Jane blinks as the man comes fully into the bus stop shelter. His open shirt flaps in the winter breeze, his chest white and cold-looking, ribs like slats. But the shirt looks starched and his trousers are sharply creased. A wool coat is clamped to his side, under one arm. He sets a strapped attache case onto the bench, buttons his shirt, produces an already-knotted tie and slides it into place. He smooths his hair, his neatly trimmed beard. Puts on the coat, slips the attache strap onto his shoulder, checks the posted metro schedule. His shoes glow with polish. Mr. Businessman, just another commuter waiting for his connection.
Jane’s seen this guy before, every time finishing his dressing as he arrives at the stop. She looks around at an area she already knows too well. Blocks away from the nearest homeless camp. There’s no gym nearby; only dirty concrete buildings nestled into industrial yards full of equipment and unidentifiable junk. She looks at her own barely-pressed self, trying hard to look like anything other than what she is. If he’s homeless too, he’s pulling it off a lot better than she does.
Then she spots the battered booth back across the median, behind them.
This bit from Jane Doe’s world is Carrot Ranch’s monthly #twitterflash challenge. February’s cue: “Write a 200-word story (give or take on the words) incorporating the theme of congruency.” As with so much in writing, this flash is BOTS (based on a true story). I am not Jane and I’m thankfully not homeless, but the guy in this story is real. I can’t figure him out and decided to plunk him into Jane’s world. I can’t remember the last time I saw a phone booth, though.
1. I kept hearing Sheryl Crow singing, “This is the movie of the screenplay of the book about a girl…” The story-within-a-story-within-a-story of this book is like an Escher drawing.
2. The story goes that Get Shorty was Leonard’s revenge on Hollywood culture in general and Dustin Hoffman in particular. After Leonard did endless rewrites of a proposed script for his book LaBrava at Hoffman’s insistence,Hoffman ultimately bailed on the project, leaving Leonard unpaid for all his work. Get Shorty is all sly and smiley about it, but it’s still exactly why you don’t piss off writers. They will put you in a book. I have no particular dislike for Dustin Hoffman, but it all makes me happy.
3. The good guy is a mob-connected shylock. I like antiheros.
This is Elmore Leonard doing what he did best: Insanely good dialogue, one-of-a-kind characters who stay with you, a run-for-the-money romp, and corkscrew twists you don’t see coming. Good stuff.
Jane feels her heart plummet to the soles of her feet at the thought of it, of him, this good-looking and funny and warm guy, this young guy, his eyes smiling at her, waiting for her to say yes, I’d love to have dinner with you. And then her stomach roils at what his reaction must surely be when he finds out — and he will find out, because how do you keep it a secret, that you are such a loser who’s squatting in the basement of an abandoned house?
So very many things are already almost unnavigable when you’re homeless, and now this too. Romance is, indeed, smoke from a distant fire.
This book isn’t quite getting me there. But I didn’t set out purposely to read it, don’t feel like I was drawn in by false hype, so there’s room for forgiveness. My husband found it abandoned on a depot bench while he was waiting for my train and grabbed it for me because I love books. I’ve found some good books in bus seats and the like – a tattered copy of the I Ching comes to mind – but this one was a bust.
It started out well, even if it was a very Stephen King-ish mashup of The Stand and Firestarter and The Dead Zone, even it was very trope-ish with the magical child, the father-figure-protector, the psychic black holy woman. I was enjoying it. Then about a third of the way in – bam, that world is gone and we’re rocketed forward a hundred years or so, leaving behind the well-drawn characters struggling through the military-virus-fuckup-apocalypse to build a new world. WTF? I liked those characters. I wanted to see where they went, how they pulled it all off. And I could have kept with it and even put up with vampires from anyone other than Anne Rice, if the new setting and the new characters had been as compelling, but they weren’t. The new characters are numerous yet two-dimensional, and the pacing is bogged down. I put the book aside after an evening’s reading and never cared enough to pick it up again. (To be fair, I had an Elmore Leonard novel on deck and it’s tough to compete with the Duke.)
Which is not to say that Justin Cronin is utterly unskilled as a writer, because he’s not. He can create a realistic setting, can turn an evocative phrase. Other people loved this book. Perhaps I’d like one of his non-genre novels.
I will leave this on another metro bus, that it may continue its journey and hopefully find its way to someone who can appreciate it.
“Well, at least you got out of it. You corrected your mistake.”
“That marriage wasn’t a mistake,” Jane says.
The counselor raises her eyebrows.” Oppression, abuse…how was it not a mistake to marry a man like that? Not that I’m blaming you. You couldn’t have known.”
“Our daughter,” Jane says. “Only he and I together could have made that wonderful human being. Without him, I wouldn’t have her. She’s the fireweed that redeems it all.”
“Your daughter? Didn’t know you had a daughter. Where is she?”
Jane looks at the floor, silent. That’s a volcano all its own.
Every week, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge at the Ranch. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes fireweed. You can use it as the plant, a flower, a metaphor or as the name of someone or something. Go where the prompt leads. Burn bright when you write.”
Jane makes her way through the neighborhood, feeling for the vibe and feeling the stares — you’re new here — wondering if she could make a home here.
Too many kids are playing in front of that place; a raucous group of young men drinks tall cans of generic beer in front of another; this next place is awash in garbage. Jane shudders and moves on.
Then she spots a quieter residence, one that is neatly kept, a tiny, wizened elderly man reading in a camp chair, small dog at his feet, even a small pot of flowers. And hallelujah, there’s some open space next to him.
No applications or deposits required to move into the homeless camp, provided you can find a decent place to pitch a tent.
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup and blog hop. This week’s cue was PITCH. Fun sixes from other writers are at the link. Come join us!
“Okay, everybody, quiet, focus, stare at the flame, hold each other’s hands…good…good…I feel a spirit here with us. Spirit, who are you? Who are you here for?”
” I’m getting R…O…B…Robert? Robert. Yes? Robert B. Parker…oh my God… Robert B. Parker!”
“How are you Mr. Parker? Knock once if you’re resting in peace, knock twice if you’re spinning in your grave.”
I knew that Killing the Blues was the first Jesse Stone novel written by a substitute author after Robert B. Parker’s sudden death. And I did have my doubts. I came into this book steeling myself against a quite-possibly-unpleasant dose of not-RBP, although I was also hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
Not only is this not-RBP, which is forgivable because the writer is not, in fact, RBP, but it’s not even quality not-RBP, which is not forgivable. And I’m not saying I wanted someone to pretend to be RBP and succeed only in being a pale imitation, no no. I would be even more derisive than I am now. But someone of RBP’s godlike stature deserves a decent writer to carry on with his characters and his world, and that is not what we have. This is simply not very good writing at all. This is clumsy, all telling and no showing, like fan fiction written by a high-schooler. Jesse and Molly are cardboard standups of themselves, and I didn’t make it to Suit. I only made it through the first chapter.
Really, this is even worse than Whatshisbucket pretending he’s Stieg Larsson. Money grabs that exploit the exemplary craft of dead writers piss me off. But I have only myself to blame. After Go Set a Watchman and The Girl in the Spider’s Web, I swore I would not read any more of them. Live and don’t learn, that’s me.
Becca heaves her bag onto her shoulder, making sure she has her lunch, her phone, her bus pass. Another Monday. Joy.
Out of the elevator, she pauses at the door to the street, looking down.
New shoes. Brilliant new shoes. Stylish new shoes. Affordable new shoes. Comfy new shoes. She couldn’t wait to wear them. Brilliant black, blinding white. Wannabe swoosh.
And before she walks an entire block in the Pacific Northwest wet, the black and white will be gray all over. Ruined.
“…point of having shoes I can’t even wear outside,” she mutters, heading back up to change.
Each week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features something black and white. It could be a nun in a zebra monster truck, a rigid way of thinking, a bird in a tuxedo — be imaginative and go where the prompt leads.”
I adored The Martian. I loved it so much I neglected important things like a research paper with a looming deadline and clean socks and sleep, because I couldn’t put it down. So at the same time I looked forward to reading Artemis, I dreaded it. I knew that The Martian was going to be a tough act to follow.
And I was right. The storytelling is just as good, but Jazz Bashara is no Mark Watney. I see the free-wheeling spirit, the principled criminal, the grudge-nursing, heartbroken, sarcastic introvert with the heart of gold, but the “Pants on fire!” “You take that back!” type of exchanges she often had with people were a turnoff. She carried her flip and biting remarks too far and I spent a lot of time wanting to knock her on her ass–fairly easy to do in 1/6 gravity. It felt like Weir was trying to put the spirit of Mark Watney into a female character, and it came off forced.
