Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Favorite Things, Part Deux

I enjoyed last week's post so much that I decided to go ahead and do another set of favorites this week. You will probably notice that a lot of my favorites involve food. Food is my favorite thing to eat.

  • Favorite summer food: This is an easy one. Homegrown tomatoes. Anyone who has eaten a real fresh from the garden tomato knows that store-bought tomatoes taste about as much like real tomatoes as I do. And I don't taste like tomatoes at all. Fresh sliced tomatoes with a little salt are one of the greatest joys of summer. They're also amazing on sandwiches or cut up in salads. They even make better sauces and creamed tomatoes, which, when put over home-baked biscuits will bring a tear of joy to the eye. 

red, tomatoes, vegetables, healthy, food

  • Favorite vacation spot: This one's pretty easy too. I love pretty much anywhere with an ocean view, but number one would have to be the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It has areas that are full of tourist-y things, like shops, restaurants, and goofy golf, but there are other places where it's nothing but seashore. It's the place where, when I go there, all stress evaporates. I just love it. 

  • Favorite Christmas tradition: I'm going to cheat and do a twofer. First, it's my blog so I can do what I want. Second, they're directly connected, so it's only cheating a little. To me it's not Christmas until two important events have happened at my school. First is the tree lighting. It's not an actual tree. It's lights on the front of the building that look like a giant tree with a star on top. Every year at the beginning of December, there's a neat ceremony involving caroling, cookies, hot chocolate, and a visit from Santa (played gleefully by yours truly). At the end, all the other school lights go out and the tree is lit. It's positively magical. Second chronologically, though not in significance, is the choir Christmas concert. More specifically, the traditional processional that involves the choir coming in from the back, candles in hand (sadly, electric candles now), singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." If you hear that and don't get chills, you're probably dead. 

  • Favorite sandwich: This is kind of a sad one. My favorite sandwich doesn't exist anymore, at least not anywhere near me. There was a restaurant called Bennigan's in the mall in Charleston, a city a little over an hour's drive from my town. They served a Monte Cristo that was nearly beyond description. I've had Monte Cristos in other places, but none compare with this. Granted, it's a once-a-year kind of treat, but oh my gosh it's good. In case you don't know, this is a club sandwich that's battered and deep fried served with powdered sugar on top and raspberry jam to dip it in. It's the perfect combination of savory and sweet. Unfortunately, Bennigan's is no more and no other restaurant's rendition comes within miles of being as good.

  • Favorite movie: I struggle with this one and, if I did this post in a few months, I might change my mind. But if you asked me ten times what my favorite movie is, about nine of those times the answer would be Casablanca. It has it all: love, patriotism, self-sacrifice, suspense, and one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the planet--Ingrid Bergman. If you haven't seen it, you're missing out. Humphrey Bogart play's Rick, an expatriate bar-owner in Morocco who has given up on love--until Ilsa, his one true great love walks in one night, hoping Rick, whose heart she broke, will help her and her freedom-fighting husband escape Nazi-occupied Africa. The supporting cast is a who's who of great 40's stars: Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Paul Henreid. Lorre and Greenstreet were also in another great Bogey film, The Maltese Falcon. This movie is famous for, among other things, having quite possibly the most misquoted line in all cinema. People almost always say the line wrong by saying, "Play it again, Sam." The line is actually, "Play it Sam." It also has another oft-quoted line: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  I could go on and on, but I'll end by saying that everyone needs to see this film. 

Bogey and Bergman were phenomenal

Okay, there you go. Five more favorites. I'll do something different next week, but stay tuned: I'll have more favorites soon.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Favorite Things

Unlike many Saturday mornings, I didn't have a topic I'd been mulling over in my head this week. I went through my journal and all I had left were more nostalgia pieces, most of which will show up sometime, but I felt like I'd inflicted enough of my childhood on you. So, thanks to Molly Greene, author of the blog Molly Greene: Author and her post "101 Fabulous Blog Topics" for helping me come up with something that you may find of interest: my favorites.

Be warned that this is a random list of my favorites and it constitutes how I feel as of this writing. Some are long-held feelings and some may change tomorrow. And these have nothing to do with what I think is right or wrong. This is not a debate topic. Picking favorites is purely personal and opinion based. So, while I'll ask at the end what some of your favorites are, I don't want anyone explaining to me why my favorite pizza choice is wrong. It can't be wrong unless it's immoral, like if I said my favorite pizza topping was bald eagle or something.

