Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Reaper's Rope

Nine knots. I’ve counted a hundred times. Once a day, every day. Every time I count I wish the number were lower. Every time I count I know it will only get higher.

I don’t know what will happen when I get to ten.

I doubt it will be anything good.

My fingers worry the tangled twist of rope, as if the mere manipulation of a knot will shrink it until it disappears. It doesn’t. The knots are permanent, a reminder of what I have done.

My door swings open. He didn’t knock. Again.

I don’t have time to tuck the rope away. It wouldn’t do any good to hide it anyway, he’s the reason each of the nine knots exist.

“You ready for another one?” he asks, a bright smile lighting his eyes. He’s excited for me, ready for me tie the tenth.

I try to echo back his enthusiasm, mirror back his light. But I can’t. Instead I turn and hang my rope back on its nail. “I guess.” I can’t tell him no. That’s possibly the one outcome worse than a tenth knot.

He waits for me to turn back to face him. I feel the weight of his stare until I turn. He lifts a hand toward me. I hold back a flinch as I see the slip of white pinned between his fingers.

I hold his gaze as I reach out and take the paper. “Thanks.”

“I’ll see you when you get back,” he holds the door open for me, waiting for me to head off. Does he know I don’t want another knot?

I force a small smile and step past him, close enough to feel the wave of heat pushing from him. He’s a furnace about to explode.

I hear my door click shut but I don’t turn to look. I know I won’t be able to pass through the door again until I complete my task. He won’t unlock it until I return to tie another knot.

I focus on one foot in front of the other. All the way up the stairs until I’m forced to stop and wait for him to unlock the door and let me out.

He drops a hand on my shoulder as he pulls the door open, letting in a stream of sweet clean air. I pull in a deep breath, replacing the stale air I’ve been steeping in. His hand slips, drifts down my arm as I step forward and out.

“I’ll see you soon.” The door slams, separating me from his voice. I am free.

And not at all.

I shift the paper in my hand, wanting to read the name written on it. But the longer I wait to read it, the longer it will be until I have to tie another knot. Lucky for me, the darkness is deep. I can’t see the path in front of me, much less the penciled name.

My feet find their way, moving toward the main road and the street light that marks the corner. It’s been several months, but I don’t stumble. Any sticks or rocks that dared to stray here have already been banished. I wonder for a moment about the people who get that task. Are they the opposite of me? Free to move outside only during daylight?

Under the lamp, I unfold the slip of paper.

Jacob Tanner.

My breath stops. I know this name. Not in the his last name is Tanner, so I know where he works way. I know this name in the we went to kindergarten together, celebrated our birthdays together way. He has made my tenth knot personal.

I bend, tuck Jacob’s name into my sock. I start walking.

A block from the house where my mother lived, I turn right. Two houses down on the left. I stand on the sidewalk and look at Jacob’s house. The windows are dark. No dog barks a warning. The air that moves toward me from the large garage is a bitter burning, even though they aren’t working now.

Here there are rocks at my feet. I scuff one loose, pick it up and aim. The rock pings off the metal frame of a window on the second floor. I wait. The silence continues. A second rock, a second ping. A light flickers into life a moment before the glass shifts.

Jacob leans out, looking into the darkness. There are enough street lights here to give the night a bit of a glow. It is enough for him to see me. “Caro?” he whisper-calls.

I lift a hand. I’m not sure if it’s a greeting or a warning.

His hand mirrors mine. He disappears from view.

It takes Jacob less than a minute to get to me, but an eternity of thoughts move through my mind. It’s a mixture of memories: birthday cake, carols, and trampolines, interspersed with blood and sadness.

I have no plan. We stare at each other, contributing to the quiet. His eyes skate over my face, as if he is trying to read my truth there. I’m glad that my progress is marked in knots on a rope, rather than marks on my skin. I’ve seen myself in a mirror, I look the same as I did when I was still unknotted.

Jacob looks older. Finally a grown-up instead of boy. His eyes are still blue in the pale light. When they meet mine, I know I can’t. Killing Jacob would be the same as killing myself. I don’t know what he did to deserve his name on a slip of paper. I don’t care. I don’t know what the penalty will be for failing in my task. It doesn’t matter.

“Help me.” It’s my voice. Soft and shaking.

“How?” Jacob asks.

