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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.”


“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.  
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.
"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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What I'm reading (#19)

Everyone handles loss and grief differently.  Some turn inward; some weep; some become angry.  When Helen Macdonald's beloved father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, her world seemed to crumble around her.  She'd lost her touchstone, one of the small number of people in her life that anchored it, made it make sense.

She tumbled headlong into a depression that severed her from contact with friends and the rest of her family.  There was only one thing in her life that still felt real to her.

Helen was a falconer.  It'd been her driving passion since childhood, since discovering T. H. White's book The Goshawk and realizing, "I want to do this."

She tells the story of her ride upwards out of her grief and despondency on the tail of a goshawk named Mabel in her book H is for Hawk.  It is a brilliant, occasionally funny, deeply moving tale of how one woman dealt with the horrible ache of losing someone dear -- and is a gripping, thought-provoking read.

Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train.  They are nervous, stubborn, aggressive, and aloof.  Her choice of this species was deliberate -- she needed something to sink herself into, to distract her from her despair.  Along the way, she parallels her story with the one White told about his own similar experience in his book The Goshawk.  White (the author of The Once and Future King) was a deeply unhappy man, who never recovered from abuse he received as a child at the hands of his insane father and various sadistic schoolmasters.  He, too, was dealing with despair, albeit of a different sort, and looked to the wildness and freedom of a hawk to teach him how to live.

Macdonald's path was not an easy one, but what she learns along the way was worth the pain, and what she learned had to come from experience.  On the other hand, White in the end lost focus, and also lost his hawk, Gos; afterwards he compares Gos with symbols of violence, with bloodthirsty men from the pages of human history, and his own failed attempts to train him as a war.  Macdonald writes:
I swear to myself, standing there with [White's] book open in my hand, that I will not ever reduce my hawk to a hieroglyph, an historical figure or a misremembered villain.  Of course I won't.  I can't.  Because she is not human.  Of all the lessons I've learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there -- rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly.  They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.  In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.  Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities.  Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
H is for Hawk is a fantastic book, one that you will remember for a long time after you turn the last page.  Macdonald's trek through the valley of the shadow of death is one we all take, for all of us lose people dear to us, all of us have to come to terms with that most difficult part of what it means to be human.  In her book, we learn along with her that such grief can be endured, and the lessons it has to teach are truly worth learning, however much they cost us in pain and anguish.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What I'm reading (#18)

I am fascinated by how the universe works.  It's what got me into science; I felt driven to understand not just the surface, the descriptive stuff, but why things operate as they do.  Of course, when you start pursuing the whys in science, you get yourself in deep water fast -- and, according to a physics professor friend of mine, you will inevitably at some point come up against the brick wall of "we don't know why this is the way things are; they just are this way."

But it's this drive to comprehend the inner workings that spurred me to read Sean Carroll's amazing book The Particle at the End of the Universe -- the story of how the Higgs boson was discovered, and what it implies about the deep structure of the cosmos.  Carroll's book is at once personal and technical; any huge endeavor such as the search for the Higgs inevitably involves a kaleidoscope of different personalities, each with their own specialties and quirks.  Carroll does a wonderful job of showing us not only the science behind the Higgs, but the fascinating interplay of scientists and technicians that made its discovery possible.

It's also inevitable, however, that the book involves some venturing into the deeper waters I alluded to earlier.  I found parts of it a challenging read, despite my bachelor's degree in physics (although I must, in the interest of honesty, mention that my performance as a physics student was lackluster at best).  But even the parts that were difficult were worth muddling through.  He's a wonderfully lucid writer, and the glimpses you get of the inner workings of particle physics are as grand as they are mind-bending.

