When a Favorite Author Lets You Down

We (Readers) all have favorite authors, those people who wrote the books which speak to our soul or draw us in until we couldn’t put the book down even if our hair was on fire, or simply kept us entertained for the desired amount of time. Within that subset of authors, most of us have a further subset which could roughly be titled “Beg, Borrow and Read Everything They Publish.” Even if we have books by the authors on that list which we really didn’t care for, we’ll still eagerly await a new book, with the reasonable certainty that it’ll be a new favorite by the last chapter. After all, maybe they let us down once (or even more than that) but the statistics show that we just really click with their writing.

Every once in a while though, a Read Everything Favorite Author doesn’t just put out a book that you didn’t care for. Sometimes they really let you down, and the book is just objectively bad. Poorly written, poorly plotted, disappointing at the end, and generally less than enjoyable. The sort of book that leaves me thinking “I can’t believe I skipped sleep for this” when I put it down. This sort of thing is a risk with any book of course, but with a favorite author it’s usually less of a risk, so it feels like a bigger betrayal when it happens. Of course, because this is an All Time Favorite Author, I can always find an excuse (They’ve been writing that particular series a long time, they’ve had personal difficulties lately, they’re mid-career and not getting as stringent editing now, etc). I will far more easily forgive an unenjoyable reading experience from an author I’m already a fan of than from one I’ve never read before, or only read once or twice.

I recently had this experience. I read a book by a Favorite Author, set in one of the aforementioned Author’s worlds which I generally greatly enjoy. It is one I’d tried to read before (and thought I actually had, but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t, or else I blocked the memory of it because it was so bad). There were so many bad aspects. Plot contradictions within the same chapter. Sloppy editing, such as the use of “actually” twice in the same sentence. But the biggest let-down was the ending, which was definitely rushed and unsatisfactory. But at the end, all I could feel was sad. Sad that something I had looked forward to was such a disappointment. Sad that the book was attached to the name of an author who I love and respect, and someone might judge her entire body of work on said book. Sad that characters I enjoyed were shackled into such a poor frame.

Disappointment is a risk whenever you pick up any book. This uncertainty may be discouraging to some who steer clear of reading unfamiliar books entirely. I’ve certainly felt the pull of the “safe” route. But when we do that, we also miss the chance to be transported and transformed by a great new book. Books are a bit like roads that way. There’s no knowing where they’ll sweep you off to. But for all that, the wise Hobbit steps through the door anyhow.

“Seeing a Large Cat” Re-Read

(I’m going to tell you who the murderer is. If you don’t already know, or don’t want to know, don’t keep reading.)

"Seeing a Large Cat" by Elizabeth Peters

“Seeing a Large Cat” by Elizabeth Peters

Book 9 of the Amelia Peabody series, Seeing a Large Cat introduces several new stylistic and narrative choices. For one thing, this is the first book that utilizes passages from another point of view besides Amelia’s. There are sections, denoted Manuscript H, which are told in a third-person perspective (rather than Amelia’s first-person, journal style) and follow the exploits of “the children” (i.e. Nefret, David, and Ramses). These purport to have been written by Ramses, and follow his point of view, but also talk about exploits of Nefret’s and David’s of which Amelia is unaware. This is partially because they are all no longer children, the youngest being Ramses who is 16 and quite mature (mostly), and so are becoming more autonomous. They are actively participating in events separate from Amelia and Emerson, and even instigating plot-points without either of their parents’ knowledge.

The book opens with the return of Ramses and David from a stay with a Bedouin tribe for several months. Ramses is dressed like a “native” in turban and headcloth, while David is dressed in a neat, European suit. Both are much changed, and Amelia (and many others except Nefret) do not immediately recognize either. The hotel doormen assume Ramses is an Egyptian and try to stop him from entering the European hotel, while allowing David to pass. This is really a bit of commentary both on the extreme superficiality of the racial prejudices against Egyptians of the time, and also about the similarity in looks between the two  boys.

