Make a Wish (Jane Doe Flash Fiction and a Bit About Rocks)

Rough Writers and Friends November 17 flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that is told around a campfire.

Charli’s original post for this prompt, at the link above, took me back not only to my grandfather’s fire faeries, but also to the rocks.

Oh, the rocks! He and my grandmother were rockhounds extraordinaire, Grandpa serving for a time as president of Reno’s Gem and Mineral Society. I spent many happy childhood hours with them and pesky siblings and assorted cousins, rambling over the rocky high desert of rural Nevada, eyes peeled for scorpions and snakes as well as for geodes, petrified wood, agate, tiger’s eye, fire opal, rhyolite, obsidian, turquoise. We hunted quartz crystals on Crystal Peak; fossils of fish and snails in the pluvial lake bed of Lake Lahontan; copper nuggets in old tailings of an abandoned mining operation. We found arrowheads and scraping tools and more lovely rocks than anyone knew what to do with. My grandparents’ house and garage and yard overflowed with rocks just as they did with books, each one a treasure. It doesn’t get any better than books and rocks.

Photo: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The varying levels of ancient Lake Lahontan’s shoreline are clearly seen.

We went to ghost towns as well, and Grandpa’s jewelry making started there with pieces of old china we found in the remains of web-festooned buildings of stone or rotted wood. He’d carefully cut cabochons with the china patterns intact and set them into stud earrings, dinner rings, and cameo-like necklaces. Inspired, he moved up, buying fancier equipment so he could cut the raw gemstones we found, polishing and shaping them for settings he made himself. My favorite of these Grandpa Originals is still an arm band he and I designed together, a silver snake twining up my arm to a turquoise head.

A mere handful of my Grandpa Originals. I’ve lost and broken countless more.

I liked the geodes best, seemingly dull plain-old-rocks that held treasure, or not, inside. We lugged them back home, if we were lucky enough to find them, and Grandpa would saw them open, all of us hovering around, waiting to see. “Get back,” he’d have to tell us over and over. “Rock chips fly. Stand back.” Sometimes they were more just plain-old-rock inside, but some geodes cradled miniature caves of crystal, pyrite, or chalcedony. My most treasured geode is one I wouldn’t let him cut open, that remains whole to this day, because of the mystery and potential it holds. Schrödinger’s geode.

Thanks for the memories, Grandpa–and Charli, too.

On to the flash:

Off to her left, a low bonfire, in the homeless camp near the stadium. Jane edges forward as her mind travels back.

Back, to childhood fires in stone rings and fireplaces. Her grandfather always let her set the first match. Sometimes he had magic powder she could cast, turning the flames azure, emerald, amethyst.

“Look with soft eyes, see without seeing,” he would say. “See them, in the flames? Fire faeries. See them dancing?” She on his lap, they’d watch together.

She edges closer now, afraid of these strangers but aching for fire faeries, to make a special wish.


This is a vignette from The Life and Times of Jane Doe. Fun flashes from other writers can be found at the Carrot Ranch link above.




Who is to Blame? A Russian Riddle by Jane Marlow (ARC Book Review)

Who Is to Blame? A Russian RiddleWho Is to Blame? A Russian Riddle by Jane Marlow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ask me what I know about Russian history, and my answer would be, “Um…Anastasia?” But I adore good historical fiction (“good” meaning “not rapey romance”), so when I saw this available as an Advance Review Copy, my reply was, “Gimme!” My thanks to Net Galley, Greenleaf Book Group, and the author for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Bookshelves: advance-review, historical-fiction, love-story-not-a-romance, multiple-povs, mother-russia

I was expecting, and was gratified to get, a kind-of Downton Abbey, Russian style. “Upstairs” in the manor house we have the Count and his family and “downstairs,” or on the Petrovo estate, we have the serfs who work the land. There is a stark contrast between spoiled-little-rich-brat Anton Maximov and the peasant Elizaveta Anafrev, horribly oppressed by virtue of being both a serf and a woman. Using this counterpoint and alternating pov’s, the book explores the symbiotic relationship between the haves and the have-nots, a relationship perhaps not truly seen for what it was until after Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs. It was intriguing to see the same attitude that applied to enslavement of blacks in America, that the wealthy landowners were doing their peasants a favor by taking basic care of them and giving them honest work to do. Some things are the same everywhere you go, I guess.