How can he help me? Can Jacob hide me?

My name would be scrawled on a piece of paper. Someone else would be sent after me. I could become another’s tenth knot.

I look away. There is no answer here. Nothing I can do to save us both.

Jacob’s necklace. A shark’s tooth wrapped in golden wire.

I reach out and touch the point, then grip it tight and pull. The cord breaks.

“Caro!” Now my name is muffled exclamation. I don’t answer the question stretched across Jacob’s face. I grab his hand and pull it toward me, slash hard with my other hand. Blood spills in his palm, trickles into mine.

I don’t look at his face. I don’t want to see the betrayal there. I don’t want to explain that I am really saving him. And maybe saving myself. I just squeeze, milk the thick red liquid from his hand onto my hands, let it drip onto my pant leg, smear a swipe across my cheek.

The smear mingles with the salt water slipping from my eyes. I let it all run and reach out for Jacob one last time. My fingers trail down his cheek, leaving a mark that I know he will wash away.

I want to say goodbye. I want to say more. Instead I turn and walk away, back into the darkness of the night. Back to him.

At the door, I press my palm to the scanner. It swings open, the building breathing out onto me.

He meets me at the foot of the stairs, ready to let me back into my room. His eyes read the story on my skin. “Good job. Sleep well,” he says, his hand reaching for his keys.

My hand is faster.

I snatch the keys, twining my fingers through the rings and thrusting all in one motion. For the second time tonight, blood spills across my hand. This time it is from a neck. This time it is fatal.

He tries to grab me, tries to hold himself up. As long as he is standing, he is alive, after all. His hands scrabble over my shoulders, my arms, his fingernails drawing blood of their own. But they fail to keep him up. He falls at my feet.

Again I turn and walk away. I add to the blood on my pants, wiping the keys across my thigh as I move to my door. It takes four tries to find the right key. Not bad, considering there are at least twenty keys on the rings.

I hold the door open and drop the keys to the floor in the hall. I pause for a moment, my gaze torn between the hallway and my room. The door swings closed, the lock clicking into place as I reach for my rope.

I begin to tie the tenth knot.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

How Hard Can It Be, Chemistry Lessons, and other May Reads

In May, I finished 10 books:

Micro by Michael Crichton (audiobook)
How Hard Can it Be? By Allison Pearson (ARC)
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare (audiobook)
When to Jump by Mike Lewis
City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare (audiobook)
Chemistry Lessons by Meredith Goldstein (ARC)
City of Glass by Cassandra Clare (audiobook)
Revival by Stephen King
Creating the Opportunity to Learn by A Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera
Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

I received an Advance Readers’ Edition of How Hard Can It Be? By Allison Pearson from the publisher (St. Martin’s Press) in exchange for an honest review. How Hard Can It Be? is scheduled for release on June 5, 2018.

I didn’t realize this book was a sequel until it got to me. I haven’t read the first book, so I was worried that I wouldn’t understand what was happening, or wouldn’t know the characters. I considered getting and reading the first book, but I am not drowning in free time right now, so I just dove in.

This novel is the tale of an almost-fifty year old woman. She formerly had a career in finance, and was very successful. She left that career to raise her children. This novel starts with her husband deciding that he is leaving his job to follow his dream. His dream involves classes, therapy, and riding his bicycle. His dream does not involve bringing in money to support his family. So Kate is headed back to work.

Kate worries about balancing work with continuing to raise her children, repairing a strained relationship with her husband, and renovating the well-worn house they are living in. She is also worried about finding and holding a job at her age, fearing that she will be pushed aside and undervalued because she is “old.”

But Kate has no choice but to push forward. She will have to set aside her wants to support the wants of her husband and children. She knows that it will be difficult, bu is not fully prepared for what the world has in store for her. She is even less prepared to find her way to her own wants and unrealized dreams.

Allison Pearson has created a rich cast of characters in this novel. While Kate is the focus of the story, and we get to know her very well, she is not the only well-drawn character here. She is surrounded by family, friends, coworkers, and mostly-strangers that shine on their own.

The plot of the novel is complicated, but believable. Kate faces all the obstacles you would expect a woman to face as she returns to the work-force after taking “time off.” There were, however, a few spots where the story jumped forward in a way that pulled me out of the story. I would turn to a new chapter and find Kate in the midst of dealing with a decision she had made, or an action she had taken. I missed the moment where she made the decision, decided to act. I only got to see her deal with what she had done.

