Monday, September 24, 2018

Cozy or dark?

I love cozy mysteries; they're usually light, crisp reads, like eating an apple neatly cut up on the plate. But I love dark mysteries too, messy and sharp, like plums dripping juices like blood. Sometimes I just want an easy, quick read, then I'll pick up my kindle and start one of those easily downloaded cozies, or raid the library or bookstore for a pretty cover... And sometimes I want something meaty and long, to draw me away from the present day and trap me deep in someone else's problems. Those are the dark mystery days.

On a dark day, I'm too far from here to write reviews. On a light day, a couple of hours off from reading and imagining seem light as sun on flowers (yes, it's not yet winter), and book reviews get posted post-haste, before the weather can change. So here are some mystery reviews for your enjoyment. Drink more coffee!

Starting light:

The Georgie Shaw Cozy Mystery Series: 1-3 by Anna Celeste Burke offers the first three in a series with middle-aged protagonists and a fascinating, somewhat zany, theme park background. New relationships are never easy, especially for someone wounded by love in the past. But dead bodies complicate things further. Backstage in the theme park, front stage in a glorious vacation resort, or searching for threats when everyone's wearing costume; it's fast, fun, and short. Enjoy with some lively easy-drinking two-star coffee.

Moving to the middle:

Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh is, perhaps, old-fashioned cozy; not so quick a read, nor as openly romantic as modern cozies, but a delightful change of pace. Death occurs in slower, richer worlds too, and Jill Paton Walsh recreates Dorothy Sayers' writing style so convincingly I was never jarred. Of course, his lordship is married now, and Harriet, with some delightfully humorous scenes, is learning to be a "lady." It's not an easy task, especially when her new "friend" disappears. Enjoy good old-fashioned, well-shaded mystery with some elegant, complex four-star coffee.

Sex Drugs & Murder on the Frankenstein Set by Peter Joseph Swanson is dialog driven, darkly humorous, and vividly evocative of the swinging '60s. So, dark and light together--that qualifies as the middle doesn't it? One to enjoy with some bold dark five-star coffee perhaps.

And ending convincingly dark:

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) definitely starts darkly, with skin-crawling revelations of a truly evil character. In classic style, the antagonist's identity is kept secret while his actions continue to affect the life, relationships and business of Cormoran Strike. Suddenly all that was going well goes wrong. Meanwhile his assistant's marriage plans are falling apart. The past rears its head over everything, and wounds less visible than Strike's missing leg prove more fearful. The author deals with life's dark side convincingly and with sensitivity, making this a novel of broken relationships as much as one of broken lives. And mystery; it's also mystery, to be enjoyed with a dark five-star coffee.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Would you rather be an animator for Disney, a puppeteer for Jim Henson, or an author of middle-grade horror?


Today I'm delighted to welcome Nancy Gray to my blog. She's the author of the thrilling middle-grade horror Spine Chillers, and I'm sure my sons would have loved her books when they were young. (So would I!). Big Bad Wolf has just come out, with a very cool cover, and you'll find an excerpt lower down this post. But first, please join me in welcoming Nancy, who is now going to tell us ten things about herself, since TEN is a delightfully significant number:

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Nancy Gray


1.      Nancy Gray has been writing for ten years. She has a young adult fantasy trilogy called Blood Rain. The series was inspired by a very strange but true story about a storm raining blood on North Carolina in the 1850s. After reading about this story she had a dream about a blood splattered lighthouse which also compelled her to write. The setting in the beginning of the book was also inspired by the video game Bethesda’s Morrowind.

2.      Nancy Gray has been married for thirteen years. She has two young children. She lives in South Carolina and is partial to cats. Her family comes first over her writing, but she writes whenever she can.

3.      Nancy is a big fan of Japanese animation, or “anime.” She also reads manga. Her favorite series right now is The Ancient Magus Bride because she loves the setting and characters. She is also a fan of Darling in the Franxx but enjoys many different styles, everything from Sailor Moon to Dragon Ball Super.

4.      Nancy is a gamer. She loves table top role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. She is both a game master and a player. She’s written many stories inspired by characters that she’s played, but none of these have been published. Writing character backgrounds is something she enjoys doing in between writing novels.

5.      Nancy Gray is a video game fan. Her favorites are Skyrim, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, and many different Mario games. She also enjoys World of Warcraft and plays it casually whenever possible. (She plays a combination of Alliance and Horde.)

6.      Nancy Gray loves to read. She has read hundreds of books over the years. Her favorite genres are horror, gothic horror, fantasy, steampunk, and urban fantasy. These are also the genres that she prefers to write the most, but she has been known to occasionally try her hand at cyberpunk and the blending of cyberpunk with gothic horror.

