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Excerpt from Hometown Boys, a Kelly Durrell thriller

The following is an excerpt from Hometown Boys, a work in progress featuring Kelly Durrell. Kelly returns to the Midwestern town where she grew up to attend the funeral of her aunt and uncle. They’ve been murdered by her ex-boyfriend from high school, Troy Ingram, a meth addict destroyed by chronic drug abuse. Kelly is unwillingly drawn into the case when Troy’s lawyer asks her for help. The lawyer has evidence that Troy was coerced into committing the murders, but Troy refuses to talk about it. The lawyer hopes Kelly can persuade him to open up and reveal who wanted her aunt and uncle deadand why.

In this flashback she remembers meeting Gene Countryman, one of Troy’s friends from their high school days. Now a successful businessman, Gene may not be as respectable as he appears.

In the dark he became a stranger

Certain moments stayed frozen in her memory. Like photographs, she thought with a pang. She warded off thoughts of Day Randall, her murdered friend and a talented photographer, whose body was still missing. Memories decayed faster than photographs. A lot faster. But the vital details, the ones whose emotional charge held the memory in place—those never changed.

It was her second date with Troy. Or maybe third. That unimportant detail had decayed. He picked her up down the block from Steph’s house, where she was supposed to be sleeping over. He pulled to the curb in a pumpkin colored Buick, a carriage waved into existence by a fairy godmother with a twisted sense of humor. The bucket seat sagged beneath her weight. Smells haunted the interior—marijuana and cigarette smoke and something like vomit. The engine made odd choking noises, and when they headed out of town, Kelly worried that the car might break down and leave them stranded in the country.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look uptight.”

“No, I’m fine.” She peered beyond the reach of the headlights and ignored the uneasiness that hollowed her out. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” In the dark he became a stranger. He could pull the car to the side of the road, strangle her, and roll her body into a cornfield. For a moment she wanted to go back to Steph’s house, pop some popcorn, and watch TV. Then she summoned the image of his lucid blue eyes and knowing smile, a smile that intimated life was a joke and nobody got it but the two if them. He was dangerous, but not to her.

Somewhere along the highway leading to Uncle George’s place, Troy turned onto a side road. Gravel crunched under the Buick’s tires, and the headlights played over milkweed and a drainage ditch. Treetops emerged from the darkness of the sky, then windows illuminated with bluish light winked into view. She couldn’t see much else of the house, only the silhouette of high eaves and a front porch, its roof slumped with age. The Buick jolted over a rutted driveway and arrived in a small clearing where several other vehicles were parked. Smothered music drifted from the house.

“What is this?” Kelly asked.

“What’s it look like?”

A party in the country. Obviously. Yet, for reasons she couldn’t pin down, the place seemed furtive and sinister.

Troy got out of the Buick, slammed the door, and strode toward the porch. Kelly scrambled to catch up, so young and smitten that she accepted his rudeness. And he set the pattern. The boyfriends who followed him differed only in degree—until she met Cash, whose old-fashioned father taught him to open doors for women, not because they were weak or helpless but out of respect. Kelly wondered now why she’d valued herself so little, why she’d taken so long to move beyond her teenage insecurity.

I am the passenger

Inside the house Iggy Pop crooned, “I am the passenger, I ride and I ride . . . ,” the song’s bass notes booming like distant thunder. The raw smell of mud drifted from a field. They stood for at least a couple of minutes. She was fretting that no one had heard Troy knock when the door swung wide. A skinny man stood in the threshold. His hair ebbed from his domed forehead and hung in greasy dishwater strands to his shoulders. Later she found out he was twenty-eight, but lines scored his face from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. His irises, almost colorless, were ground zero in a bloodshot explosion so intense that he seemed about to weep blood.

Troy leaned forward and said something. The skinny man’s gaze jumped frenetically between her and Troy before he finally nodded.

Troy grabbed her upper arm and pulled her toward the door. “Say hi to Gene.”

She mumbled a hello.

Gene raked his fingers through the stringy hair. “Troy says you’re cool. Is that right? He’s not full of shit, is he?” He sounded like a clarinet with a bad cold.

“No. I mean, I am. Cool.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She fudged her age by fifteen months. Lying made her nervous, but he wouldn’t ask unless he needed to hear the magic number.

