Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Tribune's culture critic (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Julia Keller names Bryan Gruley's The Hanging Tree one of her favorite books of the year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's that time of year again...

by Michael Dymmoch

Already. Time to make resolutions and say good bye to the old. The year. The decade. Time to start anew. At my age, resolutions seem like a waste of effort. My bad habits are so deeply entrenched they seem like canyons. Most days. But I'm still hopeful...

When I was in college, I put off writing assignments until the night before they were due. Then I'd stay up all night to complete them. I didn't know I was a writer then. Writing was just something I had to do to pass. Writers were people inspired by God. Or genetics. Creatures driven to put words on paper. Individuals with something to say.

Years later, when I was hired to attend and report on meetings, I put off writing until my boss said he wanted the finished product "on my desk tomorrow." Then I'd stay up all night getting the job done. I still wasn't a writer. Writing reports was just something I did to collect my pay.

Then in 1980, I discovered that writers are simply people who write—me by that time. And published writers—authors, people I'd thought of as divinely inspired—were people who learn how to write well and persist at it until someone at a publishing house notices.

Thirty years (Thirty years!) and nine novels later, I can't imagine any work but writing. But I still seem to put off doing it until I can't any more. I still resolve to start sooner. I still procrastinate.

But I resolve to try harder. To start sooner. To write more and write more often.

Wish me luck.

And have a healthy, prosperous new year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Five Amateur Haiku at Christmas

By Bryan Gruley

My children embrace
their passions without (too much)
regard for the money.

A house on fire with
tears at Christmas, men in hats
that say C F D

I love the tree with
the colored lights of boyhood
but my wife’s grown up

My mother was Nat
King a-croon as she reached for
my father, smiling.

Write a Christmas book,
make people cry, and sell
one million. Or not.

Happy 2011, Everyone!

Friday, December 24, 2010


by Barbara D'Amato

Far be it from me—well, not THAT far—to save work by re-posting a blog. However, a recent incident in our neighborhood, plus this time of year, makes me think a reminder might be important. The holidays are also days of accidental home fires. We have wrapping paper lying around, candles, fires in fireplaces, and often house guests who aren’t used to our houses and may “help” tidy up by dumping ashtrays into wastebaskets without checking for embers. And who don’t know where the fire extinguisher is kept.

So, a post from two years ago:


This is not the blog I intended to post.

Last night around one a.m. I woke up to the sound of sirens. Now, I live two blocks from the huge Northwestern University medical complex and two blocks from a fire station, so we have more sirens than crickets here. But this was different. In minutes, the street was full of fire trucks and ambulances.

It turned out to be a 5 alarm fire in a high rise around the corner from us, at 260 E. Chestnut. The fire department had responded very rapidly to a call from the thirty-sixth floor of the building. Eighteen ambulances, over twenty fire trucks, and three hundred firefighters responded, one-third of Chicago's firefighting force. A helicopter hovered over Lake Michigan, training a spotlight at the building.

Two hundred residents escaped. There were twelve people injured, including five firefighters, and one fatality, a woman in the apartment where the fire started.
It's been reported variously as a forty-four or fifty-one story building. The fire "lapped over" as the firefighters say, from floor thirty-six to thirty-seven, shooting out of the windows of thirty-six, breaking the windows of thirty-seven with its heat and then being sucked into thirty-seven.

Our building was never in any danger. But it reminds me of how vulnerable you feel living in a highrise.

I lived in houses until just a few years ago. I don't know whether, statistically, you are safer in a house or an apartment building, but you feel more in control. I believed in a house I could jump out of an upstairs window if I had to and run into the back yard. In a highrise you are dependent on other people doing the best thing.
The fire department last night did a great job. They searched the building, making sure everybody was safe, including a 105-year-old resident. A man and his young child had climbed onto the roof and called 911 from there. Firefighters took a canvas tarp up to keep them warm until it was safe to bring them down in the freight elevator. And they and the EMTs were working in seven-degree weather. The EMTs were out on the street from one a.m. until five. And yes, the ambulances are heated, but they aren't toasty warm in weather like that.

In a highrise fire:

Stay in your apartment if at all possible. As the fire chief said this morning "We'll find you."

But help them. Tell 911 where you are. The man on the roof called 911 to tell firefighters where he and his daughter were.

Put wet towels under the doors to keep smoke out of your apartment.

Keep a flashlight where you can find it easily and make sure it has working batteries.

Adding to this:

The fire was later determined to have started in a toaster. Check your appliances.
You need both smoke detectors and high-temperature alarms. In a house with stairs, you will need an alarm at the top of the stairs, in addition to inside a child’s room, in the basement, and on the main floor. Some people say smoke detectors in kitchens aren’t useful because they go off too much, but we haven’t found that to be a problem.