Overall, How Hard Can It Be? is a very good novel that I enjoyed. Though it is a sequel, you do not need to read the previous novel (I Don’t Know How She Does It) to understand the story and love the characters.

I also received a copy of Chemistry Lessons by Meredith Goldstein from the publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in exchange for an honest review. Chemistry Lessons is scheduled for release on June 19, 2018.

Maya is ready. Ready to be a freshman at MIT. Ready for the next step in her relationship with her boyfriend, Whit. Ready to move forward with her life.

Then Whit breaks up with her. Suddenly Maya is lost, adrift. She finds solace in the boxes of research her mom left her in her will. She also finds what she needs to get Whit back. Maybe. Maya will have to conduct an experiment.

With the help of her mom’s graduate student, Maya plans to test her mom’s pheromone formula on Whit. But first, she needs a couple of control subjects. A close friend, and a relative stranger.

As often happens in science, the results are not quite what Maya expects.

What I loved most about this novel was the focus on women in science. There are men in the lab where Maya works, but the researchers that drive the story forward are all female. The female characters throughout are relatively well drawn. Maya’s challenges are realistic, given her specific history. The women around her aren’t quite as fleshed out as Maya, but they all have their own stories.

I did struggle a bit with the male characters in the story. Overall, they are less developed, in particular Maya’s dad. I had a difficult time getting a sense of him in relationship to Maya and the story as a whole.

I also appreciated that the story wasn’t based on a vague, improbable love potion. Instead, the magic formula is rooted in actual science, though it may not work quite the way it does in this novel.

While the story did end pretty much the way I expected, I was not disappointed. I enjoyed the journey Maya took to realize there was a new worthwhile path waiting for her. I also loved the “whiff walks.” You’ll have to read the story to find out what that means!

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Pisces and other April reads

I finished 10 books during the month of April:

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan (reread)
The Pisces by Melissa Broder (ARC)
Strange Weather by Joe Hill (audiobook)
My (not so) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella (audiobook)
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Crash by Lisa McMann (audiobook)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams
The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer (audiobook)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I received a copy of The Pisces by Melissa Broder from the publisher (Penguin Random House) in exchange for an honest review. The Pisces will be released May 1, 2018.

Lucy is a woman who is addicted to love. At least, that’s what she thinks (and what the back of the book suggests). After breaking up with her boyfriend and failing to find her way through her dissertation, Lucy finds herself house- and dog-sitting for her sister in Venice Beach. While there, Lucy joins a support group for love/sex addicts while falling in and out of love with a series of men (and her sister’s dog).

I would argue that Lucy is not actually addicted to love. Instead, Lucy seems to be addicted to the pursuit, the chase, the moment of falling. She is a woman who craves the new, craves the hunt. The moment she has the man, or the relationship, she is done and ready for the next thing.

Melissa Broder draws the character of Lucy well, but I did not particularly care for her. Lucy has no problem hurting everyone around her in her pursuit of the things she craves. This made it hard for me to like her. I also struggled a bit with the other characters in the story. Most of the cast around Lucy was thinner, less well-developed, almost wispy. This may have been intentional, as part of Lucy’s issue is a failure to connect and attach to anyone for the long term.

I also did not feel that Lucy really changed over the course of the novel. In the end, she says that she has grown, that she will value and build one particular relationship. But we don’t get to see her take action in that direction. Based on her behavior throughout the novel, and her previous decisions to commit and failures to follow through, I have my doubts that she will really do what she says after this novel is over.

In the end, I wasn’t sure what I felt about The Pisces. It was an interesting view into the mind of an addict, but not particularly a story that I loved, or that followed me when I put it down.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Luck

This would be much more dramatic if the quarter slots still took actual quarters. It’s deeply unsatisfying to swipe my card and watch the tiny number appear on the screen instead of dropping in my last piece of shining silver. I miss the feel of the cool metal, the scrape of the coin against the slot, the chink as it drops into the depths of the machine. I miss pulling the big handle.

So I close my eyes. I let my fingers feel out the single oversized button on the smooth plastic console in front of me. I push.

