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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What I'm reading (#24)

I have always had, for some reason, a particular fondness for non-fiction books about natural disasters.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions -- the sheer power of what the world can do is both frightening and compelling.  It also explains why if I hadn't become a high school biology teacher, my second choice would have been "tornado chaser."

So it's unsurprising that I picked up a copy of Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World a few weeks ago.  It's a mesmerizing account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the largest quakes ever to hit North America (intensity is an estimate, given the primitive technology of the time, but it's thought to have been beaten by only one earthquake in modern times -- the mind-bogglingly huge Anchorage, Alaska earthquake of 1964, which registered 9.2 on the Richter scale and lifted some parts of the coastline by twenty feet).


Winchester's book isn't just about the event itself.  It goes into the geology of the San Andreas Fault, how it is related to the movement of tectonic plates, and how we know what we know about seismic activity.  It also delves into the history of California, giving us a vivid picture of what it was like to live in those times, and includes eyewitness accounts of people who lived through the quake itself (one of them was famous opera singer Enrico Caruso, who seemed to consider the whole thing somewhere between an inconvenience and a personal slight).

He takes us from the years before the quake, showing how San Francisco grew from a small agricultural settlement into a thriving city, and how the landscape changed on the day of the event (both literally and figuratively).  In some ways, San Francisco never completely recovered, and the hub of activity in California moved south to Los Angeles.  (Which is ironic, given LA's equal risk of catastrophic earthquakes.)

Whether or not you're a catastrophe-buff, however, I'd strongly recommend A Crack in the Edge of the World.  Whether you like geology, history, personal accounts, or drama, it will keep you reading.  Winchester has a smooth narrative style and has obviously done his research.  The result is a book that will make you feel like you're there witnessing the events he's writing about -- as awful as that would have been.

Monday, December 26, 2016

What I'm reading (#23)

I'm a firm believer that good writing is good writing -- we each have our preferred genres to read, but a skilled writer can captivate readers no matter the subject or style.  The same is true with reading level -- I can think of some young adult books (Neil Gaiman's Coraline and Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain come to mind) that are as rich and enjoyable to the adult reader as they are to the young teenagers they're aimed toward.

Which explains why I zoomed through Sheryl Scarborough's debut novel, To Catch a Killer.  The story is about high schooler Erin Blake, who is faced every day with the fact of her life that will always set her apart -- the brutal murder of her mother when she was an infant.  In the small town where she lives, she will always be "That Girl," the one whose mom was killed by someone who is still on the loose.


When a second murder occurs and facts point to the killer being the same one who had destroyed Erin's family sixteen years earlier, Erin and her two best friends Spam and Lysa, and her hoped-to-be boyfriend Journey Michaels, set themselves the task of catching the killer before Erin herself becomes the next victim.  It's a gripping thrill ride of a story, with strongly-drawn characters and a sympathetic protagonist who combines being a heck of a detective with being a real, down-to-earth teenager.  Her friends are equally well written -- not the cardboard-cutout extras one sometimes sees in young adult novels, but living, breathing characters we'd know if we met them in the corner Starbucks.

To Catch a Killer will appeal not only to young adults but to anyone who likes a good mystery and appreciates powerful, colorful writing.  Scarborough sets herself up for the possibility of sequels -- and all I can say is, I think she better be ready to make a series centering on Erin and her friends, because this one is going to bring readers in demanding for more.

[Note: To Catch a Killer is due for release on February 7 -- I was privileged enough to receive an advance copy.  It's available for preorder at the link provided above.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What I'm reading (#22)

A couple of days ago I finished reading P. N. Elrod's first installment of the (soon-to-be) series Her Majesty's Psychic Service, called The Hanged Man.  Set in a steampunk Victorian England -- where Victoria married a commoner instead of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, women were given the vote, and the strong arm of the law was assisted by a band of intrepid psychics devoted to criminal investigation -- this story starts out with a vivid and fascinating alternate history as the setting.


