

Kia ora and gidday everyone. 

First off, thanks so much for that lovely introduction Stan. You're too kind. It's still a little strange seeing someone writing about me, when I'm so used to writing about others. Ditto being interviewed rather than being the interviewee. I'm also far more used to introducing others (including onstage at crime writing festivals, as a panel chair or festival founder), than being introduced myself. In fact several years ago I was notorious at New Zealand book festivals for introducing all the authors on my panels then diving straight into the conversation, forgetting to introduce myself to the audience! 

It happened more than once. Still, probably not the most embarrassing thing I've done at a writers festival. Stories for other times. 

I've been thinking about writing festivals a little bit lately, with the recent news that the terrific team behind the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate are hoping to have some sort of in-person festival this northern summer, given the vaccination process underway in the UK. 

It's a strange mix of emotions to contemplate all gathering together again in public - hopeful, unsure, excited, too soon? There's such a wonderful vibe in the crime fiction community, and I've certainly missed that in the past year. Last week was actually the one-year anniversary of the final public gathering I attended before we, like much of the world, went into varying degrees of (rolling) lockdowns and social distancing. That was "Fearless Female Protagonists", a book launch for three terrific crime writers - Steph Broadribb, Simone Buchholz, and Vanda Symon - in central London.

Steph and Vanda at their book launch, London March 2020

While we did chat on the night about the growing news of a troubling virus spreading across the world, none of us had any clue that a year later we'd still be living with a global pandemic. So much has been lost by so many, at times it's felt trite to worry about books and events. Yet at the same time stories on page and screen have been such a comfort - even more than usual - to millions during these tough times. Books connect us to the wider world, build empathy, expose us to issues, put us in others' lives. 

I'm absolutely thrilled to join the crew at Murder is Everywhere. Soon after I began my own blog, Crime Watch, in late 2009, this became one of my favourite blogs to read. I love the global perspective. 

It's been a real pleasure to get to meet and hang out with several of the Murder is Everywhere team at various crime writing festivals in recent years, from Iceland Noir to Bouchercon to Bloody Scotland, as well as interviewing some onstage or for magazines etc. So it's very humbling to get the opportunity to write for this wonderful website. I'm looking forward to discussing lots of different things in the coming months. For today I thought I'd share a little bit of background on my own journey in crime fiction. 

I fell in love with reading as a young child. 

I grew up in a small town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand uncovering mysteries alongside the Hardy Boys and Hercule Poirot. So you could probably blame my parents and the librarians at my school and local public library for kickstarting my life of (literary) crime. New Zealand is a fairly sporty country and my room and our house always had plenty of sports gear, but lots of books too. 

My primary school, with the library in the centre, as it should be

I just loved reading, and libraries were (and still are) one of my favourite places. 

So it's rather appropriate that many years later it was a couple of libraries, separated by 7,000 miles and the Pacific Ocean, that helped change my adult life too. That, and some very, very long bus rides. 

While at law school then working as a junior commercial lawyer for a few years I continued to regularly read crime novels, though not as many as when I was a kid. Then in my late 20s I did a yearlong round-the-world backpacking trip which included several months exploring Latin America. 

On that trip we had some very long bus rides, plus other downtime waiting around or relaxing between all the exploring and adventuring. Some of the hostels had wee shelves of secondhand books in various languages that you could buy for cheap and/or swap for one or two you already had. As we moved from Peru and Bolivia down into Chile and Argentina, and the transport legs grew longer and longer (eg 12, 18, 24 hours on a bus to get from one place to another), I started reading a lot more again. 

I always scoured the book exchanges, secondhand shops and local bookstores or market tables for crime and thriller tales – feeling I’d struck gold when I found books from the likes of Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, John Grisham, Kathy Reichs, Tami Hoag, and Jeffery Deaver to keep me company as my then-girlfriend snoozed away the hours on the bus (she was much better at sleeping anywhere than me).

I was so enjoying being back in the mystery world – reading lots of novels regularly rather than just now and then – that later when we were in Canada I even went along to a Crime Writers Canada event at the Vancouver Public Library when I'd randomly spied a poster about it after a day of exploring. 

It was a fun night where they announced the Arthur Ellis Awards shortlistees. 

