#fridayflash : space

Later, when James told the story, he wouldn't start with what the engineers announced. He'd talk about the reactions of the very old people, the ones who had been told since childhood that they wouldn’t live long enough to see the end.

James himself didn't even bother going to the observation lounge when the sighting was confirmed. Most people who were in their teens at the time, like him, couldn't be bothered, not unless they were massive astronomy nerds.

His mother made him go to the lounge with her. She pointed and told him to look, so he did, if only to get it over with.

He'd been right, he'd say later. There wasn't actually anything to see. Just a new spark of white in the black sky, looking a lot like all the other sparks of white that had been there for as long as he could remember. The patterns the stars formed kept changing, of course, since the ship was moving through space. But so what if this particular white thing was different? It wasn't like you could tell from looking at it.

On the way out of the lounge, an old woman fell to her knees practically in front of James. He helped her up — of course he would have, even if his mother hadn’t been standing right beside him. Like everyone else, he’d had “one community, one people” drilled into him from before he could understand the words.

But it was as he was looking into the woman’s face, asking if she was all right, that the import of that white speck finally reached him. The woman wasn’t seeing him, wasn’t seeing the crowd pressed against the observation windows. There were tears running down her face, but her eyes, her skin, even her white hair was glowing with rapturous bliss. In her expression James saw all of the joy, all the wonder and curiosity that he’d been told to feel. The lounge officer announced they all had to leave to let the next group of sightseers in, and as he guided the old woman to the exits, she clutched at his arm and said, “This will sound so foolish to you, but I wish my mother was here to see it with me.” She nodded at James’s mother, who was on her other side and discreetly shielding her from the crowd. “You’re very fortunate.”

“What was your mother’s assignment?” said James’s mother, in that polite way she had with everyone.

“Engineer,” said the old woman. “Me too. Engineer after engineer, going right back to the launch.”

“That’s a remarkable legacy,” said James’s mother.

They helped the woman back to her quarters. Until he actually spoke the word “good-bye”, James couldn’t think of anything at all to say to her.

The next part, James would always say, wasn’t a big change. Rather, it was an accumulation of little things, noticeable but of not much consequence on their own, until he woke up one day and glanced out the family window, and realised that the white speck was no longer a white speck, but a blue-green circle, and he could see it moving.

Which meant, of course, that he could see the ship moving, for the first time ever. Before, since long before he was born, stars and galaxies had drifted by the windows, but there had never been any sense of the motion. He’d known, for as long as he’d been old enough to understand, but he’d never been able to perceive it before.

After that a lot of things he’d learned in his lessons crashed through the barrier between the abstract and the real. Terms like gravity slingshot and atmosphere and terraforming. And after every sleep period the blue-green circle was larger, until it became a sphere, and the patterns its gaseous outer shell formed over its solid inner core were visible. It filled the entire view on the port side of the ship.

They didn’t actually land on it, of course. There isn’t anything to land on if the planet is a gas giant. But its gravity helped them reach the inner solar system sooner. Later, James would explain, after they were settled, the story would surface that the old woman he’d helped in the observation lounge had calculated they would run out of fuel before reaching the colony planet, and it was only the slingshot effect of going by the two gas giants along the way that let them reach their destination.

And the thing was, James would continue, it took eight more years for them to get where they were going. He was married and the father of a baby girl himself by the time they reached orbit.

The only scary part, he explained, was the landing itself, the landing and the immense silence when the great ship’s engines were turned off at last. The survey crew went out, did their tests, confirmed the atmosphere was close enough to their ancestral Earth’s that they could breathe it, and that their crops could too.

James always told the story so that he would get to the landing just as the tour group reached the entrance of the great ship. He’d park his wheelchair in front of the access ramp with a practised twist of the controls, and then activate the hologram showing him, his wife, his baby daughter in his arms, and the old engineer who had given him his sense of wonder, who had calculated them safe to their new home. He would joke he started giving the museum tours when he was older than the engineer had been at first landing.

And then, just before the barriers came down and the tourists were allowed to board the generation ship that had brought their ancestors to the planet, he would tell them how hard it had been for his daughter to believe her parents were born out in the black, in between the stars, and that she herself had been born between the planets. And then he’d ask the group to think about that while they toured his old home.

#fridayflash: upload history

My great-great-grandfather attended four of his five funerals, one time disguised as an aunt from Sicily. For the last one, when it was finally really him, the priest refused to perform the funeral Mass unless the family agreed to bury him in a glass coffin. He was shot in the head at close range with a Colt .45, so it didn't actually prove a damn thing. The police attended to make sure it was really him, and they insisted on opening the coffin, pulling down his pants, and checking he had a tattoo where his old prison canary buddy said it would be.

The cops made up for their indiscretion by bearing the coffin to the graveyard. Some newspapermen claimed they did it so the family couldn't hide another body in there at the last minute. I shit you not. The priest got in a fight with the detective for disrupting the funeral and gave the cop a bloody nose. The Sun printed a photo of the flatfoot wiping blood from his shirt with the padre still screaming in his face.

But all that happened in the 1930s, during Prohibition. It was easier to fake a death back then, easier still to find a body to bury. Still, my great-grandfather was declared killed in action twice during the Second World War. And I don't mean getting pulped by an artillery shell or nothing — my family paid their respects to two poor bastards who got identified wrong. The second one, my grandmother threw a fit when they gave her personal effects with some other woman's photo included.

Don’t blame the Army, though. The second time great-grandad was discovered to be alive, they found him in a wine cellar in Sicily, and he had the dog tags of an Italian infantryman around his neck. He never told anyone how he got them, or what he’d been up to. My dad told me the name on the tags was common in the part of the old country where our family was from, before we came to America. He figured great-grandad had been working on the family business.

My great-grandfather finally died of old age in Pasadena when he was ninety-seven.

My grandfather and father, they kept things running, kept the traditions up. My grandfather only had two funerals, a fake one he always called "pulling an Elvis", and the real one, forty years later. He insisted the stiff they buried the first time was Jimmy Hoffa, and that he'd killed him himself. The old man always was kind of full of it.

By the time my father was taking care of things, it was almost impossible to fake a funeral, at least an open casket one. And I have to admit, it’s a known fact that coroner’s offices throughout the Eastern Seaboard had notes posted reminding staff to be extra-thorough when a stiff IDed with our surname came in. Dad got declared missing and presumed dead three times though — none too shabby when satellites and computers are tracking your every damned move. He lived to be 105, never went on the net, never had a smartphone, even after the government made them mandatory. He used to carry an empty phone shell in his breast pocket so cops on the beat wouldn't hassle him.

So. Times change. Life goes on. But some things, the important things, like family, and tradition, those things stay the same, you know? In a few minutes I'm going to honour the long line of brave and smart men whose loins I'm sprung from, and I'm gonna up the ante for my children and grandchildren.

As soon as that coroner gets done with arranging all his tools, I'm gonna attend my own autopsy.

review: Persuasion

I have a long-standing hatred of any and all romance novels — the odd time I try to read one, I usually just skip to the sex scenes and then toss the book aside — and I've never been that big on literary fiction either, with its overt navel-gazing and hand-wringing. But somehow, I've never read a Jane Austen novel I didn't like, and Persuasion is no exception.

What is it that makes Austen different? For one thing, despite all the pretty-mannered stereotypes about her novels, in a lot of ways they read more like thrillers than romances. The stakes are high: if her mostly-rural heroines don't secure a place in society, ie: get married, they risk ostracism or even homelessness. Austen wrote at a time when strict gender roles and classical liberalism were at their most unchecked, right before the abolitionists and other reformers had to go and "spoil it all", pointing out merit meant nothing in a world where not everyone had an equal chance to display it.

The heroine of  Persuasion is Anne Eliot, a younger daughter of the landed gentry. So little do her father and elder sisters think of her that she is only introduced a quarter of the way through her own story. Her family thinks her neither pretty nor intelligent, and Austen plots things to show the reader that they are wrong on both counts. In a more contemporary setting, Anne would have long ago left her vain, shallow relatives behind and by now made her own way to success. Instead, she has to apply her underrated cunning and good manners to keeping the peace as she is directed from one house to another. Her main role is to help her relatives whenever they feel a supportive presence would be useful;  her reward is to be included in their social circles, so long as she doesn't show up anyone.

Anne's dilemma is that in order to show her true character, she needs to get out from under her family, but maintain or enhance her position in society while she does so. That means marriage, but so long as she is constantly forced into a role supporting other women in her social circle, she's unlikely to be seen as a suitable bride. So it was with her first relationship with Captain Wentworth. She was forced to break off her engagement to him because her family deemed her unready and the match unsuitable, and Wentworth perceived it as a "weakness of character" on her part. She fails to explain the whole truth to him (though perhaps not for lack of trying); he fails to comprehend that her freedom is much more limited than his.  

