Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fagin Is Alive And Living In Chicago

Fagin of the Dickens era
Oliver Twist ran with a rough crowd during his abandoned orphan days. You remember the classic Dickens tale, about the waif who had to survive the mean streets of London during the Victorian era. He was taken in by a man named Fagin, a master of young thieves who taught such skills as pocket picking.

Fagin might be a fictional character, but he's come to life in Chicago.

Fagin earned a living by sending his army of boys out into the better areas, the places where Londoners had money, and the gang dutifully committed their robberies and brought the goods back to Fagin. In return, they gained a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, and isn't that what survival is all about?

A group of six boys is thought to be responsible for a string of strong-arm robberies that took place in Chicago on Monday. The teens worked in unison to get their intended victim into a headlock, hold a knife to the victim's throat, and demand cell phones and credit cards. They went off on their spree during after school hours, and even went so far as to target a thirteen-year-old who was watching a track meet.

They worked an area of the city that is home to the more well-to-do of Chicago, the upper middle class who can afford to buy restored Victorian rowhouses. This being Chicago, those denizens of the comfortable enclaves aren't carrying weapons, either, making them that much more vulnerable. The attacks were quick, get in and get out, and once the criminals had the goods they jumped into a nearby car where the modern day Fagin was waiting.

Pretty brazen, but not unlike Fagin's crew doing their dirty work in crowded places. Of course, Fagin's boys were more about the quiet crime, the stealth of a wallet from a pocket without the victim any the wiser.

Part of their strategy is the sudden attack, leaving the victim too shocked and frightened to really get a good look at the perpetrators. It's no easy thing to tell the police what the boys looked like after that kind of assault, and about all that is known is that the thieves are teen-aged and their getaway driver is a man in his early twenties.

Probably not Jewish, like Dickens' Fagin, but of more modern stereotype. The police are looking for a black man.

And six boys who were taught how to pull off robberies and take small things that can be fenced at the less ethical cell phones stores that dot the poor neighborhoods of Chicago. As for the credit card thefts, they might be able to fill up the getaway car with gas, assuming they figured out that the zip code needed to unlock the gas pump was most likely the zip code for the area from which they stole the card. Even someone stunned by a crime would think to call the credit card company and cancel their account immediately, rendering the card useless for any kind of major purchase.

Like Fagin's crew, the riches are paltry and stealing five or six cell phones isn't going to put a lot of money in anyone's pockets.

But it's a start.

What's next? Six boys running into high-end shops, grabbing what expensive merchandise they can carry, and then making a dash for Fagin's little Nissan car?

Maybe. If today's Fagin is creative enough. Otherwise, his army of thieves might get a little restless with the paltry rewards after a hard day's toil. The business model may need some tweaking. Like adding in a little breaking and entering, swiping of expensive silver or jewelry. So many possibilities for a clever mastermind.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Dead Zone

The publishing year calendar for this time of year is rather standard fare. The industry has entered into the dead zone, where no breeze blows and no manuscript ship can sail.

August - September 2016

Out of Office

Last Holiday 
of Summer
return to work

Yes, it's dead quiet in New York City for the next couple of weeks. Not a creature is stirring, not even a book worm.

Copy and paste this handy calendar wherever you keep track of your query letters, and refer to it often when you have the urge to send a literary agent a perfectly polished query. Just don't. Wait until they've had a chance to recover from their sun holiday in Europe or the rigors of closing up the beach house in the Hamptons.

You want the agent to be in the best frame of mind when they read your killer opening line, right? They can't very well read it when they're out of the office and not checking e-mails. Sure they'll find it when they get back to work in two weeks, but can you imagine how many e-mails have accumulated in that time? And do you want your query to get the scantest of scant perusal because the agent is trying to catch up with a backlog?

Your letter would be lost in the maelstrom.

Unless you have some spectacular writing credentials, that is, but chances are you do not.

If you're desperate to query, you can select those literary agents who tweet with abandon. If they're on vacation, you'll know about it. If their little bon mots suggest they're at work, then you can take a chance. Maybe you're after some young agent, newly minted and keen to make a big splash in the publishing ocean.

