Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Get your copy here.

I had many reservations about reading this book. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction as a genre because it has a tendency to be painfully bleak. I read to escape the bleakness of reality, and when it resurfaces in my fiction, it better be freaking awesome or I'm jumping ship.

So when I started reading this book, I was instantly wary. The plot centers around a population of people driven to live in an underground silo by a disaster that has rendered the surface uninhabitable. Now it is forbidden to speak about the outside world. The punishment for expressing a wish to go outside is to get exactly what you asked for: they send you outside in a suit that will enable you to live just long enough to clean the camera sensors that let the silo see the world's surface. Then the toxic air eats away your suit and your flesh, and the oxygen runs out, and you become just another corpse decorating the silo's view of the surface. These executions are called "cleanings." 

Original image found here

After being introduced to the silo's preferred manner of justice and the tragedy unfolding in the first few pages of the book, I almost put it down and went on with my life. Maybe this genre just isn't for me, I thought. But I hate giving up on anything, so I decided to press on, to give it a little longer to prove to me that the brilliance of the writing was worth the gentle well of depression building up in the back of my mind. 

And in the next point-of-view section, I was utterly hooked. Even as the plot went trouncing along my feels in lead boots for a second time, I was too engrossed by the elaborate world of the silo to even think about giving up on the book. And then I met Juliette, and subsequently her star-gazing friend, Lukas, and I was at its mercy.

The world Howey creates is incredibly rich and imaginative, the details making it resonate with authenticity. For instance, in the silo, people who are apprentices learning a trade are called "shadows" and those who teach them are called "casters." When you train apprentices, it's called "casting shadows." The different levels are all engaged in varying trades, from the mechanics of the down deep to the farmers on the hydroponic farms all the way to the IT level with its mysterious hum of servers doing God only knows what. And up and down the winding staircase that conveys the inhabitants from one level to the next, porters run on strong legs to deliver goods and messages. 

The characters I met in the first half of the book captured my imagination and made me love them. Holston, Marnes, Jahns... I felt like I knew them, and I cared deeply about what happened to them. And Juliette, a mechanic from the down deep, was a triumph, in my mind. It's always refreshing to see a pretty female character who doesn't exist just to be a male character's eye candy. She was strong-willed and smart without being grating, and self-sufficient and independent without being too in-your-face feminist. In short, she was exactly the way I like my female characters, and so few authors do that type justice.

However, this review ends with four stars rather than five because, after a promising start and an engrossing middle, it was all I could do to make it through the end. Too many fatalities among the more interesting characters, with the plot then scattering survivors and taking away their more intriguing interactions. The relationship I was most interested in seemed like it was only being developed off-camera, which was incredibly frustrating, because I'd been dying to watch it grow and I never really got the chance to. The struggle became monotonous, and I ultimately ended up skimming to the end to see what happened.

Still, I stand by my four stars. If you look through my reviews, you'll see I tend to be stingy with my stars, and usually a so-so ending would leave me thinking that three stars is generous enough. But because the characters were so wonderfully developed, the world was so incredible, and the book captivated me for over 300 pages, it definitely deserves four stars. And I would still highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre, or even to skeptics who, like me, don't normally think sci-fi is for them. Judging from all of the five-star reviews and Howey's enormous success, it may be that I am one of the few who was troubled by the ending, whereas you might think it was utterly fantastic. And regardless of how you feel about the final destination here, the journey is definitely worthwhile.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Conversations with Fictional Characters

Sipping my coffee, I spent the morning studying the scene that rambled out from my fingertips last night at 1:00 a.m. It wasn't as bad as I'd expected to be, given the hour and the fact that I was hastily thumbing it out on a smartphone so I didn't have to get out of bed. When I got to the final flourish of my male MC's thinly veiled unkindness towards my fictional princess, the following exchange played out in my head.

PRINCESS: "Why do we find it so hot when he's mean?"

ME: "I don't know. Clearly, we have issues."

PRINCESS: (rationally) "Well, my issues are your issues. So really, this is your fault."

ME: "I know. I spend a lot of time worrying that these books are going to be used someday as the basis for the wrong kind of class."

PRINCESS: (raises eyebrow inquiringly.)

ME: "Psych 101, not Literature."

PRINCESS: "Yeah, you probably should be."

Original image found here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Writing Tip: Beware of Saggy Hats

As a child, my favorite book was “Go, Dog, Go,” by P.D. Eastman. The reveal in which the poodle appears in his spectacularly tall hat decked with spiders and pin wheels and all manner of random and fabulous things will live in my memory as a great moment in literature. 

And yet, when it comes to plots, sometimes adding that many flourishes makes the fabulous hat sag. When you get enamored with your own twists, or start piling on subplots with reckless abandon, or it requires half the book just to explain why a character would do what you want them to do, suddenly, you’re not a poodle that has won over a dubious Labrador with your amazing sense of style. You’re just a dork in a bent hat with a bunch of crap stuck to it.

Don’t make the hat sag.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Excerpt from THE HUMBLE ABODE

Here is a brief excerpt from chapter two of THE HUMBLE ABODE, in which Evyn and Jior find themselves in trouble while trying to rescue Chit from the ghouls of the Lost Wood.

Evyn grabbed the Phlelf as Jior started to hurry forward to help her. "Don't move," he hissed.
"Why?" Jior blinked.
"Because, you ninny, we're now surrounded by banshees. And if you walk through the one in front of us, you will die before you come out of the other side. And if you provoke them, they will scream. Not even the lantern could protect us from that sound."
Jior peered around them. He could just make out thin, filmy gray shapes ringing them round, red eyes glowing maliciously as they peered back at him. "What happens if they scream?"
"We die."
"And if we just stand here?"
"Eventually they'll get bored and scream."
“We die."
"Hmm. What if we make a break for it?"
"I told you, we'd pass through them."
"And die?"
"It does seem to be the trend."
Jior pursed his lips a second. "And Chit can't help us with the spirit lantern?"
"I told you, it doesn't block out the screams. It would just keep them from touching us."
"And Chit has twisted her ankle," the girl interjected shortly. "So Chit can't even get up."
"Chit's in the circle of the lantern, so Chit should shut up and be grateful," Evyn snapped.
Chit snorted at that and went back to spitting the residue of the ghoul slime on the ground.
"So..." Jior looked around at the looming banshees. "We're going to die."
"Looks like it."
"Any last words?" Jior asked hopefully.