And he's up front, too, about the fact that there are still huge gaps in our understanding.  Even what we do know has a mystifying quality to it, when you take it to the level of subatomic physics.  Take the following passage from Carroll's book, about something that we experience every day -- light:
It's only because the data force us into corners that we are inspired to create the highly counterintuitive structures that form the basis for modern physics...  Imagine that a person in the ancient world was wondering what made the sun shine.  It's not really credible to imagine that they would think about it for a while and decide, "I bet most of the sun is made up of particles that can bump into one another and stick together, with one of them converting into a different kind of particle by emitting yet a third particle, which would be massless if it wasn't for the existence of a field that fill space and breaks the symmetry that is responsible for the associated force, and that fusion of the original two particles releases energy, which we ultimately see as sunlight."  But that's exactly what happens.  It took many decades to put this story together, and it never would have happened if our hands weren't forced by the demands of observation and experiment at every step.
So along with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Particle at the End of the Universe is another book to add to your list of fantastic non-fiction reads.  I won't promise that it'll be an easy summer read -- but you will come away with your mind significantly expanded.  And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions."

Monday, August 1, 2016

Teaser -- Poison the Well

The first chapter of Poison the Well -- the first of the Parsifal Snowe mysteries, about a psychic detective agency.  Coming out in print from Oghma Creative Media in Summer of 2017!


