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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Lane Robins' LiveJournal:

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    Saturday, June 27th, 2015
    10:54 pm
    Final Friday Fiction - Drift
    So, let’s pretend it’s Friday and that I’m not so scattered I can’t keep track of my calendar even with pop-up reminders on my phone, email, etc….

    Happy Fiction Friday!

    Most of the time, I just write ideas that appeal to me.  Little moments that want exploration.  Every so often though, I try writing a story in the “style of…” to explore something that appeals to me in someone else’s writing.

    This one was inspired by a lot of Charles deLint.  I loved his Newford pieces and the sense of all these intertwined people all having their own magical moments.

    My original idea was to make a whole series of vignettes based on the gift the narrator receives in this piece, but I never really got around to it.  Probably because I started writing them in the wrong order.  I wrote the opening gambit, the flashback, and the final story.

    Then, of course, my brain felt satisfied and disinclined to do any more work.  What?  I had a beginning, middle, and end, what more did I want?  I also realized I’m just not a Charles deLint kind of author.

    If I tried to write a super interwoven mythic sort of city, I’m pretty sure I’d forget which characters had already met, who knew what, and somewhere in the middle of it, I’d change all the rules.  So probably for the best then.


    DRIFT

    On a terrible dark night, an angel came to earth.  That’s what Ian told me.  I didn’t believe him.

    Who would have?  I figured at best he was indulging in wishful thinking and a little exaggeration.  He deserved it.  It’s bad enough to find that you carry death wrapped like barbed wire around your cells.  To bear that knowledge alone was too much.

    Ian said that the Angel came to him to ease his pain and then he stayed.  I can’t argue with that.  After all, I’ve met Angel.  He is a stand-up guy, with a sweet smile and few words.  But a superior life-form representative of a forgiving God?  I pass.

    Having said all that, though, I hate to mention that they’re not the focus of this tale.  But it started with them, with Angel.

    I work most days down in the square, selling found art jewelry.  Cheap mementos for passing students, and inexpensive treasures for children who see pirate’s gold in every shiny surface.  Wire and bead, feather and leather, wooden discs and bone, shell, glass, and stone.  Fire and air, water and earth, I use them all.

    So I was selling my trinkets and a man stopped at my booth.  It took me a moment, but I recognized Angel, wrapped in fading sunlight.  He looked over my things seriously, almost touching here, nodding there and smiling at everything else.  I actually found myself holding my breath as I hadn’t since my first school art critique.

    He smiled. “Dinner?  Tonight?”

    I went.  Free food after all.  And Ian is a friend.  Maybe Angel too.

    When I left their apartment, Angel stopped me in the narrow little hall.  “Wait,” he said.

    I did.  He came back with a body-sized pillowcase, sloppily full, and wound about with rope at the top.  “These are for you.  You can use them,” he said.  “I don’t need them anymore.”

    It was more words than I had ever heard from him at once, and between that and being torn apart by instant curiosity, I almost missed his last words.  Almost.

    “Even I can be tempted.”

    I walked away, clutching the pillowcase.  Back at my home sweet hole, I spilled the contents out over my hands.  Feathers, clouds of them.  Hard-edged, brown and tawny and white and cream with bronze steaks in most of them.  There were three that were scarlet at the tips of the rachis.

    They licked over my palms, like silk, like light, like secrets, and for the first time I felt it.  A little flutter.  It could have been fear.  Could have been something else.

    I put them back in the bag and them away.  I left one out to look at.  To admire, to think on.  At the end of the week, I beaded it into a collar of stone and leather. I tried it on.  The feather tip hung below the last row of beads, whispered against my breastbone.  I closed my eyes, and dreamed a little.

    I sold it the next day to a street kid, one of the many who might have been one of the homeless.  He was thin and hard-edged.  His hair was dark and long and dirty. He made people uncomfortable.  He had no job, no school, no nothing, but when he touched the necklace he smiled at me, and we fell to talking.

    He had been a college student.  He had left.  He was taking some time to think about things.  After a long conversation, those were the only facts I had gained.  He walked off, wearing the necklace.  I put a handful of crumpled and damp ones into my wallet.

    He, of course, is the subject of this tale.

    And while most of everything I heard was second hand if not third or fourth, I still think I’m the only one who has all the pieces of it.  The only one who can give shape to what happened.

    My boy’s name, I learned later, was Taylor.  Besides being a drop-out, he was a sneak thief and junkie.  He made a perilous seesaw of life, always getting money, spending money, getting high, coming down.  The first thing I heard about was the accident, and the first time I met him was when he came to my booth, but that’s not the order it happened in and I’ll give it to you the way I think it went.

    So the pivotal thing that happened was simple.  Taylor came down and got right back up to the heights, but this time, he didn’t buy the drug from anyone anyone knew.  It didn’t make much of a ripple.  Even a junkie might have a friend who’ll share, or stumble over a stash almost forgotten.

    But a week later, then two weeks, he still hadn’t paid for his happiness.  And he was so wrapped in it, walking in a daze, smiling, and laughing, and hugging himself.  Floating along, until no one, least of all his suppliers could ignore it.

    Rumor had it, and this is where it began, rumor had it that not only had Tay found a stash, it was of something new, something good, and he had a lot of it.

    Everyone wanted a piece of it.  I know that because one morning, as I was setting up, Tay darted over to me, smiled and dropped below the table, sheltering under the cloth I draped over it.  A moment later, two of the local breakers came into sight.  They looked at me like predators rejecting unworthy prey.  I didn’t object.

    Tay stayed for the day, laughing up at me, and singing odd snatches of music.  I didn’t mind.  I split my lunch with him, but he ate only a bite or two and lapsed into silence.

    “What are you doing,” I asked when the silence stretched out.

    “Listening,” he answered.

    Voices in his head, I assumed.  Junkie talk.  But he sang some more songs a phrase at a time, as if he were repeating only what he was hearing a moment before.

    At the end of the day, he had fallen silent and into a doze.  I reached down as the sky darkened.  I slid my hand down past his open collar and down the skin of his back.  We both jerked.  I pulled my hand away, and looked.  There were raised bumps all over his skin on his back, like permanent gooseflesh.  He shrugged his shirt up on his neck and smiled.

    “Safe now?”

    “Maybe,” I said.  He started to walk away.  I couldn’t help it.  I called out.

    “Tay, what are you on?”

    He smiled, a slow lazy reminder of joy.  “Light.”

    As far as I know, I’m the only one he ever told.  Probably because he thought I knew.

    The dealers got more desperate after that.  Whole days went by with them shadowing Tay, trying to find his stash.  I guess they finally got impatient or angry or both, and then there was the accident.

    There are witnesses to it, and I wasn’t one but I wish I had been.  To see what I was beginning to think.  The whole of it is that the dealers, sick of playing games, tried to get rid of the problem.  In a burst of spite, they drove directly through the square, scattering people and booths and gunning straight for Taylor.  He didn’t move.  Couldn’t I guess, too wrapped up in singing his songs to a new audience.  But everyone agrees with a few basic events.

    The car skidded towards him, too fast for him to dodge, too powerful to survive.  And then

    The infinitely slow drift of soft wings against asphalt and he… was… light.  The car was through him, past him, and slammed into a utility pole.  Taylor walked away.  The men in the car didn’t.

    Taylor was only seen a couple more times in town.  Once with a tag-end bunch of homeless teens following him around like the lost children they were.  Passersby say they were thin, but had clear eyes and were humming beautiful tunes.

    Once more in the nightand Ellie, the tattooist who saw him, swears she wasn’t drinking, but that she saw him without his shirt and he had wings.  Most people discount that rumor.  I think she was right.  That day under my booth, his skin had reminded me of pin feathers about to be freed.

    In fact, I’m sure of it, but the only proof I have is a gift left at my booth.  A little bag with my necklace in it, returned.  A short burst of words on paper.  “Thank you. I don’t need this anymore.”  And a few small new feathers streaked with gold and bronze.

    ###


     
    Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
    9:57 pm
    May Books
    A mixture of books for me this month.  I'm trying to weed through the enormous To Be Read pile of physical books.  There are books I know I'll adore on there, books that I bought on whims at used book stores, garage sales, etc., and books that people have given me.  So out of that pile, I managed 7.

    I also managed to check off 4 of the kindle TBR pile (Stealthy, the way those books add up.)

    And naturally some of these books sent me to the library for more.

    The highlights!

    From my actual shelf:
    ROPE OF THORNS - Gemma Files.  I adored the first book in this series like crazy.  Files is generally excellent on three fronts in her books: characterization, setting, and glorious, glorious prose.  THORNS is no exception.  Loved the writing here.  And thrilled to realize I still have the third book to go.  I loved Chess Pargeter the amoral, psycopath, growing and changing--not really because of the big splashy magics that surround him, but the smaller ones that link him into other people's thoughts and considerations.  The new character Yancey was a delight.

    THE DEMON KING - Cinda Williams Chima.  I have absolutely no idea where this YA novel came from.  Sometimes I think my books just breed more books when I'm not looking.  Or invite their friends over for a party that never ever ends, only grows cold and tired like some fae courts.  This book surprised me.  I was ready to write it off as the farmboy king plot, but it's really a lot more than that.  I ended up devouring the first book, then flinging myself into the arms of the library to read the rest of the Sevenrealms series.  It hits all the familiar tropes--the secret heir, the princess torn between love and duty, the evil wizards, even a school of magic montage--but it does so with a fair degree of freshness.  And the characters are genuinely believable.

    THE THOUSAND NAMES - Django Wexler.  I bought this at a library book sale, because I'd heard good things about it.  The pacing is... leisurely, and the plot revolves around an army's march to take back a city that isn't actually theirs.  That said, this book definitely hit my sweet spot in so many ways.  And Wexler did one thing that was utterly delightful, that I won't risk spoiling for any readers who are as slow as I am to come to this series.  I have book 2 on order, and every expectation of following it up with book 3.

    From the e-reader:
    TICKER by Lisa Mantchev.  A YA steampunk story that takes a deep breath and then throws every single fun idea the author had into a fast romp of a book.  This is weirdly medical steampunk, which really adds a fresh look to things.  If you liked the Kate Locke Immortal Empires series, this one might be to your tastes, too.  Just generally fun.

    LIBERTY & OTHER STORIES by Alexis Hall.  A collection of loosely connected stories (all set in the same world, in a few levels of society) that are mostly epistolary and very weird.  In the good way.  Alexis Hall is another writer who has deft way with characterization, setting, and prose.

    From the library:

    PAPER VALENTINE by Brenna Yovanoff.  YA about a grieving girl literally haunted by the ghost of her dead best friend.  It's very YA, very concerned with finding your own identity, with accepting that you can change and will change even if you're scared to, and with finding your own confidence/power.  That makes it sound preachy.  It's anything but.  The haunted girl realizes that one of her classmates is a serial killer (impossibly young, but... it's YA, so I'll allow that premise) and her attempts to do something about it.

