Saturday, September 16, 2017

Silvers

No, this is not polished. No, this is not finished. No, I have no idea what happens next. But it is the start of a story. It is built of words that I laced together, one skinny sentence at a time over the course of a week. It is writing. A thing I have not done much of lately. Take it as you will.
 
“Here. Take this.”

A glint of silver catches my eyes, draws my attention to a small foil packet. My eyes move to the hand pushing across the table. Thin fingers. A dusting of golden hair.

My gaze keeps moving, up o the person attached to the hand. He looks like an elf. Delicate features, a slight point to the tops of his ears. A glaze of blond spiky hair.

But he’s human. The number etched on the side of his neck starts with the same first three digits as my number. He’s from my zone.

I look closer, convinced I must know him. Or his family. But nothing in his features is familiar. I don’t know him. He can’t know me.

He nudges the packet closer.

“What is that?” I ask.

“Roast beef. Baked potato.”

My hand slips out, drawn by the promise of real meat.

I grip the foil, rip the package open.

“This is a saltine.” I don’t try to contain my disappointment. I let it wash out into my words.

“Yeah. But it’s fortified. Nutritionally the same.”

I lock my gaze with his. “Nutrition is not the same as taste.”

“True.” His acknowledgment is quick, as if we’ve had this debate before.

I study him again, sure I must know him. Still nothing clicks.

“What?” he asks. “You’re staring.”

“I know.” I don’t blink, don’t let my gaze waver. I kind of like staring at him. It makes me feel warm.

“Stop it,” he says. His tone carries a laugh, his eyes shining bright. He’s enjoying my stare, my edge of anger, the undercurrent of confusion. Maybe even the warmth.

I open my mouth and then close it. I am at a disadvantage- he knows what is happening here. I am lost.

I pick up the saltine and break it neatly into fourths. I settle one piece onto my tongue, let it dissolve, spill across my taste buds. Starch. Salt. A medicinal aftertaste.

No beef.

“Well?” he asks.

I lift a brow and pop another quarter into my mouth. I chew deliberately, my eyes still locked on his.

He blinks first, then tips his head back, releasing a rich laugh into the air. He doesn’t care about the attention he’s drawing. But I do.

I quickly pop the last two pieces into my mouth, crumple the slip of silver, and tuck it into my shoe. I want to yell at him, slap him into silence. Instead I mumble “shut up,” under my breath.

His hand is faster than I could imagine, shooting across the space between us, shoving another small foil packet into the hand I have resting at the table’s edge. This packet is different than the first. Not cool foil. Warm paper. Fabric, maybe.

I don’t dare look at it. I shake my head, continuing my appearance of irritation, and slip the packet into my shoe beside the ball of foil. I am itching to rip it open, see what he has given me.

I shove my chair back and give the not-elf-boy one last glare as I turn and leave the cantina.

Every step I take pushes the tiny gift into the arch of my foot. God, I hope it’s a gift. It could be a curse. My undoing, how does he know me? Why did he seek me out? Who am I to him? The questions pulse through me, matching the rhythm of my steps.

The bunk door slides open in front of me and I step inside, immediately closing the heavy wood panel and dropping onto my thin mattress. Within seconds, the shoe is off, the wad of useless foil rolling away across the stone floor.

I brush my fingers across the packet. Cloth. Linen. The palest soft ivory. Wrapped around something hard.

I peel away the fabric as my heart skitters in my chest. There it is. My ring.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere (and not a word written...)

I finished thirteen books in the month of August:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (reread, audiobook)
The Norton Book of Ghost Stories by Brad Leithauser
The Rule Book by Jennifer Blackwood (audiobook)
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (audiobook, reread)
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (audiobook)
Conjure by Lea Nolan
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig (audiobook)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (ARC)
The Mystery Woman by Amanda Quick (audiobook)
The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh
Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick (audiobook)

Notice that more than half of these are audiobooks.

If you read my blog on a regular-ish basis, you may have also noticed that I did not post a short piece of fiction this month.

These two things are related.

