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Not Only Dragons

Since the late 2015 publication of my first novel, Malevir: Dragons Return, my readers assume I write only fantasy fiction. They are correct in part. That novel is long, brimming with dragons, magical creatures, hard-slogging medieval-ish peasantry, and a nasty if changeable villain. In the recently completed first draft of its sequel, Where Dragons Follow, I’ve narrowed the field of characters and focused on a very few dragons. The old villain returns, albeit immaterial, to wreak havoc.

I said the reader would be correct ‘in part,’ because I am also the published author of many short stories, in After Hours (print), bewilderingstories.com, http://www.horrorseek.com/home/horror/darkfire/ficarch.html, http://www.fictitiousthejournal.org/, and the Fall Fantasy Anthology out of Cloaked Press in Autumn, 2017.

Inspired in different ways by writers Karen Russell and Mavis Gallant, I have crafted stories that explore death, obsession, and twists of fate. Russell’s work encourages me to dive into surrealism. Gallant’s stories insist on penetrating character studies sculpted with an elegant pen.

The Malevir series will finish with a third volume. It will reveal the true nature of its mysterious and sad, vengeful villain. Stay tuned.

Aurykk portrait (2016_05_22 17_23_45 UTC)

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Layers of Time, Paint, and Stories

Decades ago, we bought a yellow frame house on a narrow suburban lot. After living there about five years, we decided to remodel its antiquated and inefficient kitchen. On Day One, workmen invaded the space. They ripped out appliances, cabinetry, and flooring.house They attacked the walls and removed layer after layer of painted-over wallpapers. They stopped when they reached the room’s original painted walls from the late 1890’s.

After the workmen left that day, we parted plastic sheets separating our dining room from the project to enter the stripped kitchen and inspect the naked space. We could not miss markings scrawled across the middle of one wall. In block letters resembling the work of my left, non-dominant hand was one sentence written in soft pencil: “Amy was here.”

Who was Amy and what was her connection to this space 60 or more years earlier? Maybe she was a young girl anxious to be re-discovered in the next century, or a housemaid? A mischievous brother hoping his prank would win Amy a parental scolding? Or did a sad woman want to leave her mark before new owners took possession of her beloved home? In the basement, we found an early telephone directory listing the first owner, a man in advertising. If only we’d found other artifacts, we might have had more answers, a sort of prologue to our occupation of the same premises.

As the kitchen designer’s crew worked over the next two weeks, I forgot about Amy, her words buried under fresh layers of Kilz primer and semi-gloss paint. New appliances and a hefty butcher block table encouraged creative cooking, not research into the house’s history. Less than a year later, attracted by the spaciousness and possibilities of an urban loft, we moved away.

I remembered our mysterious kitchen discovery when I read Rebecca Makkai’s novel, The Hundred-Year House, which unfolds through layers of time, paint, and characters. Structured in four parts retreating in time, the novel ends with a prologue supplying not an introduction—it is, after all, the last not first part of the book—but a validation of my hunches concerning the old house’s inhabitants and their relationships. Fantastic and gratifyingly surprising plot twists in each part carry the reader ever closer to the narrative’s moving and sympathetic “ah-ha” moment.

Makkai is a superb wordsmith, crafting unforgettable, sometimes baffling, but always compelling characters and vivid settings. For example, early in the story, the work of a minor poet appears as the thesis project of Doug, an academic wannabe and an important character in Part One.  Like a leitmotif, the poet’s writing and persona reappear episodically, with puzzling, increasing frequency. Part Three supplies the crescendo in this clever orchestration of details.

The narrative appealed to me, especially because of its assumption that the arts persist as an essential, indeed necessary, expression of our human complexity. Through layers of inner monologues, misdirected or misinterpreted conversations, and the evolution of a mansion and its outbuildings through several generations, The Hundred-Year House transports the reader into a realm rich in conflict and creativity.

Review: Murder in Absentia

Although I have been reading mostly non-fiction these days, I encountered the author of Murder in Absentia online through a Facebook indie writers’ group and decided to read his murder mystery. His work’s unusual setting and well-drawn characters intrigued me, so I read it, liked it and wrote this review for Goodreads.