Evyn sighed. "Shut up."

Original image found here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Ombria in Shadow

Patricia McKillip is one of those writers who, much like Peter S. Beagle, makes the rest of us lowly wordsmiths want to hang up our words and call it a day. Maybe it's sentences like "The river narrowed, quickened, its surface trembling like the eyes of dreamers" or phrases like "but in that house who could assume that even fire and water would not conspire?" that make me melt into a puddle of envy. Or maybe it's the fact that I loved her characters better in the first five pages than I've loved other characters after entire books spent in their company. Whatever the case may be, from those first few twinkling words in Ombria in Shadow, I was enchanted. I wanted to pour those gorgeous words on the floor and roll around in them like a dog, hoping their scent would rub off on me.

 The cover art for Ombria in Shadow, featuring the lovely Lydea.
Buy it here.

The story begins with the death of the Prince of Ombria as his mistress, beautiful flame-haired tavern girl, Lydea, mourns with the child heir, Kyel. One by one, the young prince's guards and servants are sent away as his great aunt, Domina Pearl, seeks to isolate him and appoint herself regent. After Lydea is cast into the streets like rubbish, no longer having her royal lover to protect her, the bastard lordling, Ducon Greve, is left as the only person in the castle looking after his cousin, Prince Kyel's, interests. As the claw-like grip of Domina Pearl closes over the kingdom, the city of Ombria looks to be in dire straits. 

And yet, there is a legend of a shadow city beneath Ombria, filled with the ghosts of Ombria's history. Lurking among those ghosts is an ancient sorceress named Faey and her precocious waxling, Mag. While Faey isn't normally interested in the affairs of the world above, Mag is drawn to investigate the unfolding events in the castle, fascinated by Ducon and Lydea and disgusted by Domina Pearl. But her meddling puts the two parallel worlds on a collision course that could change the city of Ombria forever. 

Fan art of Lydea. (No pun intended.)
Original image found here

There isn't a person in this book that doesn't evoke a strong response in the reader. Lydea has a strong, sad grace to her, obviously stricken by the tragedy of losing her beloved, but channeling her energy into bravery and loyalty rather than disappearing into grief. Ducon Greve is intriguing and seductive as a beautiful, mysterious man fixated on drawing shadows with his ever-present piece of charcoal, seeming to see something in the ruins that others cannot. Devoted to his young cousin, Ducon is as quiet and steady as a marble pillar as he tries to "hold up the sky over the young prince's head," as one character put it. 

Fan art of Ducon Greve. Original image found here.

Much like the castle laundresses, a reader finds herself thinking she wouldn't
mind a little charcoal on her sheets, for this fellow.

And Kyel. Poor Kyel. The embattled young prince is so vulnerable and forlorn that you want to hug him and hide him away from the Black Pearl's menace. And then there's Mag, who is beginning to suspect that she might be human and not just one of Faey's concoctions. She is so curious, quick-witted, and warm that you'll end up wanting to scamper through the shadows of the city with her, hiding in plain sight as you explore the city's secrets. Even relatively minor characters like Lydea's father, who suffered the sting of having been abandoned by his daughter for her royal lover, tug at your feels until you're trying to convince yourself that there's just something in your eye. 

When it comes to Faey, with her changing faces and casual magical prowess, I get an impression that she had a little scary Galadriel-under-the-influence-of-the-One-Ring lurking under the surface of her graceful reserve. Yet as arcane and mysterious as she is, there is humanity in her, as well as humor and practicality. She serves as an elegant counterpoint to Domina Pearl's potent malevolence. As villains go, Domina Pearl is the creme de la creme of baddies. She comes on like an aged Lady Vader, complete with impeccable helmet-like hair and mysterious powers. Such was her badassery that every time somebody shook a fist and railed against her, all I could think was, "Good luck, man. I hope that works out for you. But, you know, doubtful.

Aside from her magical way with words, unmatched creativity, and engrossing characters, McKillip offers any aspiring writer a crash course in how to show rather than tell. I never needed to get a thinky inner monologue from Lydea as to how she felt about losing Prince Royce, because it sighed out hauntingly from her actions after his death such that I got tear-eyed over a love I never actually witnesses in its heyday. It's just one example, but I walked away from this book so captivated by her skill that I wanted to try some of these tricks, myself, and hope to be even half as good at them.

So, to sum, if you like beautifully written books that capture the imagination and make you fall in love with the characters, pick up a copy of Ombria in Shadow today!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tamsin: A Book Review

If you happened to read my fangirl gushing about the wit, humor, and beauty of The Last Unicorn, then you're well aware that I'm a fan of Peter S. Beagle's writing. And given that my current"to read" list on Goodreads is pretty much everything he's ever written, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've already found my way to another Beagle work. This time, it was Tamsin that thrilled me to the depths of my writerly soul, but in new and unexpected ways. 

Any illusions I had that this book would be filled with the same dignified elegance as The Last Unicorn vanished with the use of the word "period" on the very first page. And no, it was not in the context of a grammatical discussion. At first, I was so jarred by how different the voice of the main character, Jenny Gluckstein, was from anything I would have expected from Beagle that I had to take a minute before I could move on. But I'm glad I did. It was worth getting over the culture shock.

The voice of the main character in this novel turned out to be just as magical as anything in The Last Unicorn, but with a sense of sense of reality and tangibility to it. You see, the narrator is a 13 year-old girl from New York City whose mother, Sally, is getting married to an Englishman. Unfortunately for Jenny, this means that she is being uprooted from her life in Manhattan and transplanted with her new family to an ancient farm in Dorset, where her new stepdad has been hired to get the farm yielding crops again.

Nothing could have thrilled Jenny less. Awkward, pimply-faced Jenny had a hard enough time making friends in New York. She is apprehensive about moving to a foreign country, inheriting two stepbrothers she's never met, and has the general aversion that most children posses to seeing their parents change. Jenny recognizes that Sally is happier with her new husband than she's ever been and that she is doing everything possible to make things easier for Jenny, but she resists her mother at every turn. She is confused and overwhelmed, and it makes her behave badly. Her life in New York may not be perfect, but it's familiar and comforting and she doesn't want things to change.

