Modern Misterios Set in Silicon Valley

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Read it today!

I believe in serendipity. Throughout the late summer I consumed novels set in Spain in anticipation of my trip. Guidebooks are great for seeing the sights, but novels capture the national character and identify the flavor of a place. Among the books I read were two police procedurals by Antonio Hill and three of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruis Zafón. I noticed something labyrinthine and dark about all the books I read. I imagined Spain as the backdrop for a Gothic novel. Then, just before leaving for Barcelona, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of Blood Allegiance. As I read this bone chilling crime novel set in Silicon Valley, I felt pulled into a dark world of exotic secrets, overwrought emotions, and tingling suspense. This modern-day police procedural—for me—a metonymy for gloom and horror, that is until the end. Could these crimes happen here? I was again reminded of Gothic tales, and I was sucked right in.

As it turned out, there’s a good reason why Elin Barnes’s novel reminded me of the Spanish writers. She’s from Madrid. Blood Allegiance contains elements of modern Gothic fiction: rationality vs. irrationality, guilt, strangeness within the familiar, monsters (human ones in this book), and abjection. What a master of suspense, twisting her plot in surprising directions as it weaves around the central story creating a maze of relationships, motivations, violence, and secrets: the lead Santa Clara criminalist is found dismembered at a local restaurant and the crime scene is tagged with gang graffiti. Detective Darcy Lynch (who we know from the first two books in this series) is wading into unknown territory when he’s sent on loan to CATCH, the Cross-Agency Tactical California Homicide Unit. But the case carries more weight for Darcy than apprehending the man who slaughtered a colleague. If he fails, he won’t be reassigned to the task force and his career could be over.
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Another member of the unit is gunned down and a drone crashes into a San Jose Police Department helicopter turning the case into a bloody disaster. Lynch must stop one, or two, of the most vicious California gangs before they execute his entire team.

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The characterization is multilayered. Protagonist, Darcy Lynch, and antagonist, Oscar Amaro are complex and individualized. Both are damaged and both have the capacity for “getting the job done” at whatever cost, yet are imbued with deep humanity. The surprise ending showcases these two characters as clouded mirrors of each other. The secondary characters are also rounded: Sorenson, Lynch’s overweight and gritty partner, Quinn, the sergeant with a deep secret that leads him to a crisis of heart, and Chavo Buenavente, of the rival gang and Oscar’s nemesis all have distinct personalities and distinguishable speech patterns. The characters are many, and their relationships are webbed. I found the hierarchy of gang members most interesting and well-researched, as are the portrayals of law enforcement agencies and employees. Barnes does her homework.

Barnes uses language and plot to instill uneasiness and fear in the reader. Her diction is less elaborate and ornate than the Gothic literature of the past. Instead, it reflects the language of everyday life in Silicon Valley in 2017. One reviewer from the Silicon Valley said, “The characters sound and behave like South Bay folks do.” I found the book to be easy to read and authentic in narrative and dialog.

Thematically Blood Allegiance raises serious questions about integrity, honor and the bonds of family and fraternity. It also sheds light on one of elite Northern California’s dirty problems swept under the rug: gangs. There’s a lot to think about after putting the book down—but don’t expect too much pondering during this action packed page-turner!

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I’m not a Spanish Literature scholar, but I’m betting Ms. Barnes was introduced to and influenced by the Spanish misterio (mystery) genre in school: serial novels inspired by Eugène Sue’s bestseller Les Mystères de Paris (1841-1843). The genre is in fact a spin-off of 19th century French Gothic fiction and represents an attempt to explore society in an urban context. The misterios actively participated in the discourses of their day, as does the Darcy Lynch Series. Serial novels like the misterios and the Darcy Lynch Series act as foundational narratives that record the new order of society. The misterios presented by the novels were in part the mysteries of the new society in the 1800s, one that its readers were learning to navigate—just like the new cyber world of our century. It’s been said that [Spanish misterios] are stories of patriarchal systems in crisis and the consequences of social transgression and relevant today.

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The Gothic form is able to articulate the anxieties of society. Blood Allegiance employs the Gothic tropes of family romance, incarceration and contamination to represent the conflicting ideologies of the 21st century. I congratulate Elin Barnes on taking her place in the venerated tradition of the Spanish misterio—21st Century style!

Elin Barnes grew up in Spain. Her father is a film director and her mother a Swedish author (with a past life as an actress).
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After graduating HS, Elin pursued her dream of becoming an airline pilot. When her eyesight impeded her to fly passenger aircrafts, she switched gears and obtained a BA in Philosophy. After a short stint working for a criminal appeals lawyer, Elin returned to Spain to get her MA in International Commerce.

For the last decade she’s worked in technology for companies like, AT&T, T-Mobile, Google, Microsoft, TiVo, and Samsung. She is on the Board of Sisters in Crime Northern California.

Her passions for law, technology, and thrillers inspired Elin to write the Darcy Lynch Series of thrillers set in Silicon Valley, where innovation is always brewing.

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Tell It Like It Was

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@memoirmusic

Why write it? Why illuminate your innermost self and risk potential pain of ridicule or criticism? You ask yourself this, over and over, even as you name your secret places, confess your transgressions, light up your dark desires.

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Thanks Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens

Perhaps you reveal your wild and strange garden because of that gnawing, burrowing inner gopher. You know the one—nibbling the tendrils of your memories and digging through your synapses in his blind foraging. You know the dark feeding will stop in the light of your pen.