Still, it’s a good enough story. The science is made interesting and is simplified enough for my non-science brain to follow. I love heist stories. I think Weir gave us a realistic portrait of what life on the Moon would really be like physically – a lot to get used to and much less romantic than we tend to think of it. The pacing is good, the characters are good, and the setting is excellent. It’s an entertaining read, and I might be rating it higher if I hadn’t had the amazingness of The Martian to hold it up against.
Jane is halfway across the bridge when the panic hits. Suddenly she is gasping, hot, her hands clammy and her mouth dry. She barely catches herself from bolting backward, right into rush-hour traffic. She clutches at the fencing with one sweaty hand, her eyes drawn over the edge.
Why not? How long can she keep trying, keep losing? The open air calls beyond the chain-link mesh, beckoning to the water far below. It would be hard, and it would be cold, and then it wouldn’t. And for a few seconds, she would be flying.
Would it be so bad?
This week’s flash fiction challenge prompt at the Ranch: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that goes to the edge. Consider what the edge might be and how it informs the story. Go where the prompt leads.”
Jane labors out of her sleeping bag, into her jacket, out of the tent. Breath steams, frost crunches, but she smiles, fumbling pocketknife and cooler. Tasty breakfast, meat and cheese, cold frappuccino. The only way winter is a friend to the homeless–no ice needed. #Twitterflash
Over at the Ranch, @Charli_Mills and @CJaiFerry are giving us monthly #Twitterflash challenges. January’s prompt: In a single tweet, write a story about seeing coldness in a new light. Extra challenge one: Realizing a tweet’s limit of 280 characters includes spaces. Extra challenge two: Realizing the hashtag takes up 13 of those characters. Yowza!
So. I like Jesse and his department and I love Molly and Suit, and I like Paradise and the people in it, and the mysteries are entertaining, and I love RBP’s writing. But I cannot stand Jenn. I cannot stand Jesse’s obsession with this bimbo. I. Can’t. Stand. It. She annoys the living crap out of me every time I read one of these books. And every time I finish one, I’m sure that’s the last one I’ll read because I cannot take one more page of Jenn, and then I turn right around and check out the next book, hoping this time it’s what I want it to be.
Huh. Just like how Jesse is with Jenn.
Did you do that on purpose, RBP? Nice one. But it’s still pissing me off.
<checks out the next Jesse Stone novel against her will>
Jane shrinks back into her corner, trying for invisibility. Office birthdays. She hates them.
She hides behind her slice of cake, eying the other women, each one wearing fashion boots with the onset of autumn. Ankle-high, calf-high, thigh-high, like who thinks those are appropriate unless your job title is Dominatrix? Black, brown, trimmed with fur, leopard pattern, silver work, buckles. All sleek, all stylish. All expensive.
She shoves her own feet back under her chair, hoping no one has noticed the clunky black Wellies she was fortunate enough to find at the thrift store.
Her luxury is dry feet.
Every week, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge at the Ranch. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes boots. Whose boots are they, where do they go and what is their significance? Go where the prompt leads.”
TUFF – The Ultimate Flash Fiction – is a brilliant way to write. Whether it’s an entire story, a chapter, or a scene, it expands upon the strict formats I typically follow, either the 99 word challenges held weekly at Carrot Ranch, or the Six Sentence Stories blog hop hosted by Ivy at Uncharted each week.
This final contest in the Flash Fiction Rodeo consisted of five submissions total. The first was raw writing, timed writing for five minutes, total unedited draft. The second was distillation of that draft to the standard 99 words. The third challenge was to pare that down further, to 59 words. Fourth was essentially a blurb, a recap in nine words. Then we were free to stretch our legs and fill the story out in 599 words.
It was amazing. I am well used to the 99-word challenge, participating most weeks. This constraint (and that of the Six Sentence Stories) requires me to really practice the craft, learn to be concise where I can so I can get wordy when I really need to, to paint the lushest picture I can with as few brushstrokes as possible. The next part, 59 words, was hard. An entire story arc in 59 words? But I did it. Nine words wasn’t hard at all. Then back up to 599 words, Paring things down, I’m used to; expanding things out, not so much. 599 words took some work. I loved every syllable of it.
And it wasn’t just the five different submissions, oh no. Part of the challenge was to follow the archetypal hero’s story. Charli explains the hero’s journey and elixir of transformation:
The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world.
The test: the story develops conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies.
The cave: the story leads to a crisis, the hero’s darkest hour in the abyss of ordeal.
The transformation: survival transforms the hero who begins the journey home.
The return: the hero returns to the ordinary world with the elixir of knowing one’s own transformation.
Throughout the Flash Fiction Rodeo I’d tried to expand my horizons, to stretch myself beyond my homeless heroine, Jane Doe, and the people she shares her world with. But with the TUFF contest, Jane was irresistible. What an opportunity to flesh out her entire story arc, even I don’t intend to publish it in its entirety! So Jane is back, thinly disguised as Marlie. I have never personally experienced homelessness but it loomed in the windshield of my life not too long ago, and it terrified me. It is an epidemic in this country that breaks my heart. I donate toward ending homelessness when I can. (Nickelsville, appearing in the 599-word finished product, is a real place, a tent city named in karma-esque fashion after a heartless Seattle mayor who made life even harder for the homeless than it already was.)
I didn’t win this one either, and I don’t care. I had a ball just being there, for this final contest and the other six I entered. The winners were fantastic — you can read them here, including the prizewinning “The Sun Shines on the Half-Moon Cafe” by Liz Husebye Hartman.
TUFF Five-Minute Free-Write (No laughing! It’s hard to expose the initial writing process. Yes, I know I started with “Once upon a time.” At least it wasn’t “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who was a talented paralegal. She worked for an attorney in a small town, for more than 15 years. But times got hard, and she was laid off from her job. She’d seen it coming, and had been looking for something new for more than a year, with her boss’ blessing. But nothing new had come her way in that time, and she had no replacement job waiting when the ax finally fell.
Casting her net wider, she soon got an offer for a position in another state. Expand her horizons, move up to the Big City, a new environment, a liberal community rich in the arts…what could be more wonderful? She happily spent money to relocate two states away, happy knowing family was a short flight away, happy for new opportunities.
The job was horrid. Miserable. She’d landed in a viper’s nest of emotional abuse and bullying, working for what she surmised was a true narcissist. After two months, she made an appointment with a job recruiter in her new city. After another month, she’d had no success. Fired. Far from home. Alone.
And the spiral downward began.
She applied for job after job, with no success. She was able to do temp work from time to time, but that wasn’t enough to keep her in rent money. She was evicted from her apartment, escaping with only a few possessions and the beat up old truck she’d intended to replace with her glittering new job.
TUFF 99-Word Challenge
“You don’t know what it’s like,” the man snarls. Fetid breath, brown teeth. “All your stupid paperwork, all smug, with your nice house to go to, your fancy clothes. But you’re clueless.”
Marlie recoils as if slapped. “You have no idea what I know,” she snaps back. “I used to make six figures a year. From there to unemployed, to suicide attempt, to the streets, until I finally got this job. And I’m grateful.” Deep breath. You’re not supposed to be mean to the clients. “I’m sorry, okay? Now let’s finish these forms, get you a place to live.”
TUFF 59-Word Challenge
Janine sips coffee. “I don’t get it. You used to have it all. Luxury apartment, Benz…now you’re in that sweathole, surrounded by deadbeats all day.”
Marlie cradles her own cup. “Ten years, I couldn’t get something at my old level. But I make a difference now. I get by.” She sips. “Sometimes you don’t make hay; you make do.”
TUFF 9-Word Challenge
Psych. I can’t find where I saved what I wrote for the 9-word part. Let’s say it was “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” with a nod to Chumbawumba.
TUFF 599-Word Challenge
“We’ve got the facts and figures for you, ladies and gentlemen, but I’ve also got the personal experience.”
Marlie pauses, takes a deep breath and a sip of water, plunges ahead before she can lose her nerve. She’s never excelled at public speaking.
“Seven years ago, I was in the same position our clients are, the same position homeless people are in all over this country. Businesses were downsizing everywhere, people being laid off. They lost their homes, their retirements, everything, through no fault of their own. I’m one of them.