7.      Nancy Gray got her start from writing short stories for anthologies. Her short horror story "Hemophobia" was published in 2006 in the short story anthology Courting Morpheus.  This story was written under the pen name "Angela Gray."  Her short horror story "Sleep Like the Dead" appeared in the New Bedlam Project Webzine under her current name “Nancy Gray.”  In 2012 it was put into a compilation of stories from the e-zine called New Bedlam: Town Archives Volume 2. In 2010 her short science fiction story "Marrow" appeared in the anthology Deep Space Terror.  This anthology is a smooth blending of the science fiction and horror genres. In 2014 her short fantasy story "Chosen" appeared in the anthology  Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal Author Quest: a Penguin Special from Grosset & Dunlap.  The anthology consists of the top 5 stories from the Dark Crystal Author Quest Contest.

8.      Nancy Gray went through many phases before she became a writer. She wanted to be an animator for Disney, a puppeteer for the Jim Henson Company, a veterinarian, a marine biologist, an artist, and finally a graphic designer. After much deliberation, she decided to go to the University of South Carolina and acquired a BA in Media Arts and a cognate in English. She got several jobs as a graphic designer but eventually decided to stay at home and pursue her writing career.

9.      Halloween is Nancy Gray’s favorite holiday. She decorates her house thoroughly and dresses in costume every year and throws a very large Halloween Party. Horror movies are played in the living room and the game Rock Band is played in the back of the house. She has a large group of friends that she made in college and usually has a pretty large group of people who attend. (She does throw an annual pot luck Christmas Party as well, with Christmas movies and sometimes Rock Band, but that doesn’t tend to be as wild as it is a religious holiday for her.)


10.  Nancy Gray is an artist and enjoys painting, drawing, and making sculptures from clay. She doesn’t have as much time with her new writing career to pursue these things, but occasionally she still enjoys them. Her favorite place to go is the beach and she generally feels inspired to write, draw, and read when she’s there when isn’t playing in the sand or water with her girls. 

Here are a couple more things about her... including links to find her on the web.

Nancy Gray has published a number of works including her middle grade series Spine Chillers. She also published her YA fantasy series Blood Rain. Her short story “Chosen” appeared in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal Author Quest: a Penguin Special from Grosset & Dunlap. Her work also appears in various anthologies.

Nancy Gray has been writing for over ten years. Gray lives in South Carolina with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys books, video games, anime, manga, and horror.
Her latest book is the mid-grade horror, Spine Chillers: Big Bad Wolf.

WEBSITE & SOCIAL LINKS:

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK


Thank you so much for visiting my blog, Nancy. And now for some more information, as promised, about your book


Jane is ecstatic when she gets the role of Red Riding Hood in her school play, but she didn’t realize that they’d be using the stuffed wolf prop as the Big Bad Wolf. That tattered old prop has always scared her and, lately, she has been having strange dreams about it that make it seem like it’s something more.

Jane will have to get help to save herself from the hungry spirit that has haunted her people and her nightmares before it consumes her, or worse, escapes the prison of the last creature it took to sate its horrible appetite.

ORDER YOUR COPY:

Amazon




Chapter 1 - Casting

            “I can’t believe it!  I got the part!” Jane hopped up and down as she looked over the casting sheet one last time to make sure.

            Her best friend, Sophie, laughed, “I knew you would.”

            “I didn’t think so.  I did awful at the audition.  I tripped over my own feet.”

            “Mrs. Rose knew you were nervous because you wanted it more than everyone else.  You deserve it.”

            Jane sighed. “Are you sure that you have to go on that trip?  I want you to be here to at least see the play.”

            Sophie shrugged. “I know.  But, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen my cousin.  Besides, I like spending time on the farm.”

            “I’ll get my mom to tape the show.  We can watch it when you get back.”

            Sophie smiled. “That’s good.  Then at least I’ll get to see it later.  It should be pretty scary.  Well, I’d better go and you’d better too.  You don’t want to make a bad impression being late on the first day.  Good luck, Red Riding Hood.”

            Jane practically skipped to the stage and lined up with the other students that were chosen for parts.  She glanced down the row and frowned.  Patrick was grinning at her with his squinty green eyes and freckled face.

            She snapped, “What are you so smug about, Patsy?”

            He chuckled. “Well, Janey Jane, Let me guess, you were so excited you didn’t read the rest of the cast sheet, right?”

            Jane looked away, embarrassed. “Well, I didn’t want to be late.”

            He laughed harder. “I’m going to be playing the wolf, Red.”

            She ran a hand down her face and murmered. “I knew it was too good to be true…”

            Mrs. Rose walked up to the stage and handed out the scripts to the row of excited students.  Everyone sat down and began to page through their individual copies.  Patrick glanced at Jane with an infuriating grin, but she simply rolled her eyes at him one last time and then moved back to avoid looking in his direction again. 