    THE EXILED QUEEN, THE GREY WOLF THRONE, and THE CRIMSON CROWN by Cinda Williams Chima.  The books mentioned above.  Really enjoyable fantasy YA.

    GOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright.  The only nonfiction piece I read this month, and it was a doozy.  An expose of Scientology that was turned into a documentary film.  Chilling, crazy, and kind of impossible to put down.  Definitely an amazing example of the cult of personality.  I thought overall the book was organized well; but I would have liked to see more of the social analysis that Wright bent toward Hubbard turned on Miscavige and his era. 
    Friday, May 29th, 2015
    8:23 pm
    Final Friday Fiction - Dust Rises
    So last month, I gave y’all a dragon story, a staple of any fantasy writer’s oeuvre.  This month, another familiar face: Vampires.  This short piece was inspired by 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories way back whena book of flash fic all about vampires.  I wanted to see how tight a story I could write.  As it turns out, not that tight. J This fell into that incredibly awkward to market size, so I just let it go for fun.  And now, to entertain you.




    The Dust Rises
    by Lane Robins


    I wake in the dawn and give thanks for the light, kneeling, creaking and sore, a folded scarecrow of a man.  I am the oldest brother in the service of the sword.  The others call me Brother Gaunt on the rare occasions our paths cross.

    I pick up my weapons; the sword, the bag of rose thorns and strung garlic, the cross.  Old weapons.  Traditional weapons.  They suffice.  Barely.  But one man, one sword can do what needs to be done.

    I pray, I go to confession, and I do the Lord’s work.  And it’s killing me.

    #

    I get between him and his sanctuary.  Crouching in the subway stairwell, he shrieks at me, sunlight simmering at his back.  This one should be simple:  Drive him into the light.  But the sun’s burning in my eyes; my breath stops and my heart stutters and skips.  It’s all I can do to keep him off me, flailing with the cross like a panicky novice.  I catch him a glancing blow as he passes and his pain gives me a new strength.

     I herd him into a corner, the golden cross in my right hand and the sword in my left.  I swing.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the body blows into a fine, red powder.  It stings my eyes and makes me cough.  I wipe my face on my shirt sleeve; it leaves gritty darkness behind.  Requiescat in pace.  Redemption by sword.

    #

    No joy at the doctor’s.  She says I have an infection of unknown origin.  But I know the source.  Their rot: my lungs.  I knew there was something wrong.  There’s always something.  Burns, scrapes, stabs, bites.  The people at the factory would be surprised to see what lies etched on my skin beneath my long-sleeved shirts, my high collars.  They don’t realize that an old grey man who spends his time working the line can have secrets and fears.

    This fear is new.  Cause and effect.  It’s almost too simple to be true.  I kill them; I breathe in their tainted flesh and it kills me?

    There’s no one to ask.  I am the oldest brother in a field where survival is rare.  The ones who taught me to hunt died or disappeared long ago.

    #

    I’m astride the coffin, and looking in.  She raises her hands to shield her eyes from the cross, glowing so bright and hot in the gloom even I can see its light.  She’s not putting up a fight, but it’s awkward maneuvering the sword, and I’m not getting a clean stroke.

    When I was young, they called me Brother Iron and I could swing the great sword one-handed, either hand.  Brother Gaunt needs two hands for full force and has a trick right shoulder.

    She writhes, reknitting flesh, and grunting with effort, I tip the coffin over.  She tumbles out and I behead her.  The sword tangles in her hair and I have to separate head from hilt.  And fwoomf--the dust rises.

    #

    Passed out at work today.  Couldn’t breathe.  Doctor’s examination said infection’s spreading.  Resistant to antibiotics.  I could have told her that.  I'm afraid the infection has nothing to do with life.  But I’m not ready to admit it yet--when I woke from my seizure, I was surrounded by coworkers at the factory.  And the perfume of sweat and flesh overrode even the oiled metal of the machinery.  It smelled good.

    Vampirism isn’t passed on like this, surely.  Not from inhaling their dust.  I would have known.  Someone would have warned me.

    But all my elder brothers are gone.

    #

    Whole litter of them.  It’s just slaughter.  No finesse.  No need.  The little ones run and push each other right into the blade.  I’m swinging two-handed through a cloud of ash, the cross dropped long ago, but I can still see it blazing on the floor to my left.  My eyes water at its light and with the force of my coughing.  I wish they’d stop screaming.  Don’t they care about Redemption?

    #

    I had to take some time off from work.  Factory work.  Not the other, never the other.  Chest pains now.  And the doctor’s worried.  Rest, she says.  I told her today.  Not everything, but about the infection, that it was death itself.  When she understood, she gave this silly nervous laugh and said what type of death lives so well?  Dumb and blind who will not see, but will presume to heal.  My lungs burn, and beneath the pain, numbness.

    #

    Horrible.  Just one, same site as the litter, perhaps the sire.  But it is a hard battle.  He wants to live.  He’s screaming that at me, and the cross is blazing so bright it's blinding, and I have to cast it aside and I’m fighting in darkness with its afterimage scorched in the back of my eyes.

    But I’m faster than he is, and tonight it seems like I’m Brother Iron again.  I’m swinging the sword one-handed and it’s fluid and easy and I’m invincible.  Then the blade bites bone and flesh and it’s over.

    I have to sit down until my vision clears.  The recovered cross is too hot to touch.  I wrap it in my shirt and go home.

    #

    Dawn comes and with it, pain.  Fumbling for the phone, pushing at the keys with numb fingers in a room growing dim around the edges.

    They resuscitated me on the table.  The doctor said it was touch and go, but that I wanted to live.  The rot’s still there, though.  And it will win.

    There can be little doubt, now.  They filled me full of blood at the hospital.  Anemia.  I’m changing.  I should call my brothers and leave instructions:  When I am found dead, stake my heart and cut off my head.  Pin a cross to the earth above me.
    But the hunt beckons and that call can wait.

    Besides, my brothers might not want to wait and life is dear.

    #

    I don’t want to die.  She doesn’t either.  She runs from me, slipping down a manhole and taking our battle below-ground.  I chase from habit, but I am tired.  I strew the path behind us with rose thorns and garlic, and, hand burning, I hurl the cross before her.  She stops in her tracks and looks back at me.  I see her give up, hope leaving, and she kneels.  I raise the sword; it shakes in my hand.  I drop it.  I don’t have the strength.  I kneel beside her, shivering.  Even as the words of contrition spill from my lips, I don’t know which of us I’m praying for.  I struggle back to my feet, out of time.  The sun is coming.

    #

    Daylight straggles in through the drawn curtains of my apartment.  In the shadowy half-light, the apartment feels empty already and I haven’t left it yet.  I burn my journal, baking it in the oven until it flutters into ashy clouds.  My heart flutters in my chest.  I don’t have very long, and I need every edge I can get.  I want to live.

    I’ve spent the day remembering pleading faces beneath the shadow of my sword and when I study my own I see it too.  I want to live.  I don’t care how.

    My brothers will have to learn their fates on their own, as I have.  Maybe I’ll see them on the hunting fields.  But my last prayer is a prayer that I do not.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, let us go to the ground again.

    #

    Even before I wake, I know it's done.  My labored breathing has stopped.  The pain is gone, as well as the endless small aches and frailties of existence.  I wake in the dusk and give thanks for this life.

    ###
     
    Monday, May 11th, 2015
    7:25 pm
    Girl stuff
    This past weekend I had a garage sale in which my goal was to clean out my garage of action figures.  (Before you scream, I did all the math for these figures and it would have been more than my time was worth to try to sell them at a profit.)  So, I dragged all the boxes outside, priced them to go go go, and sat back.

    There were three types of buyers.

    Grandmas who wigged out at the idea of cheap toys for their grandkids.

    Collectors who told me I was making a mistake even as they tried to haggle my already low prices (rude, rude, rude!).

    And little girls.

    The thing about my action figures is you could say they had a theme: they were all female characters.  Back in the 90's I got infuriated at not being able to find the cool women in their own universes, and decided obviously the way to remedy this was to prove to the toy companies that people would BUY women action figs.  That I would.  And as happens, the moment people find out you're collecting something, all your friends start gifting them to you.

    This was fun, but I grew tired of tilting at windmills.  And it ate up my time and money trying to buy action figures, so I stopped.  I displayed a lot of them, rotating them around my desk, but eventually I stopped collecting.  I hadn't made any difference anyway to the corporations' way of thinking.

    But the thing was, at the garage sale, these little girls would wander over, drawn by the toy sign, crouch over to look at the loose figures (priced for kid wallets) and freeze.  They noticed immediately.  Each and every time.  "They're all GIRLS!"  Then they plunked themselves down and rummaged, wide-eyed.

    Their mothers and fathers often came over, ready to discourage shopping, but again, I heard the same thing: "Mom/Dad, they're all girls!"  And without fail, each time, a Mom would look at me, look at the toys, and hand their daughter money.   The Dads usually said, "Oh weird.  Do you really want one?  If you want one, you can pick one."  The mothers kept urging their daughters to pick more.   "You want two?  How about five?  How about ten?  You can get ten if you want!"

    So when I read that Hasbro et al are STILL FUCKING THIS UP, it just makes me kind of sick.  Those girls weren't just happy to get toys.  There was real wonder in their faces.  Over something this simple.  That here was a pile of toys like them.

    Representation matters.  It really really does.

    This is 2015.  Little girls shouldn't be stunned when they see superheroine toys in groups.  Little boys shouldn't take a look in a bin full of "girl" action figures and shrug them off as "stupid".  Grown men shouldn't see these action figures as short-packed, a chance to make money if possible.  And adult women shouldn't look sad when they tell me that their daughter wanted a Black Widow toy and couldn't find one, and that they remembered feeling that same disappointment when they were kids. 

    These are toys.  It's not the end of the world.  But I can't help feeling like this is a microcosm of our society, and what it reveals isn't healthy.

    Give us our toys, damnit.
    Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
    1:41 pm
    April Books (& March)
    So the good thing about having some time off from the insomnia is getting sleep, obviously.  The bad thing is being short on time to do all the things I usually try to do.  Reading faltered, as did blogging (also obviously).

    I'm just going to hit the high spots of the past two months.

    From March, I recommend four books:

    An Egg, A Key, An Unfortunate Remark - Harry Connolly.  This is a VERY strange book, and I wasn't sure I was going to survive it in the beginning: the tone just felt so... odd.  But I know Connolly's writing, so I knew this weird narrative style was a deliberate choice and I wanted to see where it went.  And just about when I was really doubting this, the explanation for the narrative style appeared and I LOVED IT.  It was a wonderful explanation and it made the whole story that much more entertaining.  It's still a strange book, but it's delightfully strange.  In a lot of ways, Egg feels like Child of Fire turned inside out and upside down.  Definitely worth the read, not least because as io9 will tell you: Egg features an older woman as a protagonist.

