#fridayflash : security

"You have got to be freaking kidding me."

Susan glanced up from her workstation. "They don't," she said, "and they aren't."

"We won't be able to get in or out without biometrics and, a, a... what the hell is a 'recorded gesture', anyhow?" Tabitha glanced around to make sure none of their co-workers were in sight, then made a series of rude hand signs. "Like that?"

Susan shook her head. "You have to read on to the next paragraph. It's like the swipe key on your phone. You draw a pattern, connecting the dots in a certain way."

Tabitha's face cleared. "So I can just do a straight line down the middle," she said. "Like flipping the scanner the bird every time I go through the door."

"Read on," said Susan. "It has to be a continuous line that touches at least three dots in each column, and no basic zigzags allowed."

"Half the office is going to either lock themselves out, or in."

"Yup." Susan sipped her coffee and touched the Hammer of Thor pendant hanging from the silver necklace she always wore.

"You acting all nonchalant about it is really pissing me off, you know."

"If it mattered what we thought about it, they would have asked us first."

"It figures they'd announce it on a Friday."

"Oh come on." Susan leaned over to Tabitha's cubicle and patted her arm. "Free coffee and doughnuts on Monday. It's not all bad."

Monday morning they stood in a queue in the elevator lobby while two managers presided over the recording of the biometric data and the gesture. An administrative assistant walked up and down the line, doling out coffee, doughnuts, and jokes as people fidgeted.

The staff had been told to show up no earlier than eight-thirty. Most people had arrived at eight forty-five, trying to beat the rush, but not be first in line either.

It was now nine-thirty, and only three people had completed the recording. The queue lined the entire circumference of the elevator lobby, ending ourobouros-like right beside the scanner. Several people had had to leave and re-join the line as their bladders succumbed to the effects of the coffee.

The admin assistant nervously handed her best work friend some money and begged her to go get more coffee and doughnuts. One of the managers had left the scanner and was polling staff, asking who had meetings first so they could get inside and attend them.

Tabitha made a lot of faces at Susan, but didn't dare say anything with the rest of the office within earshot.

Martin, the next person in front of them, finally recorded a gesture he could execute twice in a row. The door clicked open, and he scurried in.

Susan went next, after a quick nudge in the ribs from Tabitha. She smiled and held her head perfectly still as lasers scanned first one retina, then the other. The lasers left her seeing spots, but she cheerfully blinked them away and quickly repeated the gesture she'd planned, twice.

"That's the way it's done!" said the manager, beaming. "I hope everyone else goes this quickly."

"I got to learn from the people ahead of me in line," Susan said, with a modest glance downwards as she slipped through the door.

She unlocked her desk drawer, retrieved her laptop, and fingered her Thor pendant as she waited for the computer to boot up. Down the corridor, the door clicked open and let Tabitha into the office.

"It's going faster now," she announced as she sat down at her desk. Susan just smiled and nodded a reply.

She'd worked all weekend on the particular set of runes she'd used for her gesture. If the company was going to introduce new rituals to the office, so was she.

#fridayflash : the last bit of news

I want to start by saying that I've been a writer my whole life, but I'm afraid I will do a terrible job with this. Our government asked me to write it like the news articles I made my reputation on, and already I have failed: I am making this a letter to the person or persons unknown who may someday read it.

Yesterday morning, millions of people came out to watch the launch of the five archive satellites from the Jakta plains, while billions more watched on projections at home or at work. As I write this, all five satellites are on their way to orbit Vanka, the next planet out from the sun in our system. Mission control reports that the satellites are in good condition, and all are on course and communicating with home base. There is every expectation that, two years from now, they will reach Vanka and commence orbiting it. Once orbit is established, they will shut down to save energy, and to avoid unnecessary wear and tear on their mechanical parts. If all goes well and there are not too many meteor showers, they will survive intact for millennia.

As I said, this is a difficult piece to write, and not just because of the occasion. Normally this is the part of a news article where I would refer the reader to the photo series included with the text, but what if you, future reader, visitors to our solar system, don't have eyes that work like ours? What if you don't have eyes as we understand them at all?

So let me break with forty years of journalistic habit and let me describe: the Jakta plains, as they stood when I wrote this, were formed approximately two billion years ago when a very large object — our geologists believe it was a small moon, but it may have been a large comet — crashed into our planet, flattening everything around for thousands of daywalks. Encircling the plain is a ridge, formed from the shock of the impact. Millions of people crowded around the security fence, which had been erected well away from the launch site. The crowds occupied the land right to and up the ridges. I got to see the sight from a heli-glider which flew circuits over the crowds. It was astonishing — I've never seen or even heard of a crowd that big — all surrounding this huge, empty plain, with its seven edifices near the centre. The launch pads and rockets for the five satellites, the assembly tower, and the control building itself.

Mission Control had launch clocks and bulletins projected around the edge of the fence, so people knew what was going on. They announced and explained every phase of the launch. What amazed me — what struck me — was how quiet it was. No-one was discussing anything, or pointing out some detail of the projection to their neighbour. They were just watching, listening, trying to soak up as much of the experience so that... what? I don't know. They all knew they'd never get to tell their grandchildren about it. All those memories will be gone in five years' time.

Understand, future finder of this text. In the past three years, ever since what was going to happen became clear, it's become a habit for most people to flash a scorn-mark — that's a rude gesture we make with our hands (do you have hands?) — at the moon Kala whenever it's visible in the sky. That is, usually in the afternoons now. Kala is the moon that is going to kill all of us. In about five years, maybe even less as the effects of gravity draw it closer — its orbit will decay entirely and it will smash into the planet, our home. My home.

Kala is not a small moon. In fact, our astronomers tell us it's a surprisingly large moon for a planet this size to have. Because of complex gravitational and orbital interactions with our other three surviving moons, Kala's orbit has destabilised.

Some of our scientists believe that Kala's orbit was first altered during the event which led to the creation of the Jakta plains. It's a strange comfort to know we were doomed to this fate long before our species even established itself. We have satellite technology, of course, and we have even sent scientists to walk on all of our moons. There's a thought. There are three people living right now who have walked on the celestial body which will annihilate this whole planet.

But we have no neighbour planets we can colonise, and we can't travel beyond our own solar system. We will be removed, not just from existence, but from history, unless someone finds one of our archive satellites.

There was a pause in my writing between the last sentence and this one. An official came to tell me that I only have about five minutes left before the transmission procedure must begin.

This disjointed bit of text is to be the last piece of knowledge to leave here and be recorded by the satellites. I have to finish up now so they can transmit. They're going to power down everything but the telemetry signals after this, to save energy. 

I've reported on the government for almost my entire career. All my contacts say it's expected there will be a gradual loss of order. Eventually, they say, most police officers and soldiers will abandon their jobs in favour of protecting their families, which will lead to things breaking down even more.

I don't want to believe that. This is the only home I've ever known, but I have a lot of pride in it. Still, I can see how they could be right.

Remember us as we were. And please, add our archives to yours. If you find this, you must have superior technology to ours, but perhaps there is something we can add to your store of knowledge in thanks.

#fridayflash : the good cog

I understand, you know. I really do. I used to be just like that.

It's easy to blame it on education, but what's education? Just what we decide to tell the youngsters. Look at what we tell them. Work hard and you'll get what you want. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Cause and effect. Everything happens for a reason.

And so people spend their lives all frustrated and heartbroken, because that universe that's supposed to follow the laws of physics so consistently is hard to see on the everyday level. Where's the global harmony in some bastard in a Mercedes cutting you off because he couldn't be bothered to signal or check his mirrors before he changed lanes? Tell the mother who's just lost a child to a swimming accident that everything happens for a reason. Let me know what kind of reaction she gives you.

I was watching a Star Trek re-run one night, like you do, and it got me thinking. From space, the planet Kirk and company were visiting looked beautiful, peaceful — just this grey-green marble floating in the black. But then they sent an away team, and I know it's a running joke, but that no-name redshirt guy dropped so fast you couldn't help but giggle, because they'd beamed right into the middle of a war zone. You know what I mean? Up at the space level, everything's peaceful. Down on the ground and up close, chaos.

And it was clear to me, just like that. If we're going to embrace rational movement, the patterns of the stars and the music of the spheres, we have to embrace the chaos too.

So I got into random things. I started reading my horoscope, not because it had anything to do with where the stars were when I was born, but because I knew it didn't have to do with anything at all. I'd go to the food court at lunch and roll some dice I kept in my pocket to decide which vendor I was going to get a meal from. I'd take a slightly different way home every night.

One night — I remember it was a Tuesday — I packed an overnight bag, and the next night I stayed in one of those "executive" hotels downtown. The ones people are supposed to use if they work late and don't have time to commute out home. I left work at 4:30pm like I always do.

I thought I would just watch TV, but I wound up talking to the concierge — this guy who had immigrated from Iran in the 1970s — and we wound up talking about French New Wave films all night. Maybe that sounds boring to you, but it was fascinating. And it never would have happened if I hadn't booked the room.

We have a rule in my department that we celebrate the birthdays of everyone who's born in the same month at once. We always go to this Chinese buffet in the strip plaza, just because it's the only place we can get to and still get back to work on time. As luck would have it, the food is decent there, and the owners are smart enough to include a lot of non-Chinese food for those who are scared of trying egg rolls. We always finish off with a cake and singing Happy Birthday to all the people whose birthday it is, and then the owners send our manager back to the office with a little bucket of fortune cookies to hand out later in the afternoon.

Most people toss their fortunes into the garbage without reading them, which is such a wasted opportunity. A few people read theirs out loud and then add "in bed!" to the end, to make them funny. And then they try to trade with each other, so that they get the fortune they want. That's even sillier, if you ask me. You can't control random. If you could, it wouldn't be random anymore.