“I relocated across the country when I couldn’t find something at home. And then I lost the job here. And then I lost another. I lived off my savings, and I didn’t worry. I was confident in my skills and my experience. The mantra in America is that if you’re willing to work hard, you can have anything, be anything, isn’t it? But it’s not true.”
Another breath, another sip.
“Over the next ten years, I submitted half a million resumes and applications. I’ve worked with countless different recruiters. I’ve been awarded a few temporary contract positions, but nothing went permanent like they’d promised. The long-term contracts were canceled before they ran to the end. It only took a couple of times before I learned to live frugally even though I was making six figures, because I had no guarantees. None. Why didn’t anyone want me? Why couldn’t I get anyone to hire me permanently?” Marlie shrugs. “I still don’t know.
“I hit a real down four years ago, when I’d run completely out of money again, been turned down for another sure thing yet again, and I attempted suicide. This wasn’t a ‘cry for help.’ Four hundred pills—I meant it. But I wasn’t as secretive as I thought, because a friend figured it out from across the country, called the police. I was found and saved.” She laughs, short and dry. “I couldn’t figure out saved for what, though. Things only got worse from there.”
Marlie pauses again, looks around at the legislative committee, seated with their water bottles and laptops, paying attention, unbelievably enough, to what she’s saying. Her eyes light on her boss, who nods encouragingly.
“While I was in the hospital and rehab, I was evicted from my apartment. No job, no rent. My things were put into storage and I eventually lost all of them. A friend took me in for a little while but then she moved out of town and I was left with nowhere again. And that’s when I ended up on the streets.”
“I didn’t stop trying, though. I got a very little money leftover from Pell grants by going back to school. I sold homeless-benefit newspapers. I squatted in an empty house, until I moved to a tent in Nickelsville.”
More water, more air. Almost done. “Through all of this I kept applying, kept interviewing. Finally I landed this more or less permanent job, general office help at the homeless exchange. I earn a fifth of what I used to. I can’t even afford a whole apartment, but that’s okay, because I can’t furnish it, either.” Laughter. “I take the bus everywhere and I rent a single room from a nice family in Koreatown.
“It’s all okay. Sometimes you don’t make hay. You make do. I’m making do, and I’m making a difference to people who really need it, not just lining corporate America’s pockets. If the committee will approve our proposal, these funds can give real, solid help to people like me all over the state…”
A huge thank-you to Charli Mills, blogger extraordinaire at Carrot Ranch Literary Community and lead buckaroo of the Congress of Rough Writers. I had a blast.
Sherri Matthews led the Rodeo’s Contest #7, Murderous Musings, inspired by true crime stories, intrigued by the “why” behind it all. I am fond of true crime as well. I do believe that the right tumbling of dominoes could lead any of us to dastardly deeds and the workings of the mind and heart behind such things are fascinating to me. Contrary to what it’s easy to believe, most killers are not serial killers or mass murderers, dangerous to no one but their single victim, brewed up by a set of circumstances that are just so. According to both NPR and a Scripps Howard News Service review of FBI records, approximately one-third of murders in America go unsolved. I’ve often considered how easy it would be to get away with murder if I did it right, and I’m not even the smartest cookie on the sheet. One of my NaNoWriMo novel drafts was about exactly that. As much as most killings are one-time crimes of drunkenness or passion, it’s easy to ponder how many could be carefully planned, meticulously carried out, and successfully covered up.
This contest was simpler than some of the previous ones: “Write a flash fiction in 109 words, no more, no less and weave a murderous vibe through an every-day setting, either in thought or deed.”
Reading back over my own entry, I didn’t do much weaving, didn’t turn up quite enough heat. And that’s okay. Perhaps the main reason I write flash fiction, and participate in flash fiction linkups and blog hops, is to practice my own wordsmithing and to watch how others do it–watch and learn. Other writers let their murderous musings run free and took their characters far enough, and they were fantastic. I think I would do very well not to cross some of these characters, or their creators!
I am now of a mind to reread Arsenic and Old Lace.
“Why would I know where he is? We’ve been divorced fifteen years. That was a happy day, being rid of that abusive piece of –”
“I’m just following up, Mrs. Burg. I’ve got two clients he owes child support to. He’s disappeared.”
“It’s Ms., and it’s Smith. I dumped his name when I left the state to get away from him. Try asking your clients.”
I’m asking you. Any ideas?”
Macie’s shrug can almost be heard over the phone. “There’s old abandoned mine shafts all over the place down there. And if he’s in one, I hope one of those exes had the pleasure of putting him there.”
So, here’s the thing. I didn’t care all that much for the 80’s, with the exception of Mario, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and MTV actually playing music videos. I had thin, flat hair that wouldn’t go big no matter how much hair spray I used. I don’t care for loud colors, can’t stand sitcoms in general, and I never got into hair band music. I lived my teenage years in the 70’s, playing Dungeons and Dragons and listening to better music and wearing cooler clothes, although I will admit that avocado green appliances were fuuuugly.
But this book is still just awesome. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix is right. It’s not the writing, which sometimes falls a little flat and is prone to telling rather than showing. It’s not the characters, who are standard (80’s) issue hero-cleverly-disguised-as-poor-geeky-orphan-kid, staunch-and-funny-best-friend, and super-hot-wicked-smart-love-interest. It’s obviously not the absolute saturation of 80’s pop culture with constant references to movies I’ve never watched and video games I’ve never played and comic books I’ve never read. What it is, is a grim dystopia, the year 2044, the world suffering a 30-year great depression due to damage from climate change, various nuclear altercations, and the widespread, abject poverty caused by unchecked capitalism. This dismal life is saved only by the OASIS, a virtual reality consisting of thousands of worlds and any type of magic and technology you could dream up, free for anyone to access, a gamer’s paradise and general escape from the desolation of real reality, and I can totally be down for that. If I had a billion dollars, one of the first things I’d get is a holodeck.
All of this makes a rollicking good tale, the worldwide free-for-all hunt for an Easter egg inside an incomprehensibly huge virtual reality/MMO game that will give the winner the entire Bill-Gates-ian fortune of the man who invented it. It’s a page-turning romp that may not be literary brilliance but is still written competently enough to get you there. I couldn’t put it down.
(It’s worth noting that I almost didn’t read this book, as it’s adored by a lot of the same people who love Ender’s Game, which pretty much nauseated me with its utterly unlikable Gary-Stu-little-shit of a main character and its disturbing number of scenes centered around naked prepubescent boys in the group shower. What is wrong with you, Orson Scott Card? Fellow bookaholics, if you’ve been avoiding Ready Player One because you threw Ender’s Game into the wall as hard as I did, trust me. They don’t compare.)
“…to hold you in shadow and light, in doubt and certainty, when times are hard and when they are easy…”
Richard’s sister may have legally taken his earthly possessions, but this single page covered with scribbled bits of the vows he was writing are worth more than his computer equipment and manga art collection could ever be. Vows for the wedding they would never have. Becca gives in and allows herself to weep for a minute, then flings the pages away in horror at her carelessness. She can’t even read his words now, his pages smeared with her tears.
Every week at Carrot Ranch Literary Community, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about wet ink. It can be artistic, writerly, or completely off the wall. Go where the prompt leads.”
With a slam of the stairwell door, Michelle and Becca are gone. No invitation for Jane to join them, but as much as she dislikes them and can think of no one she’d want to eat lunch with less than those two, it still rankles, all the snapping orders and barking at her like she’s a dog and general condescension, no acknowledgement that she’s their co-worker and is human and might actually have a feeling or two. Not being invited to lunch, again, is really the least of it.
But then Jane sees it, shining like her own personal grail on the desktop of Becca’s Mac — the file Becca has been laboring over for the last two weeks, the electronic reams of police reports and witness statements and diagrams and photographs and medical records and deposition transcripts needed to prove their case, meticulously indexed and cross-indexed and Bates-stamped, ready for final approval and transmission to opposing counsel and the court.
It takes Jane only three clicks of the mouse before the magic words display on the screen: Delete file permanently – are you sure?
“Wages of sin, payback’s a mother, karma’s a bitch, and all that,” she mutters, and clicks Becca’s mouse once more.
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction blog hop and linkup. This week’s cue was “wage.” Fun sixes from other writers are here. Join us! It’s fun!