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 At first you write to expose the bully, the crazy parent, the mean sister, the pain-giver. That may be your catalyst, but will revealing trespasses against you trap the hungry rodents like a hunting cat, pouncing on those unseeing beasts, dragging them from the dark and laying them at your feet?

In the end the revelation is you.

images-5        Writing your memoirs? Creating a family legacy?

                      Looking to publish your story?

Join the Rianda House memoir writers:A forum for craft, critique and positive encouragement.

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This group welcomes beginning memoir writers as well as more experienced writers who wish to explore their lives through the written word, both creative non-fiction (memoir, personal narrative, essay, autobiography) and poetry. Writing craft is discussed in the group and writing topics are suggested. All participants are encouraged to share their work in class.

Mondays 3:00-5:00 at Rianda House 1475 Main St. St. Helena Free

#70755 (Pre-registration at Rianda House) Feb 6-May 22 (no class 4/10)

 

Resources:

http://namw.org

http://www.judithbarrington.com

http://shewritespress.com/

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Corpse Pose

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CONGRATULATIONS JAN M FLYNN!!

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Author Jan Flynn hits the high notes with each of the ten tales in this imaginative and entertaining collection of speculative fiction. I love how the author tells a fantastic story as though it were as commonplace as going to the post office. And in the midst of a wild tale, the reader can believe in the well-drawn characters and feel a range of emotions—laughter foremost.

Each story is tight, genuine, over the top—and delightful to read. I found the writing style clean, well seasoned with modernisms, snarky asides and keen observations. The authorial voice shines through the collection, yet each story sounds unique, beginning with Corpse Pose, a darkly humorous yoga fantasy through Walk-in, and an uplifting look at what we do between human incarnations. The tales range from the hilarious, Imp, to Pills, packed with heart touching magical realism, to the psychological horror of 541. While the collection is touted as horror “illumined by the paranormal,” for me, the “humor and heart” elevate these stories from your run-of-the-mill slasher or vampire tales. If you love dark humor, creepy twists, magical realism and pathos, Corpse Pose: and Other Tales will be your go-to fix. I’ve read it twice. One caution, reading these stories might lead to spontaneous laughter and flights of fancy!biypkpret

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Scheduled to Death

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images-4In the 1950s in my Dad’s Buick, motoring south along El Camino Real, I looked for the bells marking the Spanish explorer’s route and drank in the sights outside my window: stately pillared homes, bars and strip joints, restaurants, shops and traffic. I tasted the air laced with salt and chop suey as we passed through the endless neighborhoods to visit my grandfather, a retired Stanford chemistry professor. at his tree-shrouded Kinsley Avenue home in Palo Alto.

Even as a small child I recognized the rarified atmosphere of peaceful activity, co-operation and camaraderie we encountered in Grandpa’s quiet neighborhood and in explorations of the Stanford campus with its courtyards and red tiled roofs. Excitement in Palo Alto still centers on Stanford University in the form of discovering a solution to global warming or graduating the next Einstein. But the academic world suffers the same jealousies, greed, and crime as anywhere else. Just ask Mary Feliz and her amateur sleuth, Maggie MacDonald, founder and CEO of Simplicity Itself Organizing Services.

Maggie, her husband Max and their two teen aged boys have recently moved from the Sacramento River delta into great-aunt Kay’s 100 year old California Craftsman house in the fictional village of Orchard View up the ridge from Stanford University. “Efficient organization” is Maggie’s passion and she’s working tirelessly to settle into her new home and re-build her business in the Bay Area. She’s Scheduled to Death, in the latest Maggie McDonald Mystery by Mary Feliz publishing through Lyrical Underground in January 2017.

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Maggie is aware that her contract with Professor Lincoln, “Linc” Sinclair straddles the line between failure and success for her career in Orchard View. Her client, a Nobel candidate with a brilliant mind and no sense of organization, needs her to cull three generations of furniture and “stuff” in preparation to sell the family mansion, which will be showcased at realtor Tess Olmos’s holiday event, and he’s not answering the door. images-8Maggie looks for Linc in the the backyard where she encounters formidable Boots letting herself into the kitchen. Boots is the director of the Orchard View Plotters Garden Club and manager of the community garden adjoining Linc’s property.

Linc bicycles up with his dog Newton. The group troops up to Linc’s workroom to inspect his progress and find Linc’s fiancée and Maggie’s best friend, Sarah, dead in a pool of water, a frayed electrical wire grasped in her hand.

Acting Detective Lieutenant Apfel, a detective so unlikeable he can’t get along with his canine unit, arrests Linc for murder and Maggie applies her organizational skills to investigating the crime. She’s driven to solve the mystery out of loyalty to her friends, moral indignation over the sloppy handling of the police investigation—and if Linc’s organizing job isn’t finished and the event is canceled, Maggie’s fledgling Simplicity Itself Organizing Services doesn’t stand a chance.

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Scheduled to Death is a delightful cozy mystery with enough twists and surprises to keep the pages flipping. Between the taciturn garden mistress Boots, her cadre of garden assistants, all former foster children, Stanford graduate students and professors, a bloodthirsty pickup truck and a threatening black Range Rover, there are enough secrets and suspects, explosions and crashes, to keep readers guessing until the end when the truth is revealed. Maggie has her own team of helpers including Orchard View Detective Paolo Bianchi, and family friend, Detective Jason Mueller, on medical leave from the department. They’re as unhappy about Detective Lieutenant “Awful’s” handling of the case as Maggie. Even the dogs, Belle, Newton and Munchkin, play their parts in creating the backdrop to returning peace to Orchard View.