The story isn't about Anne persuading Wentworth. In fact, at first she takes it for granted that he won't ever show an interest in her again. Really it's more about demonstrating. Anne demonstrates, in the parlance of the times, her character and her virtues. Wentworth slowly realises his condemnation of her character was inaccurate. He also seems to become more cognisant of her social situation than perhaps he was last time they interacted, and the change in his own fortunes in the intervening years (he's much wealthier than he was when they first met) perhaps lets him understand the familial objections to his first marriage proposal a little better.

Austen is more critical in Persuasion of coquettes and the fashionably hysteric than in her other novels. Anne winds up caring for an injured nephew because his parents get bored of caring for him and resent missing a major social function. Her biggest rival for Captain Wentworth' s affections gets dropped out of the competition in such a violently decisive way, it made me wonder what real-life person she was standing in for.

A note on the text: the version I read had nearly as many pages of introductions, criticism, and historical background as story, and each page was sprinkled with endnote references, just in case the reader didn't know black ribbons were worn to indicate one was in mourning or some such. I suppose these additions would be useful for undergraduates (although I remember being annoyed by them when I was an undergraduate too). I've been told by more than one English professor that they're included so a long out-of-copyright work may be copyrighted for its extraneous text.

It's silly. One of the reasons Austen's work has endured is because, among her writing's various amiable qualities, it is very readable. 

#fridayflash : lucky lucky goldilocks

Once upon a time there lived a little girl in a small town surrounded by deep, dark woods. Her hair was long and golden, her pinafore was always freshly pressed and white, and her father was the burgher, so she was always sure to have as many friends as she wished. Her name was Wilhemina, but everyone called her Goldilocks, on account of her hair. She liked it. It was a cute name.

One day, she decided to walk into the woods and pick wildflowers. She wandered farther than she meant to, and had completely forgotten to bring a lunch, so she was very glad to come across a little cottage. No-one was home, so she hit the window beside the door with a rock until it shattered, and let herself in. 

The coals in the fireplace had been covered to smoulder in the owners' absence, and Goldilocks put some kindling on to work up some flames. There was a bowl of porridge on the table, but when she tried it, it was cold and very unpleasant. She helped herself to some cider to rinse away the taste, then put some porridge from the pot above the fire into a new bowl, but it was too hot. 

That's going to take forever to cool down she thought, so she scraped out the last of the porridge into a smaller bowl, and soon it was just right. She ate her fill, and afterwards played a little by jumping on the larger double bed. Soon the warmth and the food and the exercise made her feel sleepy. She settled into the smaller single bed to take a nap. 

Goldilocks woke to the sound of angry voices just outside the cottage door. There were two, no three of them, and they were talking about the broken window. "But how will we ever afford a new one?" a woman's voice kept saying.

"What's done is done," said the older male voice. "Let's hope there's still dinner at least."

"But Baird," said the woman's voice, "what if they're still in there?"

The voices became too low for her to hear. She'd never been in trouble before, not really, but it dawned on her that she was in the middle of the deep dark woods, that these people were obviously upset, and that there was only one of her against three of them. She cursed herself for not staying in town, near her friends and family.

Then she realised that the cottage had a second window, and that it was on the back wall. She jumped out of the small bed and ran to it. The latch was stiff, but she managed to work it open and lift the sash. She used a night-stand as a stepping stool, and had wriggled halfway through when large coarse hands pulled her, squealing, back into the cottage. Goldilocks found herself staring up at a large, shapeless, and very hairy man.

"You made all this mess?" he said. He shook his head. "I never."

"I was lost!" she cried. "I was frightened! There was a wolf, and — "

"There haven't been wolves in these parts for over a hundred years," said the woman. Goldilocks stared at her. She was as large and shapeless as her husband, and almost as hairy.

"Mrs. Baird is right," said the man. "This is her family's cottage, been here for six generations." He straightened up and jerked down the tails of his well-patched waistcoat. "And what state is the porridge in, Mrs. Baird?"

"It's all stone cold right now," said the woman. She had moved to the fireplace, and poked at the bottom of the cooking-pot with a wooden spoon. "And there's a layer of burnt grain in the pot as thick as your thumb, thanks to being left over the fire with barely anything inside." She glared at Goldilocks.

"She ate from my bowl," said the little boy, staring mournfully at the dishes Goldilocks had left on the table.

"Never ye mind," said Mr. Baird. "Momma will wash it for you tomorrow. Right now we have to go to town with this one and lodge a complaint."

"Who would hear your complaint?" said Goldilocks. Her father heard complaints in his role as burgher. Vagrants and drunks and layabouts had complaints brought against them. Couldn't they see what sort of person she was? She checked her pinafore. It was wrinkled, but still mostly white. She picked off a spot of crusted porridge and flicked it away.

"Right then," said Mr. Baird, taking her by the arm with a firm grip, "let's be off so we don't have to go home in the dark. If we're lucky there'll even be time to talk to the glazier."

Goldilocks only spoke when spoken to the whole walk home, which was shorter than she had expected. When they reached the burgher's house — so large and splendid that the Bairds remarked on it even in their anger — her mother came rushing out and embraced her.

"We didn't know where you were!" her mother said. "Goldilocks, you mustn't wander off, we've told you! There are wolves in those woods!"

"There haven't been wolves in the woods since —" started Mr. Baird, but he was interrupted by Goldilocks's father, who stood on the top of the front steps to his house.

"Did the man hurt you, Goldilocks?" said her father. He must have just got home, for he still wore his chain of office.

Goldilocks said "no", but she rubbed her arm and looked down as she said it.

"I see," said her father. "You are hereby banished from town for a year, beginning now. Now," he added, when the Bairds didn't move immediately.

Goldilocks heard Baird Junior say, "But what about seeing the glazier?" as they walked away, and his mother shushing him.

She got pork chops and sauerkraut for dinner, her favourite. And certainly she lived happily ever after.

#fridayflash : wax fruit

 "Let's make popcorn," I said, because why not? It wasn't like there were any more notes to write.

"All right," said Bill, and Vijaya nodded behind him. "Even academics have to eat."

I shambled to the small kitchen off the staff lounge to microwave the popcorn. It was the stuff with the fake butter mixed in, and gave the whole room that smell, a phony version of a movie theatre. When I returned to the lounge, Bill was pouring bright green liquid into clear plastic tumblers.

"It's one of those sports drinks," said Bill, raising a tumbler to me in a mock toast. "I couldn't find anything fizzy." The drink caught the light from the "no signal" notice the TV monitor was displaying, making the liquid fluoresce. "Perhaps it's a little too appropriate for this, ah, meeting."

"It'll be fine," said Vijaya. I set the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table, picked up my tablet, and set the file to play.

The norm with my old colleagues had been to talk over films. They were arenas for competition: who had spotted which reference to The Third Man, symbolism lifted from Norse mythology, or a particularly interesting edit. Films, to us, were self-documented constructions for us to decode, with extra gold stars given if you could out-decode everyone else in the room. I'd forgotten; Bill was a biologist and Vijaya was a physicist. To them it was just entertainment, and something the artsies mysteriously made careers from while the scientists made the "real" advances.

"There!" I said, hitting pause just as Brendan Gleeson snorted, "Irradiated" and lifted the create of apples from the display case. "See? They knew!"

Vijaya sighed. "Well of course they knew irradiating food preserved it," she said. "That's why they were irradiating it."

"But the context," I said, waving the tablet around. "28 Days Later is about a zombie apocalypse brought on by disease. And in the middle of all this death and rot and mayhem, the one thing that lets the group of good guys get fresh food is radiation. The exact thing that was the bad guy in a whole subgenre of monster movies dating back to the 1950s!" I set the remote control down on the coffee table and sipped some energy drink in triumph.

Bill and Vijaya just watched me swallow my bright green drink.

"I don't know much about film criticism," said Bill. "I ran away from English class as soon as I was done my comps. But I think you're applying a little too much hindsight to your interpretation." He fished a phone out of his shirt pocket and showed me the wallpaper image on the screen. "That's a Big Mac and fries under glass in Iceland," he said, "the last McDonald's meal that was ever bought there before the restaurant chain left the country. That food had been sitting out for three years when the photo was taken." He shrugged. "Things stopped rotting a long time before we got to the present circumstances. My parents used to toss food out of the fridge because it was dried out, not rotten. I remember having to buy organic for a science fair project so I'd grow enough mold on my experiment in time for the presentation."

Shrieks of laughter outside made us all jump. Vijaya twisted in her seat to peer at the windows. "They can't —"

"They're new windows," I said. "They're bulletproof. They should be able to handle a few rocks. Plus there's the bars, outside and inside."

Vijaya looked at me and frowned. "They're new?"

I shrugged. "New as in installed just after all this became... official."

A scream, obviously from someone standing right by the building, four stories below. "It's a shame they won't sit still for a blood sample," said Bill. "We might be able to fix this, at least for them." He reached for his glass of energy drink, pressed his lips together, and added, "Some of the plants in my greenhouse still grow. If nothing else changes I'll have fresh tomatoes this summer." He turned to me. "Do you mind if I ask how old you are now?"

