This Week, I Read… (2021 #38)

#111 – Stalking Darkness, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Darker in theme and content than its predecessor, more polished in terms of plot and pacing, more cohesive from start to finish. Still not without its problems, but I liked this substantially more, more even than I expected to.

Still, I’d rather talk about the problems rather than endlessly gush about how much I adore my best boy Alec. Because I could. But I won’t.

So, those problems:

  1. Micum. He was a major side character in the first book, and this plot would have me believe he’s one of the mystical Four that are needed to save the world from the Big Bad. But he’s not present at all in this book until Seregil goes to fetch him from home 2/3 of the way through, and even when he’s around, he’s not really doing much. The page-space I expected him to fill here was entirely taken up by the military subplot featuring his daughter Beka, and given the triumphant-but-not-perfect way the ending falls out, I honestly don’t see why she couldn’t have taken over his role entirely, even in the prophetic sense.
  2. And while I like Beka and I understand the point of her arc, honestly, the military maneuvering was boring compared to the rest of the story, and it was hard to be invested in the various injuries and deaths among her troops, because I didn’t have time to get to know them, and meanwhile in another plot thread my favorite character was being psychically tortured by an evil, vengeful necromancer. What can stand up to that, in terms of engagement?
  3. Certain aspects of the ending were not just foreshadowed, but telegraphed, to the point where I have a hard time believing Seregil didn’t see it coming…
  4. Which is tied to my dissatisfaction with Nysander’s constant insistence that everything related to the prophecy must be kept strictly secret on pain of death, until oops Seregil figures out a bunch of it on his own, so then Nysander is like “lol I guess you can warn the others then.” And that’s before Alec falls into enemy hands. Why the sudden change of heart? Nysander acts like not telling them is mostly to spare them the dread of knowing that “a terrible Something,” as Seregil puts it, might happen–but then after the fact, Alec is pleased that he couldn’t tell the enemy anything important during his torture, because he didn’t know anything important, despite Seregil explaining the prophecy. The prophecy that was the enemy’s plan in the first place, so didn’t they already know? And the actual information that needed to be kept secret wasn’t something Seregil ever knew, exactly, and wasn’t revealed to the enemy by him, but through the murky Ylinestra/Thero subplot at the beginning. I’m genuinely confused by the ways secrets are regarded and handled in this story, because I can’t figure out why they’re vital sometimes and less dangerous other times.
  5. Maybe not so much a problem, exactly, but this ties up all our plot threads pretty damn neatly, so if I had read this at the time of its publishing, I would have dusted my hands together and said, “Cool ending, that’s taken care of.” But there are five more books. I own the next one and glanced at the author’s note at the beginning, which repeatedly and pointedly declares that “This is not a trilogy.” So where do we go from here? I love Alec and Seregil and will be happy to read more about them, but I feel like the Big Bad is vanquished, and the war that got started in this book may not be over but wasn’t particularly interesting without the mystical evil, so…

#112 – In Her Wildest Dreams, by Farrah Rochon

  • Mount TBR: 92/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What I expected based on the blurb: friends-to-lovers romance between two people highly committed to their jobs.

What I actually got: two lengthy, detailed job descriptions with ancillary characters attached, who eventually fall into bed together after arguing a lot.

I’m not convinced they fell in love as the plot moved forward. I’m not convinced they were friends to begin with, since Gavin was a stew of barely restrained lust mixed with anger that Erica wasn’t already his girlfriend, and Erica just seemed to be using Gavin for free chocolate and someone to listen to her whine.

When you get right down to it, I barely believe these characters are readable as real people, because they’re both essentially the same stereotype–“My job is the most important thing to me, to the point where I’m a control freak about it, and I have no other interests, hobbies, or people in my life worth mentioning.” Erica has a mother she supports but doesn’t care much for, a plot thread that seems important at the beginning but is dropped extremely quickly. Gavin has a comically evil ex-fiancee, and a “friend” who only interacts with him about trying to get Gavin to come work for him, so I’m going to count that as job-related and not an actual friend, because he never serves any “friend” purpose in the story.

I’m supposed to believe these two don’t actually loathe each other for being too similar and sharing the same major flaws?

And the dialogue, spare me this dialogue, where they flirt coyly for a minute and make each other uncomfortable, then communicate honestly for about ten seconds before one of them gets instantly offended by something and overreacts and the whole thing becomes an argument. They’ve constantly got their wires crossed to the point where, again, I don’t see how these two consider themselves friends, never mind being able to fall in love.

On top of all of that, the writing style itself is poor, too. I knew I was in for a bad time when the first chapter opens by setting the scene like so:

“The heady aroma of rich, dark chocolate enrobed Erica Cole the second she walked through the doors of Decadente Artisan Chocolates. She inhaled a lungful of the slightly sweet, slightly smoky-scented air, letting the intense fragrance permeate her senses.”

  1. “Enrobed” might be laying it on a bit thick, since that’s a word you see a lot in descriptions of fancy chocolate, but I could probably forgive that, without the rest.
  2. “Slightly” both doesn’t need to be used twice (if at all) and directly contradicts “intense” later in the sentence. The smell can’t be “slightly” anything and “intense” at the same time.
  3. I’ve never smelled smoky chocolate in my life. Smoked things smell smoky, like cheese and sausage and bacon and fish; some alcohols I’ve encountered certainly qualify as smoky. But chocolate? Is Gavin actually smoking his chocolate? Do people do that? (He does lots of things to and with chocolate throughout the story, but I never saw him put it in a smoker.)
  4. Also, “smoky-scented” is awkward. Drop the -scented. Oh, wait, then you’d be implying there was actual smoke in the air. Change it to “sweet, smoky aroma” or something like that. See? You don’t need the “slightly”s.
  5. Cut “a lungful of.” It’s just not necessary.
  6. “Permeate her senses” doesn’t work, because it’s just one sense. Smell. She’s smelling the air. She can’t hear or see the scent, and yes the air is touching her, but she can’t feel the scent on her skin in any significant way (I hope.) If you wanted to make the case that the scent was so strong “you could almost taste it in the air,” I could see that working, but then we loop back to the “slightly/intense” problem I’ve already described.

So I have six editing notes for just the first two sentences of this novella. And the writing does not get better from here.

#113 – Go, by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated by Takami Nieda

  • Mount TBR: 93/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At first I was compelled by the simple, direct language and the protagonist’s tendency to solve everything with violence, but as soon as the romance began, the narrative became a long string of pop culture references that I quickly tired of.

If this is a deliberate choice by the author to show that our confused teen is floundering about to find his identity in an attempt to define himself by what he consumes…then it’s kind of brilliant, if tedious.

If it’s not a deliberate choice, then it’s just lazy writing, because about 90% of the romance arc is the two characters recommending stuff to each other, or exploring new media together. Which is not unrealistic in the slightest, but the realism of it doesn’t make it inherently interesting to read about.

Whether or not the love interest qualifies as a true Manic Pixie Girl would require me to re-examine the text more closely than I care to at this point, but if she’s not strictly the archetype, she’s at least adjacent to it, in that she doesn’t have a lot of personality beyond the cool/quirky vibe that makes her attractive to the protagonist.