The internet is a good source of information on where to place alarms, but your local fire department usually will advise you, too

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Holiday Gift for the Outfit

Rumor has it that Rick Kogan made several suggestions last Sunday on "The Sunday Papers" of books that would make great Christmas gifts. He limited the selection to books he's actually read. The top three:

Thanks, Rick. And have a wonderful holiday, everyone!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Price Drop at the iBookstore!

by Sean Chercover

Between now and midnight, December 28, my novels BIG CITY BAD BLOOD and TRIGGER CITY are both only $7.99 on the iBookstore!

So, if the jolly old fat man leaves an iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone under your tree, just click on the above titles to mosey on over to the iBookstore.

If you've already read my stuff (or, heaven forbid, you're just not that into me), check out the Mysteries & Thrillers feature at the iBookstore, for awesome deals on a whole bunch of great crime fiction.

Merry Christmas,

ps: Much thanks to the awesome folks at Apple and HarperCollins, for making this happen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holidays In the Family That's Left of Center

by Jamie Freveletti

Well, we're well into the holiday season now and if you're like me you're starting to wonder just how you ended up a member of the family that you are. I always think, do other families have these issues? Or is it just mine?

It starts with the Christmas tree. My family is spread out over the country, and I used to grab my husband and kids and drag them to Miami Beach over Christmas. It was a logical idea, because from there we'd continue south to the Caribbean for a week. One year, after landing, I went to my mother's house for a quick reconnaissance to determine what holiday decorations we needed. She had what I fully expected: a fake white Christmas tree.

My mother always had a fake white Christmas tree. I grew up in a middle class suburb of Chicago, where the men were steel workers and bus drivers and the women stayed home and raised a minimum of four children. These families had green trees and you'd best believe those trees were real. They had colored lights and the usual popcorn strands, tinsel, etc. Could we have that? Oh no. My mother was a jazz singer, the only divorced woman on the block, and she was raising her four children with a white Christmas tree lights and pink ornaments.

I'm not kidding. Our tree was a fake white beast with pink lights and matching ornaments. To this day I can't figure out where she got those rose colored italian lights. We kids just rolled our eyes, because the tree was not our main focus, the gifts were, and we were so used to being different that a white tree with pink bulbs was the least of our worries.

But this latest tree in Miami Beach was so lame that even I couldn't see how I was going to convince my kids that this was actually meant to be a Christmas tree. It didn't even attempt to look real. It was kind of a modern, spindly thing, about four feet high, cut in a perfect cone shape, with a rope around it that glowed white. I suppose the rope was to imitate actual Christmas lights, but who knows who knows what the designers were thinking?

It was as though they'd smoked pot and thought, "whoa, stringing real lights might be a lot of work! Let's just use a glow rope and call it a day."

I called in my husband for a consultation. He's been married for a while now, and so knows enough not to say, "What the hell is wrong with your family?" but instead he just took one look at the tree and said, "Guess we'd better go shopping."

I dare anyone to try to find a Christmas tree in Miami Beach on the day before Christmas Eve. There we were, driving from department store lot to department store lot, coming up empty every time. The kids were in the back playing on their handhelds and every so often glancing up to determine if we were in a Home Depot lot or a Toys R Us, which was what they were pushing for. During this time it occurred to me that my kids might be the same as I was at that age, and the actual shape, configuration, and color of the tree would be unimportant as long as gifts were to be placed under it. I turned to my husband and said, "Let's just buy a fake tree--a green one with the lights attached, and my Mom can use it year after year."

The howls that emitted from the back seat were deafening. Both were so upset, I had to double check that these were the same children who'd been completely uninterested the minute before. I turned to my husband for support.

"Isn't that a good idea? We don't cut a living tree down?"

Surprisingly, he nixed the entire idea.

"I'm not buying a fake Christmas tree. I refuse," he said, sounding a lot like our offspring in the back seat. I sighed and spotted a Kmart in the distance.

"Fine. But I'm losing my faith that we'll ever find a tree."

We pulled up to the Kmart lot, and looked around. There, far in the corner, was a pickup truck with a green tree on the ground next it. We walked up and the Spanish speaking owner indicated with signs--neither my husband nor I could speak Spanish,--that he was down to the last one and he was willing to give it to us for half price. The tree was tightly wrapped with rope (real, not a fake lighted one) and looked pretty sad, lying on the ground. We bought it and the seller threw in a stand, probably in a moment of holiday spirit and because he felt sorry for us and our sad little tree, and off we went.