Gene’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, right.” But he let them in.

As Troy shepherded her through the entryway, she noticed a mahogany hall tree, the varnish on the bench top cracked and bubbled where liquid—someone’s drink, maybe—had been spilled and left. To Kelly, who loved old furniture, it seemed like desecration.

They went into a front room where a dozen or so partiers lounged on a couch and chairs and huge pillows scattered over the floor. Everyone there was older than her. Some were way older—not quite her parents’ age, but almost. Troy dropped into a chair and patted on its wide upholstered arm, indicating that Kelly should sit there. Pretending not to notice, she sat cross-legged on a Persian rug. Several burns pocked its glossy pile. She stroked the rug with her fingertips as if to comfort it.

Most people don’t feel much of anything

A nearby table was also scarred with burns and littered with an overflowing ashtray, a couple of metal pipes, and the leftover butts of smoked joints. “Look at them fat roaches,” Troy said. “Can’t let ‘em go to waste.” He picked out the longest roach and held it to his lips. He removed a book of matches from his T-shirt pocket, opened it, and struck a match—all with one hand in a single fluid motion. The feat of dexterity had impressed her at sixteen. Remembering it at forty, she wondered how many hours he’d wasted perfecting the trick.

He sucked on the stub and blew out acrid smoke, then offered the smoldering butt to Kelly. She shook her head. He gave her the knowing smile. “Come on, don’t be a narc.”

She pinched the roach gingerly, its heat a millimeter from burning her fingertips, and brought it to her lips. Maybe if she pretended . . . She barely inhaled, but she sucked in the smoke anyway. Her throat closed like a fist, and pressure backed up in her chest. She hacked and coughed loud enough to be heard over the music. An overweight woman guffawed. A man with a wispy goatee snickered. Kelly felt trapped in a cartoon where it was her fate to do one stupid thing after another.

She  braced for anger or disgust from Troy, but he asked, “Are you okay? Want something to drink?” She might have started loving him at that moment. It was a slight kindness. Basic courtesy. Yet . . .

He left the room and quickly returned with a can of soda. It was already open and not cold enough to have come straight from the fridge. She guessed someone—Troy, she hoped—had already drunk from the can. She didn’t care. Its fizz soothed her parched mouth and throat.

When he passed her a lighted joint, she took a drag to make him happy and gave it back. A minute later, he offered the joint again. She shook her head. “I’m new at this. In case you haven’t guessed.”

Troy smiled and stroked her cheek. “You’ll be okay. Most people don’t feel much of anything their first time smoking.”

She took another drag. And a few more.

She leaned against the chair where he sat. She listened to Iggy Pop snarl the lyrics of “Lust for Life.” The music had a depth and shape she’d never experienced before. She pictured the drummer twirling his drumsticks like batons and pounding drums the size of trampolines. The silver pinwheels of the drumsticks spun before her eyes. She bounced on a giant trampoline, soaring high—higher with each bounce, more weightless. Time froze. She became the silvery sticks between the drummer’s fingers. Spinning and spinning. Her stomach pitched and her mind reeled. Vomit soured her throat. She needed a toilet before—

The darkness in their faces

Hand clamped to her mouth, she staggered down a dim hallway into the harsh fluorescence of the kitchen. Several men leaned against an old-fashioned oak dining table and a counter cluttered with beer cans and gallon jugs of wine. The men turned and stared at her. Something about their faces. A darkness.

Gene Countryman held a small metal pipe between his thumb and fingers. A pistol was jammed into the waistband of his jeans, snug against the small of his back. Had it been there when he let them in? Kelly struggled to think. Many of the grownup men she knew, her father included, owned guns and hunted deer and birds. None of them stuck pistols down their pants like a movie gangster. Show off, Kelly thought, but she couldn’t let go of the darkness in their faces.

Gene noticed her, and his mouth curled in a sarcastic hook. He nodded toward a door. “Over there. And try not to miss.” Scattered laughter chased her into the tiny windowless bathroom.

She raised the toilet seat and lowered her head over the bowl. Someone had peed and forgotten to flush, and shit smeared the porcelain just above the water line. Her stomach contracted. She’d thrown up her half-digested dinner, and the sour reek had triggered more vomiting.