But just remember, it's the dead zone time of year and not much will happen. Spend the next two weeks polishing the query letter, making sure the manuscript is stellar, and for feck's sake write something else to keep yourself busy.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Gentrification Creeps In On Little Pawn Feet

The sort of people who can afford to live in Bucktown and Wicker Park are not the sort of people who need a pawn shop. They use banks. They have jobs that pay well, and if they find themselves running a little short of cash, they either hit the ATM or whip out a credit card.

When the locals in a given neighborhood have no need of a shop in the neighborhood, that shop goes out of business. No clients, no income, no way to survive.

The businesses do not shutter their doors all at once. The change is gradual, like the fog creeping in on little cat feet. One day, there is merchandise in a storefront, and the next day, the windows are papered over and a "For Rent" sign appears. It's almost not noticeable, that single gap on the commercial block. Some new business comes in, but it isn't a taqueria or a dollar store. It's a boutique, or it's a restaurant serving high end grilled cheese sandwiches and craft beers.

Some would say it's progress that's marching on, progress that sees a business catering to the working classes or urban poor giving way to shops that are patronized by the young urban professionals.

For the few clinging to their homes near Noble Square, they may not see it as progress when their nearest pawn shop is gone soon.

Value Pawn has been doing business at the corner of Ashland and Milwaukee Avenues for the past five years, and it's a wonder the owner opened up in the first place. Back in 2011, the area was already undergoing gentrification. Scott Lee Cohen, who once toyed with the notion of public office, bought the structure at a good price, getting in at the right time, to wait out the gentrification wave. Now it has washed over the Noble Square area, having swept across Bucktown and Wicker Park, and the investment is set to pay off. The pawnbroking business, however, did not face the same benefits.

Realtors will tout the location, location, location, but you won't find any literature promoting the site as perfect for a pawnshop. No, in this case of gentrification, the seller is suggesting the corner building as a good spot for a restaurant. Lots of foot traffic, they'll say, with all the young urban professionals marching by on their way to the public transportation facilities that bring them to their jobs in the Loop. They're fond of drinking coffee and nibbling on whole grain, gluten-free, low fat muffins. Why not start up your business at Ashland and Milwaukee and cater to those unmet needs?

They like to dine out, as evidenced by the numerous trendy restaurants that dot the area, and that's more than can be said about the former residents of Noble Square. Some of them are still around, grumbling about the way the place is changing and you can't recognize it for all the fancy places popping up, but that's a good sign. It shows that you're getting in early, like an urban pioneer, to make your mark or stake your claim to the hipster dollar.

It's gentrification in action, creeping in quietly, to push out the old and the poor and drag in the well-heeled with plenty of money to spend on luxuries. They don't need a pawn shop. So the pawn shop will go to where it is wanted, until that neighborhood becomes the latest hot spot for gentrification that will creep in and spread across the city.

It's inevitable. The only people who can afford the ever-escalating taxes and fees imposed by Chicago's government are the ones with money. The ones who have never set foot in a pawn shop.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Welcome To The "Gare"?

Can we get a deal on a loan for a house in the suburbs? Outside of Cook County?
You'll hear the occasional comment about Chicagoans never accepting name changes. The Sears Tower is still the Sears Tower, even if some foreign corporation bought the physical building and purchased the naming rights. Good for you, Willis. You made enough money to buy an iconic structure. But you don't exist in the hearts and minds of true Chicagoans.

The White Sox have always played at the ballpark named for their founder, Charles Comiskey. When a cell phone company paid for the right to slap their name and logo on the glorified shopping mall at 35th and Shields, the few fans who were not run off by Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf grumbled mightily and kept on calling the place Comiskey.

Sure, some came to accept the new name, in a fashion. The entire corporate entity title was too long, of course, so the ballpark was generally referred to as "The Cell".

Appropriate, for the more typical Sox fan as compared to the well-heeled (and overserved) who patronize Wrigley Field.

(Notice how no one is talking about naming rights for a ballpark named for the gum magnate who used to own the Cubs a long time ago. Some corporations know when they're fighting a losing battle.)

Amid much fanfare yesterday, while the White Sox were losing yet again, the team announced that a new company had come forward with cash in hand, to lay claim to the name of the field that had to change because there isn't a U.S. Cellular mobile phone company any more. Mergers, wouldn't you know. And the contract was up, so why not find someone else.

A name on a ballpark generates loads of publicity because the name of the field gets mentioned all over the place during the baseball season. Tonight at "insert ballpark name here", the White Sox took on etc. etc.. Sports writers throw in a mention to fill out the needed words in their articles, and when someone needs whatever product that naming firm sells, the product name is instantly familiar.