As for the story’s exploration of racism and xenophobia in modern Japanese society? I knew about their attitude towards foreigners in general and Koreans in particular, but not just how far it goes, structurally. I wasn’t aware of the citizenship issues, or the oppression in employment, or the separate schools. It’s institutional racism on a level that certainly echoes what we have had (or still have, in far too many cases) in the US toward non-white people. So I did learn something.

But I learned it through a story vehicle that I didn’t end up enjoying all that much due to a lack of character development. If this is both a coming of age story and a romance, shouldn’t I feel more connected to these characters? I can’t be, because it’s leaning so hard into the social commentary aspect of things that it distances everything else.

#114 – Bad King, by M. Malone

  • Mount TBR: 94/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Most of this story’s problems stem from its too-short length. It wants to cover more ground than 149 pages can handle (minus bonus materials at the end, I think the story actually ended at around 81 or 82% of the file, so call it more like 122 pages.)

In that tiny space is crammed:

  1. Olivia trying to convince herself that she should start a relationship with her male best friend despite a complete lack of sexual chemistry, because he’s a good guy;
  2. Olivia having a semi-tragic backstory about a strained relationship with her parents and how her pride cost her “everything,” plus her current money troubles;
  3. Olivia embarking on the sort-of fake dating adventure with King and the entire wild “romance” arc that comes from that;
  4. King’s intended personal arc from “everything in my life is about my career” to “I want to be a good boyfriend, actually;”
  5. King’s sister Georgie trying to liberate herself from the narrow romantic/sexual life she’s been living not entirely by choice, plus some implied tension with/attraction to one of King’s friends who is not her fiance;
  6. King also having a somewhat strained relationship with his father and sort of getting to resolve it, but not really.

Doesn’t that seem like too much plot for 122 pages?

Everything in this would have benefited from slowing down and letting it breathe. Everything happens so fast it gave me tonal whiplash at times. The leads go from strangers to lovers in about 24 hours. Little sis Georgie wants to be instant best friends with Olivia and trusts her with a pretty big secret after very little acquaintance. King’s heel-face turn from cold business man to quality boyfriend material seems to come from basically nowhere, he’s just so into Olivia (based on his fantasies about her plus a single party where they spent most of their time apart) that he wants to make over himself to be a better person.

None of these are bad ideas in general–I think the plot fits together quite neatly, in fact, aside from the failed attempt at romance with the best friend–but none of them are given enough time to develop naturally. It’s just rush, rush, rush ahead through the checklist of plot events until we get to the happy ending, but it doesn’t feel earned.

Give this story another 50-60 pages of room for the characters to have personalities and thoughts and feelings, instead of zooming straight to the next conflict, and this could be great.

NaNoWriMo 2021: The “Not Doing It” Announcement

It’s been a stressful year, following a crazy-stressful year before it.

I’m not doing NaNo this year, breaking my six-year streak. I’m perfectly aware that I don’t have to justify this decision to anyone, but since every year on social media I see writers of all stripes agonizing about whether they can manage it and if they should try, I thought it might be worthwhile to write about why I’m choosing not to do it.

When those writers are unsure and asking for advice, I’m generally of the camp that responds, “Try if you want to, it’s no big deal if you don’t win. Any progress is progress.” And beyond that, if somebody tries and hates the experience, then they’ve still learned something about themselves. Most of the time, for most people, I think attempting NaNo is a positive thing, no matter how many words they do or don’t have by December 1st.

But this is not most times, and this year, I am not most people.

This year, I need to rest.

I don’t think it’s an accident that my creative energies have flowed away from writing and towards hand crafts. I’m knitting and working on an embroidery project consistently every day; I’ve produced more sweaters for myself, and more knit Christmas gifts already this year, than ever before, plus I finished the largest needlepoint project I’ve ever attempted. That isn’t to say I’m not keeping up my daily writing habit–I’ve paid for my 4thewords subscription though mid-2022, so I’m using it–but I’m mostly fulfilling my minimum word count with book reviews and journal writing, rather than fiction. I do sometimes have passing ideas for plot bunnies, which I dutifully note down for the future, and occasionally I’ve been rereading and nibbling at the editing for my mostly-finished NaNo20 novel, which is/was supposed to be my next book release, the sequel to Fifty-Five Days.

And that could still happen. Fifty-Five Days took me just short of two years of work spread over a four-year period. This novel isn’t going in the trash any time soon.

But I gave up hope pretty early on this year that I would get back to my yearly publishing schedule. Too much was going on in my life even then, and more has happened since. Plus, it took me a while to recognize how burned out I was from falling into the “lockdown = productivity” mental trap that pushed me to publish Fifty-Five Days in the first place. I’m proud of it, but did I really need to release it last year? Couldn’t it have waited until I was in a better head space?

I’m not there yet. It’s telling that this is my first non-book-review post in over five months (aside from my book-series update, which is easy to maintain) and that even before that, my posting schedule was full of holes. It’s telling that I haven’t had a single idea for any of my ongoing post series in order to revive this blog. It’s telling that when my writer friends on Tumblr started counting down to NaNo, I felt nothing but dread and a vague sense of guilt. It’s telling that I can pump out thousands of words when I sit down to “talk” to myself in a journal entry, but struggle to write anything creative.

I need to rest. NaNoWriMo is a wonderful event and a valuable experience, and it has a strong and supportive community around it that I’ve been happy to be a part of for many years. But this year? I just can’t do it.

And that’s okay.

No matter how much pressure you feel from seeing your friends and fellow writers participating, it’s okay for you not to.

No matter how many times you’ve done NaNo before, it’s okay to take a year (or more) off and break your streak.

No matter how guilty you may feel for letting yourself down…you’re not. Not really. Taking care of yourself is more important, and if that means you need to Not NaNo, then that’s the right decision.

I said that I felt guilty, and a month or so ago when NaNo fever started percolating through my social media feeds, that was true. As we creep ever closer, that guilt has slipped away under the increasing certainty that I’m simply not up for such a challenge. And if somebody else needs to hear that in order to feel better about their own decision not to participate, I’m here for you. We’ll sit this one out together.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #36)

#105 – Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny, by Rebekah Weatherspoon

  • Mount TBR: 86/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’m not generally a fan of romance novels where the titles are either a character’s name (doesn’t tell me anything about what to expect) or a candid description of the major trope that might attract me to the story (tells me too much, or at least is too blatant.) This title does both! So you’d think that splits the difference and makes it okay, but really, it doesn’t.

This is another one that came to me in a charity bundle, and thus I did not go out of my way to acquire it. But the author is new to me and I’m reading through my backlog, so here we go:

It’s fine. The author’s note at the beginning explains that this is low-angst fluff, and it mostly is. So in terms of delivering what it promises on, A+, it’s precisely what it says on the tin.

The problem I have with it is that it is so “low-angst” that there’s hardly any plot to speak of, with even less conflict to drive it.

They meet. He gets hired. They admit they’re attracted to each other. They give in to that attraction almost immediately. He’s good with the kids, her friends and family like him. Eventually there’s some drama with her ex, but they handle it. They get their happily ever after.

Okay, I genuinely wish more real-life people communicated as clearly and honestly as these characters do, but they don’t get a chance to grow, really, because what conflict is present in the plot is all external–her ex is 99% of it. Their internal conflicts at the start–which they both get over very, very quickly–are “is dating the person who hired me/the person I hired a good idea?” but it’s never really framed as the boss-employee dynamic you’d find in most workplace romances. They never even talk about power dynamics at all, though the set-up is certainly an inversion of the typical real-world power structure: the black woman is the boss and the white man the employee.