It is then their sad duty to inform Ramses that his beloved cat, Bastet, passed away of old age while he was away. He doesn’t react much, naturally, but reading between the lines one can tell he’s been deeply affected by her loss. She was his friend and familiar from a very early age. They attempt to get him to adopt one of her kittens in her place, a rather silly, purry creature named Sekhmet. He is not enthused. The plot of the murder then progresses, introducing us to the Bellinghams, an American Civil War Colonel and his spoiled and selfish daughter. She spends the entire book pursuing a disgusted Ramses, while her father spends the entire book attempting to enmesh the Emersons in his affairs. Bellingham claims his daughter, Dolly, is in danger, with some evidence to back that up. Meanwhile, the Emersons are goaded into investigating a specific tomb in the Valley of the Kings, tomb 20A. Said tomb does not exist, according to all the experts, but they are lead to it by the nose anyway. At first, it is barely a hole in the ground, and inside they discover a mummified body. Hardly an unusual occurence in Egypt, but it is unusual for the mummy to be an American woman dead less than 5 years. She turns out to be the wife of Colonel Bellinham, said to have run off with his secretary five years ago. Everyone assumes the secretary subsequently killed her, and they set out to locate the man, who also appears to have designs on killing Bellingham.

This is the first time Amelia has investigated quite such a cold case, but she does go about it with her usual intelligence and vigor. She also has the active cooperation (mostly) of the Professor, and the clandestine cooperation of Ramses, Nefret and David. She has almost worked out the entire sequence of events leading to Mrs. Bellingham’s death when the dramatic denoument occurrs. It is revealed that the true killer is Bellingham himself, when they stumble on his recent murder of his former secretary (who had rather been attempting to get him to confess to the murder of his lady-love). Bellingham is an old misogynist, so Amelia naturally irritates him a great deal. He attempts to take her hostage and collapses the tomb (where it is all taking place) in on them. Ramses makes a daring leap through the falling rubble, and comes to grip with the Colonel in the dark. While attempting to subdue him, he accidentally kills him instead, and saving his mother’s life. After their rescue from the depths of the tomb, there follows a rather touching and understated scene between them. Much of his life, Ramses has asked to partake in the nightly ritual of whiskey and soda with his parents. Always, Amelia has refused on the grounds that he is too young. This night, while the others are effusive with praise, she is reserved as ever. However, she does serve him his very first whiskey and soda, a wordless sign that she no longer views him as a child, in recognition of his bravery, resourcefulness, and maturity.

It’s interesting really. Ramses’ coming of age (which is mostly what this book is about) requires the spilling of blood (Bellingham’s) and also his first navigations of the games played between men and women. But this is all balanced by his speaking aloud, for the first time, of his deep and abiding love for Nefret. She is still unaware of the depth of his regard, but he speaks of it to David (who does not understand, despite being older, but is sympathetic nonetheless).

There is a side-plot to this book as well. Peters’ skill is such that it fits harmoniously with the whole, but it is really entirely extraneous to the main plot of the book. It centers around two characters introduced in The Lion in the Valley who are having marital difficulties. Their marriage was facilitated by Amelia in the earlier volume, but now he has fallen madly in “love” with a fictional Egyptian Princess invented by a lady-medium. The medium, Mrs Jones, is afraid to cut him off for fear of his sanity, and Amelia helps to both break the young man of his dependence on Mrs. Jones and re-direct his affections to his distressed wife. Almost the entire point of this plot seems to be to bring Mrs. Jones and Cyrus Vandergelt into contact. They become engaged by the end of the story (with Amelia’s help, naturally).

Amelia is not translating any fairy-tales in this book, but the title is a reference to Ancient Egyptian literature. Several times characters have dreams featuring the cat Bastet. According to the dream papyrus, which Ramses is translating, such dreams mean good luck. There are also several cat related minor plot points, including Mrs. Jones, whose first name is Katherine, or Cat as Cyrus calls her affectionately.

There is also Sekhmet, who Ramses finally accepts as a substitute for his lost friend at the very end.

Next week, The Ape Who Guards the Balance, and the return of an old adversary!

“Curtsies & Conspiracies”

(I haven’t finished The Hippopotamus Pool yet, so here’s another book I read this past month instead.)

'Curtsies & Conspiracies' by Gail Carriger

‘Curtsies & Conspiracies’ by Gail Carriger

Curtsies & Conspiracies is the second book in Gail Carriger’s YA Finishing School series. I’ve been waiting eagerly to read this one, and Santa answered my wish this past Christmas with a beautiful new copy under the tree. I read and reviewed the first one for Conjurings, a fantasy magazine, rather than this blog so those who haven’t yet read the first book may want to click away until they have the opportunity to do so as the two are rather closely tied together. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for this book as much as possible.