    Trace by Sam Starbuck.  This is another left-field kind of book.  Starbuck/Copperbadge is really really really well-known for writing fanfiction, but he also writes original books. Trace  had its start in White Collar fanfiction, before he turned it into something else.  The magic in this book is amazing and presented as matter of factly as any magical realist tale ever.  The premise has small stakes--there's no end of the world approaching here--but the kind of small stakes that mean everything to the people involved.  Colin Byrne, a con man with a weird sort of magic, goes back to prison undercover to help out the police.  It's just a stylish, fun read.  Available only at lulu press.

    Pocket Apocalypse by Seanan McGuire.  Not my favorite of the InCryptid series--the plot felt a little thin to me--but as usual, McGuire's characters are topnotch and the emotions are real.  I have rarely been so appalled to have a character die as I was in this book.

    Lovecraft's Monsters edited by Ellen Datlow.  A really good anthology that had a lower than usual percentage of stories "not for me".  Standouts within the collection?
    "The Same Deep Waters as You" by Brian Hodge, who I've liked ever since PROTOTYPE.
    "The Dappled Thing" by William Browning Spencer.
    "The Bleeding Shadow" by Joe R Lansdale, which I've read before, but enjoyed enough that time to feel an "oh!" of recognition and dive right back in.
    I also really loved "Children of the Fang" by John Langan.

    April's recommended books:

    Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant.  Killer mermaids.  It didn't work for me 100%, but it's a novella that hits the sweet spot pretty neatly: just enough information to get your imagination invested, not enough to bore you with what is really a horror movie plot of "everyone gets eaten by monsters".  Though I did spend a lot of time arguing about mermaids and elbows and whether McGuire implied they had them or not, because... ELBOWS.  Everything else about her mermaids would make enough sf-science sense, except the elbows.  So if anyone else has elbows on the brain, come talk to me about it.

    Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.  After reading and loving Dark Places, I wanted more.  This one starts off really strongly, but sort of peters out a little bit midway for me.  Someone told me you can see her writing getting better and better with each book, and I believe it.  This one was written before Dark Places.  It's still a solid read.  I'm going to have to read Gone Girl, I suppose, though I am rarely interested in stories about marriages gone wrong.

    Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear.  I thought I'd read this book, but I knew I didn't own a copy.  I remedied that, then realized as I flipped through it that no, I hadn't actually read all the stories in this collection--only some of them that had been printed elsewhere.  A wonderful shock of surprise.  I sometimes have a hard time getting invested in Bear's novels, but oddly I have no problems getting sucked into her short fiction.  At least one of these stories left me in tears, which still surprises me.  A story about dying dragons shouldn't be that powerful, yet....

    Anyone else read anything wonderful?  My TBR piles are only four feet deep; I could add more...
    Friday, April 24th, 2015
    8:28 am
    Final Friday Fiction - Worm
    When I was a kid, fantasy lured me in with one big, bright promise: DRAGONS!!!

    For a long while there, it seemed like the best way to grab my interest was to slap the word Dragon on the title page.  That started with The Dragon Circle by Stephen Krensky (wonderful chapter book!) and just as my interest in fantasy was waning and I was moving toward mystery novels, a new friend dropped Dragonflight into my lap.  So my fate was sealed.

    Later of course, I realized that every fantasy author had to write at least one dragon story, one werewolf story, and one vampire story.

    This is my dragon story.


    Worm

    The morning sun still slanted over the steaming fields when the paunchy, raw-boned man pushed open the tavern door, sidling past the complaining goats tied near the entrance. This early, the tavern’s main room was cold and damp, hearth fires long settled to impotent ashes, and the only people in the room were a barmaid, an old sot, only now waking from the night’s stupor, and the goat herder come to collect him.

    Renard studied them all, weariness settling into his bones.  Their blank sullenness was all too familiar.  “Ho, barmaid.  A drink.  I’ve been walking all night and my mouth tastes of road dirt.”

    “Ask for his coin first, Melly,” the goat herder said. 

    Renard swung around, caught the goat herder studying his ragged boots, his worn clothes, his thin, flapping traveling pouch.  Renard put his hand on the hilt of his battered sword.  The goat herder looked away.
    Renard fished out a copper coin, dropped it on the scarred wooden counter.

    “It’s two coppers a drink,” she said, pouring thick brown ale into a wood cup.

    Renard dropped another coin into her hand.  Down to five copper left.  He peered over her shoulder into the kitchen.  “How about a meal?”

    She mutely dished up a bowl of oatmeal.  Renard fished out his flat spoon and reached for the bowl.  She laid her hand over the lip of the bowl.

    “Melly, is it,” Renard said.  “I’ve been traveling all day and all night just to get to this town, and I’ve not eaten in all that time.  You get between me and my food and I’m liable to take your hand off with my teeth.”

    She removed her hand.  “You got more coin?”

    “I will tonight,” Renard said.  Only hunger kept him from dribbling the oatmeal back out of his mouth as the sot was doing.  Bland and lumpy were bad enough, but it carried a sour taint too.  “You let those goats outside piss on this?”

    “There aren’t no jobs here,” the young man said, tone unwelcoming.  “Not even herder jobs since that worm came.  I’m the last one, and I take my goats with me everywhere.  I don’t give that black beast a chance.”

    “Do I look like a farmer?  Or goat herder?” Renard asked, pivoting to show his sword again.

    “You look like the tag ends of a deserter,” the goat herder said.

    “You look like your mother was one of those goats.” Renard said.  “What I am is the answer to your prayers.  I am a worm killer.”

    “Yeah?”  Melly said, pouring him a half-cup refill.  He toasted her.

    “Yeah, and let me tell you about worms.  They’re strange beasts.  You ever seen one of them up close?  Moving fast?  It should be funny-looking, the way worms run.  Three sets of legs, all moving at once.  They look like they’re always just about to change direction.  Funny-looking.  Excepting that the average worm is the size of this room and its footsteps shake the ground.

    “It still might be funny, their legs spinning every which way, but their heads hang low and their red eyes never leave your back, and their mouths gape like they’re tasting you from a distance.  Their teeth are the size of your head, and their tongues are red like blood, like fire, like the demon king of the netherworlds himself hunting you down.”  Renard slurped up another mouthful of ale, strained it through his teeth, swallowed.  The old sot put his head down on the table and snored.  Renard sighed.  No one ever was interested in amazing qualities of live worms, only in making dead ones.  Why did he even try?  But the words kept pouring from his mouth.

    “Now I’ve heard that eastern worms go up and down when they move; that they come after a man like the waves of the hungry sea, but that’s just hearsay.  I’ve never met an eastern hunter.  Haven’t met too many other hunters at all… but who’s surprised?  Because worms are fast.  And you run, and they run after shaking the trees and the rocks and it’s hard to keep on your feet much less run for your life, especially with a man’s own weight in armor on your back.

    “And they take one step for every twenty of yours until you can feel their spit burning your neck.  And you drop flat on your back, and thrust that heavy sword up and rip their bellies open as they sweep over you.  It’s the only way to kill them.

    “If you’re real lucky, they’re going so fast they get past before the organs and blood start falling.  If you’re lucky, you only get blood-burned and peel for weeks.  If you’re unlucky, they step on you and rip an arm or a leg off as they stumble forward.

    “If you’re real unlucky?  Well, you get the heart on your first thrust and down they come.  Thunk and you’re smothered under a thousand gold pieces of worm carcass and some bastard comes and makes a killing off of your hard work.

    “That’s gross profit, by the way.  I’m lucky if I see a hundred pieces by the time the middlemen get their cut for dismembering the beasts and selling the bits.  A hundred lousy gold pieces for a worm worth ten years of easy living. The nails, the teeth, the blood, the scales:  it’s all profit.  Magicians and warriors.  They all want a talisman as powerful as that.  And then there’s the bones themselves… that’s where most of the money is, selling kings the bones for their throne rooms.”

    “What about the worm’s gold?  Who gets that?” the goat herder said.

    Renard slugged back his last mouthful.  It always came down to that.  The gold.  And people thought the worms were greedy.

    “That’s all crap.  Literally.  Worm shit’s yellow and slick and shiny and some oaf took the ultimate in fool’s gold from a den and rather than admit to being a fool, spread that lie so other fools like you would believe him.”

    “So you’ve got gold now?  From the last worm you killed?” the barmaid cut in.

    Renard shook his grizzled red head.  “Nah.  First I had to replace my sword which the worm broke and pay off the debts I had incurred between worms.  Then I had to pay the farmer whose cows I used as bait.  Who knew cattle cost so much?  And for some animals that would have been eaten anyway, if I hadn’t rid them of the worm.  It’s a rough, thirsty, back-breaking, scarring, lonely job.  Did I mention thirsty?”

    Renard tilted his mug hopefully.  “My mouth’s dry from telling you the news.  Another drink?”

    “How much you got left?”  She pursed her mouth.  “‘Cause you owe me five coppers more already for food.”

    “Aw, Melly, come on.  Is that any way to treat a hero?”

    “Hero.  Butcher more like.  Where’s the glory in gutting them?”

    Renard scowled.  “Glory.  It got eaten with the first bard who thought he’d stay to watch the ‘duel’.  Had to pay off his family too.  He cost less than the cattle though.”

    Renard swirled his all-but-empty mug, watched the dregs rise and settle, thinking about that idiot bard.  Which of them had been the more fool, Renard wasn’t sureRenard for thinking the boy could make a song out of his method of worm killing, or the bard for demanding that Renard ride up on a noble steed, sword raised and charge the beast head on.  Their argument had gotten ugly enough that Renard had had to cold-cock the boy; wasn’t his fault then that the worm came out and ate the boy.  Cost him two whole days of waiting too, waiting for the worm to get hungry again.

    She poured a half mug of yeasty ale, and he gulped at it.  “That’s more like it, love.”

    “That’ll be seven coppers.”

    “Haven’t got it now.  I’ll have it soon.”

    “When you get rid of the black beast that’s pestering the life out of this town?.  Sure hates us.  You know what they say about black wormsthat they’re bad luck, that no hunters can kill them….”  Melly turned her back, wiped out a cup with her apron hem.

    “They also say if you kill a black worm, you gain power beyond your dreams,” Renard said.

    “I heard it’s got a demon’s soul.  They say it’s smarter, faster, meaner, than any other worm,” the goat herder said.

    “They always say that,” Renard said. “So people like you have an excuse not to fight it themselves.”

    “It’s more likely than a worm granting power, if you ask me.”  Melly took Renard’s cup, rinsed it out.

    “Well, both are only gossip, and if you’re going to believe gossip, might as well believe the good stuff.  So give me another drink, Melly, and some of that meat I see hung up in the kitchen and I’ll pay you when I get paid.”
    “No. I’m not throwing good money after bad.” Melly leaned away from the bar, crossed her arms over her apron.

    Renard scowled, rubbed his scarred face.  “You’re a hard woman.”

    “It’s a hard world.”

    Renard’s belly snarled, and he dug into his small, flapping purse and dragged out his last handful of small copper coins.  “There you go.”