            Mrs. Rose walked in front of them and said, “First of all, congratulations on all of your parts.  Since this is a Halloween play, I chose the rolls based on who could portray their parts in a suitably ominous way.  Remember, these are fractured fairy tales, so nothing is supposed to end well.  And, the common element in all of them will be the big, bad wolf.”

            Patrick stood up and gave a quick bow.

            Jane thought, “Show off…

            Mrs. Rose continued, “The main theme is Little Red Riding Hood, but as you can see, there will be elements from other stories incorporated.  While she’s going to grandma’s house, she’ll run into Snow White being chased by the woodsman, and themes from other stories as well, as she continues to get lost further and further in the woods.”

            A kid with round glasses and unruly hair spoke up. “Can I play with different colors of lighting depending on the fairy tale?  And can I use strobe effects?”

            “Well, probably no strobe effects.  We wouldn’t want anyone in the audience to have a seizure.  Still, I think different colors according to the story would be excellent.  Everyone, this is Kyle.  He just joined the club as our lead technician.” 

A few people clapped, but Jane clapped a little more than the others. “Thank goodness, someone finally volunteered to be techie, instead of all the backstage work being done by someone who didn’t get a part.  The lighting might actually be good this year. 

Kyle was in a few of her classes, but she never really talked to him.  He didn’t seem the type to be interested in the Drama Club.  He was always playing with his laptop or some kind of electronic device. 

            Patrick whispered in her direction, “I think someone’s in love.”

            Jane whispered back, “Bite me, Patsy.”

            Patrick said, “Maybe I will…AWOOOO!”

            Mrs. Rose tapped her foot impatiently. “Save it for the rehearsal, Patrick.”

            They both muttered an apology and quickly looked at the ground.

            “As you know, we don’t have a good budget this year, so I want all of you to look for old costumes and props that we can reuse.  The basement under the stage is a good place to start, as well as the various trunks backstage.  I believe, if we can get it working, the stuffed wolf would make a great prop too.  There should even be a speaker inside of it from our last play.  Kyle, see if you can reconnect it.”

            “Okay.  It should be pretty easy.”

            “Jane, you go with Kyle and show him the ropes.”

            She nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Rose.”





 







 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

How do you make time for serious reading?

So much to do. So much to catch up on. So much to prepare for things to look forward to. So much... and so many books to read. So how do you make time (or find time) for serious reading?

My recent technique has been to read and walk while waiting. While the kettle boils, while the microwave turns, while the timer ticks on the oven... while I wait for the washing to finish, or search for the missing sock (yes, I can read while searching for socks - I pace and my pacing takes me somewhere real or imaginary. If real, find sock. If imaginary, turn the page). I read when I have to go out in five minutes, or when I've got back but haven't quite got the energy yet to put the shopping away. I read while my husband shaves or puts on his shoes. I read when he's not yet ready to leave for work, but I still want to be there to see him leave. (Read, and walk from kitchen to dining room and back, and back, and back.) I read while getting dizzy, but practice has taught me to walk my circles in opposite directions from time to time. (I still read forward though, never looking at the back page of the book until I get there.) And still I read. So... how do you make time (or find time) for serious reading?

Of course, there could always be the problem of forgetting what's happening in the book (or in the real world--that's another story). But I'm talking serious reading here. The sort of reading that carries you away, far into a different time or place, to a different mind. Just a sentence or two sets the bells ringing for magic and flies you "home." I love to read!

And here are some reviews of much-loved books that I've read recently. All highly recommended.

First is The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton, a long and beautiful book, with absorbingly detailed descriptions, hauntingly real characters, disturbing and somehow healing situations, and powerful wisdom. Set in the not so distant past, in a coal-mining town where mountains and glorious valleys can be gone in the passing of greed, the novel parallels the destruction of land with the destruction of human lives and values. A coming of age tale for every age, and a beautiful book, it's one to enjoy with some seriously rich, elegant four-star coffee.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman reveals its protagonist in its title--a woman who clearly is not completely fine, but who functions well in her own little niche in the workplace, offending by accident and never quite understanding the alien behavior of social human beings. Her voice and her thoughts are perfectly portrayed, made almost completely fine. And her gradual recognition of who she is and how she might change is convincing--haunting too. A pleasing novel, both humorous and serious, it's another one to enjoy with some more elegant four-star coffee.

Can you believe I hadn't read The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx until recently? Definitely a book that takes you to a different place, deep into the minds of different characters, and deep into your own mind too. Filled with curiously intertwined relationships, memories and hopes, life and death, it's a beautiful novel of many-splendored love. More elegant four-star coffee please.

Stoneheart by Baer Charlton is another novel filled with multiple characters and multiple needs. It's another novel that brings time and place to life - this time the recent past, and the place; that strange America which seems to alien to a soldier returned from war. Most especially, there's a place in Oregon, and a hope in humanity. A novel rich with heart and soul, to be enjoyed with rich four-star coffee.