But change it does, and in ways that Jenny could never have expected. The farm in Dorset has a rich history, you see, and that history isn't exactly lying dormant. Rather, it's rifling through the pantries at night, breaking the refrigerator, and sending a lingering smell of vanilla through the house. Led to investigate by her mentor in the study of coolness, Mister Cat, Jenny ends up coming face-to-face with ancient beings lurking in the secret world of Stourhead Farm, including a gentle, lovely ghost named Tamsin.

"An Ill Wind" by Dashinvaine
Original image found here.

Through the course of the story, Jenny finds her destiny linked to Tamsin's. If she doesn't figure out the connection between Tamsin's past and the eerie night world of Stourhead Farm, her new friend may be doomed to a fate far worse than death. 

I think the thing that struck me as most impressive in the beginning of the book was how believable and relatable Jenny was. For a grown man to inhabit the mind of a 13 year-old girl so ably and with such sensitivity is no easy thing, and Beagle pulls it off with more skill than some writers who actually once were 13 year-old girls. And the real feat is that, given her disgruntlement with the way her life is changing, Jenny says and does some unpleasant things to blameless people in the beginning and is not one bit less likable. Between the clear portrayal of what was so upsetting to Jenny about her circumstances and the fact that the story is  told by a 19 year-old Jenny with the regret brought on by hindsight, you understand where she's coming from and see that she did come to repent for her past transgressions. In fact, the way she uses her crankiness to hide her sadness and discomfort actually becomes endearing, an accomplishment that could only be pulled off by the same man who once made a unicorn's arrogance seem charming.

An artist's depiction of the Wild Hunt.
Original image found here.

And Peter S. Beagle does for English folklore what he did for the unicorn, and just as cleverly. It would be easy to read about boggarts and pookas and the Wild Hunt and to not be able to take them seriously, thinking of them as silly fairy tale beings with no weight or depth. But in Beagle's world, they have a reality to them, a seriousness and a grandeur that makes them both intriguing and intimidating. They feel almost historical, like details that the history books overlooked that truly capture the richness of English culture. So complex and wonderful was the world he created in the pages of this book, with it overlay of historical facts, that I was reluctant to finish it as I drew near the end. I didn't want to leave, to go back to my mundane life where a knock in my kitchen was just my dishwasher clicking to rinse and a storm was just a storm.

All of the characters are people you'd gladly spend time with, except where they're not meant to be. From good-natured stepfather Evan, to loving mother Sally, to quiet stepbrother, Tony (who is apparently quite the dancer), and that sweet bundle of curly-haired energy called Julian, you find yourself knowing and welcoming these people into your life, page after page. And Mister Cat makes me wish I had a creature in my life who could ooze unflappable competence that way, being more of a caretaker and companion than a mere pet.

And Tamsin. Oh, Tamsin. I don't wish to spoil you, dear reader, but prepare to fall in love. This whole book will make you fall in love, with the plot, the characters, and the vivid beauty of the writing, but Tamsin nestles atop this pile of literary achievements like a twinkling jewel.

So if you are looking for a beautifully written novel as relatable as a conversation with your best friend, but as surreal as waking up in the middle of a fairy tale, pick up your copy of Tamsin today. And I shall envy you the privilege of being able to read it for the first time as I go back for my second and third reads to soak in all the nuances!

This novel is mini beagle-approved!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Still Wanna Do Bad Things With (Most of) You

"This chemical peel did NOT produce the desired results!"

Original image found here.

All right, two episodes into season 6 of True Blood and I'm just going to say the words I never thought I'd say: I do not hate Billith. I started this season braced for the agony of seeing somber, elegant Bill Compton reduced to a bloody naked psycho. Instead, he seems like his old self as he hasn't been since season 4, only with a mysterious destiny and strange new gifts. (Hands free human-juicing! Neat!) Two episodes in, I care about what Lilith wants from him for the first time ever, and I am captivated by the relationship between Bill and Jessica. Jessica continues to dazzle as the unexpected badass one minute who becomes the sweetly vulnerable fanged girl next door the next. She keeps Bill grounded and attached to his humanity in a way that Sookie never did, and the way Bill cares for her is touching.

Jessica Hamby: bringing daddy issues to a new level since 2008.

Original image found here.

Although, episode two's vision of Lilith filled me with mixed emotions. As relieved as I am that Lilith finally got herself a nice dress, I don't know why her homegirls can't do the same. Nobody is ever going to take these chicks seriously if they keep slinking around with the bloody full frontal nonsense.

"Look, Ma, no boobs!"

Original image found here.

The other pleasant surprise for me was becoming curious about Warlow. I spent all last season out of f--ks to give about Sookie's ancestor trading her to a vampire for magic beans or what have you. After listening to her whine endlessly about how being different SUCKS and watching her throw a magical temper tantrum, I just wasn't that worried about it. I figured that even if he took her, Warlow'd bring her right back before you could say, "You're hot, but not THAT hot."

Little does Sookie know that Warlow is actually the 
lead singer of Vampire ZZ Top.

"She's got veeeeeeins... And she knows how to use them."

Original image found here.

The introduction of the enigmatic fairy grandfather, however, suddenly kicked this plot up a notch. Leaving aside the fact that the man is one Hell of a snazzy dresser, he makes for an dapper Yoda to Jason's clueless Luke. Their interaction in episode two was priceless as he tried to drive home to our gung-ho Mr. Stackhouse the seriousness of his predicament and to prepare him to defend Sookie from her would-be captor. And the moment where Jason enthuses about being a fairy prince, only to get completely shut down with "the gene skipped you" just about made up for the yawn fest that this plot represented last season.

I would totally watch a buddy cop show starring these two.

Original image found here.

The jury is still out, however, where this vampire persecution angle is concerned. @sabrinaslibrary and I were skeptical about humans having the technology to counter every magical ability a vampire might possess. I mean, come on. I don't care how many humans you have with how many fancy toys, centuries old beings with super powers should GENERALLY win the fight. 