I didn't keep track of the number anymore, so I said the current year out loud and made a show of counting on my fingers. "143," I said.

Vijaya leaned forward. "And the last visible signs of aging, you were what?"

"Around thirty-seven," I said, picking up my tablet and switching the video output to the original Dawn of the Dead. "You?"

"Twenty-nine," said Vijaya.

"I was forty-one," said Bill. Outside, the screams started up again, a small pack from the sounds of it. Bill held up a finger to stop me from starting the playback, then slipped to the floor and crawled around the room, turning off all the lamps. Vijaya and I didn't react; we'd done the same ourselves in times past. It was to keep from being silhouetted against the windows. It would get worse than noisy if the young ones out there spotted us directly.

Bill turned off the TV monitor last and felt his way back to the couch. He didn't touch me, but I could sense his body heat just before he found the middle sofa cushion and sat back down.

I held my breath for a few seconds, and heard two people breathing nearby, so I figured Vijaya hadn't left the room. At least, that's how we always used to check back when the film department was still more than just me. "The film I was going to show, most of it takes place in a mall," I said, keeping my voice low. "So, you know, processed goods, plastic, the artificial lifestyle —"

I heard Vijaya stifle a gasp, and Bill clenched my hand so fast I wondered if he could see me in the dark. He clenched harder as the thunk they'd both noticed while I was talking sounded again. The stairs; it had to be on the stairs.

I ran my hand up Bill's arm, found his ear, leaned forward until I was nearly kissing it. "There's knives in the kitchenette," I whispered. "I'll get them." Bill stroked my hand in agreement, and I slipped from the couch as a thunk sounded again.

book review: Afraid of Everything

"I’ll need an hour to get there, don’t you think? I know exactly where it is, over near the shopping center at Old Pasadena. A thirty-minute drive from our house, but you never know with delays. I’ll head west on the 210 and take the San Fernando exit, driving the rest of the way via surface streets. Or I could get on Colorado and take it straight there. No, on second thought, I don’t want to accidentally end up at the mall, so forget Colorado Boulevard."
I slipped the card into my wallet. “If there’s extra time, I might call this Gloria person. If I feel right about it. Meanwhile, I’ll tidy up. It’ll help to calm me down.”
Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything was an interesting book to read. I went in expecting, based on the back-of-book blurb, that this was going to be a Nora Roberts-type story of a woman overcoming emotional and psychological challenges. It is that, but the structure and plot are more in line with much older forms of literature than the novel. Large parts of it reminded me of the dialogues between Socrates and Plato; the entire middle section read like the allegorical journeys undertaken in proto-novels from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The main character, Helena Carr, is an unemployed nurse who suffers from general anxiety disorder. As the book title tells us, she is afraid of everything. The reader mostly knows this because Helena is constantly telling everyone she knows that she is afraid of everything: her therapist, naturally, but also acquaintances as slight as her next-door neighbour's nephew, whom she meets at a barbecue party.

The first half of the book lets the reader meet Helena, find out about her current situation, and discover her history of anxiety with some well-placed flashbacks. This exposition is completed with skill, and there are some acute observations about life in suburban America that many readers will find themselves nodding along with. I did wish that the reader could have learned what led Helena to quit her job through a more immediate narrative; instead, we read a version of what happened as she explains it to her therapist, which made the events less immediate, more difficult to empathise with the anxiety it caused Helena. Even so, given later events in the book (no spoilers!) this may have well been by design.

Helena has a serious car accident halfway through the book. Now, no spoilers again: it's mentioned in the About the Book blurb (see below). Helena is in a coma, but her consciousness is on a different plane of existence, with only a vague awareness of what is happening around her physical self.

“Of course you could have. I’ve been with you for a very long time, Helena, well before you chose to turn your back on that little girl. This was before I got promoted.”
“From being a Trusted Guide to something more?”
“The Trusted Guides stay on the Other Side, waiting. They aren’t allowed to visit here as I do with you,” she ended with a slight toss of her head.
“What are you?” Helena asked, hardly hoping for an answer. She expected any minute to see Coriander stand up, reach into Helena’s close quarters to pat her hand as she always did and disappear until next time. “An angel?”
“I am a Friend. A Third-Level Friend, I might add,” she stated.
“A . . . a Third-Level Friend?”
“My duties are to comfort and protect. To succor the weak, to lift up the hands that hang down. To minister. To counsel.” Coriander counted down the five points on the fingers of one hand as she spoke. “I don’t claim to be perfect, not yet anyway, but I think I’m fairly good at what I do.” She peered down at Helena and added demurely, “I hope you think so, too. I hope I have been a help to you during your time of need.”

It was the second half of the book which reminded me of allegorical narratives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very much. The language is in the style of contemporary America, but most of the dialogue (and there is a lot of dialogue, here and throughout the book) is on this level of metaphysics and philosophical exposition.

I wasn't sure if the author was drawing from an established mythos or one she'd invented for the book. Christianity seems to be present in the concepts of heaven, angels, and a singular God, but there's also a lot about past ancestors watching over us, a version of reincarnation, and some other aspects which reminded me more of New Age/non-Abrahamic religions. Of course, since Helena is in a coma at this point, it could also be construed as different parts of her brain constructing a dream reality in which to consult, comfort, and heal each other. Parts of it, such as the excerpt I quoted above, reminded me of George talking to Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life.

Even in this altered state of consciousness, Helena is, as a medical professional, very aware and very concerned about her both her chances for survival and the hospital procedures which may influence that. I have to say, as someone who has lived all her life in a country with universal healthcare, the idea that a coma victim would spend time worrying her relatives might be forced to "pull the plug" when the insurance money ran out terrifying. To people who live in different circumstances I would guess it would come across as a serious but practical consideration.

I think if you're someone who can relate to the American suburban lifestyle but wants to experience a journey which mostly takes place in metaphor and metaphysical discussion, Afraid of Everything is a book you should check out. I recommend trying the excerpt on Amazon.

About the Book

Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything is a touching and expertly written book about the life and experiences of Helena Carr as she explores an intriguing new world.

Helena Carr is afraid of everything. After a crisis at work, she quits her job and feels lost. It’s time for a serious change, to beat the extreme anxiety that has plagued her since childhood. Something different, unplanned and radical. Sell her house, move to a foreign location, turn her life upside down in an effort to end the emotionally paralyzing fear. 

Before Helena can act on her options, however, she has a terrible accident on a Southern California freeway. Instead of going on an exotic vacation, she is in a hospital, in a coma, traveling to strange worlds in another dimension, meeting people who seem to know more about her than she knows about herself. 

As Helena explores this intriguing new world, she realizes the truth about her past and the purpose of her future. And she is no longer afraid. She is at last ready to live. But first, she must wake up from the coma.

Paperback: 285 Pages

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (October 7, 2014)

Twitter hashtag: #AfraidGowen

Afraid of Everything  is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon

About the Author:

Born and raised in central Illinois, Karen Jones Gowen now lives and writes in Panajachel, Guatemala. She and her husband Bruce are the parents of ten children. Not surprisingly, family relationships are a recurring theme in Gowen's writing. Her children’s stories have appeared in the Friend, and her essays in the Jacksonville Journal Courier. Gowen's published books are Farm Girl, Uncut Diamonds, House of Diamonds, Lighting Candles in the Snow, Farm Girl Country Cooking: Hearty Meals for Active Families and Afraid of Everything. She blogs at her website, karenjonesgowen.com and at Coming Down the Mountain.

Karen can be found online at:

Website: karenjonesgowen.com
Blog: karenjonesgowen.blogspot.com
Twitter:  @KarenGowen
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/karen.gowen.1?fref=ts

#fridayflash: real

She always loved how her apartment looked in late afternoon sun. The light had a richer, more generous colour than it did in the morning, making the whole room feel more vivid. The décor was minimal, but each piece was richly patterned. She was especially fond of the replica seventeenth-century Egyptian carpet, with its myriad shades of turquoise and scarlet. It set off the lacquered tables and the quiet damask upholstery of the couch. The rooms had what the designers called a good use of negative space.

There was a stereo in one corner, tastefully hidden in an antique cabinet, but she rarely turned it on. Instead she liked to concentrate on the warmth of the sun slowly thickening the air, the occasional bird-chirp outside her window, and, faintly, the tick — tick — tick — tick — tick of the midcentury modern wall clock she had hanging in her dining room. The reassurance. The comfort. The stasis. The harmonies. It was all very pleasing.

Outside it was early evening, the long-shadowed, blue-grey light that happens often in the summer, when sunsets seem to fade at a quarter of the speed they do in winter. Behind her building was a park, and she took a walk on the narrow asphalt path, letting the palm of her hand brush over the tops of the long grass stalks that grew alongside. The parkland was unmanicured, feral, but convenient. She liked it that way. Just enough done — that is, the walking path — so that the area was enjoyable, but not so much that it felt manufactured. Maybe twenty metres from where she was walking, there was a shallow creek. Some stalks of grass had got caught in the flow, and there was a faint drip — drip — drip — drip — drip as the splashed water dropped into a still puddle. She liked how the air was crisp without being chilly. She liked that there were no mosquitoes. She liked how if she held her breath, all she could hear was the water and just the slightest rustle of the leaves stirred by a breeze she couldn't feel.