Now the sounds are right. The chunk, chunk, chunk of reels locking into place. But almost drowned out by the increasing volume of the whooping electronic “music” that’s been added for dramatic effect. Even with my eyes closed, I can tell something is happening. My pulse responds to the insistent screaming of the box in front of me, reaching a stuttering step as the sounds crescendo in a wailing siren and the sound of fake cascading coins.

My eyes fly open. Five black cats are arched on the screen, hackles raised, mouths sneering as they hiss in anger that I have taken their prize. I won. I won a lot.

And I have drawn every eye in the room. Some are above smiling faces, people who are happy to see someone taking money from this building, a reminder that they too might win. Others look almost as nasty as the cats, pissed that my win has lowered the odds that they will.

The only pair of eyes that matters is flat, neutral. Cold. Brown eyes should be warm, inviting. But right now his are mud. Not harmful, exactly. But dangerous if you fall in, forget to keep your head clear.

I watch him as I smile as all of my new friends, the congratulators that have formed a circle around me, patting me on the back, offering to walk with me as I cash out the ticket that the machine has so kindly printed for me. I clutch the ticket tight, not daring to slide it into my bag or pocket. Fingers have their ways of getting into those places. I can’t let this go.

He can’t let me go. He won’t let me go.

I wonder what the odds are that I can cash this slip and make it to the bus station before he has his fingers wrapped around my arm.

Probably no better than the odds of me hitting this jackpot.

But this is Vegas.

I think I’ll take those odds.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Warning Light and other March reads

I finished 12 books in March:

Warning Light by David Ricciardi (ARC)
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (audiobook)
A Matter of Trust by Lis Wiehl (audiobook)
Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Dead Watch by John Sandford (audiobook)
Joyland by Stephen King
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (audiobook)
Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (audiobook)
Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas
A Million Worlds With You by Claudia Gray

I received a copy of Warning Light by David Ricciardi from the publisher (Berkley/ Penguin Random House) in exchange for an honest review. Warning Light is scheduled for release on April 17, 2018.

Imagine this. You are on an international flight, perhaps for business, perhaps for vacation. Your plane begins to struggle, the pilot tells everyone that there is a minor engine issue and all is well. Then the pilot revises his statement. Your plane will be making an emergency landing due to complications with the minor engine issues.

Your plane lands safely. In the midst of Iran. Your plane is emptied into a deserted, earthquake damaged airport. You are pulled aside by airport staff and asked why you are in Iran, why you were taking pictures as you exited the plane. You insist that you are there by coincidence, just like everyone else on the plane, that you were taking pictures of the beautiful sunset.

But they don’t believe you. You are beaten. You are detained.

What do you do? More importantly, what should you do? What choices can you make that will keep you alive, that will get your back home?

This is how Warning Light starts. And I was all in.

I am hit or miss on spy/ political thrillers. Sometimes I struggle to get into the story. But that was not the case here. I was eager to continue reading, knowing that this type of book would be loaded with twists and turns that would keep the story moving.

And that was the problem. Far too soon in the story Warning Light had a plot twist that I feared was coming. One that I won’t reveal here, but it took the story directly into the land of the type of story I don’t usually enjoy. From there, Ricciardi continued to pile on the improbabilities and I found myself buying into the story less and less, caring about the main character less and less.

This is probably a novel that many people will enjoy, but it was not the novel for me. I would have enjoyed the story more if the novel had not turned so far from the path it started down in the first thirty pages.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Heels

Prompt from They Fight Crime!
He’s a scrappy devious gangster in drag. She’s a brilliant gold-digging mercenary on the trail of a serial killer.


“Now those are some killer shoes.”

I take a moment to appreciate my footwear before looking up. Rich purple bands twine across my feet, around my ankles and calves. Mirror-bright silver heels catch the pulsing light in the room, throwing it in a million directions. If I were to stand, they’d add three and a quarter inches to my meager sixty-four.

I force myself to look away, focus on the voice that spoke to me. I expected a man, a tough guy looking to pick me up. The voice was smooth, a deep rumble that cut through the whiny high-pitched squeal in the club.

Standing in front of me is a woman. Wearing a dress identical to my own. The dress I bought because it was a perfect match for my shoes. Swirls of purple, black, and silver. Barely there straps holding up a shifty, flirty tube of fabric.

I look again. She’s not a she. The voice didn’t lie. This is a man. In drag. In my dress. Admiring my shoes.