So here we go, in no particular order:

  • Favorite pizza: Giordano's Pizza in Chicago. I nearly wet my pants when I heard they were opening two locations in Cincinnati. I discovered this place the first time I went to Chicago and have eaten there at least once every time I've made it back, which is, tragically, not nearly often enough. Words fail to describe the nearly sinful pleasure that is the Giordano's deep dish pizza. It's less a pie than a casserole. Think of a crust, an inch of toppings as fillings, another crust, more toppings, sauce, and cheese. A large has to weigh ten pounds, which is what you'll gain after eating there, but it's worth every ounce. 

  • Even a picture doesn't do it justice. It's a bacchanalia of deliciousness.

    • Favorite book: We're not counting the Bible since it's basically a library (I'll get to favorite book of the Bible later), so, to none of my students' surprise, my favorite book would have to be Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. I teach it every year and, whatever changes in my classroom, I believe that will be in the AP curriculum until I retire. It's not just because of the storyline, which is beautiful and sad and triumphant and abject and hopeful all at the same time. It's also because every page is just like the most beautiful painting except in words. Paton wrote few books, but what a way with words he had. Please, please, please read this book.

    One of my favorite quotations from the book

    • Favorite fictional character: You might expect me to say it's Superman, but I cheat and say that's a different category. So maybe this should be favorite literary character, which is Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. It's not exaggerating to say that seeing the musical version in Washington DC for the first time was a life-altering experience. Seeing how Jean Valjean spent the rest of his life trying to live up to the amazing gift of freedom given to him by a man of God made me want to be a better person. And not just want to but want to badly enough to strive daily to be a person who loves and cares for the people around him. This is kind of a freebie: my favorite quotation is from the musical, though it doesn't appear in these exact words in the book. It's become a guiding principle for me: "To love another person is to see the face of God."
    • Favorite person from the Bible: Other than God, of course, it would definitely have to be Peter. Peter was a screw-up. He shot off his mouth and didn't back it up. He was cranky. He was weak. He was kind of a bigot. And God used him greatly anyway. Peter speaks to me of God's transformative power and gives me hope that someday I might get it right. 
    I'm not much of a fisherman, but other
    than that, I can really relate to him.
    • Favorite place to write: Now that I have a kind of writing nook in my room at home, I do most of my writing here, but the winner of this category would have to be my local Panera Bread. I don't know why, but I'm just really creative and productive there. The only thing that slows me down is having to get up to go the bathroom so often from the gallons of coffee I put away as I type. Plus, the food is always delicious. I'm campaigning for a commemorative plaque, but haven't heard back from the management yet. Next time you go, tell them I sent you. They won't have any idea who I am, but do it anyway. 
    I hope they don't mind my using their picture. It's free advertising, so maybe they won't sue me.
    • Favorite sweet: This is a toughie. I considered making it an eleventy billion way tie between all of them, but that's just not right. I love ice cream. It's my go-to dessert pretty regularly. I also adore cheesecake, especially with blueberry or cherry topping. And who doesn't like Oreos, especially double stuffed ones? But my favorite is a sentimental choice: my mom's chocolate chip cookies. She makes them every year around the holidays and it's just not Christmas without them. She makes a couple different varieties and the thing they all have in common is that they are addictive. Dipped in milk, with a cup of coffee, as dessert--the only way they aren't good is if they are all gone, which is a true and deep sadness. 
    coffee, chocolate chip, cookies, eyeglasses, cup, mug, snack, food, dessert
    These aren't actually my mom's. Hers never exist
    long enough for anyone to take a picture.

    Okay, that's enough for now. Future favorite lists will include but won't be limited to: favorite sandwich, favorite movie, favorite Christmas tradition, favorite place to vacation, and favorite summer vegetable. 

    Monday, July 13, 2015

    Goodreads Giveaway for HARSH PREY!

    I'm running a new giveaway on Goodreads, but this time it's for my debut novel, Harsh Prey. I hope by getting the first book in the series into people's hands, I'll get them hooked on the whole series. If you bought this book already, it's okay because this is a new updated version with new cover and a few neat new features.