Author Mary Feliz has created a realistic and believable town in the Palo Alto hills. That Maggie is not a professor or attached to the University works in her favor. That she’s a professional organizer with a strong family and social life gives her credibility and reasons to be in places bodies might turn up. She’s uber-organized herself, a boon for an investigator, and possesses familiar middle-class values. Maggie is a woman we might count as a friend and know through our clubs, PTA, church, and social circles. You can count on her: “But friends helping friends is what life is all about…” Intelligent, logical, organized, determined, personable, kind and motivated, Maggie McDonald is a character that will inspire readers.

I enjoyed Feliz’s easy-going writing style. Her prose is clear, modern and the story moves at a good pace. She doesn’t bog us down with constant repetitions or explanations, nor is the language too lofty or stiff. It’s just right: enough elevated vocabulary to sound intelligent balanced with enough familiar phrases to make us comfortable. I loved her technique of starting each chapter with an excerpt from Maggie’s notebook. For example,

Chapter 2 begins:

        Whenever you’re working with electrical appliances or systems,                  check at least twice to assure the power is off.

     From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services

I appreciated the clear, logical progression of the plot to a breath-quickening climax. The leisurely tying up of details into a hoped-for happy ending and the possibility for more adventures added to my enjoyment of the book:

“I’ve learned my lesson, honey. I promise.”

“Of course dear,” Max said. But then he snorted, ruining the formal and dignified tone of his statement. “So, where does that leave your interest in murder investigations? They’re becoming a habit with you.”

“What are the odds of another murder happening in Orchard View?”

Yes, what exactly are the odds? High, I hope!

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I congratulate Mary Feliz on her second in a promising series of cozy mysteries set in Silicon Valley. Maggie McDonald is a charming protagonist even if she has a thing for tripping over bodies. In her first book, Address to Die For, the McDonalds haven’t even moved into their new home when Maggie stumbles across her first case. For an organizing diva, murder was not on the to-do list. I’m betting author Mary Feliz, who has lived in five states and two countries, has moving to a science. It’s a headache no matter how smoothly it goes. Feliz’s travels have shown her that life in Silicon Valley, is much different than life elsewhere and she’s become a self-proclaimed advocate of “irony, serendipity, diversity, and quirky intelligence,” bringing these elements into her characterizations.

Feliz is a Smith College graduate where she studied Sociology. She’s active in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and, of course, the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Find Scheduled to Death on pre-sale at Amazon and kick off your new year with an exciting mystery. Look for Scheduled to Death on January 17th, and congratulations to Mary Feliz on her delightful new series.

Look for Dead Storage in July 2017

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Semper Fidelis

There are days when I yearn to sit at my desk and let the muse wash through me onto the screen. Those are the days I rue participating in so many writers’ groups, reading so many blogs and keeping up with all my writer friends on Facebook. Let’s face it, life itself throws enough in the way of getting a novel written, why join all these groups then volunteer to: be treasurer, chair the 1-day conference committee, sell at the book festival, and edit the anthology? Well, once in awhile the universe answers! 118396635-11070003-1

I’m a member of the Sisters in Crime Guppies group, an on-line chapter of an organization devoted to supporting writers through the mysterious and twisting maze from writing the novel to revising to determining how to publish, publishing and finally marketing our books. It was through Guppies that the universe introduced me to Seth and his author, JB Morris. I was assigned to be Morris’s BETA reader and the assignment couldn’t have been a better fit for me. I’m already looking forward to the next book!

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Both the title of the book and the protagonist, Seth is a war-weary Staff Sergeant of the elite Marine Corps Force Recon, recalled home after six combat deployments to care for his aged and infirm father. Highly decorated, but broken from the losses of war and haunted by the memories of Marines killed, Seth now works as a police officer for the Hillsdale, Ohio police department. Unfortunately, fate hasn’t offered Seth respite from his demons. The Hillsdale Police Department is overrun with dirty cops and Hillsdale is ground zero for a bloody war between Mexico’s Los Guerreros and Halcon Cartels for control of this strategic access to the lucrative Eastern drug trade.images

 After a takedown goes bad, Seth’s mission is to clear the department of the cops who have opened Hillsdale to the drug trade. With the help of a ‘clean’ superior and trusted colleague, Officer Kat MacKenna, Seth jumps into his assignment and begins to uncover layers of corruption. As he and Kat get too close, the drug-selling officers threaten Seth’s father and he fights like a Marine.

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The story is about a drug war and Seth’s healing. Seth is a multi-faceted character. Damaged early in life through living with a mentally ill mother, Seth suffers loss after loss. His wife, Allison, betrays him and dies in an automobile crash. He loses men in Iraq, and fails to save his best friend, Billie, who commits suicide after coming home from Iraq. While Kat and his father are constants in his life, his father is fading and he does not love Kat as she loves him. He grapples with guilt on both accounts and especially for Billy’s death. He doesn’t feel Hillsdale holds anything for him, but honor binds him to his job and he goes after the corrupt cops and both warring cartels with a vengeance.