The protagonist in The Kortelisy Escape by Leonard Rosen also enters a world much changed from the one he knew. Imprisoned, but not necessarily guilty; freed, but not necessarily free; caring for a granddaughter whose coming of age parallels his path to redemption, his escape might be from past of present. But he's a stage magician, and surely magic will find a way. Vividly recreating stage magic (and explaining it), teaching the power of story to hide and to tell, and weaving through webs of betrayal to an exciting, enthralling climax, it's a powerful story to remember and enjoy with four-star powerfully flavored coffee.

Another ex-prisoner is the protagonist of Lowdown by Anthony Schneider,  a novel that explores the mob, the depths of Brooklyn, the heights of Sicily, and the hopes of memory in a world that's changed. Jailed for 25 years, released to uncertainty, and glad just to see the sun, Jimmy Piccini remembers the past, survives the present and dreams to redeem the future. Enjoy this complex and evocative tale with some more complex four-star coffee.

In Deep Breathing by G Davies Jandrey, the reader is transported to borders and a woman who knows many worlds. A wheelchair bound protagonist; a homeless woman seeking custody of her child; a fence that separates peoples and places, giving and denying hope; a bag of karma tea, and a scarily personal threat all come together, vividly and hauntingly depicted in a tale that's both bleak and wonderfully satisfying and hopeful. Enjoy with more four-star complex coffee! (But you might have to wait until it comes out!

And finally, there's A Cat in Time by Christopher McPherson, a beautiful combination of historical novel, animal fiction, parable, and even scifi! Like a linked set of short stories, all centering on a beautiful tail-less cat, the collection forms a jigsaw of cat lives, and a beautiful read to enjoy with more four-star coffee.





Friday, September 7, 2018

How dark is dark?


Darkest Before Dawn is the newest book in the Sergeant Windflower series, written by Canadian author Mike Martin, and coming soon... Since I'm hooked on mysteries set in different places, I just thought I'd give it a shout-out.



Darkest Before the Dawn by Mike Martin, Mystery, 280 pp.



Title: DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN
Author: Mike Martin
Publisher: Ottawa Press and Publishing
Pages: 280
Genre: Mystery


Darkest Before the Dawn is the latest adventure of Sgt. Winston Windflower, a Mountie who finds himself surrounded by a new family and a new life in tiny Grand Bank, Newfoundland. There are signs of trouble that may disturb his pleasant life, including a series of unsolved break-ins and the lack of supports for young people in the most trying time of their lives. But there are always good friends, good food and the sense that if we all pull together, we can find a way to get through even the darkest days.

Ghosts, mysterious deaths, and a new character enliven the pages as Windflower and Tizzard and the other police officers awaken the secrets that have been lying dormant in this sleepy little town. The deeper they dig the more they find as the criminals they seek dive deeper behind the curtains of anonymity and technology. But more than anything, this is a story of love and loss, of growing up and learning how to grow old gracefully. It is also about family and community and looking after each other. Of not giving up hope just before the dawn.


Mike Martin was born in Newfoundland on the East Coast of Canada and now lives and works in Ottawa, Ontario. He is a long-time freelance writer and his articles and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online across Canada as well as in the United States and New Zealand. He is the author of Change the Things You Can: Dealing with Difficult People and has written a number of short stories that have published in various publications including Canadian Stories and Downhome magazine.

The Walker on the Cape was his first full fiction book and the premiere of the Sgt. Windflower Mystery Series. Other books in the series include The Body on the T, Beneath the Surface, A Twist of Fortune and A Long Ways from Home, which was shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Light Mystery Award as the best light mystery of the year. A Tangled Web was released in 2017 and the newest book in the series.is Darkest Before the Dawn.

WEBSITE & SOCIAL LINKS:

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK



 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Is Cleveland cursed? Myths, Legends and Numbers

Today I'm delighted to welcome author Marty Roppelt to my blog with a game of myth, legends and numbers - that seems to hit most of my favorite things, though I must admit, I'm English--baseball will never be my game! However, you're welcome to try to convert me, Marty.

MORTAL FOE'S GAME OF MYTH, LEGEND AND NUMBERS



The novel Mortal Foe has the game of baseball as one of its themes. The game might turn some potential readers off. I can understand that.

It's been said that baseball is a game of numbers. Anyone listening to a radio broadcast of a Major League game would be hard-pressed to argue. Announcers often make the game seem like a deluge of statistics interrupted every now and then by some action. As if that wasn't enough, every once in a while a new statistic is created. Players' performances are measured by numbers, then compared to other players' numbers.

A new or casual follower of the game can go numb in a hurry.

But there's much more to baseball than the statistics. Pardon the blaspheme, hardcore fans.

When I was a kid, I was more interested in the rich history of the game, the stories, the legends and the myths. And there were plenty. That was the area in which some of the numbers meant something to me. I didn't care to compare levels of mediocrity—and believe me, growing up in Cleveland in the 1970's meant watching a lot of mediocre baseball. If one was lucky. No, I was struck by how some of the numbers elevated certain players to legendary status.

Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees played in 2,130 consecutive games. Think about that. It wasn't that he was never injured, or never sick. For 17 seasons he played through every ding and dent. What got him in the end is what killed him: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neuromuscular disease named after him. His record stood for 56 years. That's how tough it is to do what he did.

Gehrig's teammate, the larger-than-life Babe Ruth, struck out 1,330 times. But he also hit 714 home runs. What a testament to sticking to it! One of my favorite Ruthian legends is the Called Shot in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. With two strikes on him, Ruth stepped out of the batters box and pointed toward center field. He later claimed he said he would hit the next one past the flag pole. Others refute the claim. No one knows for sure whether he actually called the shot. We only know that was where he hit the ball. Home run. What a great story!

Ruth was at the center of a myth, too. He started out playing for the Boston Red Sox, as a dominating pitcher. By 1918 Ruth had helped the Red Sox win two World Series. In winter of 1919 his contract was sold to the New York Yankees. The Red Sox didn't win another Series until 2004, 86 years later.

Of course, the Curse of the Bambino ignores the fact Ruth was still in Boston in the summer of 1919, and the Sox finished the season in 6th place.

Let's not forget the Chicago Cubs' myth. Chicago went to the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. A man named William Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, got his pet goat, Murphy, into the stands for Game 4. The goat's smell bothered other fans, and Sianis and Murphy were asked to leave. Sianis supposedly cursed the Cubs, saying "They ain't gonna win no more."

The Cubs lost that Series, and didn't win another for 71 years despite numerous opportunities. But they already hadn't won since 1908. No curse was claimed for the earlier 36 seasons.

Researching these curses made me wonder about my hometown team, the Cleveland Indians. They last won a World Series in 1948. But no one has come up with a colorful curse for their 69 year drought. I toyed with these ideas myself, both the lack of a curse and a paranormal possibility.

The result is the novel, Mortal Foe.

Thank you Marty, and yes, you have now ignited my curiosity. I shall now read the book blurb, watch the video, and settle down with coffee and an excerpt!



A picture is worth a thousand words… But what if that image can only be seen through the lens of one camera? What is the snapshot can only be seen by a select few? What if the photo has its origins in the pit of Hell? What is that face belongs to an enemy bent on destruction? This is Buddy Cullen’s fate when he first dreams of his grandfather’s death and then inherits his grandfather’s antique camera and captures an image that haunts him and seeks his death. Can Buddy survive the curse that he sarcastically dubs “Popcorn”—a curse that no one wants to believe exists and stalks the city of Cleveland, beginning with its baseball team—a mortal foe?

ORDER YOUR COPY:

Amazon


Marty Roppelt was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His original profession was acting on stage, in local commercials and training films and in film. This means that he has experienced life through a wide variety of day and night jobs, from barista to waiter and bartender to security guard, amongst many others. He lives in Illinois with his wife, Becky, and their eccentric cat, Fritz.
Mortal Foe is his debut novel.

WEBSITE & SOCIAL LINKS:

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK




Excerpt:

My eyes snap open wide.