So now, it is expected that whenever a White Sox fan needs a home loan, they'll be thinking "Guaranteed Rate".

With the latest round of tax increases hitting Chicago residents, there might be a greater demand for new home loans on homes located outside the boundaries of the city. Property taxes have just skyrocketed, and now the Chicago Public School system plans to tack on another blast of taxes. And that's on top of the planned hike in water fees.

Yes indeed, Guaranteed Rate picked an excellent time to get their name out there, to boost their recognition factor. More and more people will be thinking about making a move out of Cook County, and every time they listen to a report on the tanking White Sox, they'll get that little subliminal nudge about guaranteed home loan rates.

Of course, the name is too long for easy conversation. It will get shortened, in time, like U.S. Cellular became The Cell. What is still considered Comiskey might some day be nicknamed "The Gare" or "The Last Best Option Before Rahm Bleeds Us All Dry."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Real Liddy James: A Book Review

Don't let the confusion of the opening pages stop your reading. It will become clear soon enough, after you've stumbled over the clunky bits of backstory that make for a rough go. Read on, and you'll be glad you stayed around to meet Liddy James and the cast of characters who share her life.

The story of the high-powered divorce attorney is told with a touch of humour, as Liddy's carefully crafted world starts falling to pieces around her head. She has left her hardscrabble, offspring-of-Irish-immigrants-past behind and presents an image of success, albeit one that is grounded in New York City materialism. She has the private car, the driver, the luxurious flat, and a brilliant career, but she comes to see that it isn't all that after all.

Her teenaged son has grown moody and recalcitrant, her second son (paternity backstory is well done) needs his mother but she isn't much of a mother because she has the nanny and her ex-husband and her ex's live-in lover to manage the kids in their way, one that is not in keeping with Liddy's prescriptive book on the subject. And by the way, the live-in lover is pregnant and wants to quit her job to raise the child, much to the horror of Liddy's ex. 

Liddy goes off the deep end and runs back to Ireland to find her true self, back to the land of her birth, and it's there that she finds the real Liddy James.

Takes a handsome son of the auld son to push her along, and doesn't prove how brilliant Anne-Marie Casey is as an author?

The story is pure fluff but it's entertaining, and isn't that what you want in a novel?

Read it with your book group, and then argue over the message of the story. Is the key to happiness the abandonment of riches, like the nuns beat into our hard heads? Is the author channeling her inner Roman Catholic with the way she closes the novel? Open up another bottle of wine and discuss.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Sic Semper Sears

Don't you think that the first clue should have been fairly obvious? Barnes and Noble plucked their CEO from the management of Sears Canada, and I could swear I'd heard that Sears was dying a slow death.

Ron Boire came in last year as the great saviour of Barnes and Noble. He had the expertise to turn the struggling book vendor around, to boost online sales and get the Nook buzzing and bring people in to the bricks and mortar stores. None of it happened, but should anyone be surprised? Someone ruling over a failing enterprise can't be expected to succeed at doing something in a different location that he couldn't do in his original spot.

Mr. Boire was let go from Barnes and Noble after a brief tenure in which the bottom line of the book store chain continued to sink. Whatever ideas he might have put into action did not result in the desired outcome, and so the great experiment failed. Little wonder, when he came from a culture of dinosaurs.

Sears was once a mighty retailer, but the climate changed and Sears could not keep up. It had become too big and unwieldly to turn around, and now it is shedding real estate and shuttering stores as it succumbs to its failures. Mr. Boire was part of that very environment.

Maybe if he had more time to let his new ideas grow and blossom, the financial picture might have become rosy enough to save his job. He had a limited amount of time, after all, because Barnes and Noble is bleeding cash and the corporation was quite short on time. The decision to go back to the company's roots, to focus some attention on the physical stores, has yet to show what promise there could be. Perhaps it will take a few years to get people to go back to the stores, to discover what Harry Selfridge promoted in his grand venture. Shopping was once recreation, it was seen as a fun activity, but that means a store has to offer that which is not to be found in every other shop.

What would that be in a bookstore? What could Barnes and Noble offer to get people to buy their books from them instead of using the internet and Amazon?