I met some fabulous new-to-me authors, and had a really memorable (and as it turns out, important) conversation at the event and afterwards with the great William Deverell, a doyen of Canadian crime, about what we loved about the genre. Bill and I chatted about how there was really excellent writing in the crime genre (even if it wasn't always appreciated by literary critics or awards), and how Canada, New Zealand, and Australia often seemed to get overshadowed by the UK and USA when it comes to arts and entertainment, even though we have amazing, world-class musicians, writers, film makers etc.

Catching up with Bill Deverell at Bouchercon Toronto in 2017 (cr Peter Rozovksy)

Bill asked me about New Zealand crime writing and (embarrassingly, in hindsight), I’d said we didn’t really have much, which was disappointing given our great kids authors (eg Hairy Maclary tales, Margaret Mahy), Oscar-winning and nominated screenwriters, Booker Prize winners, world-renowned short story writers, etc. There was kind of Ngaio Marsh in the Golden Age, Paul Thomas with his outstanding Ihaka series in the 1990s, and a few one-off books here and there. No long series like those from Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and the like, since the days of Dame Ngaio.

By the time I got back to New Zealand a few months later I’d cemented the habit of reading several novels a month, like I’d done as a kid, and that continued when I returned to the full-time workforce as a legal journalist. A few weeks into my new job, my editor Darise Bennington asked if I’d read any good books lately, as a review of a law textbook hadn’t made it in for deadline. We had a page to fill. 

Funnily enough, my first weekend back I'd popped into the Papatoetoe Library, a suburban library in South Auckland, and stumbled upon two really cracking crime novels from new-to-me Kiwi authors. Thanks recently returned shelves. I'd thoroughly enjoyed the books (Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave and The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon), so I wrote a review. It was the first book review I’d done since school days, even though I’d written plenty of features and other stories as a uni student and adult.

It was also a bit of a personal revelation: "shit, I was wrong – we do have some really good modern crime writers in New Zealand, this stuff could stand alongside the international stuff I was reading on my travels, why haven’t I heard more people talking about them?"

My first crime review, November 2008. I had no idea where it would lead

The crime fiction review seemed to go down well, so I started reviewing more crime novels for NZLawyer now and then, and then pretty quickly started reviewing and doing author interviews for publications like Good Reading in Australia, the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday in New Zealand, and others. I began getting sent lots of crime novels from publishers and had my own wee ‘crime library’ on a windowsill at work, that colleagues would comment on then want to borrow from.

It’s funny – crime fiction was just one of many things I wrote about at the start, but it kind of took off and has become a rather big part of my life. I'm very grateful – it's lead to lots of wonderful adventures and experiences. So I’m kind of an accidental crime critic, though I’ve loved the genre my whole life. 

In the 12 plus years since that first review my life has changed a lot, and through the rollercoaster events and circumstances crime fiction has continued to provide me both great reading, and some really wonderful opportunities. I've gotten to appear onstage at festivals on three continents, talk about great books on national radio and terrific podcasts, help set up New Zealand's crime writing awards and first-ever crime writing festival (Rotorua Noir in 2019), judge book prizes in Australia and Scotland, interview hundreds of amazing authors, and last year I even published my own first book (though that still doesn't seem entirely real, given all events and festivals were cancelled due to COVID). 

Rotorua Noir opened with a pōwhiri at the Te Papaiouru Marae 

It's a really wonderful genre, full of exciting tales, great writing, and even better people. In many ways I feel like I'm just getting started, while being oh-so-grateful for all that I've already experienced. 

So thank you to the team at Murder is Everywhere, for the good times we've shared at writers festivals, the good times still to come, and for welcoming me into the crew. And thank you to all the crime readers out there, who share our passion for tales of mystery and mayhem, and let us do what we do.

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Monday, March 8, 2021

A Genre Writer Immortalized

Annamaria on Monday

 Genre writers are ordinarily ghettoized. In bookstores, there is a section for "Fiction" or "Literature." Genre books cannot be found there.  They are found in categories marked "Mysteries/Thrillers" or "SciFi and Fantasy" or "Romance."  The same applies when it comes to awards, kind of like the Oscars that go to techies without whom there would be no movies.  But in their case, they get an actual Oscar.  When it comes to books, segregation is total.  There is the National Book Award or the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer for "real" novelists. Genre writers are not welcome in that crowd.  We have the Edgar, the CWA Dagger, the Hugo, or the Nebula.