And any time you invoke a holocaust motif, which appears to be where this is headed, you have to tread lightly. Conjuring the specter of genocide that smacks of real historical atrocities requires a clever and respectful hand, because the attempted murder of an entire race isn't something to be trotted out for kicks. Besides, this wiener of a governor hasn't been developed yet, but I'm inherently skeptical of his ability to get the jump on even one vampire, let alone several. They should so be beating him up for his lunch money about now. I am, however, on board with Eric's magical seduction of the weasel's daughter and I enjoyed the Hell out of undercover Bible salesman Eric, even if he does give me the willies.

Um, Disguised Eric doesn't look like a guy who 
wants to wear your skin while he talks to Jesus at all...

Original image found here.

The other question mark bordering on an emphatic "NO" is Andy's passel of giggling fairy babies. Sure, it was a hoot to see his fling spurting out offspring while moaning in sexual ecstasy last season, but as I watched his babies become 5 year-olds overnight, I thought, "So what?" This is starting to smack of more random, pointless nonsense a la Terry and the ifrit that takes up time that could be devoted to a more worthwhile plot. Besides a possible reality show about the trials of being the single father of supernatural multiples, I do not see what Andy and his kids have to offer us.

Better start that college fund now, Bellefleur. 
They graduate high school tomorrow.

Original image found here.

All this is time that I'd rather be spending with Pam and Tara. Pam is unquestionably my favorite character on the show. Her lines were most of what kept me coming back for more last season despite bloody naked chicks and the vampire PTA. Seeing her mentor and then smooch Tara made it all worthwhile in the end. I wait with baited breath to see her emotional development this season as we continue to learn about the vulnerable woman beneath the big-haired badass. And with even greater excitement, I anticipate the hilariously deadpan Pam remarks to come.

"Come on, E, smile. I'll make jokes about my sandy cooch again!"

Original image found here.

Where I have to just throw up my hands and wail in frustration is with regard to Alcide's plotline. This show has developed the most unfortunate habit of building up good guys just to knock them down in ways that don't even make sense. First, Bill Compton, he of the strong moral code and eternal yearning to cling to his humanity, suddenly becomes a vampire Dr. Evil who slinks around doing unthinkable deeds on the thinnest of justifications. And now that he's rehabilitated into some semblance of a consistent character, we feast our eyes on the train wreck that they call Alcide Herveaux.

"What do you mean, I'm not a nice guy anymore?
Don't I look like a nice guy?"

Original image found here.

Does anybody remember a time when this guy was a gentle, good-hearted man trying to do right by everyone? Back when he was introduced and he and Sookie started shooting each other considering looks, Alcide struck me as the decent man a gal ought to pick once she's gotten over her hankering for bad boys and decides to settle down. He was the steady, loyal, dependable man, the equivalent of sexy broccoli: he's good for you and you know it, but damn it, sometimes you still want ice cream!

"Don't you wish your broccoli was hot like me?
Don't you wish your man-broccoli was a stud like Alcide?"

Original image found here.

The fact that his romance with Sookie ended before it began due to vomit is upsetting enough. There was so much build-up and then suddenly all prospect of this show that started as a vampire romance actually having romance in it anymore went to Hell. But when Alcide decided to have rough sex with the next trashy wolf babe he met last season and then kicked off this season by having a three-way with his new alpha bitch and a random stray, my eyes could not roll  hard enough.

"Hey, new girl. Pull my finger." 

Original image found here.

Really? Really??? So not only do we still not get Sookie and Alcide together, but now Alcide gets to be just another horny power-hungry douchebag? Do we not have enough of those around already, or is he just trying to fill the void left by Russell Edgington's demise? And would good guy Alcide EVER have traumatized a little girl by beating the crap out of her protectors and dragging her away into the night without at least trying to talk things through? Whatever happened to the guy trying to do right by everyone? One little three-way and suddenly he's too cool to have human decency?

It's disappointing, to say the least. I don't mind a plot that brings out the dark side of a good man, but it needs to be developed properly and it needs to have a point. What's more, we currently have a dearth of decent people on this show. Everybody's innocence is long lost by this point and most folks here seem to err on the side of naughtiness. An uncomplicated Boy Scout is a boring character, but a man of principles who struggles to do right CAN be interesting if he has layers and occasionally makes the wrong decision. What's been done here with Alcide knocks down the last shred of light in Bon Temps and leaves us all struggling around in a maze of dim bulbs.

However, on balance, this season has been a marked improvement over last season. The driving plot is interesting again, and the main characters have stopped their bitching, sulking, and random nonsensical evil and have started to make sense again. I care about almost everything that's going on, and am no longer watching strictly to stare at Alcide shirtless while laughing at Jason and Pam. Still, I want to see the love come back to this show, the emotional connection, and consistent character development. This season seems like its finally correcting True Blood's wayward course. If they can keep on making progress, I may yet find myself becoming a born-again Truebie by the season's end.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Shadow on My Mind- A Short Story

All right, I'm not typically a short story writer, but Neil Gaiman provided a prompt on the Guardian's web site and I just couldn't resist. So here's something I whipped out in under an hour just for the heck of it. I may refine a little in time, but in general, it is exactly what I had in mind. Enjoy!


It wasn't just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat. Even now, the cat was watching him from across the room as she nonchalantly cleaned her paws, those golden eyes rolling up to inspect him.

Brian glanced toward the crumpled form in the hallway, from which blood crawled along the cracks in the floorboards like lines being drawn on a piece of paper. His head almost sank into his sticky hands before he remembered their state and recoiled, lurching up and going into the bathroom. He devoted fifteen minutes to the obsessive scrubbing of his fingers, soaping up every little crevice in his cuticles before he finally convinced himself that they were clean. Then he braced himself against the counter, palms splayed over its marble surface, and watched the red water spiral down the drain with a faint burbling.

His body jerked and convulsed. He collapsed to his knees beside the toilet and vomited up his eggs and toast, the chicken alfredo he’d had for lunch, and so on, emptying the contents of his stomach until he fancied he'd seen the jar of jelly beans he'd eaten that one time when he was eight go flooding past. Sagging back and propping himself against the bath tub, he tried to calm down and think things through.