    “I’ll put it against your tab.  But if you want a meal, you’d better go hunt yourself a worm.”

    “Bitch,” Renard said.  “And if I go up against it now, road-tired and hungry, and die, well, then I suppose you won’t have to worry about me cadging a meal…  Villagers.  You’re all cretins.  At least I know where I stand with a worm.”  Renard supposed if he dressed the part, rode in on a battle steed, the villagers might treat him better.  The worm wouldn’t care.  But a warhorse cost more than a sword and armor together, and odds were the worm would eat it right off, and he’d have to shell out for another.  The whole thing made him want to spit.  Where was the gratitude?  The appreciation for a hard job done well?

    He stood in a quick impatient motion, suddenly sick of their company; Melly stepped out of sword range, eyes flat and wary.  He put his hand to his hilt and glowered at the other patrons.  The damned old man was still gumming the bread and oatmeal.

    Renard punched the goat herder on the way out, knocked him cold, call me deserter, will you? and took the bread from the old man who sure wasn’t getting anything out of it.  It would do.

    He had his sword, his plate mail, a mouthful if not a bellyful. . . might as well hunt.  He untied the goats and herded them up towards the highest peak in the district.  Worms gravitated to the rocky caves beneath.

    “Tell you something,” Renard muttered to the lead goat.  “This worm I’m cutting up myself, selling the bits myself.  This is the last damn worm I’m hunting.  It’s a stupid way to make a living, not that I’m making a living….”

    Renard rambled on, thinking out loud.  “Tell you true, I’m sick of the whole thing, of people looking at me like I’m nothing, of traveling and roaming and never finding a welcome, of being cold and hungry near most of the time.  I hope this worm is something special.  My luck’s got to change.”

    The goats shied and yammered.  He looped the ropes tighter around his fist and yanked.  Smelling the worm.  Well, let them fret.  It only got the worm’s attention the sooner.  And after you’d killed fifteen worms, bullying a pack of goats was simple.

    He found the hole quick enough.  Bones all around it, ejected refuse from the den.  Renard paced the circumference.  Ten feet.  Not a big worm then, though it was hard to tell.  He’d seen one monster come out of a hole he would have sworn a hound would be hard pressed to pass through.

    He pinned the goats’ ropes to the ground, thumped the sides of the hole a few times with the hilt of his sword. “Come on out.  Yah, yah, food if you come out.”

    Then he was silent, listening, ignoring the complaints of the goats, listening until his ears rang with effort for that first hiss of sound, first scrape of scale over stone and dirt.  And there it was. 

    Renard backed up and watched as the worm oiled out of the hole, all sleek scale and armored legs.  He’d learned the first time about attacking as they came out.  No good.  The scales were diamond hard up top, and their necks were far more supple than he had thought.  It had almost cost him an arm, and did cost him his best sword.

    The worm wasn’t as big as most of them.  Only thrice human length, sort of skinny.  Renard sighed.  This was a fabled black worm?  A creature of power?  This worm didn’t even seem to have the energy to munch the goats.  It picked among them, its claws ripping half the ties free.  It made no effort to chase the fleeing goats, merely studying the rest.

    “What the hell’s the matter with you?”  Renard said.  “Start eating so I can interrupt you and piss you off.”  Though he had doubts this one would chase him at all.  That made things tough.  It was really very difficult to kill these things if you couldn’t get to their bellies.  And at a run, the scales were stretched thin, not all bunched up and thick.  Renard fought the urge to just sit down on the rocks and give up--it just seemed like too much.  Something had to change.  He was so tired.  In rueful counterpoint, his stomach growled.  Hell, if the worm wouldn’t eat the goats, maybe he’d roast one.

    The worm turned, disemboweling a goat absently with a slash of its tail, and looked at Renard.  He shuddered.  Worms shouldn’t have eyes like that.  He’d seen eyes like that in his shaving mirror.  Sad, tired, and angry eyes.  Smart eyes.

    It lifted its lip up and showed Renard all its pallid teeth, flickered its tongue out and hissed—its mouth like red velvet and hot even from this distance.
     

    “Like that’s going to scare me,” Renard said.  “It’s you or me, worm.  Just come at me, you worm.  Forget the goats then.”

    The worm closed its eyes in a lazy fashion, then slithered back towards the hole, its body arcing side to side with the languorous movements.  It slid inside, and poked its head back out, resting it on the sun-warmed bones around the den, watching him.  The goats bleated.

    “Oh, just fine,” Renard set his sword point into the dirt, leaned on the hilt.  The sword sank nearly a foot.  “A waiting game.  Not like I’m flat broke in yet another unfriendly town.  You know, all I want is a place to call my own, where I don’t have to scrounge for coin.  To find my meals without having to beg for them.  To not have to deal with cretins like those villagers.  That can’t be too much to ask.”  His voice trailed off; he rested his forehead on his hands, and only the flash of sunlight lancing off dark scales warned him.

    The worm came for him like the lash of a whip.  Renard swore, yanked his sword out of the ground, off balance and then he was on his back with the worm drooling caustic spittle over his feet, mouth open with what Renard could swear was a taunt.

    Renard tried to get his breath back.  He dragged his boots away from the worm’s hot, reeking breath and dripping teeth, tucking his feet up under him and then deciding oh hell why not? all at once and dove forward under the forelegs and punched up with the sword.  The worm craned its head down to watch him, and sighed into the blade and fell, fell, fell….

    Renard rammed the hilt of the sword into the dirt and scrabbled back as fast as he could on his belly, grit grinding into the gaps in his mail, getting out just as the sword snapped under the weight.  One dead worm, just like that.

    “Well, that could have been ugly.  This is absolutely the last one,” Renard said, shivering a little.  This was one strange worm.  It could have killed him.  He had been lucky.  He tried not to think about the worm watching him push the sword in, its feet spread wide.  Watching him with those smart, weary eyes.
     

    He freed the remaining goats, but kept their ropes.  He’d need them to drag the worm back to town where he could borrow some butcher’s tools, never mind how much they charged for the use of them; it still had to be better than paying someone else to do the work entirely.

    He wrapped the ropes around the front set of forelegs, made loops for his hands and started pulling.  Good thing worms always lived uphill, he thought.  He sweated out his own weight in water and salt but got the beast moving, unroped legs flopping out to the side.

    Halfway down the hill, the ropes slacked and he tumbled forward.  He picked himself up, wincing.  That was twice today he’d fallen in plate mail.  He was going to have more bruises from that than the actual fight.
    “Now what?  Bad luck is ri

    Renard stopped.  The ropes had shucked the skin off the beast.  It lay in a shining, supple heap.  “Well, that was easy enough.  I overpaid the bastards all this time… argh, now I have two parts to pull.”  He went back past the hide and stopped dead.

    Something lay there, flayed, red, and definitely not worm shaped.  Small.  Skinless.  Human.  Face down in the grass and gravel.

    Renard was speechless.  He poked at it with the toe of his boot, flipped it over.  A bloody wound ripped down its torso.

    “Well…”  He still didn’t have anything to say.  He went over and poked at the heaped skin.  Yeah, worm all right.  Same reek, same scales.  He looked back up the hill.  Guess I won’t be selling those bones, he thought.
    Bad luck.

    He reached down to bundle up the skin.  It was heavy and smooth as glass under his touch, warm, and supple.  He pulled the nearest leg up; the claws hung off the ends like razor weights.  Renard put his hand into the toes, wiggled his fingers; the claws flexed.

    He put his hand in the other one, admired the grace and strength in the movements, in the oiled shine of scales in the sun.  Dizzy.  He shook his head to clear it.  Spittle splattered from his open jaws, steaming.
    Flickering his tongue out, he washed his eyes clean of dust, and ambled back up the hill, stepping over the ruined, red thing after a distasteful sniff.  Maybe he could catch one of the goats still grazing.  He hadn’t had a real meal after all, and look at all the work he’d put in, killing the worm.

    At the top of the hill, a delightful earthen tang reached him.  He nosed around the rocky soil, slunk into the dark hole, his skin brushing the walls in a comforting, cozy way.  He circled the worn pit, itching his scales against the stones, sank his muzzle into the cool water that bubbled up in one corner of the lair.  Fresh and sweeter by far than anything he’d tasted in years.  A few siftings of dirt fell from above, jarred free by passing animals.  Lunging upward twenty feet in a effortless moment, he snatched a goat that had wandered too close to the hole, and settled down for a good meal.  A good meal for the taking, an inviting place to rest his head….
    Not exactly what he’d intended, but it would do.

     
    Tuesday, April 14th, 2015
    1:37 pm
    oh cats
    So, the other week, I had salsa with my lunch, as I often do.  Salsa is tasty!  My cat Dean clambered up onto the table and decided, while my back was turned, that he would try my salsa.

    He did NOT approve.  I don't know if it was the jalapenos or the tomato or the onion, but he was NOT pleased.  He sneezed and ran away, his tail bushy.  I thought it was very funny.

    Little did I know.

    Today, I had salsa with my lunch.  Dean spent the entire lunch time leaping at me, trying to get on the table.  When I was done, and had pushed back my chair to read, he climbed on the table and immediately began trying to bury the salsa bowl.  Failing that, he wanted it OFF THE TABLE. IT IS NOT FOOD.

    I put him on the floor.  I put him on the floor.  I put him on the floor.  Finally, I decided it would be easier to put my dirty plates in the sink (don't I sound like an awesome housekeeper, nagged into doing the dishes by my cat?).  He followed me into the kitchen.  He leaped onto the kitchen counter and peered suspiciously into the sink.  When he realized that I wasn't going to wash the dishes immediately?  He tried to bury the salsa bowl in the sink.  Clattering of dishes and annoyed cat noises.

    I rinsed out the salsa bowl and put it in the dishwasher (yes, my plate and cup, too.).  Dean investigated the sink and scraped at it.  I washed down the sink.

    He finally declared the dreadful salsa had been defeated and wandered off.

    I am posting this primarily so it will stick in my mind before I make nachos for dinner one of these days.... I'm sure he would attempt to bury the whole kitchen at that point.
    Friday, March 27th, 2015
    8:06 am
    Final Friday Fiction - Things Underneath
    This may be the shortest piece I have ever written.  And oddly, one of the most satisfactory.  I envy writers who can create flash fiction on a regular basis.  There’s just something amazing about an idea so neatly encapsulated, and getting the reader in and out.

    The comic book mentioned in this flash piece was real, part of a collection that traumatized me.  I wasn’t really allowed comics as a kidnot because the stories were objectionable, but because I read them too quickly and I think my parents were frightened of giving me an appetite for comics.  They thought they’d be better off giving me an appetite for actual books.  (Ha! Scholastic book club taught them the error of their ways… Man, I miss Scholastic Book Club.)

    But I ended up with a friend’s collection of comics.  Well, hers weren’t Archie, or Spider-Man, or detective stories.  They were horror comics.  There was a story about a devil-possessed girl who was terrifyingly fuchsia-colored beneath her blond pigtails as she tortured things with knives.  There were ghouls creeping out of the graveyard, eating people.  There was the inevitable story about an actor playing a vampire who ran into a real vampire.  With PICTURES.  (That was what really tipped me into nightmare land.  Art is scary, y’all!) 