For genre writers to be taken seriously is rare indeed.  But this past week, one of the greatest was awarded, posthumously admittedly, with an honor that - to my way of thinking - surpasses all this year's other awards of any sort put together. NASA has named the landing place of their Perseverance rover on Mars the Octavia E. Butler Landing!

Here is what Katie Stack Morgan of NASA said when she made the announcement.

"Butler's pioneering work explores themes of race, gender equality in humanity, centering on the experiences of Black women at a time when such voices were largely absent from science fiction.  Butler's protagonists embodied determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges. Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond — including those typically underrepresented in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields. The fact that her works are as relevant today — if not more so — than when they were originally written and published is a testament to her vision, genius and timelessness."

That Octavia E. Butler became a published writer at all seems nothing short of miraculous.  Born in 1947 the daughter of a house cleaner and a shoeshine man, she grew up in racially segregated Pasadena, California, dyslexic and so painfully shy that she could not freely socialize with other children. Her father died when she was seven.  Her mother and her maternal grandmother raised her thereafter.  By the age of ten, she began to pour her thoughts into stories, which she wrote first by hand and then with two fingers on a Remington typewriter.

She took advantage of what educational opportunities came her way. She attended community college at night while working temp jobs. She enrolled in a Writers Guild Mentor Program for minorities.

That NASA has chosen to memorialize her on Mars is more than fitting.  It was seeing a 1954 film on TV, Devil Girl from Mars that first attracted her to Science Fiction. She eventually attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop.  By 1971, she had sold her first short story.  By 1984, she had published six novels.  Her 1984 Speech Sounds short story won a Hugo Award.  She went on to win another Hugo, a Locus, and the Science Fiction Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel. 

My Favorite of her books, Parable of the Sower also brings readers to Mars.  It's a dystopian story of a collapsed America, thanks to environmental disasters, uncontrolled corporate greed, and a runaway gap between the poor and the rich.  It takes place in Los Angeles in 2024, and though it was published in 1993, it reads it now like an ugly result of the current pandemic.  Butler's prose is clear, spare, and vivid.  Her story flows with such logic, such progression of ideas that it is effortless to read. In other words, she does what all great writers do. She makes it look easy.

The images are not easy. The concepts are challenging. Her characters are compelling and complex.  But nothing she says is hard to understand, because she presents her tale with such straightforward simplicity.  And though the events are fantastic, they seem and often are real.

Ottavia E. Butler died of a stroke at the age of 58.  But as long as people care about the future, her works will live on.  And now her name is written on Mars!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2020

Zoë Sharp

I am a sucker for opening lines. It’s one of my usual questions whenever I find myself among a group of writers—to ask for the opening line of their latest book or work-in-progress. I find that choosing the best jumping-in point to introduce the reader into the story is almost as interesting as the story itself.


So, I always look forwards to the results of The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC) every year. For some reason, what with the other minor distractions of 2020, I managed to miss the usual late July/early August announcement. Still, better late than never, eh?


The contest, for those of you unaware of it, has been running since 1982, the creation of Scott Rice, Professor of English at San Jose State University, who sponsor the award.

Professor Scott Rice, with his daughter EJ,

who helps runs the BLFC website

Professor Rice originally tried to discover the origin of the line ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ (much beloved of Snoopy, the beagle with literary aspirations in the Peanuts cartoons by Charles M Schulz). Rice found the line used by the Victorian writer, Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton in his novel of 1830, PAUL CLIFFORD:


‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

Bulwer-Lytton, who was first Baron Lytton and at one point served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, was a successful novelist of his day, apparently outselling Charles Dickens. He is responsible for the phrases ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ in his play ‘Richelieu’, as well as ‘the great unwashed’, which also came from PAUL CLIFFORD.


It would appear that the opening seven words of that novel had been around for some time before Bulwer-Lytton chose them, and then Snoopy shared them with a wider—and perhaps younger—audience. Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Bargain Lost’, published a year after PAUL CLIFFORD, contains:


‘It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in cataracts; and drowsy citizens started, from dreams of the deluge, to gaze upon the boisterous sea, which foamed and bellowed for admittance into the proud towers and marble palaces. Who would have thought of passions so fierce in that calm water that slumbers all day long? At a slight alabaster stand, trembling beneath the ponderous tomes which it supported, sat the hero of our story.’