    So click the entry form below or to the right by August 10 and you'll may be a winner!

    Goodreads Book Giveaway

    Harsh Prey by Joe Stephens

    Harsh Prey

    by Joe Stephens

    Giveaway ends August 10, 2015.
    See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
    Enter Giveaway

    Sunday, July 12, 2015

    Post on Writing Wranglers and Warriors

    Here's a link to my blog post for Sunday, July 12 for the blog group of which I am a member, Writing Wranglers and Warriors: 

    window, blinds, raining, lights, blurry, night, darkAs a reader and writer of detective fiction, one of the things I pay attention to and struggle with is the creation of a believable villain. As a reader, some of the best villains I remember have been complete sociopaths, with no remorse whatever. The comic book equivalent would be the Joker. Those can be entertaining, especially when they lose. An example from literature I’ve read recently was from James Lee Burke’s Light of the World. The killer was, based on some veiled backstory, messed up as a child. But, regardless of how he got there, Asa Surrette was a demon who gained joy from inflicting pain on others and had no mixed feelings about it. I did enjoy seeing him go down at the end of the book. And I was glad it was a painful death.

    Read the rest here

    Saturday, July 11, 2015

    Back In My Day (Say It Like a Grumpy Old Man)

    I remember watching this
    on our black-and-white TV
    that had 3 channels when
    weather was good.
    I'm sitting at my desk in front of a laptop computer that is more powerful than the one that was in the first rocket that went to the moon. My phone, basically a hand-held computer on which I can call or Skype anyone in the country for no extra charge, sits in front of me. To my left, I'm watching Wimbledon on a 60-inch HDTV. Somewhere in this room is a Kindle Fire with dozens of books stored on it. My dad has a laptop and smartphone. My mom has a cell phone. There are two printers in our house. There are, I estimate, five home phone extensions in the house. There are four more HDTVs in the house, all with dozens of HD cable channels. And, by connecting my laptop to my TV, I can access thousands and thousands of movies via Netflix. Type in (or simply say) the name of a song and chances are I can listen to it instantly, while learning who wrote it, who else recorded it, and what other songs are available from the same artists.
    Why am I saying all this? Because this is the new norm. We are completely steeped in technology. I am on the tail end of a generation that remembers when it wasn't this way. Students in my classes don't remember a time when cell phones, tablets, and laptop computers weren't ubiquitous. Because of that, I believe, they mostly don't really appreciate how far we've come. That's neither good nor bad; it's just true. 

    rotary telephone, vintage, antique, oldschool
    Dialing used to mean actually dialing
    all the numbers again. You had to actually think
    about how badly you wanted to talk to this person.
    I grew up in a house with one phone. It was attached to the wall in the dining room. It had a rotary dial. Making a long distance call was a commitment, not just because you paid by the minute but also because it took a while to dial in all the numbers. And if you dialed a digit wrong part-way through, you had to start over. None of this backspace crap. Or, for that matter, redial, caller ID, or contact lists. If you wanted to store someone's phone number, you wrote it down in an actual physical address book, something you got a new one of occasionally because the old one was filled with scratched out and changed numbers. Or you ran out of pages if you were popular. That was never an issue for me, but I heard stories. 

    And don't even get me started on busy signals.  They were enough to make you cry, especially if you really needed or wanted to talk to that person. I was dating a beautiful young woman named Tammy who went away to Lynchburg, Virginia to college (that whole thing is post unto itself if I ever get the courage to share just how big a horse's butt I was in ruining that). We could write to each other--on paper with pens--but in order to talk, we arranged that I would call her at a certain time on a certain evening. There was one phone per floor in her dorm, so if any of the other girls was on the phone, it was busy. I was to just keep trying every five minutes until it wasn't busy. Sometimes it would take an hour before I got through. So when we finally got to talk, we took advantage of it. That weekly call to Tammy was an event. Everyone in the family knew to stay out of the dining room, not because we were saying secret things, but because we wanted to be able to concentrate on each other with no distractions for that--literal--few minutes we had with each other. And if the phone bill was too big because we didn't watch the clock enough, the calls got cancelled for the next month. 