She had to work, just like everyone else. She was a database analyst in a large, forward-thinking firm. Like all of her co-workers, she had a mini-office that allowed privacy but still let in plenty of light and air. All the furniture and storage was built-in, even the visitor's seat that popped out from a side unit. The mini-office was made with pale-coloured materials and red trim, and had cobalt blue shades on each of the five high-efficiency work lamps. It was a productive, energising place to work. A couple of metres away, if she listened for it, she could hear the click — click — click — click — click of her nearest colleague's mouse. It was so steady, like the windup alarm clock you were supposed to place in the crate to soothe a new puppy.

She fought it, but her eyes fluttered open anyhow. She saw the disintegrating white ceiling tiles first, and then, as she turned her head, the windows, completely covered with grime for at least two generations. At least, that's what they'd told her. She turned her head the other way, and saw, like it was the first time all over again, the other gurneys, with people on them, just like her. Strapped down, just like her. Rows and rows of them. She couldn't make out the far wall.

She tried to turn onto her side, but the restraints wouldn't let her. They never did, and like a recurring nightmare the panic set in. She wanted to scream, to vomit, to move more than the few centimetres the restraints permitted.

Skrick — skrick — skrick — skrick — skrick went the robot's treads along the worn floor tiles. The robot leaned over her, and it almost seemed as if it perceived her wide, wild eyes, the back-of-the-throat whine she was making that threatened to become a scream.

A door opened in the robot's chest, and a syringe-tipped appendage slid out with a reassuring shhhhh sound. The robot threaded the tip of the syringe neatly into the IV port. Her eyes closed, the scene faded, and she decided to get up from the couch and listen to the radio for a while before she went outside for her usual evening walk.

#fridayflash : strong walls and a stout door

They lowered the foundation first, an industrial hourglass shape made of engineered basalt. Cameras mounted on the underside of the construction ship recorded the reaction of the indigenous major fauna. It was obvious by minute mark one that the researcher had her work cut out for her. The sloth creatures ran away sensibly, but then, after the foundation was settled on the ground but before the grappling hooks had been disengaged, they came creeping back to check out the new, alien structure. It took them less than thirty seconds to start trying to scratch the surface with their long, hard claws. 

The construction ship checked the foundation was level, took some air and soil samples, and returned to the orbiting mother ship. 

The administrators reviewed the video first, before using excerpts to brief the researcher. In their estimation the sloth creatures showed an intelligence level at least on par with Earth gorillas. If she wanted the supply ships to keep coming, they explained, she was going to have to get close enough to these animals to interact with them. And if she ever wanted to repay the student loans she owed them and get off the planet, she was going to have to produce excellent research work. They proudly announced they'd added old data on Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall to the resident pod's archives, for inspiration.

The researcher took copious notes, and only asked factual clarification questions. At the end she requested protective gear to wear when venturing outside. The administrators showed more photos of Fossey and Goodall and said "no".

The saucer-shaped pod was cramped and stuffy during the descent to the planet. Because of how the gear had been stowed away, the researcher only had about a square metre of space to her own. She remembered not to brace herself when the planet's gravity kicked in, and scrambled up from the heap she'd made on the pod's floor to look out the only portal she could get to. The pod's location was in a small clearing, surrounded by a dense assortment of flora most reminiscent of a tropical jungle, although the administrators had informed her the forest was mostly giant ferns, not trees. Minerals in the planet's soil tinted all of the chlorophyll-creating life a dark turquoise.

The pod bumped against the foundation brackets, and the researcher curled into a fetal position on the floor. The final shudder as the grappling hooks were disengaged made one of the shipping crates fall on her, but it only had blankets and clothing in it, so she escaped with only a few bruises.

The researcher spent the next several days checking none of her supplies had been damaged during the landing, assembling the prefab observation deck and vegetable garden on the roof, and taking notes on as much as she could of her surroundings without leaving the pod. She didn't have to worry about going to where the sloth creatures were — they came to her, and in greater numbers once her vegetable garden started to smell interesting.

She was able to make plenty of detailed observations from on top of the saucer, which pleased her, because the sloth creatures were both large — the smallest ones were three metres tall on their hind legs — and aggressive. Even though the research station seemed to have sustained the interest of a large group, they fought with each other like male elephants in mating season. Their multi-coloured fur patterns indicated self-domesticity, but it seemed as if they spent all the time not dedicated to sleeping or eating either having loud, vigorous sex, or else trying to kill each other. They alternated between the latter two activities very abruptly, some couplings going from courtship to carnage in minutes. The researcher made plenty of video recordings, but even after much study was unable to determine what caused the shifts in behaviour.

The research pod's foundation never ceased to fascinate the creatures. The largest of them could stretch past five metres. They spent a lot of time trying to climb the foundation, but its surface was too smooth and hard to allow that. The researcher discovered with some alarm one morning that three of the beasts were attempting to form a sort of acrobatic pyramid so that they could gain access to the roof of the pod.

The foundation was twenty metres high, and try as the creatures might, they couldn't manage the last five metres. That didn't stop her from running to the trap door and diving back inside the pod when the creatures made a more serious attempt, however.

She was awoken one night by the scream of metal against metal. She'd long moved her cot from its assigned position by one of the portals to the centre of the pod, near the trap door used to get to ground level. In the morning all was quiet, and she ventured onto the roof to discover the creatures had created vine ropes and tried to lasso and pull off some of the safety rails from the observation deck. She photographed the damaged railing and collected as much of the rope as she could.

The administrators demanded she collect some scat of the beasts. She ventured down the pod's rope ladder during the quietest time of day, and barely made it back to the pod. It took weeks for the long claw-gash on her arm to heal. She took many photographs of the injury, including the healing process. To understand if the claws had poison, she wrote in her reports, but she hoped she was making another point.

Her final report included video footage of two sloths tying vines into an imitation of her rope ladder, and a plea for her pod to be retrieved before the creatures could complete their work.

When the transmissions ceased, the investigative team found only an empty foundation, surrounded by pod wreckage like a monument forgotten.

#fridayflash: bizarre love triangle

Woodcut frontispiece of Alexander Barclay, Lyfe of Seynt George (Westminster, 1515).

Welcome back, and what an epic we're getting to watch today! The first half was Team Dragon all the way, from the daring snatch-and-grab of the princess from the Knight's own end, to the relentless pursuit by Team Knight, all the way back to the Dragon's own zone. The horn sounded with the Dragon still defending the prize, but the Knight has changed his steed line-up during the break, and he's thundering down the pitch. He definitely hasn't given up yet.

And there's the lance! The Dragon took to the air to dodge it, leaving the princess exposed, if only for a split second. Team Knight had a chance there, but unfortunately they had to retrieve their lance from the pitch. The Knight's pulled his steed back a few paces. Look at that grim determination! Under the helm it's all knitted brows and steely glares. The incredible focus of the consummate professional.

Augh! That was close! The Dragon used that moment of hesitation from Team Knight to volley over some fireballs, but the Knight directed the steed to canter sideways. Team Knight is at a distinct disadvantage. They made no gains in the first half, and with the clock ticking, there's no sign of the Dragon giving up the superior position. The Dragon has the princess completely defended. No play by the Knight is getting by, and the Dragon doesn't have a scale out of place. If the Knight doesn't come up with something soon, this second half is just going to be a slow march to the final sound of the horn.

But wait! Team Knight just attempted a suicidally brave flanking manoeuvre, charging full gallop at the Dragon's right side! The Dragon's swung his long neck about to bite off an appendage from either Knight or steed, and... this is incredible! The Dragon only knocked the Knight's sword out of his hand! He didn't complete the defence!

The Dragon's turned to put himself between the Knight and the princess, but — yes! Yes! The tide has turned! The Knight has taken advantage of the Dragon's split-second move to reposition himself, and delivered a lance blow right through the Dragon's neck! This could well be the fatal moment for the Dragon. There's still time left on the clock, but suddenly it doesn't look good at all for the side that led the first half.

And now — wait — I, uh — something unusual is happening on the pitch. Team Knight is keeping steady pressure on that lance skewering move, but there is movement behind the Knight and steed that shouldn't be — there may be a bystander on the pitch. If there's a bystander on the pitch, there may be an interruption, and if there's an interruption at this crucial moment, tables may turn again.

It may be — no! The Knight's steed has fallen onto the pitch! It's difficult to say from this angle what actually happened, but it appears that the steed was suddenly lamed. It may be a hamstring injury, which is common enough at this level of combat, but it's unusual for it to come on while the steed is standing still. Could it be the steed is faking an injury to further damage the Dragon side? We can't rule it out, but it seems like an unusual play to make when the Dragon is already down, especially since it caused the Knight to fall as well. The Dragon's lost a lot of blood now, the pitch is becoming quite slippery, so it's possible also that the steed simply lost his footing and....