A shadow faces me from beyond the foot of my bed. I shiver, holding my breath. The tall, bulky intruder seems oblivious. My sleep-hazy mind tells me to lie still. I'll make myself smaller that way, so the invader won't see me.
I'm making myself small…
My brain stirs slowly. A minute passes, then a few more. My eyes take their time adjusting to the darkness. Across the room, the sinister hulk takes the shape of my antique cherry-wood armoire.
My girlfriend, Kelly, lies next to me, undisturbed. She faces away. Her chest rises and falls with each breath, her body radiating warmth.
I don't move. Dread still freezes me in place. A voice in my head, my own voice, whispers a warning to me. The warning is so primal it would wear a bearskin if it had a life of its own.
Don't show the darkness any fear, any weakness.
A familiar neon green beacon, my alarm clock, demands my attention. A quarter past midnight. The glow helps me shake off the drowsy panic. My eyes scan familiar, dark shapes around me—the armoire, the dresser, the doors to my closet and to the hallway, the rumpled down comforter covering my girlfriend.
Despite the need for rest, my eyes won't stay closed. This irritates me. The frustration of not being able to sleep keeps me awake even longer. I can deal with the frustration. But I can't shake this sense of dread.
A dream. Just a weird, stupid dream.
The clock's digits change without remorse, mocking and exasperating me. Twelve forty-seven, eight, nine… Tomorrow won't be good. I risk coming off like a yawning zombie. Twelve fifty-five… I consider pummeling my pillow. My legs swing out of bed instead. The cold of the hardwood floor against my bare feet chases away the last of my drowsiness.
I amble into the kitchen. Sitting in silence in its cradle on the kitchen counter is my cordless phone. My eyes lock on the handset. An urge brews up to call someone close to me, but who should I call? My mom, my dad? Neither of them would answer at his hour, for different reasons, and neither should, of course. Now I expect the phone cradle to light up and ring, as my roused senses try to decipher the dream that woke me, that somehow signaled to me something is wrong…
A dream has me waiting at a ridiculous hour for a phone call from someone in my family.
I grumble to myself. "This is nuts."
The opened refrigerator bathes me in a sudden glare. Unguided hands fumble past paper bags and Styrofoam containers of restaurant leftovers. I finally find a bottle of beer. My fingers close around the long neck, I twist off the cap, and take a swig. The light cord of the ceiling fan dangles near my head. I ignore it. Something about the darkness is important. Not comforting, but…
But what?
Raising a cigarette to my lips, I open the window a few inches, then sit at the table. My old Zippo lighter's top pops open with a metallic clink, the flint makes a quick, scraping rasp, and the flame whooshes to life. I cringe. Did the noises rouse my neighbors from their own troubled sleep?
My gaze wanders past the flame.
Don't show the darkness any fear.
Darkness dominated the kitchen only a moment ago. This flame, this puny, solitary sliver of light defeats the darkness. My Zippo can't signal ships at sea. My 'fridge probably could. Both lights can expose shadowy shapes, however, and the night cannot overcome either light. The only thing that can extinguish the light is me.
Don't show it any weakness.
I light my cigarette and kill the glow of the Zippo.
"Join you?" A voice, half-awake, issues from the doorway behind me. I hope I didn't jump too high.
"Sure. Beer?"
"No. You can fire up a smoke for me, though. Thanks."
Kelly glides past. A wisp of vanilla, musk and flowers, Chantilly, her favorite perfume, follows her. She sits opposite me and takes the lit cigarette I offer. "Should I turn on the light?"
"If you like."
She keeps her seat, apparently liking the darkness better.
I jerk my chin toward the open window. "You want me to turn the heat up?"
"I've got my robe on."
I chuckle. My own total nakedness doesn't concern me. Kelly, on the other hand, wears her gauzy emerald green "robe" only, untied. She might as well be naked, too. I understand, of course. The sheer silk garment's function was never to keep the wearer warm, but to light a fire in someone else.
Kelly toys with her cigarette, rolling it between her thumb and fingers. "Worried about tomorrow?"
"About my department head? He's audited my classes before."
"So, why the stress?"
"Im that transparent?"
Her laugh drips playful sarcasm. "You light up every hour and a half when you're awake. You only smoke more at a bar, when you're bored, or when you're stressed. We're not at a bar. And when I do things right you're definitely not bored." She leans over the table. Her lips pucker into her best Marilyn Monroe pout. "Didn't I do things right tonight?"
"Oh, yeah."
Several hours ago, Kelly left her Downtown Cleveland office after work to meet me at an upscale bistro on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River. A glass each of Chianti Classico turned into a whole bottle. She asked after glass three if I could spend the night with her. I toyed with the idea. After a few minutes, though, I finally decided to beg off.
But Kelly doesn't often take long to get what she wants from me. Tonight was no exception. The wine shot straight to my head. The low lights hid the dainty foot that nudged and rubbed my calf under the table. The aromas of Italian cooking mingled with Chantilly in an irresistible wave of sensuality. We passed on dessert. Kelly promised something much more stimulating at my apartment.
Now she sits back in triumph, blowing two perfect smoke rings toward the ceiling. "So, this is stress."
"Yes and no," I mumble.
"Nightmare?"
"Yeah."
"I'm surprised."
"Why?"
"It's just a dream. You're a bright college professor…"
"Journalism, not psychology. Who said I put stock in that stuff, anyway? I woke up, that's all."
"What did you dream about?"
"Funny. Now that I'm awake, I don't remember much."
Why did I just lie to her?
The truth is I remember every detail. The odd nightmare burned itself into my consciousness like a glowing cattle brand.
In the nightmare, my grandfather, photographer Jimmy Cullen, pulled a photo print off the wire that runs the length of his basement darkroom. Grandpop—I've always called him that—held the photo as far from his face as possible. His eyes widened. His ruddy complexion drained of all color. His lips quivered. He acted as if he'd been handed a live hand grenade.
"Grandpop?" My tongue lolled in my mouth with Novocained sluggishness. "What is it?"
 A sudden wind blew. Dried fallen leaves scraped across the pavement outside. Our heads snapped in unison toward the sound. The basement's bare cinderblock walls gave the place a fortress's ambiance, but they didn't blot out the rattle of dead leaves. Grandpop stared for a long moment. He froze as if expecting the walls to give way to the leaves, or to worse. The still house seemed to invite the whispery sounds of death inside and embrace them.