This was almost a 4-star read, which is the highest I generally award. (It’s not that I’m stingy, but 5 stars are reserved for the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird or The Handmaid’s Tale or my all-time favorite comfort book, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I’ve read so many times it’s almost memorized. I do not hand out 5 stars willy-nilly.) I reserved that fourth star because of the writing, which was competent enough but uninspired and wooden at times. Lots of telling as opposed to showing. The character development was there, but it was exactly like someone telling me a story about these people, instead of me feeling like the characters themselves were right there on the pages, talking directly to me. I also would have liked it if the emancipation and the subsequent ripple effect on both the upper and lower classes had been gone into more deeply. The title asks the question, but the book really doesn’t.

Still and all, my only real beef was with the repeated use of the word flaccid–three times, and never applied to a penis. That’s one of those words I just really dislike for no real reason, like chuckle and trot and mucus. It’s a perfectly valid word and it’s author’s choice, but I think it’s an icky word.

The story was absorbing and kept me turning the pages. Each chapter opens with a riddle–a lot of them being nice double entendres which I love because of course my mind goes there. Big kudos for a historical fiction story without my two big turnoffs: Saccharine or rapey romance, and contextual errors, which were both happily absent. There are a couple of love-story lines, well done without being sappy. I’m no historian so it drives me bonkers when a book contains glaring contextual errors even I can catch, such as the showers in 1920’s New York tenements in a book I threw across the room several months ago. None of those here! Marlow really seems to know the culture and the period and her research seems to be exceptional. The story is brim-full of little details of dress, food, customs, folklore, all the things that bring history alive, deftly incorporated without relying on them solely to convey the sense of the past. I learned a few things, including the important role distilling vodka played in the lives and fortunes of Russia’s people.

The upshot: An entertaining read with a satisfying ending. The way is clear for a sequel, which I will definitely read. And there is an Anastasia, so–bonus!

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (Book Review)

And Then There Were NoneAnd Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a trip back through time this re-read was. I was introduced to the world of mystery novels at my grandmother’s house, filled with shelves and shelves and boxes and more boxes of books. Those shelves and boxes–and my grandmother, of course–gave me my love of the whodunit, of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and Roderick Alleyn and Perry Mason and Adam Dalgliesh and Father Brown, when I was still in grade school. Move on to the new-fangled delights of Kinsey Millhone and Spenser-with-an-s and Elvis Cole and and and …you’ve got a lifelong love. My grandparents’ house was a pretty special place too. I used to curl up on someone’s bed, or go out under a shade tree in the summer, and be pulled through one or even two books a day. I swear I could smell my grandfather’s pipe smoke as I read this.

And yes, this is that book, the one originally called “Ten Little Niggers,” but retitled because the n-word was too much for the American book market even in the 1940’s. It was changed to “Ten Little Indians” because of the children’s rhyme used throughout. That became unacceptable as well and leaves us with the modern title, the last line of the rhyme: And Then There Were None.

I’ve seen stories claiming the island that inspired the book was actually called Nigger’s Island, later changed to Soldier’s Island, but I can’t find anything to back that up. I did find something about the name of the island in the play being changed that way. I also found a Wikipedia article (I know, I know, but sources are cited) about Burgh Island, which seems most likely. It does look like a grand place for a murderous weekend. Or a romantic weekend with your honey. Or a nice place to get away from it all with your own fine self and a good mystery novel.