Which I do appreciate. But a near-total lack of internal conflict doesn’t make for a riveting plot, and pinning all the external conflict to a single source leads to a pretty predictable conclusion, and honestly the ex is so over-the-top, Grade A asshole that it’s hard to believe, even with the heroine’s explanations and backstory, that she would have ever married him in the first place, he’s that awful.

As a low-angst fluff read, yeah, it’s fine. But in my view, it’s an interesting premise with reasonably likable characters, which suffer from a lack of development due to an absence of conflict to make them grow.

#106 – Thinner, by Richard Bachman

  • Mount TBR: 87/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 44. Why that page? Because the racism graduated from constant use of the g-slur to an n-word joke told by a minor character. (One whom I suspect we’re not supposed to like, but still.)

I’ve always known that King’s relationship to racist ideas in his novels varies from book to book. Many of his works I would not say are particularly racist, and some use racist language in very specific ways as tools, tools that don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the author as a person.

This one, though, if it had somehow been the first King/Bachman novel I had ever read, would have made me say “this is racist garbage” and I never would have touched a single other work.

Now, I know that the g—- curse is a trope as old and tired as the hills, and in 1984 most non-Roma people were not batting an eyelash at it. I still wasn’t educated enough about the subject to bat my own personal eyelashes when this trope showed up more than a decade later in my beloved (but deeply, deeply flawed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’m educated enough now, dammit. I was really having trouble with the constant use of the slur, anywhere from one to ten times a page, but for the sake of finding out where the story was going, I was trying to isolate that issue in my mind from the rest of the book, to acknowledge that it’s a problem but keep it from ruining anything else good about the story.

By page 44, I hadn’t found anything good about the story for it to ruin, then a character said the n-word and I gave up.

I know it’s easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, so take this with however many grains of salt necessary, but I genuinely cannot believe that anybody read this at the time and didn’t instantly know it was Stephen King. It’s certainly got the classic King repetition problem, where you can’t go more than a few paragraphs without reading the same words over and over, and this was a particularly egregious example, because if I have to read “the old g—- man with the rotting nose” one more time, I will scream, I will scream so loud, I will shatter every window in this building. It’s also got the boring-everyman protagonist with the good-but-not-great family that you just know is going to suffer because he screwed up. It’s got the tonal disdain for the upper-class lifestyle combined with the yearning for it–in 44 pages I was also treated to many repetitions of various phrases about the local country club.

It’s just blatantly King all over, and in the worst way possible.

Whatever merit the plot might have had is completely overshadowed for me by the packaging it’s in. The racist, boring, repetitious package. I’ve already DNF’d two other books this month, and I try not to do it so often, but I just can’t keep going with this, it’s turning my stomach already and we haven’t even really gotten to the body horror yet…

#107 – Brave Hearts, by Phoenix Sullivan

  • Mount TBR: 88/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What a mess.

There’s no consistency to this, no romantic arc to follow. I’m not against our leads starting their relationship as a hookup that becomes more, but it stays in a weird, not-really-romantic place for a long time, where they keep having sex as boss/employee without becoming emotionally attached to each other. And then when they do form emotional attachments, it’s more that they’re both projecting their needs and insecurities onto Jasiri the elephant, whom they’re both so invested in, rather than each other.

I was uncomfortable with their extended banter at the beginning, when both of them were dancing around the idea that sex was part of the hiring package that Nicky was/wasn’t offering Peter. But I’m genuinely squicked out by the idea of them deliberately having sex near the elephant’s enclosure to try to bond with her, or to show that life is still worth living? I think I understand what the point was, even though I’m having a hard time describing it, because by that point in the story all of their emotional development was tied to this elephant. And this happens more than once.

Their inability to bond to each other for most of the book seems to rely heavily on their traumatic backstories, but neither is well-developed. Peter’s is an incredibly standard “I’m ex-military and I’ve seen some shit that damaged me,” but Nicky’s is… I don’t really know? So their eventual happy ending feels forced, because I believe they have had lots of sex with each other, but I never once thought they were falling in love. (Also I’m not in love myself with the idea that they only get together once Jasiri has had her own happy ending, and that they get together because they succeeded with Jasiri. She’s not your third wheel, guys, stop basing your personal life choices on her.)

I think the only good thing I can say about the “romance” here–which is incredibly minor–is that our leads did sometimes have bad sex when they weren’t really in the right mood for it, which is something a lot of romance novels pretend never happens, because it spoils the fantasy. Yeah, not all sex is “starfire.” (Which came up a lot as a descriptor here, and honestly if it had only been once, I think that’s fine, but it showed up too often.)

The b-plot with the unscrupulous animal broker seemed thin overall, and it wandered in and out of the story at seemingly odd times. It felt both like an excuse to make this story novel-length without investing more in the actual romance, and an excuse to have Peter be in danger a lot so that Nicky could be upset about it.

Ultimately the problem with this novel is likely that the animals are more important characters in the story than the people, and that’s not what I want from a romance.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #24)

(Somehow this got stuck in my drafts folder when I would have sworn I scheduled it. Better late than never!)

#66 – The Light of the Fireflies, by Paul Pen, translated by Simon Bruni

  • Mount TBR: 62/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

If I want to do a really in-depth, “this is everything I disliked and/or think is wrong with this book” kind of review, I would spoil everything; while I usually don’t care too much about spoilers in reviews that I write, this is definitely an exception, because the point of the book is the mystery, otherwise what point is there?

Other people have said “this is Room except it’s a whole family,” and that’s both true in fact and somewhat misleading in concept. Yes, it is a whole family living within very strict boundaries and never going outside. But I never got the same sense of fear and dread I got from Room, because the mystery here isn’t “who is imprisoning them and how are they going to get out?” but “why have the adults of the family chosen to be in the basement?” because it is definitely a choice that they have made. Sure, the disfigurements of several family members might mean they want to shun society and live quietly as shut-ins, but it’s quickly clear that whatever the situation is, that’s not what’s going on.

Even though I ended up hating this book, I was initially intrigued enough by the mystery of it to keep going when, ahem, shall we say “certain factors” of the evolving family situation made me want to throw the book in the toilet. Very bad things happen to someone, and ultimately there’s very little reason for those bad things, and the story doesn’t do enough (in my opinion, obviously) to merit the inclusion of those bad things. By the end, I just felt like I’d read misery porn with a dash of pseudo-magical realism for flavor.

As the story/backstory unfolded and I discovered the reason the family was in the basement, and the things that happened immediately before and after their seclusion there, I came to the realization that everyone in the story except the child narrator is a terrible person with no logic, sense, or redeeming qualities, and most of the rest of the book (post-reveal) is just these horrible people lying to each other, shouting at each other, lying to each other some more, and committing various acts of physical violence. Seriously, there is a lot of violence, and very little of it seemed necessary.

If there was meaning to any of the story, it’s genuinely lost on me. Oh, I could guess that there’s trying to be a theme about light in dark times, and the necessity of family, except everyone in this family is awful and if I were the narrator I would run as far away as possible, as fast as possible, and try to forget my traumatic childhood instead of [what the actual ending is that isn’t the narrator cutting ties.]