The idea of the BLFC is to reproduce something of a similar florid nature as the original, and those from 2020 were up—or perhaps that should be down?—to the usual standard. 

2020 Grand Prize

‘Her Dear John missive flapped unambiguously in the windy breeze, hanging like a pizza menu on the doorknob of my mind.’ Lisa Kluber, San Francisco, CA 

Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award

‘As hard-nosed P.I. Dan McKinnon stepped out into the gray gritty dawn, a bone chilling gust of filth-strewn wind wrapped the loose ends of his open trench coat around him like a day-old flour tortilla around a breakfast burrito with hash browns, sausage, and scrambled eggs, hold the pico.’ Lisa Hanks, Euless, TX



“Haul away on those slug guskets, you bilge-scum!" roared the aged captain, leaning wearily against the starboard clog-hutch and watching as the mizzen spittlestoat rose majestically upward until it cuzzled atop the upper spit flukes, and cursing his fate that rum and advancing years compelled him to continually improvise names for the rigging of his own ship but then deciding, with a resigned sigh, that it didn't really matter.” Geoffrey Braden, Seattle, WA


Crime/Detective Winner

‘When she walked into my office on that bleak December day, she was like a breath of fresh air in a coal mine; she made my canary sing.’ Yale Abrams, Santa Rosa, CA

As this is our particular area of interest, I’ve also listed the runners-up in this category.

Crime/Detective Dishonourable Mentions

‘She sauntered into his smoke-filled office with legs that, although they didn’t go quite all the way to heaven, definitely went high enough for him to see that she was a giraffe.’ Jarrett Dement, Eau Claire, WI


‘The first thing I noticed about the detective’s office was how much it reminded me of the baggage claim at a nearby airport: the carpet was half a century out of date, it reeked of cigarettes and cheap booze, and I was moderately certain that my case had been lost.’ Paul Kollas, Orlando, FL


‘“Handless” Harvey Hanker, the sharpest detective in the northern hemisphere, had little regard for fingerprints, but a nose like Karl Malden’s, and he could sniff out clues like a bloodhound with its nose buried in the groin of a fox.’ Pete Zenz, Middleton, WI


‘Handsome French policeman, Andre Poiret, grappled with the puffed-up albino hitman, who was about to shoot the beautiful high-class call girl, Gigi Lamour, who was taking a shower in her apartment, with his big gun.’ Belinda Daly, London, UK


‘The fact that the cantor's body was covered with a lamb shank, salt water and a mysterious concoction called charoseth, led Chief Passover Homicide investigator Ari Ben-Zvi to describe the pattern of murders as “uneven, perhaps unleavened.”’ Leo Gordon, Los Angeles, CA


Dark & Stormy

‘It was a dark and stormy night, explained Moscow weatherman Sergei Ivanovitch Nabokov, or Sergei Invanovich, fondly called Seryozha by some and Seryozhenka by his family, but don’t bother memorizing that as Sergei won’t appear again until the end of this book, when his weather forecast is heard in the background as we learn that the main character, Alexei Dmitriovich Makarov, or Alexei Dmitriovich, also known as Alyosha, Alyoshka, or Alyoshenka (or simply Alexei M.) has shockingly died.’ Frank Bennett, Malvern, PA


Historical Fiction

‘When Sir John of York fought in the crusades, he killed many Saracens with great dispatch, and was likened unto a whirling dervish of steel and Christian might—minus the dizziness from constantly spinning in a circle, and the fact that he was on a horse that couldn't do that.’ Edward Covolo, Menlo Park


Purple Prose

‘The biker gang roared into the parking lot of the bar and grill like a troop of howler monkeys trying to lure mates, the gravel beneath the tires of their well-oiled bikes crunching like the dill pickle spears the place served alongside their famous tuna salad, BLT, and Reuben sandwiches.’ Candy Mosely, Hydro, OK


Vile Puns

‘As the passing of Keith Richards was announced on the evening news, just as had been done with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood before him, Jorge gazed at the television in his Tijuana home and felt a sickening knot form in his stomach, for he realized that finally, after all the albums, concert tours, and era-defining cultural impact, the Rolling Stones would gather no más.’ Aaron Cabe, Hillsboro, OR

I’m sure you have a personal favourite—from this or other years. For the winners of the other categories, and all the Dishonourable Mentions, visit the BLFC website. Alternatively, what opening lines have you read—or written—that you’re particularly fond of?