The main character, the young psychic "Reader" Alexandrina Pendlebury, is called out in the middle of a winter's night to do a reading on a dead body -- an elderly doctor who was found hanged.  When it becomes obvious that (1) the hanging was not a suicide, and (2) the victim was someone Alex knows -- to tell you more about that would be unfair -- she's caught up in a web of deceit, double-dealing, backstabbing, and people who aren't what they seem.  And if she doesn't figure out what's going on soon, there will be more than one corpse for the Psychic Service to contend with -- Alex's among them.

Along the way, we meet Alex's cousins, the wild Dr. James Fonteyn, the priggish Teddy Pendlebury, and her long-time rival, the sneering Andrina Pendlebury, who is one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting.  The story is rife with twists and turns, and the characters are wonderfully drawn.

If I have one criticism of the story, it's that the main character, Alex, is herself not very powerfully written.  I don't mean that she isn't tough -- she carries a gun, disdains the feminine society of the time, and isn't afraid of a good fight -- more that we never really get to know her all that well.  Revelations at the end of the book (which again I won't spoil for you) give us a bit more of a lens into her person, but I like to be given more, to feel as if I know (especially) the point-of-view character, that I understand what makes her tick.

I realize this is the first of what will (with luck) become a series, so I'm sure we'll see further development in her character, not least through what seems to be a budding romance with her partner-in-crime-solving, the dashing Lieutenant Brook.  And this is, truly, a minor criticism.  The book is a page-turner -- sharply written, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and with some interesting paranormal twists that even I, paranormal fiction writer that I am, was caught entirely off guard by.

So I look forward with great anticipation to Elrod's next installment.  She, and her protagonist Alex Pendlebury, are definitely off to a good start.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reindeer Games

A few years ago, I entered an online flash fiction contest that had a photographic prompt very much like the one I've included below.  I won first place with the story "Reindeer Games."  I'm sharing it here in honor of the Christmas season.

Ho, ho, ho.

*****************************

“Yo, Verdie Mae.”

“Yeah?”

“Them reindeers is movin’.”

“It’s ‘reindeer,’ George,” Verdie Mae said, not turning from the kitchen counter, where she was putting together bread stuffing.

“What is?”

“The plural of reindeer.  Ain’t reindeers, it’s reindeer.  Ain’t ‘Santa and his eight tiny reindeers,’ is it?”

George stood, looking out of the window.  “Didja have to put up so many of ‘em?”

“The more the merrier, I say.  It’s festive.”

“I dunno about festive, but they’s movin’.”

“Well, I know.  They got motors inside ‘em, I had to plug ‘em in with an extension cord.”

“That ain’t what I meant,” he said.  “I meant they’s movin.  Like gettin' closer to the house.”

“That’s impossible,” Verdie Mae said.

George’s sloped shoulders registered defeat.  When Verdie Mae said something was impossible, it was, even if it was currently happening in front of his eyes.

“And for god’s sake, George, put a nicer shirt on.  Bonnie Jean and the kids are gonna be here in fifteen minutes.  You can’t be at Christmas dinner wearin’ an old t-shirt with oil stains.”

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

George went and changed into a clean shirt.  When he came back, the reindeer were closer to the door, as was the inflatable Santa.  Santa was wearing a diabolical grin.  George thought of the line, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.”  He shuddered.

“Verdie Mae, I think them reindeers, they’re, whaddyacallit, undead.”

Verdie Mae snorted.  “How can they be undead, George, when they never been alive in the first place?”

“All I’m sayin’ is they’s movin’.  I told you.  You better call Bonnie Jean and tell her to park around the back.”

“Why on earth, George?  I swear, god’s honest truth, you make me mad sometimes.”  Verdie Mae slammed down a measuring cup. 

George stared out of the window.  One of the reindeer, one with a bright red light bulb nose, had come up next to another, smaller reindeer, and had decapitated it.  The pieces of the wire frame head were hanging from the red-nosed reindeer’s jaws. The headless reindeer had fallen down on its side.  Another reindeer was watching it warily.  Santa, from a distance, appeared to be having a belly laugh at the whole scene.

“They’s killin’ each other, I think,” George said.  “Them reindeers.  They’s killin’ each other.”

“All right, that’s it,” Verdie Mae said.  “You are not watchin’ no more reruns of The X Files.