Oh. Oh, that's very unusual.

The princess has picked up the Knight's sword, and, judging from the fresh blood dripping from it, it was she who just lamed the steed. She's now approaching the Knight! I'm not sure how much of this is by the rules, but —

Oh. I, um — the princess has just sliced the Knight's head mostly off, and with one blow too. There's been much debate as to whether wearing heavy robes and doing needlework all day had isometric benefits, and perhaps we're getting our answer now. Still, although there are still eighteen minutes left on the clock, it looks like enough rules have been broken that a forfeit is inevitable, and —


The princess has just stabbed the Dragon through the — I believe it's the, yes, it's his left eye — with the sword. The Dragon has fallen to the pitch. The Dragon isn't moving.

The Knight and the steed aren't moving either. I'm not sure what this means in terms of game resolution, certainly there are no rules about the princess having agency, but —


The princess is leaving the pitch. She still has the sword.

#fridayflash : the state of wednesday night

Wednesday, so the shop is open late for knit night. The annual inventory sale is on to let the winter wools make way for the summer cottons and linens. Amongst the little plastic stem glasses of red wine and the larger paper cups of coffee and tea are lots of turquoise shopping bags, filled with bargains of bulky alpaca and soon-to-be-back-issues of Rowan magazine.

There's always a crowd on knit night, and despite the cold weather alert the shop is packed with women attempting to catch up on their projects, take their turn being queen bee, and snag some deals, all at the same time. The group is divided into four or five knots of knitters, depending on where in the room they're sitting and how much the current queen holding court can make herself heard over the din.

Here's an Anglican minister, answering the unasked question as to why her hair is so short. It's because she's ordained, not because her wife had any say about it. Really, she tells everyone within earshot, she and her wife don't attempt to control each other. They have a very positive, mutually supportive relationship. She repeats it so often some of the listeners wonder what's wrong.

Two women frown over a pattern in the bay window seat at the front, while the rest of their group giggle over the ridiculous things their past lovers learned from watching porn. "He was so devastated when he found out women don't actually like that," says a younger woman with auburn hair. "So I said, well duh, think about how it would taste for two seconds and it's obvious!" The group collapses into giggles again.

A woman with salt-and-pepper hair graces the end of the long table in the centre of the shop. She pauses in her work on a wedding-ring shawl to open the pattern book she's working from, so she can show the teenage girl to her left what it will look like when completed. "I could never do that," says the girl, glancing at the thick scarf on her own needles and cringing.

"Of course you can," says the older woman. "You just have to decide you want one."

"But it's so much work."

"With great effort comes great accomplishment," says the older woman. "Isn't that from a film?" Her much-younger beau — no, frequent date — no, regular sexual partner — insisted on taking her to see one of those comic-book films the other night. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed it. She didn't feel tired at all when they went back to his place. She doesn't dare mention him on knit night, or else be pounced upon. Like a yard full of hens pecking a weaker member of the flock to death. Granola in one hand, Victorian smelling-salts in the other, that was this lot.

And then, about fifteen minutes before the shop owner takes her first glance at the clock and wonders how to gracefully close up, two men barge through the shop door. The one ahead stumbles, nearly knocks over a dressmaker's dummy wearing a sample Fair Isle cardigan, and catches himself on a set of cubbyholes full of yarn. His friend strides in, takes his elbow, apologies streaming from his lips like water from a fire hydrant. He turns his gaze around the full perimeter of the room, hoping someone will notice and forgive him.

The drunkest man takes two more steps towards the back, falls against the cubbyhole a second time, and notices a price list on the shelf above. He scans the room as the knitters stare back, holds up the list, and says, "Are these the rates?"

"Sorry, so sorry," his friend says, lunging to catch at his sleeve and losing his own balance. "We're drunk, I mean he's drunk, I mean we've been out drinking, sorry..."

"Is your rate on here?" the drunkest man asks the teenage girl, who sits frozen with one hand on her half-finished scarf.

The Anglican minister and the woman working on the wedding-ring shawl stand. "Cold night air will do you good," says the older woman. "Clear your head." The Anglican minister puts her hand on the man's arm and is helping him to the door before he can realise what's happening. His friend follows, still dribbling apologies.

"Any casualties?" the Anglican minister calls out as she shuts the door.

"Only flesh wounds," says the woman working on the wedding-ring shawl, and the room drowns in laughter.

"I guess those guys didn't know how historically accurate they were being," says one of the women in the bay window.  

"May as well wrap up for the night," says the shop owner, sensing an advantage. "We're not going to top that."


#fridayflash : man of mystery

Who are you, Stella Artois man? Every time I go to a general admission show, like at the Phoenix or the Docks, there you are, walking around with a three-quarters-full glass of Stella Artois, logo on the glass self-consciously turned out. And it works, because all the friends I've ever gone to hear a band with notice that glass first before they notice you. You are a walking cup-holder, a movable product placement. If the lights are up and the band's not on, you pace around the floor, crossing in front of the crowd's vision, always keeping that mostly-full glass of beer prominent. I've never seen you drink from it. I've never seen you order it from the bar. And I've definitely never seen anyone else with glass walking about. The rest of us sip from the same semi-clear plastic cups that renders even the choicest brew unappealing. Spit sticks to the rim of the cup. Lipstick smears instantly. The cups themselves get soft and difficult to hold once the crowd reaches critical mass and the air warms up. But not you. You have a Stella Artois glass.

But who are you, Stella Artois man? If you're a walking advertisement, you're a strange one. You show up at music gigs, the most gregarious sort of public entertainment out there (save sports), yet you are always alone. The people from Sleeman Beer act like they're the best friend you haven't met yet, and breezily shout "Cheers!" over the noise as they hand out samples. Steam Whistle Brewery has reps at countless art and cultural events, and they always act like they're there for the show and oh, right, they're working as well. Not you. You don't circulate through the crowd so much as navigate it. The few times you've realised figuring out what the hell you're doing is my pre-opening-act entertainment, you've looked actually frightened. Men don't seem to scare you as much, but neither do you talk to them. It makes a certain amount of marketing sense to replace you with a robot.

So who are you, Stella Artois man? Winter or summer, you'll be there in a tan leather jacket, a white shirt with thin red stripes, blue jeans that are probably Levis. The bands I go to hear attract all kinds of people, a cross-section of fashion style, income level, and music preferences. We are music lovers as a pack of licorice all-sorts, always different but somehow consistent in our geeky fixations on what we enjoy. But not you. Same clothes, same haircut, same solitude, same glass filled three-quarters full. I've seen your face when the house lights start to go down. You look like you're turning off, not on.

And this, finally, is why I wonder so much about you: you don't look like you actually like music, not any of the music played by the bands whose shows I've seen you at. You look like you'd be much happier with those brown loafers off your feet and the tan jacket off your shoulders, sitting in some downtown apartment's living room, watching the evening news and its stock market round-up with the glass of Stella perched on an end-table.

I wanted to make a fiction from you: a space alien trying to fit in long enough to study cultural rituals, or an ancient Mesopotamian beer god lost in nostalgia and dejection for modern-method vat brewing. A wizard with a magic potion, or a superhero undercover, making sure everyone makes it through the show safely. But none of these are as strange as you; all of them are more decipherable.

You are a fixture that doesn't fit. So who are you?

#fridayflash: sasquatchewan

Tom set the bowl on the counter and opened a cupboard. He pulled out a bag of pretzels, opened it, and sniffed.

"Is there a date on the bag?" said Christine.

Tom jumped. He hadn't realised his sister was standing in the kitchen. He glared at the front of the pretzels bag and shook his head. "It doesn't say either way," he said.

Christine shrugged and stepped forward just enough to dip her hand in the bag and take a pretzel. There was a loud snap as she bit off a piece, and her hand flew to her mouth. After some rapid pokes at different teeth, she removed the piece from her mouth and tossed it in the trash. "It doesn't taste stale, anyhow," she whispered.

Tom's shoulders slumped. He dumped the pretzels into the bowl. "Aunt Mabel didn't say either of us had to eat them." He picked up a pretzel that had fallen onto the counter and waved it at Christine. "Happy New Year."

Christine shook her head. "I swear," she breathed, "I don't want to be drinking age to drink. I just want to be old enough to go to my own New Year's party and not get baby-sat anymore."

"You two!" came a screech from the TV room. "You're being anti-social."

"I just need to put the bag in the garbage, Aunt Mabel!" said Tom.

"What about your sister?"

"I had to rearrange the fridge to fit the Coca-Cola in, Aunt Mabel!" said Christine. She opened and slammed the fridge door. "No, the door still isn't sealing. I better move the milk."

"You can't leave the fridge with the door open!"

"I know. I'll make sure." Christine rolled her eyes at Tom.

