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Monday, December 11, 2017

Excerpt from a work-in-progress: Slings and Arrows

I've started work on the seventh in the Snowe Agency mystery series, entitled Slings and Arrows.  All of the Snowe mysteries have started with the agents -- a client comes in to talk to them about a murder.  This one starts differently.

With the murder itself.

Here's the first bit.  See what you think.


A clear October night.  Stars glittering in the frosty air, their cold light casting no illumination on the trees that lined Garwood Avenue.  There was no traffic, no headlights—it was an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac, and was ten past midnight on a Tuesday night, when most of the middle class working stiffs who lived in this part of Colville, New York were sound asleep.

So no one saw the disheveled man staggering his way down the sidewalk.  His face wore a petulant scowl, and he was muttering to himself.  "Goddamn bartender… lotta nerve.  My car keys, no right to take 'em… I'm fine to drive, done it before, never had a damn problem… Tomorrow gonna go raise hell with the owner, get the bitch fired…"

An anemic streetlight's livid glare set his shadow turning underneath his feet as he moved past it.  He looked down at it, watching his silhouette swing from behind him to in front of him, then stretch out, longer and longer.  Something about its silent movement was nauseating.  He hoped he wouldn't puke.  It'd been a while since he'd had enough alcohol to start him puking, and it was worse than the inevitable headache he'd have tomorrow.

His scowl deepened.  And of course Kathy would be up waiting for him.  She always was.  She'd have that disapproving frown that struck a crease in the middle of her forehead, and tell him how he needed to stop going out with his buddies, especially on a work night, one day his boss in the construction company would get sick of him showing up to work hung over, and then he'd get fired.

It was the same lecture every damn time.  He hated that lecture worse than he hated puking.

But there were no lights on in the windows of his house.  He stopped and squinted up at the living room window, wondering for a moment if maybe he'd turned into the wrong driveway.  But there it was, that stupid stained-glass window hanging of a hummingbird that Kathy had gotten at a craft fair.  Maybe when he got inside, he'd take down that ugly-ass thing, find a hammer, and smash it to bits.

He stumbled down the sidewalk, almost losing his balance and falling into the front garden when he had to negotiate a single step up.  He looked at the set of eight steps that led up to his front door, and wondered how, exactly, he was going to manage them.

It was the last thought he ever had.

The sound of the baseball bat connecting with the back of his head loud enough that the man who swung it stepped back, startled, and slipped into the shadow of the hedge where he'd been hiding. He waited for lights to come on, for the neighbors to come and investigate.  The ruinous noise of his victim's skull caving in had been nothing short of horrifying.

But five minutes passed, and no lights came on, there were no shouts of "Who's there?"

He stepped out from the shadows still holding the bat, now swinging loosely from his right hand.  He gave a quick, furtive gesture with his left, and a woman came out from behind a clump of birch trees across the street, and crossed to him.

"Done?" she said in a low whisper.

"Done."  He pointed at the victim's body, sprawled on the sidewalk.  There wasn't enough light here to see him clearly, and the woman went up and knelt next to him, placing two fingers underneath the rough line of his jaw.

After a moment, she stood, and gave a tight, jerky nod.  "Dead."  She pulled out a cloth bag that had been tucked underneath her belt, and held it out open to him.  He dropped the bat in, and she twisted the top of it and tied it shut.

The man said, "Good."  He pulled out his cellphone, tapped the Text app, and after a moment, typed in a name.  In the text box he wrote three letters:


The response came in seconds.  It was a thumbs-up sign.

"Okay," he whispered.  "Let's get out of here."

The woman caught his sleeve.  "You gonna be okay?"

He swallowed, nodded.  "Yeah.  I'll be okay.  You?"

She returned his nod.  "See you in a couple of days."

Minutes later, the shadowed driveway was empty.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

What I'm reading (#35)

Is it possible to hate a book solely because of the very last line?