It wasn't the murder he was having trouble wrapping his mind around. He regretted killing Jenny and was sickened by his own violence, but that had been coming on all day now, a growing rage that burbled in his stomach and spread through his body in a pulsating need for justice. It was more that the day's revelations still stunned him. He would have never expected his Jenny to be unfaithful. If someone had asked him yesterday, "Would your girl ever cheat on you?", he'd have said no without even pausing to think.

But all of the evidence was there. One bit at a time, he'd discovered it, lying around for him to find like the clues in a detective novel.

First, there'd been the phone number. The thin slip of paper had been next to his shoe this morning, waiting for him as he sipped his coffee and shuffled over to prepare for his jog. "Carlos," it said. "555-4701."

"Who's Carlos?" he'd muttered to Shadow, holding the scrap delicately between his fingers.

The cat went ghosting away, her spine arching as she rubbed against the doorway on her way out and vanished around the corner. If he hadn't know better, he would have sworn that she'd just shrugged.

He'd tried to shrug it off, himself, to go on about his business, but his writer's imagination kept chewing on it. As he bounced along the sidewalk, puffing to a Ramones song with his blood pumping, his mind nagged, "Well, you didn't bring that number into the house. It must have been Jenny.” It's funny though, he couldn't recall her ever mentioning a "Carlos" before.

In his mind's eye, an image began to blossom. It rippled and pulsated into a flowy-haired piece of Latin beefcake fit for the cover of a romance novel. He could hear Carlos' accented voice in his head, his R's rolling hypnotically as he complimented Jenny on her gorrrgeous drrress.

Brian had slowed to bump his ipod to the next song. He was being ridiculous. It was a phone number. It meant nothing.

Calling the number had just made sense. It was the simplest way to put his mind at ease. When he got home, he had picked up his ancient green phone— the one he'd saved from his parents' house when they'd died— and punched the digits into the key pad. He had twisted the phone cord around his fingers while it rang, remembering how he'd once fidgeted the same way as a teenager the first time he'd dialed a girl up to ask for a date.

Someone answered the phone. "Jes?" he had purred.

Brian had stayed quiet and waited.

"Jenny? Is that you? I see your number on the caller ID. Jenny, say something. I know you're upset, but we can work this out. It's not as bad as you think. There's still a way to fix it all! Jenny, it's not your fault, it's—"

The phone had disconnected. Brian's head had jerked around as the silence freed him from the spell of that husky voice. He had caught a glimpse of Shadow slinking across the counter, tail twitching, and frowned.

"You're not allowed to be up here," he had complained, slipping a hand under that soft belly and setting her on the floor.

Offended, she'd gone padding from the room, her tail twitching with irritation

He'd spent the rest of the day with that "Jes" growling through his mind. Going in to meet with his editors had proved to be a bust. He didn't care how the book turned out. He was too busy writing passionate love scenes in his mind, wherein lovely bright-eyed Jenny raked her nails down a rippling back as Carlos moaned, "Jes, jes, jes," into her neck.

He'd known it was insane. He'd almost convinced himself that it was just his overwrought imagination playing tricks on him. But then he'd come home to find a suitcase open on the bed, the bare hangers jangling forlornly on Jenny's side of the closet.

And... And then the e-mail she'd left open on the computer had crushed his will to live. 

Brian's head sank into his hands as he propped his elbows on his knees. He'd always known she was too beautiful for him. Too outgoing and fun for a pasty little nerd whose imaginary friends even found him unbearable at times. He should have seen this coming.

The ringing of the phone made his body spasm, his spine digging into the hard porcelain of the tub as he recoiled. Oh God. It was the police. They knew, knew what he'd done. It was all over. Everything was all over.

Then logic kicked in. “Calm down, Brian,” he chastised himself. “The police do not call you to ask if you've committed any murders lately. They just show up with all the yelling and the guns and the handcuffs.”

That mental image did nothing to calm the wild beating of his heart, so he discarded it, twisting to his feet to go answer the phone.

"Hello?" he heard his voice say into the mouthpiece. His tone was pleasant and relaxed. Brian wondered if that was the sign of a break with reality or if, perhaps, he was merely a sociopath.

"Brian?" The weepy female voice on the other end of the line quavered his name as if it had choked her a little on the way out. "Brian, is that you?"

"Carol Anne?" Oh God. Why would Jenny's sister be calling him now? She knew. She knew!

She couldn't possibly know, though. Brian made himself calm down and listen.

"Yes, it's me," Carol Anne snuffled. "Is Jenny on her way? I don't want to pester her, but Mom keeps asking for her."

Brian glanced towards the hallway, towards staring Jenny and the rippling red lines. "Are... Are you expecting her?"

"Well, yes, didn't you get my message? I left a message on the answering machine an hour ago. Mom slipped in the shower. They think she broke her hip. I know it's not exactly life-threatening, and what with everything Jenny's got going on at work, she can't really afford to drop everything and fly out, but—"

"There's no message!" Brian insisted frantically, staring at the zero on the machine. "Carol Anne, there's no message!"

She snorted. "Well, that's technology for you. I swear, I left a message. Anyhow, listen, tell her if she can't come, I understand. I mean, she's in hot water at work as it is. I'll deal with mom if I have to."

"Hot water?" Brian echoed, seeing bloody rivulets draining down the sink in his mind's eye.

"Oh, yeah, she didn't tell you? She blew a huge deadline. Her whole team got it from the boss man. Carlos still thinks they can fix it, but she's been terrified that it's all over for her."

Brian dropped the phone. Carol Anne's voice faded to the periphery of his mind as he wandered slowly into the living room. In the corner, his screensaver was still whirling and flowing across the screen, hiding those devastating words written next to the pulsing cursor indicating a work in progress. Entranced by the drawing and redrawing of glowing lines, Brian hesitated before nudging the mouse and making them disappear. Then the words manifested, neat black letters that were like arrows to his gut, making him want to shrivel up and weep.

"Brian, I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore."

For a moment, he told himself that this was stupid, that there was nothing to be gained. Still, he leaned down, held the control key, and tapped "Z." Undo, he told his computer.

The deleted text reappeared, filling up the screen with words.