I read mine, and I post it on my cubicle wall until next time, and I think about how it's applicable.

The last birthday lunch was yesterday, and the fortune I got said, "Sometimes you just need to lay on the floor." Well so you do, don't you? So many reasons to lay on the floor. When your back is hurting and you need to straighten it out. When you're playing with a baby, or with toddlers, or with a dog, all those different types of play. When you're trying to decide whether to stucco the ceiling or keep it flat. At the end of yoga class, when it's time to do corpse pose. There's lots of different reasons to lay down on the floor.

And then I thought, what if there are even more reasons?

So I tried it. I spread my coat out first, because the carpet in the office is kind of yucky, and I lay down. I crossed my ankles since I was wearing a skirt that day, and I stared up at the ceiling. I'm probably the first person to see the office from this angle since the carpet was installed.

And I saw it, black against white. The black speckles in the white foam ceiling tiles, I finally got to take a good look at them, and I realised, they're pictures of constellations. Maybe from a different angle from what we can see through a telescope from here on Earth, or maybe from a different millennium, but there they are. And I never even thought to look before. All that order and chaos, all that beauty.

First they called my manager. Then they called security. I think now they're calling the police, and it's such a shame. Everyone who's approached me, I've asked them to try it themselves, see what they're missing out on, and they simply don't want to know. Such a shame.

I'm just doing what the fortune cookie said. Who am I to stand in the way of fate?


#fridayflash: moving day

This one is a sort of follow-up from last week's story, although not really a serial per se. Thanks to my brother Steve for the ideas for both.

"But to never see the stars, or the moon," said Dorothea. "That's gonna be hard."

"It'll be a generational thing," said Max. "You have to think long-term." He gave a lopsided smile. "Maybe people will learn how to make a mess, like they did before the cities were made to be mobile."

Dorothea snorted. "Some traditions should be preserved, if you ask me."

"We'll be one of the first ones to decide. How are your readings doing?" 

Dorothea glanced down at the device on her wrist. "We won't be glowing in the dark any time soon. Actually, they're lower than we were told to expect."

"Would you let little kids run around in the sunshine?" 

Dorothea snorted again. "Of course not. How are the oxygen levels?"  

"We won't be turning blue." Max pointed down the tunnel. "Shall we?"

They turned on each other's helmet lights and headed to the elevator shaft. 

Max admired the job the coring crew had done on the sides of the tunnel. The foreman had sent out a special team to smooth the walls, floor, and ceiling, make it look and feel more like a structure in the domed, moving city. 

"And what's with the idea that we're going to keep driving the city around?" said Dorothea. "I don't get that."

"We'll just keep stripping it for parts until there's nothing left that's inessential," said Max. "Makes sense to me. It'll be nice, carrying over stuff."

"Maybe." They reached the elevators.

Max pulled up the metal cage door on the elevator. They stepped inside, and Dorothea hit the button for the living quarters level closest to the surface. The elevator headed down, moving quickly enough that Max and Dorothea both felt their ears pop every few seconds.

"What the —" Half a minute before they should have reached the correct floor, the water started pouring into the cab from the door area.

"The excavation flooded," said Dorothea. "Everything below us must be underwater. We have to reverse this thing —" She pounded almost randomly at the control panel.

"No!" said Max. "If you hit the emergency button, it'll pause and we'll be trapped in here."

"We have to head up again while the system's still working."

"We will, but we have to let it stop at our floor first."

Their descent had slowed with the higher resistance of the water, but it was still now up to their waists.

"We'll drown," said Dorothea. "We have to — " She eyed the top and walls of the elevator, as if planning to hack her way out with the spanner she held.

"I read about something like this in a book once," said Max. "When the water gets to shoulder height, take the deepest breath you can and hold it."

"What'll that do?"

"It'll let you live until we can start going up again."

"You're crazy."

"Got a better idea?"

"It's so cold," said Dorothea in a small voice as the water levels reached chest height.

"Now!" said Max, and took a deep breath as if to demonstrate. He fought the urge to panic as the water closed over his head.

The water was cold, cold enough to make any sane person want to thrash about and reach the surface... but that was over the top of the elevator cab now. Max hit the button for the elevator to ascend back to the tunnel at the surface. He felt the cab lurch and shudder around them, but they didn't move.

Dorothea pushed her way over to the control panel and hit the ascent button again, only to receive the same reaction in response. Fighting the urge to take a breath, Max pressed the button a third time and held it down. The elevator repeated the same lurching and shuddering motions, then with a final lurch began to rise.

Max stood with his hands balled into fists, face tilted up to the ceiling of the elevator cab, willing the water level to come down. It was only when the water level dropped to around his ears and he got to gasp in some new air that he let himself check on Dorothea. She was in the same position he was.

The elevator clunked to a stop at the entrance tunnel, and they scrambled to disembark before it decided on its own to descend again.

The air in the tunnel was dry but chilly. Max and Dorothea leaned against one of the tunnel walls and rolled up into shivering balls of cold.

"The rest of the team was down there," Dorothea said through chattering teeth. "On the lower levels."

Max glanced towards the elevator. "I don't see how there's a way," he said. "There was an emergency sink at the bottom of the shaft. If we were in water as far up as we were, then the sink is full and so are all the floors." He shivered out a sigh. "You got any sensors still working?"

Dorothea checked her gear. "Radiation and... chronometer."

"When's the city due to pass over us?"

"Thirty minutes. The emergency blankets were in the living area down below, right?"

"Yeah." Max paused. "We'll just have to tell them what happened."

book review: Memoir Revolution

In the twenty-first century, memoirs have exploded from a specialized niche into a central feature of our literary and popular culture. Aspiring memoir authors fill writing classes, and published authors appear on talk shows. We’re in the age of the memoir. This book reveals the roots and importance of the trend, and the value it can have in our individual and social lives.

Jerry Waxler's Memoir Revolution is notable, first and foremost, for its energy. The energy radiates out from the text and soaks into the reader like sunlight.

It's funny: if someone were to ask me if I ready memoirs regularly, I'd say "no". I've never much been one for any type of biography. And yet I've read many of the books which Waxler uses as examples (and there are many examples — the bibliography makes a great reading list). His thesis that memoirs are taking centre stage in culture is strong based on the sheer volume of bestsellers which are associated with the genre.

Memoir Revolution is a mix of Waxler's own memoirs, a survey of the form, and thematic groupings of many different example memoirs. One thing I really appreciated was the use of the same example memoirs for exploring different aspects of the genre in different chapters. Instead of the pigeonholing that's so common in surveys, the examples are held up as rich, multifaceted works. One finishes the book with better understanding of how diverse and well-rounded memoirs can be.

On our journey from infancy to adulthood, all of us must construct our stories. First we learn from our parents, community, and teachers. Then we try things. We play sports, explore sexuality and relationships, earn diplomas and degrees, get jobs. After each experiment, we decide if we want to continue along this line or try something different. From the very beginning, we gather this information into a story about who we are and how we fit into the world. That story continues to direct us for the rest of our lives.

In Memoir Revolution, memoirs aren't just memoirs: they're opportunities for all of us, writers and readers together, to connect, learn from each other, expand our understanding. It's heady, thought-provoking stuff, sourced directly from the 1960s American college scene Waxler experienced first-hand. That positivism, and the looking-inward-becomes-reaching-outward worldview that goes with it, has receded so much from the cultural discourse that when found in this book it felt fresh again.

Above all, this is a book which encourages one to think critically about story-telling. For those interested in writing a memoir, it is a wealth of advice and examples, and a great tool with which to start community-building. For those who enjoy reading memoirs, it's a way to read a memoir while learning to appreciate the genre even more.

About the Author

Jerry Waxler teaches memoir writing at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, PA, online, and around the country. His Memory Writers Network blog offers hundreds of essays, reviews, and interviews about reading and writing memoirs. He is on the board of the Philadelphia Writer's Conference and National Association of Memoir Writers and holds a BA in Physics and an MS in Counseling Psychology.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jerrywaxler

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jerrywaxler

Website: http://www.jerrywaxler.com/

Blog: http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/

About the Book

Memoir Revolution is Jerry Waxler’s beautifully written story as he integrates it with his deep and abiding knowledge and passion for story. In the 1960s, Jerry Waxler, along with millions of his peers, attempted to find truth by rebelling against everything. After a lifetime of learning about himself and the world, he now finds himself in the middle of another social revolution. In the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of us are searching for truth by finding our stories. In Memoir Revolution, Waxler shows how memoirs link us to the ancient, pervasive system of thought called The Story. By translating our lives into this form, we reveal the meaning and purpose that eludes us when we view ourselves through the lens of memory. And when we share these stories, we create mutual understanding, as well. By exploring the cultural roots of this literary trend, based on an extensive list of memoirs and other book, Waxler makes the Memoir Revolution seem like an inevitable answer to questions about our psychological, social and spiritual well-being. 




#fridayflash: sunrise

Three o'clock, afternoon. Time to move the city again.

Peggy double-checks the clock and hits the clarion button. Even in the control booth, fifteen stories below street level, she can hear the alarm whine out of the speakers. It'll run for sixty seconds, and then the recording telling everyone to strap in for the ride will play. Children can repeat it syllable for syllable by the time they're three. Toddlers are also about the only people who pay attention to the words. Anyone older has the message soaked into their bones.

"Attention please. The habitation dome will be shifted west in... thirty... minutes. Please secure all belongings and ensure you are sitting in furniture equipped with a functioning, official safety harness. This message will repeat every five minutes until the shift is imminent."

The city may have thirty minutes, but Peggy has to get the transporter motor located under the city's base in gear starting now. She'll be flicking switches and throwing levers until right before they have to move.