    Then there was the story referenced in Things Underneatha tale that encompassed body horror, identity horror, zeitgeist horror, and conspiracy horror in a few short pages.  Thanks, Tracy!  Thanks a lot!

    I never forgot the meat of that comic, and my narrator hasn’t either.




    Things Underneath


    There was a comic I read once, a long time ago on the sly.  It was a story about a boy who thought he knew what life looked like, what his family looked like, what the world itself looked like.  Of course, he was wrong.  There was something in the water, something that kept the hideous truth from them all, kept them content.  He found this out, had his face rubbed in it by purists, and after he realized it was true, he ran home and gulped down the treated water.  Illusion was preferable.  Oblivion was better and he forgot.

    I think it happened.

    We forgot.  Not that we fought a war, were bent by a radioactive battle we lost before we can remember, but that illusion can become de facto reality if enough of us believe it.

    I’m pink and soft with the requisite bones and blood, but sometimes, when I lie still in the dark, before sleep blankets me, sometimes then I can feel it under my skin, the motion of ropy muscle that moves differently.  And I remember, or imagine, my skin stretched open, beyond the flesh and sometimes there is something else.  Grey and lumpy, oiled and wrinkly, with sparse hair thrusting out of the skin like cilia.  That’s what I look like.  Underneath.

    A creature of something, hiding for some reason that eludes me now, caught up in the illusion of flesh and humanity, of working and dating, of eating and dancing.  It tickles my skin in shivery reminders, in dreams.
    I’ve been thinking about it and I have an idea.  Suppose we were here first, more of us, and they came, the humans and almost erased us like a text gone wrong.  Suppose we hid from them, first in the borrowed skins of our enemies, and then learned to build our own.

    Sometimes, I see the alien thing in someone else, and I think, “Ah, there we are, here we are, we are everywhere.”
    Suppose that’s true.  Suppose that was our plan, told to our parents parents parents beyond memory.  Hide and be like them.  Control them.  Seize them.  Suppose the final command got lost along the way.  Or we did.  And we’re waiting for someone to let us know that we’re ready for whatever comes next.

    But I don’t know and I can’t be sure.  Maybe we practiced our illusion too well.  The people I’ve taken to the bone, none of them were grey underneath.  Or at least, not when I was looking.

    Maybe there aren’t many of us at all.  Maybe we’ve been abandoned and lost, and there are only a few of us hiding here.  But maybe we won.  We became every living thing and we just can’t see past our own illusion.

    I don’t know.  I only think that maybe someday, maybe soon, we’ll just unzip our skins and there will be rejoicing.

     
    Sunday, March 1st, 2015
    12:08 am
    February reading
    February Reading:

    A few really satisfying & amazing books this month.  Always nice when that happens.

    Wolves of London by Mark Morris: a really well-written urban fantasy that ended up not being my cup of tea for spoilerific reasons which I will not discuss here.  :)

    Portlandtown by Rob DeBorde. An historical wild-west sort of urban fantasy that I wanted to like more than I did.  I just felt kept at a distance. More cinematic than involving.

    Dark Places – Gillian Flynn. I haven’t read anything of hers, and Gone Girl just doesn’t interest me, but I decided I would see what else she had to offer.  Dark Places wowed me.  Loved the writing, loved the characters.  They may be kind of broken or kind of horrible or both, but Flynn makes them human.

    The Cure for Dreaming – Cat Winters. Last month I read Cat Winters’ In the Shadow of Blackbirds and was kind of appalled at the grimness of it. I also had troubles with Mary Shelley, the heroine.  But the setting was so fascinating that I had to respect it. So I picked up Winters’ next book, this one with a different heroine. It’s not nearly as grim as the first one—for one thing, it’s not happening during the Spanish flu pandemic!, and the stakes aren’t nearly as high. Olivia is fighting for women’s rights, one voice among many, as opposed to Mary Shelley who was the only one trying to solve a murder.

    The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskelainen, translated by Lola Rogers. This one was my personal challenge book.  I generally shy away from translated literature like it has the plague.  I’m just never sure I’m getting what the writer intended, never sure what’s lost, and that makes me kind of crazy.  This book… I’m really glad I read it, but I’m not sure it was satisfying all the way through. Stuff got mentioned and dropped, and other things didn’t really feel resolved.  Still, it will definitely stick with me.

    Blink by Malcom Gladwell. Someone gave me this book years ago, and it was an interesting, if not completely convincing read. It’s also fascinating how dated pieces of it already are.

    Vicious – V E Schwab.  I have a strange habit of wanting one book, then side-stepping and picking up a different one.  In this case, I wanted to read Schwab’s  A Darker Shade of Magic and it wasn’t out. To remind myself of that book, I picked up her previous book. I really enjoyed this YA novel about two super-powered ex-friends facing off. A lot of style in not a lot of words.  I would have liked a smidge more epilogue just to resolve my one remaining question, but overall a good book. And I’ll definitely pick up A Darker Shade of Magic when I get the chance.

    Cursed Moon – Jaye Wells. The sequel to Dirty Magic, and enjoyable.  I was relieved to see the heroine’s “should I use magic/should I not use magic” dilemma resolved in this book.  One of my current favorite urban fantasy series.

    Hold Back the Dark – Eileen Carr.  Really rapid paced thriller that got me all the way through before I took a breath and said, wait a minute….

    Lost Things – Melissa Scott & Jo Graham.  I always love Melissa Scott’s world-building and her attention to the mundane details that make characters feel embedded in their world, but this book was a rare misfire for me. I blame the New Agey magic in it.

    Jackdaw by KJ Charles.  Over the course of a year KJ Charles has become one of my favorite authors, on auto-buy status.  That said, Jackdaw’s premise made me wince. A spin off from a brilliant series, about a relationship in the third stage of the usual relationship steps (Boy gets Boy back), and based on complicated events that involved all her usual characters?  Oh, and her usual crew were going to get cameos. Other writers are wincing with me, right now.  So many pitfalls—how do you handle the flashbacks, the information from the previous book, the cameo characters without making the reader wish they were reading more about Stephen Day and Crane?  If you’re KJ Charles, you do it all beautifully.  This is an excellent book, and my favorite of the month.

    The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohoe.  Gorgeous writing kept me going through this story, even when I kind of figured out where the story was headed.  Highly atmospheric.  That alone made it a joy to read.

    I’m trying to do better about short fiction reading.  There are so many great magazines online that it’s ridiculous how far behind I’ve gotten.

    The two standouts I read in February are:
    “The Descent” by Carmen Maria Machado at Nightmare Magazine.  And I’ll also recommend you read her author spotlight because she says interesting things about the type of story "The Descent" is.  

    “Things You Can Buy for a Penny” by Will Kaufman at Lightspeed.  Just the kind of writing I really like—stories within stories.  Actually both “Penny” and “Descent” have nested stories within them.

     
    Friday, February 27th, 2015
    8:13 am
    Final Friday Fiction - Job Security
    Final Friday Post: Feb 27

    Every so often people ask me to write them a story.  Usually, they regret it.  I don’t know why.  It’s like they don’t know the way my brain works or something, and are surprised that kittens and rainbows don’t fall out.  Maybe if they’d SPECIFIED kittens and rainbows…

    Anyway, this is one of those.

    And since it’s February, it seems like an appropriate story.  (For those of you without pets, the vets of the USA have decided to push “dental February” to get your pets teeth cleaned.)


    Job Security



    Mr. Smith was a new client and she hadn't liked the look of him even before he bared his teeth in a smile and showed her a mouthful of labor:  stains, calculus, plaque, and red-streaked gums.  There was something greasy about him, his too-thin skin pallid and fish-sheened with sweat.  But it was a hot day—they seemed to be all hot days, these days—and he wore a dusty three-piece suit in black wool on his lanky frame, his scalp peeking pinkly through his slick, thinning hair, so she put her smile on, greeted him, and said, "This way, please."

    Mandy, the receptionist, shot her a commiserating look when she could spare a glance from the disaster porn on the television—another earthquake in the deep ocean, another iceberg calving, another series of tidal waves, another dramatic fish decline—apparently tuna were feared to be all but extinct.  The sharks had been gone for months, as had the cetaceans—the biggest fading first.

    Her new client collected his briefcase and followed her through the quiet offices; people just weren't coming in the way they used to.  Other things on their minds.

    She wished he'd been one of them.

    She kept her pace quick, and headed for her room, the last one on the hallway.  The back of her neck prickled as if his shadow were taking liberties with hers.  She bet he was a leerer—the patient who'd stare at her chest behind her shield of scrubs—or worse, a licker, who'd curl his tongue around her fingers accidentally as she worked, full of insincere and repetitive apologies.  But when she entered the room and turned, she found him staring, not at her, but at the enormous fish tank that ran the length of the wall.  500 gallons of salt water reef, thickly stocked with fancy reef fish.  Normally, she disliked the tank for the murky blue-green light it gave off, and for the constant gurgle and churn of its artificial tide, too vivid a reminder of the earth's recent upheavals.  Today, as it drew her client's attention, she was grateful for it.

    "So," she said.  "What do you do, Mr. Smith?"

    "I travel, preaching the coming days."  His voice sounded fat, smothered in the weight of his own certainty.  His hand tapped his briefcase and she imagined it springing open, spilling poorly designed, poorly spelled tracts all over her floor.

    "How . . . interesting," she said, keeping her smile with an effort.  The world was in bad enough shape without adding religion to the mix.  "Let's get you settled.  Any problems with your teeth since your last cleaning?"

    "This will be my first cleaning," he said, his dark voice rolling over her, swamping her hopes.

    "Better late than never," she said, trying to stay brightly, cheerfully professional.

    She got him in the chair, started his file, and laid out her tools.  He swallowed thickly, stickily, and she twitched.  She pulled her paper mask on and let her smile collapse.  "Open," she said and so began the worst day of her life.

    #

    When he opened his mouth, she saw only the usual complement of teeth.  Thirty-two teeth.  Molars.  Bicuspids.  Incisors.  But as she cleaned and scaled, picked off calculus in thick yellowing flakes that crusted on his bib, and picked out gristly leftovers of meals from between his teeth, stringy meat gone grey, even fine splinters of what looked like broken fishhooks and bone, as she cleaned and scaled and sweated, each time she reached half-way around his mouth—the upper teeth dealt with or the lower—his jaw would—couldn't!—rotate and bring her more teeth… so many teeth.  They weren't all human:  she scaled old-ivory dog teeth; cat teeth, sharp and small and vicious; great tusks that jutted into the room, then vanished; the nightmare overlap of crocodilian grins; and strange, hooked teeth like translucent needles which shredded her gloves and bloodied her hands.  She stopped and replaced her gloves, wore them three layers thick.  Time ticked on and on and on.

