Saturday, November 18, 2017

Variations on a Tango Girl

I am working on revisions of my latest novel at the moment, which means I haven't written any new short fiction. Instead, I offer you a excerpt from Variations on a Tango Girl, my work in progress. This story is set in a high school of the arts.

I am so nervous during mods that I fall out of pirouette, as if I haven’t done a million of them before, as if my feet don’t sometimes do them in my sleep. After two days of whispers, staring, and even one blatant pointer in the cafeteria, today is judgment day. Well, I’ve already been judged, I guess. Today is just my sentencing, the day I find out my fate.

Desiree has been in different mods over the last couple of days, so I haven’t been able to ask her if she’s heard anything, good, bad, or otherwise. I don’t know her well enough to park myself next to her at lunch, or find her between classes. I don’t know anyone well enough to ask. I would feel like I’m fishing for compliments.

When mods are done for the day, I know the list is up. I can almost feel it down there in the green room, a swarm of bodies crowded around it, eyes eagerly searching for the names of their owners.

I hide. I linger in the locker room. I take a ridiculously long shower. I blow dry my hair. I pluck my eyebrows. Eventually, I run out of procrasti-hygiene.

I leave my bag in the locker room, an excuse to retreat to the safety of a bathroom stall if my name isn’t on the list. An escape route if I have made a complete fool of myself.

There are roughly seven times as many bodies as I expect when I get to the green room. I thought everyone would have come and gone by now, leaving only a few lingerers. Instead, there are more than a dozen people left.

I’m not sure what to make of this space. It’s called the green room, but it’s not really a room. More of a lobby, an opening, an atrium, maybe. And it is definitely not green. The walls are a particularly boring shade of off-white. Dark gray carpet covers the floor. And the benches. They’re really just large blocks, maybe built out of plywood and then covered by an odd shade of blue carpet.

When I step into the not-really-green-room, silence falls. The guy from auditions with the spiky black hair and the wolf whistle is the only one brave enough to make eye contact. Everyone else is actively not looking directly at my face. Spiky guy smiles at me, then stands and walks away from the guy he had been talking to in the corner.

“Congratulations. You’re Mavis, right?”

The words are all in the wrong order. Congratulations before he even knows for sure I am who he thinks I am. But the congratulations mean I am on the list, I am part of the cast. I haven’t made a fool of myself, ruined my chances of having enough stuff to list on my application. I can list Chicago as another extracurricular activity.

I move my head in what might be a tiny nod. “Thanks? I haven’t seen the list yet.”

I step past him, headed for the single sheet of paper posted on the bulletin board. I feel his body trail behind mine, close enough that his body heat brushes my bare arm.

Before I am close enough to read the words on the page, I see the tall blond that took the lead in auditions. Trina? She is leaning on the wall across from the bulletin board, her eyes focused on me. She looks furious. Her eyes are red, as if she’s been crying. The door next to her swings open, and Dr. Rott sticks her head out.

“Come on in, Trina.”

Trina pushes off from the wall and pulls her eyes from me, letting them skate over spiky-haired guy as she follows Dr. Rott into her office and closes the door. I feel like a massive weight has been peeled off of my shoulders. Her gaze was heavy.

“Don’t worry, she’ll get over it.” Spiky guy is still hovering at my shoulder, still putting words together in ways that don’t quite make sense.

I turn toward him, about to ask what he means, but bail halfway and pivot my head back to the sheet of paper. I think it can explain what is happening here.

My name is at the top of the list. I read it three times, thinking there must be another Mavis. But there’s no way there’s another Mavis Ostreicher at this school. Me. At the top of the list. Next to the name Velma Kelly.

Dr. Rott put my name in the spot where Trina’s belongs. No wonder she looked angry.

I scan down the list, my eyes skimming over a list of names I don’t know. Desiree is down toward the bottom, just below Trina’s. Where mine belongs.

Maybe Dr. Rott made a mistake, switched our names. But if she had, she would have realized it already, fixed it. Or at least taken down the messed up list.

This must be what Dr. Rott meant. I don’t know why. This isn’t how this is supposed to be. I want to be a dancer. I want to be able to check another item off my list of things to include in my application.

This is more than an item to check off. This is more than I can do. I can’t sing. I can’t act. I’m just a dancer.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mr. Dickens and Other October Reads

I finished 8 books in October:

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (audiobook)
Testimony by Scott Turow
A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J Maas
The Reader by Traci Chee
The Heir by Kiera Cass
Mr Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
11/22/63 by Stephen King (audiobook)
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I received an Advance Reading Copy of Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva from the publisher (Flatiron Books) in exchange for an honest review.

This is the type of book I am a sucker for. A re-imagining of a person or story from the past that we all think we know. I love seeing the familiar, the expected parts of a story shoved up against details that I would never have thought of. What I realized while reading this book is that I am not as familiar with A Christmas Carol as I thought.

Mr. Dickens is the imagined story of Charles Dickens in the months leading up to the publication of A Christmas Carol. Mr Dickens is in a bit of a bind. His stories are not selling as well as they should. His wife, children, and other family are demanding more time, more money, more everything. And his publishers are, too. Mr. Dickens is given an ultimatum. Write a Christmas tale in a few short weeks, or we will take away promised money.

Charles rebels, refusing to write the story he has no interest in writing. But he finds himself backed into a corner, in desperate need of the money the Christmas tale promises. So he caves, and begins to write. The only trouble is, Mr. Dickens has lost his Christmas spirit.

This novel is the story of Charles finding his Christmas spirit and writing the story we know and love.

Samantha does a great job of plunking us into London and Mr. Dickens’ mind as his personal story mirrors the tale he is beginning to weave. We get to know Charles and several of the people he interacts with, most notably Eleanor Lovejoy, who serves as his muse and guide on his journey. The story is peppered with references to both Dickens’ personal life and the details of A Christmas Carol.