There was the sound of a car pulling up, and the reindeer with the red nose swiveled around to look, murder in its eye, and dropped the half-eaten head of its fallen fellow.  George could hear the metal in its neck creak as it turned, silvery teeth bared, antlers lowered.

George had just sat down in his recliner when the screaming began.

Verdie Mae dropped a mixing bowl with a crash, and ran to the window, her mouth a perfect O of horror.


“I guess,” George said, “poor Rudolph got to play in his reindeer games after all.” 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Teaser from a work-in-progress: Lines of Sight

Here's a teaser of my current work-in-progress, a novel called Lines of Sight.  One suggestion: don't read this when you're alone at night.

*****************************************

"You're certain you saw the Child here?"
Mike Rivers scowled, staring straight ahead as he spoke, his footfalls scrunching in the sand and gravel of the hillside.
"I told you.  I didn't see it.  It was gone by the time I could get a scope on the place."
"So you're going on hearsay."
Kerri Elias didn't respond, simply kept following Rivers up the path.  The inferno of a southern New Mexico July afternoon was easing as the sun angled down toward the horizon, but even so, Kerri had a glare headache and a massive case of piss-off at her partner's assumption that she didn't know what she was doing.  A skeletal branch of sagebrush snagged the leg of her shorts and then popped free. She gave an angry swipe at it anyhow.
"Like I told you.  Salerno and I were doing surveillance while heading north on Route 180, maybe an hour ago.  He saw what he thought was a Child up on top of this hill.  I wasn't standing next to him. He called out, and I came up and looked through his scope.  By that time, it was gone."
"So it could have just been some kid."
"Out here in the desert at midday?"  The scorn was clear in her voice, however she tried to keep her irritation from showing.
"Salerno didn't see the eyes."
"Not at that distance." Which you know perfectly well, and wouldn't have to ask if you weren't so determined to show me you're in charge. But I'll be damned if I'll back off either.  "It was acting weird.  He said it looked like it was digging around.  There was something about the way it was moving.  Jerky.  Nervous."
"So some kid up from Deming hiding a drug stash."
"You know as well as I do that we have to check it out.  That's why we called it in. Why are you making this into a pissing match?"
Rivers turned around, his cold gray eyes locking on to hers.  One grizzled eyebrow rose a little. "Trying to clarify what you and Salerno saw is not making this into a pissing match."
Kerri's jaw clenched. If I can't get the Guards to assign me to someone else, I'm gonna wear my teeth down to nubs.  Rivers had won, as usual.  Every day she made a pledge to herself not to rise to his bait, and every day her temper got the better of her.
At least this time she didn't make it worse by arguing.  You couldn't win an argument with Rivers, not that she hadn't tried.  He took her words, twisted them, turned them into skewers. No matter what, I come off as the pissy adolescent girl, and he is the good soldier who is just trying to do his job.  Despite incompetent colleagues whose fears create nonexistent bad guys.
Well, screw that. She'd prove it to him.  Even if it wasn't her fight, even though Salerno was the one who made the report, and by rights he should be the one trudging up this hillside in the blast-furnace wind.  Rivers had told Salerno to come in and write it up, and asked for her to accompany him on the hike. She couldn't very well say no.
Probably would rather pull his rank on me than on another male.  Nothing bothered Salerno, so he was no fun to goad. She satisfied Rivers's bull dominating the herd instinct better than making snarky comments to someone who would shrug it off, laugh, probably invite him to go to the pub for a beer when they got back to town.