    His fingers—she noticed in some gibbering part of her brain—his fingers, interlaced on his bony chest, were too numerous and too long; they squirmed and writhed like a bucket of worms dumped out onto the hard-packed earth.

    She turned away to replace her scaler when it broke chipping tartar between two teeth that looked like they belonged to a giant rodent.  He gulped and gulped behind her, swallowing thickly, hungrily.

    She replaced her mask, which she had sweated through, brushed the hair out of her face—was it more grey than usual?—and glanced at the clock.  Half the day gone, and no one else had come in.

    I'm alone with him, she thought.  A flush of terror spat saliva into her mouth, made her gag.

    She bent back to work.  She knew…somehow she knew, that if she tried to run, it would be a very short attempt.  The room's floor had gone rugose with half-seen shapes that writhed and coiled. 

    The water in the fish tank chopped and splashed, grew cloudy; an obscenely colored tentacle probed the sands, searched the waters, wrapped tight around a lion fish and tugged it, thrashing, away.  It wasn't an octopus.  The dental practice didn't have an octopus.  It was him.  Somehow it was him.

    He was eating the fish, and her hands were in his mouth, deep in his mouth; his lips were slack against her elbow, and she couldn't see those back teeth, was still reaching deeper for them and how many mouths did he have?  He was chewing and eating the fish and she was plucking venomous lion fish spines out from between his teeth and the room was dark dark dark and seethed with things she couldn't see clearly.

    Water splashed.  The tank emptied one fish at a time.  She wondered what would happen when the fish ran out.

    Thought of the denuded oceans and shuddered.

    Hours passed.  She ran polish over all those teeth—human and cat and dog and whale plate and rabbit and rodent and shark and bat and Other—and he licked the grit away when she was done, swallowed it down with a throat she never saw move.  She fired up the ultrasonic cleaner; he bit the tool in half—jerking his head in the first spurt of discomfort and temper she'd seen.

    It was dark, the office was dark, the world was dark in the coming days, dark with calamity coming from the stars beneath the seas in the coming days.  Her coworkers had gone and left her, shaking and laboring over him, or maybe they hadn't seen her, or maybe he'd dragged Mandy and the rest of the staff into his maw between fish.  Her room was under a pall of humid darkness, as if she'd crawled inside his mouth and never come out.

    The examination room's walls glistened, the paint softening in strips; the carpet was dark and wet and streaked. 

    She whipped off his bib, heavy with vileness, threw it toward the trash, and ushered him out, amazed her trembling legs could carry her.

    "It is customary to pay—"  He lingered at the register, his briefcase in his hand.

    Seventy-six dollars for the cleaning, she thought, couldn't find her voice but he seemed to hear it anyway.  He fished out damp, crumpled bills from a dozen countries, and left them on the counter.  They stank of sea rot.

    He set his briefcase down; it clicked like the chatter of teeth against the granite counter and she froze, her heart jerking in her chest.  The catches gave, and she shivered, but he only extracted a pamphlet from its depths.  With another deliberate movement, he took a silver pen, corroded and tarnished, and scrawled a single line across the paper.  Then he pressed the pamphlet into her unresisting hand and left.

    She remained pressed against the wall, every joint in her body quivering, paint streaking and melting into her hair, listening to an empty fish tank chugging forlornly in a dark room, and waited until he dissolved into the night outside.  The television had gone to static; it sounded like the roar and roll of dark ocean waves sizzling on hot beaches.

    The pamphlet was ink and shadow, sepia on grey, images and words that were hard to bring into focus.

    There was water.  A vast, dark sea.  Or space.  Or both.  A creature, rising or falling, its giant maw split open, showing teeth, all the teeth….

    The words ebbed and fell in her horrified understanding like waves under moon drag.  The fate of the world in the coming days explained in language too terrible for her to comprehend, though her mind crashed through images of horrible appetites and unceasing hunger, and crawling, starving behemoths with flashing teeth, and people fed into those maws, torn apart by sharp teeth….

    Her eyes dropped to the words he'd scratched at the base of the pamphlet, letters as variable as his currency.

    except for the dental hygienists, who will be spared to serve

    She slumped to the floor, hating that she felt relieved, that she felt pleased.  She would be spared.

    Then she considered that she would be expected to clean his teeth again, and not just his, but all his people… and began to scream.

    ###
     
    Wednesday, February 18th, 2015
    12:49 pm
    Earworms

    Songs I have listened to this week willingly: Ariana Grande's "Problem", the entirety of Abney Park's Aether Shanties album, Kacey Musgraves' album, Same Trailer Different Park, Sam Smith "Not the Only One", Taylor Swift's 1989 album

    Songs I have listened to this week passively (ie, not bothering to change the station.) Meghan Trainor "Lips are Moving", Pitbull "Time of Our Lives", various Katy Perry tunes, many songs I don't recognize at all.

    Songs I have listened to this week unwillingly (as in, I couldn't get it turned off): Maroon 5's Sugar, Nick Jonas's Jealous, any of the country songs where the point is "I'm gonna have a beer", Tove Lo's "Habits" which I liked originally buyt now I can only think jeez, lady, you need WAY better coping mechanisms.  You too, country stars!  Put down the beer!

    Songs that I have heard in pieces repeatedly: Fall Out Boy's "Centuries" in advertisements, whatever the song is for the Bosch theme song.

    One song heard for less than a second as I stepped into an elevator: Sway with Me.

    The song that is stuck in my head?

    Sway with Me.  So stuck that it's not just an earworm, it's a singworm.  I keep singing it at my desk.  Now my coworkers are singing it also.  And cursing my name.

    All of this, I suppose, leads up to two questions:

    1) what are the characteristics of an earwormable song?  It obviously doesn't have to be enjoyment of said song, or I wouldn't have had "Fancy" stuck in my head for more than a week.

    2) I should obviously write a short story about weaponizing earworms and doing battle pokemon style with them.  You could have attack earworms, and defensive shielding earworms, and singing out of tune would be a weakness to exploit.  Songs could also duel with meaning.  Taylor Swift's Clean against Tove Lo's Habits.  One Republic's Love Runs Out against The Fray's Love Don't Die. It could be fun.  Winners walk away with a clear brain, a song in their step, but not in their minds.  The losers... lie gibbering in the dirt, humming and moaning scraps of broken songs, slowly devoured by the feral earworms.

    Thursday, February 5th, 2015
    11:56 am
    The balance of reality
    I am a fantasy writing junkie.  I can’t write a single page without something overtly impossible creeping into the text, be it psychic abilities, spell-casting, or monsters.

    So at this point, you’d think it’d be easier….

    Contemporary fantasy stories especially tend to kick my brain all around the room.  Why?  There’s a balance that I have to create between the fantastic events and basic reality, and that’s so much easier to say than do.

    Writers worry a lot about the “rules”, and not just the rules of syntax. We think an awful lot about making our rules of magic intuitive, coherent, plausible.  Even if we don’t explain to the reader every in-and-out of how the magic works, how it doesn’t work, who can use it, who can’t, the ramifications of using magic, etc., we’ve thought it out.  For every fantasy story, most writers have a thesis worth of “magical theory as it applies to Novel X”.

    So that’s all well and good, a nice way to make sure the fantasy part feels plausible, feels real…then I run into the core problem with reality in a contemporary fantasy book.  They just don’t mix that easily.

    Who needs a crystal ball when you have a cell phone?
    Who needs a talking magical tome when you have the internet?

    I tell you, Butcher and his ilk, who decreed early on in their series that technology and magic don’t mix, were definitely ahead of the plotting curve.

    Then there’s factual reality.  Not technology based.  Just the facts.  There’s endless juggling in my head between real and relevant and my responsibility to be accurate.  There’s also the desire not to write a book that’s dull as ditchwater.

    This rant is brought to you by an eleven-year-old girl that I turned into a fish.  A big blue koi.  She gets found by her friends and rescued from the koi pond, and… now what?  You can’t keep a fish in a bucket.  Reality would see them suffocate in very little time.  That’s basic biology. (Does basic biology apply to a magical blue koi?)  You can keep a koi in a bathtub for a reasonably short period of time (say a few days) IF you keep refreshing the water.  But not from the tap! Chlorine will kill your fish/girl dead!

    But do my protagonists have the wherewithal to go to the store and buy water treatments? No, they do not.  They’re eleven, they’re at camp, they can’t drive, and there are no pet stores nearby.  And even if I could adjust those story facts (which I can, of course), do I really want to spend page timeeven a sentence or twoexplaining that they bought dechlorinator and pH neutralizer? No, I do not. That is going to kill my plot momentum dead.

    On the other hand…. Dead fish/girl….

    Sometimes, when I’m reading a fantasy book, I just go sweeping along with everything the author throws at me, no matter how implausible.  But the one thing guaranteed to yank me to a screeching halt are purely wrong facts.  I was reading a deeply engaging book some years back, and got hurled out of the book when the charactera native from Louisianareferred to the gators in the bayou as amphibians.

    Science is under enough siege in this country already, c’mon, let’s not spread elementary school level misinformation.

    So I feel an obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which means part of my brain wants to stop the story to tell my readers about aquarium 101.

    I came up with a solution; I almost always do. But it takes time, and a part of my brain churning away on the subject at all hours.

    Eating a distracted dinner (but the fish problem koi are hardy as hell, at least the common varieties, so maybe…)

    Data entering at work (well, Javi can fetch things magically, so maybe they don’t need an actual store... but then he’s solving the problem instead of Ephie, the heroine…)

    As a side note, dwelling on a plot problem while at work is a really good way to pick up the ringing phone and say, “This is fish…” instead of the store name.  Just saying.  Thank god my employers are used to me.

    Trying to go to sleep at night (… just skip it, skip it, skip it, there are no kids out there who are going to put their pet fish in a bathtub and kill them by accident…)

    To the incredibly obvious solution at breakfast, coffee growing cold while I wander upstairs to the laptop. (Acknowledge the issue, create a one sentence rebuttal why it’s not a problem in this instance) and get back to work.

    I’ve gotten better at dealing with these kind of lags, primarily by highlighting the scene and moving forward, coming back after the fact to fix things.  It’s still just such a non-stop annoyance in writing contemporary fantasy.  I think the only thing that’s even more annoying than that?  The endless struggle to name all the freaking characters.
    Monday, February 2nd, 2015
    11:09 pm
    January's books
    I read a dozen or so books in January, primarily fantasy, with a few exceptions thrown in.

    One of my goals for this year is to read books that might challenge me more.  I adore fantasy novels; I adore mystery; I adore romance.  I read them all the time.  So this year, I'm trying to read at least one book per month that I would normally have passed by.