"Well hurry up. I don't want to miss this idiot from Dubuque. Every time he gets ahead, he buys a damned vowel."

"Who watches game show reruns, anyhow?" hissed Tom.

"Our aunt does," whispered Christine. "And there's a marathon of them until midnight."

"Yay." Tom crumpled up the pretzel bag and opened the lid on the trash bin. When he let the lid drop, it didn't close completely.

Tom grimaced, lifted the lid again, and pushed the garbage down, but when he dropped the lid, the pretzel bag unfolded itself and pushed the lid up. Tom sighed. "Mabel's going to freak if she sees that in the morning. It has to go out tonight."

"I'll hold the door open," said Christine.

"No, it's your turn to go out," said Tom. "I'll hold the door open."

Christine shrugged. "Can't blame me for trying. " It wasn't snowing for once, but it was well below freezing. Aunt Mabel's house didn't have a garage, so they had to put the garbage in cans kept in the alleyway.

"HA!" Christine and Tom both jumped and stared in the direction of the living room. "HA! This ninny from Buffalo just tried to guess Big Foot was from Saskatchewan! Where would something like that hide on the prairies?" There was a thunk as Aunt Mabel hit the side table with her cane for emphasis. "It's British Columbia! Where do they find these people?" The TV set got louder as an ad for a pickup truck played.

Tom swayed his head from side to side. "Sasquatch, Saskatchewan, you could see someone making the mistake."

"It's Saskatchewan, not Sasquatchewan!"

"Okay," said Christine. "Aunt Mabel, the garbage is full. I'm going to take it out."

"Do that," said Aunt Mabel. "Tom, stop hiding in the kitchen. Come sit here."

"I will. I'm going to hold the door for Christine. It's really dark already."

Christine and Tom heard the musical cue announcing the resumption of the game show. They exchanged shrugs, and Christine pulled the bag out of the garbage bin while Tom retrieved a fresh bag from under the counter.

They went to the mudroom. Christine pushed her arms into the sleeves of her parka, and pulled Tom's watch-cap over her ears. She picked up the bag of garbage and opened the outer door. Tom stood in the doorway and held the door with his fingertips, wincing as the cold glass reached the pain threshold.

He heard a loud clang and a grunt. "Did you knock over the trash can?" When Christine didn't answer he stuck his head out the door.

Christine was standing perfectly still with her back to Tom, the garbage bag in her left hand. The knocked-over trash can was at her feet. It was the only thing between her and the white, furry man-creature staring at her.

Tom couldn't see the — person's? animal's? — face in the dark alleyway, but from the tilt of its head, he guessed it was staring right back at his sister. He felt the blood drain from his face as he realised that, even though he was standing on the top doorstep, a good metre higher than the walkway, the creature was still slightly taller than he was.

"Hey!" he yelled. He smacked the brick wall with his hands, which didn't make the loud sound he'd been hoping for. "HEY! This is a private walkway! Get lost!"

The creature gave a startled-sounding grunt, jerked its head up, backed up a few steps, then turned and ran. Tom caught a glimpse of it loping away under the streetlights as he shuffled awkwardly down the steps to Christine, his socks sticking to the ice on the concrete.

"Are you okay?" he said, gingerly stepping onto the frozen grass and setting the garbage can upright.

Christine's mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. Tom took the bag of garbage from her and put it in the trash can. When he tugged at her sleeve, she followed him into the house.

Tom pulled the door shut behind them and double-checked it was locked. Christine giggled suddenly as she pulled off her parka.



"This is Ontario. Southern Ontario, even."

"Maybe it got lost."

Tom's breath came out between a choke and a laugh. "Let's just check all the doors and windows are locked before we give Aunt Mabel the pretzels."


It's that time of year again, when I go rushing over to Goodreads to check if I actually finished any books this year. Well, I did. Some of them I finished so quickly I didn't even note them on Goodreads.

This was another year of heavy murder mystery reading, which is my go-to comfort genre. But then: at some point during one of the SFWA flaps (somebody again claiming women don't write science fiction, sigh), I read an article listing classic SF by women, and a lot of commenters were complaining James Tiptree Jr. was left off the list. It was interesting, because people zeroed in on her story "The Women Men Don't See", and my personal favourite by her is "The Man Who Walked Home", which didn't get any mentions at all. But it made me decide that I was going to go back to reading more SF in 2015. SF is my home base (which is different from the murder mystery comfort place — my literary geography gets complicated sometimes). It'll be good to go home.

The big change in reading habits in 2014 is that I started writing more book reviews, mostly via Women on Writing. Despite the name and their focus, they also help promote books by men — including one of the books I reviewed. My stance on these reviews, and on all my reviews, has been to try and write something so that anyone who read the review would understand whether or not they would enjoy the book. Note that's not whether I enjoyed the book, but whether the people who like the sort of book it is would appreciate it. I was lucky; I've had a good run so far. There's only been one book I honestly couldn't picture for anyone, and it wasn't a WOW book (you can read back through my reviews if you really want to find out which one I'm referring to).

The list below, though: these are the personal favourites from this year. Special thanks to Cindy Vaskova for compiling the 2014 reviews!

Under the Skin, Michel Faber I saw the trailer for the film made from this book, and decided I wanted to go see it. It was only when Cathy Cheshin asked me if I'd read the book that I really became aware that there was one.

As for the old book/film conundrum, this is one of the rare cases where the film is a faithful adaptation of the book, yet experiencing the story in one medium first does not spoil the surprises waiting in the other medium. The film is a very pared-down version of the story — it tells you enough to be complete on its own without giving away what's in the book, and vice versa.

The premise sounds like classic 1950s horror: an alien, surgically altered to pass for a human woman, roams the highways of Scotland picking up male hitch-hikers, so that her species can use them for their own ends. But the premise is flip-flopped by being narrated (mostly) from the aliens' point of view, and not the traditional Earthbound focus. That, and the incredible atmospherics the narrative provides, make this a truly amazing read. What unfolds is a thoughtful meditation on the twinned nature of brutality and kindness.

It's a wonderfully black satire where no-one gets out unscathed: despite certain groups trying to claim it as a vindication of their beliefs (if that's not too much of a spoiler), I found it showed that simplistic moral rules were bound to backfire. And if that's all too heavy, it's just an excellent marriage of horror and SF.

Murdoch Mysteries, Maureen Jennings I really love the TV series based on these books (currently airing on the CBC — not sure how available the streaming is outside of Canada, but I know people in the USA at least are watching them somehow). They cram in a lot of local history which seems to be made-up until one verifies it — the visit Winston Churchill made to Toronto as a young man, for instance, or the (very old, it turns out) belief in an ancient, underground series of tunnels networked under the present-day site of the city. The TV series has a dash of steampunk in it, but what's really fun is that the technology isn't that farfetched: a lot of it is based on gear that actually existed, but which turned out to be developmental dead ends. Main character Detective William Murdoch often uses newfangled contraptions to help him solve his cases.

It was only a matter of time before I started reading the books, and I'm really enjoying them. So far I've read the first three: Except the Dying, Under the Dragon's Tail, and Poor Tom Is Cold. They don't rely on the cameos and the technology the way the TV series does — and while Murdoch does enjoy science and logic, he's a more realistic self-made man than his television counterpart. They are excellently researched, with often-grim reminders of what life was like at the close of the nineteenth century. One sub-plot involves Murdoch having an infected tooth which must be pulled. He keeps putting it off, until a colleague tells him of a woman who died of blood poisoning from an untreated tooth problem. Photography's almost a hundred years old, telephones are common if not ubiquitous, electric lighting is catching on, and it's still common for people to die from infected teeth.

The thing is, Jennings is careful to treat the historical period as people during that time would have: just their everyday lives. As far as they're concerned, they live in a modern world with modern conveniences — for those who can afford them. It's a lot like our time that way. And, just as in our time, the solving of the murders often means Murdoch has to see past classism, sexism, racism, sectarianism... sometimes one wonders what has improved besides dentistry.

One thing I enjoy (warning: I've seen people criticise the books for this same thing) is that Jennings shows events unfold from the perpetrator's point of view as well as the police's, and sometimes the victim's also. Characters will use their class or ethnicity to pull strings — or to make themselves invisible. Unlike some mystery stories, it's not unusual for the reader to know who (or at least who from a very short list) is the killer well before Murdoch does. The fun — and it is a lot of fun — is seeing Murdoch get there. Often the actual motivation is not revealed until the end as well, which means there are other plot twists and surprises in store even when you know who did the deed already.

Thieving Forest, Martha Conway This is one of the books I reviewed for Women on Writing. To be honest, I almost passed it by: it's YA, and at the time it was offered I'd already reviewed about three YA titles in a row. I don't turn down books because they're YA, but I was in the mood for a story with more mature characters in it. The back-of-book blurb didn't grab me at first either. It's a story of the Ohio frontier in the early nineteenth century, about white, recently-orphaned teenage sisters getting kidnapped by Indians. My initial reaction was that it was going to be some sort of derivative of 1950s Westerns, including all the parts we cringe over.