There is the element of personal attention that has saved the independent book vendor, to an extent. It's no easy matter for a chain of shops to offer personal attention, to ensure that the staff is knowledgeable in the latest books and can recommend something based on a client's general description of their interests. That kind of study is usually done by a motivated store owner, not a low-level employee toiling for minimum wage.

Publishers see nothing but turmoil at Barnes and Noble in the coming months, a period of time that includes the all-important holiday shopping season.

Sears. Barnes and Noble. Too big to turn around?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

June: A Book Review

There's a story in this novel, a story desperately trying to claw its way out of a prison of flowery prose. A good editor was needed to hack through the thicket of excess verbiage, but alas, JUNE was published in its current form and it is up to a reader to find the good parts.

This being literary fiction, the writing has more metaphors than you're likely to find in some potboiler thriller, and like any other seasoning, a little goes a long way. Too much can spoil a good recipe. There were times when I had to go back and reread a few pages to understand what the author was trying to say, and that is the definition of too much verbal flourishing.

A pity, really, because the plot underneath is quite good. We have Cassie, an artist raised by her grandmother after her parents died in a tragic accident. She returns to her greandmother's home after the old woman's passing, guilt-ridden at not spending enough time with Grandma as the end neared. The old house is a bit magical in that it can invade Cassie's dreams with its past and those who once graced the halls, and while that sounds silly it lends a bit of charm to the story.

Out of nowhere, Cassie learns that she has inherited the fortune of a film star who came to the small Ohio town where Cassie now resides to shoot a movie. It takes a while to get there, through a dense forest of words that you will end up skipping over because they don't help move the narrative. With the introduction of that little mystery, the plot moves forward, with the famous daughter of that movie star arriving to settle things with Cassie rather than contest the will in a public courtroom.

Famous daughter Tate drags along her entourage from Hollywood, bringing in a little sexual tension between Nick the assistant and Cassie. Their interactions don't come about naturally, however, with their sparring and romancing the result of an author propelling them along, rather than the characters coming together.

The novel drags a bit through the middle, but the story fights its way out in the last third and really flows beautifully. Cassie continues on her quest to find out why this movie star left her his fortune, how her grandmother came to be involved in the star's life, and what became of her grandmother's best friend from childhood, the one with most of the answers.

Intertwined in Cassie's narrative is the story of June, the grandmother, and the film star during their short interlude of happiness. June's best friend has her say as the tangled relationship grows into what could be wedded bliss but for a few very deadly encounters that crush June's hopes.

Is the book worth reading, you ask.

For the good bits, yes. You have to work to find them, but when you find them, you will see what promise Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has as an author. If only she could find a good, honest editor to cut out the excess. Literary fiction doesn't have to be dense to be labeled as literary.

With thanks to Blogging for Books for the copy used in this review.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Too Much Social Media Is Not Wise

Kids today.

They have the fastest thumbs around, with bulging muscles developed with repetitive use. Those two digits just seem to fly when a message needs to be sent to a legion of followers.

Older folks can cluck their tongues and shake their heads in dismay. What is this generation coming to? Does no one talk face to face, person to person?

The lack of human contact must surely have an effect on brain processes, wouldn't it? Some section of the frontal lobe not developing in the same way as happened before man learned how to communicate without speaking?

For Brandon McNeil, that dire possibility was proved true. His malformed neural connections failed him at a most critical time, and now he's behind bars.

Maybe the whole behind bars thing started when he made an earlier bad decision, to run from the cops after he was spotted firing off a few rounds from a gun.

Yeah, okay, the bad decision was before that, when he acquired a gun in the first place, and then decided to use it. But that does not alter the fact that Twitter led to his ultimate downfall.

Mr. McNeil knew that shooting a gun in Chicago was illegal. The city has the toughest gun laws around, and the police do try to clamp down when they can. There aren't enough of them to go around and it's a challenge to be where the guns are at the right time, but in this case, there they were. In Beverly. The nicer part of the city where a lot of cops and firemen live.

Yes, shooting a gun in Beverly, the south side neighborhood favored by city employees who have to live in the city, is also not a smart move. But back to Twitter.

Once the sirens started blaring, Mr. McNeil knew he had to remove himself from the scene. He thought it was clever to live Tweet his dash for freedom, as if the police would be clueless about social media and none of Mr. McNeil's followers would be dumb enough to point out to the authorities that the man was live Tweeting while running.

It's all in the thumbs, of course.