She frowned. Dammit. I've already decided there won't be anything up there. Once, just once, I'd like to be proved right, hold something up in Rivers's face and say, "Okay, what now, big man?"
She took a gulp of lukewarm water from her canteen, then slipped it back into the sleeve hanging from her belt.  Only a few more yards.  One more steep climb, around that rock outcropping.  She was gratified to see that Rivers had drawn his pistol. At least he took her that seriously.
He came to a stop next to the jagged edge of the block of pink limestone that crowned the hilltop, his expression deadpan, gaze sweeping the area.
There was no one there.
"Shit," Kerri said under her breath.  
Rivers turned to her with the faintest of smirks playing about his lips.
"I told you, the Child was already gone by the time I got the scope," she said. "There's no reason it would be back here now.  They never hang around in one place long."
"Apparently not."
She pushed her way past him, stepped out onto the wind-scoured hilltop.  "Maybe it left some kind of trace."
"That wouldn't be typical."
"Digging a hole in broad daylight near a highway isn't typical."  Her voice came out in a growl.  She unshouldered her pack, unbuckled the flap, and pulled out a small collapsible shovel, usually used for sanitary purposes on long hikes.  She slid apart the telescoping handle, twisted the lock rings to secure it, and walked forward, poking the blade into the pockets of sand that lay in cracks and depressions in the rock.
"What are you looking for?"
"Salerno saw it digging a hole. I want to know why."
"Maybe it needed to take a shit." Broad sarcasm was as close as he ever got to humor.
"I don't think they do that."
For a time there was only the hiss of the wind, the grating of the metal shovel blade against rocks and sand, and an occasional harsh sigh from Rivers.  Only a matter of time before he told her to give up.  How many more sighs would it take?  Three, she guessed, before he'd say something like, "We've wasted enough time on this," they'd have to hike back, and she'd have to endure the forty-five minute drive back into Deming, followed by another hour to get back to headquarters in Las Cruces, without allowing herself to say something that ended, "... and the horse you rode in on."
Another sigh, this one close to a snort of exasperation.  "Elias, don't you think we've..." Rivers began, but stopped when her shovel hit something that made a hollow clunk.
Ignoring her superior, she knelt down by a deep fissure in the stone of the hilltop that had filled with compacted sand and dust, enough for a few sorry looking clumps of grass to hold on for grim death.  But where she was, the gritty soil had been disturbed, and her fingertips sunk in deeply.
Only about six inches deep her hands contacted a smooth surface, and she scooped away the sand that covered it.  After a few minutes of digging, she could see the top of what looked like a metal box.  
"I knew it," she said under her breath.
Even Rivers came forward, betraying no emotion in his expression, but giving away his curiosity by leaning over and peering past her shoulder. 
She took Neoprene gloves out of a ziplock bag in her pack, pulled them on, and reached into the hole.  With a raw scraping noise, she pulled the box up out of its shallow grave.  It was a dull gunmetal gray, square, about thirty centimeters on a side and half that in height, with a simple hasp to hold it closed.
She opened the top, shielding its contents from the wind with her body.
Inside were two objects.  One was a completely ordinary brass key, the kind that can be purchased at any hardware store in the United States.  The other was a folded piece of paper.
She opened it. A short handwritten note, in a hurried but completely familiar script, said:
The map is inside a book in my house.  I put it inside an old copy of David Copperfield on the top shelf of the built-in bookcase in my living room.  This key is to the front door.  Retrieve the map and you'll know where to go.  They're right behind me, so I don't have much more time to explain. I'll get in touch if I can.
Kerri Elias