I started a new job on July 31. I am back in the classroom teaching science to high school students (and middle school students). While this is great, it has meant a major shift in my time. As in, I really don’t have any. The school I am working at is a ninety minute drive from my house. That means a total of fifteen hours a week in my car. Listening to books instead of writing one.

In August, I wrote just over 600 words. Total. In the whole month. And those words were a book review (for Little Fires Everywhere, the review can be found below).

Zero new words written for the novel swirling in my head. Zero revision done on the novel that is crying out to be polished and sent out into the world.

I know that things well settle, that I will regain some bits of time. I will write again. But right now, I miss it a lot.

With any luck, I will have a new bit of fiction for you in mid-September. Just a fragment, a glimmer of the words inside my head, waiting to be set to paper.

But regarding the words of others, here is my review of Little Fires Everywhere:

I received an advance reading copy of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng from the publisher (Penguin Random House) in exchange for an honest review. The release date for this book is September 12, 2017.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about family. The family you are born into, the family you pull around you from the people you meet in your life, the family you run away from. This is a story about secrets. Secrets we keep for ourselves, secrets we keep for others.

This story follows one spark that ignites a series of small fires in the lives of people near the event. Bebe, a Chinese American woman with minimal English and fewer resources leaves her baby at a fire station. A childless couple takes in the baby, and begins the long process of formally adopting the child.

Mia is a single mother and artist who works with Bebe. She is also the tenant and part-time housekeeper for the Richardson family. In turn, the Richardson parents are close to the couple looking to adopt the abandoned baby. When Mia realizes the baby being adopted is the same baby that Bebe left behind, Bebe changes her mind. She wants her daughter back.

Bebe’s quest to regain her daughter shifts the relationships between the Richardson parents, their four teenage children, Mia, and her own teenage daughter.

The plot of the story focuses on Mrs. Richardson and her quest to dig up anything she can that will help her friends gain custody of the baby they have grown to love. While that quest moves the story forward, it is far from the only force in the book. Each of the characters has a secret (or four). Each of the characters encounters the secrets of others. Each of the characters is changed forever, even though they don’t interact directly with the baby in question.

Celeste Ng has drawn a cast of well-rounded characters in this story. Each of them appears to be one thing on the surface (in some cases, appearing to be a stock, stereotypical character), but a hundred other things beneath the surface. Celeste gives us the history that has made them who they are in a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks are fully fleshed stories in their own right, that bring the characters into clear focus and reveal the secrets that give them depth.

The setting of this story really serves as another character. Shaker Heights, Ohio is a real place. A city that was carefully designed to be the ideal place to live. Like the characters, this city is one thing on the surface, with under-layers that are revealed to us as the story progresses.

Overall, this story was a very engaging read. I left Shaker Heights feeling like I knew these characters. I found myself wondering what happened after the story, as the story ends with things a bit unsettled. The characters stories are not completed, instead they are scattered like ash on the wind.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Emma in the Night and Other July Reads

I finished 10 books in July:

Shadow Girl by Gerry Schmitt (ARC For my review, click here.)
The Selection by Kiera Cass
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (audiobook, reread)
Emma in the Night (ARC)
Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith
The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
The Elite by Kiera Cass
Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf

I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker from St. Martin’s Press as part of a giveaway.

This is the story of two teenage sisters who went missing in the night three years ago. Emma (the older sister) left some clues behind. Her car, parked near the beach. Her shoes, sitting in the sand. Cass (the younger sister) left no trace. The case has gone cold, but has not stopped haunting Dr. Abby Winter, the FBI forensic psychologist who worked the case.

Now Cass is back. She has appeared much as she disappeared. Quickly, with no explanation, and few clues. Her story is jumbled, incoherent. A tale of being held by an odd couple on an isolated island. But she insists that Emma is still out there, that they have to find her. This novel is the quest to find Emma.

It should be straightforward. Find the island. Find Emma. Rescue her from the couple.

Here’s the trouble. As a reader, there’s something off in Cass’s story. Dr. Winter senses it, just like we do. There’s something riding under the surface, something that Cass wants, or wants to keep hidden. Like Dr. Winter, you as the reader feels like you’re not getting the full, true story. And it’s not just Cass that you doubt.