And for those of you who think you can equal or surpass the efforts illustrated here, the official closing date for the 2021 BLFC is April 15, although the website states that the actual deadline is June 30. See here for the rules on submissions.

This week’s Word of the Week is bibliobibuli, meaning a person who reads too much. From the Greek biblio meaning books, and the Latin bibulous, from bibere meaning to drink. So, to be drunk on books. A phrase coined in 1957 by HL Mencken.


Saturday, March 6, 2021

We're Running Out of Kool-Aid




How many times have you heard the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” used in reference to otherwise perfectly ordinary folk showing cult-like blind obedience to a preposterous, possibly dangerous, cause or purpose driven by charisma in lieu of reality.


On November 18, 1978, James Warren Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, ordered all of his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” by swallowing a grape flavored powdered drink laced with cyanide and a tranquilizer.  The actual brand was Flavor-Aid, but Kool-Aid was better known and thus is forever linked to the largest pre-9/11 single day slaughter of Americans.   Nine-hundred-eighteen (918) died that day, one third of them minor children.


The slaughter followed shortly after Leader Jones ordered his followers to murder a US Congressman who’d come to Jonestown to investigate human rights abuses within the cult and planned to leave Guyana with several of its members pleading to escape. Three journalists and one escapee died that day along with Representative Leo Ryan.   


For followers who saw drinking the Kool-Aid as a step too far, it was too late to walk away.  Those who refused to drink were injected with poison, those who tried to run off were shot.  Jones himself died not by suicide by drink, but by a bullet to his head.


Against that background I’m sure everyone can conjure up an example of similar dynamic forces at work in the world today. For my money, I point to the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, and say “Q” no longer summons up thoughts of the genteel Quartermaster character in James Bond films, but instead the fiercely aggressive loyalty shown by so many to the anonymous (and many think non-existent) Q of QAnon. 


The cult is back in play, big time–not that it’s truly ever gone away.


A modern-day example is now playing upon the main stage in Greece.

What’s consumes the Greek news cycle these days is a hunger strike by a 63-year-old prisoner, Dimitris Koufodinas, a galvanizing figure to both the left and the right. His strike began on January 8th and is now into its 57th day. 

Koufodinas is serving eleven life sentences for his role as one of the top assassins for Greece’s most notorious and violent homegrown Marxist-Nationalist terrorist organization, 17 November–which took its name from the final day of the student uprising leading to the overthrow of Greece’s Military Dictatorship (1967-1974).

17 November managed to operate undetected for close to thirty years, assassinating 23 prominent people in more than one hundred attacks—starting with the assassination of the CIA’s section chief in Athens.  But their primary targets were prominent members of Greece’s establishment, and they got away with murder, kidnapping, and robbery.  Their reign of terror conveniently came to an end when Greece was under terrific pressure from the worldwide community to guarantee a terrorism-free 2004 Olympics.

Koufodinas initiated his hunger strike to protest his transfer in December 2020 from an Athens prison to one in central Greece. The former ruling government party had moved him to a low security facility and allowed him a half-dozen furloughs from prison. He wants the current government to afford him the same treatment, and his attorneys argue that to do otherwise violates his rights as an inmate.

Koufodinas' demands have been backed by near-daily public protests in Athens and other Greek cities, at times numbering in the thousands, but a recent opinion poll suggests that nearly 70% of Greeks oppose his demands.

Buildings that house offices of government departments and politicians have been vandalized and targeted in arson attacks by Koufodinas supporters. Authorities have since increased security at potential police and government targets in preparation for possible violent reprisals if Koufodinas dies.

The son of one of 17 November’s victims has asked Koufodinas’ supporters to join him in urging Koufodinas to stop the hunger strike and instead press his claims in court. But the son points out that those supporters “do not seem to want him to stop. They appear to have something else in mind,” and notes, “We regret that terrorism has become a subject of political confrontation once more, because this is what it’s all about,”


Yesterday, the hospital treating Koufodinas announced he’s in kidney failure.


The situation is now critical.


In every way, and everywhere.


PS. Thanks to The National Herald for its reporting that I consulted in connection with this post.