Burgh Island at Sunset, courtesy of Owain.davies

I can’t say the book stands the test of time as far as the writing goes. It was published in 1939, and it shows. The language is dated and the characters more wooden, the plot more bare-bones, than modern readers expect from modern writers. We want our meat and juice and bone and gristle, aaarrrggh! But you have to give credit where it is due to Dame Christie, even if she did have some pretty racist moments that were typical for the time. If you want a taste of one of the writers who laid the foundation for the modern detective/crime novel, this is the stuff.

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The Burning Air by Erin Kelly (Book Review)

The Burning AirThe Burning Air by Erin Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was a man named Joe connected with the law office where I worked during my last years in Nevada. Joe was a massive pain in my ass. He started out as a quasi-professional-ish sort-of peer, and his tendency to turn small potatoes into a great big hairy lawsuit-worthy deal quickly led me to loathe him. He had a love of scorched-earth litigation and of Capitalizing Every Damn Thing upon which I heaped scorn equally. He could have been a very competent paralegal but settled for being basically a professional pest, having no job but a sugar mama girlfriend, an orange woman in her sixties who, along with her awful spray-on tan,* affected skin-tight jeans and plunging necklines and teetering heels, overly collagened lips and teased and permed hair and makeup applied with a masonry trowel — fighting aging with every trick she could think of and losing badly. I started out feeling kinda sorry for her but soon grew to loathe her almost as much as I loathed Joe, mostly on principle. Not fair, perhaps, but there you have it.

There’s a point to this. Joe became my key to really enjoying this book. Kelly is a talented writer, but I had a bit of a problem with the motivation for the whole thing. I was like, “Is that it? You nurse your thirst for vengeance and elaborately plot and wreak all this destruction just for that?” Enter Joe of the thin skin and the eternal grudge over nothing, and once I read him into the villain, the whole thing took off. The madness of Darcy’s whole situation wasn’t sufficiently played up unless you, too, know a Joe.

I’m not sure whether I was supposed to sympathize with the MacBride family, but they came off too privileged and insular and smug for my taste. The women are the conspicuous-consumer type of moms who pack picture-book lunches for their kids. And hey, if Mom has the time and the hand-eye coordination and the food budget for organic quinoa and homemade sushi and sandwiches with cartoon character faces then fine, I guess, but that mom also drives a car that costs five times what I make in a year and always has the latest iPhone and somebody in to clean her house three times a week.

MIKI Yoshihito, Flickr/CC. Don’t make my kid feel bad by sending your kid with this.

Yes, I was a single mom who wouldn’t know a tramezzino with ground peanut spread and strawberry reduction if she fell over a PB&J. Yes, I know that everyone has problems and issues, the privileged and the peasants alike, but I also daresay it’s a lot more comfortable crying in an ivory tower. I know I need to work on my compassion a bit, but it remains that I wanted to yank these self-satisfied, better-than-everyone-else women by their perfect blonde ponytails. Perhaps that’s what Kelly intended, how the haves alienate and even anger the have-nots.

All of this sounds really negative, but it’s really just my ruminations. The upshot is, even though I found the underlying premise rather weak and couldn’t stand the protagonists, this is a pull-you-along, well-woven, contorted tale of grudges and deception and revenge and secrets. The writing is very good, with a lot of sentences that catch you up short because they paint the scene so vividly: “There were four of them and one of him, but he had them entirely surrounded.” “The flat was clean and silent and she had the ridiculous notion that no one had broken the news to it.” Like that. The multiple pov’s are well done. A couple of the twists are spectacular in their irony. It would not have done as well for me if I hadn’t had Joe in which to anchor it all, but the page-turning quality and well-crafted writing bump this up to four stars. Feel free to borrow my Joe.

Bookshelves: brit-lit, mystery, psych-thriller, thriller, schadenfreude, plot-twists-and-irony

New words:

Gilet: Light, sleeveless, padded jacket

Pranged: British way of saying wrecked. “The car was pranged.”

*There seems to be an anti-Trump current running through my recent posts. Curious.

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The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Book Review)

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“[W]riters are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.”

Bookshelves: brit-lit, mystery, detective, i-am-an-anglophile, whodunit

The silkworm here is Bombyx Mori, which is the title of pretentious writer Owen Quine’s tell-all masterpiece that gets him killed…or was that what did it?