 Seth is told from the point of view of many characters. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the shifts from character to character might be confusing, but I found the transitions clear and the look inside all the players’ heads to be gripping. In particular the assassin, Angel, a Mexican woman aligned with Halcon cartel, to be fascinating. images-4She truly is the Angel of Death and appears almost as a magical being emerging from the jaguar skin of the ancient Aztec warrior cult of the Cuāuhocēlōtl. Angel and Seth are two sides of the same coin—warriors to the core, deeply principled, and doing a job.images-3

Angel yearns to buy her freedom from the cartel and return to her warrior cult, just as Seth yearns to leave Hillsdale and the police behind.

 

Author JB Morris is a master of the battle scene. He also has a sound understanding of drug cartel culture and operations. My heart pounded with the excitement of the gun battles. Like Tom Clancy, Morris gives his readers in-depth details on weapons and battle. I came away from Seth with loads of information and even a great idea for a shoot-out in my own suspense novels. Readers who like specific details of weapons will find Seth satisfying.

 Morris also does a good job with his character’s voices. Seth’s voice is spare—he’s a man of few words. His superior is more erudite. Angel obviously is speaking English as a second language, although her fluency is excellent. Kat sounds like a modern woman. I appreciated Morris’ tight, spare style. He doesn’t drift into flights of lyrical fancy yet I felt the imagery sufficient to feel like that “fly on the wall” in the scene.

 Seth is an intelligent, layered, and fast-paced thriller that will keep the reader turning pages. There is plenty of action and plenty of character development to offer a rich experience for the reader. When things look bleakest for Seth, a savior appears in the form of a “brother in arms” and if Seth makes it through the “mission” his future may be happier. I’m banking on more books!

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JB Morris didn’t imagine he would become an author, although he began writing poetry in high school. When he was offered a contract for a book of poems, he turned it down, too busy with his career as a funeral director and manager of a cemetery. He served as  a commander in the Army Reserves and went on to working as a TV weatherman, a city council member and a state legislator.

But Morris claims that something was always missing. Other than articles he wrote, he wasn’t working on any novels. Much later the vision of Grace an Unexpected Love filled his head and he began work on his first novel. Now JB Morris fills his time writing romance and thrillers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Let’s all give him a big hand on the publication of his second novel, Seth. And keep your fingers crossed for the speedy delivery of the next book!

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Piece Me Together

images-1I’m the proverbial chicken without a head—running thither and yon, trying to catch up while I’m on semester break everything that has fallen behind. Do I have too many directions, activities, pursuits—hats? Sometimes I feel like a mosaic. Fit the pieces together and I might be surprised to find—me.

The following is a poem by Sonia Milton read in our Autobiographical Writing class at Rianda House this past semester. Apparently I’m not the only fragmented soul wishing for time and cohesion. I hope you enjoy it!

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Slices

I live in the slices
Segmented blocks of time and space
That come in-between the interactions
Actually, I get a lot done in my slices,
It’s part of the waiting
Waiting for someone: Hal, Lauren, Peter
          To show up
                       Finish
                              Be ready
                                            Call
Come over
         Meet with me
                  Demand of me…
And I must be ready.
All the edges cleaned up
Starched and available
All the crumbs swept up, even if under the rug
READY
Heaven forbid I’m caught up in
               my own life
                            my own process
                                       my own becoming
And caught off-guard
What if someone catches me at THAT?
What if someone else SEES?
What if I see?
I want the whole orange, the entire pie, the whole loaf
Ah, now that would be a wonderful piece of time!
I would
                breathe fully
                            stretch completely
                                           sigh contentedly
I would have room to read the entire book, fantasize an entire dream
I would have room and time to be ME

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Sonya Milton grew up in New York and Miami and has lived in Napa Valley 20 years. She’s particularly interested in the inner journey and has written her memoirs intermittently over the past couple of decades. Partly retired, she spends time with her 4-year-old great nephew and making lunch for her husband.

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I Am Providence

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My reading tastes might be described as eclectic but I must confess that I’m pitiably deficient in horror. I do read mysteries and grabbed Nick Mamatas’s I Am Providence when he offered me the ARC to read and review. It turns out the actual mystery plays second to the social predisposition of the group that makes the murder possible. The story is about pulp fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft and his oddball group of contemporary fans: obsessive, insecure, small-minded, and generally weird. It’s told with a droll wit, biting at times, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I remember some of these characters from the last fan conference I attended!

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Alternating chapters, Mamatas tells the story in two points of view. Panossian, the victim, muses on his life, his writing, and H.P. Lovecraft, delivering insight into the Lovecraftian world and his own nature. Panossian’s observations on writers, fans and conferences had me either hooting or feeling a little sick when they hit too close.

 

A narrator chronicles the action from the point of view of Colleen Danzig, the recently acclaimed horror writer, who isn’t “exactly nervous” to attend her first Summer Tentactular, the annual Lovecraft convention held in Lovecraft’s hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. Colleen isn’t sure what to expect, but finds the other writers in the bar, recognizable by the way they “clutched at their drinks with a special sort of desperation. . .” and meets the eccentric group including Panossian, who she’s rooming with during the con. He’s the author of a literary mash-up, which has insinuated him into the fringes of the Lovecraftian community.

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Colleen attends the opening ceremonies, the private themed parties and the midnight visit to Lovecraft’s grave, “A veritable ‘who’s that?’ of horror fiction.” Back at the room Panossian shows her a book, Arkham, bound with the author’s skin. That’s the last Colleen sees of him until she identifies his body at the morgue, his face flayed of skin.