Something about doing the energy gauge check always makes her think of her husband. He teaches kindergarten, and she knows in the moment that she's logging the pre-shift energy levels, he's leading the class in the "Tidy Up, Time to Rumble!" song. When the city shifts and Peggy's not working, they do the song and the actions around the house as they get ready. Peggy thinks it's brilliant. It takes all the scary parts away and makes the shift fun. Just as well, since it happens four times a day.

Up above, the city's windows only face from southwest to northeast. The citizens never see what the lead controller sees: the eastern horizon, the eight giant tread tracks leading back to it from the city. Fifteen minutes in, Peggy's just past halfway done her checklist. It's time to lower the scrims. They filter out the worst of the radiation, so the lead controller can look out the window without going blind... or getting poisoned by the sun's rays. The controller always drives the city facing backwards, watching the filtered windows for the one thing that terrifies anyone on the shift crew: a horizon. Max, the oldest member of Peggy's team, was lead controller during a breakdown once, thirty years ago. The sun was halfway above the horizon before the crew got the motor back in gear and the city was able to shift westward. Max always ends telling that particular horror story by saying, "I tells ya, I got this close to wetting myself, but I was too scared I'd fry more of the electronics."

By now her husband would be returning from the mandatory class trip to the toilets, so anyone who needs to pee can before they're strapped into their chairs. School chairs don't have any wiring, but the school doesn't want any little ones being traumatised by having to hold it through the "rumble".

Peggy pulls the lever that engages the drive gears with the motor. Usually she has to put her weight into it, but this time it swings loosely and settles into place without resistance.

Her eyes dart to the control panel. The engagement light isn't on.

"Dorothea, I've got a dead drive lever," Peggy says into the comm. "What can you do for me down there?"

"Now?" squeaks Dorothea.

"Now is when we hit it on the checklist," Peggy says, swallowing her frustration.

She should be keeping watch on the console, but her eyes drift up to the window. Through the filter, she can see the eastern sky is paling.

"Drive lever, drive lever... Keith!" Dorothea yells over the comm. "Tell me ticket 3092 got resolved! It's still open on the log."

Peggy bites her lip and wills herself not to say anything into the comm. Seven minutes to shift. Her husband will be leading the class in the "Sit In, Strap In, Move Along" song as he checks each child is secured. He's told her he doesn't usually start strapping in himself until three minutes before shift. Which, knowing him, is more like two minutes. He hates to sit still more than his young students.

"We're engaging manually, Peggy," Dorothea shouts over the comm.

"Tell me when to restart the checklist," says Peggy. She scans the list to see if any remaining tasks are safe to perform out of order.

"Try it again!" Dorothea shouts. She doesn't sound like she's anywhere near the comm. Peggy can see pink sky on the horizon. A trickle of sweat wanders down her back.

She squeezes her eyes shut and takes a chain from around her neck. A key dangles from it. Peggy unlocks a drawer in the console and pulls out a second, shorter checklist: the procedure for putting the domed city into emergency shutdown. If it comes to this, her husband, his kindergarten class, and everyone else above the streets will be trapped in their chairs, with radiation filters on all the outer glass, until the crew can get things fixed and move the city to the safety of darkness again. Or until the filters burn out, which is about half a day at typical radiation levels.

"Okay," Dorothea gasps into the comm.

"Okay what?"

"Continue the damn checklist! Two minutes, Peggy!"

I'm the one who told you something was wrong, thinks Peggy, but she verifies the engagement light is on. Her fingers and eyes fly through the remaining items. They are forty-seven seconds over time. Peggy can see an ugly, angry orange on the horizon.

"Cameras on!" she snaps into the comm. "Duck and cover!"

The control crew don't have time to strap into safety chairs. Instead, they have small, padded closets they lock themselves into. Peggy double-checks the forward-facing cameras and hits the big red drive button. Above and all around her, the city shakes into movement, rumbling along on its eight big treads. Peggy watches the light fade as the safety of darkness is retreated to once more.

#fridayflash: a hallowed carol

Ed Froog took quiet pride in his attention to detail and ability to stay two steps ahead of the competition. If the good citizens of Pullmanville wanted food, the only place in town to get it was at Froogal Food, of which he was manager and sole proprietor. The nearest supermarket was over a day's drive away, and folks had learned not to order food on-line and have it delivered to the post office — which was situated at the back of Ed's store. 

He did give back to the community. In addition to his entrepreneurial work, he was also the only pastor in town, and technically owned the local church and graveyard. Regular attendees of his Sunday services received a small discount at Froogal, and didn't have to worry about finding somewhere sanctified and respectful to bury dead loved ones. Church attendance was nearly a hundred per cent for anyone well enough to get out of bed.

Froog made anti-Halloween sermons every Sunday in October, and refused to stock candy in Froogal Food. The townsfolk, however, celebrated with handmade costumes, homegrown pumpkins, and treats crafted from family recipes. All the children trick-or-treated every house, and every house had treats... except for Ed's.

Ed always turned the lights off and went to bed early. He'd grown to expect to have to clean off toilet paper and broken eggs from his house every 1 November, but one year someone threw a not-rotten-enough apple at the dining room window, and it was while he was on hold with the glazier that Ed decided Halloween really had to go. 

The following year, he left the sugar locked up in the stockroom starting the day after Labour Day, preaching every Sunday against gluttony and self-indulgence. Flour and eggs left the shelves  the start of October; toilet paper the week following. Apples, tomatoes, and packaged cookies went next. 

The afternoon of Halloween, he was paid a visit by Audrey Evans, her daughter Bridget, and her little grand-daughter Stella. The two grown women took turns entreating him to at least re-stock the toilet paper, and named several families who had run out days ago.

Ed listened politely, did some hand-waving about late deliveries and cash flow, then showed them the door.

That night he had a fine dinner of pancakes and apple sauce, all made from his not-for-sale cache of goods. He turned out the lights and went to bed.

He was startled awake by the sound of a church clock tolling the bell for midnight. His first thought was, "Good, all the little brats will be in bed by now, and I can start reintroducing the stock from the back room." Then he remembered that the church bell hadn't worked in years. He sat up in bed and leaned over to turn on the night-table lamp.

"You finally clued in," said a voice by the foot of the bed.

Ed jumped out of bed, scrambling for the baseball bat he kept by the headboard. It took some fumbling, but he finally got it in hand and turned to face the intruder.

He felt foolish when he saw a blonde girl about nine years old, wearing a white flannel nightgown and a red-lined black cape that was probably meant to be a vampire costume.

Ed set the baseball bat down. "What are you doing out so late?"

"Remember the year you became pastor?" said the little girl. "You thought the town might be a bit quieter on Halloween if you stopped selling flashlights and batteries a few months before. But us kids went out anyhow, and I fell in the duck pond. No moon, no stars. No-one could see where I was."

"I haven't held back the flashlight stock for twenty-five years," said Ed. "You're making that up."

"No, that was me," said the girl. "I'm Alice Evans. You talked to Audrey today. She was my big sister."

"Now look here you —" said Ed, grabbing for the girl's arm, but his hand passed through empty air. Alice looked up at him with a tiny, crooked smile on her face. His eyes widened.

"You're slow, but you get there," said Alice.

"So you're here to, what, convince me not to stop Halloween? You're most likely a figment of my imagination. You can't do anything."

"Can't do anything, can't grow up," said Alice.

Froog drew himself up. "I can do something. I can make sure this horrible tradition ends. I can redeem myself and help the town redeem themselves. Surely you realise you would still be alive as I if your family hadn't been so stupid as to lead you around in the dark."

"I am alive as you are," said Alice, and pointed at the headboard.

Ed wheeled around to see that someone was lying in his bed. He paused, not sure whether to attack the new invader, or wait to see what they did. Just then the clouds parted, and the moonlight coming through the sheer bedroom curtains illuminated the figure. Ed gasped as he recognised the face as his own.

"I've been watching you for twenty years, Ed Froog," said Alice. "You're not seeing me tonight because it's Halloween. You're seeing me because you're on the same plane of existence that I am. You don't get any moment of gloating about how redeemed you are. Now," she said, slipping off the bed and gliding towards the dining room, "I really want to see what the kids are going to do to your house this year."

Happy Halloween to all the spirited ones.

book review: Thieving Forest


When Susanna looks down at the peapods again she sees the new black lace on her cuff. Her parents died almost two weeks ago and only one day apart, Ellen first and then Sirus, as unexpected as two suns setting in the same evening. Susanna, who is superstitious, has put a piece of rowan wood in the pocket of her black dress to guard against ghosts, although she misses her mother, and would almost chance the frightening encounter in order to see her again. She's lonely for her. She's lonely for both of them. Part of her feels gone as well, like there's a room in her home that she can't go to anymore, a locked door. She thinks of her mother's freckled hands cutting bread.

Thieving Forest is being marketed as a Young Adult book, which I think is very unfair. It is suitable for young adults, being focused on a sixteen-year-old girl and with suitable content, but it would appeal just as well to anyone who enjoys well-researched historical novels. The main character is Susanna Quiner, the second-youngest of six sisters, and of life in the swamps and forests of Ohio in 1806. The youngest sister, Lilith, still lives in Philadelphia, which makes Susanna effectively the youngest. Before their parents' deaths, and certainly afterwards, the older sisters tend to order Susanna around, which is precisely why she is out of the house doing chores when the rest of her sisters are kidnapped and taken into the nearby forest. The only one left free, Susanna decides the only right thing to do is lead a search party to rescue her sisters.

The first thing I noticed reading Thieving Forest was the use of the present tense. It was unsettling for the first five pages or so to read an historical novel using this, but after the brief adjustment period it becomes an excellent device for pulling the reader into the story. The choice of verb tense reflects well on the rest of the prose elements — the writing is vivid but not florid, in a style that reminded me of Hemingway, but without his intense brevity.