I wound up taking it on anyway, and... was very pleasantly surprised. Conway knocks over the racial stereotyping very early on — the truth turns out to be far more complicated than the surface "pioneers vs. Indians". There's a classic Midwest steadiness to the narrative voice, and the use of present tense makes for a very engrossing read. This is another historical which is very well researched, and it's the only WOW-related book I gave five stars to this year. Please see my full review for more details..

My Soul to Take, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir I found out about this author on my trip to Iceland. Something to know about trips to Iceland: they do a better job than any other country I've been to of promoting all they have to offer in art, goods, geography, cuisine... the rest of the world could learn a lot about success through co-operation from them. Anyhow, since I already knew I enjoyed Arnaldur Indriðason's books, I figured it was well time for me to check out more Icelandic authors (three more so far in fact, but this post is already very long). I bought this book on my phone while sitting in a café in Keflavík airport, and read as much as I could on the flight home.

This was a different sort of mystery from Indriðason's Erlendur novels. Sigurðardóttir's protagonist, Thóra, is a lawyer, not a detective, and not even a criminal lawyer. The murders all take place around an old farmstead which has been recently converted into a spa hotel, and whose owner has hired her to do some up some legal paperwork for him. However, like in the Erlendur stories, she finds herself needing to solve a cold case which has a direct impact on murders committed in the present day. What's really smart and wonderful about the plot is that she doesn't suddenly transform into Nancy Drew — she solves it the way someone with her established skills and background would go about it.

Thóra has the cunning, stubbornness, and strong attention to details one would expect of a successful lawyer, but she's also a well-rounded character, who has to juggle phone calls with her two teenage children (who have decided to ride off in the family caravan because their father, Thóra's ex-husband, is too boring and annoying to stay with while she's working at the hotel). Besides being a good mystery, the book is a fascinating examination of how past and present, knowledge and mythology, all come together and clash over which of them get to define reality.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carré Count this as a book I should have read a long time ago. My prejudices tripped me up here. It's not so true anymore, but for a long time I accepted the stereotype that spy novels are by, about, and for men (funny, because I never accepted the mirror stereotype about romance novels). Le Carré's books were on the wire paperback stands of pharmacies and grocery stores everywhere when I was a kid. Sigh, yeah, I'm old enough to remember wire paperback stands, but hey, in my defence, I grew up in the country, and things change more slowly there. I just figured his books were the sort of disposable fiction one read in waiting rooms.

So, now that we've established I'm an idiot... what nobody ever told me is what an excellent writer Le Carré is. The opening chapter of Tinker, Tailor is funny and affectionate with its characters, but with a sadness that acts as a wonderful foreshadowing for the events to come. The relationship of spycraft to psychology and to such supposed mundanities as library science is depicted with great wit and refreshingly plausible tension. The cascade of constant little paranoid details — checking to see if one's mail is being delayed, the piece of wood left in the doorframe to see if anyone's broken into one's house — build into such a complex web that it's easy to understand how the characters sometimes lose sight of the big picture, get lost in their own office politics. I found myself admiring characters not for their bravery, or their physical attractiveness, or their virtues, but simply because they could manage to think clearly in spite of all the noise.

This novel was first published in 1974. That it continues to be a well-known bestseller, has been dramatised to great acclaim not once but twice, and we're still having arguments about whether genre works can be great literature is embarrassing. I'd love to ask my British Moderns professor why it was left off the course syllabus.

The Steel Spring, Per Wahlöö About two years ago, I went to see the Patti Smith exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario with some friends, and they brought along another friend I didn't know. After the exhibit we all had dinner together, and the conversation turned to books. I mentioned I'd been working my way through Swedish crime writers, and the friend-of-my-friends recommended Per Wahlöö. I wrote down the name and didn't think much about it, until about a year later when I was at loose ends for a new e-book to read. The public library had this one available to borrow, so borrow it I did.

Turns out this isn't quite a crime novel, although certainly several crimes get committed. It's a science fiction tale in much the same vein as the films Alphaville and Brazil, set in a fictional country which is a sort of not-Estonia. The country is a strongly bureaucratic state, which was probably formed with the intention of being socialist and wound up being more about complying with laws (there are lots of them) and filling out paperwork. The main character is a detective who, almost absent-mindedly, signs a government-mandated national loyalty card hours before he retires from the police force. He's retiring a little early, because he is seriously ill and needs to travel out-of-country for a difficult-to-get operation. He's not expected to survive.

But he does, and spends much of the next three months unconscious. Finally awake and ready to return home, he discovers there are no flights back to his home country. In fact, there's no way to communicate with home at all. In the time he's been away, something very strange and terrible has happened. His new task is to return and find out what caused such a total societal breakdown so quickly. The reason why is cringingly plausible.

The story has a lot of the bleak, dry humour I seem to like, which, coupled with its decidedly unflowery narrative style, made for a quick, but thought-provoking read. I suspect there are some sharp criticisms of 1970s politics in it which went flying right over my head, but I sort of felt the air move as they went by. Certainly recent current events have made topics like routine citizen surveillance and covert actions even more relevant again.

#fridayflash : the meaning

It wasn't fair, and it especially wasn't fair because the silly beasts couldn't even remember how the tradition had started. Everett stood at the edge of the shopping mall parking lot and sighed. He scanned the expanse of asphalt, completely packed with cars as it was, and carefully checked for any signs of movement.

There were three cars prowling the laneways in search of a nonexistent empty spot. One of them was following a plump man pushing a shopping buggy away from the mall entrance. Everett watched the man's movements and smiled to himself, just stopping short of showing his teeth. The driver of the following car was an idiot. Even from where Everett stood, it was obvious the man was just going to load up his car and return to the depths of the mall again.

The whine of an electric motor cut through the cold thin air. A security guard was headed his way on patrol. Everett had dressed well to ward off suspicion — a dark wool coat, black muffler, and his favourite pre-war brogues — but the mall cop might still stop and talk to him, assume one of the cars nearby was his and that he needed help starting it or something. He picked his way between the cars and emerged into the laneway, hands stuck in his pockets because that's what they did when it was this cold. The frozen slush crunched beneath his feet.

He scolded himself. He did this every time, and ought to know better by now. Sunset fell at half-past four this time of year, and by five he was out hunting, eagerly sniffing out strays. But the prey were all in a hurry too, and between five and seven was the meal-time for most of them.

He picked his way across the parking lot, glancing up every once in a while, willing the giant towers with the enormous lamps shining from them to fail. Just one. That's all he needed. Just one, and there would be a nice dark patch for him to wait it out.

But of course they hardly ever failed. They were almost as durable as he was.

The security guard went by on his ridiculous golf cart at the last point Everett could either continue to the mall or change to pretending he was just leaving it. He pushed the glass door open with a sigh.

"Shopping this time of year sucks, eh buddy?" said a man using the door beside him. Everett noted the man was wearing a suit, just like he was, but with a parka instead of a wool overcoat.

He gave the man a noncommittal smile and made a point of turning a different way once they were inside the mall. Unless the man was heading straight to the toilets, it would have taken too much time, effort, and risk to focus on him.

Everett hated malls. They were sort of all right when they first opened. In the main corridors at least, there had been plenty of places where the only visibility was gained from the illuminated store signs. But starting in the late 1980s, owners started adding skylights and track lighting, until there was hardly a dark corner in the entire building. It gave him a headache just thinking about it. 

And now, just when everything was properly dark for as long as it could be, the night of the actual winter solstice, they put up even more lights, used up even more of that electricity they were always harping about reducing. It was a wonder this lot had any night vision left at all. Total idiotic hyporcisy.

He browsed a floor plan, remembering that now that he was indoors he should take his hands out of his pockets. He found the toilets, wandered down, but found there was a queue right out the door. Hardly the secluded sanctuary he needed. He shrugged and smiled at the last man in line, and headed back to the main level, making a point to study a different floor plan.

He tried the hobby store. It was so packed he couldn't get in.

He tried the pet store, but it wasn't any better. He did note that, worse come to worst, they had rats on sale.

He tried the shoe repair shop. It didn't have any customers, but a gaggle of the proprietor's relatives had dropped by. They were discussing the logistics of Christmas dinner as if planning a military operation, and Everett strode on, shaking his head. Shouldn't their servants be worrying about who was making which dish? Did anyone even have servants anymore?

He paced the corridors, browsing the occasional shop in case he got noticed by security. He tried to pay attention when he reached an exit, focusing on the old, the sick, the weak, but the patterns were too complicated, the crowds too dense. The endless noise and light was making his head throb. He remembered a similarly crisp night when he'd waited under a moonless sky for revellers to make their way to the henge. They'd been within sight of the bonfire before they'd realised that old grandfather wasn't trailing behind them anymore.

At last the clerks commenced the ritual of pulling across the gates and locking up for the night. A disembodied voice announced everyone had to leave the mall. Everett considered hiding in the men's toilets until he remembered that security always checked there, and besides, he might be seen by a different guard on the way out.