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It’s gruesome but worse, none of the other convention goers care. Other than a bunch of police poking about, the Summer Tentacular continues unabated—even when the next victim is found in the forest where the gang has gone to see if they can discover the burial site of Lovecraft’s cat.

 

No one is allowed to leave the hotel and most of the con-goers are questioned. Colleen is compelled to solve the murder despite that two of the inner circle have been taken into custody. Her investigation may end badly.

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From his drawer at the morgue, Panossian narrates, except he’s in the dark regarding who killed him. He’s alarmed: He hears what’s going on yet can’t speak or move. He’s ready for oblivion. He thought reading Lovecraft would have prepared him for it. “If fiction is a way of inducing an organism to remember experiences it never had, then reading Lovecraft is crucial for understanding the futility of life and the screaming horror of death. . .” He spends a lot of time with unraveling thoughts about Colleen, his relationship to the Lovecraftians and Lovecraft’s work.

 

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H.P. Lovecraft

By the end of the book, Mamatas has spun a new Lovecraft story. I Am Providence is dark and disturbing enough to make Lovecraft proud, but it is also a tongue in cheek romp into a zany subculture. Mamatas’s erudition in the world of Lovecraft shines with his cultivated vocabulary and edgy syntax. I plain enjoyed how his thoughts flowed across the tentacled pages, and have come away with knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft and his work. Did you know in 2005 he was awarded the status of classic American writer with the publication of Tales, a collection of his weird fiction stories?

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If you’re like me and can’t pronounce Cthulhu, don’t worry! I Am Providence is accessible to anyone who loves a thought provoking read, a good laugh, and a look into another world. Oh, and the mystery is great—you won’t see the killer coming. (Hint: it isn’t one of the Elder Gods.)

 Congratulations to Nick Mamatas—I Am Providence has published today!

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Nick Mamatas just might be the new Providence.

Nick Mamatas is the author of six and a half novels, including The Last Weekend (PS Publishing), Love is the Law (Dark Horse), The Damned Highway with Brian Keene (Dark Horse), Bullettime (CZP), Sensation (PM Press), Under My Roof (Counterpoint/Soft Skull), and Move Under Ground (Night Shade/Prime). His latest collection is The Nickronomicon, from Innsmouth Free Press. His novels have been translated into German, Italian, and Greek. Nick is also an anthologist and editor of short fiction: with Masumi Washington he co-edited the Locus Award-nominated The Future Is Japanese (Haikasoru), and with Ellen Datlow he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends (Tor Books). Nick’s own short fiction has appeared in genre publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Tor.com, lit journals including New Haven Review and subTERRAIN, and anthologies such as Hint Fiction and Best American Mystery Stories 2013. His fiction and editorial work has been nominated for the Bram Stoker award five times, the Hugo Award twice, the World Fantasy Award twice, and the Shirley Jackson, International Horror Guild, and Locus Awards. His writing guide Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life (Apex Publications) has been excerpted in The Writer, and he has also published two joke/reference books: Insults Every Man Should Know and Quotes Every Man Should Know (Quirk Books).
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Saturday Morning Heroes

I love TV. I always have. Since the early 1950s when Dad wanted to sleep-in on Saturday morning and I learned to turn on our very modern black and white set topped with rabbit ears, I’ve been following favorite shows. Now we have On-Demand and Netflix so we can sleep-in too, but back in the 50s millions of us spent Saturday morning glued to the tube.
     This week join guest blogger, Nathaniel Robert Winters, in a flash memoir of his Saturday morning Westerns. Look for his latest book Not Quite Koshernot quite a memoir but a unique blend of non-fictional prose, poetry and even fiction that parallels reality. Nathaniel is the author of 10 books and can be found on Amazon.com.
 

Saturday Morning Heroes

When I was an eight-year-old, my heroes appeared like clockwork every Saturday morning on the black and white, rabbit eared way-back machine. My grandfather and I occupied ourselves for three hours of Western justice:  lessons as important as any at school, church or temple.
    
Grandpa Abe, a refugee of Eastern injustice, found sanctuary in the old West. We started with the Cisco Kid—yes there was a Mexican hero on 50’s TV, but no black heroes. My elementary age mind did not deal in gray-area moral issues yet. Good and evil was black and white. The hero always won, the bad guy was captured or shot without bleeding and the girl was always saved, all in a half hour show complete with Tony the Tiger Frosted Flakes commercials.
    
Next came the Lone Ranger with his good Indian partner Tonto. Even Indians could be good guys on Saturday mornings. Long before the Beatles, my favorite tune was The William Tell Overture that ended with “High ho Silver, away.”
    
Rin Tin Tin followed the Lone Ranger and marked the start of my love affair with dogs. Before I ever had a dog, the TV German Shepard, who was a member of the Western U.S. Army, saved the day and showed me the value of having a canine best friend.
    
We moved into the twentieth century with Roy Rogers, who could drive a jeep as well as ride his horse while singing with his wife Dale Evans. He could play a guitar and a six shooter.
    
The morning ended with a modern day western pilot, Sky King, with his lovely, often imperiled, niece Penny. No worries, she would get into trouble but never was she really in jeopardy. Remember, on Saturday morning in the late 50’s all the girls were saved, all the bad guys went to jail and all my heroes would ride off into the Western sunset.
    