I had high expectations of this book, having greatly enjoyed the first Finishing School book. Nor was I disappointed. Sophronia returns, and we are led directly into her Finishing School Assessment. These are not so much to see if they’re ready to graduate, but rather to ensure they are continuing to progress in a manner the school finds satisfactory. Otherwise, they will be removed (but not, surprisingly, permanently). Naturally, Sophronia does exceedingly well, earning the apparent ire of her class-mates, even her best friend Dimity. Her nemesis, Monique, does so poorly that she is put on notice and told she had better just get married.

Sophronia is very lonely for the first part of the book while the other girls ostracize her, but this has the upside of making her spend more time with Soap. That relationship progresses rather confusingly for her, as he seems interested in more than friendship (even kissing her!). She enjoys the kissing, but refuses to become involved any deeper, resolving to throw herself into finishing properly rather than romantic enganglements. They are a bit young still at that, but I must admit I’m still rooting whole-heartedly for the Soap/Sophronia pairing. He loves her whole-heartedly, both in her lady-like aspects and her not-so-lady-like sneaky-pants aspects. In fact, he expects her to pull her weight in any escapade, rather than being startled when she does as some of the other males in the story do.

The second part of the book is taken up with the school visiting London, for a variety of reasons. Monique’s coming-out ball, is one. But the Vampire Professor is also required in London for a testing of a new sort of ship which flies very high in the aetherosphere. Certain parties want to see if it’s possible for vampires to survive in it, and the Professor is the only vampire with a moveable tether (i.e. the School itself). Meanwhile, someone is trying to kidnap Dimity and her brother, and no one is sure who or why. Sophronia initially suspects the Picklemen, but there are so many other interested parties it all becomes quite murky. We learn quite a bit more about the background of the Plumleigh-Teignmotts (and the reason for their ridiculous appelation), and Sophronia gets an education on vampire hives and London fashionable society.

Overall, Sophronia acquits herself well. She achieves most of her objectives, protects her friends and her school, and makes some head-way on understanding all the mysterious goings-on around her. She also learns that sometimes friends ask you to do morally reprehensible things without thinking it through. Of course, many of Sophronia’s friends are spies, assassins and evil geniuses. But she still has a conscience, and doesn’t believe everyone deserves her ‘professional’ attentions. My one concern is that she might go and fall in love with Viscount Mersey (Felix). He’s a pompous young ass at the beginning, but continued exposure to Sophronia begins to cure him of that. Still. I do hope they don’t become a pair.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is as full of delightful characters as any other Carriger book, with a few returning. One is especially exciting, Lord Akeldama! He doesn’t play a very large role, but there are some hints that he’ll be playing a larger role in Sophronia’s life in future books. It’s terribly exciting as Akeldama is one of my very favorite vampires.

If you haven’t yet, check out the Finishing School Tumblr, it’s highly amusing and there are some rather nice .gif sets on it that companion the books beautifully. Also, because it’s so very beautifully done, I must share the Japanese cover of Curtsies & Conspiracies. I found it really quite delightful.

Japanese Cover

Japanese Cover

Now we just await book three, Waistcoats & Weaponry. There’s no release date as of yet, but it appears Gail has finished writing it anyhow, so perhaps the launch will be sooner rather than later. Then again, the pace of traditional publishing does tend toward the glacial, so perhaps not.

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' by N. K. Jemisin

‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N. K. Jemisin

I’ve been wanting to read some N.K. Jemisin fiction for a while, having heard that she wrote excellent fantasy with lots of diversity. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, her debut and the first book in her Inheritance trilogy. I must say, it was quite an experience! I sat down to read a chapter or two before bed one night and my sleep schedule was borked for a week afterwards! I mean, I’m no stranger to reading a book in one sitting, but it’s been a while since a new book has so completely pulled me in as this one did. There are some rough spots in her execution, the sorts of things common in any debut, but they barely impinged on my single-minded focus in following Yeine Darr through her adventures with powerful magic and even more powerful angry gods.