“There he is.”
Bethany Hale’s voice, although quiet, somehow had the ability to be heard over the noise of a busy night in Arcangeli’s. The silver-haired man across from her, dressed in an immaculate, perfectly tailored Armani suit, nodded at her, and made a little gesture with the balloon glass of cognac he held in his left hand.
“You should go to him, then?”
“No,” Bethany said. “Just watch.”
The man they were observing had just entered the restaurant, and stood for a moment in the doorway. After giving a rather imperious look around the room, he went to the bar and sat down, a confident half-smile on his face. He was wearing an expensive-looking pale green shirt with a sport jacket, but its cut accentuated, rather than hid, the body it covered. Even with the fabric in the way, Bethany got a sense of the muscles rippling underneath, and wondered how many hours a week he spent in the gym. When he turned his head she saw an angular face, jaw darkened with five-o’clock shadow. His smooth tan suggested that he spent a great deal of time in the sun. His hair was black, and gave the appearance of being carelessly brushed, but Bethany suspected that every strand was exactly where he intended it to be.
The man was sitting on a bar stool, leaning to the side with leonine indolence, elbow on the bar. He spoke a few words to the bartender, and a moment later had a drink in front of him—it looked like a gin and tonic, or something else clear with a wedge of lime in it. He took a sip from his drink, and made a comment to the woman who was sitting next to him, who half turned toward him with a faint smile.
She was elegantly, but simply dressed, with a close-fitting garment of a watery silver, cut modestly but deeply enough to be alluring. A necklace with a white stone, perhaps an opal, lay against her skin, and caught the light when she moved.
They spoke in quick sentences. It was clear, even from across the room, that they were strangers. Something about her reserve made it obvious. But she was friendly, smiling, and then laughed at something he said, looking down immediately afterward and lifting her glass of white wine as if to say, “I’ll drink to that.”
Bethany, watching them from across the room, cleared her throat, fidgeted with her silverware.
“What are you waiting to observe, Ms. Hale?” her companion said.
The man at the bar said something to the woman next to him, reached out and touched her necklace. Bethany tensed, and said, “Now. Watch.”
The silver-haired gentleman half-turned toward the bar, seeming slightly embarrassed to be so blatantly watching the couple. Bethany, however, had no such compunctions, and kept her eyes fixed on the man in the green shirt. He lifted the opal from the woman’s neck, and held it briefly, and said something. The woman smiled, and reached up, touching the stone herself as it lay against his fingers.
The man smiled, and let the necklace drop gently. The conversation between him and the woman next to him continued for a few moments, but then she finished her wine, set the glass on the bar, and after a quick word to the man and the bartender, picked up her purse and left.
“Fascinating,” Bethany said.
“You’ll go to him, then?” her companion responded.
Bethany nodded, and her lips compressed into a thin line. “Yes,” she said, but privately thought, And if he tries to touch my necklace, I’m going to slap the hell out of him.
She made her way across the room, and up to the now empty seat at the bar. The man turned a little toward her, and nodded, and said, “Evening.”
Bethany gave a chilly little smile, and said, “Would you mind very much coming over to my table? I and a business associate have a proposal that you may be interested in.”
The man’s eyebrows went up, and he gave her an amused grin. “Now there’s a pickup line I’ve never heard.”
Only one of Bethany’s eyebrows went up, a fraction of an inch, and she said, “It’s not a pickup line.” And she thought, Maybe I’ll slap him anyway, just to be on the safe side.
“Oh?” the man said. “And how do you know what sort of business I’m in? Maybe I’m a stockbroker, maybe I’m a used car salesman, and as far as I know I’ve never seen you in my life, so unless your business is professional stalker, you have no way of knowing what my talents are.”
“Let’s take as a working model that we believe you might be interested to hear what we have to say. Then you respond, ‘Okay,’ and follow me across the room, and we can tell you about it, rather than wasting our time speculating.” Bethany’s voice, always level and no-nonsense, took on that almost clinical tone that she was unable to prevent when speaking to someone she instinctively disliked.
The man, far from put off by her iciness, simply smiled again, and said, “All right, you win.” He stood, tossed a ten-dollar bill on the bar, picked up his drink, and followed Bethany across the room.
Bethany gestured at her silver-haired dining companion, and said, “Allow me to introduce Mr. Parsifal Snowe.”
Mr. Snowe stood up, held out a neatly manicured hand, which the younger man took in a firm handshake. “Seth Augustine,” he said. 
“A pleasure,” Mr. Snowe said.
“Likewise.” Seth turned toward Bethany. “I’m told you have some sort of business proposal to make to me. Correct, Ms…?” He gave his crooked half-smile again.
“Hale,” Bethany said. “Bethany Hale.”
“Ms. Hale,” Seth said. “Nice to meet you, as well.”
Bethany didn’t respond, but merely sat down, waiting for Mr. Snowe to speak.
“Please, Mr. Augustine,” Mr. Snowe said, and gestured to a chair. 
Seth sat, and leaned forward, his dark eyes full of curiosity. If he is in the least ill at ease, Bethany thought, he hides it well.
“Ms. Hale and I are colleagues,” Mr. Snowe said. “We are two members of a private detective agency.”
Seth smiled, and turned his hands palm upwards. “I’m not a detective, Mr. Snowe.”
“We know that. However, you do have a talent that we might be able to find a use for.”
“My only training is in finance,” Seth said. “Somehow, I doubt you’re looking for someone to set up IRA plans for your employees.”