I so enjoyed those idyllic  black and white  shows while eating Frosted Flakes with my dad’s Ellis Island immigrant father. His reality would come soon enough, taking my genuine hero grandfather to his final sunset.
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Happy trails to you, until we meet again.

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RULES FOR COMMA USAGE

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The Guide to Grammar and Writing

 

The Guide to Grammar and Writing is sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation, a nonprofit 501 c-3 organization that supports scholarships, faculty development, and curriculum innovation. If you feel we have provided something of value and wish to show your appreciation, you can assist the College and its students with a tax-deductible contribution.

For more about giving to Capital, write to CCC Foundation, 950 Main Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Phone (860) 906-5102 or email: jmcnamara@ccc.commnet.edu Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

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Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. “He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base.” You may have learned that the comma before the “and” is unnecessary, which is fine if you’re in control of things. However, there are situations in which, if you don’t use this comma (especially when the list is complex or lengthy), these last two items in the list will try to glom together (like macaroni and cheese). Using a comma between all the items in a series, including the last two, avoids this problem. This last comma—the one between the word “and” and the preceding word—is often called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. In newspaper writing, incidentally, you will seldom find a serial comma, but that is not necessarily a sign that it should be omitted in academic prose.

Use a comma + a little conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses, as in “He hit the ball well, but he ran toward third base.”

Contending that the coordinating conjunction is adequate separation, some writers will leave out the comma in a sentence with short, balanced independent clauses (such as we see in the example just given). If there is ever any doubt, however, use the comma, as it is always correct in this situation.

One of the most frequent errors in comma usage is the placement of a comma after a coordinating conjunction. We cannot say that the comma will always come before the conjunction and never after, but it would be a rare event, indeed, that we need to follow a coordinating conjunction with a comma. When speaking, we do sometimes pause after the little conjunction, but there is seldom a good reason to put a comma there.

Use a comma to set off introductory elements, as in “Running toward third base, he suddenly realized how stupid he looked.”

It is permissible to omit the comma after a brief introductory element if the omission does not result in confusion or hesitancy in reading. If there is ever any doubt, use the comma, as it is always correct.

Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements, as in “The Founders Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River, is falling down.” By “parenthetical element,” we mean a part of a sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of that sentence. The parenthetical element is sometimes called “added information.” This is the most difficult rule in punctuation because it is sometimes unclear what is “added” or “parenthetical” and what is essential to the meaning of a sentence.

Appositives are almost always treated as parenthetical elements.

  • Calhoun’s ambition, to become a goalie in professional soccer, is within his reach.
  • Eleanor, his wife of thirty years, suddenly decided to open her own business.

Sometimes the appositive and the word it identifies are so closely related that the comma can be omitted, as in “His wife Eleanor suddenly decided to open her own business.” We could argue that the name “Eleanor” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence (assuming he has only one wife), and that would suggest that we can put commas both before and after the name (and that would, indeed, be correct). But “his wife” and “Eleanor” are so close that we can regard the entire phrase as one unit and leave out the commas. With the phrase turned around, however, we have a more definite parenthetical element and the commas are necessary: “Eleanor, his wife, suddenly decided to open her own business.” Consider, also, the difference between “College President Ira Rubenzahl voted to rescind the withdrawal policy” (in which we need the name “Ira Rubenzahl” or the sentence doesn’t make sense) and “Ira Rubenzahl, the college president, voted to rescind the withdrawal policy” (in which the sentence makes sense without his title, the appositive, and we treat the appositive as a parenthetical element, with a pair of commas).

As pointed out above (Rule #3), an adverbial clause that begins a sentence is set off with a comma:

·       Although Queasybreath had spent several years in Antarctica, he still bundled up warmly in the brisk autumns of Ohio.

·       Because Tashonda had learned to study by herself, she was able to pass the entrance exam.

When an adverbial clause comes later on in the sentence, however, the writer must determine if the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence or not. A “because clause” can be particularly troublesome in this regard. In most sentences, a “because clause” is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and it will not be set off with a comma:

·       The Okies had to leave their farms in the midwest because the drought conditions had ruined their farms.

Sometimes, though, the “because clause” must be set off with a comma to avoid misreading:

·       I knew that President Nixon would resign that morning, because my sister-in-law worked in the White House and she called me with the news.

Without that comma, the sentence says that Nixon’s resignation was the fault of my sister-in-law. Nixon did not resign because my sister-in-law worked in the White House, so we set off that clause to make the meaning clearly parenthetical.

When a parenthetical element — an interjection, adverbial modifier, or even an adverbial clause — follows a coordinating conjunction used to connect two independent clauses, we do not put a comma in front of the parenthetical element.

  • The Red Sox were leading the league at the end of May, but of course, they always do well in the spring. [no comma after “but”]
  • The Yankees didn’t do so well in the early going, but frankly, everyone expects them to win the season. [no comma after “but”]
  • The Tigers spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, and even though they picked up several promising rookies, they expect to be there again next year. [no comma after “and”]

(This last piece of advice relies on the authority of William Strunk’s Elements of Style. Examples our own.)

When both a city’s name and that city’s state or country’s name are mentioned together, the state or country’s name is treated as a parenthetical element.

  • We visited Hartford, Connecticut, last summer.
  • Paris, France, is sometimes called “The City of Lights.”

When the state becomes a possessive form, this rule is no longer followed:

  • Hartford, Connecticut’s investment in the insurance industry is well known.