I haven’t really liked too many of these random World Book Day books I’ve been cleaning out of my backlog, but this might be the worst one I’ve actually finished.

#67 – Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S.A. Corey

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: It’s on a ship
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Wow, there’s a lot to unpack in this book.

In some ways, it felt disjointed, because the repeated attacks from the Something That Killed the Protomolecule Civilization were always abrupt and paradigm-shifting, so the story emphasized that and flipped the narrative table a few times. Which I get, because yeah, when it escalates, it gets really serious, and you know, “really serious” is kind of underselling it, but there are so many things that happen that could be labeled “catastrophic” that I don’t want to jump the shark too soon. But the net effect is a sort of semi-constant whiplash that made this difficult for me to read quickly because I kept having to let my brain catch up with the text.

And that’s really my most major complaint, the overall choppiness I found–everything else I liked. I was dreading the return of Elvi, my least favorite POV character ever, but here she was an actual character, with depth and history and a personality and perhaps most importantly, morals, rather than the shallow science-spouting mouthpiece she was back when she was introduced. As for new characters, I liked Teresa, because I felt the authors absolutely nailed both the “spoiled princess” and “mightily confused teenager” vibes she gave off.

I think it was satisfying to finally see Naomi doing something right. By which I mean, throughout the entire run of the show (I was a show-watcher first, and my husband is still only a show-watcher) we would constantly be like, “So hey look, Naomi’s doing something stupid. So hey look, this problem is entirely Naomi’s fault. Oh, now she’s doing something very clever and engineer-y, but only because she did something stupid to get herself into this mess.” And here, wow, she really steps up and gets shit done, and she acknowledges that her decisions could still be the wrong ones when she’s making them, but then they’re not! Things actually go well! Part of me was actually waiting for her to fail, because I’m so used to seeing her fail, but she succeeds at the biggest role she’s ever taken on and the biggest plan she’s ever conceived. I was genuinely surprised and pleased by that.

On the flip side, I lost two of my favorite characters in this book, and one of those deaths made me cry seriously ugly, put-the-book-down-for-the-rest-of-the-day tears. Like, we’ve had character deaths before, they’re not new. And it’s not that I didn’t expect the penultimate book to axe at least one or two more…but man, that hurt a lot.

And the ending…well, that definitely feels like we wrapped up one plot fairly neatly, and everybody’s dusting their hands together and saying, “Guess it’s time to deal with the big one.” The one the entire series has been about, even if it faded into the background so much in the middle that I kept seeing book reviews saying “I wish this was still about the protomolecule at all.” First, honey, it was the whole time, but second, we’re finally getting set up to fry the bigger fish, and I’m here for it.

The series has taken weird turns and big risks, or at least they seemed so at the time, but poised at the edge of the final book, I can see how it all makes sense. Let’s hope (and I have some confidence) that the last one lives up to the promise of all that came before.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #47)

#168 – Four Past Midnight, by Stephen King

  • Read: 12/2/20 – 12/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 145/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This was a slog, and it never grabbed me. With anthologies, at least there’s the chance that starting a new story will revive my interest, but I found these all about equally lackluster.

So, The Langoliers. I have incredibly vague memories of watching the TV-movie adaptation in my teens, but all I really remembered was the antagonist and his paper-tearing glee. I was hoping the story itself would be more substantial, but surprise surprise, it felt to me like half the scenes were just this one mentally unhinged dude and his nervous habit.

Secret Window, Secret Garden was billed in King’s brief introductory comments as “what if I did The Dark Half over again but slightly different?” And seeing as how my review of The Dark Half was “there’s a good novel hiding somewhere inside all of this inane repetition,” I had higher hopes for this novella. I was disappointed. It was not better, and in some ways it was definitely worse. I knew what was going on long before the reveal (and I’m pretty sure I was supposed to) yet there wasn’t a lot of factual detail to support my (correct) assumption, and the explanation after the fact was tedious.

The Library Policeman tried my patience even more, because the word/phrase repetition that irks me so much in general, and specifically in “bad” Stephen King writing, was even more on display here than in the previous two novellas. Dude could not go two pages without obsessing about the freaking suspended ceiling in the library. And I didn’t find Ardelia Lortz the sort of creepy-compelling character you want in a villain, and the whole thing was just a mess to me.

…I didn’t finish The Sun Dog, which technically makes this a DNF review, but I was just out of interest at this point, and I want to read other things. Even other Stephen King, I’ve got The Regulators lined up before the end of the year. I’ve long since accepted that while I admire King as a person in many ways and love many of his books, he’s also written SO MUCH and some of it is just not very good. This is one of those collections for me.

#169 – Yellowstone Heart Song, by Peggy L. Henderson

  • Read: 12/9/20 – 12/10/20
  • Mount TBR: 146/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Our heroine starts the story with a serious case of Too Stupid To Live, and it never gets any better.

My minor complaint about the beginning is that I was like, “this is the first novel in the series, right? Because who is Zach and why is he sending this random woman back in time and HOW is he sending this random woman back in time? What am I missing?” We get Zach’s/Daniel’s/time travel’s backstory at around 80%. Far less than ideal.

But my major complaint about the beginning was that I’m meant to believe Aimee is both a nurse and an experienced wilderness enthusiast/hiker, but then when she’s offered the opportunity to go back in time to an unspoiled Yellowstone (for no apparent reason,) she packs a woefully insufficient kit to take with her, so that for the rest of the plot she can magically have some things from the modern era in order to save the day, while missing other far more basic supplies so she has to rely on Daniel, her woodsman love interest.

So from the get-go, Aimee has to be an idiot. If she truly didn’t believe Zach could send her to the past, fine, don’t bother packing at all. (But then when she didn’t, he could refuse to try, and spoil the entire plot.) OR take him seriously even if you don’t really believe him and PACK ACCORDINGLY. Seeing Aimee start the story by treating her own survival like a joke does not make me like her or want her to have a happy ending. How many times did I have to read something like, “wow, I really should have packed X or Y or Z, that would have been great!”

Her stupidity continues through the rest of the story, because she’s a Modern Woman Who Doesn’t Need a Man to Tell Her What to Do. Which means she repeatedly puts herself in danger for no good reason, out of sheer stubbornness, in order to feel like Daniel’s not pushing her around. Which means, of course, that she constantly needs finding or rescuing. Daniel always saves her.

And that’s the problem with the ending. After a whole bunch of time jumping by various characters, Aimee ends up back in her present day life, but Daniel comes after her and says “Well, you’ve proven to me you’re capable of living my rugged mountain lifestyle, so come back with me and be my wife.” When? When did she prove that? When she wandered off and got lost? When she got kidnapped by the French fur traders who were going to rape her? The only thing she seemed to be any good at in the past was cooking. The narrative glosses over all the parts where Daniel is supposedly teaching Aimee more about how to survive, and only shows the big events when she’s in danger (and it’s almost always her own fault.) Daniel comes to save her, and they make moon eyes at each other with no real chemistry between their personalities (the attraction reads as entirely physical for the bulk of the book) and then eventually they just have to hop into bed together.