    This month my "challenge" book was A MAN CAME OUT OF A DOOR IN THE MOUNTAIN by Adrianne Harun and I have to admit I didn't like it much.  The writing was tight and good; the setting was brutal; the characters were well-drawn. But... they were mostly all helpless in the face of their problems and that always sets my teeth on edge.  It's gotten brilliant reviews all over the place though, so we can just chalk it up to my tastes and it not aligning.  It came down to three things for me: one, I didn't like the unknown fate of one of the girls. Realistic that she might just vanish as she walked home, just like many other native girls had vanished from this remote logging town?  Sure, realistic. But I wanted aftermath. When the story ended, most of the other characters hadn't yet noticed she'd vanished. Two, I couldn't keep the "outside" elements straight, the devils who came to town. Hanna Swan, Kevin Seven, and one of the villain's buddies, who I thought was Kevin Seven at first, then an hallucination, and then was supposed to accept him as a real and manipulative figure? Three, in the end, I thought there were two stories sort of unevenly mashed together. I would have liked/been fascinated by the first story presented--how Hanna Swan lit a spark under a teenaged boy, encouraging him to kill a cruel man and local criminal, and the fallout from that.  But too many things seemed to happen in too few pages, and the whole thing left me kind of muddled.  The strongest character, in the end, was the bleak setting. And maybe that was the point: that the town is more of a danger than any manipulation by devils, or any criminal seizing control over anyone he could.

    The list...Collapse )

    I've also spent most of December and January catching up on Leverage. Such a strange show.  When it's good, it's so very very good.  When it's a miss, it's such a miss that I have to leave the room in embarrassment for it.  But five seasons has shown me where it really excelled: growing its characters. The five characters start in one place, and grow and change until they've ended up someplace very different.  And all of it without ever making me feel that the character changed because the writer said so.

    This month, I'm hoping to finish up Agents of Shield season 1. I had bounced off of it really hard: it just felt bleah.  Lesser, smaller than the movies, yet trying to namedrop often enough to be taken seriously.  Okay, look, it felt like Agents of Shield was Justin Hammer, and the movies were Tony Stark. But everyone told me it got better, it got better, it really seriously got better, and I have to admit, it's improving.  Even if Coulson's characterization flips on a dime, and I still couldn't reliably pick the actress who plays Skye out of a lineup.
    Friday, January 30th, 2015
    8:12 pm
    I live in a town that has an art crawl every month which is called Final Friday.  I enjoy it a lot, especially the smaller artworks, the ones the artists create each month. So... I decided why not try a written form of Final Friday.

    I'll be posting a mixture of stories: unmarketables that I wrote for the hell of it, silly fluff that I wrote for fun, older stories that I'm  fond of, and what have you.  These are the stories that I've filed away under a folder called "Amuse bouche" if that tells you anything.

    Anyway, January's story is a rare foray into 2nd person fiction for me, and inspired by all those incredibly frustrating Choose Your Own Adventure books where no matter how analytically I approached them, I always ended up missing the interesting story and getting eaten by a grue straight off.

    The Book Resists Reading

    You’re left the book in your uncle’s will, not singularly, but part of his collection. Not so many books really, a single car load, hatchback crammed full, axles protesting. A lot all at once, but it’s not like you could start a store with them.

    The executor—your oldest cousin—blushes, embarrassed that this is your share, but you don’t mind. You like books, and though money is always nice, there wasn’t much of that. The dirty books leave itching streaks on your forearms and sandpaper your fingerprints.

    At home, it takes you a dozen slow trips to unload your car, walking while scanning titles beneath the dust. You wanted an itemized list, but your cousin never made one.

    You pass a pleasant afternoon, dusting and slotting your uncle’s collection into your own shelves of unread books. His books are things you’d never have selected on your own—obscure philosophers, questionable autobiographies, religious tracts bound in cheap leatherette warning about witchcraft, pamphlets about mysterious artifacts with even more mysterious powers.

    One particular book draws you. It’s faded and dusty, bound in green leather, its title indecipherable, stamped letters blurred by time and pressure. Your hand lingers on its spine.

    You read alphabetically. This book, with its unreadable title that might begin with an ornate S, is for later. The book reminds you of a journal.

    You love old journals, that slow creep into someone else’s thoughts. The pages cling together, reluctant to part. You set the book down to mix up a mister of alcohol and water to clean the pages. When you come back, the cats have avalanched all your piles of books into one heap. By the time you think about the book again, you’ve mislaid it somewhere in the mess.

    Your uncle died with a book in his hands.

    You wonder, which book was he reading? Not the kind of question you can ask. Even if your cousins knew, asking would be insensitive. His death was sudden and surprising.

    When you move apartments, you lose the book. You find it again when you clear a room preparing to paint. You set the book beside your bed, and it’s gone in the morning. You find it dead center beneath your bed a week later when you sweep. It’s in your hand. The phone rings.

    You carry the book and race to the phone, and sometime during the long call, you mislay it. When you retrace your steps, the book is nowhere to be found.

    You notice, of course you notice. There are only so many times you can lose something. And you wonder, every time you pick up a different book, a consolation prize, what’s in the book.

    You lose the book when you set it down to answer the door.

    You lose the book when you need to answer a few emails.

    You lose the book while doing laundry.

    You lose the book.

    In the midst of a search, you try to tally the losses, but they rapidly reach triple digits. You start tallying possibilities instead.

    The book might be attractive to your cats. Though you smell only dust and paper, a faint hint of smoke, who knows what your cats smell. Maybe they’re the ones moving the book, driving a maddening taste before them.

    The book could be moving itself; stranger things happen. Rocks sail across Death Valley. Surely a book slicked with dust could sail itself around a small house.

    The book could be full of information so dense and so powerful that the book might work like some kind of magnet, propulsive, repulsive in equal measures.

    The book could be waiting for the right reader. And you’re not it. You try not to think about that too much. There’s a rejection you’d never get over.

    The book could be the journal you think it is, but its pages might still be writing itself. Maybe it’s your journal, and the end page will end you. All biographies end with a death. And your uncle is dead.

    The book could be magic. Not that you believe in magic; you’re too old, too tired to believe. Except if anything could be magic, it would be a book, wouldn’t it?

    Embarrassed, you think the book could just be a book. It’s not like you’ve never mislaid a book before. Two just this past month, one fatally lost, left on the bus. One, you left in the freezer. But you found that one, minutes later, backtracking.

    You find the book behind the shelves.

    You find the book atop the refrigerator, blood warm with reflected heat.

    You find the book beneath the stairs, shrouded in cobwebs.

    You find the book in the piano bench, amongst the pages of Pavane for a Dead Princess.

    You find the book in the patch of rue in your garden.

    If you’ve had it in your hands so often, why haven’t you been able to read it? Books are created to be read. Cat and mouse for months now.

    You find the book.

    You find the book.

    You find the book.

    The book flexes in your hands, the pages fluttering against your fingers like frantic moths, a panicked heart-beat. By now, you’d expect nothing less. Yours is beating just as fast. You part the spine, press the page flat, and begin to read.

    ###
    Friday, January 2nd, 2015
    9:49 am
    Favorite Books of 2014 - City of Stairs

    City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett


    This one shouldn't be a surprise. It's been mentioned on more than a dozen best of lists and I think it's well deserved. Bennett's a hit or miss writer for me: while his writing is always excellent, sometimes the story itself leaves me cold. I couldn't get through Mr. Shivers, was pretty bored with the Troupe, loved American Elsewhere, and City of Stairs? Oh, City of Stairs gives me the same happy excited feeling that China Mieville's The City & the City gave me.

    There's just something wonderful about a beautifully realized fantasy setting told compactly in one book. (I understand there's a sequel to City of Stairs, but this one definitely could be a satisfying stand alone read.) Bennett hits so many of my sweet spots here, and hits them just right.

    There's a city of dead gods, oppressors who've become the oppressed, political maneuvering, a violent murder mystery, deep secrets to be revealed, a slew of well-drawn characters (as a side note, I find Bennett writes utterly convincing heroines.), and some theological debate of the interesting kind (with story repercussions instead of philosophical underpinnings). On top of all that, there are tiny little interludes of story-telling within the story.

    Yup. All my sweet spots.

    I love the intimacy of being locked into one city. This is big fantasy tucked into a small space, and the great thing about that is that I, as the reader, can extrapolate the rest of the world. So even though the immediate story affects one area, I still get a good sense of the wider world. It's elegantly done.

    Other books that I recommend if you liked this one?

    Alex Bledsoe's Tufa series beginning with The Hum and the Shiver. For that compact, secretive community feel with an enormous magic swirling around underneath.

    Barbara J Webb's City of Burning Shadows. For a noir mystery set in a city abandoned by its gods with devastating consequences.

    Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
    9:45 am
    Favorite Books of 2014 - The Rook

    The Rook - Daniel O'Malley.

    Not a book published in 2014, but one I read this year.

    Amazon kept shoving this book in my face for over a year, and finally I caved. But contrary person that I am, I refused to buy it from Amazon and instead borrowed it from the library. (Take that, hard selling algorithm!)

    So, The Rook. Not the most wildly original book ever, but definitely one of the most fun.

    The publisher's blurb: Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self. She quickly learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret agency that protects the world from supernatural threats. But there is a mole inside the organization and this person wants her dead.

    As Myfanwy battles to save herself, she encounters a person with four bodies, a woman who can enter her dreams, children transformed into deadly fighters, and an unimaginably vast conspiracy.

    It starts with one of my least loved tropes—the amnesiac hero. For every time amnesia is done well (KJ Parker's SHADOW) there are a dozen blah ones. But in the Rook, the amnesia trope leads right on into one of my favorite set ups: the heroine who has to walk into a new situation and take charge while flying by the seat of her pants.

    Myfanwy is a really great heroine. She's wry; she's impatient with her old self; and she's very determined. And her surroundings, this secret agency, are both terrifying and hysterical. I laughed a lot while reading this, and read snippets out to anyone in the vicinity. By the time Myfawny has made an ally of her secretary, explored her special powers, and told off two blowhards, I was hooked.

    O'Malley's pacing is nice and tight, and he's extremely good at directing the reader's attention. For a wild and crazy fantasy spy novel, the characters start off trying to make the sensible decision. As an example, Myfanwy's first instinct is to flee the whole situation, to take the money and new ID her old self left her, and start over someplace safe. But that immediately goes wrong, leaving her no choice. The end result is the book feels very grounded in reality for all the weirdness.

    Favorite moment? So very many. I have a special fondness for the dry distaste in Myfanwy's dialogue after her post-security scan which involves all her fingers being licked.

    I'm tempted to call this the British version of the Charles Stross's Laundry series, but that isn't quite right.  The Laundry always sort of reminds me of an Elder God inhabited James Bond like world as told by an American movie-style Q. So I suppose it's only fitting that the Rook reminds me of a British Buffy if she worked for Mycroft Holmes.

    Anyway, a fun book that I heartily recommend.


    Monday, December 29th, 2014
    10:36 am
    Favorite Books of 2014- The Supernatural Enhancements
    Favorite books read in 2014.
    As usual, some were not written in 2014. This year, instead of dumping them all into one overlong post that still only skims the surface of the books, I thought I'd dedicate a post apiece.  These are in no particular order.