This is actually the part that gave me trouble. I have not read A Christmas Carol in a very long time. While I remember the general story line, and many of the key characters, the details are far from fresh. Reading Mr. Dickens, I often felt like I was missing a smart reference, or an inside joke that I should have gotten. I began to wish that I had re-read the original tale before diving into this novel.

Overall, this is a lovely, refreshing holiday read that lovers of A Christmas Carol will enjoy. But I do recommend re-reading the original story before you start!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Your Heart in my Hands

I held your heart once. It was a wild, pulsing thing. Vibrant. Vital. Alive. That was before I broke it.

I imagine it now. Shivering, trembling in your chest. Fluttering like a frightened baby bird. I did that. I broke it. I broke you.

You were that guy. The one who slouched in the corner of the cafeteria, his eyes scanning the room. Always looking for something. Never eating. Too cool for mere food.

I was the girl in the center of the cafeteria. The center of everything. Everyone’s eyes on me. Watching what I did, what I laughed at, what I wore. What I ate. So I ate almost nothing. Just enough to give them a tease, a taste, of what they should do. I showed them how to be.

I didn’t let them see how much I watched you. How much I wanted to cross hat crowded room and settle next to you on the edge of everything. I couldn’t let them know that I wanted. I was supposed to be the girl who had it all.

So I watched you. I watched you sit alone, the dark brooding guy in the corner. The guy we all knew kept secrets. Like everyone else, I wondered what your secrets were. I wondered if they matched mine.

Eventually I moved closer. I snuck in when I was sure no one would notice. Not even you.

You didn’t realize how close I had gotten, how close we had gotten, until I was part of your world. I knew you wouldn’t let me in if you saw me coming. My attachment was so smooth that the world around us thought it was how we had always been. James and Lina.

Once I was were, you weren’t what I thought. You weren’t what I thought I wanted at all. You were more.

I expected shadows. You were made of sunlight. I expected cold distance. You were a warm hug.

I expected you to be the thing I would have to destroy so that you didn’t destroy me.

I expected you to be a vampire.

All of those expectations. And I feel in love with you anyway.

That wasn’t the complication. I wasn’t torn about what to do with you. Loving you didn’t change my goal. I wanted your heart, wanted to pierce it, mark it. Own it.

Then I realized you weren’t a vampire after all. Your dodge of food at lunchtime was a lack of lunch money. Your shadowed gaze was fatigue. Your stoic silence was pathological shyness.

You were mortal. Normal. On the edge of boring.

And I was still in love with you.

I still wanted your heart.

So I took it.

A kiss. A suggestion of sleep. A dagger-sharp nail drawn across your chest. A spill of blood.

Your heart in my hands.

I wanted to hold it forever. Hold you forever. I couldn’t do both. I had to choose.

I chose you.

A bite. A slick of my saliva across the surface of the still beating muscle. A bit of me tucked inside you when I returned your heart to your chest.

I watched it struggle on, stutter, stop and restart. Stop again.

The temptation to hold it again was strong, so I closed my eyes. Closed your chest.

Now I wait.

I hear the flutters getting stronger. The baby bird is struggling, preparing to fly. Your heart is almost ready to soar.

And it is mine.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

All the Crooked Saints (and other September reads)

I finished 10 books in September:

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (reread)
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (audiobook)
The One by Kiera Cass
The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder (audiobook)
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Ripper by Isabel Allende (audiobook)
The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando (audiobook)
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (audiobook)
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Steifvater (ARC)


I received an advance reader’s copy of All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater from Scholastic Press in exchange for my honest review.

All the Crooked Saints is the story of a miraculous family. Literally. The Soria family lives in the community of Bicho Raro in southwest Colorado in 1962. Everyone in the family has the ability to perform miracles, though there is one person in each generation who serves as the primary miracle worker in their small community of pilgrims. This generation’s miracle worker is Daniel.

The pilgrims are not Sorias. They are individuals who have been drawn here by their need for a miracle. It is Daniel’s job to perform the first miracle, to draw the darkness out of the pilgrim so that they can see what they are fighting. It is the pilgrim’s job to perform the second miracle, to defeat their own darkness. The Sorias cannot help the pilgrims with the second miracle, or the will be cursed.

This is what gets Daniel into trouble. He can’t resist the urge to help Marisita, a girl trapped in a butterfly covered wedding dress. A girl stuck inside her own continual rainstorm. When Daniel tries to help Marisita, his own darkness surges forward, sending him into the desert, perhaps to die alone.

Beatriz and Joaquin are more than family to Daniel. They are friends. They are conspirators (in their construction of an illegal pirate radio station in a rusty box truck). They are determined to save Daniel. The difficulty is helping Daniel perform his own second miracle without being cursed themselves.

As always, the writing in this novel is lovely. Stiefvater has a way of taking words and putting them together in combinations that are awkwardly beautiful. The unexpected phrasings and juxtapositions of thought and image are perfect, sometimes lingering with me long after I put the book down.

But there was something different in the tone of this book, the syntax that pervaded this story. There was a sense of distance from the characters. It might just have been that the cast of this book was large. Stiefvater has the entire (large) Soria clan to keep track of. Plus the menagerie of pilgrims that have set up camp around them. Stiefvater gives us a glimpse into each of them, and they each have their own fascinating story. But with so many, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with any of them.

Overall, I didn’t feel as connected to any of the characters in this story as I usually do with Stiefvater’s books. I felt like I watching the story unfold from a distance, or hearing the story told years later (which I guess is actually true in this case), instead of living through the story with them.

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.