    My friend Lori. I got this picture from
    her Facebook page. It took five
    minutes including the time it took to 
    message her to ask if I could use it.
    I think that's the thing that young people are missing out on. They may not be able to be physically together with their friends, families, or significant others sometimes, but they may never again experience that feeling of giddiness when they actually get to hear their loved one's voice or see their face the way we used to. There's Skype and Facetime and whatever other video chat platforms that were nothing more than the stuff of science fiction when I was a kid. This is not to mention all the other social media outlets, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, and whatever is the new hot site that allows you instant access to pictures and videos from anyone in the world. And there's texting and cell phone service in the farthest reaches of the developed world. I have a friend, a former member of my youth group, who does ministry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We email and Facebook message more often than I used to be able to talk to my high school girlfriend who lived two counties away (different girl and yet another story for someday--this one wasn't my fault) in Glenville. 

    reading, book, girl, woman, people, sunshine, summer, lake, water
    This isn't me. I just liked the picture.
    And it illustrates my point.
    So is all this technology and ability to be in constant contact good or bad? Yes. Am I thankful to be able to be in touch with my good friend Lori who lives almost literally on the other side of the world? Yes, to be sure. And I'm glad to be able to text or call my brother in Virginia without giving much of a thought. But there's a feeling I miss and that's the feeling of actually missing someone. Getting to actually see that person was an OCCASION. When the vast majority of your communication with someone is written with an occasional phone call that is limited because you pay by the minute, it really means something when you finally get to look at them, hug them, kiss them. I really don't think young people can appreciate that the way we did back in my day. 
    A borg cube. It's actually a refrigerator.
    No, I'm not kidding. I want it.

    Everything's a trade-off. You get constant contact, but you trade it for really missing people in a way that actually does make the heart grow fonder. You get to always be in touch, but you trade that in for actually getting to be with yourself to think; to grow; to pray; to figure out just who you are, independent of others. 

    I fear we may be voluntarily becoming like that scary Star Trek race, the Borg. No identity outside the hive mind. I hope not, but sometimes it feels like resistance may be futile. 

    Tuesday, July 7, 2015

    It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas?

    wine, glass, christmas tree, presents, lights, watchI know, I know--it's July and the high is predicted to be in the eighties here today. But I'm already getting that Christmas feeling. Why? Because I started a new Shalan story yesterday. It's a prequel set around the first Christmas that Harry and Dee had together, the one where he proposed. Spoiler alert--she says yes.

    Plans are for this to be a short story at the moment. Who knows? It may grow into a novella. It will involve a case, though it will not have Harry's buddy Otis because, as you probably know if you've read my books, Harry and Dee fell in love in Louisville, Kentucky. He had gone there for seminary but dropped out when he found what he loved doing--detective work. She was there working on her master's degree. Harry's partner in crime will be his boss, the owner of the McCain detective agency, Lucas McCain. Lucas, older than Harry but still not completely darkened by his work, is Harry's mentor in the gumshoe business. In this story we'll see the origins of many of the ideals that Harry holds dear--and even some of his rules.

    Karen Gillan, best known to
    nerds as Amy Pond in
    DOCTOR WHO, is the
    woman I picture playing Dee
    in a movie. I love her humor and
    also how fierce she can be.  Plus,
    she's just stunning. (
    It's tentatively entitled "Harry and the Redheaded Angel" and plans are for it to come out in mid-november for free exclusively to members of my mailing list. It will go on sale to the public around Thanksgiving. This is going to be ebook only, though it may appear on paper in a collection someday. Unlike Marvel Studios, I don't have this stuff planned out through 2020 and beyond.

    If you don't want to wait until Thanksgiving to get more Harry and Dee, never fear. In The Shadow, Shalan Adventure #3, will be available in paperback and for ebook in the fall. My target is to have it out by October 1, though it may be a little earlier than that. This book takes a darker turn than the first two. Harry and Dee, at the request of Harry's best friend Otis, a Parkersburg Police detective, go in search for a teen that may have run away. Her name is Jenn Bezaleel and Harry learns pretty quickly that running away from her seriously perverted family may be the smartest thing she could have ever done. Dee can't help much because she's quite pregnant with their first baby, Emma Grace, who was (sort of) introduced in the epilogue of Kisses and Lies. I won't say more for fear of too many spoilers. I don't say this often about my own writing, but I think it's really good. I believe people will either love it or hate it, though, because it's pretty heavy stuff.