Mr. Snowe smiled blandly. “No, you’re quite correct about that. We’re referring to another talent of yours.”
“You’re a psychometer,” Bethany said.
Seth turned toward her. “I’ve never heard it called that.”
“You know the term, though?”
Seth shrugged. “I can guess what it means.”
“You pick up information from objects.”
“Yes. It’s useful.”
“Such as when you want to know if a woman is interested in you.”
He grinned. “Sure, why not?”
Bethany bristled. “A bit of an unfair advantage, don’t you think?”
“Why? Women complain about men making unwanted passes at them. If I can find out ahead of time if she’s ready and willing, it saves the woman in question the discomfort of having someone she’s not interested in coming on to her, and saves me the frustration of spending an entire evening pursuing someone for no… payoff later.” He shrugged. “Of course, in your case, I hardly need to pick up your wine glass to find out that you pack pepper spray.”
Mr. Snowe lifted one finger from his cognac glass, and Bethany suppressed the angry response that was about to escape her lips. “The salient point here, Mr. Augustine,” Mr. Snowe said, “is that we would like to employ your services.”
Seth turned back to him, and Bethany thought, He’s good at masking what he’s thinking, and his psychometric ability has made him cocky. Wait till he meets Callista—we’ll see how he feels when the playing field is a little more equal.
“Would I be acting as a consultant, or a regular employee?”
“I am prepared to hire you for a current case, which we will discuss with you if you accept the position,” Mr. Snowe said. “We are investigating a crime for which the services of a psychometer would be a great advantage. Whether you continue to work for us after that would, of course, be dependent on a great many things.”
“You’re currently unemployed,” Bethany said.
Seth rounded on her. “How do you know that?”
Bethany smiled. Knocked him askew on that one, she thought. “Let’s just say that you’re not the only one who has ways of accessing information about people,” she said.
Seth’s smile returned, although it looked a little thin. He shrugged. “No point in hiding it, I guess. It’d have come up eventually in any case. I got fired from my last job. I was a financial consultant with Carthen, Douglas, and Prescott. A damn good one, too,” he added, a little defiantly.
Doesn’t like not having the advantage, Bethany thought, and decided to press it further. She wasn’t sure whether it was out of curiosity as to how he’d react, or sheer spite, and then she decided that she didn’t care.
“Guess you should have thought twice about boinking the boss’s daughter,” she said. “What, didn’t her necklace tell you that daddy would object?”
Seth’s eyebrows drew together in a scowl, and he started to respond, but Mr. Snowe again gave a small gesture with his hand.
“Ms. Hale, Mr. Augustine, please,” he said. “This is all very much beside the point. We are not concerned here with why you were dismissed from your previous position, because neither the position nor the dismissal is germane to what we would like you to do for us.”
Seth subsided, but gave Bethany a glare before turning back to look at Mr. Snowe. “Okay,” he said. “I’m interested.” He cleared his throat. “What kind of salary are we talking about?”
“I would prefer to discuss remuneration in private,” Mr. Snowe said, looking a little embarrassed to have to discuss such matters at all. “But as far as the financial end of things, I can assure you that we could make it worth your while. It might not be as lucrative as your previous employment was, but I think we can make you an offer that would be quite attractive.”
Seth nodded. “All right,” he said. “You can count me in, assuming that I agree about your offer after we discuss it. What sort of case is it?”
“Murder,” Mr. Snowe said. “Ms. Hale, do you have the file?”
Bethany looked over at Mr. Snowe and said, “Sir, do you think it is wise, before he’s agreed to work for us…” She trailed off, leaving the rest of the question unasked.
Mr. Snowe smiled a little. “You need not worry that Mr. Augustine and I will not reach a satisfactory agreement regarding his terms of employment. Please feel at ease in giving Mr. Augustine a brief outline of the case in question.”
Bethany reached down, and picked up a briefcase and opened it, and withdrew a manila folder.
“You may have heard of the case,” Bethany said. “A little over three weeks ago, there was a wedding reception out at the Colville Yacht Club. A man dropped dead right after the groom’s brother gave the toast. Cyanide in the champagne.”
“I read about it in the newspaper,” Seth said.
“The peculiarity,” Bethany said, “is that nobody seems to know who he is.”
Seth looked at her quizzically. “Including the police?”
“They’ve tried every method at their disposal—dental records, descriptions of wanted criminals, missing person reports from all over the US. Nothing. He’s a nonentity. He showed up at the reception, walked in, sat at a table, talked to the people around him, ate the food, drank the wine, and then died—and no one has the slightest clue as to his identity.”
“Well, presumably someone knows,” Seth said.
“Yes,” Bethany replied. “But of course, the problem is trying to figure out who that someone is.”
“And that’s where I come in?”
Bethany nodded. “We need all the information we can get. We have other psychics on our staff, but thus far they’ve been unable to pick up anything useful. Telepathy would be the most direct way, of course, but our telepath is somehow being blocked. We think that the guilty party must have at least some degree of psychic ability, because he or she seems to be quite competent at shielding.”
“How many people were at the reception?” Seth asked.
“A little under two hundred,” Bethany said, and Seth gave a low whistle.