The next noticeable thing is the incredible care taken with historical accuracy. Certainly the details all tallied with what I remember from school about the same period in Canadian history. The characters embody what is beautiful, ugly, great, and awful about this part of America in the early nineteenth century. To accomplish this, of course, the characters need to be well-rounded, and it was a real pleasure to see all of the various character arcs weaving through the story. Characters it was easy to dismiss as minor grow in importance, while ones that were essential fade away. Susanna is the through line, the reader's window into this world. The author doesn't shy away from depicting common prejudices of the time — instead, they are included as important plot points, as much as they may make the contemporary reader wince. A major theme is that any community will include good people and bad, leaders and layabouts.

The men shake their heads. The woman who collected bird bones looks at Seth. "Your women lost?" she says in English. "No good."
He tells her in Potawatomi that the two women are heading north. They are going to the Maumee. One has red hair.
"Many streams here." She shakes her head. "You are the first chmokman I see."

One aspect of the historical accuracy that I particularly enjoyed was how all of the major characters were multilingual. The ones who speak English as a first language know a little French, and are near-fluent in at least one First Nations language. The First Nations characters may or may not know English, but the major characters have at least a little French, or know other native languages besides the one their own nation uses. The characters' language knowledge doesn't slow down the dialogue or the plot at all — on the contrary, it enhances both. It also points out that the story takes place before the famous American "melting pot" effect has had a chance to work. The Midwest as such simply doesn't exist yet.

I have to admit: I was nervous about reviewing this book. The promotional blurb is up-front about the detail that the sisters were kidnapped by Potawatomi Indians, and I worried that the story would divide a little too neatly along the traditional Western "Indians bad except for this one token character/whites good except for this one token character" lines. I was relieved and very pleased to discover that this is not the case at all — even the sisters' kidnapping is a far more complex affair than it appears at the beginning of the book. I would be very curious to read a critique of the book from a First Nations perspective, though.

The only note of caution is that the depiction of life in 1806 Ohio is not romanticised at all. Characters get realistic injuries, and have realistic, 19th-century style medical care for them. Some characters die from injuries or illnesses which wouldn't even warrant a hospital stay in a modern city. Having said that, the physical details are sometimes grim but never gratuitous. There is absolutely no lazy-writer hand-waving over details like how to find food in a swamp with minimal tools and skills. When, late in the book, a character catches a vole for dinner, as a reader you're far too busy being happy that they won't starve after all to feel repugnance. (All right, not much repugnance. The point stands.)

Thieving Forest is the first five-star rating I've given on Goodreads since I read Wool, over a year ago. The clear writing style, vivid characters, well-turned plot, beautifully illustrated themes, and thoroughly-researched historical setting make it a very rewarding read.

About the Author

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

#fridayflash: burden of proof

I like it here. The walls are grey, and so are the table and chair. The table and the chair are bolted to the grey concrete floor, and the grey-painted steel door is locked. Far away I can hear someone yelling, but I can hear it's too far away for them to be yelling at me.

The jumpsuit they gave me to wear is orange. I don't like that, because it looks like shrieking. But if I stare at the far wall, I can only see a little glow of it at the edges, like an echo.

I like staring at the wall. I wish my cell was this nice.

The lock on the door clicks open, SNAP like the smell of a candle that's just gone out. And then guards are coming in the door, and they say "STAND UP AMOS", and I start to cry, because it's so loud it's making my vision tremble. I want to squeeze my hands to my ears, but I can't because they put handcuffs on me already.

"HEY!" says a new voice like a hot pepper. That's my lawyer. Usually her voice is like cold lemonade, but she's shouting at the guards to stop shouting at me. "BORN ASH HEAD. SECTION 32, GUYS."

Born because my parents were addicted to ash, and I got addicted to it before my mother gave birth to me. Ash head means you take ash all the time. But that's not true. You can't get ash in prison. I've tried. Ash makes all the colours and sounds act like they do for other people. But I can't get it in prison, so my head mixes everything up.

"Sorry," one of the guards whispers. He sounds like just after you swallow a hit of ash. Icy.

"Sorry nothing," the other guard says, but his voice doesn't hurt anymore. "Another burnt-out loser."

"Just speak in a low voice," my lawyer says in her lemonade voice. "Amos, it's okay, they're going to follow the rules now. Look at me."

I peek over my hands. She's wearing a grey suit, and I smile a little.

"Amos, the police need to ask you some questions. About what happened at the pharmacy."

"And you're going to get replaced by a machine, counsellor," says one of the guards. He's the same one who called me a loser. 

"That machine is going to create jobs for criminal lawyers, not destroy them," says my lawyer. 

The guards tell me to stand up, then they put shackles on my ankles, then all four of us walk down the hall to a room near the prison entrance. The yelling has stopped. 

The room has a woman in it. She's wearing bright pink, and I scrinch my eyes shut because it hurts.  

The guards are on either side of me, and they lead me into a room and sit me in a chair. They adjust the handcuffs and shackles so I'm strapped to the chair, and when I feel them step away I open my eyes and look at the floor. 

"Tell him to lift his head," says the bright pink woman. "He needs to so you can get the detector on." 

One of the guards forces my head up, and the other straps a cap onto me, with a buckle under my chin. I can feel something cool and wet on my temples, like leftover soup.

"Okay," says one of the guards, and the woman flicks a switch on the machine in front of her.

The cool wet things vibrate against my skin. They feel like the bright pink of the woman's dress. I feel my brain shake. I feel my skull rattling apart.

"It hurts," I say, trying not to scream because I know the guards will get mad. "You have to turn it off. It hurts."

"I told you," says my lawyer, hot pepper splashed into the lemonade.

The rattling is turning into a roar. "Make it stop."

"The sooner you tell the truth, the sooner we're done," says the bright pink woman. "Amos, where were you on THE NIGHT OF 25th June?"

"IT HURTS!" I yell. I can hear my voice bouncing off the walls like popcorn. I pull at the arm straps, but the guards did a good job.

"Just one or two words," says the woman.

My brain wants to dribble out past my eyeballs. "I DID IT!" I say. This is what this is all about. They need a reason to keep me in jail.

"You need to answer the question," says the woman.

"He's obviously in distress," says my lawyer. "What do you expect to get from him?"

They're not listening to me. "I DID IT!" I yell, loud as I can.

The bright pink woman shakes a hand at the screen. "It says he's lying," she says. "We can't get any good data if he refuses to answer directly."

"Then turn it off, " says my lawyer.

The woman does something, because it stops hurting. My skull and brain feel wobbly.

"It can't hurt," says the bright pink woman. "The contacts just pick up brain signals."

My lawyer sighs. "Am I the only person here who's done the reading?" she says. "His nerves have been jumped up from birth. If he's not high on ash, then nearly everything is too much stimulus. He can feel the contacts transmitting his brain signals. And yes, it would hurt."

"Like burning?"

"Like ANYTHING UNPLEASANT," says my lawyer. "Sorry, Amos. His nerves are so burnt-out, he gets neurological cross-chatter. He told me bright colours are noisy," she says, and I see her point at the woman's pink dress.

"So what do we do then?"

"Forget about getting a confession out of him — since the one you just tortured out of him is inadmissible — and hold a new trial," my lawyer says. "And stop thinking machines are going to do your cross-examination work for you."

"But the technology WORKS," says the woman. I figure out that if I tilt my head back I can just see the ceiling. It's white, which isn't as quiet as grey, but it's quieter than her pink dress.

"It works sometimes," says my lawyer.

"83% of cases never go to trial."

"And 15% are dismissed during the trial because the prisoner's treatment is so poor," says my lawyer. "See you in court, Amos. I'll be in touch."

Someone — it smells like a guard — undoes the chin strap on the cap. I keep staring at the ceiling, just in case.

outrunning your readers

It seems silly to call spoilers on two books which were both released more than a year ago, but... spoilers. Just minor ones though.

I just finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and while I can't actually say anything against it — her narrative voice is spot-on, her characters are realistic to a wincing degree, and her plot is immaculate — it fell a bit flat for me. This post is about why, and why it's the same thing that made The Da Vinci Code a slog to get through for some people.

Let me explain.

Remember The Da Vinci Code? The plot structure wasn't unlike a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. A protagonist with deciphering bona fides finds puzzle after puzzle, each one leading him on to the next clue. The action and danger escalated geometrically, and the solution to each puzzle provided a new twist to the plot.

Or, at least, it was supposed to. Certainly for the readers who loved the book it did. It even led to a whole related flurry of books, documentaries, and TV specials running through which conspiracies were historical and which Dan Brown had made up whole cloth.

For other readers, however, it was all very underwhelming. One of them was my brother Rob, who studied art all the way through high school. "This is all stuff we took in class," he complained. "All that stuff about Da Vinci's The Last Supper... anybody who studied any art history or has ever bothered to read up on Renaissance painters is going to know that. It's no big secret."

I never studied art, so Rob was ahead of me there, but both of us received a lot of puzzle books as children. We used to try out ciphers and send each other messages all the time. Some of the ciphers in The Da Vinci Code were the same as the ones we used to play with. I remember there was at least one chapter (the one with the mirror written message) where I knew the solution at a glance, and had to march through twenty pages of the characters asking each other, "But what could it mean?" before they finally figured it out. Other chapters I had a pretty accurate idea of what the cipher was, and had to plod through until it was deciphered in the book.

This isn't to brag, not at all. It's to point out that if your reader has knowledge pertinent to your story context, they're going to get very frustrated with your story. It's sort of a variation on the "howler" of an inaccurate detail in an otherwise realistic story. The difference is, that while a detective story may make a police officer cringe, or a medical thriller make a doctor wince, these are bits of knowledge that a non-specialist may have acquired just by liking to read. Quite probably they are members of the book's target audience.