Coming April 6th...


Friday, March 5, 2021

The small world

  The small world.

It’s been exactly a year since restrictions started in Scotland. It seems a lot longer.

Since Christmas Day we have been under a total lockdown of only being allowed out for groceries, to attend a medical appointment or for one hours exercise. Except for  us that aren’t under lockdown.

Many patients are really suffering with their mental health, many see nobody, speak to nobody, day in,  day out. The recent terrible weather ( for Scotland I mean!), really heavy rain and snow,  high winds and freezing temperatures meant that even the daily walk for exercise was off the agenda.

On an upbeat note, all that walking has hurt knees, low backs, blistered feet and strained flat arches so, at work, we are really busy treating those injuries.

So, I think we now have two classes in society; those that are sore bored they are looking to swap jigsaws on Facebook.  Those that are screaming at Facebook, wishing to have time to be bored enough to do jigsaws.

Things are different at work than they were at the start of lockdown, one year ago.  We have rules at in the clinic about patients coming in at the appointment time and not before, then the patient will sneak in claiming the bus was early, or they misjudged the time, it’s too cold to wait outside ( true), there’s nowhere else open ( also true).  So in they come, sanitise their hands and sit in their designated socially  distanced space. Then the chat starts, or more commonly a monologue. The receptionist, encased in a Perspex box, with a small hatch for the credit card machine  ( true Scot that I am), is a sitting target. Add to the mix the  muffling effect of the  Perspex, the muffling effect of the masks, the noise of the road works outside ( they drilled through our internet cable but that’s another story) you can imagine how some of the conversations can go a bit off course. Then the door opens and another one comes in. Then another one. And the treatment room doors open and those patients walk out. When we get to four, one of the therapists has to go out and go on traffic patrol, standing in the middle of the reception  like a Spanish policeman,  guiding one patient to park at the door while another goes into a  room and the covid seat sanitisation shuffle  starts again.

Lives are lived second hand now. We understand that. Patients have our undivided attention for thirty minutes. We might be the only person they speak to that week. You tell them to come back in two weeks, they book for the following week - just in case. And they harvest the therapist for information about the dog, the farm,  the novel,  the builders, the new roof, the old roof,  the current jigsaw.

The topics of conversation are limited, as life is limited.

Scottish politics are interesting at the moment but the consensus of opinion ( it’s all he said /she said) is that they should all grow up and come clean.

Netflix- The Crown, The Peanut Butter Phoenix, Unforgotten are my recommendations, and we chat about the episodes, making arrangements so we are at the same bit in the series. We talk about Behind Her Eyes ( 97% psych thriller,  2% sci fi, but who saw that coming ??).    We then talk about everything that was wrong with Marchella, even though we watched it- in fact I confess that I watched it twice ( while doing paperwork!) as there were a few plot points I couldn’t tie up. That was because they didn’t, tie up they were left dangling. I might try that on my editor. Doubt I’d get very far.

The weather. Always a good talking point. There’s a lot of it.

The latest lockdown breaking scandal in the street- everybody is looking out their windows, waiting to grass up the neighbours for having a bubble of more than 1 from three different households with one foot in the door when there’s an R in the month  and Orion is visible in the night sky.

And schooling. Many folk have working from home pretty well sussed.  Sometimes both parents are working from home. If you are a key worker ( as opposed to an essential worker ), you are allowed to send your kids to school. If not,  you are supposed to school them at home, while doing your own job.

Mostly, they complain about the odd way things are taught nowadays - the adverbial phrase?  Teaching a  snottery nosed, stir crazy seven year old about the counterpointing metaphor is no use to anybody. Sometimes, they patient brings the English homework in for me to lend an expert eye, as they think because I write books I should be able to string a sentence together. I tell them that’s not the case. But I am good at killing  people.



Thursday, March 4, 2021

So much to say

 Stanley – Thursday


There are so many things to talk about this week! 


First, today is the day we’ve all been waiting for—the historic re-inauguration of Donald Trump. I am sitting here with bated breath (not held breath) in front of the TV.


Second, it was this week in 1885 that the Berlin Conference ended. This was the conference where the European powers divided up Africa, each scrambling to get the best resources and land. 


I'll have this piece.

The result

There were no Africans at the conference. 