Even the sex scenes were dull.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #28)

#106 – Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

  • Read: 7/16/20 – 7/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 95/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book under 300 pages
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

A startlingly different picture of a Utopian society and what the ultimate fate is for mankind. I’ve read things like part of it–I can see traces of this story sprinkled throughout modern science and speculative fiction–but never anything approaching its whole. This was a unique experience, and that’s most of why I like it so much, despite some obvious flaws.

Discussing everything I found fascinating would make this review into a dissertation, so I’ll limit myself to highlights.

Framing the early part of the story through Stormgren and his “friendship” with one of the alien Overlords was a charming and inventive way to assure us of their relative benevolence. Usually when a story talks about the world uniting in peace, it’s against an alien threat, not under alien guidance. The Overlords are undoubtedly dictators, and but once you know their role in the full story they’re both morally questionable and ultimately sympathetic. So establishing this aura of reluctant power early was key in driving the mystery of “what the heck is going on here?”

Choosing to leave that POV character behind and time jump forward for the middle part of the book left me briefly reeling, but after a quick overview on how the Overlords restructured society, we get new characters to keep us entertained with how both like and unlike us (now) they are. For a book written nearly seventy years ago, I was genuinely surprised by how many things Clarke predicted for his Utopian society have actually happened in real life, unaided by aliens. His view of those changes wasn’t perfect, of course, limited by the technology and social patterns of his own time, but especially compared with other classic sci-fi I’ve read, this one is eerily prescient.

But this is also when I need to address the elephant in the room. For a good chunk of that Utopian description, I was wondering how he was going to deal with racial equality, or if he was going to address it at all. His thinking on what it would look like manages to be both progressive for its time and woefully naive. He explicitly has a POV character reflect on how his skin color doesn’t matter now but would have limited him in the past, okay. But in describing the few characters of color in the story, he uses terms that are frowned upon now (but language does evolve, so…) And, he manages to exoticize one of those characters by emphasizing her beauty, but she’s explicitly mixed-race, so part of her beauty is apparently whiteness. Not ideal. The real kicker, though, is that his ultimate marker for the success of racial equality (for black people, anyway) is the reclamation and destigmatization of the n-word, which yes, he did include in full. Really? That’s the high bar you set?

And on top of all that, no other races are even mentioned. This utopia fixed racism against black people, so let’s clap our hands together and say “that’s that, then” and go home happy with ourselves.

Progressive for the time, but still woefully naive.

Moving on the ending–well, I didn’t see that coming. The foreshadowing offers enough clues to make sure you feel like you don’t have the whole picture, but when that picture is revealed, it’s a real doozy. Normally I’m lax about spoilers in reviews, but I don’t want to give this away, because it was so out-there, so “this could only happen in classic sci-fi, it would be laughed at now.” I’ve skimmed other reviews and I almost can’t blame readers who felt like this was a curveball, too much, too silly, too strange. But I loved it. I loved it because I’ve always had a soft spot in my daydreaming brain for (view spoiler) and it’s so rare these days to see those taken seriously, they’ve really gone out of vogue.

I definitely recommend this for classic sci-fi fans who might have missed it (I mean, 2001: A Space Odyssey is by far Clarke’s best-known work these days) and anyone who wants a bit of a brain stretch they’d never find in modern fiction.

#107 – The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice, by E.S. Barrison

  • Read: 7/18/20 – 7/20/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Bear with me, this is going to get complicated and go to some uncomfortable places, but there are good things along the way, too.

A few months back I came to the realization that in a lot of cases I don’t like what seems to be a “good” story because its priorities don’t match mine. This story has good bones. This story as a debut makes me think this author is going places, because the concept and world-building feel fresh in recombining ideas I’ve seen before (and in some cases, that I love) into something original.

But the text itself prioritizes plot over character over lore. That doesn’t match my priorities, and that’s certainly not the author’s fault. But I also don’t believe it’s the right balance for this story.

Massive, massive spoilers ahead, and I’m not going to mark them all because it would look like I’m trying to leak a classified document. Stop here if that’s not what you want from a review, and take away from this that the book is good enough that I wished it were also better than it is.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

I love that the core of this story is about the love between two people becoming the strength they need to defy a world order that would stifle them both into nothing. Sign me up, I am on board. What I don’t love is that Brent and Bria love each other because. There’s no romance, there’s no growth of their relationship. They were in kiddie love before the story starts, then circumstance and a few poor choices separated them, then they were in love again; it’s all tell and no show.

I love that Brent is an atypical, clumsy, bumbling, endearing protagonist. He is a disaster and I want good things for him. But I don’t love that he never finishes his sentences because of an overuse of ellipses in dialogue (not limited to him but worst with him.) I love that the story puts his mind and identity at risk, because that’s an interesting type of danger, but I don’t love that it means Bria has to keep dragging him back to reality (constant emotional support) when I don’t see evidence she gets equal support from Brent.

That leads to my next issue: just how often is it really necessary to have Bria nearly raped? I’m not opposed to sexual violence being included in a story, but this casual and repeated treatment of it just hurt to read. I have actually lost count of how often it happens, and in nearly every case, she’s pretty much fine in the next scene–no one does much to acknowledge what has happened to her (aside from Caroline remarking that one of her assailants deserved his fate, I did appreciate that.) The story moves on as if it weren’t a traumatic event. This is in pretty marked contrast to the treatment of the little girl’s soul that Brent releases–she was molested, and when Brent loses his identity in hers, he experiences some of that horror, and it’s taken seriously. It’s just not a good look that rape matters when the male suffers it vicariously, when the female lead can’t take ten steps without somebody trying to assault her, but don’t worry, she’s fine. (This is, by far, my biggest complaint about the book.)

As for the relative lack of attention to world-building, that’s really an odd choice here, because there’s plenty of magic, and it gets explained and structured well enough I could mostly follow it, yet there’s very little sense of place. The settings for scenes rarely get described beyond the most basic, and since the tunnels can take B+B anywhere, distance doesn’t matter and nothing feels grounded. So that’s weak, but on the other hand, I love that the structure of the world is “here’s these two apparently opposed systems, the Order and the Mist Keepers” and you’re meant to think Brent should be a Mist Keeper, except they’re actually both bad? The Mist Keepers are actually sort of awful people who hate magic that isn’t like theirs? I love it! I love that the whole system of Brent’s world is “evil” and he and Bria escape for a while to a distant city where magic is accepted and they can live peacefully for a bit! I love that Brent reinvolves himself in his former world because he feels responsible for the monster he accidentally let loose! I love that he (apparently) sacrificed himself to defeat it! It’s a solid cliffhanger ending. What I don’t love is that I could rarely “see” the story in my head because it took place in settings given only the most generic of descriptions.

So to bring it back to my original hierarchy, this book is plot-based, and a lot about the plot is solid and interesting. But by focusing on moving the action briskly from one point to the next, we lose out on character development and sense of place, both of which I think would enrich this story more than having some of the subplots or minor characters that are squeezed in.

I do want to know what happens, though. Cautiously optimistic for the eventual sequel.

#108 – An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

  • Read: 7/21/20 – 7/24/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the New York Times ‘100 Notable Books’ list for any year
  • Mount TBR: 96/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Though I didn’t pick it up specifically because it was an Oprah pick, this is an incredibly “book club” book. What I mean is that I’d rather talk about what it wants to say rather than what it actually said.