So: Gone Girl. At the top of this post, I described the characters as realistic to a "wincing degree". The two main characters (they take turns narrating in the first person) are both narcissists, possibly sociopaths. The issue is that if you've ever had the bad luck to know such a person well — I have — it's obvious after five pages in the book what they're about. It's a credit to Flynn as a writer that she portrays them so accurately, but it means that the three big plot twists people have discussed a lot are completely predictable. As a reader, I didn't know the exact details, but I could see the fallacies in what was being narrated (narcissists are the perfect unreliable narrators) and knew reality was going to give them a hard smack long before it happened.

That meant that the reading experience was a lot "flatter" and, well, non-thrilling for me. What kept me reading was that there was a sort of perverse joy in exploring the behaviour in two people who were married to each other. All the real-life narcissists I've known have always wound up connected to non-narcissists (all the better to make the relationship and the drama they get to generate from it all about them).

What do you think? Have you ever had a book fall flat for you because you had knowledge that blew away the mystery before the plot could?

guest post: Choosing What DOESN’T Make it into the Final Draft

Recently a reader asked me about the sources I used for my novel, Thieving Forest. I sent her this picture:

Actually, I sent her that picture plus two more like it: my index cards listing all the books, journal articles, and web sites I consulted as research. I also filled three index card boxes with the notes I took using those sources, and only one box is filled with the details that actually made it into the novel.

What got left out?

Well, a lot, obviously! I once had a writing teacher who used to say that the most important thing about writing a scene is keeping everything extraneous out. But when you’re writing historical fiction, the odd details of dress and food and setting are needed to create the unfamiliar world you’re describing, and to give a sense of verisimilitude.

But too much detail can overwhelm a reader and slow down the plot. And a novel like Thieving Forest, where a lot happens in the course of five months, requires details that enhance without stopping the action.

So all the details I chose had to do double-duty. They had to color the world, yes, but they also had to suggest an atmosphere or the state of mind of a character. If the character is feeling indecisive and penned-in, I might add a detail about the low, sloped ceiling of the room. If she’s feeling hungry and dirty, maybe I’ll write a sentence about the skinny, muddy cattails she’s walking through.

However, I could not have begun to make these kinds of choices had I not known what kind of houses were built in European settlements in Ohio in 1806, or what flora and fauna existed in the Great Black Swamp. I love languages, so I wanted to include Native American dialogue. I did a search on a few tribes that I knew lived in Ohio at that time and found an online Wyandot dictionary. And so I made the choice even before I began writing, based on the existence of this dictionary, that the most prominent tribe in my novel would be Wyndot.

What details didn’t make it into the novel? That cheluchelus is the word for cricket in Lenni Lenape (previously known as Delaware). That antelope once roamed freely in Columbus. That sod houses were often called soddies. Some great details had to be deleted because they required too much explanation or backstory. Some because the characters wouldn’t know in 1806 what I know now.

But in any case, I learned an enormous amount, and I had fun trying to fit in as many details as I could. And so what if I couldn’t fit in all of my favorites? Maybe, I thought, someone will invite me to write a blog post about it, and I can squeeze in a few more that way… !


About the Author

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

About Thieving Forest

Ohio in 1806 is not the Ohio you're thinking of...it's the frontier complete with unfriendly Native Americans, death around every corner and for many, a yearning for "civilization". Seventeen year old Susanna Quiner has never been especially resourceful, hardworking or brave. That is, until her parents succumb to illness and her four sister are kidnapped by Native Americans. Can Susanna rescue them when no one else can? Or will she end up enslaved, married to a Native American or dead?


review: Ever Faithful to His Lead

I hated the thought of another divorce, but my awakening sense of physical danger was the final straw. He was leaving me no choice. I couldn’t risk my kids being hurt.
I had to leave.
I called Denise before I went upstairs to let her know I had decided to follow through.
“I’m ready,” I said, filling her in on the details of my call with Dave. “It’s scary, but I finally see I have no choice.”
“Good,” she answered, “I was hoping I’d get this call. Call me as soon as Dan leaves for work in the morning and I’ll drive you to the sheriff’s office.”
I just had to make it through the night without incident, without letting on to Dan or the kids that we would be gone when he returned from work the next day. But how was I going to make it through the night calmly and safely?

Memoirs have a reputation for being rather sedate reading experiences. Sure, there's fun with gossip or tell-alls, but it's not the same as, say, reading a thriller or a mystery.

Kathleen Pooler does something very smart right at the beginning of Ever Faithful to His Lead: she turns it into a mystery. The story opens with her confirming the worst: that her second husband Dan was capable of inflicting serious, even life-threatening, injuries on his wife and immediate family when he was displeased with them. After a difficult conversation with her friends, she decides to leave Dan and take her children (his stepchildren) with her. Pooler very effectively conveys that just because she wasn't in the midst of a dramatic, Hollywood-style escape doesn't mean it wasn't terrifying. Even though the reader knows she must have survived and become free enough to write this book, there's a wonderful amount of suspense generated. As a reader, you want to know how this happened and what happened after the first night of leaving.

The rest of the story is told more chronologically, starting with Pooler's childhood, moving on to her education to become a nurse and her first marriage to another abusive man. Pooler's history makes her an interesting case study: she was raised in a large family by loving, mutually respectful parents. She has a strong work ethic, is well-educated, and worked as a hospital administrator. This memoir's existence explodes many myths about abused spouses: that they're ignorant, that they grew up with abuse and normalised it, that they don't have any income of their own. Pooler's career path meant that she was formally trained in how to recognise victims of abuse, yet it didn't seem to help her with her own abuse until she was extricated from the toxic relationships and had the space to reflect.

There was one story in the memoir especially that gave me pause, when Pooler's first husband comes home drunk and discovers a finished copy of a course paper she's written on domestic violence. Enraged, he crumples up all of the pages and strews them all over the floor. The next morning, he claims he has no idea why he did it.

I glanced at the books and papers scattered across the kitchen table; time to tackle that paper on domestic violence that was due in two weeks. We had discussed the cycle of abuse in class during the week, and it all had seemed eerily familiar. The abuser apologizes profusely for any wrongdoing, and the victim takes him back, always hopeful the abuse will stop.
Still, I told myself, Ed didn’t really physically abuse me. I didn’t have bruises all over. He never really apologized because he never remembered what he did. He just drank too much at times. And I knew he was stressed about working in the family business and not making as much money as Shawn. He needed my love, not my judgement.

Pooler recounts relatively little physical violence compared to other abuse cases, but her memoir makes it very clear that constantly walking on eggshells takes its own toll. The physical violence wasn't entirely absent, either: hair-pulling, threatening, insistence on beating her children as punishment they "deserved" all happened. Her second husband's habit of calling her "incompetent" if every little thing wasn't exactly as he imagined it should be done gave me a chill; I was called the same in a previous relationship.

The best part of this memoir, for me, is that it doesn't just stop when it circles back to the suspenseful escape described in the beginning. There's a thorough and fascinating analysis, and Pooler describes how she learned what to watch out for when dating someone, and points out the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. I appreciated that she did this all using common, everyday terms, rather than the more clinical ones she no doubt knows from her medical background. It's one thing to discuss these things in a classroom or professional setting, but something else again to spot them "in the wild."

Ever Faithful to His Lead is a thoroughly engaging, readable memoir. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in learning about healthy and unhealthy relationships from a first-person, grounded, and educated point of view.

About the Author

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, was published on July 28, 2014. Both it and her work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir, are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York.

About Ever Faithful to His Lead

Ever Faithful To His Lead : My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse is a memoir, a true life tears to triumph story of self-defeating detours and dreams lost and found.

A young woman who loses sight of the faith she has been brought up with attempts to find her way in the world, rejecting her stable roots in lieu of finding adventure and romance. Despite periods of spiritual renewal in which she receives a prophecy, she slides back, taking several self-defeating detours that take her through a series of heartbreaking events.

When Kathy's second husband, Dan's verbal abuse escalates, Kathy finally realizes she must move on before she and her children become a statistic.

How does a young woman who came from a stable, loving family make so many wise choices when it came to career, but so many wrong choices when it came to love, so that she ended up sacrificing career and having to flee in broad daylight with her children from an abusive marriage? What is getting in her way and why does she keep taking so many self-defeating detours?

The story opens up the day Kathy feels physically threatened for the first time in her three-year marriage to her second husband. This sends her on a journey to make sense of her life and discern what part she has played in the vulnerable circumstance she finds herself in.

She must make a decision — face her self-defeating patterns that have led to this situation and move on or repeat her mistakes. Her life and the lives of her two children are dependent upon the choices she makes and the chances she takes from this point forward.

#fridayflash: sons and fascination

This picks up from an earlier story I wrote in 2013. I don't know why, but this world rolled back into view again.

Matthew clutched at the gunwales. He wasn't sure which was more terrifying to look at, the rapidly-approaching ground or the deflating whaleskin slumping its way towards his head. The boat had sailed so placidly during its air voyage, the whaleskin balloon keeping them aloft. He hadn't really considered the landing.

He looked across the boat to Foster, his fellow apprentice, but Foster had curled into a ball and pressed himself against the side of the boat, eyes squeezed shut. Matthew rolled his eyes and turned away.

"You'll want to watch our altitude, Thomas," said Mistress Angelica, peering over the side. "Best not to crack the keel."

Master Thomas released the bell-pull, which re-stoppered the whaleskin and temporarily halted their descent. "I don't want to drift too far from the library, either," he said. Matthew saw him point to something ahead; he turned and saw a smaller airborne ship coming towards them.

"That will be Mistress Gretchen and her apprentices," said Master Thomas.