At last the mall was nearly empty, but not empty enough for him. He spotted Parka Man exiting, and decided to tail him to his car, just to feel like he'd accomplished something.

Parka Man's car was in the farthest corner of the lot, in the faintly-lit area between two of the lamp towers. He didn't notice Everett until he held up a key in the dim gold light, checking to see if it was the right one for the car.

"You again," said the man. He nodded at Everett's empty hands. "Didn't find any presents after all?"

"Almost," said Everett, and sank his fangs into the man's neck.

#fridayflash : the find

Bridget watched the cars pass by outside the meeting room window. Even though it was only two o'clock in the afternoon, most of them had their headlights on. That only made sense in the dark, foggy weather, but she was relieved to notice that none of the cars had windshield wipers running. She remembered that Luis hated to drive in the rain. Too much time excavating in the more arid regions of Spain, he said. 

One car slowed, paused before the driveway, then eased towards the parking lot. Bridget hurried to the elevators and made her way to the lobby. 

She recognised Luis from his anorak more than from his face, which had been obscured by a beard since the last time they'd met. Indoors or out, the anorak rarely left his shoulders if he was in England. 

"Never seen this place in the dark," he said by way of greeting. "I hope you weren't waiting long." 

"Not at all," said Bridget. "Coffee first, or just head straight downstairs?"

Luis glanced around the lobby with a frown. "I thought downstairs was only for storage?"

"It is," said Bridget. "We found the site when we were expanding the east wing." 

Luis raised his eyebrows. "A major discovery under the Department of Antiquities." He grinned. "This I have to see. Lead the way."

A few minutes later, Bridget was retrieving hard hats and shoe caps for both of them. "The room's in excellent condition," she explained as they donned the protective gear. "It's carved out of solid sandstone, so it should be. We'll need these too," she said, taking some cotton gloves and flashlights from a shelf before locking up the storage closet. 

The end of the corridor was shrouded in plastic sheeting. "No security?" said Luis as Bridget pushed aside the sheeting and unlocked a very plain wooden door. 

"You'll see," said Bridget, opening the door and turning on her flashlight.  

Luis pulled the door shut behind him. "Excellent climate control," he said, waving a free hand through the air.  "But surely the damp will get through that door sooner or later."

"We didn't have a door for the first two days," said Bridget. She pointed at some instruments set on the stone floor with her flashlight. "This room is always 62% humidity, seventeen degrees Celsius."

"A little chilly, then."

"Not to anyone used to living conditions in England during a mini ice age. Seventeen degrees would have been balmy for that climate."

Luis crouched by the instruments on the floor, pointed his flashlight at the door, then back at the instruments again. "It was damp in the corridor," he said. "It's been damp since I walked off the plane." He stood, his knees cracking audibly. "So how are you maintaining the climate?"

"Let's look at the second room," Bridget said, pointing out a short corridor with her flashlight. 

The corridor was only wide enough to allow them to pass through it single file. As Luis stepped across the threshold to the second room, he played his flashlight around the walls. He whistled.  

"How long did  it take you to shelve all these books?" he said. He reached out and stroked the carved edge of a bookshelf. " Nice woodwork too. It fits in the stone recess perfectly." He stiffened and moved his flashlight to shine it on Bridget's face. "But where are the artifacts?"

Bridget squinted against the light.  "This is it. And although it probably doesn't matter, if you're going to be touching things, you should put some gloves on." She stepped out of the range of the flashlight. 

Luis snorted. "Please. These are obvious reproductions." He stroked the spine of a book with a bare hand. "Nice ones, though. I know calf leather when I feel it." He frowned. "It was a long way to travel for a prank, if that's what this is."

"Luis." He turned in the direction of Bridget's voice, the flashlight following his gaze. She'd placed one of the books on the wooden table in the centre of the room, its ornate carvings matching the designs on the bookshelves. "The college building above us was built in 1752. There's no record of this room, and this isn't the sort of thing you could build in secret. The doorway we came through is the only way in or out." She panned the beam from her flashlight slowly around the room. "At minimum this furniture, these books, they should be three hundred years old. But as you say, they're like brand new."

Luis scanned the tops of the shelves and the ceiling. "That doesn't add up." He traced the embossed lettering on the spine of one of the books. "This is what, medieval German, or Old English?"

"Old English. I take it you can't read it."

Luis shook his head and ran his finger along the row of books. "I can read most forms of Latin as if they're modern Spanish, but no." He shone his flashlight around the room. "A trove like this, there must be some Latin titles."

"You'd think so, but there aren't. Just Old English. Now watch this." Bridget lifted a page from the book she'd placed on the table, using just the tip of her cotton-gloved finger. She pinched the corner under her thumb, winced and tore the page from the book.

"No!" Luis stepped towards the table. "Even for a fake, there's some interest in the..." He gaped. The paper wriggled out of Bridget's fingers like a live thing, and flew back into place in the book. A jagged black scar formed along the torn edges, and then, as Luis stared, the scar faded. Bridget flipped the page back and forth. It was as if it had never been torn.

"We've gone over all of these books," said Bridget, her voice trembling, "and all of them are listings of incantations, herbal catalogues, recipes... they're all magical spell books. All of them. And then there's this one."

She turned and pulled a wooden-covered book off the shelf behind her and laid it on the table. Luis watched her flip past pages with drawings of plants and star charts on them, until she came upon two apparently blank facing pages. Bridget turned off her flashlight and stepped away from the table.

Luis's eyes widened as a blue glow grew from the pages, and a mirror-imaged, but otherwise perfectly formed, calligraphic script formed across the parchment.


the reverse shopping bag blog post


You know those YouTube videos people post where they show off all the stuff they bought on their last shopping trip? My nieces love watching them, and although conspicuous consumption isn't really my cup of tea, I have to admit there's something weirdly compelling about them. I watched one with Niece the Elder where someone unwrapped about two dozen Kinder Eggs, pausing to show off what prize they got inside each one. The joy of surprise and discovery really came across.

Me, I live in a 60 square metre apartment that is always cluttered no matter what I do. Okay, mostly I read Apartment Therapy and wish I could get more organised, but last year I got rid of a lot of stuff, and this year I'm doing it again. There are ten days between today and Yule, and I've set myself a challenge to get rid of at least ten items per day.

The sad thing is, a hundred fewer things will not get me anywhere near the ultra-neat spaces featured in Apartment Therapy, but I like to tell myself that's because they hide all their stuff at their friends' apartments for the photo shoots.

I'm starting with an obvious target: like any respectable book lover, I have far too many books. Here are the ones which got collected and moved down to the book exchange in my building's recycling room today.

#fridayflash : it warned us

It starts like this: one Wednesday afternoon apropos of nothing in particular, the centre vending machine of the bank of three in the shopping mall's bus terminal starts beeping. The beeps are loud and frequent, one every half a second, and a red light nobody noticed before flashes in time. 

This is the vending machine people use the most. There are two reasons for this. For one, the device has the greatest assortment of food items which could, in a desperate moment between bus transfers, become a makeshift meal. For another, it's the only machine in the terminal which can ingest paper bills and spit out change, something both the transit workers in the ticket booths and the lady at the lottery kiosk upstairs both refuse to do. 

People hurry up to the vending machine, fivers in hand, and groan when they realise the beeping they heard is coming from it. 

A man in a suit and overcoat shrugs and pushes his money inside anyhow. The machine rewards him with a prompt to select some junk food from its innards. He leaves with a chocolate bar and a handful of change. 

After the man's example, there is a steady stream of people using the machine.  Nearly all of them arrive as a previous customer is showing up. If there's a gap, the teenagers loitering at the doors are more than happy to inform the next person, though they're not very polite about it. 

"You should have time to get some candy before the thing explodes," they say. Or, "It does that when it sees a fat person's gonna buy more candy. Take the hint, bitch!"

Eventually, the last bus for the night leaves. The transit workers kick out the teenagers and lock up. They finish counting the tills and go home. The last one out turns off most of the lights. As she passes the bank of vending machines, she stops, peers, checks the gap between the wall and the backs of the machines, and gets on her hands and knees in front  the centre one, which is still beeping and flashing. Her arm is just long enough to reach under and behind the machine to unplug it. She gets up and goes to the ticket booth, where she writes a note to the morning shift.

In an attack ship hidden behind the moon, the Zorguan intelligence commander slams five tentacles into the control panel. "Who planted that observer equipment and didn't install an independent power supply? We need at least one planet rotation to get complete data."

"Never mind that,"  says the second in command, "According to the advance reports, that sound and that coloured light mean danger in their culture. But hundreds of people walked by and ignored it, and tens more used the machine."

"They're either very brave or very stupid," chimes in the admiral, waggling a tentacle. "Probably both. I'm calling it. Don't worry about completing the intelligence collection cycle. The only thing to do with a race like that is dematerialise them from orbit."