“Assaph Mehr’s Murder in Absentia takes place in a fantasy offshoot of ancient Rome. It borrows artifacts and settings from different periods in Roman history and seasons them with the knowledge and application of magic unknown to the republic and empire fans have known and possibly love. The murder mystery driving this narrative involves a rebellious cult, or so the super sleuth Felix the Fox thinks as he pursues clues along the coast of Mehr’s creation, Nuremata. Mehr, has a deep and abiding interest in ancient Rome. It shows. Contrary to the opinion of a few other reviewers, I enjoyed all the cultural and societal details informing the story and, most of all, I liked the work’s architectural mise en place, the sense that all the ingredients were ready and the reader entered a well-constructed work strengthened by all its details. And I liked the feel of experiencing a variety of built environments with a strong sense of place.  When I think of Rome, I imagine imperial palaces and public spaces. Murder in Absentia invites the reader into such a realm and transports her securely until the final page.”

Lost and Found and Lost

Lost and Found and Lost

Duck and Cover

These days we think we know better. We realize there is no place to hide from a nuclear holocaust. I use the word ‘holocaust,’ meaning ‘burnt offerings,’ because that would be our role in a conflagration of nuclear missile-head strikes. We would be martyrs with no future generations left to appreciate our performance.

When I was in grade school, I assumed adults in my life had confidence we could survive a nuclear war. Strategies promoted by Civil Defense would preserve a significant remnant of humanity. We as a species would carry on and maintain the flame dedicated to the memory of martyrs killed in such a war. Of course, my family and I would be among the living.

As an adult, I have lost my naiveté. In its place, I have found rosy cynicism, ‘rosy,’ because not all nations are eager to self-destruct, which provides a minimum of comfort, and ‘cynicism,’ because much of what claims to be policy is bluster. I want to find relief from fear-mongers who trade in ignorance and anxiety.

Nevertheless, persistent little fears, insinuating like hookworms into my life, have found me. Not that we were unafraid in the nineteen-fifties. In school, the staff had us practice air raid drills. The premise was scary, but I looked forward to the drills. They interrupted lessons. Often, we would leave the classroom, ostensibly to escape anticipated flying window glass, and thus we’d have a break from routine.

We experienced two kinds of drills. One, I assume, served in the event of a surprise attack. It was called, ‘Duck and Cover.’ At our teacher’s signal, which I cannot recall, we huddled under our desks. Picture them arranged in stern rows, thirty-six wooden desks attached to a splintery wood floor. Under my desk, embellished with ancient scratches, names, and airplanes carved into its surface, were marbleized wads of chewing gum. The floor was dirty   and my skirt would catch on the floor boards. I would kneel under the desk, my arms crossed over the back of my lowered head, chin resting on my knees. After a few minutes, the PA system would sound an all-clear. I’d pull myself up, brush off my clothes, and take my seat. No chit-chat allowed.

The second kind of drill at first intimidated me and some of my classmates, although we could depend on a small group of boys who used the occasion to joke, pass gas, and trip girls. My teacher was so serious; maybe we weren’t pretending after all.

The school principal’s voice would announce an internal evacuation over the P.A. system. We were to follow our teachers in a single-file line through the school corridors to our pre-assigned shelter area.

Giggling and poking each other’s fifth-grade bodies, we formed a line and shuffled into the school’s grimy tan and grey-green hallways. We walked downstairs two flights and leaned against a row of lockers.

“Down,” barked Mrs. Brown, my teacher. “Duck and cover. No talking.” I slid to the floor, my shoes’ rubber heels squeaking against a locker as I sank. Crouched, knees drawn up to my chest, I breathed into my lap.

How I wanted to peek. I didn’t. Mrs. Brown sent me to the principal’s office earlier in the school year for a petty infraction. I didn’t want to experience that humiliation again.

We waited. The giggling stopped. Now every breath was audible, every cold-in-the nose, snorting, sighing, whimpering, asthmatic breath. In silence punctuated by coughs and wheezing, I thought, maybe Russian planes really were heading to Chicago to drop a bomb on us.