I didn’t fully trust anyone in the novel. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has an agenda. These secrets and agendas contradict each other, muddying the investigation by the FBI and challenging the reader to sort through to find the truth.

Even at the end of the novel, when the secrets have been unveiled, I still questioned if I really had the true story. I had the feeling that there might be more that the characters just weren’t willing to share.

The one thing that make this book a bit of a challenge was that large portions of the story are a character telling us about something that happened in the past. As this novel is about the ripples and echoes caused by events in the past, this makes sense. But I found myself occasionally jerked to awareness that the events described were not happening now. It took away a bit of my investment in the story, the urgency of the story. These things already happened. There was no changing them. What really mattered was what happened next. Tightening up some of these passages might have kept me in the story a bit more.

Overall, this was a great read. While I could see lots of possibilities for “the truth,” Wendy Walker kept me questioning everything I thought I knew until the end of the story and beyond.





Monday, July 17, 2017

Luminary

The lighter snaps to life as the last
of the sun drains from the sky
It is naked, bare,
Harshly bright compared to the muted
flicker of the candles that line the path
A host of hands reach up, prop the ribs,
the flesh, as the fire kindles
Air warmed, the white orb lifts away,
a ghost drifting up into the sky
Eyes lift, follow the glow until
the distance is too great
The flame fades from sight
leaving its heat behind in our hearts

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Prophecy (The Lightning Thief and Other June Reads)

Persuasion by Martina Boone
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
Mad Richard by Lesley Krueger (digital ARE) Click here for full review
‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride (ARE) Click here for full review
Just After Sunset by Stephen King (reread)
Illusion by Martina Boone
Fairest by Marissa Meyer
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (reread)
The Land of Darkness by C.S. Lakin
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (audiobook, reread)

So, I wanna talk about prophecies. This is partly coming from my reread of The Lightning Thief, and partly from other life stuff. You’re about to get a mish-mash of the two.

Prophecies are a common trope in fiction. They sit on the edge of the land of cliche, tempting writers to use them as a tool in their plots. This can be an easy way to send your hero on an adventure (hey, the prophecy says you have to), or a complication tossed into an already happening adventure (ha, ha, you only think you’re making your own choices). Whenever they appear, we tend to say, oh, fantasy, that just doesn’t happen in real life. Prophecies aren’t real, and we maybe shouldn’t use them for the sake of making our fiction more believable.

I would like to argue that prophecies happen every day. Maybe not like we see them in Harry Potter, or the Percy Jackson series. Smaller. Sneakier. But no less powerful. No less able to change the course of our stories.

Prophecy is the teacher who says “I know you can do this,” or “You’re going to fail, so why even try?” Prophecy is the parent who says “You can be whatever you want,” or “You’ll never amount to anything.” Prophecy is the doctor who says “You’ll be in a wheelchair by the time you’re twenty.”

Any of these prophecies can have a huge impact on the course of your life. The student/child either lives up to what is expected of them (or isn’t), or sees the comment as a challenge, something to prove wrong.

In medicine, prophecy is called prognosis. You get a diagnosis, the what of your condition. And then a prognosis, a prediction of the outcome of your condition. You makes choices for your future based on your projected lifespan and level of function. The option to fight, to prove the prognosis wrong, is a lot trickier. How much control do you really have over the progression of a condition? Sometimes none.

Sometimes prophecies do not play out the way anyone expected.

When I was thirteen, I had a year of suckitude. I had intense pain in my left ankle and leg. A slew of doctors had no idea what the problem was. I ended up in a cast for eight weeks. (Super fun during rainy springtime in Florida) Finally, the right doctor ordered the right blood work. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. The cast was removed, and massive anti-inflammatories were consumed.

The wrong doctor (seen for something else) informed me that with my diagnosis, I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was twenty and dead by thirty.

As a thirteen-year-old, I had no idea what to do with that. I held it tightly to me, though. I carried it through every moment of my life.

I was lucky. Within a year of starting medication, I was in remission.