    The Supernatural Enhancements - Edgar Cantero
    I picked up this book on a whim, drawn in by the lovely cover art, then by the comparison to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves.  I don't think that's the right comparison for this book.  House of Leaves was grueling to read, both dense, and typographically difficult, requiring the reader to rotate a heavy, floppy book repeatedly, or risk eye-strain. (I still really enjoyed House of Leaves.)  While Cantero's book does encompass some of the same tricks (transcripts of audio recordings, doctor's records, etc), they're presented in an easy to access straight-forward way. Plus, an unreliable narrator or two--but that's hardly Danielewski's territory alone.

    No, the author that kept coming to mind while I read The Supernatural Enhancements was Tim Powers.
    The premise of Supernatural Enhancements sounds like a gothic mystery.

     As the publisher says "When twenty-something A., the European relative of the Wells family, inherits a beautiful, yet eerie, estate set deep in the woods of Point Bless, Virginia, it comes as a surprise to everyone—including A. himself. After all, he never knew he had a "second cousin, twice removed" in America, much less that his eccentric relative had recently committed suicide by jumping out of the third floor bedroom window—at the same age and in the same way as his father had before him . . .

    Together with A.’s companion, Niamh, a mute teenage punk girl from Ireland, they arrive in Virginia and quickly come to feel as if they have inherited much more than just a rambling home and an opulent lifestyle. Axton House is haunted... they know it...but the presence of a ghost is just the first of a series of disturbing secrets they slowly uncover. What led to the suicides? What became of the Axton House butler who fled shortly after his master died? What lurks in the garden maze – and what does the basement vault keep? Even more troubling, what of the rumors in town about a mysterious yearly gathering at Axton House on the night of the winter solstice?"
    It's hard to talk about this book without spoilers.
    It's a slightly distant book. BA is marked as an unreliable narrator early on, because so much of the story is told via journal, transcript, notes, because A's reaction to most of the events is fascination rather than fear, it's more about the intellectual puzzle of what's happening rather than growing attached to the character's plight. The action level is fairly low-key for most of the book: there are several chapters on the mechanics of ciphering, for example.
    That doesn't mean I didn't care about the characters, or that the book didn't keep me up reading way too late until I finished it in one fell swoop.
    For a book that's written in (reasonably) modern times (It takes place in the 80s), there were a lot of the same qualities I enjoy in steampunk: strange mechanical engines, half-magic, half-science. Treasure hunts.  Far-flung expeditions around the world. And a secret society with a very unusual charter.
    SPOILERS: Two minor ones, and one major one that reveals the whole plot so... click at your own risk.
    [Spoiler (click to open)]
    First, for those of you who worry about such things: the dog dies.  Okay, it's terrible.  But it's not gratuitous.
    Second, Aunt Liza's identity is not a surprise, or rather, her linked identities are not a surprise.  Her actual identity is still unknown.
    Third, good god, I loved the way this book took a wild premise and kept it moving until that's only the beginning of the weirdness.  There's an all-seeing, impartial eye of god that, on the stroke of midnight, once a year, replays the 20 most important people of a year's highlights. It replays them so powerfully that anyone who touches the crystal eye at that moment has those memories burned into their brain.  This secret society then spends the next year trying to find those 20 people.  That's peculiar, potentially goofy, but Cantero sells it so well that it ends up feeling genuinely magical.  But that's not all it does.  The people whose memories are replayed start off sort of ordinary enough--a man who's drinking tea, a pair of twin girls in a field, that kind of thing.  Some of the moments are violent, some of them are peaceful.  But they rapidly spiral out to impossible: a woman who leaps off a building and lands hard enough to buckle concrete and keeps running, a skeleton playing cards, a vivisected man rising up and slaughtering his killers.
    So in the end, once you've discovered the whole society and their purpose and the amazing Eye of God, there's this whole unfolding world beyond it.  Where everything the Eye shows is true, so there are magical people in the world, and the world just gets bigger.  And A is more complicated than you originally thought, and Niamh....
    The book just left me with this widening sense of wonder, and I adored that.

    Also, for those of you who like such things, he had an AMA here
    Monday, August 4th, 2014
    11:35 pm
    Oh Teen Wolf
    One of the particular joys of Teen Wolf is that at the end of nearly every single episode (I'm sure there must be one or two that are flawless), I end up with a perfect example of some type of writing error.  I could use Teen Wolf to teach an entire class on plotting, and the usual pitfalls.

    Tonight?  So many.  But my favorite mash-up of writerly no-nos comes from a throwaway sort of scene.  Dr. Deaton, the all around vet/druid/mystic guru of Beacon Hills approaches his door, but Halt! A shadowy figure approaches!  Dr. Deaton reminds us he is a bad ass by baton fighting with his opponent! Who turns out to be an old friend of his--Satomi, the werewolf.

    So these are two old friends and there was never any threat but they got to look tough.  Which means that this is FALSE TENSION with a side order of COOL FOR THE SAKE OF COOL.  There is no reason she couldn't have just approached him, saying "Hello, Deaton, I need your help" but then we wouldn't have had a fun little fight scene.

    The bigger sin is that the next scene these two characters are in reveals that Satomi came for help with a desperately ill werewolf who is on the very brink of death.  So, COOL FOR THE SAKE OF COOL runs up against urgency (The trope of EVERY MINUTE COUNTS!) and becomes really damn stupid.  This werewolf leader who cares desperately about her dying packmate decides instead of saying, "Hey Deaton, urgent medical call. I've got a dying werewolf who needs help." she's going to sneak up on him and they're going to play games.  Cool games.  To remind us they're bad ass.

    (You know what's bad ass?  Not playing games when your friend's life is on the line. Just saying.)

    It's especially egregious when Deaton then takes them all to the local hospital and the man dies just as the nurse is about to start work on him.  Apparently, seconds really mattered.  You know, maybe she should have given him a call before she showed up. It was after hours; she was lucky he was there in the first place.

    But it's all all right, because his autopsy reveals the truth and lets them figure out what's plaguing the more important characters.

    (It's not all right, because really, even nameless characters' deaths should be a clean part of the plot.)

    (I still love the show, god help me.)
    Monday, March 3rd, 2014
    8:12 pm
    Books read in February
    Not a whole lot read this month.  Just ran out of time and interest.  When it's this cold, mostly what I want to do is curl up and sleep during my free time.  Freaking winter.  One day, I'm going to get organized enough to flee south during February.  Of course, the year I choose to do that, we'll have another snowpocalypse, and all the airplanes will be grounded.  

    So I poked through a few books, and mostly was cranky about all of them.  February's that kind of month.  I'm extremely hard to please.

    I slowly picked my way through VICTORIAN MURDERS - Major Arthur Griffiths.  It's not really a book.  It's mostly just a listing of cases that a turn of the century police man dealt with or heard about.  I found it more interesting for the period tones than for the contents.

    UNFORGIVABLE – Laura Griffin.  A thriller that hit some of my least favorite notes--expert jeopardizing her job--but I liked it well enough to pick up a couple other of her books.

    TWISTED - Laura Griffin.  Another thriller.  This one I liked primarily for the heroine's struggle with her job, with gaining and keeping respect as a newbie to the FBI.  Was it realistic?  Nope.  But entertaining.

    THE CROSSING PLACES - Elly Griffiths.  An opener to the Ruth Galloway mysteries and I really didn't care for it much.  Part of that's just me: it's told in present tense and that's a very hard sell.  Part of it was just the writing: Griffiths kept telling me one thing about the heroine and showing me something different, which is irritating.  If it had been a closer POV, I'd have been able to tell myself the heroine was self-deluded, but....  So I won't be reading on.

    NEWT'S EMERALD - Garth Nix.  Fun little magical regency romance.  Definitely on the younger side of YA.  Probably my favorite of the month.

    DON'T READ THIS BOOK - ed by Chuck Wendig.  Sort of hit and miss collection--as anthologies tend to be.  I had some trouble with the premise: learned later it's part of a game of some sort? 

    FASHION VICTIM - GT Herren.  A mystery that was cute, but ended really abruptly and not quite satisfyingly.

    BITTER SPIRITS - Jenn Bennett.  I really really loved her Acadia Bell series, and this one sounded like a slam-dunk--1920's San Francisco, bootleggers, magic!  I couldn't finish it.  I wanted more magic, and a whole lot less romance.   I might give it another try some time, because frankly, I was judging it against two really amazingly fun books: BRIDE OF THE RAT GOD by Barbara Hambly, and Libba Bray's THE DIVINERS, both of which just hit every sweet spot I have.

    ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD - Kendare Blake.  A "blind date" book from the library.  They do such a cute thing in February--wrap up books in glossy red paper and give a generalized description of the book.  I was glad when I got home and took the paper off--I'd wanted to read this when it came out, and never quite got around to it.  Sadly, I didn't really get involved in it; the hero kind of left me cold.

    LONG LIVE THE QUEEN - Kate Locke.  book 3 in the Immortal Empire series, and, see note about crankiness above.  While I enjoyed books 1 & 2 a lot, this one started to wear out its welcome, not least because I'm beginning to side with the human revolutionaries.  I mean, talk about oppression: when your entire family, and your children and your children's children and so forth will still be under the exact same thumb?

    Like I said, cranky.

    But I have high hopes for March.  Martha Wells' new Emilie book is out tomorrow, as is Marie Brennan's second Lady Trent book, and Seanan McGuire's new Incryptid novel.   So starting out well.
    Tuesday, January 14th, 2014
    5:55 pm
    2013 in books, belatedly
    I read a lot of books this year—211 by my count, not including rereads or DNFs, in the genres of fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, general nonfiction, horror, young adult, and general fiction.  Must master this insomnia nonsense.  Or maybe just not reward my brain with books for keeping me awake.

    I found five new to me authors and devoured their backlists:

    KATE GRIFFIN and her magical London series.  Her writing is amazing.  It seems sort of choppy and arbitrarily styled, then you fall into the prose, and come out murmuring We Sing Electric Blue Angels.  I’m going to have to dig up her Catherine Webb books.

    JORDAN L HAWK: Her Griffin & Whyborne series fit right into that sweet spot of romantic dark fantasy—investigators dealing with Lovecraftian style horrors in a very strange city.  I’m currently working my way through her shorter novellas (novelettes?) set in a modern world where there’s a police force created to deal with possessing spirits.

    KERRY GREENWOOD: Phryne Fisher series set in turn of the century Australia; and Corinna Chapman series set in a very modern Australia, both addictive.  Many many of the books read this year are hers.  She writes these slim, addictive novels that are perfect for quick, delightful reads.

    JOE HILL: I started with 20th Century Ghosts and that’s still my favorite of his works.  The others are all solid reads though.

    ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT: American Elsewhere is definitely his standout, but my god the man can write.  His settings crackle.

    I fell out of love with some writers too, as seems to happen: series burnout, characters changing in ways I don’t care for, characters not changing at all, or just too much familiarity.

    My faves of 2013 (read during, not published during) and not in any particular order other than the order I read them in.

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