The book starts out with Yeine traveling to a strange city. She has been summoned by the ruler of the known world, who is also her grandfather. Though the two have never met, there is no love lost between them, and he essentially sentences her to death by naming her heir, along with two more powerful cousins. She is forced to remain in the ruling city, inhabited only by the extensive ruling family, and their weapons of choice: a collection of vanquished and rebellious gods. Yeine’s brief (the story takes place over the course of a few days) stay among the Arameri family is frought with tension and conflict as her co-heirs scheme to defeat her at the ceremony and the enslaved gods scheme to gain her help in escaping their imprisonment.

Yeine’s story is complicated by the fact that she was not raised among the Arameri, her mother’s people, but among her father’s people, the Darr. The Darr are considered more savage than the Arameri (at least by the Arameri), but Yeine was their leader until she abdicated in order to obey her grandfather’s summons. She mourns the loss of her home and the people who actually care for her, and does her best to provide for them even though she is handicapped by politics. Her status as a half-breed and the fact that she takes after her father’s people who are much darker than the Arameri makes her stand out. She is by no means the only half-breed, just one of the highest-ranked within the city.

There is also a romance-thread, of sorts. Yeine is courted by the god of Death and Chaos and Darkness, one of the ones held in bondage to the Arameri. For her part, she begins to love the Dark God back, which is a sort of allegory for the fatalistic way she accepts her own inevitable death. She does not believe she can save herself, she fights only to protect her people after she is gone, and later to help free the gods who she had come to love.

Without giving anything away, the ending was entirely satisfactory and gives a smooth tie into the next book without leaving you hanging too much. I’m excited to read The Broken Kingdoms, but I’m not beating my head against the wall because I couldn’t check it out at the same time. That can be a bit of a two-edged sword for an author, but in this case I’m a little glad. I’ve honestly been a bit scared to read another Jemisin novel until I can get a solid 6 hour break during day-time to read it!

“Flight Behavior”

'Flight Behavior' by Barbara Kingsolver

‘Flight Behavior’ by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, is as excellent as all her other works. I first heard about it some time ago when she did an interview about it on NPR (on Fresh Air I think, but I forget exactly). When I ran across it in my local indie-bookstore I had to pick it up, and I finally got around to reading it about two weeks ago. I can’t express how much I loved this book. It spoke to my soul, and I have never identified quite so strongly with a character as I did with Dellarobia. At a glance, our lives have actually been very different, but there are a lot of similarities between her life after children and mine. Neither of us regret our children, and even in a way chose our children. But we still feel a bit trapped by them, and that our intelligence is being under-utilized. We’re even the exact same age and live with difficult in-laws. I’ve found very different strategies for assuaging those feelings than Dellarobia did, but I sympathized nonetheless.

Flight Behavior has a relatively simple plot, with incredibly unsimple characters and emotions depicted. Dellarobia is a wife and mother in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains. She married her senior year of high school because she became pregnant, then quickly lost the baby. She and her husband eventually had two more, despite finding themselves totally ill-suited to each other, and settled down in a little house on the edge of his family’s land to be farmers. Dellarobia was a bright, college-bound girl from a poor area that traditionally did not encourage too much education, and she is desperately unhappy but doesn’t know why or what to do about it. Into this mess fly the butterflies, the entire population of Monarch butterflies who usually migrate to Mexico for the winter but have settled in the mountains behind Dellarobia’s home instead. Some call the beautiful mountain-valley full of swirling orange wings a miracle. Others raise it up as a rallying-cry against global-warming. And the foremost expert on Monarch butterflies comes to camp in Dellarobia’s back yard while he studies the phenomenon, along with his graduate students. He is looking for answers and mourning the almost certain destruction of the species by the harsh climate here, and in the process he turns Dellarobia’s life upside down by the very simple expedient of recognizing her intelligence and putting it to work. The transformative power of work suited to a person’s interests and intelligence is illustrated beautifully. Eventually, most of her problems are worked out for the better with the promise of more good things to come.

The ending is bitter-sweet, but it is exactly the end that Dellarobia’s character demands and deserves. It’s also a fairly unusual ending in media, with a message of independence and that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, even if you are a woman. The sympathetic portrait of a stay-at-home mom’s trials and tribulations resonated with my own experiences. And as always, Kingsolver’s prose were compelling in a way usually reserved for poetry. But what really kept me coming back was the depth and range of emotions evoked in both the characters and myself as a character. Kingsolver raised everything from sympathy to outrage to despair to joy and especially love. She plays the reader’s feelings like a well-tuned piano and digs into the complexity of her characters to do it.

“Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance”

*There will almost certainly be spoilers ahead, for multiple books. You have been warned.*

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest in Lois McMaster Bujold’s SF series The Vorkosigan Saga. Set after Diplomatic Immunity but apparently before Cryoburn (Count Aral is apparently still alive, though absent), it continues Bujold’s new practice of telling the story from a view-point other than Miles Vorkosigan’s. Personally, I am a fan of this choice. Miles has already found his Happily Ever After and settled down, so as much as I adore Miles, stories centered around his point of view might become a bit stale and unbelievable. There comes a point where even the most intrepid adventurer must retire, and Miles has mostly reached his. However, having other characters, especially ones connected to Miles, tell their stories allows for us to sort of peek into the lives of Miles and Ekaterin and their family, and get just a taste of that special Milesian flair.

So, Alliance is told from two points of view, that of Captain Ivan Vorpatril (Miles’ cousin, you’ll remember) and Lady Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua Vorpatril better known as Tej throughout the book. This is one of the early twists of the story. Ivan in previous books has been characterized as a bit of a womanizer but also a confirmed bachelor. Even, perhaps, an aggressively confirmed bachelor who goes out of his way to avoid matrimony, or even commitment of any sort. However, within the first third of the book, he meets Tej and promptly marries her. No, he hasn’t lost his mind, it’s all part of a ploy to get Tej and her genetically modified blue companion Rish off of Komarr and into the heart of the Empire. The two women are scions of a minor House in Jackson’s Whole, where inter-House rivalry has stripped their family of their power and in some cases their very lives. While the two women on the run, they get caught up with some schemes Byerly Vorrutyer (another cousin introduced in A Civil Campaign) is meddling with in his position as Imperial spy. Byerly enlists Ivan’s help in rescuing the young women, and during the ensuing confusion Ivan marries Tej (who he was already attracted to but hadn’t gotten anywhere with) and makes off with her to Barrayar, which is isolated enough to make pursuit difficult.

Meanwhile, from Tej’s perspective, we discover that Tej and Rish are Jacksonian enough to use Ivan for his protection, even up to and including causing him to fall in love with Tej, and then breaking his heart once they’ve gotten what they need. Except Barrayar is so far out of their realm of experience that they find themselves in many unexpected situations. Tej, particularly, was never entirely happy with the Jacksonian way of life, and finds Ivan’s life on Barrayar compellingly attractive (and Ivan too). However, the second twist is when House Arqua (Tej and Rish’s family) turn up whole and unscathed minus a few deaths which are presumed to be reversible in the future, after the ladies had given them up entirely for dead. The Arquas are intent on using Barrayar to rebuild their fortunes, and then traveling straight back to Jackson’s Whole to retake their property, with Tej and Rish in tow. Rish is more than happy to be reunited with her House, but Tej is less certain. She helps her family on Barrayar, but finds herself conflicted between the pull of House Arqua and House Vorpatril.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance seems, at first glance, to be a love story centered around Ivan, that most unlikely of serious lovers. But it’s really the story of Tej, and her struggle to break away from her family so she can find her own life and happiness, while simultaneously not burning her bridges with them. Despite the callous and cavalier reputation of Jacksonians, the Arqua family actually do love each-other, albeit occasionally dysfunctionally. In a way, it’s harder to break away from a loving but overbearing family than from a family which one is an outcast of. Love is the tie that binds, after all.

I greatly enjoyed the principle characters as well. There’s Ivan of course. A Civil Campaign gives us a taste of his wit and ability which is often overshadowed by his cousin Miles’ brilliance. This book gives us another, deeper taste of the same. Ivan is no Miles, but they certainly bear a familial resemblance intellectually. Ivan is just better at hiding his away out of laziness and apathy.

Tej is one of my favorite characters. She’s clever, capable, and interesting in her own right, and through her eyes we get another perspective on Barrayar, similar to the one we get from Cordelia’s Honor, and yet entirely distinct from Cordelia’s perspective. Her internal struggles with the competing demands of family and husband resonated with me quite strongly. I also enjoyed her close, companionate relationship with her sister/servant Rish. They complement each-other with strengths and weaknesses, proving to be a good team.