Though Roy’s arrest and trial happen at the speed of light, barely a single chapter, the shadow it casts over the story is inescapable. The point isn’t the process; the point is the aftermath. And on the surface, yes, it’s awful and I’m queueing up books about prison abolition so I can learn more about it.

But for a book with this little plot, a book that should be a character study while we watch the shifting relationships unfold, I don’t like any of the characters. Not even Roy, by the end, whom I felt incredible sympathy for throughout most of the book.

I thought–I hoped–that this would give me a more nuanced look at infidelity by approaching it from the incarcerated-husband angle. I hate books about cheating, and I inevitably hate cheaters. I don’t think infidelity is interesting, but usually when I’m decrying it as the central plot point or theme of a work, I’m railing against some Old White Male Author whose literary “brilliance” is an excuse to write a blatant self-insert protagonist who gets to have an affair with a beautiful, often much younger woman. Whether the story is autobiographical or merely a fantasy of what they wish they could get away with, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and a twisting stomach.

Here, it could have been more interesting, and I’m truly disappointed that it wasn’t. Roy was sympathetic until he got out of prison and fell into the arms, kitchen, and bed of the first woman he recognized from high school. (And I don’t understand her motivations at all, having a brief fling with a guy you haven’t seen in years and don’t really know, then acting like he should move in and forget about trying to go back to his old life.) Also his treatment of Celestial at the very end; telling her he could rape her if he wanted to, then expecting brownie points for not raping her. Absolutely disgusting. I tried to keep an open mind about Celestial, but even if I could forgive her the loneliness of being separated from her husband for so long, she was selfish about everything else in her life too, so why would I think for a second that she wouldn’t end up cheating? And Andre was a placeholder, a trope, the best friend. Andre was the biggest disappointment of the whole book, not even because he knowingly got involved with a married woman, but because he never managed to convince me he mattered.

The central problem I have with this setup is that none of the main characters, at any point, actually seemed to love each other. I’m not expecting romance-levels of devotion or high melodrama. Roy and Celestial never had a marriage worth saving, but Celestial and Andre were even worse. There’s no on-page evidence that they actually care about each other, Andre isn’t even believable as the best friend. Andre’s constant close-lipped, “this is how it is, accept it” attitude gives him an out from actually having to say to Roy that he loves Celestial, and I simply don’t believe that he does, because he has the least personality of anyone in the whole book.

The only character I believe actually loved their spouse was Big Roy. Big Roy is a treasure.

If I’m supposed to be invested in the outcome of this tangled set of relationships, shouldn’t the characters be worth caring about? Shouldn’t there be love present, shouldn’t I either be rooting for Roy to win Celestial back, or even Andre to stay with the woman he loves? But neither side of this “love” triangle is worth investing in, because the point was never the love, it was the struggle.

Alternately, if the point of the book is “you can’t go home again”–because that’s definitely the message I got from the ending–then why isn’t this just Roy’s story of getting out, finding that his wife has essentially left him, then reintegrating in society with a new woman and a new job, as he does in a one-page letter in the epilogue?

As usual, I’m coming out of a book about cheating thinking that everyone involved is a bad person in some way. I know that doesn’t align with popular opinion, but if this book made me angry about our broken justice system (and it did manage that!) it didn’t get me invested in the fallout of justice’s failure. I still don’t find infidelity compelling enough to carry a story. Morally gray characters will only keep me going if there’s something believable or interesting (like love!) to make me want to examine their “hard” choices, but here, the emotions are simply too shallow or not even present at all.

The Joy of Buying Used Books

Ella Minnow Pea Contents

An old post of mine on Tumblr started making the rounds yesterday for some reason–who ever knows why something random gets attention there? But I don’t think I ever shared it here: it’s the photo of everything I pulled out of my used copy of Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters when I read it last January. Eighteen post-it notes with annotations and some pressed leaves.

Once upon a time, I only bought new–that is, unused–books, and because of the price I bought them infrequently and reread them often, some of my favorites over a dozen times over the years.

But right around the time I started my blog, my social media platform, and my side-gig career as an author, I also discovered the thrill of used book sales, especially those held at all the libraries across my county. (There are so many! It’s wonderful!) It didn’t take me long after that to discover Thriftbooks as well, so now most of the books I buy in any given year, by far, are secondhand.

This has led to some interesting finds.

  • Bookmarks. Obviously! Someone was reading these books at some point, and they left their bookmarks behind. My personal favorite was a shop bookmark from a indie bookstore in Ontario, it was a lovely shade of green, but I used it until it was tea-stained and tattered, so it’s gone now. (/sadface)
  • Improvised bookmarks. I’ve found candy wrappers and library checkout receipts and supermarket receipts and random strips of paper and subscription cards for magazines, but the best one of these (and I’m sorry I don’t have photographic evidence) was an airline boarding pass from 2003–and neither end of that long-ago journey was in my state, despite me finding the book at a local sale, rather than buying it online.
  • I found a folded page of someone’s algebra homework just inside the front cover of a used book once. So, not precisely an improvised bookmark, probably happened by mistake. At least the dog didn’t eat it.
  • Pressed leaves and flowers. It only happened one time other than Ella, and the flowers crumbled as soon as I took them out, but it still made me happy.

I still have over a hundred physical books in my TBR collection, almost all of them used, and I don’t leaf through them ahead of time, so all of them are potential adventures in mystery finds waiting to happen. And I think I will be far better in the future about taking pictures when something interesting shows up!

End of the Month Wrap-Up: April 2020!

kinga-cichewicz-5NzOfwXoH88-unsplash

I’m going to keep this short; as I’m writing this, I’m in the process of recovering from Covid-19, and even if I’m not suffering the insane levels of fatigue I did at the start, I still get worn out pretty easily.

(Yes, I have it, and yes, it’s a mild case. I am able to isolate, I haven’t required medical attention, and though I won’t be tested unless something new goes wrong, I’m 99% sure that’s what sent me to bed for most of this week.)

I read 16 books in April.

I made no significant progress on any of my writing projects (including keeping up with blog posts that weren’t my book reviews.)

I was doing great at exercising, running three times a week, until I got sick. I hope to resume that soon, but I know I’ve got to give my lungs some time to rest first. In a few days (hopefully) I’ll meet the CDC criteria for ending my isolation and can at least start taking walks.

I have also done a lot of knitting and watching TV.

May Goals: Read lots–the TBR post is coming Wednesday. Keep knitting. Try to write again, ideally on Fifty-Five Days, because it’s frustrating to be so near the end of a project (or at least one of its stages) but not have the mental energy to work on it. Get back to walking/running. Bake more things!

Flash Fiction #8: Apparently My Brain Wants to Write a CEO/Assistant Romance

[This is a scene from a plot bunny I’ve been writing down, in between working on Fifty-Five Days, so that I won’t forget anything until I can go back to it later, maybe. Who knows if this idea will bear fruit?]

Piper Kearns hated sleeping on her back. She was a stomach sleeper, despite all the click-bait articles insisting that sleep position was the worst for your spine (which she believed,) your digestion (which seemed more questionable,) or your fertility (which seemed completely unrelated and was not a particularly high priority for her at the moment anyway.) She would roll onto her belly, tuck one knee up to the side slightly to keep her legs from feeling glued together by her heavy blankets, and tuck the hand from the same side under her pillow. Whenever she posed herself that way, sleep was instant; whenever she tried to train herself to sleep on her back, or even on her side, for the supposed health benefits, she tossed for hours until she gave up and rolled over anyway.