Kerri gaped at the note in silence for nearly a minute.
She was brought out of her reverie by Rivers's voice, hard and cold, right behind her.
"If this is your idea of some kind of practical joke, you and Salerno, I..."
"It's no joke."  Her voice sounded thin in her own ears.  She stood up, wishing she had a few more inches of height as she glared straight into his eyes.  "Why in the hell would I do that?"  She thought of adding, "Especially since it means having to spend more time with you," and stopped herself at the last moment.
"Is that your handwriting?"
"Yes.  Close enough.  But I didn't write this note.  And not only that, this is not my key."  She pulled a key ring out of her shorts pocket and held it, jingling, in front of his face.  "Also, I don't live in a house, I live in an apartment.  I don't have built-in bookshelves. I don't own a copy of David Copperfield.  And I don't know anything about a map." She looked back down at the scrap of paper, and a shudder twanged its way up her backbone.  "I don't have any more idea what this is about than you do.  But if the Black-eyed Children are involved, I suggest we discuss this later, and get our asses out of here so we can make it back to the car before the sun sets."
Even Rivers couldn't come up with some dismissive response to that.  She put the note and the key back into the box, collapsed the shovel, stowed both in her pack, then hefted it back onto her shoulders with a grunt.  Without giving her superior a second glance, she turned and started her descent.
The sun's red-gold rays stretched their shadows out ahead of them as they trudged in silence.  How far in had they hiked to reach the hill?  A mile and a half?  Two miles?  At the time she'd paid more attention to her irritation with Rivers than she had anything else.  Since joining the Boundary Guards three years ago, she'd put more miles on her boots than she could come close to estimating. By this point, every day had become just one more hike, one more footstep in front of the other, all of them one step behind the Black-eyed Children that the Guards had been founded to fight.  In all that time she had only once seen a Child, and that from a distance.  
Even Salerno, for all of his easygoing jocularity, had a half-dozen sightings and an actual kill to his credit.
No wonder Rivers doesn't take me seriously.  I haven't done a damn thing since I joined the Guards except walking for hundreds of miles behind someone else.  Maybe he's right.  Maybe I'm not cut out for this.  But is it too much to ask to have an opportunity to find out?
They took a sharp turn to the right and a steep scramble downhill before the terrain flattened out, their way turning into a wandering path in the sand between thick tangles of sage, ocotillo, and creosote bush.   At least the air was cooling, but the daylight was running out. If there were Children in the area, it wouldn't be a good idea to...
A shuddering rustle in a clump of sagebrush immediately ahead of them.  Kerri's thoughts ceased with a gasping intake of breath. She jerked to a halt and drew her gun in a movement that was nearly reflexive.  Rivers, stumping up behind her, almost collided with her.
"What?" His voice was thick with exasperation.
"I heard something."  She gestured with her gun toward the source of the noise.  
"Jackrabbit?"
Do you have to be such an asshole? "If I knew what it was, I wouldn't be standing here with my gun drawn. Back me up."
He gave an irritated snort, but stepped up beside her and drew his own weapon.  She edged forward cautiously, setting her feet down silently in the sand, keeping her gun trained on the bush.
And it'll turn out to be a coyote or something, and I'll look like an idiot.  She reached out with her left hand, and parted the branches.
Empty of anything but shadows. She let them go, and with a dry creak, they snapped back.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned back toward her partner, ready to admit once again that what she had seen turned out to be nothing. 
She never had a chance. A lithe form sprang out, seemingly materializing from the air, and struck her hard enough to knock her sprawling.  Her hip struck the sharp edge of a rock, sending a searing jolt through her.  She clenched her teeth against the pain and rolled over, still clutching her gun, looking for a target.
Rivers was struggling with a figure that was half his size, a lanky waif whose ragged clothing barely covered his thin torso. Despite the fact that Rivers could bench three hundred pounds, the long, narrow hands clutched around his wrists were flinging him back and forth like a rag doll.  She steadied her aim, but their movement prevented a clear shot.