The United States had observer status in the person of Henry Morton Stanley of ‘Dr Livingston, I presume’ fame—a rogue if there ever was one. Most people think he was an American. He wasn’t. He was Welsh.


Henry Morton Stanley


Third, in a related event, the city of Port Elizabeth in South Africa (or P E as it is often referred to) was renamed Gqeberha, a Xhosa word that has caused a lot of interest and some pushback. Named in 1920 after the late wife of Lord Charles Somerset, governor of the Cape Colony, P E became the commercial centre of the Eastern Cape. The reason for the renaming is that before the colonists arrived, the local river was called Gqeberha. It is part of a larger, long-term effort to change colonial names back to local ones.

Downtown Gqeberha

Gqeberha has lovely beaches.


Some people, mainly White, I suspect, are against the change, offering various arguments, such as it will cost too much money, or everyone knows the town is called P E, or the new name is unpronounceable.


A number of other towns’ names were also changed, also to difficult-to-pronounce Xhosa names. King Williams Town is now Qonce (with its two different clicks), and Maclear is now the challenging Nqanqarhu.


These names ARE difficult to pronounce. Even for many Black South Africans who aren’t Xhosa.


Thisvery amusing three-minute video gives a good idea of the problems that even the locals are having.


This one-minute video shows a delightfully creative approach to pronouncing the three most difficult new names. Think Miriam Makeba, who would have been delighted.


Personally, I’m very much in favour of changing these old colonial names. And I love these new ones. I’m sure it won’t take long for people to start referring to the old P E as G Q. That will avoid tongue sprain.


Which brings me to a question I’ve pondered for many years. Namely, why do people in one country so frequently change the name of places in other countries? Sometimes the change is purely in the pronunciation, such as English speakers say Paris, while the French call their city of light Paree (still spelt Paris). Generally, I understand this. Someone who hasn’t visited France or who doesn’t speak French would naturally think that the final s in Paris should be articulated.

More puzzling to me is when the local name for a place is easy to say in English, but is still changed. So to the Italians, the city is Roma, but we English speakers have changed it to Rome.  Why? After all, we can all say Roma.


I sort of understand it when different languages pronounce letters differently. The Austrian capital is Wien to the Austrians, pronounced Veen. At face value, in English this would be pronounced Ween. I guess, rather than learning the correct pronunciation of Wien, English speakers tried to spell it with letters that approximated the correct pronunciation. Hence Vienna. But, if you are going to change it, why not to Veen?


I do understand that English got many of its city names from the French, who call Firenze Florence, for example, which is an adaptation of its original Latin name Florentia. But even the Brits can pronounce Firenze, so why not leave it alone?


Things get even more complicated in countries that have multiple official languages. The little, mountainous country in Europe that we know as Switzerland, has Helvetia on its stamps, but its official name is Swiss Confederation (or Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft in German). Each of the four official languages has a different name for the country: die Schweiz (German), Suisse (French), Svizzera (Italian), and Svizra (Romansch). Very confusing.


And of course, Swiss towns often have different names in the different languages. Geneva, for example, is Genf in German. You have to be on the ball when looking at Swiss road signs.


We’ve been lucky in South Africa (with its 11 official languages) that most towns have one name. Certainly since the democratic elections in 1994, a number of names have changed, like Port Elizabeth to Gqeberha, but officially there is always only one. I happen to live in the only exception I can think of: Cape Town is Kaapstad in Afrikaans. What is confusing to visitors is street signs: 2nd Avenue on one street sign will be 2de Laan (Tweede Laan) on the next for the same street. English and Afrikaans again.


It is all so confusing.


I think I am going to start the Places Should Have One Name society: the PSHON society. In this age of social media, Google, and television, it should be pretty easy to standardise names. Since PSHON will be in make-things-easy mode, it could have a committee to study the introduction of one worldwide time, as well as the adoption of Esperanto as the world’s official language. 


Now, is Trump president yet?

Wednesday, March 3, 2021



What's "normal?"

As Covid-19 vaccination slowly progresses in the US and worldwide, I keep hearing the question, "When will we return to normal?" But what's "normal," and are we sure that's what we want?