I ask because that was my reaction to William Sleator's The Duplicate.  I picked up a copy at our local used book sale (one of the biggest in the country -- the Ithaca Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale, a quarter of a million books in a huge warehouse -- one of the high points of my year).  I've loved a lot of Sleator's other YA speculative fiction books, including House of Stairs, Interstellar Pig, Strange Attractors, and (especially) Among the Dolls, which stands out to me as one of the most brilliantly crafted YA speculative fiction books ever written.

So I was looking forward to The Duplicate.

The story itself had an interesting premise; a teenage boy finds a machine that can create a perfect copy of himself, not only physically but mentally.  The duplicate would have all of the original's knowledge and memories, not to mention personality, reactions, and insecurities.  At first, the idea seems brilliant; two identical copies would mean that each of them would only have to go to school half of the time, and one could be doing chores while the other was making out with his girlfriend.  What could go wrong, right?

The answer turns out to be "everything."  David, the main character, does not anticipate two things; (1) that the duplicate will have a mind of his own, and in fact firmly believes that he is the original David; and (2) once the duplicate is created, their experiences and memories begin to diverge, so it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pretend to be the same person.  Also, there are some serious inconveniences.  Only one of them can sleep in the bed, if indeed they can both be in the bedroom in the same time without their parents realizing.  If one is at dinner, the other has to go hungry.

And so on.

The whole thing turns into an increasingly tense drama of errors, as David gets more entangled with a duplicate who turns out not to be controllable, or even friendly.  And when the duplicate creates yet another copy, things spiral out of control.

So far, so good.  Interesting stuff, well written, and we really want the main character to win the day.

But I have this thing about books, movies, and television shows; I hate it when I feel like the creator is playing with me.  It's why the later conspiracy theory episodes of The X Files left me wanting to hurl a heavy object at the television; I felt like the writers came up with the ideas by sitting around a table, sipping scotch and saying, "Heh.  Let's do this.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."  It's why I have no patience for David Lynch movies -- Mulholland Drive made me want to kick a wall.  I don't need to have all the answers -- for cryin' in the sink, I've written whole books where the reader is left to piece things together -- but I want some closure.   And most of all, I don't want to feel like the writer is being coy with me, doing something that has as its sole goal leaving me going, "Ooh, wow, that was unexpected, I wonder what will happen next?"

And that's what happens at the end of The Duplicate.  Everything gets more or less resolved, and on the last page David is having a nice time kissing his girlfriend Angela... and then comes the last line, which reads, and I quote:

"Until the phone rang."

When I got to the end, I said, "What?" followed by an intensifier I will not include out of consideration for my more sensitive readers.  There is no hint of who might be on the phone; the resolution of the story gives you no information about anyone who might be calling, and worse, whose call might destroy the happy teenage hormone-fest that was happening beforehand.

But that's how it ends.  No sequel, no idea of what Sleator had in mind.  Did one of the duplicates survive?  Was there a third duplicate?  Is it Angela's former boyfriend, threatening to knock David's teeth out because they were sitting on the couch snogging?

No way to know.

Like I said, I don't need all the answers, nor do I need everything neatly tied up with a ribbon on top.  My favorite book of all time is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, after all, and if you know what happens at the end of that book, you'll understand why I bring it up.  But this just struck me as cheap, as a way to create a suspenseful ending that the plot didn't deserve.  At least if there was some other twist in the last chapter, it might give us enough to have at least a guess as to what was going on.

But the end of this book makes me feel like Sleator was just tired of writing, and said, "Heh.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."

Which is a crummy way to treat your readers.

So if you want to read some great Sleator -- and he has more than one really fantastic story out there -- check out some of the ones I mentioned above.  But my suggestion is to give The Duplicate a pass.  Unless you like pointless cliffhangers, which I suppose some of you may.

Monday, October 2, 2017

What I'm reading (#34)

I first stumbled across essayist John McPhee's work because of my interest in rocks.

I was living in Washington State at the time, and took a class that gave me a rather eye-opening look at how complex the geology of the Pacific Coast is.  A friend asked if I'd read McPhee's quartet of books about the geology of the United States -- Rising from the Plains, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  I hadn't, but I did, and I was hooked.