Suddenly, the Child gave him a fierce shove.  Rivers stumbled backwards and kept his feet with an effort. It turned toward her, giving her only a momentary glimpse of dark eyes in a pale, youthful face, then gave a tremendous leap to the side and vanished into the underbrush.  She heard a few light footsteps, but the Children can run almost silently, and even that noise disappeared within seconds.
Rivers winced and massaged livid bruises on his wrists, one muscle in his cheek twitching.  As much evidence of being frightened by his experience as he'd ever let show.
He came over and helped her to her feet.
"You okay?"
She nodded.
Somewhere near them, an unearthly keening cry spiraled upwards into the crimson-stained sky, ending on a pitch nearly above the range of human hearing.
"It's calling its friends," Rivers said.  "Let's get out of here."
Not gonna argue that point. 
She turned back down the path at a jog, with Rivers's heavier footsteps following.
Ten minutes passed.  Fifteen minutes. Twenty.  How far was the goddamn car? Every rustle in the underbrush was turned in her mind into a Child, gazing at her with unblinking eyes, waiting for her to come close enough to grab.
Cresting a low rise, she saw Rivers's silver Subaru Forester a hundred yards ahead, parked on a bare patch of gravel alongside the highway.  Her jog sped into a full-on sprint as the last violet rays of sunset winked out.
She reached the car, flung open the passenger side door.
A gunshot shattered the still air.  Then another, and another. Kerri whirled around, her breath whistling in her throat, and gazed back down the trail.
Empty.
"Rivers?"  Her voice quavered on the desert breeze.
He was right behind me.  I heard him.  His footfalls.  I know that sound, he couldn't have been more than five yards back.
"Rivers!" Her voice was stronger now, and she stepped around the front of the car, moving cautiously back toward the thickets of sagebrush, gun held in front of her.
They got him.
The thought burned through her mind like a lightning bolt.
They got him, and I'm alone.
One more call.  "Rivers!"  The response was nothing but the hissing sigh of the wind in the branches, brushing her face like a caress.
Movement in front of her.  A pair of slender figures, clad in torn jeans and faded t-shirts, stepped out from behind the underbrush.  They regarded her with a curious expression, curious and still and devoid of emotion.  Even in the failing light, she could see that their eyes were a glossy, solid black.  No whites, no irises, nothing but an onyx surface that wasn't in the least human.
Then the two were joined by another, and another, and another.
Kerri's nerve failed. With a cry, she leapt for the driver's side door, pulling it open and hurling her body inside.  Three of the Children sprang forward toward her, but she slammed the door closed, narrowly missing the grasping fingers of the nearest. She threw herself across the front seat, pulled the passenger door shut, and in a frantic, flailing motion hit the button for the electronic locks.
Only then did she turn and look.  Two Children were peering into the driver's side window. Their faces were relaxed, one with its head tilted to the side like a curious dog.  Two pairs of obsidian eyes studied her with an appalling calm.
Here I sit. And Rivers has the keys.
She fought to push back the panic that rose in her chest.  The evening was descending fast. There was movement in the shadows.  More Children? How many more?
It was impossible to tell.
Use the radio to contact whoever is on duty.  They'll send out reinforcements. They won't leave me stranded.
The way I abandoned Rivers? 
She scowled.  I didn't abandon him, there was nothing I could have done...
A flurry of motion outside the window. Three Children were standing in a tight triangle, heads tilted forward, communicating in the way they had even though no words were spoken. They were capable of speaking perfectly normal English—they certainly had no problem asking for help from people kind enough to stop and offer them a ride.
That much was known, even though most of the people who had heard those plaintive voices were never seen again.
One of the Children stooped, straightened, then all three turned toward the car. The Child who had bent over had a large rock in his hand.
Kerri's heart gave a stutter-step.
I'm dead. They'll find Rivers's car with a shattered window, and both of us gone.  How many can I shoot before they overpower me, drag me away?
The Child with the rock lifted it, its thin arm showing no strain in lifting the heavy chunk of limestone.  Kerri backed away from the window, raised an arm to shield her eyes.
But another Child put its hand on the shoulder of the one with the rock.  It turned slightly, its arm aloft, still keeping its gaze locked on Kerri's.  There was a frozen moment in which nothing moved.
Then with a silent, fluttery movement, all three Children vanished.  After a breathless minute, Kerri leaned toward the window, finally ending with her nose pressed against the glass.