Contest #6 was the most challenging for me, the Bucking Bull Go-Round, embodying the Professional Bull Riders concept of what makes a good, high-scoring bucking bull ride:
“A contest of strength, balance, endurance, and effort between the world’s best bull riders and the world’s best bucking bulls. A rider must ride for 8 seconds with one hand in the bull rope and one in the air in order to earn a score. The clock starts when the bull’s shoulder or hip breaks the plane of the gate. It stops when the rider’s hand comes out of the rope – voluntarily or not.”
Without real bulls (thank all the gods there are!) the challenge shifted to writing. In real bull-riding, a rider’s arm may not touch himself, the bull, or the ground before the 8 seconds are up. For this challenge, no touching meant sticking to fiction; entries must be entirely fictional, with no first person narration. In real bull riding, the bull is scored for its difficulty to ride, including body rolls, bucking, and changes in direction; in this contest, the prompt words and the writer’s use of them to shift and change direction within the story while remaining in control were scored. Finally, style was judged, perhaps the most difficult. As lead buckaroo of this contest, D. Avery wrote: “Style is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Style is when the rider has mastered the moves of the bull and now is showing moves of her own. Style is when the whole ride looks easy and smooth.”
Stories are to be 107 words in long in eight sentences.
Stories are to include the two words drawn as your prompt (you may change the order of the words and they do not need to be adjacent).
Write a fictional story that involves facing a challenge or fear.
Stories are to be fiction only; no personal narrative, memoir, or non-fiction of any persuasion. Spur on a story!
Go where the prompts lead, or buck, or twist. Hang on to your hat!
Entrants put their names in for a bucking bull and were each given the name of an actual bull on the PBR circuit; I drew Sleeping Deacon. That’s where it got tough for me. How on earth to include both the words “sleeping” and “deacon” in one story about staring down fear? Why couldn’t I have got an easier bull, like Panic Attack or Prime Time? But then, it wouldn’t be a challenge. You take what’s hard, and you run with it the best you can.
“What do you mean, you’re not coming to church? It’s the Deacon, back in town, gonna light everyone’s fire.”
Alicia sets her mug down with a snap and snugs her bathrobe tighter. “That’s the issue. All I hear is damnation, eternal burning, we’re all sinners and always will be, and it follows me even when I’m sleeping, visions of never being good enough and burning forever, and that’s supposed to be comforting?”
“See, your problem is–”
“My problem is solved. I decided there’s no God, and now there’s no hellfire, no eternal damnation, and no early-morning preacher shouting at me, so I get to sleep late.”
Nope, didn’t win. But that’s okay. It was a real challenge, and damned if it wasn’t fun. The winners were wonderful, and you can read them here.
“And it took me forever to clean the damn kitchen! If that man would learn I’d prefer a reservation to his cooking, I’d be so happy…” Michelle’s voice trails off as her office door snicks shut.
Jane pauses her filing, transported back in time to her mother’s kitchen, her child self scrubbing those hated copper-bottomed pans with steel wool until they gleamed. What she wouldn’t give for a meal home-cooked just for her! For her own kitchen to clean!
Her mother’s kitchen, closed to her since their estrangement. It seems a lifetime ago now, in a country now foreign.
Every week at the Carrot Ranch Literary Community, Charli Mills hosts the 99-word flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Copper Country. It can be any place, fictional, historical, or on another planet. Go where the copper leads.”
“Oh, what a glorious day,” Jane chirps, shoving her backpack under her side of the cubicle counter. “Blue sky, walking uphill I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. The Mountain is out in all her glory and I swear it feels like spring already.”
Becca feels her shoulders pointing up near her ears as if she’s trying to hide her head inside them. Before she knows what she’s said, she snaps, “Oh, don’t even start this morning, okay?”
She’s not sure whether to cringe or revel in the silence that actually feels like a physical thing, suspended around them like a shroud.
OK, now I’m confused. I swear I read this morning that this week’s cue was “start,” but when I clicked the link just now for the blog hop and link-up, it says “suspend.” I daresay one of them was actually last week’s, reverberating around in my brain. So I edited a bit and used both cue words. It’s a twofer Six Sentence Story! You can read fun sixes from other writers here. Join us! It’s fun!
Still catching up with the Flash Fiction Rodeo over at Carrot Ranch – a series of eight different flash fiction events. Contest #4 was Scars.
Writer and event buckaroo Irene Waters gave the guidelines: “The topic – Scars – was inspired by a quote by Stephen King – whose book on writing should be read, I believe, by all aspiring writers. He wrote ‘Writers remember everything … especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar.’ Entries were to show a remembered scar using any genre the writer chose in 198 words.”
I myself have come to believe this is true. As I write about Jane Doe and the cast of characters that make up the world she lives in, I draw on personal experience. I don’t limit it to that, though, because that would be a boring monologue about my own life, but it’s fun to take a small incident and blow it up, make it into a major event, personality trait, or obsession for various characters. It’s fun, and it’s cathartic, and sometimes good for a little revenge. You know what they say about writers – be nice to them, or they’ll put you in a book. It’s true that writing, or any art, heals.
When the winners were posted over on Carrot Ranch, I was thrilled to receive an honorable mention. The winners were fantastic, and the winner of this contest, D. Wallace Peach for “Galatea,” also took the All-Around Best of Show prize. You can read them here.
She hadn’t ended up homeless on purpose. Who does? A simple layoff, when the bubble burst in the two-thousand-oughts. She hadn’t been worried–at first. But it stretched, stuck. Unemployed or underemployed or temporarily employed for the next seven years. Her fault? Really? She’d tallied it one year: half a million applications and resume submissions. Thousands of call-backs, hundreds of referrals, dozens of interviews. But nothing permanent, nothing at her earning level, or simply nothing. A temporary job won’t get you an apartment. She’d felt cursed, marked, by the time she finally landed her present position three years ago.
And after three years, she’s still trying to unpack it. If her login fails on her company’s time card website, her heart pounds. A downward trend in the business for a month leads to sleepless nights about the company going under. FedEx loses her package with $24,000 worth of billable documents, and she’s convinced she’ll be blamed and fired. The slightest hiccup looms in nightmares as a security guard standing over her while she clears out her desk, then showing her the door to the street. Once you’ve landed on the street, you never forget how easy it was.
The Leftovers is the story of those left behind after what is officially called the Sudden Departure, for the purposes of PC and especially looking at who was taken and who was left behind and the fact that Jesus does not seem to have made an actual appearance. And it’s a lot to deal with. It’s more than a little disconcerting when the friend beside you on the sofa watching YouTube videos is just not there. Just gone. Vanished. In, literally, the blink of an eye.
So, how to deal? If you didn’t lose your own spouse or child or parent or sibling, then you know plenty of people who did, or, perhaps most traumatically, you were an actual Eyewitness. What do you do? Maybe you drown yourself in booze and weed and sex. Maybe you bury yourself in work, or you leave your spouse and children to join a wonky stalker-ish cult, or you drop out of school and follow a so-called messiah who collects a harem’s worth of child brides in an effort to father The One as quickly as possible. Maybe you hide away from the world in your shock and grief. Or maybe you get righteously pissed and start a poison-pen mimeograph-type crap newsletter that you hand out on street corners to blast everyone else you’re stuck here with, because why the hell would the Rapture take that Muslim and that brown person and that goddamn hommaseckshual, and leave you behind when everybody knows you’re the best Christian in the entire world and you should have been hand-picked and first.
Or maybe you realize some things cannot be made sense of so you pick up the pieces and keep living your life as best you can, however that happens to be.
Perrotta writes with humor and heart, and without straying into the overly Biblical or the mawkish. Thoroughly enjoyable read, recommended.
I won! I won! I couldn’t believe it, really. I don’t know how many entries there were, but I was thrilled to get the email announcing I’d won. This was my entry for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo Contest #3 (I didn’t enter #2; its rules included that it had to be funny, and I’m generally best at humor when I’m being snarky, which didn’t feel right for a contest). I’m still amazed. The best part of the prize was a small collection of rocks from Lake Superior. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I love rocks. These will now be my special Writing Rocks.
The rules for this contest were to include a septolet as a magic spell, total word count 200-300. The Septolet is a poem consisting of seven lines containing fourteen words with a break in between the two parts. Both parts deal with the same thought and create a picture.
Jane pauses in the vestibule by the elevator outside the law firm doors. Beyond the window the sky looms gray over twenty-five stories of air filled with drizzle.
Another interview over. For better or worse.
No. For better, this time.