Robert Galbraith (or J.K. Rowling, as everybody who hasn’t been living in North Korea knows by now) has another winner. Detective Cormoran Strike is back with all his skills, and his cool name, and his broken heart, and his boatloads of clients since he knocked it out of the park with the Lula Landry case. His assistant Robin is here too, still with her endless pots of tea, and her asshat fiance, and her longing to be something more than a secretary. It’s all good.

Argue if you like that these books are nothing special, and in the world of detective fiction they might not be. But it remains that Galbraith-aka-Rowling has a deft hand with plotting, pacing, and sense of place. It’s an admirable ability, to plunge us into a different world, whether it’s created out of whole cloth or a microsociety not readily accessible to most of us. In The Cuckoo’s Calling we traveled to the world of modeling and fashion; in The Silkworm we visit the land of literary writing and publishing, with all its pretensions and egos and backstabbing. I’ve never been as fond of books in which the detective solves the mystery using information only he had access to, so I appreciate Rowl-Galbra–oh the hell with it, everybody knows it’s Rowling so I’m just going to call her that–I appreciate that Rowling sprinkles the clues liberally about the book, there to pick up if the reader is able. I wasn’t able, but that’s all good too. The surprise is the best part of a whodunit.

I must say, this is the first murder mystery I can recall reading where the gory details actually had my stomach lurching a bit. I’m usually not squeamish. Perhaps that’s just me getting older.

Skads of new words:

Skint: British dialect; being broke. “I’m in a skint this week.” Considering I’ve lived most of my life this way, you’d think I’d have learned this word before now.

Gudgeon: small European freshwater fish, eaten by people or used as bait

Chrysostomatic: Golden-tongued, golden-mouthed. From John Chrisostom, an archbishop of Constantinople, in turn stemming from the Antioch-born Greek prelate who gave glorious sermons.

Mythomania: Abnormal or pathological tendency to tell lies. Most of us have dated one of those, and we just elected one as president, too. I have to get my digs in.

Albescence: whitishness

Recce: Recon, reconnaissance

Didicoy: Cornish word for gypsy

Amaneunsis: literary or artistic assistant

Etiolated: pale and drawn-out from lack of light

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See the Light (Six Sentence Stories)

Jane angles her battery lantern to try to catch the pages of  both her calculus book and her graph paper. She should have had this homework done earlier and she’s paying the price now. No time tomorrow, either, what with having to go to work at the Job From Hell, but hey–it’s a job.

Her fingers massage gently under her tired eyes. This would be a lot easier if she had an all-night library, or a good math brain, or electricity. Or, you know, even the legal right to live here, instead of hiding in the basement like the squatter she is.

TKarts/Pixabay CC

This is a vignette from The Life and Times of Jane Doe for the Six Sentence Stories blog hop. This week’s cue was “light.” Fun Sixes from other writers are here.

We’re Gonna Miss You, Joe

It’s been one of those days, after one of those (insomniac) nights. It’s the usual one-of-those-days stuff that happens to everybody, so I won’t splodge all over you. And I’m still pissed off at the election of Das Pumpkinfuhrer, for all the reasons everybody who is pissed is pissed, so I won’t beleaguer those. And I want to be cheered up, and I figure anyone who feels like I do about the whole thing might need to be cheered up too, and a truckload of good stuff has already been written about how all is not lost and how we, as Americans, can dust ourselves off and move forward, and I can’t even come close to what other people have already said so eloquently, so I’m not going to go into that either.

What I did do, was I collected all these awesome Obama/Biden memes from all over, because frankly, they’re the kind of thing we need right now.

And one thing to remember is that no matter how Shitstorm 2016 shook out, we’d still be missing these guys. Both of them.

Busted! (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch November 9 flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that pivots around an unexpected ending.

Jane tucks her hands inside her sleeves. Why is the math lab always freezing?