This brings us to Rish, who is quite a unique character. More properly named Lapis Lazuli, she is one of six genetically modified sort-of-children of Baronne Arqua, known as her Jewels. The Jewels are so-called because they are each modified to embody a particular hue. In Rish’s case, her skin is bright blue (hence Lapis Lazuli) and her hair is white. Beyond the coloration changes, she also possesses extremely heightened senses and encoded abilities with dance and athletics and such. The Jewels are often used as a dance-troup by the Baronne, at least in public, but they are also fully members of the House and thus quite involved in all the House chicanery up to their exquisitely-colored necks.

Overall, I enjoyed the whole book. I would not classify it as one of Bujold’s best books, but neither was it her worst. It was light-heartedly entertaining, and the end was very satisfying. I would definitely heartily recommend this one to any of Bujold’s fans, especially those who love her Vorkosigan Saga books. Most tellingly, it left me hungry for more Vorkosiverse books, and sent me back to my bookshelves to re-read a few of my old favorites.

Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Opening Line

Another piece written for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenges. This one is simple: Choose a sentence from the options he posted here, and write a story with that as your opening line. I chose ‘I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house’ and wrote this.

I’m calling this ‘Garden Idol’

~~~

I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house. It brooded on a pedestal against the back wall, hunched like a gargoyle, darkly weathered, and menacing. Its eyes always seemed to follow me about the garden on dreary days and it faded into the brick-wall when the sun shone cheerfully on the bright profusion of the old English Garden. But despite my dislike, there the statue remained while my mother lived. She never spoke about it, but the one time I tentatively suggested putting it in the dustbin, she nearly blew a hole through the roof. I never mentioned it again, and neither did she, but neither did she seem to pay the statue any special attention.

The day she died, I caught her whispering urgently to it, her attitude one of a supplicant to a capricious god. She was weakened and frail from the cancer, but she could still walk about with her cane on the good days. I watched her through the kitchen window, my hands submerged in the mundanity of soapy dishwater while I watched my clever, pragmatic mother beseeching a hunk of old weathered stone. When she was done, she glanced about surreptitiously and then propped her cane up against the plinth, on the back-side where it was hidden by the wall.

Three hours later, she had breathed her last while I held her thin, purple-veined hand. She looked me in the face, smiled, and said “Don’t worry, love. You’ll be fine. I’ve taken care of everything.”

“Yes Mum. I love you.”

“I know. You’re a good girl. You’ll be alright.” She drew in a deep breath. Her eyes drifted closed. She murmured, “I’ve seen to it. You’ll be-”

~

They took her body away immediately, whisking her to the funeral home to primp the husk for burial. The house echoed emptily after the men left. Mother was never very loud, soft-spoken and gentle except when angry. Still, her absence resonated from the attic to the kitchen, and drove me out into the sunshine of the back garden. Here the wind murmured and whispered, filling the silence in my heart a little. I wandered among the flowers until I found myself standing in front of the statue. A sudden anger gripped me and I snatched Mum’s cane up and used it to push the ugly thing off its pedestal. It lay among smashed stems and crushed petals, glaring malevolently at me. I turned my back and marched up to the house, laying Mum’s cane across her favorite couch, where she had lain earlier that very day. Somehow, it comforted me while I cleaned the house, ate my solitary supper, stared blindly at a book, and finally went up to bed. I slept badly, dreaming strange dreams of terror and anger and sadness and loss, all featuring the garden statue.

The next morning, the cane was gone. I stared blearily at the couch, wondering if I had moved it and forgotten. Shaking my head, I stumbled into the kitchen to put the kettle on for the morning’s first cup of tea. Staring absently out the window, I suddenly realized the statue was back on its plinth against the wall. I left the door standing open, ignoring the heavy dew drenching my slippers and the hem of my dressing-gown. The statue was as menacing as ever, glowering from its plinth as if it never moved, with Mum’s cane propped against the plinth. Only the crushed flowers assured me I hadn’t dreamed my fit of pique the day before. I glowered back, hands on hips as I contemplated the thing. I picked it up and marched through the back gate. As always, the feel of the thing made my skin crawl, and I gladly deposited it into the dustbin. I returned to the house to finish my tea and prepare for the visitors I knew would arrive later — Mum’s friends, our few relations, our neighbors. I slammed my finger in the door on my way inside and burned the tea.

~

I slept badly again that night, haunted by dreams of misfortune and memories of all the little mishaps which had plagued the house throughout the day. This time I wasn’t surprised to find the statue back in the garden and Mum’s cane beside it. I set my mouth in a grim line and loaded the thing into Mum’s old car, driving towards where the river curved away from the village into the countryside. The garden statue sank with a satisfyingly final ‘KERPLOOSH’ and I drove home to dress for the funeral.

The plague of mishaps returned with a vengeance during the funeral, from the hysterics of one of my female cousins to the minister using the wrong name in the service, to one of the wreaths catching fire from a candle. Each one grew gradually worse building up to a grand fiasco. As they left the church, bearing Mum’s coffin, somehow the pall-bearers grew tangled and fell. The casket tilted crazily, flew open with a bang on a man’s head, and Mum rolled out in an untidy heap on the stone steps. Her stiff limbs flapped and her funerary garment went askew, showing her knickers to all the assembled mourners. Gasps, sobs, and one muffled titter greeted the sight of my mother’s inert indecency. I shuddered and looked away as people scrambled to load her back into her casket and continue the procession to the grave-site.

That night, the familiar dreams barely impinged on my exhaustion. I woke early and glanced down into the dawn-gilded garden fearfully.

The statue crouched, dripping river-water, in its place. I trudged down in my dressing-gown to stare silently at it. Fear, exhaustion, and resignation warred in my breast. At last I whispered my concession.

“You win. You stay, and so does Mum’s cane.”

The statue smiled slightly.

I never trusted that smile.

“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”

This review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford was originally posted to Goodreads on June 26, 2012.