Grandpop spoke. But like a badly dubbed foreign movie, the words his mouth formed didn't match the words that came out. "Alone tonight… Darn it, Maureen… doggone kids' Halloween dance…"
Grandpop plopped down on a tall stool at his work table, exhausted by his outburst. A complaint? The words, the whining and grousing, were out of character. I had no response for him, which is also unlike me.
"No Grandma?" Invisible marbles rolled around inside my mouth.
Grandpop blinked hard, jumping as though he'd been electrically shocked. He jammed the print into a large manila envelope that already bulged with something else inside. The package bore a number written in green ink: nine-eight-five-nine.
Grandpop rose from his stool, a barstool I recognized from my dad's Downtown tavern. He strode toward the walk-in closet at the back of the darkroom. He muttered at the envelope as he passed me.
"Caught you again, didn't I?"
"Caught who?" My voice changed. I sounded like a Munchkin from Oz.
Grandpop disappeared into the closet, leaving me in the darkroom alone. I couldn't bring myself to move. My curiosity was the kind a child suffers when he's told never, ever to do a certain thing. The curious kid in me wanted to see what was going on. The adult in me feared for life and limb. My fear rooted me to the spot.
A "pop" and loss of light announced the death of one of the darkroom's two light bulbs.
"I don't spook so easily," Grandpop hollered.
A car cruised up the driveway. The engine's hum filtered through the fortress walls. The side door to the kitchen creaked open and banged closed.
We were no longer alone.
My heart raced, my joints froze. I wanted to run. My muscles fought against me. Stark terror turned my feet to lead. Footsteps headed our way from the basement stairs.
"Jimmy?" my grandmother, Maureen, called.
My heart slowed but I still couldn't move, despite my relief.
Grandpop met Grandma in the doorway and gave her a peck on the cheek.
"How's my Lass?"
"Missed you." She scrunched her face into a silly expression, a kind of mock pout, uncharacteristic for her. "Atlanta? The Series?"
"Too much traffic. The Indians lost. Missed you, too."
They held each other, their embrace a subtle dance. The surviving forty-watt bulb above us threw weird shadows into the corners of the darkroom. The sounds of our breathing, and the scraping, rustling leaves grew louder in the otherwise silent murk.
Grandma pulled away, cackling. "Cup of hot chocolate and a ghost story for you?"
I almost laughed out loud at her bizarre behavior.
"Nah," Grandpop said.
"I'm going to bed."
Grandpop answered in a melodramatic, fearful tone. "Just a couple more things to do. Then we'll be together again."
His stony expression was the lawyer's before a murder trial, or the soldier's on his way to deadly combat. His demeanor only made his words to Grandma more jarring, more frightful to me.
They kissed. Grandma wheeled and left the darkroom. We heard the groan of well-worn wooden stairs, first to the kitchen, then further above to the bedroom of their old colonial-style home. Grandpop settled again on his stool. He reached across his work table for his Kodak Medalist 620, the camera he used since his enlistment in the Navy two generations ago.
Every once in a while, a dream becomes so surreal that, despite still being asleep, some distant part of the brain announces "This is a dream!" I remember the exact moment, a sort of "out-of-body" experience. I became Grandpop. I sat on his stool and held his camera, but I was still an observer, too, watching myself play his part. I gripped the antique as if shaking a frail old friend's hand. This friend accompanied me—him—through everything from the best of times to the most harrowing hell.
No more experiences would be shared and captured on film. A hot, sharp pain ripped up my left arm. A giant fist squeezed my chest and I gasped in vain for breath. My mind raced away from the Medalist 620 to my grandmother lying in bed, likely dozing while trying to read a book. She would wake, sensing Grandpop was still in the house, and yet gone. She would find him here later. Sadness engulfed me.
I'm sorry, Lass…
I slumped to the work table. As Grandpop, I wanted my last thoughts on earth to be of Grandma, to take the memory of my gentle, devoted wife's face with me on my way to meet God. But my last glance caught a shadow that was not Grandma's, moving toward me from beyond the darkroom doorway.
Then I woke to the strange shadow at the foot of my bed…
"Yeah, I've had that happen before. It's so frustrating."
Kelly's voice, from behind the glowing cigarette tip, jars me back to the waking present. I shake the nightmare out of my head.
"Had what happen?"
"Dreamed something and then forgotten it only a couple of minutes after waking up. Frustrating."
"Yeah."
Kelly takes a drag from the cigarette and stabs the ash tray with it. She shoves her chair aside, composes herself, and glides back around the table, tracing her finger up my bare arm. Her nail scratches a light reddish trail on my skin.
"Know the best way to get rid of frustration, Buddy Cullen?"
"Tell me."
"Showing's better than telling."
I crush my own cigarette out and glance at the phone. Nothing happens, of course. The phone's not going to ring tonight. Not for this. I rise and lay foolish superstition aside. A colleague at Case Western Reserve University, a science professor, once assured me that to attach meaning to dreams is unscientific, a bogus exercise. Dreams, he theorized, might be nothing more than a mash of random thoughts and memories.
Kelly breezes ahead of me, tugging me by my hand. Her urgency mounts. My gaze consumes her. The wispy robe caresses her perfect form. Her cat-graceful step entrances me. She pirouettes, sits on the edge of the bed, and leans back, pulling me down toward her.
Ghosts and demons and other unexplainable things lose their fascination. I lie far less gracefully beside Kelly. Her lips explore the base of my neck, but I still keep one ear cocked toward the phone. She nips lightly at my ear lobe, with a deep-throated chuckle. In a few short moments, she commands my full attention…
The phone rings. I gasp, irritated by the interruption. I'm dismayed, too. I know what the call is about.
"I have to get that."
"No, you don't." Kelly tangles her fingers in my hair and pulls my face back down toward hers. "That's why God gave us answering machines."
I'm conflicted, keyed up but powerless, able to break free but unwilling to try. The machine answers the call, the phone stops ringing. I feel Kelly's smile in the darkness as her lips brush against mine. I lose myself in her, lose every part of myself.
Every part, that is, except the faraway corner of my mind that wonders if Grandma just woke from the same nightmare, and found Grandpop dead in his darkroom.