Mr. Snowe nodded. “You see the difficulty,” he said. “We have been hired by the bride, who is eager to have this resolved. She has been under tremendous emotional strain since her wedding. In her words, ‘It should have been the happiest day of my life, and now all I can think about is that man’s death.’ When it became evident that the police were moving more slowly than she desired, she came to us.”
Bethany opened the folder, and pushed a photograph toward him. It showed a long, rectangular table, surrounded by eight people, laughing and drinking and eating. Three of them were obviously bridesmaids, from the identical styling and unfortunate color of their dresses. At the left end of the table sat a tall, wiry man, with a narrow face, pale eyes behind a pair of black plastic-framed glasses, and rather unkempt light brown hair. His appearance was unremarkable, and he was watching the others, smiling a little, but everyone was turned away from him, engaged in their own conversations.
“Is that him?” Seth asked, pointing.
“Yes,” Bethany said. “Five minutes after this photograph was taken, he was dead.”
Seth looked at the people at the table. “Who are we looking at besides the victim?”
Bethany pointed to the individuals in the photograph. “The bride is obvious. Her name is Rose Petrillo—now Rose Scanlon. Her new husband, Tom Scanlon, is here, next to her, on the far right.”
“The victim was seated at the head table, and no one questioned it?” Seth asked, his voice registering incredulity.
Bethany nodded. “The dinner part of the reception had just started. There were cocktails, and everyone was standing around eating hors d’oeuvres and socializing. There are a couple of photographs of the victim during cocktail hour, but this one shows his face the most clearly. The call was given to be seated, and everyone found their places. Apparently he just walked up and sat down at the head table, and no one said anything.”
“Wasn’t there assigned seating? You know, name cards or something?”
Bethany gave a mirthless little smile. “That’s one of many curious things about this case. The groom’s best friend, Jon van Zandt, was supposed to bring his partner along. The partner got sick the day before the wedding, and Jon let several members of the wedding party know. Apparently, the message never got passed along to the Yacht Club staff, so there was an extra place setting at the head table. Whether the victim knew about this ahead of time, or simply saw an empty seat and took it, isn’t known, of course.”
“Could the poison have been intended for the partner? Put there by someone who didn’t know the partner was sick?”
“Possibly. That’s one avenue we’re investigating. As far as we know, no one but the bride and groom knew van Zandt’s partner on sight. However, that solution still leaves unanswered the question of who the victim was, and why he was there. But if we discount for now the possibility that someone was trying to kill Jon van Zandt’s partner, it brings us back to zero.”
“Which raises the issue of why no one questioned the presence of a strange man at the head table at a formal wedding reception.”
“Well, as far as that goes—the fact is, none of the people there knew everyone at the table except the bride and groom, and even the bride and groom probably barely knew two of the bridesmaids’ dates. Most of the people at the table were relative strangers to each other.”
“So he blended in.”
Bethany nodded. “You know how receptions are. If you see someone you don’t know, the groom’s friends assume it’s one of the bride’s friends and the bride’s friends assume it’s one of the groom’s.”
“It’d be a hell of a way to get free food and liquor,” Seth said, grinning.
Bethany nodded. “Remember the movie, The Wedding Crashers? It would be amazingly easy to crash a reception if you had the guts to act like you belonged there. We’ve talked to all of the other people who saw him, and everyone evidently thought he was an obscure cousin, or else someone’s date. Arlene Petrillo—she’s the bride’s sister—said she was going to ask him who he was, you know, in a friendly sort of way. Then Mark Scanlon got up to give a toast—he’s the groom’s brother, and was the best man—and the next thing you know, the victim was dead.”
“So, who are the other people at the table?” Seth asked.
Bethany touched the images of the three bridesmaids one after another. “The dark-haired woman is Arlene Petrillo, the bride’s sister. She was the maid of honor. Next to her,” Bethany pointed to a laughing woman holding a wine glass, “is Caitlin Sonntag, the bride’s best friend. The third one,” she pointed at a slim blonde who was looking down at something on the table, “is Lisa Drake, the bride’s first cousin. Lisa was sitting across from the victim and apparently talked to him a couple of times during the reception, and was the first one who noticed him choking when the poison took effect.”
“And the men?”
“Well, there’s Tom Scanlon, the groom, who I already pointed out. The empty chair across from him is where Mark Scanlon was sitting. He’d already gotten up to give the toast.” She pointed to a man who was leaning across the table, smiling, saying something to Tom that looked confidential. “That’s Jon van Zandt, Tom’s best friend, the one whose partner was home with the flu the day of the wedding. And these two are Jim Dennison and Charlie Zarone, who are the dates of Caitlin Sonntag and Lisa Drake, respectively.”
“But just because they were at the table, that doesn’t mean they’re the only suspects, right?” Seth asked.
Bethany’s eyes met Mr. Snowe’s for a moment, and then she looked back at Seth. “That’s right. The champagne was poured by the Yacht Club servers, and was on the table waiting for the guests when they sat down. While it was being served, as people were seated—well, it was chaotic. Literally anyone could have dropped poison in the glass without being noticed.”
“So, what we have here,” Seth said, “is a murder that took place in front of dozens of witnesses, with an unidentified victim, no apparent motive, and about two hundred individuals who had opportunity?”
“Precisely,” Mr. Snowe said.