"Oh bother," said Mistress Angelica. "We'll be up here all night if we don't land before them." She tugged the bell-pull sharply.

Now the whaleskin was deflating so quickly, Matthew could feel the escaping gas shushing over the back of his neck, like a dragon's sigh. He tightened his grip and braced for impact.

"Oy!" a new voice shouted. "Apprentice! Get ready to catch, will you? Thomas, 'Gelica, have you been teaching these two, or experimenting in fungiculture?"

"Good to see you too, Benedict," said Thomas. "Matthew, Foster, make yourselves useful."

Matthew peeped over the side of the boat. A large, elderly man in master's robes stood below, holding a coil of rope in his hands.

"This one can still move, at least," said Benedict. "Now catch the end of this thing when I throw it and tie it fast to the mooring-hooks, will you?"

"Like they did in town, Matthew," said Angelica.

Matthew wasn't sure he could remember how the ropes had been fastened back at the docks, but he held out his hands and managed to grab the end of the rope just before it began to fall to earth. The reach almost toppled him out of the boat, but he threw himself backwards, his head landing on Foster's calf.

"Watch it!" said Foster, barely glancing over his shoulder before looking down. "I'm sorry, mistress, can we try it again?"

"Welcome to the party," Matthew muttered under his breath as he staggered upright and tied the rope to the nearest mooring-hook.

"The stern's secured. Just the one more at the starboard bow, and we'll get the mooring screws going," said a woman's voice Matthew hadn't heard yet.

Foster pushed against the gunwale to extend his leap. His cry of victory turned into a scream as his feet refused to settle back into the ship. Matthew lunged and grabbed hold of Foster's knees just before he went overboard.

"What's going on over there, anyhow?" called Benedict.

"Oh, nothing. We just nearly lost an apprentice," said the woman's voice.

Benedict clucked. "Every time."

"Are we moored, then?" said Thomas.

"Almost," said Matthew, grabbing the rope from the still-shaking Foster and rapidly winding it around the hooks.

"We're either moored or we're —"

"We're moored," said Matthew, cringing as he realised he'd interrupted a master.

"Screw down the ship, please," Angelica called out.

Matthew heard the clattering sound of large gears being wound, and the ship gradually descended. The whaleskin floated sulkily a bare metre above their heads.

"And lock!" shouted Benedict. "There you are, Angelica, Thomas. The keel's exactly a handspan from the ground. We're just rolling the stairs up, port bow."

The port bow was Matthew's, and he leaned over to see that the boat was at ground level now. He could have climbed outside and jumped off if he'd had to. Instead, he got to see half a dozen men and women in academic robes pushing a wooden staircase on chariot wheels towards them.

Benedict and Angelica took turns talking Matthew through how to lock the stairs to the boat.

"Are you blocked in by all that gear?" said Benedict, waving an arm at the collection of books and scientific instruments heaped in the middle of the boat.

"We are," said Thomas, "but don't worry, the apprentices know how to unload it."

"But of course we'll help you!" said Benedict.

"Help Gretchen," said Thomas, pointing. "If I'm not mistaken, she's ready to land."

Benedict turned, then ran away, shouting.

"Matthew, Foster, see if anyone's left," said Thomas quietly.

They scrambled down the stairs and checked the boat from all sides.

"They've all gone to help Mistress Gretchen," said Foster.

"All right then," said Angelica. "You two, start with the items on the port side to make a path for Thomas and I. Get everything to the library as quickly as you can. Matthew, you come back for the next load. Foster, stand guard."

The apprentices ran up the stairs, clambered back down, and got as quickly as they could to the library. A man in a porter's uniform let them in and offered to watch everything, but Foster stayed behind and Matthew ran back to the boat.

Angelica reached over the pile of items yet to be unloaded and clapped Matthew on the shoulder. "Never trust a gaggle of academics," she said. "Oh, they'd help, but they'd help themselves to some sunstones and pocket-books while they were at it."

It took four more trips, including one just to haul the stove down, before the boat was emptied. The last item was the enormous globe of the world, so big even Master Thomas couldn't reach his arms from pole to pole. It was anxious work getting it down the stairs, and it took all three of them to carry it to the library.

The porter held the door open for them as they squeezed the globe inside. "The Chief Librarian said to show you to your rooms, and then take you to the main reference hall once you're secured."

Angelica stretched and shook her arms. "Best get cracking, then," she said, and picked up the nearest pile of books.


Review: Twisted Reflections

Twisted Reflections is the second book in a trilogy about a time-travelling American girl named Alexis Davenport.

Normally when I do a book review, I place the story in a general context (if you like That Book, you'll like this book). I also think about who would be a good audience for the book, and then write the review to show how much said book would appeal to said audience. 

Usually by the time I'm a few chapters in, it's clear what sort of reader would be interested. With Twisted Reflections, that didn't happen. So instead, I'm going to walk through what I did find. 


It was smaller than her aunt's home, but still enormous compared to their old house in Longmont, with a huge immaculately trimmed front yard bordered by beautiful trees and flowers. The house was adobe, like most of the other houses in the area, with a beautiful bay window.
Mrs. Forsythe opened the door as they walked up the driveway. "I'm so glad to meet you, Alex. I'm Vera. I've met your mom a few times at the store."
Alex mumbled, unable to peel her eyes from the gorgeous flowers and bushes. Mrs. Forsythe's roses put Karen's to shame.

This passage is a typical sample of the description in the book — the vocabulary seems to be deliberately trimmed down. Things (and people) are beautiful, perfect, large, small, evil, young, old. Things might get a colour adjective as well. The adjectives can be a bit opaque: what does "beautiful" look like, anyhow? And how huge is "huge"?

Early on in the book, I thought this might be because although the protagonist was a teenager, the books were written to be suitable to younger readers. Passages like the one quoted above made me think of the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books I read when I was between the ages of eight and twelve — the characters were a few years older than I was, but that was mostly to give them the independence necessary to go off on their adventures.

Then again, while there's never any explicit sex, there's a certain amount of talking about it, both in the eras Alex time travels to and in the timestream she lives in.

SF/F aspect

Alex travels through time by seeing the reflection of another person in a mirror or other reflective surface. If that happens (and although she has some control over it, she is compelled to time travel sooner or later), she reaches into the mirror and finds herself living inside of the body of the person she saw as a reflection. She stays in their era, living out their life, until she's completed whatever task has been set for her. Usually, of course, this involves defeating an opposing time traveller referred to in the text as Drifter, "the evil man", or Traveller.

I'm used to time travel stories only using the main character's present day and life as bookends to the heart of the story, with most of the plot happening in the era travelled to. This doesn't happen in Twisted Reflections. Alex spends a few days, maybe a few weeks, living in the borrowed body, leading the borrowed life, then returns back to her own here and now. When she returns, she's missed only moments. The action taking place in the past is told in a few chapters.

The structure made me think the Reflections series might work well as a video game: solve the larger puzzle by travelling to the past, each time with a specific challenge to overcome, and each time with a different set of skills and strategies to employ. Large portions of the story are dedicated to Alex learning how time travel works and to what purpose she should put her abilities — it did feel like rules of engagement were being set out. It would be interesting to see them applied to interactive media.


Before she could even finish the small bowl of soup, the servants were bringing out the second course, which appeared to be some sort of salad, with greens she didn't recognize, topped with nuts and goat cheese.
Just as she was about to take her first bite, she froze. Her skin prickled and her hair stood on end. Her mouth was open, the fork stuffed with salad bare centimetres from her open mouth.
Get a grip, Alex! She hurriedly stuff the fork into her mouth and chewed, attempting to swallow, even though her mouth was dry as the Sahara Desert. Don't give anything away! Alex managed to get the bite down without choking. She smiled and turned her attention to the newcomer who had just walked into the dining hall.

As established in this trilogy, one can only time travel to the past, not the future. Alex travels to ancient Egypt, Sparta, and Thatcher-era Britain. For the most part the eras are depicted well, but it seemed like every trip to the past had at least one anachronism or other error in it. Alex eats salad with a not-yet-invented table fork in ancient Egypt, where forks were only used for cooking food. The Spartan princess whose body she takes over gets referred to as Roman at least once. In 1980s Scotland, Alex wishes for an iPod so she can have music to help her think, and that detail made it seem strange that the girl whose body she was possessing didn't own a Walkman, or at least a clock radio with a headphone jack.

On the other hand, the details about dress, housing, transportation, and general technology seemed well-researched and provided verisimilitude.

Would a tween or teen spot these? It depends on how much they're into history, and how much they've learned about the recent past from family and teachers. Alex herself is depicted as a keen student of history, so it's not unreasonable to expect readers to be at her level of knowledge.

Story structure

Most of the story actually takes place in the here-and-now, and most of the suspense and conflict happens in Alex's own life, rather than the lives of the people she time travels to. That led me to think about the intended audience some more, because I'm not sure there's enough time travel here to please someone who regularly enjoys science fiction and fantasy. I'd be more inclined to recommend it to someone who prefers teen-focused fiction, but who doesn't mind some fantastical elements now and again (say, who enjoys when a mainstream soap opera has a space aliens subplot, but wouldn't necessarily watch Supernatural or The X-Files).

About the Author

Shay West Picture.jpg

Shay West was born in Longmont, CO and earned a doctorate degree in Human Medical Genetics from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical. Dr. West currently lives in Grand Junction, CO with her two cats. When not writing novels, she plays with plushie microbes and teaches biology classes at Colorado Mesa University. She is the author of the Portals of Destiny series and the Adventures of Alexis Davenport series. She has also been published in several anthologies: Battlespace (military scifi), Orange Karen: Tribute to a Warrior (fundraiser), and Ancient New (steampunk/fantasy).