There was nothing between her and the line of sagebrush.  She was alone in the New Mexico night.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What I'm reading (#21)

This week I had the pleasure of reading a book that had been recommended to me more than once -- Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

I have to admit that I love good young adult fantasy literature.  It probably stems from having grown up reading and rereading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door and (the best of the three, in my opinion) A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia were (as for many children) a big part of my childhood mythology, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon Lloyd Alexander's amazing (and sadly, little-known) Chronicles of Prydain -- based on the Welsh myth cycle The Mabinogion -- when I was about twelve, and was transported.

Since then, there's been (of course) Harry Potter, and the brilliant and eerie Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  But there have been a few duds, too; Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series left me saying "Meh," and the much-lauded The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper left so little impression on me that I can only remember a few scattered scenes, and virtually nothing of the plot.

So I'm picky.  Which I suppose is a good thing.  I went into Riggs's Miss Peregrine with high hopes, but half expecting them to be dashed.

I'm glad to say my pessimism was entirely unwarranted.  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a charming, sometimes funny, often bone-chillingly creepy story that is as entertaining a read for an adult as it is for a young person.


The tale revolves around Jacob Portman, a misfit teenager with distant parents and no real friends.  He's really close to his grandfather, Abe Portman, who had been a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland.  Abe tells his grandson wild tales of odd children he knew when he was young -- an invisible boy, a pair of children with super strength, a girl who could make fire with her hands, a girl who could levitate.  Each story is accompanied by photographs, and the young Jacob was captivated by the weird stories his grandfather told.

But as Jacob gets older, he comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is insane.  Most of the photographs seem, to his more mature eye, obvious fakes.  Grandpa Abe's tales begin to seem like the meanderings of a man whose traumatic childhood left him living in a fantasy-world past.

And Jacob tells him so.

Abe is disappointed, but seems to shrug it off.  Their relationship continues, but it too has become more distant, as if something Abe had been hoping for in his grandson had failed to materialize.

And then, one day, something awful happens that casts Abe's wild stories in an entirely new light.

To give any more details would cheat you of a wonderful, fantastical read that deserves no spoilers.  Riggs's point-of-view character, Jacob, is no sanitized, saintly boy, like the character of Peter the High King in Lewis's Narnia.  He's a real teenager, with a real teenager's moods and drives and vocabulary.  The story is gritty and (for all of its elements of fantasy) realistic.  You won't be able to put it down.  And as for me -- I'm already looking forward to reading the sequel, Hollow City, when it comes in with my next Amazon order.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What I'm reading (#20)

I haven't posted in a while for a couple of reasons -- the start of school has been the usual whirlwind of lesson prep, evening open house, meetings, and exhaustion, and also because I've spent the last three weeks making my way through the 560+ pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.

I honestly didn't expect to like Under Heaven much.  On the recommendation of a friend, I'd gotten it and another of Kay's books, Tigana, a few months ago.  I started with Tigana and got about a third of the way in before I gave up -- I found it dense, complicated, and filled with way too many underdeveloped and unrelatable characters to keep my attention.  (To be fair, though, I felt the same way about Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, widely regarded as a masterpiece.  So it may well be me.)

In any case, Under Heaven sat there unread until three weeks ago, when I figured I ought to tackle it.

I was absolutely transfixed, pretty much from the first page.

The story is a fictionalized account (actually fictionalized enough that it could be classified as "alternate history") of the Tang Dynasty of China at the time of the An Lushan Rebellion (mid 8th century C. E.).  The main character, Shen Tai, second son of the late General Shen Gao, has gone to a battle site called Kuala Nor and is determined to bury the skeletons of the dead to put the ghosts of the battle to rest.  He is a quiet, thoughtful man, ill-suited to the castle intrigue of the capital Xinan, and his mission to live a solitary life laying to rest the spirits of slain warriors seems to suit him well.


But as in real life, things seldom go as planned.  His selfless devotion to giving proper burial to the victims of the battle has come to the attention of more than one highly placed person.  One is the King of Tagur, who is married to the sister of the Tang Emperor Taizu.  The other is the Emperor himself.  And the attention he's getting from these two august personages brings the enmity of a third person -- the scheming, cruel First Minister, Wen Zhou.

So Shen Tai ends up caught in the very web he'd tried to escape -- having to navigate his way through the plots, rumors, and complex rivalries of the royal family, accompanied only by his bodyguard, the Kanlin warrior Wei Song, and his friend the poet Sima Zian.  And when his position is made even more precarious by an unimaginably rich gift from the King of Tagur -- 250 priceless Sardian horses -- Shen Tai has to figure out how to stay one step ahead of the conspiracies that are determined to end his, and his friends', lives.

Under Heaven is a phenomenal book -- intricate, complex, brilliantly written.  The characters are so well drawn that they virtually leap off the page.  It's not fast-moving or action-packed -- the story is as the times were, full of intrigue and backstabbing and gossip.  But it is a beautiful, haunting tale of one man trying to survive what the Chinese adage calls "interesting times."  I can't recommend it highly enough.