    I'm looking for a couple more beta readers for this book. If you have time to sit down and read it in the next week or two and are willing to be honest with me, please get in touch. Let me emphasize that I need this to be done in a timely manner. I'm on the, albeit self-imposed, clock. I need to get final edits done by the end of summer. So please only contact me if you honestly have the time to read for me soon.

    Saturday, July 4, 2015

    Summer Memories

    sparks, stick, hand, american, flag, USA, United States, patriotThe 4th of July, Independence Day to us in the States and a day commemorating to the British when those ungrateful colonials started getting all uppity. If you read my blog post on Writing Wranglers and Warriors, you know I see this day as the end of the first half of summer. From a citizenship standpoint, it's of great significance. But it is also a day on which I think of summers past.

    One of my many favorite childhood memories is not of one particular event but something that happened many, many times. Over the years of my childhood, we had a couple of different boats that we took out on the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers quite often. We used them as fishing boats and also to pull skiers, but mainly we used them just to enjoy being out on the river. We also used go to something that is probably little known now. We, along with several people we knew (and many, many we didn't know), took the boat to the closest thing the Mid-Ohio Valley has to a beach.

    Can't see it through the brush, but
    this is the confluence of the Ohio
    and Little Kanawha Rivers
    On the far end of Blennerhassett Island, away from what would eventually be the state park, were little narrow strips of sand. On any given summer day, dozens of boats would tie up to downed trees and disgorge families who would spread blankets and beach towels, set out coolers and sometimes even grills, and spend the day just enjoying ourselves. Sometimes we would ski, though the ugly truth is I was a really sucky skier. I kind of became my dad's co-pilot, letting him know when the skier went down so he could circle back to him. But often, we would just splash around in the water, read, take naps, and pretty much do nothing all day. This was in the days before cell phones, so we had no contact with the outside world. We just enjoyed each other's company, along with sandwiches, chips, and cookies accompanied by the main condiment--sand.
    The tip of Blennerhassett Island
    as seen from Fort Boreman Hill

    Eventually, often over the protests of the kids, we would pack up everything and head back to the boat ramp. After we got the boat back on the trailer, we would often stop somewhere to pick up dinner for the evening because Mom, the designated watcher and feeder of us all, often including all the cousins too, was too exhausted to cook. Sometimes, and this was always my favorite, we would stop and A & W Root Beer to pick up whole boxes of hot dogs and gallons of sweet, frost-topped root beer. I also recall stopping at Kentucky Fried Chicken or Roy Rogers (with their mythically epic sandwiches--but that's another story), but my preference was for the dogs slathered in sauce and onions and root beer so sweet it made my throat hurt.

    The closest thing to a negative was that I always had this tendency to get water in my ear. Usually, I could just pound on the side of my head for a bit and it would work its way out, but occasionally it would still be there driving me crazy when we got home. When that happened, Mom would lay out a towel and pillow on the couch and have my lie down with the offending ear facing the pillow. I would often fall asleep, only to be awakened by that odd but satisfying feeling of the water, warmed by being inside my ear, trickling out onto the towel-covered pillow.

    Then it was into the bathtub for me. I guess that was another sort-of negative. No matter how many baths we'd had that week, we had to have a bath after we got back from the river. If you've never swum in the Ohio River, especially back then when the chemical plants basically just flushed their waste directly into the rivers, you can't fully appreciate the level of stench that comes with you when you get out. Looking back, it's a wonder we didn't grow extra eyes or limbs or develop superpowers.

    It's funny. I don't remember many specific details about any particular trip. What I mainly remember is always feeling loved and safe. We laughed constantly and there was never any question, though we didn't really talk about it, that we meant the world to each other. I've joked on here before that I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting, but it's really not that far off.

    It's that childhood that inspired Harry Shalan, a man who loves his family and believes in doing right and helping the less fortunate. Yes, he's stronger and more handsome than I am. He knows martial arts and can shoot straighter than I could ever hope to. He can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, but small ones for sure. But his values are my values. His happy childhood memories are inspired by my happy childhood memories. And his loving, dedicated family is mirrored by mine. The one way in which I'm better than Harry, though, is that you can't make a fictional family that could ever live up to my real one.

    Harry Shalan's first adventure...

    and his second.