It seems a long time ago, although it's only a year or so, since I last went to an in-person meeting. These took place in formal settings or over coffee, lunch, or dinner. All that was fine, but my main beef, especially in a place as sprawling and traffic-ridden as Los Angeles, was that a one-hour meeting didn't seem worth a round trip travel time of 2-3 hours on the freeway. Very often, the return trip lasts even longer than the inbound if you hit afternoon to evening rush hour, which is exactly when you're dying to get home.

Los Angeles traffic (Shutterstock/egd)

Studies indicate that when cars wait in traffic at an intersection, large amounts of particulate pollutants can enter the vehicle if the windows are open and/or the fan is drawing air in from the exterior. 

Apart from this, we're all aware how traffic jams can grate on one's nerves. I think it's generally agreed that it is not good for us mentally, and physically it's not the ideal either: sedentary hours sitting in one place takes a toll on the body. Take a look here at the bad list.

A social date is one thing, but for business meetings, I am quite comfortable on Zoom or any of the equivalent platforms. If you want to get me across town to meet up in person for a business meeting, there had better be a compelling reason.

Book discussions

I won't pretend virtual book clubs or bookstore signings are just as satisfying as in-person appearances. They lack the same kind of human warmth and interaction that a "live" event has. Additionally, the pleasure of physically signing books while meeting old and new readers at a book launch can never be duplicated on a Zoom, e.g. it's great to finally meet in the flesh people who have been following you or communicating with you online. 

On the other hand, let's face it, you can do two or more Zooms in a week without having to get in a car or on a plane or train or having to check into a hotel somewhere. In this way, I quite frankly saved a lot of money during 2020. One of my last in-person appearances before lockdown was on February 26, 2020, at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, where I had a lovely book meeting hosted by the bookstore and our own Sujata. It was great fun, and no virtual event is ever quite as good.

A group of readers with Sujata and me, Feb 2020


Many years ago, I was a regular movie-goer. However, even pre-Covid,  I became squeamish about the state of cleanliness of the theater seats. Sometimes the theater smelled a little stale, and since it's half dark in there, there was no telling how clean the place really was. Do they wipe the seats down? If so, what do they use as a cleanser? Since Covid-19, that icky factor has grown 10-fold for me. I doubt I'll be returning to movie theaters for a while--certainly not in the manner I used to. So that's one "normal" I'm not really going to miss. I don't know about you, but when I look at this photo of a packed movie theater, I can't help automatically cringing somewhat. It's a learned reaction response. Where're all y'all's masks?

Movie theater in Thessaloniki, Greece, 2014 (Shutterstock/Ververidis Vasilis)


It's true that some cities have marvelous public transportation systems and that in many cases you don't even need a car the way one does in Los Angeles--I think of London, New York, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Stockholm, etc--and in fact it's sometimes much cheaper and less of a hassle not to have a vehicle. 
I've long admired cities with excellent public transport. But in the future, will I be willing to get on one of those subway trains? It depends. This one looks fine:

Tokyo metro with distancing and masks (Shutterstock/Fiers)

This one, not so much. Maybe with a mask and full vaccination.

Crowded London Underground train December, 2020(Shutterstock/Yau Ming Low)

Restaurants, bars, etc.

I feel sorry for establishments that depended mostly or exclusively on eat-in dining and have had their businesses gutted by the pandemic. Many have adapted, while others have been unable to do so for one reason or another. I'm not much of a restaurant-goer, but I'll be more than happy to return to my few favorite restaurants if they have outdoor seating or indoor spacing with good ventilation. Some places have spent a fortune making these adjustments only to be shut down again with a new set of city or county rules. It's been tough for them.

Diehard fans of bars will likely return to "normal" because they never actually changed their behavior in the first place. Throughout the pandemic, a breed of hardcore party people, who would rather be killed than never party again, has failed to become extinct. Remember those wild Hollywood pandemic parties?

Handshakes and hugging

The handshake is one I will not miss. Why did people shake hands anyway? You can bow your head, nod, smile, wave, anything. But stop with the handshakes. Well, there's one handshake that's still fun: the 
Ghanaian one.

As for hugging--well, okay, I'm not the touchiest-feeliest kinda guy, but seriously, I think it was getting a bit much, don't you? Embrace your immediate family or bf/gf, but everyone else? They'll be fine. In general, lower your hug quota, i.e. you don't have a lot to go around, kinda like advance review copies.

Anything you will miss, or not, post-pandemic?