Once it was unwrapped, watered and the branches fell, the tree was pretty good looking. The kids decorated it and we added some colored lights and tinsel. Christmas was saved. To this day, though, every year, when we go to buy our tree for our own home-we no longer fly down to Miami until after--the kids tell their father, "Remember when you saved us from Mom's idea of buying a fake tree?"

Like mother like daughter.

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 13, 2010


by Libby Hellmann

This appeared last week on Patti Abbott's blog, but I thought I'd republish it here.

TRUE CONFESSION: I do remember the Sixties.

Especially 1968. That was the turning point in my political “coming of age.” I was in college in Philadelphia on April 4th when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I watched as riots consumed the inner cities. I was saddened and disappointed -- as a teenager growing up in Washington DC, I’d gone to plenty of concerts at the Howard theater where blacks and whites grooved to Motown artists together. I actually thought we were moving towards a color-blind society -- I was young and idealistic then). So the frustration and rage expressed through the riots was – in a way– confusing.

Two months later I understood. My college boyfriend had been tapped to head up the national “Youth for Bobby Kennedy” program. I was really excited; I planned on dropping out for a semester to work with him. For some reason I couldn’t sleep the night of June 5th and turned on my radio. Bobby had been shot just after winning the California Democratic primary. He died the next day. So much for the Youth for Kennedy campaign.

Sadness soon gave way to bitterness. The country was falling apart. Over the years some of our brightest lights had been snuffed out. Internationally our government seemed to be supporting the “bad guys.” And underlying it all was an unwinnable war that – perversely -- was escalating and risking the lives of my peers. I began to question why I should work through the system, especially when the system wasn’t working for us.

I wasn’t alone. Plenty of others yearned for change. Fundamental change that would rebuild our society and culture. The next few years were tumultuous and volatile, but in the final analysis, we failed. Maybe the task was impossible -- how many Utopias exist? Sure, there were cultural shifts. But political change, in the sense of what to expect from our leaders and our government? Not so much. The era left me with unresolved feelings. What should we have done differently? Are all progressive movements doomed to fail?

At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing a thriller. And you’d be right. It’s never been my intention to write a political screed. I am a storyteller whose stories, hopefully, you can’t put down. I realized that if I was going to write about the Sixties, I needed a premise that would hook readers in the present, regardless of how much they know or remembered about the Sixties.

I found that premise in a film. Do you remember SIGNS, starring Mel Gibson? It came out in 2002, and I thought the first half was the most riveting film I’d ever seen. Gibson’s family is being stalked, but they don’t know who and they don’t know why. The second half of the film, when we discover it’s just your garden variety aliens, was an enormous let down. Putting a face, an identity, on fear reduces its power. But NOT knowing who’s targeting you -- or why -- is the most frightening thing I can imagine.

So that’s what happens to Lila Hilliard, a thirty-something professional who’s come home to Chicago for the holidays. Someone has killed her family, and now they’re after her. She has no idea who or why. As she desperately tries to figure it out, she finds wisps of clues that lead back to her parents’ activities forty years ago. In the process she discovers that her parents were not the people she thought.

The relationship between the past and present, the consequences of events that occurred years ago fascinate me. I also love stories that plunge characters into danger and make them draw on resources they didn’t know they had. SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE was the way to combine all those themes. Writing the book was an exorcism of sorts, a way to make peace with the past. And while I enjoyed reliving the past, I loved putting it behind me even more. I’m finally ready to move on.

I hope you enjoy the read.

I already posted about the book trailer -- it has actual footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention which I re-edited into a montage. If you haven't seen it, you can find it here.

PS Thanks to all the hardy souls who braved the elements and came to the Book Stall yesterday!

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Journey to Springfield (the world of our own David Ellis)

by Laura Caldwell

I drove past the flat lands of middle Illinois, a law student in tow. On that trip en route to Springfield, I wasn’t too nervous, and to be frank, I wasn’t expecting much. I’d heard the stories about partisan politics and those that said people downstate were doing more panicking about the huge budget deficit than actually legislating. When we arrived and appeared before the criminal law committee of the Illinois House of Representatives, I found my presumptions entirely off base.

I was questioned by both Republicans and Dems. I'd come prepared with opening remarks, statistics about exonerees (people who were wrongfully convicted and later declared entirely innocent) and answers for what I assumed would be easy questions. Wrong. Representatives Howard, Wait, Flowers (who sat in for McAsey), Reboletti, Golar, Collins, and Sacia wanted to roll up their sleeves. They were compassionate toward exonerees, concerned about the budget ramifications, and very much wanting to understand the issues involved with both. We discussed how our society operates in a system where we demand that our police and state attorneys get the “bad guys” off the street. Since the system is run and based around humans, and since we are decidedly not perfect, mistakes will happen. Wrongful convictions will happen. What we need to do now as the society is address such the aftermath of such scenarios.