She examines the cuffs of her blouse, new-to-her from the thrift store, not frayed, nicely white. Her slacks bag a bit; she’s lost weight. She hopes nobody looked closely at her shoes. She showered right before coming here, in the college locker room after her fitness class, the shower being the only thing a college fitness class could possibly be useful for. Her core aches pleasantly. Her hair is clean and tidy; her makeup easily understated. Leftover Pell grant money and ten hours a week work-study don’t exactly take a girl to Sephora.
Her good-luck portfolio, holding paper copies of her résumé and her passport – a nice touch, along with her slender purse. This is not the look of a woman living in a tent. She hopes.
Homeless for not much longer, if she pulled this off. It felt like it went well, but then, it always feels like it went well. Every time for the last five years, it’s felt like it went well.
She composes her mind, focusing as she pulls a small cloth bag from her purse, and from that a generous pinch of chamomile buds. “I attract you, prosperity,” she whispers, sprinkling it in the soil of the potted polyscias outside the firm’s door. Into the dirt she tucks an aventurine crystal: “For good luck.” She closes her eyes and chants quietly, with force:
You need me.
“So mote it be,” she whispers, and calls the elevator.
I’m still thrilled and amazed that my entry actually won, especially after I read the other entries liked by the judges. They are wonderful, and you can read them here. Pure magic.
I have a beef with people who throw around “I’m so OCD” because they dislike the stapler being on the wrong side of the pencil cup. That is not what OCD is. OCD is an often crippling anxiety disorder that can make your life a living hell by way of intrusive, obsessive, terrifying thoughts that take over every single thing you try to do, every day of your life.
Example 1: As the result of a brutal attack, a woman now views the numbers 2 and 6, when adjacent, as a sign that something terrible is going to happen. If her total at the cash register comes to $8.26, she has to put something back or buy something else to get rid of the 26, while others in line shuffle their feet and mutter impatiently and she knows she’s inconveniencing them but she can’t help it, she has to get rid of that 26 or she’ll die. She always finagles a way not to leave the house, or even her bed on the 26th of the month and refuses to own a digital clock because somehow it’s always 26 minutes past the hour when she looks at it. She was fired from her job cleaning motel rooms because she could not even walk past, let alone clean, room 26 without hyperventilating and throwing up and management would not take her seriously enough to simply assign her a different block of rooms. She began crying uncontrollably in DMV when her new car was issued plates with a “626” and the clerk refused to simply skip that plate and issue her the next one, while letting her know she was being unreasonable and hysterical instead of being nice and humoring her, and had police remove her from the premises and cite her for disturbing the peace, but of course she can’t pay the citation because she just got fired from her fucking job and soon there will be a warrant for her arrest. Probably with a 26 in it somewhere, which will certainly kill her, because even though none of the other 26’s have killed her doesn’t mean this one won’t, and it will. She knows this.
Example 2: After losing her father, a high school student cannot walk down the “wrong” side of the street or sit in the “wrong” seat or her mother will die. She has to select the “right” item from the store display of identical items, always wear the “right” underwear with the “right” shirt, and needs her mother to check in throughout her daily movements to reassure her daughter that she wasn’t in an accident. If any of these rituals cannot be conducted, the girl is in agony, suffering crippling headaches and stomachaches, convinced with every moment that no matter how careful she has been, she has still inadvertently just managed to cause her mother’s death and equally convinced that even if she didn’t do it this time, she’ll surely do it next time, because you can’t watch everything, you can’t think of everything, and how long can anyone keep this up? What about all the things she could have done wrong that she didn’t even think of, because she was too busy choosing exactly the right Ibuprofen out of the bottle while trying not to throw up, and now she’s going to be late for first period again, that will be probably be detention, oh fuck it, just stay home sick again. But wait, they’ll haul my mom into court for me being a truant, and what if the stress makes her have a heart attack and kills her? Aaaand now I’m puking.
Now, picture those two scenarios, and knowing, with every fiber of your being, that the number 26 will kill you, or that not picking the right package of underwear off the rack will kill your mother, all while the rest of the world is telling you that you’re a nutcase, to just knock it off already, look, people are staring, no wonder nobody likes you. Imagine making your way through every single waking moment with the knowledge that disaster will fall at any moment, the constant pressure to make no mistakes because the resulting tragedy will be your fault, all while holding down a job and going to classes and doing homework and washing laundry and cooking dinner and taking medication and paying bills and trying to be social because the one thing you’re supposed to do beyond anything else in this life is just be goddamned normal, and maybe, just maybe, you could meet someone who gets you and wants to be a part of your life, all the while judging and weighing every single action because the tiniest mistake will summon doom, and ultimately knowing that you have no social life, no money, no success, because you’re batshit crazy and you can’t stop it.
That’s just one day. Now do that every day. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That is OCD. Not annoyance at an off-center picture on the wall. Please stop saying that.
These are real people, by the way. I personally know both of them.
I usually don’t care for Nicholas Cage, but he portrays OCD brilliantly in the movie “Matchstick Men,” which is worth the watch. It’s amazing that I would say that about a Nicholas Cage movie, but it was an amazing performance.
OK, so. Yes. This is supposed to be a book review. Turtles all the Way Down. Also a brilliant rendering of OCD. As he usually manages, John Green tackles a hard subject, kids dealing with the hard parts of life, and maybe they don’t do it entirely well but they do it entirely humanly, with grace and wisdom we don’t remember having at that age, but maybe we did. One of his characters, as you might suppose, has a pretty bad case of OCD, the real thing, and it is written realistically, with angst and compassion and a little bit of humor, too.
Turtles All the Way Down is every bit as good as you’d expect a John Green book to be, which is pretty damn good.
“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”
And once again, just so we’re clear: This is NOT OCD:
THIS is OCD:
Bookshelves: hot-off-the-press, coming-of-age, ya, mental-health-issues, popular-fiction, thank-you-for-getting-it-right, this-is-the-stuff-right-here
Jane unzips her tent, peering out. Her breath mists in front of her, and the ground crunches under the feet of another Tent City resident, picking between canvas and nylon. Hard frost, again. Not snow, true, but still too cold for living in a tent.
She shrugs into her coat and grabs the backpack she’d loaded the night before, shuddering her way to the bus stop six blocks away. This is the stage of winter that feels eternal. If spring hasn’t come by now, it never will.
Until she spots them, tiny, delicate, white heads peeking through the frost.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), include white flowers in your story.
“Why so down, Jane, I mean, it’s Christmas, you know the rule, you’re supposed to be happy on Christmas.”
Jane shrugs, head down. “I’d wanted to have a job by the end of the year, but here I am, still unemployed, still broke, still scrounging, still homeless and living in a tent and not getting my teeth fixed because who has a gazillion dollars for fillings when you can barely come up with a dollar for McDonald’s coffee?”
“You’re also still HERE, hon, still doing resumes and going on interviews, selling newspapers for pocket cash, going to school, spending Christmas helping here at the shelter because you still help people who have even less than you do.” A quick, sharp hug. “You’re tough and you’re still here and you’re a rock star, Jane.”
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction challenge and blog hop. This week’s cue was “star.” Fun sixes from other authors are at the link. Join us! It’s fun.
It’s typical for me to like the book vs the movie in inverse proportions — the more I love the book, the less I’ll like the movie. Sometimes it’s the other way around, as with Terms of Endearment, with the movie so fantastically wonderful and the book so fantastically atrocious. It happens sometimes.
I first saw the movie Chocolat years ago and loved it, and was pleasantly surprised when I loved the book as well, although there are some noticeable differences. The book is set in the 1990’s while the movie is post-war, perhaps to better capture the provincial feel of the setting. In the movie, Vianne’s nemesis was the mayor rather than the village priest, perhaps to soften what many in the reading audience felt was a shot at the Catholic church itself.
I can understand it, though. I once had a pastor similar to Reynaud, and in a similar situation. I sought advice and guidance with my own marriage, an abusive one, and found about as much comfort as Josephine got from her priest – you’re violating your vow of marriage, the solemnity of the marriage promise, a good wife is supposed to…blah blah fuckity blah. Excuse me? What about my husband’s vow of marriage, the solemnity of his marriage promise, how a good husband is supposed to behave? I felt betrayed, and when God betrays you, that’s serious. I fled that church and fled the marriage not long after, and have had nothing to do with organized religion since. I decided, as Vianne told the priest in the book, that I did not need an intermediary to connect with God/the Universe/the Divine/the Great Mother/the Force/whatever you want to call it. I have explored several different religious paths since then, stitched bits and pieces of many of them into my own warm heathen patchwork quilt, and have settled into a direct-line relationship with Whatever Name You Like for Your Invisible Man in the Sky that is far more spiritually aware than any relationship I’ve ever had with a brick-and-mortar church. And there you have it.