~~~

When I first sat down to read this book, I only intended to read a single chapter before bed. I thought I would have no trouble putting it down as it was outside my usual realm of reading material. Boy was I mistaken.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a WWII era Historical novel about the injustices visited upon Japanese Americans after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which peaked with the internment camps. But it is so much more than that as well. It is also a bitter-sweet love story, a tale of fathers and sons, a story of healing after losing a loved one to cancer, and a coming-of-age story. Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe are unforgettable characters; two teenagers caught inexorably in world events who bond through being outsiders, and through a love of Seattle jazz. The character of Ethel Lee is almost non-existent, a sort of literary ghost who haunts each chapter. Each other supporting character, from Sheldon the jazz sax-player who looks out for them to Mrs. Beatty the taciturn but kind-hearted school lunch-lady, brings something to the tale, often a surprising something. If anything negative could be said about Jamie Ford’s characters, it is only that perhaps his antagonists are a bit one-sided. They are little more than bigoted bullies, without the depth and broadness of emotion and experience exhibited by the protagonists. The exception is Henry’s father, who is far more fully developed.

The story itself is split in two, taking place in 1942 and in 1986. Each part is complete without the other, and yet they are both so much richer and more vibrant when combined. I would certainly highly recommend this book to anyone, particularly fans of WWII historical fiction. It is a powerful story, full of anguish punctuated by brief periods of joy, and culminating in the bitter-sweet happiness of the possibility of a second chance.

Flash Fiction Challenge: Random Sentence Generator

Yep, I did it again, I took up the Flash Fiction Challenge thrown out by Chuck Wendig last week. He sent us to a random-sentence generator and challenged us to use one of the random sentences to create a story. I think technically we were supposed to use the sentence in the story, but I didn’t do that. However, I did find a sentence that inspired an entire piece.

“Can the damaged Queen pace?”

This one caught my imagination, and inspired me to try a little experiment. If nothing else, writing this has been an exercise in “Subtle.” I’m still not sure I’m there yet, but practice is always good.