Also, when the state or country’s name becomes part of a compound structure, the second comma is dropped:

  • Heublein, a Hartford, Connecticut-based company, is moving to another state.

An absolute phrase is always treated as a parenthetical element, as is an interjection. An addressed person’s name is also always parenthetical. Be sure, however, that the name is that of someone actually being spoken to. A separate section on Vocatives, the various forms that a parenthetical element related to an addressed person’s name can take, is also available.

  • Their years of training now forgotten, the soldiers broke ranks.
  • Yes, it is always a matter, of course, of preparation and attitude.
  • I’m telling you, Juanita, I couldn’t be more surprised. (I told Juanita I couldn’t be more surprised. [no commas])

Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives. You could think of this as “That tall, distinguished, good looking fellow” rule (as opposed to “the little old lady”). If you can put an and or a but between the adjectives, a comma will probably belong there. For instance, you could say, “He is a tall and distinguished fellow” or “I live in a very old and run-down house.” So you would write, “He is a tall, distinguished man” and “I live in a very old, run-down house.” But you would probably not say, “She is a little and old lady,” or “I live in a little and purple house,” so commas would not appear between little and old or between little and purple.

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And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.
So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …— Gertrude Stein
from Lectures in America

Use a comma to set off quoted elements. Because we don’t use quoted material all the time, even when writing, this is probably the most difficult rule to remember in comma usage. It is a good idea to find a page from an article that uses several quotations, photocopy that page, and keep it in front of you as a model when you’re writing. Generally, use a comma to separate quoted material from the rest of the sentence that explains or introduces the quotation:

  • Summing up this argument, Peter Coveney writes, “The purpose and strength of the romantic image of the child had been above all to establish a relation between childhood and adult consciousness.”

If an attribution of a quoted element comes in the middle of the quotation, two commas will be required. But be careful not to create a comma splice in so doing.

  • “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many things.”
  • “I should like to buy an egg, please,” she said timidly. “How do you sell them?”

Be careful not to use commas to set off quoted elements introduced by the word that or quoted elements that are embedded in a larger structure:

  • Peter Coveney writes that “[t]he purpose and strength of . . .”
  • We often say “Sorry” when we don’t really mean it.

And, instead of a comma, use a colon to set off explanatory or introductory language from a quoted element that is either very formal or long (especially if it’s longer than one sentence):

  • Peter Coveney had this to say about the nineteenth-century’s use of children
    in fiction: “The purpose and strength of . . . . “

Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast.

  • Some say the world will end in ice, not fire.
  • It was her money, not her charm or personality, that first attracted him.
  • The puppies were cute, but very messy.

(Some writers will leave out the comma that sets off a contrasting phrase beginning with but.)

Use a comma to avoid confusion. This is often a matter of consistently applying rule #3.

  • For most the year is already finished.
  • For most, the year is already finished.
  • Outside the lawn was cluttered with hundreds of broken branches.
  • Outside, the lawn was cluttered with hundreds of broken branches.
I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out. images
— Oscar Wilde

Grammar English’s Famous Rule of Punctuation: Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb. “Believing completely and positively in oneself is essential for success.” [Although readers might pause after the word “oneself,” there is no reason to put a comma there.]

Typographical Reasons: Between a city and a state [Hartford, Connecticut], a date and the year [June 15, 1997], a name and a title when the title comes after the name [Bob Downey, Professor of English], in long numbers [5,456,783 and $14,682], etc. Although you will often see a comma between a name and suffix — Bob Downey, Jr., Richard Harrison, III — this comma is no longer regarded as necessary by most copy editors, and some individuals — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — never used a comma there at all.

Note that we use a comma or a set of commas to make the year parenthetical when the date of the month is included:

  • July 4, 1776, is regarded as the birth date of American liberty.

Without the date itself, however, the comma disappears:

  • July 1776 was one of the most eventful months in our history.

In international or military format, no commas are used:

  • The Declaration of Independence was signed on 4 July 1776.

Use Commas With Caution

comma-commaAs you can see, there are many reasons for using commas, and we haven’t listed them all. Yet the biggest problem that most students have with commas is their overuse. Some essays look as though the student loaded a shotgun with commas and blasted away. Remember, too, that a pause in reading is not always a reliable reason to use a comma. Try not to use a comma unless you can apply a specific rule from this page to do so.

 

 

 

 

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English Teachers

Dear readers,

This is a guest post by my talented student, Dina Corcoran. She’s a memoirist, poet and essayist. This is her personal essay on English teachers. Okay, so there’s a bit of shameless self promotion going on! Please enjoy Dina Corcoran’s,

ENGLISH TEACHERS

Since I first looked my mother in the eye and said “Ma-ma,” many different sorts of English teachers have helped me learn to express myself.

First, of course, I had to learn to read. I remember the excitement of cracking the code during our first grade work with See Spot Run, but even so, its message seemed a little boring. Nevertheless, the whole idea of thoughts being on paper opened a world of possibilities.

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So many words. . . and each had to be spelled. “Beautiful,” for instance, was very tricky, because of all the vowels that had to be in the right order. I remember seeing it on the blackboard all week with the other five words we needed to learn. I noticed the teacher used little lines to break the words into small bits. Each time I walked by, I broke “beautiful” down my own way, into be-a-u ti-ful, making a little chant out of it. And “piece” I thought of as a piece of pie. If I could remember how to spell pie, I could do “piece.”