So I can see why some reviewers felt this book was attacking the entire Catholic Church. And maybe it kind of has that coming, if only for the contemptible offense of hiding pedophiles within its ranks. But the fictional Curé Reynaud is no more representative of the entire Catholic Church than that one shitty pastor I encountered was representative of all of Christianity, and smart, discerning people can figure that out. And there are two sides to that coin. Decades ago, when I was very young, working at a university library, I regularly helped the college’s priest with book and audio-visual (that’s how long ago this was; it was still called audio-visual) stuff. I adored Father Simon. He kept telling me I needed to get back to church, and I’d say, “But I’m not Catholic, Father,” and he’d say, “It doesn’t matter, God is God, I don’t care what church and God doesn’t care either,” and I actually did attend one time, at his little college chapel. That’s the one and only time I went to a Catholic ceremony and I felt out of place, not because of Father Simon who was wonderful as always, but because I’ve always felt a little squirmy in any church except the great outdoors, and when I told Father Simon that, he agreed that was all right too.
And I think that’s ultimately what Harris was writing about, by way of one power-drunk priest and another, utterly heathen sort of a fallen-woman character who gave the comfort and support the people needed and who better embodied the teachings of Christ than did the man of the cloth. The many different paths to God, if you will. And I still won’t go to church.
Anyway, this book is great stuff. Harris’ writing is lyrical, I felt I was right there in the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, I loved the townspeople I was supposed to love and did not love – actually felt sorry for, rather than hating — the ones I was not supposed to love. My only complaint is that Roux was not written nearly as delicious as Johnny Depp made him – but that would be hard to do without pictures.
“I’m here for my foreign language credit,” Rico says when it’s his turn.
“Rico,” another student says. “Isn’t your name Latino?”
“We came here when I was a baby. I ignored my parents’ Spanish so I could fit in. Americans speak English.”
“Does the backlash against DACA affect you?” the teacher asks.
Rico spreads his arms: ta-daaah. “Only wetback you know who doesn’t speak Spanish. Paperwork and fees always on time. No arrests. Support myself, no Medicaid, no welfare, no student aid. Pay taxes, health insurance, college tuition. They still want to deport me.” Arms drop. “Only in America.”
Every week, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the phrase “only in…” Great flashes from other writers are at the link. Join us!
“Humanity seems doomed to do more evil than good. The greatest ideal on earth is human love.”
That quote isn’t from Szpilman himself; it’s from the diary of Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who helped Szpilman, excerpts of which are included after the memoir itself. And I would agree with it. This book is about nothing less than humanity’s own consistent failure to live up to its own ideals.
This book really whapped me in the head, and not because of any spectacular writing. As a matter of fact, not far into the book I mused that the writing was a bit dispassionate, all things considered. I was okay with that, because the man was a musician, not a writer. It’s still competently written. And then I got it, that this was written in 1945 by a man who had just endured endless years of the most inhumane treatment, had lost his entire family to the world’s most infamous genocide, and I realized that I may have been reading stalwart detachment, but it also may have been an attempt to hold on to some dignity in the face of unutterable shock and loss.
One part of me thinks I have to stop reading books like this, that try to decimate what faith in humanity I have while also displaying the resilience of the human spirit, and another part thinks no, this stuff needs to stay in the front of our minds, to remind us to be vigilant. You only have to follow the news to know we haven’t fucking learned, and to suspect we probably never will. This is a deeply moving book that gets four very depressing stars and not five, only because I’m sure I cannot bear to ever read it again. It’s no surprise that Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor seems to sound even more melancholy now.
I mentioned a while back that I’d been writing, just not publishing, because I was entering a lot of events at the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo and judging was to be blind. Judging is in for Contest #1, led by Rough Writer Norah Colvin: When I grow up. Cast yourself back to six years of age, knowing what you do of life in the present; what would you want to be when you grow up and how would you go about achieving that goal? Tell us in 100 words, no more no less. It can be real or imaginary, serious or light-hearted. Extra points for comparing it to your childhood choice, if you remember it.
I wrote this piece over a month ago, but just last week, Dream Girl and I had a conversation. I was talking about all I want out of life, saying all I need is enough to meet our needs, and maybe a little extra for a treat once in a while, like a trip home or a road trip somewhere else once in a while, but what I want on a daily basis are health; a job that I like, that I’m good at, and that pays enough for us to live on; and good book and peace and quiet to read it in. She replied that I’ve really scaled back on the “all I want,” and she’s right. She can remember me saying I wanted to go back to school, I wanted to travel the world, I wanted a big house with a wraparound porch smack in the middle of wooded ten acres…oh, well. You get older, and things become less attainable. The odds of my fortunes changing so I can afford any of those things are slim and none. That’s just how it is. I’m all right with it.
WHEN I GROW UP
“I had a dream last night, Mommy.”
“It was me, only old like you. Talking to me.”
“I told me that I’m going to want to be something when I grow up. And I’m going to tell everybody, and they’ll say no. They’ll say get a job like in an office, so I can reti–reti–something. And insurance. Like that man was selling the other day?”
“Maybe. And old-me said I’m not ‘posed to listen to that. I’m supposed to do what I want. Because I’ll be happier.”
“You’re smarter than grownups?”
“That’s what old-me told me-me.”
I didn’t exactly incorporate what I wanted to be when I grew up. From when I was young, I wanted to entertain as others entertained me. I’d hear a song I liked and I wanted to sing it; I’d want to be able to act like so-and-so did in that movie I loved; I wanted to write something like Harriet the Spy or A Wrinkle in Time. Any masterful performance could inspire me. After I discovered the joy of making music, that morphed into a desire to be a session musician. My hero was sax man Bobby Keys, known mostly for his work with the Rolling Stones but who did so much more; I wanted to be just like him only without the heroin. (And if you like a rollicking autobiography, check his out: Every Night’s a Saturday Night. RIP, Bobby.) I let myself be talked out of it, though, by my blue-collar, practical, and absolutely well-meaning father, who advised me to let such foolishness be the stuff of dreams and secure my future with a “job I could retire from.” I still regret listening to him on that one.
My entry didn’t win, and that’s okay. I had fun just the same. It’s one thing to let your writing see the light of day; it’s a little bit harder to enter it where it will actually be judged on its merits. I’m glad I entered. The winning entries are wonderful; you can read them here.
And in case there’s a blank space with a link in it, it’s supposed to an embedded gif of Whoopi Goldberg warning Demi Moore that she’s in danger. They don’t always work; WordPress pisses me off sometimes.
So anyway. In danger is an exalted place to be, like being in a state of grace, being in love, being in a family way. It’s special to be in danger. Being in danger leads to metamorphosis: From being in danger, you walk through fire and come out the other side forever changed. Or maybe it’s just a plot device; you go from being in danger to being dead and the end of your journey becomes the reason for the protagonist’s journey. Either way, being in danger is serious stuff.
But nobody says they’re in danger in real life. We say we’re up shit creek, or we’re in an evacuation area, or we’re waiting for the ax to fall, or if my ex doesn’t quit stalking me I’m buying a gun and capping his ass, but we never say we’re in danger. At least, I’ve never heard a real person say it.
But, back to the book. I was quite disappointed in the first Harlan Coben book I read, The Stranger (ha ha, that rhymes with danger, and now my head is going to be replaying yooou-oooh, stranger danger from that Cure song for the rest of the day, thank you very much), which I got accidentally because my fingers hit the wrong button on my touch screen when I was trying to check out the same title by Albert Camus. Coben’s effort under that title was unsatisfactory (although I liked the Camus book; both are reviewed here) but other reviewers said it was a poor effort from an author they usually like, so I gave him another chance.
All of which is my roundabout way of saying that Don’t Let Go was worth the read, so Coben redeems himself. I’m sure he was quite worried about it, too.
Jane wipes her palms down her jeans, picks up the blue marker. Since when do grownups have to do class exercises on the board? The professor smiles encouragingly but she can feel all the eyes boring into her back, her sentences wandering uphill and downhill while every nuance of Spanish sentence structure goes out of her head. What is the word for “T-shirt?” She settles for “blouse.”