I continued to read his work, and found that the man has a way of making damn near any subject interesting.  I mean, for pete's sake, he wrote a book called Oranges, on the citrus industry in Florida and California.  He also wrote an entire book (The Founding Fish) on people who fish for American shad.  Both are fascinating, despite my being neither an orange grower nor a fisherman.

So I proceeded to get every book I could find by McPhee.

That was how I came to read last week his book Uncommon Carriers, about people who haul freight by truck, boat, air, and train.  As with all of McPhee's books, he focuses not only on the facts of the topic, but the people -- and, in fact, spends weeks traveling all over the United States, in a tanker truck, a coal train, and a Illinois River barge.

What it brought home to me is how much goes on behind the scenes to give us the lifestyle that we middle-class folks in the United States enjoy.  Few of us, when we pick up the can of WD-40 to oil a door hinge, think of the fact that the ubiquitous and helpful spray was (1) manufactured somewhere, and (2) carried across the country in a tanker truck.  Likewise for all the other commodities we have; unless you make a deliberate and concerted effort to buy local, everything you purchase, use, or consume took a ride on some sort of freight hauler.  It was brought to you by people who spend their entire lives moving things in large quantities from one place to another.

So once again, McPhee has taken a topic that few of us give a thought to, and shown us not only the details but the human side.  If you haven't read McPhee, you should.  His insight, wry sense of humor, and interest in the human condition make anything he writes a fascinating read.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#33)

Another of my summer reads was a book given to me by a friend, who said, "This seems right in your wheelhouse."

The book was Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.  And she was right.  It's a mind-blowing ride through alternate universes, with assorted kidnappings, assaults, hair's breadth escapes, all with an underlying thread of quantum physics to hold it all together.

Here's the gist, or as much as I can give you and still avoid spoilers.

Jason Dessen is a relatively unknown professor of physics at a small college, but he gave up a promising career as a researcher for his girlfriend (eventually wife) and child.  His friends chided him for his decision; Jason is brilliant, they said, and with his creative mind and knowledge of science, he could make incredible contributions to the field.

Jason, however, is content with the lot he's chosen, and his life is placid and pleasant -- until the moment he's abducted by a masked assailant who refuses to give him any information about why he's been captured, where he's being taken, or who his captors are.

Forced at knifepoint to go to an abandoned warehouse, Jason is knocked over the head and injected with... something.  When he wakes up, he's surrounded by people who know him -- but to his astonishment, they treat him as if he was the genius research physicist he almost became.

This is just the beginning, and believe me, it's only the beginning of Jason's troubles.  It's an exciting whirlwind of a book, although I have to deduct some Style Points because of Crouch's love for paragraphs made up of single sentences, often sentence fragments.  A lot of the book reads like this:
He turned. 
There they were. 
Chasing him. 
All of them. 
He ran. 
Faster and faster. 
But he could hear them. 
Catching up.
Okay, I exaggerate (slightly).  But it did begin to seem like a vocal tic after a while.  As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to avoid certain turns of phrase; my publisher still gives me grief for my love of the word "desiccated," which showed up in my book Sephirot several times (in my own defense, the book had two major scenes set in a desert).

But this seems like something an editor should have caught.

It's a little annoying.

After a while.

But that's really a small criticism, and his book is well worth reading, especially for the Gordian Knot ending, which was masterful.  So if you want a mind-bender of a read, pick up a copy of Dark Matter.

And watch out for masked assailants.

They're everywhere.

Friday, August 25, 2017

What I'm reading (#32)

Last year, while doing some research for a post on mystic (and presumed hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda for my other blog, Skeptophilia, I ran across a reference to a book I'd never heard of before -- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.  The writer of the article I was reading as background for my Castaneda post said, in essence, "If you're looking for a real exploration of the mystical beliefs of the Southwest, don't bother with Castaneda's made-up nonsense.  Read Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, which (even though it is fiction) will give you a much more authentic picture of the beliefs and culture."  (I can't give you the exact quote, because I was unable to find the reference again, but that's the gist.)