On my twentieth birthday, I went for my daily morning run up a mountain in New Mexico and yelled from the top “F— you, Dr. _______!”

But prophecies are tricksy. As my thirtieth birthday approached, the prophecy reared its head, reminding me that it still lurked. A few months before my birthday, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had my thyroid removed, and had the fun of dealing with a string of complications. I was convinced that the prophecy was partly true. Right expiration date, wrong cause.

Again, I was lucky. My birthday passed, and I was still alive. A year past diagnosis, no sign of the cancer. (Still no sign to date, FYI)

The prophecy was squashed again.

And now I am less than a month from forty. Another decade. Those seem to be key moments in my personal prophecy. Again, the prophecy is being tricksy.

Last week, I spent a day in a wheelchair. I could not stand on or move my right hip. An ultrasound showed fluid in my hip joint. Inflammation markers are elevated in my blood work. I have been off and on crutches since. My immediate thought: this is the return of the arthritis that brought the initial prophecy. Perhaps the cause was right, but the expiration date was wrong.

We will see how this pans out. We will see what new turns the prophecy takes.

But my point: the idea of prophecies in fiction is not far-fetched. I do not cringe when I see them in stories. The challenge is to find the twists and turns, the ways the prophecy can be true and not true at the same time, the ways the prophecy changes the course of events just by existing. And of course, how your hero deals with the words in the first place.

Personally, I like to see the prophecy that seems crystal clear on the surface. It isn’t a riddle or a mystery. Everyone knows what it means, they just aren’t sure how to deal with it, or change it. Then a turn of events forces everyone to change their perspective, makes everyone reconsider the meaning of the prophecy.

This, to me, is what life is. Taking what you are given (including prophecies) and building meaning around it.

Have you used prophecy in your writing? How did you make it twist and turn?

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Year of Bodies

I didn’t realize salt had a smell until I moved inland. Maybe my smell sensors were always full, clogged, and couldn’t register the salt. Maybe it was just pleasant, a lovely thing that blended into the background. Unlike the air here. Here I am full of the absence of salt. I miss it.

I knew that I would miss the water. I planned for that. I found a cute little house sitting at the bend of a long skinny lake. The water lies twenty feet, maybe thirty, from my front door. But it’s fresh water. Fresh. That’s not what the smell says. The smell says full of living things and the things they make. Poop. Pee. Previously dead things that are slowly decomposing below the depths. The smell is earthier than the sea I loved. More minerally. Less salty.

I can’t describe the salt smell. It’s just there. A note of fresh laced through the smells of life. A whiff of movement in the stagnant air.

I moved here to protect myself. I was lucky that I could. I try not to think about all the other women, the women who look like me but couldn’t afford to flee the city the killer used as his hunting ground. I’d like to think I would have saved them all if I could, but the reality is, he wants us. He’s going to take some of us. I can only make sure it’s not me.

The Pin-up Man.

That’s what the newspapers call him. That’s the name I heard every time I turned on the TV or radio. The name splattered across billboards next to the picture of the current month’s girl.

It is supposed to be a warning. Watch out. Protect yourselves. I think he likes it. The fame. The fact that everyone knows what he likes, what he’s looking for now. The fact that the police still can’t find him. It’s October. This is the tenth month of his reign.

This is the month that the pin-up girl looks likes me.

The first body was found in January. A tall, leggy, sliver of a girl. A fountain of blond hair dripping to her waist. She was posed on a park bench, her legs tucked neatly together, her back arched, hands tucked behind her head. Next to her on the bench was a page from a wall calendar. January. The picture was a near match to the scene on the bench.

February brought a short redhead, March a muscular brunette, April a stunning black woman with a massive afro.

Every month brought fresh girls posed to match the calendar photo they were paired with.

In May, someone finally figured out which calendar the killer was using. American Beauties, it’s called. Pretty, fresh-faced girls to represent the ideal of America.

People went crazy, tracking down places to buy the calendar. Physical stores were out in a matter of hours. Online wasn’t much better. Bidding on BuyItHere had the price jacked up to over a thousand dollars. Everyone wanted to know who was next, who should go into hiding in June.