The gunman ran into a home and thought he might amuse his followers, and maybe add a few more, by tweeting out a picture of where he was hiding out while the police dashed around in a panic, knowing they had to track down an armed man who they might have to shoot back at and that's the last thing the cops want these days.

Those tweets? And that picture? That's what a prosecutor would call evidence. Shooters are advised to not tweet things like "I hid the pole, here's my hiding spot" because the police take the phone, look on the social media history, and find the hidden gun with ease. And just like that, the tweeter is arrested for possession of a gun with a filed-off serial number, which is even more illegal than a normal gun.

Gun court is, by and large, a joke in Chicago, but Mr. McNeil helped things out by tweeting and providing enough information to escalate his case beyond simple possession.

If only he'd put down the phone before the urge to tweet struck. He'll have plenty of time behind bars to regret his social media addiction.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Letters From Paris: A Book Review

Female protagonist at loose ends in her life? Check.

Brooding male love interest with a few secrets in his artistic closet? Check.

Paris locale? Check.

Juliet Blackwell covers all the requisites for a work of romantic women's fiction in her newest release, LETTERS FROM PARIS. She gives her readers Claire Broussard, the orphan girl raised by her grandmother after her mother died and her father proved to be an abusive alcoholic parent. Claire ran from her past, all the way from Louisiana bayou country to Chicago, but she still hasn't found what she's looking for. She is unsatisfied in life, and what self-respecting work of women's fiction doesn't have a main character who isn't satisfied with what she has but feels that more is out there if she just goes looking for it.

While visiting her dying grandmother she reconnects with a mysterious bit of home decor in the form of a popular plaster mask that was shipped from Paris at the close of the Second World War. Inside is a cryptic note and there's the next item on the check list. Claire needs a quest to continue her journey, and that quest is finding out the significance of the note.

So she's off to Paris, the most romantic city in the world, and she meets up with Mr. Darcy as a plaster-caster. While she takes on a little side job as his assistant, the reader is treated to flashbacks told by the woman whose face was used to create the original mask that Claire has long been fascinated by. The story within a story parallels much of Claire's experiences, but it is told in present tense to bring the past more readily into the present.

At any rate, the mystery of the mask is gradually revealed while the relationship between Claire and the Frenchman heats up. It's what you expect in women's fiction, no real surprises or artistic flourishes. Girl meets boy, they dance around, and then they reveal pieces of their past that release the old ghosts and thus ends the haunting. Cue the violins.

For those who consume romances, this is perhaps a more substantial read than most. It's a book that satisfies the cravings for all things sweet and light, seasoned with a touch of life's tearful moments. The ending is happy for everyone, as it should be in this kind of thing. Sometimes it's what you need when everyone else is fretting about what Brexit will mean to the economy.

WIth thanks to Penguin Random House and their First To Read offers.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Spontaneous: A Book Review

Isn't it difficult to be a teen these days? And isn't it just that much more difficult when your classmates start spontaneously combusting?

There's the premise for SPONTANEOUS by Aaron Starmer.

It's mad, yes, a premise so bizarre that you can't help but keep reading. Where can an author go with a story that opens with a young lady turning into a cloud of blood?

Against a backdrop of unexplained incidents in which students disappear in bloody explosions that come without warning, Mara Carlyle is navigating the typical world of American youth, in which friendships and cliques are all important. At least until students combust. That adds a whole new element to things.

The combustions add an element of uncertainty to life, when a person doesn't know why it's happening, or who will be next. As you'd expect, government experts come in to uncover the cause, but suspicions soon arise. Mara, her best friend, and her new boyfriend are all drawn in to a secretive investigation being conducted by a rogue FBI agent who has her own opinions on the cause and the source of the combusting.

Novels about teen angst abound, but by going absurd the author creates a different way to tell a story about friendship and the importance of relationships during trying times. This book is fresh and creative, a bit draggy at times but otherwise a very entertaining bit of prose.

Even if you don't care about the difficulties of being on the cusp of adulthood, heading off to university, the novel throws in a unique concern as far as getting go university is concerned. What if the characters that you've come to know have the greatest worry of all, that they won't make it to their graduation ceremony because everyone in the class seems to be combusting spontaneously? And there's no escaping the confines of the small town because somehow the government knows where all those senior-level students are hiding.

And thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy. Much appreciated.