Back in her seat, her hands are still shaking as the man next to her…Rico?…leans in. “Grand performance. I’ve been noticing you. May I buy you a coffee after class?”
Every week at the Carrot Ranch Literary Community, Charli hosts the flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features a performance. Join us!
Don’t expect any deep insights, but this is still a very enjoyable read, the story of a rock and roll life peopled by everybody who was anybody in the heyday of rock n roll, the British Invasion, and beyond. Awesome stories, like first meeting Keith Moon as he was chasing his chauffeur with a hovercraft. Phil Spector is a prick – who knew? Hook a drive into Keith Richards’ breakfast as he eats by the fairway, and he will shoot your golf ball – who knew? There are some substance-hazed lapses in memory, like his estimation of how long he lived with George Harrison: “…a month or so. Several weeks anyway, probably a month. More than a week, less than a year.” It’s okay, though, because the entire book reads like it was dictated and transcribed, so you get Bobby Keys himself, like you’re sitting around drinking beers and shooting the shit, an utterly conversational voice that brings everything to life.
Keys pulls off being self-effacing, acknowledging that his success was due in large part to being in the right place at the right time over and over again, while at the same time being able to blow his own horn – heh – for his accomplishments. And you only have to listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” or John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” to know the man had a gift. A ten-year-old kid happened to hear Buddy Holly playing on the back of a cotton truck in Lubbock, Texas, and the saxophone was the only instrument left at school when he wanted to learn to play something, anything, just to be a part of that music, and — something wonderful happened.
I felt a bit let down at the lack of deep feeling beyond that which Bobby clearly had for the music. He refers more than once to “my wife at the time” or “my kid” but goes no further into those personal relationships, and talks about being a heroin-infused mess but offers no real insight. Just, he was a junkie for a while, and now he’s not. I suppose I can understand the desire for privacy but it did leave me wanting more. Still, fair enough. This book is about the music, and making the music, and high times that were had while making the music. It’s a rollicking tale of a rollicking life that’s got one hell of a soundtrack, from his earliest solos on Dion and Elvis recordings through his career with the Stones and beyond.
“I wish you’d seen the doctor, gotten some Valium or something.”
Torrey edges up the security line, pulling her wheelie, Lesley moving beside her on the other side of the rubber stanchion. “Don’t worry about it, Lesley. I’ll be fine once I get up to the concourse. It’s like a great big mall up there.”
“Oh! That reminds me! I heard there’s a new place you can get a pre-flight massage, aromatherapy…self-care, soothing. Meditate your anxiety away.”
Torrey barks a shaky laugh. “Or there’s booze, because flying sucks. The world’s most sincere drinking is done in airport bars.”
Each week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes self-care. Fun flashes from other writers are the link. Come join us!
Grabbed this from the library’s impulse display; no holds, no waits. This is a new author for me.
Light and amusing but still meaningful treatment of empty-nest syndrome, emerging adulthood, and exploration of sexuality including LGBTQ with heavy focus on the T, life as a MILF, consent, misogyny, porn, hooking up, respect. Really, for all the boxes this book ticks off, it does a good job, even if a couple of the story threads seem to kind of trail off when everything’s wrapped up. I kept hearing “Stacy’s Mom” in my head as I read.
Competently written page-turner; a great airplane read even if I wasn’t on an airplane. Perhaps I’ll grab another Tom Perrotta book for my flight next week.
“I still just wish you two could have worked things out,” Torrey’s mother said to Allan. “Get out here, boys!” she yelled toward the house, where ka-pew, pew-pew-pew ricocheted from an X-Box and out the window. “Your father’s here to pick you up, let’s go!”
“Well, Eleanor, unfortunately your daughter is a lot more like a praying mantis than a lovebird.”
He instantly knew that, father of her grandchildren or not, Eleanor would make him pay for that one. “I’ll just wait in the car,” he said quietly, and tried not to openly slink back down the driveway.
Up until now I’ve defended Dan Brown against the Dan Brown haters. Up until now I hadn’t tried to read Digital Fortress.
The characters are cardboard-perfect-cliched and I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to buy that the NSA, for Pete’s sake, has no resources other than an untrained college professor to find the ring that will save the world. “I’m a teacher, not a damned secret agent!” He really says that. This was when David Becker assumed the appearance of Bones McCoy in my mind’s eye although he’s really an alternate-universe incarnation of Robert Langdon, minus the Mickey Mouse watch and the fell-down-the-well incident, and I became even less able to take him seriously than I already was, which wasn’t much. Mostly, though I cannot take the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher being referred to as the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher every single time the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher does something or every time the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher says something and every time someone thinks about the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher or talks to the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher and fantasizes about just bending the brilliant and beautiful Susan Fletcher over the desk and having a go. Barf.
I enjoyed The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, found The Lost Symbol to be so-so, did not even make it a quarter of the way into Inferno. The premise of Digital Fortress was awesome but the writing didn’t come close to doing it justice. It is physically impossible for me to endure an entire book’s worth of this drivel, and I am done with Dan Brown.
Jane exits the stall, already anticipating another cup of coffee. This one weekday, she’s got almost unlimited fluid intake.
Part of her vagrant reality is having no decent, or even very private, bathroom. In the morning she heads immediately to the gym, before she’s even had tea. The homeless newspaper office, but often with a long line. McDonald’s requires a receipt within the last 30 minutes. The college. The public library on her way back to Tent City. Five stops a day. She’s learned to coordinate her hydration accordingly.
Who could imagine a college ladies’ room as a luxury?
This installment from The Life and Times of Jane Doe is in response to Charli’s flash fiction prompt for the week: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about Five a Day. Fun flashes from other authors are at the link.
Bump up your classics cred, with what was at the time the “newfangled” realist or naturalist writing style. Read about an immoral woman, one who chose neither the path of hard, respectable work nor respectable marriage, who wasn’t also vilified by her creator even through it wasn’t because she didn’t try or because she lacked good intentions. It’s not her fault she was fired from her grinding sweatshop job after being sick. It’s not her fault the guy she married was already married and took her through a sham ceremony. It is refreshing that Dreiser passes no judgments; indeed, he shows us how reasonable it is for a poor, young woman freezing her way through a Chicago winter to accept the gift of a coat, even a stylish and expensive coat, from a man of means and stature to whom she is not married. It gets even better when, despite her common- law marriage and her avarice, Dreiser does not make her die the lonely and agonizing death, à la Madame Bovary or Lady Dedlock, that was de rigueur for other shameless hussies of literature. Carrie soars above and beyond her perceived sins, achieving wealth and glamour by her own merits, leaving the men who took advantage of her behind her in the dust or the gutter or wherever they happened to land. It’s refreshing.
Another reason to read it: Another victim of both bowdlerization and banning, once by its own publisher. I’m a firm believer in reading banned books.
Reasons to not like this book: I found the writing just a bit ponderous. “Oh, the drag of the culmination of the wearisome. How it delays, – – sapping the heart until it is dry…” is an example. Every little detail of people’s thoughts and deeds is rendered in excruciating detail, and I felt I was wrestling the story from the twists and turns of Dreiser’s rather grandiose writing style.
Upshot: Atypical treatment of an atypical woman for the times, and despite its period (it was published in 1900), it is possible to read it without throwing it against the wall, and even to be entertained. I say, go for it.
I just finished my umpteenth reread of this series and realized I have never reviewed it. Perhaps because it’s simply too much awesome to review. I would give it 37 stars if I could.
This book has it all.
Magic, cleverly disguised as prayer, cleverly disguised as quantum physics.
Priests and prophets, saints and miracle-workers, slaves and mercenaries. Historians and archaeologists and physicists. Genetics. Movable realities.
The ruins of a Visigoth Carthage appearing off the North African coast, where countless previous surveys showed nothing. Ancient scholarly manuscripts magically recataloguing themselves in university libraries. A man missing for sixty years mysteriously turning up where he should have been the whole time.
Golem. How freaking cool are GOLEM?
Kickass female characters. Not kickass like being the most beautiful and pulling off the most politically advantageous marriage while having the best sex and wearing the most sumptuous gowns kind of kickass, but the command a mercenary army and wear custom-made Milanese plate armor and have your own warhorse and know how to take somebody’s head off with a poleax kind of kickass.
(Warning: The reality of war is gritty. Ash is a something of a politician but she is no lady, and says “fuck” a lot.)