I know the price on BuyItHere because I had the winning bid. One thousand, two hundred, fifty-three dollars. It was worth every penny.

The second the calendar landed on my doorstep, I tore off the plastic sheeting and flipped through the months. I stopped cold at October. Raven dark hair in tight curls to the shoulder, green eyes, a scatter of freckles over the bridge of the nose. A tattoo on the exposed right shoulder. An octopus with a pencil clenched tight in one arm.

I dropped the calendar and turned my head to catch the mirror on the wall behind me. I could see my octopus reflected there, stretched under my raven curls.

There was no question, I had to leave the city. How much of a catch would I be for the Pin-up Man? Not just a near match to the photos he clearly had a fetish for, but the real deal, the actual girl who posed for the shot. If he found me, if he somehow knew I was in the city, I doubted he would be able to resist.

So here I am. In the place with no salt. No sea. Wrapped in the stagnant, ripely rotten smell of the lake. Safety is worth the smell.

There’s just this one thing.

An hour ago, I was in the little shop down at the base of the lake, the only place within a thirty minute drive of my little safe nest. It’s a bait shop, really, a place to rent a boat and stock your beer cooler before setting out in your boat. I found milk, bread, sliced processed cheese stuff, peanut butter.

And the calendar. Hanging behind the register.

I left the things I had chosen helter-skelter on the closest shelf and managed to not run to my car. As I turned to pull open the door, I saw his face. The man behind the counter. A grin split his face in response to what must have been panicked terror on mine.

I should have never left the city.

I am the October girl.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Blonde and Other May Reads

I finished eleven books in May:

Shadow Man by Alan Drew (ARC)
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Productivity for Creative People by Mark McGuinness
Heartthrobs by Carol Dyhouse (ARC)
The Civil War Love Letter Quilt by Rosemary Youngs
The Map That Leads to You by J.P. Monninger (ARC)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (audiobook, reread)
The Map Across Time by C.S. Lakin
The Blonde by Anna Godbersen
Collapse by R.J. Infantino

Three of these books were advance reader copies (ARCs) that I received from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. If you want to see those, you can find them below:

Shadow Man: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1986559451
Heartthrobs: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1994311546
The Map That Leads to You: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1999791030

My favorite read this month was probably The Blonde by Anna Godbersen. This book is adult historical fiction about Marilyn Monroe. The book takes the moments of her life that were witnessed by the public and imagine a story that occurred behind the scenes.

The imagined story is that Marilyn was recruited by the Soviets as a spy of sorts, to get information on JFK. To convince Marilyn to work with them, her handler dangles the promise that Marilyn will finally get to meet the father she has never known.

I won’t lie. I have been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe since I was a teenager. It may have come from the ridiculous number of times I was asked if I was related to her. (My maiden name is Monroe). I don’t know how many times I had to remind people that Marilyn Monroe was a stage name, that her real name was Norma Jean Baker. It didn’t help my fascination that there was a connection (of unknown strength) between Marilyn and JFK. I have also been a bit obsessed with his story.

So I was a prime target for this imagined history. The main focus of the story was Marilyn’s intentional effort to get close to JFK, and the unintentional side effect of falling in love with him. This was where the story was strongest.

There were a couple of things that worked less well for me, though. Jackie Kennedy was portrayed as a cold and distant woman, a marriage of convenience. She was pushed aside and dismissed as insignificant to the plot. I would have preferred to see her more engaged in the story, or see her with a bit more depth and dimension.

I also had some trouble with the last part of the book. The ending felt a bit forced, as if  Anna knew she had to give the couple some closure. Given that both JFK and Marilyn die at a young age, this is incredibly tricky. I won’t tell you what Anna does to close the story, but it was probably the weakest part of the book, in my opinion.

What I loved most about this book was the idea of taking snippets of a story, the moments that everyone sees, and building a whole world of story behind it. This is what historical fiction always does, but this one started with moments that were so iconic, so part of the memory of our society (Marilyn’s version of Happy Birthday for JFK, for example), that it felt closer to me.