"Brian, I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore. The cat has got to go. I know how you feel about her and I really tried, but even doped up on allergy meds, I can barely breathe at night with her lurking around. And I know I said I didn't care about what she did to my nana's curtains, but it's not just the curtains. It's the leather chair and the guest bed. I can't keep replacing all the furniture, darling, I may not even have a job yet after this week is up. So I am about to fly out to Austin to look after my mom, because she apparently hurt herself and Carol Anne just can't cope, but when I get back, I'd like the cat to be gone. I'm really sorry, darling. I know you'll find her a good home."

Brian straightened slowly, scanning the room until he saw her, licking fastidiously at her paws like a feline Lady Macbeth. One golden eye rolled in his direction. He turned back to the keyboard, sliding a finger along the space between blocks of keys and shaking loose several long black hairs. Picking them up gingerly between his fingers, he turned back to stare at Shadow.

Sirens. There were sirens coming closer now. Someone must've heard the commotion after all. Brian slumped down into his desk chair, staring at his cat, and waited.

Maybe it was just his overwrought imagination again, but she looked smug to him. Like she was gloating. And right before the police broke down his door, she met his eyes, and the flash of her white teeth almost looked like a smile.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The High Cost of Prose: a Mini-Blog

You know, I had a pretty sound strategy as to how I was going to resolve my current work-in-progress. Because the final plot twist was, in some ways, a bit too neat, I figured that I had to make the tension that came before it as messy as possible. That way, the reader would be so relieved, they'd forgive me a bit of convenience in the climax. But as I write the pain, the hopelessness, and the heartbreak that comes before the moment of truth, I am regretting this strategy. One cannot write characters for this long without loving them and becoming invested in their happiness. From the moment I started ripping Flynn and Em's lives apart and sending them spiraling into disaster, I felt my guts churning with horror. There is a high price to pay to write the right words, and to do it with feeling. But hopefully, it all pays off in the end.

Original image found here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

My Baby Molly

Friends, I generally try to keep things light on this blog. Being funny is one of my favorite pastimes, right up there with reading, writing, and randomly dancing in public. However, if you've come into this blog post hoping for verbal shenanigans and pictures with silly captions, I urge you to skip this post and try another. This is not going to be a funny post. This is a post where I mull over the loss of my best friend and an irreplaceable piece of my heart, Miss Molly the Wonderpup. Writing is how I make sense of the world, and if I can explain my thoughts, then I can understand them better. So down this post lies only nostalgia and sadness. Turn back if you must. Go forth if you wish. But whatever you do, don't bitch in my comments. :P

 The first picture I ever took of Molly, fresh from her first bath.

I adopted Molly when I was 19 years old, not long after starting my second year of college. I had moved into a rental house in Tallahassee with two friends, and it just so happened that my room had a door leading into the backyard. My roomies immediately saw that this as a compelling reason for me to get a dog. For my part, I was not adverse, but I wasn't completely sold on the idea. I knew a dog was a big responsibility, and I hadn't even been that good at caring for myself up to that point. So when they talked me into going to the pound that day in September 1999, I had decided to humor them, but had privately come to the conclusion that I would not come back with anything but fond memories of all the cute dogs I'd seen. 

Proud mama. 

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and coeds. I suppose I should've known better, because I've always had a soft spot for animals, but I couldn't have imagined meeting a pup as wonderful as Molly. She was Kryptonite for any sliver of resolve I might've had left at that point. She was this teeny thing made up almost entirely of a floppy-eared head and spindly legs. She was there in a litter of five, in amongst two brown siblings and two others that were also all white with spotted ears. However, while her other white siblings had a spot around the eye, she was stood out from the crowd by having a dollop of brown splatted right in the middle of her head between her ears. That right there spoke to me, and she was the one I reached for. When I picked her up and she nestled into my arms like she belonged there, I knew I wasn't leaving there without her.

It turns out that I was wrong about that. While I filled out adoption papers and paid the fee, Molly had to be medically cleared at the pound and then sent to a vet to be looked over before she was free to come home with me. So I had to part company with her, but I promised her we'd meet again soon.

In the meantime, I put an obsessive amount of thought into her name. It couldn't be just any name, it had to be her name. I considered and rejected a million options and was beginning to worry she'd spend the first month of her life thinking her name was "hey, you!" Then, as I was walking along Landis Green, thinking about picking up my puppy the next day, I heard two girls talking in front of me.

"Well, that's what Molly said," one girl said to the other.

It was like there was a swell of golden light and a choir of angels started singing as that name rang out. It was my dog's name. It had just been lurking in the ether, waiting for me to discover it.

Rather than in the sky with diamonds, 
Molly did her best sparkling on my bed with teddy bears.

I couldn't wait to take her home when I went to pick her up from the vet. Unfortunately, once again, we were thwarted in our mutual desire to have her home with me. When I walked in to pick up the puppy the pound had sent to over, I found myself looking into a face featuring a big brown spot around one eye. I was forced to call shenanigans on the switch. Don't get me wrong, this other puppy was adorable, but she wasn't the one that belonged to me. So my roomies drove me with this litter mate back to the pound to exchange her for my girl. I cried the whole way there, because I felt so bad that this puppy was so excited to be with me. But she wasn't mine. We weren't meant to be, and I wanted my puppy.

When I traded her off for Molly, though, I got some comforting information. It turned out that the pound couldn't afford to treat every dog that came in unless there was an obvious need for treatment or a formal diagnosis of an illness. Because the vet had looked over Molly's sister and discovered that she had worms, she had to be treated. This was something the pound had not previously been aware of and might not have otherwise discovered until it was too late. So the mix-up saved the puppy's life, and I got to help two for the price of one!

Molly v. Flora, Danaleigh's cat

It didn't take long for me to realize that I had found the love of my life in this dog. I came home every single day and was thrilled to see her. It became my routine to burst into the house exclaiming like I didn't expect to find her there, gushing, "Oh my goodness, is there a puppy in here? What a beautiful puppy! How did you get this beautiful? Were you just born beautiful? I bet you were. I can't decide what part of you is the most beautiful. Is it your spotted ears? How about this nose? These paws are awfully cute, too! And look at this pink belly! How did you get this beautiful pink belly, huh? And this tail! Oh, I don't know, I can't choose."

Clash of the fuzzy Titans.