The ending shatters me every time.
(For those intimidated by 1120-page books that can be used as doorstops, or who have bursitis and don’t want to lug around something big and heavy, my copy of this book is four normal-sized paperbacks: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. I love the cover artwork on my copies. All paper-and-glue editions are out of print, but they can be found used online. It’s also available for Kindle.)
Bookshelves: comfort-favorites, sci-fi, fantasy, mysticism, medieval-history, heroine-kicking-ass, action-with-a-body-count, grittiest-reality, this-is-the-stuff-right-here, war, women
I am very picky about short stories, not easily pleased. Every short story I read gets measured against the likes of “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Monkey’s Paw” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and they all fail to cut it.
Address Unknown cuts it.
When I included this in my 2017 Reading Challenge (#3, a book of letters) I thought this was an actual book, and that’s how it came to me, a small hard-bound volume not much larger than my phone. I read the whole thing in about thirty minutes.
This is a quick and devastating story, told in the letters exchanged by two friends, business partners in an art dealership, one remaining in America and the other returning to their German homeland in 1932. In their letters back and forth we see the rise of Hitler and the fall of human decency. The betrayal is bone-chilling (“That is why we have pogroms,” said oh-so-matter-of-factly) and the revenge is brutal.
Just read it. And Trumplings, take note.
(I was slightly annoyed by the foreword written by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine in which this piece first appeared in 1938, wherein he waxes amazed that such a powerful story was written by a woman. Stuff it, Whit.)
Sit carefully in my tooled leather chair, studs and verdigris, pour my snifter of brandy. Reflect on how much I look like the pimp Esteban from Kill Bill and wonder which one of us the joke is on. Adjust my cravat.
Scroll around the Internet for designer names; perfume bottles with stitching and sewing, handbags by the likes of Choco Caramel and Channel and Coochi, which sounds almost as bad as a dongle, no matter if it’s a real word.
I don’t always enter flash fiction rodeos, but when I do, you can’t tell if I was serious or not.
This silliness is doubly inspired. It’s partly in response to Charli’s flash fiction prompt for this week: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about The Real Nanjo Castille, who was the signee of something that may have been a spam email or may have been an incredibly tongue-in-cheek entry in one of October’s Flash Fiction Rodeo events–read more at the link. It was also inspired by Nyquil, because I have what is evidently the plague on top of insomnia.
Pretty sure I’ve stumbled across another book that was written to impress other writers. This entry in my 2017 reading challenge (#28, a book with an unreliable narrator) proves once again what a lowbrow I am.
I’ve read six chapters of nothing but detailed descriptions of everybody’s designer clothing, and the ridiculously expensive booze they drink and the upscale food they eat, a comparison of high-end business cards that reads disturbingly like a dick-measuring contest, and constant anxiety about not getting a good table at whatever pretentious and overpriced yuppie bistro is the latest cool place to be. That’s it. Four pages of the parade of top-end products that makes up his morning grooming routine and another two pages of all the crap from Hammacher Sclemmer in his kitchen. There seems to be a fixation with videotapes; I’m guessing porn will play a large part later on. Every woman is either a “hardbody” or is not, and they are all interchangeable. He can’t remember one person from the next, always mixing up names and faces, and I can see that as a symptom of the pathology at play here, but he does it with music too and it really really annoyed me when one of the best rock and roll songs of all time, “Be My Baby,” was not properly attributed to the Ronettes. That should have been one of the ones he got right.
The thing is, I think I get it. I’ve heard enough to know it’s about a brilliant young financial wizard on Wall Street in the late eighties who is also a serial killer. This endless blahblahblah of conspicuous consumerism is a clever device, really, the soulless clutter of day-to-day life playing up the soulless rage that comprises the mind and heart of our torturer murderer. But it’s a veritable slog to try to read. …and she’s wearing a wool-crepe skirt and a wool and cashmere velour jacket and draped over her arm is a wool and cashmere velour coat, all by Louis Dell’Olio. High-heeled shoes by Susan Bennis Warren Edwards. Sunglasses by Alain Mikli. Pressed-leather bag from Hermès. This for every single person who enters the narrator’s line of sight, including doormen and cocktail waitresses, this endless haute couture word vomit. It does echo what I imagine to be the greed and shallowness of senseless killing, the young hotshot moving through the world of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts and coke in the men’s room, twenty-six years old and pulling down two hundred grand a year, so why not reach out and take all the Wurlitzer jukeboxes and $850 gazelleskin wallets and deathsack prostitutes you want? I’m picking up desensitization as a gimmick here. Our impeccably dressed killer is a shark in more ways than one, and don’t try to tell me that anyone who aspires to Wall Street isn’t a predator of sorts.
But…it’s boring. This might have worked brilliantly for me as a short story or a novella, but as a full-length novel it is simply tedious. I’m already skimming at page 57; no way am I slogging through 400 pages. Dnf-ing. This might also be one of those times where the movie really is better.
Lora steps out of the SUV and inhales deeply, the scent of dead leaves and humus and apples, oddly enough. She doesn’t remember apple trees around here.
She picks through brambles to the overgrown cabin. How many years since anyone has been here, this jewel in the woods, where they used to hide from civilization?
She eases into the cobwebbed chair on the tiny porch. She has just settled her gaze on the autumn-brilliant tree line when a splintering crash lands her on the plank boards.
Maybe you can go home again, but you have to fix it first.
The Flash Fiction Rodeo at Carrot Ranch Literary Community is over, and we’re back to the regular weekly flash fiction challenges. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a chair on a porch. Fun flashes from other writers are at the link.
“The soup is nonexistent,” Torrey snaps, “because who on earth has bone broth sitting around the house?”
“We’ll find you a list of substitutes you can use when cooking,” Lesley smiles.
“The websites I found say if you don’t have bone broth, you can substitute gelatin, and if you don’t have gelatin, you can substitute agar agar, whatever that is,” Torrey replies. “What’s the point of a substitute list, when I’m even less likely to have the substitute than the real ingredient?”
This isn’t doing it for me, and that’s too bad. Really.
The pacing is one problem; it’s awful. The book opens with Gamache on the witness stand, testifying against the accused in a murder trial, and flips back and forth in time as events unfold–partly, I think, to play up Gamache’s helplessness as momentum gathered into murder and his perceived ineffectiveness against an enormous opiate trafficking problem. This can be a very effective way to build suspense–it is stock-in-trade for author Laura Lippmann and she makes it look easy–but here it feels contrived and tedious. We slog halfway into the book before we finally have our dead body, and I see from other reviews that it’ll be another quarter of the book before find out who is sitting in the accused box in the opening pages. I’ve read what must be thousands of whodunits that didn’t reveal the accused until the very end, but it’s just not working here. I feel played.
Another irritant is the writing style, overflowing with incomplete sentences and chopped-up paragraphs:
They all knew that look. They’d seen it before. More times than you’d think possible.
There was no censure there. No suggestion they shouldn’t ask. He’d be surprised if they didn’t. And they’d be surprised if he answered.
More than anything, there was resolve in those eyes.
But this time there was also anger. And shock. Though he tried to hide both.
Like that, constantly. There are very few normal paragraphs in the book. I am not fond of Writing With a Capital W that is meant to create a dramatic atmosphere but only serves to trip me up. Lee Child used a similar incomplete-sentence trick to lose me as a reader forever in less than two chapters.
Still. I grabbed this from the library display on a whim, being new to Louise Penny. I see it’s number 12 or 13 in a series and that this entry was a departure in style that was less popular with series devotees. I scoped out a couple of earlier entries on Google Books; the choppiness and contrived tension seem unique to this book. I’m always looking for my next favorite cozy series, so maybe I’ll try an earlier installment. This one has to be back at the library in two days, no renewals allowed, so I’m going to toss it back without investing myself further.
I particularly like the creative use of thecobrador del frac, used in Spain not to harass those who cannot pay a debt, but to shame those who have the means but will not pay a debt, beefed up into the Conscience with a capital C that collects on a moral debt by silently staring down a wrongdoer into madness. That was beautiful and eerie and felt perfect, at this almost-Halloween part of the year. I wish it had been done well enough to keep me going.
I usually love Margaret Atwood, and I usually love dystopian/speculative fiction, but I could not get into this one. I tried. Sorry, Maggie. I still love you but this effort was dull, dull, dull. I put it down one evening and never felt compelled to pick it back up.
It might be time to reread The Robber Bride, though.