 







 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Looking for some female protagonists?

Sometimes I feel like a bit-player in my life, as events outside my control rock the boat and threaten to engulf me. Maybe that's why I like to read at least a few novels with powerful female protagonists, just to remind myself I can steer the ship. (In fact, the protagonist in one of these novels is a pirate captain, more surely steering her own vessel!) And maybe it's why, as a child, I despaired of "girl's books" and devoured all my brothers' books instead, all the while telling myself stories where girls had just the same adventures as all those heroic guys. Anyway, here are some reviews of books I've read recently with female protagonists. If nothing else, posting the reviews is something under my control--it will distract me from the many things that aren't.

First is Stranger in Town by Cheryl Bradshaw. Fourth in a mystery series, it reads well as a standalone novel about a private investigator in Utah/Wyoming, chasing after the case of a missing child. Lots of statistics feed the reader's fears in this novel. But the author offers wholesome characters and promises a good outcome, one way or another. Enjoy the balance of fact and fictional mystery with some well-balanced three-star coffee.

Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann is another mystery with a female PI lead. This one's set around Chicago's North Shore where a group of young women take fitting in, buying the right clothes, and enjoying their freedom just a little too far. Meanwhile there's society's insistence that those who don't fit in must be dangerous. This novel's dangers are dark and well disguised. Enjoy some dark five-star coffee while you read.

Aaron Paul Lazar's The Asylum will be released in the Love Under Fire collection in November. It stars a feisty female protagonist who's determined to bounce back from losing her job and her boyfriend. Then she's determined to solve the mystery behind her new employment. Meanwhile she hangs out with a wonderfully large Mexican-American family, eats great food, and entices readers to enjoy all the delights of the Maine coast. Enjoy with some well-balanced three-star coffee.

Then there's Cats’ Eyes by Mollie Hunt, in which a fifty-something-year-old female protagonist, with many cats, is beset by trials and tribulations solving the mystery of a diamond theft. The cats are great, as is the voice. Enjoy with some easy-drinking two-star coffee.

Not all female protagonists have to be PIs or solve mysteries of course. As promised, the heroine of Ivory Dawn and Demons and Pearls by P. S. Bartlett is a pirate captain, though she's just a teenager looking after her cousins when we first meet her. The stories have a breathless haste about them, and plenty of action and adventure. Enjoy with some lively easy-drinking two-star coffee.

The star of Amie: African Adventure by Lucinda E Clarke is a rather too everyday English woman, reluctantly persuaded to go with her husband on an African assignment. Well-researched and detailed, the story gives a very clear view of life in Africa, offering readers insight into very different points of view. But there's an overarching threat which turns information into terror as the story progresses. Enjoy with some seriously dark five-star coffee.

In contrast, the heroines of Algorithm of Power by Pedro Barrento (there are several, as the book takes place over different centuries) are well-educated, intelligent women of a future-history world. The author invites readers into his world first, revealing its future history later in a well-timed middle part. Blending clever science fiction with myth and interpretation, adding great characters and intriguing mystery, and tying it all together with cruel coincidence, he creates a fascinating novel of strange possibilities. Enjoy these dark tales with some dark five-star coffee.

Finally, the protagonist of A Reflection of Sophie Beaumont by L. M. Barrett may not really be a hero, but she's a mystery waiting to be understood, after being found dead by her loving husband. It's a truly dark tale, with the promise that control maybe isn't what we should be looking for. Dark five-star coffee is definitely the choice to go with this.

And dark five-star coffee is what I need to brew to keep me awake to the end of the day. Enjoy reading!