Dendrite, she writes, but draws a blank. She moves on. Axon. Vesicle. She writes the definitions neatly. The biopsychology final is tomorrow; she’s never felt stupider.

Alarm twinges as the math professor heads her way. Is she going to be reprimanded, maybe lose her lab credits, for working on not-math? The signs are posted everywhere. She shifts some calculus notes to cover the open textbook.

“Jane,” smiles Rosalie.  “Do you have a minute? A tutor position has come open. I thought you might be interested.”

Unsplash/Pixabay CC

This is a vignette from The Life and Times of Jane Doe. Fun flashes from other writers can be found at the Carrot Ranch link above.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson (Book Review)

The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overall, I liked it well enough. It’s competently written with a great sense of place. Good plotting and pacing. The multiple pov’s were very well done. It kept me turning the pages, and was an intriguing glimpse into the lives of high-schoolers with Beemers and credit cards.

It would be easy to say that this book contains one cliched character after another, until one stops to think that the parts of us that make the news are one cliche after another. The Cheerleader. The Jock. The Misfit. The Brain. The Opportunist. It would also be easy to say that the events in this book are one cliche after another, until one recognizes that these are things we are seeing over and over again: Bullying, teen suicide, rape culture, privileged white kids behaving badly. Just Google “Brock Turner” or “Steubenville” or “affluenza.”

I was a bit disappointed that the book touches on important issues but then seems to gloss over them. It felt like Johnson didn’t want to put her characters through too much, so they do things, and other people do things to them, but they don’t seem to feel much about it. I can certainly identify with that, as it’s probably the biggest problem with my own writing, but it leaves the story lacking the depth of conflict that it could have. I got what they did, but not how they felt when all was said and done. I almost missed the parallel drawn by Miss Nichol’s assignment of The Great Gatsby. There was no reflection by any of the characters on the ugliness, no sign that they connected any dots or recognized their own culpability or learned a damned thing. Or perhaps that was the point, and I’m the one who’s not getting it…?

Still, these are things worth writing about. Johnson presents a YA book that doesn’t talk down and that portrays high-schoolers in this country realistically, with all the pressures to make grades, to be beautiful, to fit in, to achieve and achieve and achieve, to live up to the expectations of parents who seem to be largely absent, in a society that no longer gathers around the dinner table and is always looking at its phone. I would be tickled pink if this book were to be challenged in high schools, thus making it even more attractive to young people and starting some important conversations.

My thanks to Net Galley and Random House Publishing for providing an ARC for my honest review.

Bookshelves: advance-review, current-social-issues, ya, multiple-povs

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A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines (Banned Book Review)

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took a while to get to the top of the waiting list for this book, that I picked to read for Banned Books week back in October–good Lord, that’s been barely a month. It feels like forever, this Saturday after Shitstorm 2016 is finally over.

And once again, I am left stunned. For one thing, there’s the usual theme of this country’s ugly history of racial inequality being pretty much the only reason to challenge this particular book. And I know I sound snarky. Frankly, I like being snarky sometimes. After this week, when Donald Trump of all people has been elected President and hate seems to be the order of the day, after Leonard Cohen has left us, when my Niners still suck, I’m in a fine fettle of snarkiness. Racism, and the concept of banning books simply because they expose that racism, both beg to be snarked at.

Anyway. Snark over. What a book! This is the story of Grant Wiggins, a black teacher in 1940’s rural Louisiana, and his mission to help another black man, wrongfully condemned to die for a crime he did not commit, to walk like a man (in the words of Frankie Valli) to the electric chair. This is not To Kill a Mockingbird but something even more subtle: The mission is not to win justice, but rather to accept the injustice with as much grace as can be found. The writing’s power is in its simplicity and its clarity, the conversational telling of a story that seems like just another tragic story of bigotry and hatred, and it’s not until you close the back cover that you realize you’ve been thoroughly whopped over the head.

Highly recommended.

Bookshelves: banned-and-challenged, current-social-issues, literary-fiction, racism, southern-writers

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