I kind of forgot about the comment for some time, but then quite by accident stumbled upon a copy of it in Autumn Leaves, a wonderful used book store in Ithaca, New York.  So I bought it.

And I'm glad I did.  Bless Me, Ultima is a combination of a mythic account of a shaman and her apprentice, and a coming-of-age story.  It is by turns poignant, funny, and heart-poundingly thrilling.  The main character, Antonio M├írez y Luna, tells the story of his relationship with the old curandera Ultima (whom Antonio's mother always refers to by the honorific "La Grande"), and how she took him under her wing and taught him what she knew about healing, nature, and life.

When things take a darker turn -- when Ultima angers a vicious and evil man named Tenorio Trementina, who vows to take revenge on her -- Antonio turns from pupil to protector, and is determined to stop Tenorio from harming the aged healer who has become his mentor and friend.  To tell you more about how this all plays out would be unfair; so I'll simply tell you to get the book.  It's that good.

So I'm glad that a chance reference, and then happening upon a used copy of the book, led me to Anaya's writing.  And the comment was right: besides being a good story, and an inspiring tale of coming-of-age, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful lens into the culture of the Southwest.  I recommend it without reservation.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New release... Sights, Signs, & Shadows!

Hi y'all... if you've enjoyed my tales of the paranormal, which have featured specters that abduct children (Signal to Noise), mechanical devices that focus psychic energy (Gears), and a man trapped in an interlocking set of alternative worlds where one misstep could mean death (Sephirot), you'll want a look at my new collection of short stories that spin more webs of magic, terror and the macabre!

Take a guided tour through the paranormal with sixteen tales of horror, humor, and the supernatural...

You’ll meet a man who’ll tell you your future if you give him a gift; pay a life-altering visit to a haunted ruin in the Central American jungle; have your photograph taken by a camera that steals time; peer into the cell of a prisoner in solitary confinement who may not be as alone as he thinks; and share the growing fear of a group of people trapped in an apartment complex during a category-5 hurricane as they realize that the storm itself might be the least of their worries.  In each story, you’ll get to know characters who are about to have their worldview turned upside down, and who are forced to navigate a landscape different than anything they ever imagined.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What I'm reading (#31)

In spring of 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult planted plastic bags full of sarin (a powerful and deadly nerve agent) at different spots in the Tokyo subway system.  Twelve people died, fifty were seriously injured, and an estimated 5,000 had temporary injury (predominantly vision problems).  The perpetrators -- all of whom survived -- were arrested, and all but one sentenced to death, along with several other leaders of the cult.  (The one that was not sentenced to death is now serving life imprisonment.)

Haruki Murakami, the author of over a dozen amazing and surreal books, took a break from his fiction writing to look at how the attack happened, and (insofar as it is possible to discern) why it happened.  The result was Underground, a gripping, intense, and sometimes difficult to read series of interviews with the survivors, and an unflinching look at the personalities and motivations of the perpetrators.

Underground is written with the sterling clarity of Murakami's other works.  It leaves you a little breathless -- both at how such random, thoughtless evil can exist in the world, and also at the selflessness and courage of the people who risked their own lives to save subway passengers stricken by the poison.  He doesn't sugar coat the facts; if you read it, prepare yourself for horrifying details of what it was like to experience being hit with nerve gas.  It's not pretty, it's not reassuring, but it is some of the best-written non-fiction I've ever read.

Crime reporting is, in a lot of ways, a paradox.  On the one hand, it gives the reader a lens into the minds of criminals, allows you some measure of understanding of how they tick.  On the other, it shows you just how far these people are from normalcy, and how unreachable and incomprehensible true sociopathy is.  It is telling that not a single one of the Aum Shinrikyo murderers has shown any remorse, and several still consider the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, as having the key to all wisdom.

It's not a comfortable read, but it is brilliantly done.  I will, however, urge you not to make the mistake I made.  I read this while on a trip to visit my publisher in Arkansas.  And I can tell you from my experience, this is not a book you want to read while stuck on public mass transportation with a bunch of strangers.

Just for what it's worth.