Mrs. Brown walked by in her heavy, sensible, thick-heeled shoes. Click-clack, click-clack. I thought, wouldn’t she be ducking and covering, too, if a bomb was about to fall on us?

I peeked. She was laughing and chatting with two other teachers. I relaxed. We were going to be ok—at least, that’s what I believed then.

More news sources available to me than I can count on my fingers provide a confounding and long list of contemporary threats. To face them, I no longer can summon my fifth-grader naiveté. The media might be exaggerating the seriousness of current confrontations between nation leaders with access to nuclear weapons, but I can’t dismiss the threats as easily as I did in my childhood. These days, I  mourn losing the comforting lie of Duck and Cover, but I do ‘know better’ now.  I know that working for peace and understanding is smarter than hiding under a desk.

Review: Conversation in Sicily by Elio Vittorini

“What is a man?” Vittorini asks. Downright depressed and unhappy with his life and work in a northern Italian megalopolis seems to be the answer as the narrative begins. The narrator’s impromptu return to his native Sicilian hamlet, 15 years after his departure, begins a series of conversations with sharply defined characters he meets along the way and in his home town. Each successive interaction with people as varied as fellow travelers on a train heading south, his mother, or the ghost of his brother, forces the narrator (in an end note Vittorini asserts the book is not autobiographical) to deal with his anomie and face his demons.

Review-The Last Days of Magic

Mark Tompkins as crafted a dynamic exploration of the latter days of magical energy in Eire. Although Tompkins introduces many characters with unfamiliar names, Celtic and otherwise, they remain vivid, psychologically compelling, and essential to the narrative. His list of magical creatures is long. I’d like to know if Tompkins invented their attributes, perhaps based on myths and legends.
The clever prologue and epilogue pull the reader into the narrative and leave her hoping for other tales, especially about his contemporary character, Sara Hill. We assume Sara’s magical heritage will inform her life in interesting ways.
The novel is definitely adult fantasy. Graphic sex and violence, lots of chopping, piercing, and disemboweling make this less of an appropriate choice for kids under 14. I’m well past that young age, yet those descriptive passages are sometimes hard to stomach, as it were.

But the fourteenth century in the British Isles and France was violent and fraught with conflict. So totally unlike our own (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

 

Fantasy Genre Tropes Galore!

A mild satire inspired by Pulver and Burke’s list of fantasy novel tropes and clichés

“And just what qualifies you?” the Priest of the Pram gods asked.

“We’re short, for one thing,” the half-meter tall, dumpling-shaped man replied.

“Not so little. I’ve seen smaller.”

“Small enough to be called Little People and we come from a land that’s like medieval England.”

“Could help. What else you got?”

“We have about five wins against a few corrupt wizards and…”

“Just five?”

“And an evil tyrant in an extremely difficult to reach kingdom, beyond the Pramidian Ocean and past the range of Dire Woe Mountains.”

“So?”

“Who just happened to be my father.”

“You battled your own father?”

“Not exactly. He died just as we stormed his castle’s keep.”

“Stormed?”

“Well, snuck into.”

“You and who else?”

“My twin—I met her for the first time in the village nestled beneath the castle walls.”

“Nestled beneath?”

“That’s how we talk.”

“Anyone else?”

“A knight on his last quest for the perfect…”

Impatient, the Priest of Pram interrupted again. “Your adventures lack a certain something.”

“Oh, sorry, wait. I nearly forgot her (how could I do that?): Shana of the East, the clever former royal servant who stole the throne of Mordred II of the Wolds and Bournes, a misguided sorcerer if there ever was one, who died from his own poison brew. She led us.”

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” The Priest of Pram nodded to his acolytes gathered around him and the little dumpling spokesperson. “You are most suitable. Five lattes, one sugar, two no foam no sugar, two caramel syrup. Got that?”

“On it, Boss. I can call you, ‘Boss?’”

The Priest of Pram winked and dismissed the band of merry little ones with a wave of his hand.