All of that made her unexpected hospital stay more miserable than it had had to be. So did not coming fully into awareness, out from under the fog of sedation and pain medication, until long after she was supposed to be at work. Her phone sat on the tray in front of her, and it had messages waiting. Not as many as she had expected, honestly, but her boss was a busy man, and she knew there would be one from him wondering why she had not come in on time, nor called in properly. But there were actually three, spaced exactly an hour apart, as if he had set an alarm to remind him to check up on her.

If the pattern held, he would be calling again in seventeen minutes. She had that long to figure out what to say to him.

She knew she wouldn’t be in trouble. “Hi, I couldn’t call because I was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital last night and I only woke up half an hour ago,” would solve any possible repercussions from her breach of policy. Mr. Perkins was strict in many ways and had high expectations, but he was no monster.

But that line left her open to questions about why she was in the hospital. Questions that were perfectly understandable from a place of concern and surprise, and questions that were illegal when coming from her boss. He knew that, and he wouldn’t ask. But if he did, if, she had to be ready with some bland explanation, because invoking the illegality of those questions about her personal medical situation would only imply she had something to hide.

A car crash? That wouldn’t work. Her car was fine, and not using it “while she got it fixed” would be too much of an inconvenience. Her injuries weren’t at all consistent with being a pedestrian or even a bicyclist hit by a moving car. Even at the low speeds that wouldn’t simply have killed her. She couldn’t make that make any sense.

She flexed her left hand and felt a wave of gratitude that it was only sprained, not broken. It was still swollen badly and the brace holding it was uncomfortable, but it would heal far more quickly and cause her less aggravation. What lie could account for a sprained wrist, badly bruised ribs, and a split lip? Those were the injuries she couldn’t hide, because they were visible, or in the case of her ribs, because she couldn’t breathe deeply yet and had to move cautiously. She’d already been up to the little bathroom in the corner of her hospital room once, and walking normally had been impossible. She was reduced to a shuffling gait, half as fast as usual.

She had to call him back but hesitated, because she couldn’t come up with any lie that sounded as reasonable as the truth, and she wasn’t a particularly good liar. She was good at keeping her opinions and thoughts to herself, which the same thing at all; when she tried to deliberately say something untrue, her brain balked and her tongue stuttered.

Mr. Perkins joked sometimes about inviting her to the monthly poker game he threw for his friends and some of his more important subordinates. She knew it was a joke because there was a special version of his smile reserved for jokes. And because it was obvious to both of them that she would get fleeced if she went.

Thirteen minutes. It would be better if she called first; it would put her in a position of greater power. She still wasn’t ready, though.

She hadn’t listened to the messages yet; she knew what they would say, and she was afraid if she heard Mr. Perkins being angry at her, she would start to cry again. But, on the other hand, she would look like a fool if she called in without listening first and being prepared for his mood, without knowing what he had already said to her.

The first one was exactly what she expected, short and gruff and word-for-word from the company policy on tardiness. “Miss Kearns, it’s five after nine, and your desk is empty. Please arrive as soon as possible or contact me with your ETA.” Normally it would be a department chair making the call about one of their juniors, but her only direct superior was the CEO himself. The other officers were her seniors, certainly, but they had their own assistants and she didn’t answer to them. Just to Mr. Perkins.

He had never had to make that call to her before, and he sounded annoyed he needed to take even the thirty seconds it had required.

The second message had come one hour and one minute later. “Miss Kearns, in the three years you’ve worked for me this has never happened. Please call me and let me know what’s going on.”

Short, but completely off-script, and more concerned than annoyed. That message shook her a little, because she had imagined him growing increasingly frustrated by having to answer his own phone and make his own calls and wade through–what was on the docket this morning? She honestly didn’t remember, and that should have concerned her, but the minutiae of her job seemed distant and fuzzy this morning.

The third message was only fifty-nine minutes after that–had she been wrong about the timer? Or had he been staring at it waiting for it to go off, then given up early? “Piper,” he began. “Now I’m honestly worried. You’ve never pulled a no-show and you barely ever call in anyway. Are you lying in a ditch somewhere? Did your apartment burn down? I’d have called the police already if I didn’t know they would laugh at me trying to report a missing person after two hours. If I don’t hear from you by lunch, I think I’ll start making calls anyway. Where are you?”

Her hands shook so hard she set down the phone before she dropped it, because retrieving it from the floor was utterly beyond her at the moment, and calling a nurse in to do it would be a bother they didn’t need. She gave herself a few minutes to cry, then a few more to calm down enough to pick the phone back up.

He answered on the second ring. “Piper?”

He hardly ever used her first name, as they were a very formal bunch at work, and hearing it for the second time that morning in his voice nearly made her cry again. “Mr. Perkins, I’m sorry. I’m–I’m in the hospital. I only woke up a little while ago, and the doctors needed to go over everything with me. I couldn’t call any sooner.”

“Oh, thank god you’re okay. I mean, are you? Okay?”

She swallowed painfully, her throat still swollen from crying. “Injured, not dying.” She bit her lip against the need to explain. “They’re discharging me soon. I can be in after lunch.”

“No!” There was a pause where Piper imagined Mr. Perkins forcing himself to calm down, to lower his voice. He really had been worried about her. “If you need time off, you can take it. You haven’t used a single sick day in months. Just have the hospital fax your work return forms and I’ll authorize them.”

“I can work, sir,” she said in a small voice. “It’s not that bad.” And she didn’t want to go home and lay around doing nothing for three days, or however long the doctors would tell her she needed to rest.

In truth, she didn’t want to go home at all. But she was already forming a plan, and she would need to return to get her things, at least enough for a few days. Maybe a week. She wasn’t sure how long she could pull this off without anyone knowing or suspecting. Her organizational skills went into a sudden overdrive, creating a list in her head of the items she would need to pack and the things she would need to do, which meant she zoned out while her boss replied.

“I won’t pretend I can’t use you here if you’re well enough, but your health comes first.” He took a deep breath. “Do as you think best. I trust you to make that decision for yourself. But don’t be afraid to take shorter hours while you’re recovering, if you need to.” This is where her brain reengaged in the conversation, and she was about to launch into an entirely separate list of everything she needed to get done in the next week, which doubled as the list of reasons why she needed to work. But he either heard her indrawn breath, or he knew her well enough to know what she was going to say. “I can handle things for a while without you. And if I can’t, there are other people I can lean on, okay?”

“Okay.” She vowed privately that she was still going to put in her hours, maybe extra overall, though possibly with more breaks. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

He chuckled softly. “I don’t know why I thought you would listen to me, but fine. Come in this afternoon. But I reserve the right to send you right back out if you collapse on your desk.”

“Fair enough, sir.” She ended the call and opened the note app on her phone and started a checklist, to fill the time until she got her discharge sorted out.

Flash Fiction #7: The Book of Crows and Fire

the book of crows and fire

So these post get passed around Tumblr all the time, taking a light-hearted poke at the trend of fantasy YA book titles that’s been going strong for the last several years.

I usually play along by reblogging with the title it gives me, and they’re usually not that great, because that’s the joke.