Anyhow, enjoy!

~~~

Checkmate

The Black Queen limped across the checkerboard battlefield, her footsteps smeared in blood. She walked slowly to her new place, head bowed over her battle-axe and shoulders slumped. With an effort, she straightened and kept a wary eye as the battle raged across the board. Watching for lulls she might take advantage of, directing her children in the protection of their most important asset.

Their lord.

Their King.

Weariness caused her attention to waiver for a moment, and with a scream of triumph, her nemesis swooped into the breach. The White Queen rushed across the battlefield, sword raised high in a clear threat against the King. He swore and scrambled back out of the way of her swinging blade. Black shrieked in anguish, constrained from rushing to her lord’s aid.

“No! Please,” She pleaded. “Spare him! Take me instead!”

Her voice was harsh with raw emotion, but her dark eyes were watchful, waiting her opportunity, whatever it might be.

White crowed, ignoring Black as she moved sideways, intent on her prey.

Black swung grimly into action, charging the unprotected back of her foe. Her ebony ax crashed down on the ivory sword, sending it flying away into the chaos of the battle. Black pressed her advantage, pushing White into the waiting arms of the king. He deftly wound a garrote about the neck of the struggling queen. At an imperious gesture from his dark Queen he stopped, not yet tightening the slim line fully about her pale neck. White snarled and swore when Black gave a sharp order to a nearby pawn.

“Bind her arms and legs.”

“You fool, you’re supposed to kill me!” shrieked White.

Black regarded her pityingly. “I offer you a chance. An amnesty. A courtesy you never gave me. Will you reject it, as you rejected my pleas?”

The remaining White pawns paused in frozen horror, waiting for their Queen’s answer. She remained silent, pale eyes darting frantically about, seeking some out. Finding none, she returned her gaze to the face of Black.

“State your terms,” she whispered.

Black smiled in triumph. “You and your King will become my prisoners. Your kin will depart the field peacefully, and I will let you all live.”

White glanced once more about, then slumped her shoulders in defeat and nodded. “Alright. I concede. Spare my children, please.”

The White King roared in outrage, but Black swooped in and disarmed him neatly, her victory complete.

The two prisoners lay trussed up at the edge of the bloody field as the remnants of the Black army watched their defeated opponents depart the board. The Black Queen stood over them, battle-axe held loosely in one ebony-mailed fist. She looked down, a strange expression crossing her face, and addressed her opponent.

“We fight this eternal War, the one or mothers fought, and our grandmothers. We train our daughters to fight it too. But what has it ever gained us?”

The White Queen shook her head. “It is just the way it is. We must battle. You have won this round, but one of my daughters will attack you soon and free us. There is no choice. That’s just the way it is.”

Black crouched with a grimace as her injured leg protested, and murmured for White’s ears only, “But what if it wasn’t? What if we had a choice? Would you still fight me?”

“Yes! I must protect my King. Nothing else matters.”

“And yet…what has that ever gained us? We fight their battles, protect their persons, and train our daughters to do the same, but what has it ever really gained us? You and I, we are not so different you know. We each wield enormous power, and yet we don’t use it to our best advantage. We should be allies, not opponents.”

An angry retort died on her lips, and White’s pale face grew introspective. “Allies…against whom?”

Black smiled a small smile, her eyes intent on the other woman. “Battling each other for some Kingly agenda only serves to weaken us. Together, you and I and all our sisters and daughters, we could push back against those who would use our strength for their own ends while keeping us weakened. Even when they’re our own Lords.”

Dark eyes met light, and two pairs of lips formed the word in unison.

“Checkmate.”

Top 5 Favorite Fictional Characters

I was pondering last night on my all-time favorite fictional characters, and I  realized they were all female. I’ve talked about my favorites before, with the focus on novel-characters. But, my actual list of top 5 includes two from other mediums, one a comic-book character and the other an anime character (though technically she was first a novel and manga character, but I’m less familiar with her in those settings).

  • Agatha Heterodyne of Girl Genius by Phil & Kaja Foglio
  • Amelia Peabody Emerson from the Mystery series by Elizabeth Peters
  • Yomiko Readman from Read or Die by Hideyuki Kurata
  • Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan from the Vokosiverse by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Granny Weatherwax from Discworld by Terry Pratchett

Among those 5, there is no hierarchy, I love them all fairly equally. They have some similarities too. Several of them are older, all are from serial-fiction of some sort with multiple stories focused around them (or at least featuring them). All are powerful women in their own way, mostly unafraid to take on the world and give it what-for. Most are given humorous voices, or set in funny-yet-profound stories.

But there’s really only one thing they all have in common without variation: All five are women. And all five are, in their own unique ways, very female. They’re the women I aspire to be. Clever, talented, beautiful, funny, wise, powerful, calm, composed, creative, and eccentric.

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