You can find more info on the author, Dr. Shay West here:







Purchase Links

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Twisted-Reflections-Adventures-Alexis-Davenport-ebook/dp/B00M3A1NA6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1406256881&sr=8-2&keywords=twisted+reflections+by+shay+west

Barnes & Noble:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twisted-reflections-shay-west/1117447114?ean=2940149744596

iTunes:  https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/twisted-reflections/id903084556?mt=11

#fridayflash: the parallel ghosts

"It's one of those things about living alone," Hank told his sister. "When you live with other people, if you find something not the way you left it, even if it's in your own bedroom or whatever, you figure someone else must have done it. When you live alone and that happens, you have to figure either you're forgetful or crazy."

The sister still lived at home, ostensibly to help out their ailing mother, but really because she could never be bothered to get her own place. So she nodded and asked what Hank thought the rain they'd got lately would do to this year's apple harvest. Hank always wanted to talk about odd, sensitive things. She didn't think it was very manly of him.

He extended the visit long enough to finish his coffee, praise the brownies his sister had made for dessert (though it was like eating chocolate-flavoured erasers), and help do the dishes. Then he gave his sister a quick hug, kissed his mother on the cheek, promised he'd come back soon, and caught the bus to go home.

He unlocked his apartment door, and noticed the smell was back again. Nail polish remover, the industrial-strength, old-school acetone kind, with an overlay of rose-scented perfume. By the time he'd closed and locked the door behind him, it had disappeared.

Agatha screamed, just a little, when she caught sight of him. The clothes... she'd always figured him to be the ghost of a workman, maybe one who helped build the apartment block, but the clothes weren't right. Denim trousers like a farmer or a construction worker, but this time she got a good look at him in the front hall mirror. He'd been wearing tennis shoes. Denim and tennis shoes and a bomber jacket and a collared shirt, with a tie on this time. She'd have wondered if he were a tramp, especially so unshaven, but all the clothes looked new, and in good repair.

She shook her head and went back to the washroom. She had to finish re-varnishing her nails before she went to bed.

Hank toed his shoes off and flopped onto the couch. He stretched an arm out for the remote control, turned the TV set on, and scrolled through the list for his PVR. He smiled when he saw that the game had been recorded after all — the PVR's behaviour when he wasn't home to keep an eye on it could be erratic. He hit the "play" button and settled back to watch.

The screen showed a gloriously gaudy animation of the sports channel's logo, and the bright colours reflected on the surface of the coffee table. Something on the table flashed a reflection of its own. Hank frowned and eased himself to a semi-sitting position. He picked up the object and twirled it around in his fingers before tossing it back onto the table.

"I thought I'd got all of them," he grumbled out loud. Another bobby pin.

Agatha exhaled a distinctly unladylike stream of curses. She had just one more curler to fix, but she couldn't find another bobby pin anywhere. With all the rations and the war effort they were almost impossible to buy. She let the loose section of hair flop over her left eye while she left the washroom and went to check her desk drawer. Maybe she could make do with a paper clip or something.

She checked the coffee table for dust as she passed by it, and noticed a shadow out of place in the cranberry-glass candy dish her aunt Sarah had given her. She stepped closer and peered in.

"How did you get here?" Agatha snatched up the errant bobby pin and trotted back to the washroom to finish rolling her hair.

Hank groaned out loud as the opposing team scored. He shivered and glanced in the direction of the washroom door. Weird. It felt like there was a draught. He pulled the blanket his mother had crocheted off the back of the couch and wrapped it over himself.

The TV set was displaying ads, but Hank felt too lazy to fast forward through them. He glanced down the hall, wondering if he was too full to have a beer after all, when he saw a shadow pass over the mirror on the washroom medicine cabinet.

He threw off the blanket and tiptoed down the hall, but when he peered into the washroom, no-one was there. He checked the bedroom too, just in case someone had somehow slipped in there while he was getting up from the couch.

Nothing. Just the faintest whiff of rose-scented perfume.

#fridayflash: vermin

The only way through the swamp was the road that passed over Invisible Hill, so called because to anyone walking west on it, the road appeared to be level, yet by the time they reached the peak at the edge of the swamp, they were winded from climbing, ever so slightly, the twenty minutes or so it took to get beyond the last stand of natron-cured oak. Usually a wanderer would spot the Waggoner house while they were trying to catch their breath.

Elsie Waggoner sat on her front porch, rifle held lightly across her lap. The house had been built at the top of a steeper, plainly visible hill, which let her see anyone on the road from about the mummified crocodile half a klick down from Invisible. The kitchen windows were an especially good vantage point, which was just as well since Elsie spent most of her waking hours standing over the sink. This particular afternoon she spotted a tall, dark, reedy figure struggling along the hard-packed clay even before the hill climb started. By the time the road joined with solid ground, they were nearly bent double with exhaustion, letting their long arms hang down as their shoulders heaved air into their lungs.

Elsie checked the position of the sun and risked a quick check with her field glasses. The hair was longer than one might expect, but as the figure straightened she observed a bleach-white throat with a prominent adam's-apple in the middle. A man, then.

A shape rushed up to the man and knocked him on the ground. Elsie quickly readjusted her view, and saw that it was a large black mastiff. At first Elsie thought the dog was wild, grown crazed from hunger as it crossed the natron swamp, but the man gently pushed it off and picked himself up.

Elsie patted her cardigan pocket for spare rifle shells, lips tightening into a humourless smile as her fingers confirmed she'd remembered to take some from the box on the windowsill on her way out.

The strangers came up Invisible Hill, stopped and rested, and then they always did one of two things. Either they rejoined the road (it disappeared into scrub grass for a while, but became clearly marked again a little to the north), or else they climbed the steep hill to the Waggoner house.

Sometimes they came claiming they needed directions, which was ridiculous since there was only one road.

Sometimes they came asking for food and shelter.

Sometimes they came to take whatever they could get.

Elsie didn't bother to find out which pretext a given stranger was using anymore. She set them all to work in the apple orchard, no questions asked. She'd lost her parents to one traveller, and her sister to another, and she wasn't going to bother waiting to find out if they were trying to gull her or not.

The man in black pulled his shoulders back and craned his neck. Then he hunched over and started up the Waggoner hill. The dog trailed after him.

Elsie stuffed the field glasses back into their battered leather case and brought the rifle up to her shoulder. She used to shout a warning, but that just made them run and zigzag, and she had neither the patience nor the spare shells to deal with the extra bother.

The man kept his head bowed the entire climb, anyhow. Elsie waited until his black-coated back made a suitable target before she pulled the trigger.

The rifle shot made a flock of lost seagulls leave the shore of the natron swamp and take to the air. The man dropped immediately. His body lay face-down, not moving. Elsie knew he might not quite be dead yet, but she was sure she'd hit, and that was good enough for the time being.

The dog had run off somewhere to the south. The sun was setting behind the house, making long shadows it was difficult to see into.

Elsie chewed the inside of one cheek for a few seconds. The weather had been cooling, and was supposed to stay that way for another week yet. She'd let the stranger start to mulch on the front lawn, and throw him in the wheelbarrow for the apple trees to use up tomorrow morning. With any luck the dog would be loyal enough to sit by the body of its former master, and she could take care of it then.

She turned and had one hand on the screen door when the moan came up from the hillside, wafting at the back of her neck like a bad smell. All right, so she hadn't killed him. That happened a lot with that kind of shot. She expected the shell had lodged in one lung. She'd done it before.

The next moan was louder, and included some half-panted curses. Elsie walked to the edge of the patio. She fished the spare shells out of her cardigan pocket and reloaded the gun. The man had fallen on the steepest part of the hill, rendering his legs invisible. Elsie could see he was raising an unsteady, shaking hand into the air, but she wasn't going to waste a shell on shooting that. She needed to hit some vitals.

She took one step off the patio, and the dog lunged out of nowhere, barking and growling. She immediately stepped back onto the porch, scuttled across to the door, and let herself in.

"Going to be a noisy night," she muttered as she locked the door behind her. She walked to the kitchen and checked how many shells she had left in the box before setting the rifle within easy reach of the door.

Over the dog's barks she could hear that the man's groans were ending with a short screech at the end. A glance out the kitchen window showed her he'd managed to alter his position.

Elsie quickly locked all the doors and windows downstairs, then hurried upstairs to do the same. If she was lucky the stranger might move to a position before darkness fell where she could shoot him from one of the second storey windows.

On the assumption that she wouldn't be lucky, she went to her father's den and got his revolver from the desk drawer.

The King's Blood review

Consider a book which is a medieval fantasy the same way Neverwhere and A Canticle for Leibowitz are medieval fantasies, which is to say it is both very much so and not at all. If you took those two books and added some generous dollops of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Christopher Moore before turning on the blender, you'd get a mixture close to The King's Blood.

The plot: a few free kingdoms stand independently against an ever-expanding Empire. In one of these, our hero, Ciara, works as a maid in the Royal castle. Her mother manages the cleaning staff; her father is one of the few competent members of the security force. The castle is invaded by soldiers of the Empire, and Ciara's father tasks her with bringing the now-assassinated king's youngest son, Aldrin, to a town a short distance away, where the royal armies can regroup and push back the Empire's forces.

Needless to say, things don't go very smoothly.

The story takes place a very long time after the current day, in an unspecified part of the world which, I suspect, was once called the United States of America. In this neo-medieval society, bits and pieces of culture from our current era survive, albeit in a usually symbolic and almost certainly distorted form. Some of these are just quirks, but more often than not they're used satirically.