We stayed the night in Springfield and found that like attorney events and mystery writers conferences, lots of networking and actual work gets done at the bar. Again, senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle made themselves available to me and my law student. They sought out information about exonerees. They brainstormed about how to get services without impacting the budget. They asked about the Life After Innocence program and how it worked. They wanted to know what we thought about other legislation they were considering. On its whole, Springfield was, quite simply, one of the most interesting and truly collaborative experiences I’ve seen in action.

As for our exoneree legislation, it passed the house by a vote of 93-17. On January 4, it will go before the Senate on a concurrence motion. We hope that Governor Quinn will sign the bill shortly after. Eventually, we want to get additional exoneree legislation passed, but what I’m most looking forward to now is Senator John Cullerton’s inauguration party. (Ellis, you’re buying beers afterwards, right? Or maybe we’ll hit up one of the Republicans).

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Of all the things that interfere with writing...

by Michael Dymmoch

...the worst—for a Luddite like me—is a computer malfunction. Writer’s block, you can sneak around by doing more research; writing something else; brainstorming with another writer; putting on the right mood music; going for a walk... Kids can be bribed or sent to stay with Grandma. Spouses can often be distracted, pets ignored. But when the monitor won't light up, or the program freezes and you've tried all the tricks your IT guy suggested but the !__!@%$!%&! thing still won't perform, what do you do?

Generous friends may be an option. But they usually need their computers for their own projects. The public library has computers that patrons can borrow—even machines with internet access. But—Murphy’s Law being as inexorable as gravity—the computer usually malfunctions in the middle of the night, when friends are sleeping (or rushing to make deadlines of their own), the library is closed, and the IT guy's apt to answer his phone with "Who died?" (If you have the nerve to tell him just the computer that he suggested you replace three years ago, he'll either hang up or send you a bill you'll need a second mortgage to cover.) Even if the computer fails at a time of day when help or a substitute machine is available, the documents you need to access are invariably sequestered in the comatose depths of your machine. And the difference between your machine and any loaner causes you to stumble over the keyboard and be distracted from your subject.

My computer (I thought) was recently hit with a bout of narcolepsy. It was programmed to go into sleep mode after half an hour of inactivity, and when I shook it awake, it would power up just long enough to display the type-password screen before it went back to sleep. Hitting various keys and moving the mouse failed to arouse it. Turning the computer completely off, then back on worked after several tries, but I was frantic, even when it stayed awake. My computer's a Mac. It's not supposed to do things like that. My IT guy happens to be my son, who came by my place as soon as I mentioned the problem. After a preliminary exam, he disconnected the machine and took it home for the weekend. When he brought it back, he pronounced it fit and hooked it up, and it behaved normally. Until he left. Then it went back to its old new trick.

I put in a panicky phone call. "Now what do I do?"

The computer's fine, Mom. Try turning the monitor off and on."

"How do I do that?" (Yes, I am that computer illiterate. The monitor is hooked up to the Mac. It goes on when the computer is awake, and off when the computer is in sleep mode. I know how to wake up the Mac. Up to now, that's all I've needed to know.)

"Push the on-off button below the screen."

"Which one is that?"

"The one next to the orange sleep-mode light." (Good IT guys are saints. I've had this same patient response from my son on several occasions as well as from the techies at Speakeasy when I've called about problems with my internet connection. I, myself, would have all I could do just to keep from reaching through the telephone lines to strangle me.)

I tried turning the monitor off and on. The screen lit up briefly, then went dark. But... "It won't stay awake."

"You may have to try several times."

I tried it again. And again. Each time the screen lit briefly, then went dark. Finally, it stayed awake.

"Yeah! It's working. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

"You'll probably have to get a new monitor."

"But this one is fine once it wakes up. The screen is beautiful. Can't I just get it fixed?"

"Nobody fixes monitors anymore."

That was a month ago. The monitor still looks great but it's been hitting the snooze button so many times, before finally staying awake, that my son came over yesterday and gave the Mac electronic insomnia. It won't go to sleep again until he's gotten me a replacement monitor. It makes me sad. My old monitor is still beautiful and sharp, and I'm used to it. And if I were willing to waste the electricity, I'd just let it stay turned on until it nods off forever. But soon I'll be shopping for a new monitor, and taking the old one to the tech trash place.

And meanwhile, I'm stocking up on paper and pens.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The 10 Most Infamous Female Criminals

Fascinating article from the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide on the 10 Most infamous Female Criminals. Check it out.

I only know 5 of them. How about you?