In the meantime, Molly would walk around in delighted circles, wriggling while I rubbed her belly and scratched the place behind her ear or under her chin, flopping down on my lap or running off to fetch one of her babies to play tug-o-war. And I would spend time chasing her around in circles pretending like I was gonna "eat her to pieces" or "get her baby tail." It always ended in kisses and hugs and effusive professions of love. 

As Molly got bigger and bigger, only other people doubted that she was still a lapdog. 
Molly and I, we knew she would always be a lapbaby.

My dog traveled far and wide with me, as I went through significant changes in my life. She helped me survive three years of college, a year of unemployment thereafter, then working for minimum wage at a bookstore and living with my dad. She also saw me through two years of teaching middle school, three years of law school, and two and a half years of practicing law before I came back up to North Florida to become a judicial clerk. She moved from Tallahassee to Jacksonville to Tallahassee to Jacksonville to Tampa to Fort Lauderdale and back to Tallahassee again with me.

And no matter where we were and what I was doing, she was always delighted to be with me. Whether it was in the rental house with the huge backyard or the tiny closet of an apartment in Fort Lauderdale or my current spacious apartment with the nice grounds to walk on, it was all the same. It wasn't how nice it was that made it home for her, it was me. And vice versa. When I was with her, she didn't have a care in the world. It was only when she was left with someone else that she became a little white Eeyore with a rain cloud over her head, not wanting to play or eat much until I was back again.

Molly around a year old. Still a lapdog, still adorable.

It wasn't until she was pushing 14 years old that she ever showed her age. Although the vet told me that she was considered geriatric at 7 years, the only concession she'd made to age even at 11 or 12 was a slight awkwardness in her movements when she squatted to pee. Up until her last two weeks of life, she ran around like a greyhound in bursts, went for long walks as many times a day as I was willing, leaped up into my spot on the couch as soon as I abandoned it, and would gallop randomly around the apartment flipping her toys in the air for her own amusement. Being pit bull and cocker spaniel, it was particularly amazing that she was as healthy as she was for so long. She was a 50-pound dog, a larger breed, and they usually only get maybe 8 or 9 years. Molly was pushing for double that.

My furry copilot on one of our many car trips.

She was diagnosed with cancer on April 12, 2013, about two months and change before her 14th birthday. I'd had to rush her to the doctor and I was terrified, because she'd never had so much as a broken bone or ever gotten particularly sick since she was a baby. Mind, when she first came home, she'd had two kinds of worms, a respiratory infection, and was severely anemic, but after that, she'd been nothing but hardy. In fact, it used to be that she'd go into her old Tallahassee vet and they would marvel all over again that this big, robust dog was the same teeny little thing that had once been so sick.

From 2005 in Jacksonville.
Molly loved me even though I looked like an overripe tomato with red hair.

When her doctor told me the news, I asked him what her outlook was if I went through with all the chemo and the surgery he was recommending. He told me very bluntly, "Oh, it's not good. I expect this to be a progressive disease, and to spread. But there's a chance." I told him as long as there was a chance, I was going to take it. So we started chemo.

Tampa in 2009 or 2010

The first dose of chemo didn't even faze her. After having that crap injected into her veins, she still went on three 20-minute walks every day, ran laps with me around the apartment, and occasionally spazzed out throwing her toys around the room. When she was out walking, her ears perked up high, her tail swished, and she trotted like she was filled with the same old joie de vivre she'd always had. My mom and sis came to visit me during this time and remarked on it approvingly. She was herself. Nothing had changed.

She continued to astound the people at her new vet's, who hadn't expected her to respond so well to treatment. They all loved her instantly, and they were all rooting for her. She had that effect on people.

Molly and Piggy Cow: Best Friends and Mortal Enemies

It wasn't until the second dose of chemo that she began to feel poorly. I ended up take her in for an unscheduled visit one day because she was pale and withdrawn. The chemo, it seemed, had begun to attack some of the other quickly regenerating cells in her body, like her stomach lining and her platelets. It left her without much appetite or energy. By this point, I'd been carrying her up and down the stairs to go to the bathroom, and she was having a hard time going very far once she was down there. She got meds to help boost her counts back up, had some IV fluids, and I got prescription dog food that I fed her by squirting that mashed up meat paste through a big syringe into her mouth. She loved the stuff and took to devouring it. I was thrilled that she was soon she bolting across the floor to beg for turkey pepperonis and cheese again after a few days of care.

Tampa in 2010

I took her home with me that weekend to Jacksonville. She was still creaky and had trouble putting weight on all of her feet and she still needed to be fed the meat paste, but she seemed content enough to be my copilot on the journey again and to go sit in my dad's backyard and majestically observe the birds and squirrels. And my dad patted her and was kind to her, and she had always loved him dearly. It was a good trip. 

Queen of the Backyard (2012)

Then, this week, she started to get worse when I'd expected her to get better. Going outside winded her. She came back in panting and pale and couldn't eat or drink for a while. I called the emergency vet more than once, convinced that I needed to bring her in, but she always got better while I was on the phone. Still, I made an appointment to bring her in Friday morning, May 24, 2013, to make sure that she wasn't having more complications from the chemo.

Attentive, and possibly begging for cheese.

When I went in, the news was worse than I could've ever expected. Her doctor, Dr. Walker, who I regarded with respect and gratitude for his kindness through this whole ordeal, came into the exam room looking genuinely upset. He told me that he had expected to see some swelling in Molly's lymph nodes from the cancer because he'd assumed that was the culprit, but what he'd found was that her tumors were shrinking and she was beating the cancer. She had had a one in three shot of surviving it, and she was on track to be the one in three. Unfortunately, she had developed a heart condition wholly unrelated to the cancer, and it was fatal. At best, she had three to four months to live, and only by the grace of several medications. She was at a high risk of sudden death, which meant I could just come around the corner one day and find her gone. 

My "big brave baby," as I liked to call her.