"Na's, we aint's got no's Floras or Faunas. Just lots of sharp things for slicing balls off." Brander and Gelder giggled together because what's the point of life if you can't find humour in your job?
"Very well, sirs," mister Guard continued. "I'll ask you to kindly step over here and remove your shoes."
Ciara sighed from her vantage point behind a set of mulberry bushes, still clinging stubbornly to their leaves in the face of winter. She watched this idiot do the identical song and dance with every farmer, peddler, and the set of kids chasing after their ball. Ask the same inane questions, pull them aside, make them remove their shoes and coats, and then wave a stick for awhile before letting them pass through.

The conflicts in the story are perfectly qualified to increase the tension and the danger the two main characters face. It was interesting from a thematic point of view how many of them are caused by prejudice. Ciara is a young black woman living in a society where black people are so rare, people often assume on sight she is a supernatural being. She's inherited her looks from her foreign-born father. Once men get past her features, she still has to convince them of her capabilities. The world she lives in does not expect a sixteen-year-old female to either own or be able to wield a dagger.

He chuckled again, a voice that echoed across the emptying ramparts, "You do ask much, don't you? If you ever met God, you'd ask him why he gave the peacocks such lovely feathers, yes?"

"If I ever met them, I'd probably ask the gods if I got the other bastard just as good," she grumbled, the cold winds buffeting her skirt and threatening to toss her body off the wall.

Aldrin, on the other hand, starts off as a quiet, studious, easily-frightened boy thrown into intrigue and danger, forced to trust his life to a servant he hardly noticed before. In a way his character arc is the more satisfying of the two. It felt like the story allowed Ciara to spread wings she already had, whereas Aldrin has to grow his before he can soar.

Their journey to rejoin the royal army and thwart the Empire's invasion is filled with well-rounded secondary characters, from monkish scholars to medically-adept witches. Despite the large cast, the secondary characters were easy to keep track of and greatly enriched the reader's understanding of the story world.

I have one major nit to pick with The King's Blood, which is that it really needed at least one more round of proofreading. It is far from the worst case I've seen, but there are a certain number of incorrectly used homonyms (boarder for border, eek for eke, role for roll, dolled for doled). There weren't so many as to make my disbelief come crashing down to ground, but enough that its suspension got a little shaky in parts.

Overall, if you like some fun and satiric commentary with your adventure, The King's Blood is well worth a read.

About the Author:

S.E. Zbasnik has published three fantasy books. Tin Hero and TerraFae follow a female heroine on a classic fantasy quest to mess with some elves and crack jokes along the way. Her most recent book is The King’s Blood. It’s got some magic, it’s got some witches, it’s got a black heroine in a medieval setting, and it has more puns per cubic meter than a clown car. Zbasnik has a Bachelors in Animal Science with a focus upon genetics, putting her one step closer to finishing that monktopi army. Learn more about her on her blog and at her Amazon Author Central page.

Blog: http://sezbasnik.blogspot.com/

The King's Blood on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JMPI9M0

Amazon Author Central page: http://www.amazon.com/Sabrina-Zbasnik/e/B005DBF28Q/?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&linkCode=ur2&tag=indieunlim-20&linkId=37RB2JVAEWRYY4TO

#fridayflash: noisy one

It happened again the following Thursday. This time it was the hardware store.

What the security cameras showed was the normal afternoon rush — people swinging by after they'd done their time at one of the nearby office towers, picking up this or that for a repair or a project. Wood screws, glue guns, some tool they never thought they'd need until they did. The queues to the cash registers were five people deep for a solid half-hour, and then the place would be nearly dead until closing time.

A quarter to six, the rush was petering out, four people waiting at one checkout, three at the other, and then the vibrations started. And this was the interesting part: everyone who'd been there or seen the security footage all agreed to call it "vibrations", but what was actually shown in the recording was very different.

Behind the checkouts was a peg board, used to display wares which were small but expensive, too big a risk for shoplifting. They were either hung from metal pins, or stored on a shelf sitting on brackets. 

What the security recording showed was items just falling off, as if someone were reaching through the peg board and flicking them to the floor, one by one. An invisible someone, or group of someones, since once things got going it was happening six or eight items at a time.

It was the customers who reacted first. One of the clerks only turned around when he saw a customer staring at the back of the counter, and the other one reacted when a smart phone docking station came off the shelf and smashed to the ground directly behind her.

The customers waiting in line all set down their merchandise and left. The clerks said most of them were saying things about earth tremors. Sure there were earth tremors in the area from time to time, but the thing was, only the items on the peg board were affected. Nothing else in the store had so much as rattled, including some precariously-displayed sample toilet seats.

No-one would have even known it wasn't the first time, except one of the hardware store clerks was friends with the girl who opened the coffee shop every morning. The coffee shop had been hit the previous Monday, when an open display bag of whole roasted beans had jumped, bean by bean, in a high arc into the nearest garbage can. While the hardware store's events were easily blamed on an earth tremor, some customers had joked the coffee beans had been mixed with Mexican jumping beans, and the shop had seen a sharp drop-off in customers buying half-kilo bags of beans to grind at home. Someone had called the health inspector on the shop, although the stern-looking man who came from the Board of Health admitted that if anything, the shop was cleaner than average.

The hardware store clerk and the coffee shop barrista told their managers, and the managers took it upon themselves to canvas the rest of the storefronts in the plaza. They found out about three more incidents from the past two weeks, all following the same pattern: a very busy part of the day, phenomena isolated to only one part of the store, and no good reason for any of it.

They made copies of their security recordings. They showed them to consultants. The consultants had nothing useful to offer, until one timidly mentioned that his sister's brother-in-law's cousin investigated such things for reasons of his own. 

The cousin set up motion detectors, seismographs, digital thermometers, and infra red cameras, but in the two-week window he'd been allotted to do his work, none of the devices detected anything unusual. 

The managers commandeered the coffee shop for a joint all-staff meeting, projecting the recordings on a back wall one more time. Staff present in the recordings called  a play-by-play of what they could remember. 

Then a man from the local deli said, "There's that woman again."

"What woman?" said his manager.  

"That one," he said, pointing to someone in a pantsuit, her blonde bobbed hair sitting in place like a helmet. The camera angle made it difficult to see her face.

"Anyone know her?" the manager of the hardware store said.

*          *          *

She'd just have to shop on-line, that was all. Shop on-line, and work from home as much as she dared. Maybe, in the long-term, she could find a job where she could always work from home. No. This was temporary. It always went away eventually.

She sighed and adjusted her shoulders, trying to get comfortable on the living room carpet. She had the lights off and the stereo on, playing some light classical stuff a friend had suggested for de-stressing.

The norm was for it to happen only to adolescent girls. The girl gets agitated or worried about something, the vase in the next room over picks itself up and smashes against the wall. Well, she'd passed through adolescence over ten years ago, and it still happened every time she got stressed out. Things fell over. Things flew through the air as if they'd been thrown. But never less than two metres away from her.

She forced herself to breathe deeply and evenly. New job, new city, new life, as far away from her ex-boyfriend as she could get. She closed her eyes, blotting out the faint glow from the power indicator on the stereo. Maybe when the classical piece was finished she'd turn a lamp on and read for a bit. No TV. Nothing too stimulating.

She heard a kitchen cupboard swing open and smack against the wall, pots and pans clattering onto the tile floor, and forced another deep, slow breath. It would stop.

It had to stop.

Voices of the Sea review

Her whole body shivered with delight as she embraced the sounds of the sea and the harmony of her own voice. Ancient magic swelled within her, the ocean blessed her song, and a strong wind tousled her dark brown hair until it flowed wild behind her.

Voices of the Sea achieves something extraordinary in a very confident, accomplished manner: it seamlessly blends the two YA sub-genres of fantasy and amateur detective into a very enjoyable, readable story. 

The action mostly follows Loralei Reines, nearly eighteen years old and a member of a clan of Sirens. The Sirens have learned to live incognito among humans, and moved from their traditional home in Greece to various seaside locations in America. 

The Sirens have good reason for wanting to blend in, because a non-Siren clan called the Sons of Orpheus has sworn to kill them all. 

Carefully, using his thick blade, Ortho carved a large, jagged "O" in the woman's chest — after he removed the vocal chords from her delicate neck.

The book begins with the murder of a Siren belonging to Loralei's clan. One of the most effective — and scary — narrative choices was to convey all of the chapters detailing killings from the murderer's point of view, while the main narrative is always told from Loralei's point of view. 

The Sirens feel — justifiably — that they can't tell the police how the murders are connected. Much of the story deals with the Sirens trying to protect themselves, while Loralei and her friends try to discover the killer.

The plot is fairly traditional in that sense, but a steadily rising body count and a number of surprise character revelations keep things fast-paced and suspenseful. It doesn't hurt that two major characters fall in love, in both the best and the worst possible way.

The only thing that really jarred for me was one character revelation, late in the story, which felt a bit deus ex machina. I did glance back, and I don't think I missed anything, but it would have been advantageous to at least have a hint that this character had supernatural powers. Still, his presence and his powers make sense, so it doesn't drop the reader out of the story.

Voices of the Sea is recommended to anyone interested in a blend of supernatural and thriller with a generous dash of romance.

Title: Voices of the Sea

Genre: YA Paranormal

Publisher: WiDo Publishing

Publication Date: July 22, 2014

Paperback: 285 pages

About the Author:

Bethany Masone Harar graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English from James Madison University and a Masters in Secondary English Education from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has enjoyed teaching high school English ever since. As a teacher, Bethany is able to connect with the very audience for whom she writes, and this connection gives her insight into their interests. As a writer, she wants to make her readers gasp out loud, sigh with longing and identify with her characters. Bethany also enjoys posting on her blog, bethsbemusings.blogspot.com, is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and is an avid follower of literary-driven social media. She resides in Northern Virginia with her husband, two beautiful children, and her miniature poodle, Annie.

Author's Links:
Website: www.bethanymasoneharar.com

Blog: bethsbemusings.blogspot.com

Twitter: @bethhararwrites