This particular one, however, generated The Book of Crows and Fire for me, and I immediately got an idea. So I spent an hour typing furiously into the Tumblr post editor and ended up with a 1700-word origin myth, which is also a bad wordplay joke, which is also wildly inaccurate. But it was fun to write, and sometimes that matters more.

Piqued your curiosity? I haven’t posted a flash fiction piece in three full years, so I might be rusty, but here goes:

In the beginning, the day was hot and bright, but the nights were bitterly cold. All the creatures of the earth whimpered in their burrows and dens, huddled together for the meager warmth they could provide each other. The wolf pups shivered, the squirrels fluffed their tails as large as they could to hide beneath, the muskrats coiled themselves around each other and waited for morning to bring back light and warmth to the world.

But the crows sat together high in the branches of the trees, and they did not shiver or whimper or wait. They plotted.

It took time to observe, and time to plan. The crows risked nothing for many days, watching the sun move across the sky. When the first crow tried to catch it, she returned limp and exhausted in the deepest part of the night. “It is too fast,” she said. “I could not keep pace with it.”

Her murder gathered around her to listen to her tale, to the distant lands she had seen in her pursuit of the sun, the territory they had never before encountered. A few days passed while they sent scouts to investigate; perhaps those lands, closer to the sun, would be a more hospitable place to live. If they could not catch it, at least they could settle where it shone more strongly.

In this new place they thrived, and a new generation hatched, and the chicks tested their wings in flight. One young crow looked up at the sun, after hearing the stories his elders had told of how they had chased it, and how it had brought them to their new home, and wondered. Most of the others had given up on the dream of having the sun for themselves, but he saw something they had overlooked. As soon as he had grown into his adult size and strength, he left the murder asleep in their trees and flew swift through the night.

It wasn’t that the sun was too fast, he deduced on his own, but that it was too far. He had to leave much earlier to meet it in the sky when it rose.

He was a strong bird, and a smart one, and as fast as he flew, the night still seemed very long and exceptionally dark. He, too, like his mother before him, saw many strange things beneath him on the earth, creatures that did not live where he lived, trees that did not look like his trees, and even vast expanses where there were no trees, only grasses. That emptiness unnerved him, so he fixed his gaze on the horizon, where he knew the sun would come up.

When it did, he landed, weary and disappointed. He was still too far away, and he knew from his mother’s stories that he could not catch up to it. He might be stronger and faster than her, but he did not think he was strong or fast enough.

He drank from a stream that cut through the grass and feasted on a small rodent he found nearby. It was strange to him, but tasty still, and he had not gone so far from the edge of the forest that he could not fly back to it for a safe place to roost while he slept. The next night, he returned to his murder and told them of his journey. Many of the elders were too old and tired to make the migration, but most of his brothers and sisters and cousins decided to go with him when he returned to the grasslands. His mother did as well, and declared herself pleased to see the new hunting grounds her brave son had discovered. They lived many turnings of the moon in peace and safety, growing bigger on the rich feeding they found, and the next generation of chicks broke free of their eggs sooner and more vigorously than any hatching before them.

The twin daughters of this new crow hero were proud of their heritage, whenever the elders told the stories of his journey, or their grandmother’s. They had never known the deepest coldness of the night as the rest of their family had, but they saw no reason not to devote themselves to improving the lives of their murder once again. They took turns scouting the lands around them as soon as they fledged, bringing back so many tales of strange places that some of the murder suspected of making them up. Surely there were not places so hot and dry that not even trees could grow, that the ground was covered in sand, like the banks of streams, but everywhere? Surely there were not places where stone thrust up from the earth in piles so huge they seemed to touch the sky itself?

But their father believed, for hadn’t he been the one to see strange new lands himself? He encouraged his daughters to fly together to the tallest peak in the sky, and from there, after a good rest, perhaps they could finally catch the sun.

When the twins searched for shelter on that mountain, they met a bone-breaking cold and a biting wind like they had never known before, and wondered if this was the death that their ancestors fled from. They squeezed themselves into a tiny niche in the rock and held tight to each other, sleeping as best they could in that terrible place. In the morning, when the sun rose, they winged into the sky to meet it. They were young and small, but swifter on the wing than any crow that had come before them, even their heroic father. They followed the sun across the sky, and soon enough, the air grew warmer around them, even though they continued to ascend.

The sun’s path led them to a strange peak, even stranger than the one they had sheltered on. The top of the mountain was a great lake of fire, bright and burning, and it overflowed so that liquid fire trailed down its sides in great rivers. There was smoke in the air that made the twins cough, but soon enough they found the clear space where the air currents carried the smoke away, and it was safe to fly. When they first landed, the stone burned their feet and they had to jump away, back into the air. But they tried again, farther from the lake, and found a place cool enough to land but warm enough to make their feathers fluff in happiness. They had flown so far that they immediately slept again, lulled by that heat and their exhaustion. When they woke, deep in the night, the light of the burning lake brightened the darkness around them, and they thought there was surely no better place to live than this. They had not caught the sun, but they had found a place where the sun lived on earth, and that was better even that the warm grasslands of their childhood.

This migration was harder on the murder, though, and when those who had chosen to go with them reached the volcano, they cried in dismay. “But nothing lives here! Yes, we are warm, but what will we eat?”

The twins looked to their father for advice, but he only shrugged. This was their idea, so it was their problem to solve. Until they did, the others would either wear themselves out in flight searching for food, or go hungry. Intense investigation turned up some very small creatures did live on the slopes of the volcano, but there were not enough to feed everyone, and their meat was tough and meager. Some of the elders died, and the twins began to fear they had led their murder to ruin.

But one of their cousins seemed to be growing healthier every day, while the others all wasted away. His eyes were bright and his feathers were glossy. They begged him to share his secret.

He looked away from them in a gesture of embarrassment. “I didn’t say anything, because I thought it was stupid. But I was so hungry one day, so desperate to feel something in my belly, that I started eating pebbles. And then I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I didn’t die, so I did it again the next day.”

This wonderful news came too late to save some of the weakest of them, and the ones who did not believe that eating stones would work and refused to try. But as soon as they told him, their father leapt down from his perch to scrounge for small stones and scooped them up in his beak. “Not much different from eating large seeds,” he said. “And I do feel better.”

They waited until the next day, to see if their father died, but he looked much improved. Then they ate some pebbles themselves, and felt better. They had enough energy to fly about again and explore, and when they tried to land close to the lake of fire again, they found their feet didn’t hurt so much on the hot ground.

They grew into adults there, and laid their eggs, and raised their chicks, all on a diet of those small black stones, some gritty like dirt and others as smooth as glass. With each generation their beaks grew larger and harder, the better for chipping stone off the cliffs. Their wingspans broadened for catching the warm updrafts that rose from the lake. Their feathers, already that beautiful glossy black, darkened further with the blackness of their food, and gained a subtle sparkle from the rich minerals. They were the proudest and biggest and most beautiful crows the world had ever seen.

It was only many years later that humans found them and did not recognize them for what they had been. Foolish humans who could not fly to chase the sun, who had to walk, creeping slowly across the landscape trying to find the best place to live, where the crows had been able to fly and find it first. They could not live here, those humans. The crows would not let them in. The humans were too stupid, even, to know them by their right name, for when the curses flew at them alongside the puny arrows they did not fear, the humans called them rocs, not crows.