His hand reaches out to touch the shoe on the end of my angrily bouncing leg. He missed a detail. There is hair on the back of his hand, hair on his fingers. All the way up his arm, actually. A match for the dark locks he has smoothed behind one ear.

“Don’t touch.” I carefully shift my legs, tucking the shoes under my chair where they are safely out of his reach.

He retracts his hand as if I were a dog that had just nipped at his fingers.

I guess I kind of did.

“Sorry. They’re expensive. And fragile.” I flash him a smile and look over his shoulder. I can’t tell if we are attracting attention because we are two women in a bar or because we are a spectacle in a double-dress. I’m okay with the first. Not with the second. A double-dress spectacle could make it hard for me to get what I want tonight.

I find the eyes I am looking for. They are pointed in our direction, but don’t touch my dress-double. They are locked on me, skimming over my skin. I can almost feel them.

I look away before the body holding those eyes realizes I’m watching him. I focus on the man next to him, but ignore the center of my vision, widen my eyes to catch everything I can in the periphery.

The man I am after is under-dressed by the standards of his club. But he looks good, without a doubt. Jeans worn soft cling to his thighs. A tight blue T-shirt drapes the muscles of his abs under an unbuttoned flannel. Golden-blond hair waves over his forehead, skims over brows that slash above his steel blue-grey eyes. The T-shirt is deliberate, I decide. He’s playing up the storm in those eyes.

“Where’d you get them?”

I startle a bit. I’d forgotten about my not-even-close-to-a-twin standing in front of me. He’s also not a twin to the man I am after. My not-twin is skinny. The dress that kisses my curves hangs like a bag over his lack of muscle. His eyes and hair are dark, banishing the light that the golden man throws around the room.

Without me asking, dress-boy drops into the seat next to me. Apparently he doesn’t care if we make a spectacle. Maybe because he is a spectacle all by himself.

“I made them actually,” I respond as I shift to make sure golden-man can see me around dress-boy.

“Really! They are spectacular.” This guy is freakishly obsessed with my footwear.

But they are spectacular. I guess I shouldn’t hold it against him.

Before I can stop him, he has slid one fur-trimmed hand down my calf to lift my foot into the air. He tips his hand, shifting my leg like he is holding a glass of wine up to the light. No glass of wine is this pretty, this sparkly. We are both entranced for a moment, watching the light bounce and scatter.

We aren’t the only ones who see. I feel his eyes a moment before I look up and catch the golden man staring.

I extract my leg, careful to mind the heels. It wouldn’t do to cut my not-twin and give away the surprise. “It’s time for my shoes and I to get to work,” I say as I stand and move toward my prey.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

February Reads

I finished 10 books in February:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (audiobook)
The Wanted by Robert Crais (audiobook)
Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton
Foundations of Problem-based Learning by Maggi Savin-Baden and Claire Howell Major
Past Perfect by Danielle Steel (audiobook)
History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray
Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben (audiobook)
The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan (reread)
Bear is Broken by Lachlan Smith

Usually I talk about my favorite reads. Or something that struck me as a common theme in the books I read through the month. Or something that I learned as a writer from the books I read.

Maybe this falls into the last category. This month I am going to talk about my least favorite read. I’m not going to name it, because I have written books myself. I know how difficult it is to write a book, how much of you gets invested into the words you put on paper. For me, saying a book is bad feels like I am slapping the author. Typically I try to focus on what I did enjoy about a book. I might mention things that did not work for me as a reader, or things that I thought could have been better.

But this time, I am struggling to find the good things.

Because I struggled so much to find any enjoyment in this book, I decided to really try to figure out why. That’s when I realized the primary trouble for me was that this book contained no conflict. Zero. I spent hours in the car listening to this story, trying desperately to figure out what the quest was, what the characters wanted, what was standing in the way of achieving their goals. But I just couldn’t find any hint of conflict.

Even worse, I realized I couldn’t identify a protagonist. Maybe because there wasn’t a conflict. This book had a group of characters who stayed through the story, but none of them felt like they were at the center of the story.

Yes, books can work when they have several main characters, several people working toward their goals. The trouble for me was that none of the characters seemed to have a clear goal, need, or want in this novel. We were given a group of people who live together, getting along, being happy and successful throughout their blessed lives.

The end result was that I found the story boring.