I spent the rest of the day driving around town, spending the last of my savings on the expensive medications she needed, and occasionally stopping in a parking lot to sob until I was hyperventilating. I had to do all of this before I picked up the dog, because she was sensitive to my moods I would only upset her by being upset, myself. But when I came and retrieved her, she was perked up and refreshed from a day inside the oxygen tent. Her buddy, Nicole the vet tech, carried her to the car and gave me the number and address for the best emergency vet clinic in Jacksonville to make sure I knew where to go if she had trouble. And I was sure I had bought her those three or four months, and I was going to be able to take her to Jacksonville this weekend to see the family and tell them goodbye.

Ever long-suffering, Molly put up with a great many random things 
being tied to or placed on her head throughout the years. 

However, as soon as I got home to the apartment, Molly became uncomfortable. She was having diarrhea and it wouldn't stop. She was straining and fretting until she worked herself into a fit of exhaustion that was not good for her heart, and I was working myself into a fit of exhaustion carrying her up and down the stairs to try and go again. Then I put her in the bathtub to clean her up a bit and when she came out, she was white as a sheet and shivering. I wrapped her up in a blanket and rushed her back to the vet.

Snuggly sleeper in her nest

I won't go too much into this time period. I will say they never did figure out what made things start going wrong so quickly. Her back legs and belly were swollen, her throat was swollen such that she could barely swallow, and she was in so much discomfort that she was having an increasingly difficult time resting. My mom and her husband came to Tallahassee to be with me, hoping to bring us both back to Jacksonville once she stabilized. But she never did.

Ultimately, after Molly had spent a night and a day at the emergency vet, with an air of utter defeat the doctor told me about consulting with Dr. Walker and that they had some things they could try to restore her to some semblance of comfort. But they couldn't really treat the underlying problems, and they couldn't promise what they proposed to help one problem wouldn't exacerbate some of the others. And the condition that was causing her the most pain, they didn't seem to know how to treat. So after spending hours talking to her and petting her and taking her outside to sit in the grass, I finally made the call to let it all stop.

Couch sleeper. Not to sound like Sheldon, 
but she was in my spot.

They did it outside in a patch of grass she'd come to prefer, under the light of a full moon with my mom and Ben and I gathered around her. I talked to her and petted her until the last. It was one o'clock in the morning when my girl left me on May 26, 2013. And all that night, and every night since, I've had a lyric from one of my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs playing through my head over and over again.

"Lightning strikes maybe once, maybe twice."

Funny face.

I was so lucky to have her. There was never a moment in my life where I was unaware of that. My girl was housebroken within days of coming home, was never much of a barker, loved every human being she ever came into contact with, and was instinctively gentle with children no matter how rough they were with her. She wasn't a huge fan of other dogs, but she didn't even pay them any mind when they barked or growled at her. She minded her own business and trusted to them to mind theirs. And no matter how uncomfortable she was and how she was being prodded at the vet, she never growled, never murmured, she just endured it all with endless patience because her mommy said it was all right. The emergency vets said she was one of the easiest dogs she'd ever had to deal with.

Baby supermodel in 2013

But it was more than that. She loved me. I knew she loved me, that I was the center of her world and she was the center of mine. I was never lonely when she was near, and even if I was sad, I couldn't stay that way with her tenderly licking my knee or cheek, or just lying against my leg lending silent support. She couldn't stand to see me upset, and she picked up on my joy when I was happy. She really was my best friend. She listened to me talk to her constantly and, though she didn't know what I was saying all the time, she was attentive and pleased to have my attention. When I sang to her, it made her happy or calm, and she actually would prance like a little show pony when I sang her "theme song." (This was to the tune of the Spider-Man theme, and went a little something like this: "Molly Bear, Molly Bear, She jumps here and there and everywhere. Hear the clicking of her nails. See her wagging baby tail. WATCH OUT! Here comes the Molly Bear!")

Prancing Molls, Hidden Manda

We really did share a life together. She wasn't just a pet who lived in my apartment or my backyard, she slept in my bed for most of her life (until my thrashing started to bug her in the old age, and then she slept in her own plush bed). We shared food and travel and exercise. I kept up a constant stream of chatter, and I told her as many times a day as possible that I loved her and she was wonderful and beautiful and magical. And she told me as much back by being so dazzlingly excited to have me near, often watching for me to come home in the evenings from my apartment window.

And I will never forget all the little things about her that made my heart warm with love, like how zen she looked when I rubbed the spot between her eyes or how she pressed her cheek against my lips and make little whistling sounds through her nose when I kissed her. I never want to forget those silken ears beneath my fingers or the heart-sharped birthmark on her belly or how much she liked it when I scratched her "itchy butt." I will forever smile when I see a school of tiny fish skimming through the shallows, remembering the time at the beach where she was tempted into pouncing on some and then realized in abject horror that those idiots were IN THE WATER! And I will always like to picture her out in the grass in a patch of sunlight, sunbathing like she loved to do, grinning with her tongue lolled out of her mouth and her ears perked to attention.

I will miss her every single day that goes by, but I will always, always know what a wonderful creature she was. She made this world a beautiful place to live in, and it will never be as beautiful without her in it. But I'm just going to keep reminding myself that I got to have her. I was so, so lucky to have her in my life for even a minute, let alone nearly 14 years. 

She will always be my baby Molly. She will always be my princess and my love, and I will never forget her.

"Gypsy" by Fleetwood Mac
"Lightning strikes... Maybe once, maybe twice."

NOTE: I'd also like to add that one of Molly's parting gifts to me was to show me that we are both so well-loved, not just by each other, but by our family and friends. The outpouring of support at work, on facebook and Twitter, through phone calls and texts has made what should've been unbearable bearable. Even when I couldn't bring myself to keep responding to all the kind words that came flooding through social media, it made me so grateful to have so many kind, wonderful people in my life. 

And my family has absolutely dazzled me. The way my mom dropped everything to run to me when things got bad, and stayed with me, lying on the floor with my dog in the emergency vet for hours keeping Molly and me company was beyond amazing. Her husband was also supportive and understanding, and so gentle with my pup. 

And when my girl passed and I went to see my family in Jacksonville for my niece's christening, not only did my nieces and nephew manage to push all of the sadness from my heart for a while, all of the hugs and condolences and kindness came in from the folks in attendance in just the quantity to lift my spirits without making me break down. 

I can never thank all of you guys enough. You are the miracles in my life my dog reminded me of, which is just one more thing I have to be grateful to her for.