Soon I became aware of longer, more colorful words like “indisposed.” Mother used that one when she wrote notes to the school explaining my absences:

“Please excuse Dina’s absence yesterday. She was indisposed.”

I had to ask her what that meant. Then, handing the note to the teacher, I felt important being described with such a big word.

A wealthy family acquaintance treated my brother and me, when we were quite young, to a live play in the First Theater in Monterey, an official historic site, since it was the first theater in California. The building was old with a rickety wooden floor, and I marveled at the thought of people, a hundred years before me, filling the place just to watch actors walk and talk on a stage lit with whale-oil lamps. But I could see that this was a new way to use words: making a story that could be acted out for others.

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Somewhere along the way in grade school — maybe Mrs. Jordan’s seventh- grade class—I learned the wonderful logic of sentence diagramming. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, all had their positions in a sentence. I loved that. All good sentences could be mapped out. Now things were beginning to fall into place.

And then:

           “Let me not to the marriage of true minds

              Admit impediments. Love is not love

             Which alters when it alteration finds,

              Or bends with the remover to remove:

              O no, it is an ever-fixed mark. . . .”

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William Shakespeare. Oh my goodness. Everybody in my Sophomore English Class must memorize and recite this verse. I guess Miss Jackson values the idea of keeping someone else’s ruminations in your brain forever. What is he talking about? I feel inexperienced in these matters. With each recitation, she gets a far-away look in her eye; obviously this means something to her, but not to me. (For the rest of my life I cringe whenever this sonnet comes to mind, because I recall the difficulty of memorizing this unfamiliar arrangement of words and the boredom of hearing it over and over again.) Why does she think this is so important? Maybe she was disappointed in love. As I study her wrinkled face and older-woman mannerisms, I try to imagine her having a love life.

Later in high school, Mr. Zapelli teaches us to seek perfection in our writing. Every day he wears a striped suit and matching tie, and I’m sure he imagines himself to be a handsome guy with his hair greased straight back, Mafia style. He sits bent over at his desk, his meaty hands holding my paper as if it is a very important document, and earnestly pores over my work.

His method of helping us is unique among English teachers. Most days we write essays in class. He guides our progress by having us bring our work up to his desk where he examines every detail. (No more than three of us at a time may wait in line.) Starting with a red pen, he marks the places that need work, and we talk about the why and how of the needed correction. Then we take it back to our seat and work on it until we are ready to face him again. We hope for only blue or green marks this time. Blue ones indicate improvement, but the goal is to get the final green marks that show we’ve got it the way he wants it. This may take several visits to his desk, but once our paper has green marks at every problem spot, we can take it home for the re-write. (Mr.Zapelli was always on me for my run-on sentences; I enjoyed rambling thoughts. But today, his cautionary attitude still guides me as I write.) Each and every student is busy. Time flies; the bell sounds too soon. And when we turn in our final version, we feel pride in our work.

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By the time I am in college, my days with Mr. Zapelli bear fruit, enabling me to do well. But this teacher, young, enthusiastic, and sporting a crew cut, has new things to show me. The world of ibid and sic is before me, and somehow I master it while discovering the excitement of research in the library’s “stacks” where all sorts of old writings are kept. Usually I write about the plight of the American Indian, because I have been passionate about that ever since my childhood friendship with Red Eagle. Unearthing government documents, I learn how evil the Bureau of Indian Affairs has actually been. My passion helps me write well. At the end of the course, Mr. Carson announces with some ceremony that only one student in the whole class will receive an “A.” My face turns red in embarrassment and pride when he says I am the one.

Speaking aloud in front of people proved to be a different story. To qualify for a teaching credential it was necessary to take public speaking. I flunked it twice, because I avoided my obligation too many times. Fear got in my way. My stepfather, Jack, helped me out of that one. He suggested bringing my six-speed racing bicycle into class and “teaching” my classmates about it. He said their eyes would be on the bike, not on me, so I could relax. It worked. Not too many people knew about racing bikes at that time, and they were interested to hear how the gear shift and hand brakes operated, and why my saddle was not soft and cushy. Having lived through that speech, I was able to go on to finish the class and pass it—on the third try!

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Years later, my principal asked me to take on an English class in addition to the science classes I was teaching in the middle school. But English did not offer the excitement of Bunsen burners and chemical reactions. And besides, I liked working with Alan Rogers, the head of the Science Department. The students suspected, but never knew for sure, that Mr. Rogers and Mrs. Corcoran were an item.

The head of the English department proved to be a stickler for detail, a fussy fellow. He kept his own, private, classroom set of dictionaries locked in a closet. On the first day of the semester, he took me in there and reluctantly handed over one copy for my use. I really didn’t enjoy those two years of teaching English, but I finished with a sincere respect for the job.

Currently I am happily enrolled in Ana Manwaring’s writing class at the Napa Valley College. She oversees the fine-tuning of our work, and encourages us to use our own “voice.” We students help each other with our critiquing. The two Guys in class have helped me: Guy K., with his constant reminders to eliminate the “is” and “was” words, (real verbs sound more interesting), and Guy “Noir” who urges me to avoid the insipid stuff like my dreadful essay on Pink Geraniums.

My mother is gone now, so I cannot look her in the eye, but I still talk to her. She always loved a well-told story. I feel her curiosity as she reads over my shoulder while I try to write those, with the help of my many English teachers.

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