All these years later, she carried an image of Gene Countryman’s gun in her memory—the black textured plastic of its handle and the way it wiggled when he straightened his back, as if trying to escape from his too-tight waistband.

Later, driving back into town, Troy had reassured her. Lots of people barfed the first time they smoked and—who knows?—the weed could have been cut with something.

“Like what?”

“Who knows? Meth or angel dust.”

Kelly never wanted to smoke weed again, and he would keep insisting. She hoped she could say no to his impish smile, his blue eyes shaded by dark lashes. It didn’t matter. After the way she acted, he wouldn’t ask her out again.

Only he did. And Kelly said yes for the stupidest of reasons. He was giving her another chance after she embarrassed him. How could she do any less for him?

 

 

Can you overcome shyness?

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that character is destiny. Character—the basic attributes created by inborn temperament and early environment—determines your actions, and your actions determine the course of your life. Some people think character can’t be changed, that those attributes are too deeply ingrained. One example is shyness. Can a shy person ever become outgoing?

From earliest childhood I’ve been painfully shy. In college it was agony for me just to say hello to acquaintances when I passed them in the hallway. My remedy for shyness was booze, but it only helped while I was drunk.

A teaching job

When my husband and I moved to Charleston, a small town with limited job opportunities, I applied for a temporary job teaching composition and literature in the English department at Eastern Illinois University. I bombed the interview and didn’t get the job. Then, the first week of the semester, the department chairman called. He needed an emergency replacement to teach one course. Was I interested?

And so I found myself standing in front of two dozen people only a few years younger than me. When I began to talk, someone in the back called out, “Louder!” Hands trembling and stomach churning, I upped my volume and launched into my presentation. In a couple of ways, I lucked out. They were a kind group. Also, the the elderly prof for whom I was a last-minute replacement was reputedly a boring lecturer. Anyone was an improvement over that guy.

college classroom

An angry student

I went on teaching one or two courses a semester. Gradually the shakes and nausea went away, but I still entered the classroom with dread. One day, a student got angry over a C she didn’t think she deserved. So angry that she told me the truth. “It’s not that you’re a terrible teacher,” she said. “You seem to know what you’re talking about. But when you’re up there talking, it’s like you don’t even see us.”

Her anger turned out to be a gift. I began looking at individuals in the room as I spoke. Their faces told me whether they were listening. And they actually did pay more attention when I started speaking to them rather than at them.

The students from hell

In a last-minute schedule change, I got a class that was originally assigned to a professor famous for giving As to everyone. When I walked in the classroom, I was greeted by stares of shock and dismay. Six students dropped the course right away. The rest were a hard group to teach. They fell asleep. They talked among themselves. To keep the class from devolving in chaos, I had to assert control. I still recall one moment in particular. The class was ending in five minutes, and the students were growing restless. A guy in the back row stood up and reached for his books. “Joe!” I pointed at him, my voice booming. “Sit down! I’m not finished.” He slowly sat down.

The students from hell were a gift. They helped me become someone who could stand in front of people and command attention.

Did my shyness go away?

Not really. I still struggle when I meet new people, especially since I’ve stopped easing the way with alcohol, but it’s no longer agony.

Maybe character is destiny, but it can’t be reduced to one weakness—or one strength. It’s an interplay of the many attributes that make up who we are. And I’m convinced that we have some control over which of them prevails.

college graduation, college student

Transformation in two horror stories

Two paragraphs into Joe Hill’s novel Horns, I thought the author must have been influenced by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Both stories begin with a dramatic transformation. You may already know how Kafka’s novella opens:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Hill’s novel opens with a transformation as well:

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances . . . [W]hen he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Like Gregor, Ig has uneasy dreams before his transformation. Later in the story, we learn about the dreams and their connection to the “terrible things” he has done.

Why Gregor becomes a cockroach

Gregor is confined to his bedroom. At first his family grieves over his misfortune and takes care of him, but gradually he becomes a burden and they neglect and ignore him. When he leaves the room to join them, they chase him back in. He concludes rightly that they find him repugnant. In the end he dies.

To understand what all this means, it helps to consider the title. A metamorphosis is a creature’s radical change in form as it moves from one stage of life to another. For instance, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It’s a natural change, to be expected. Readers might wonder whether Gregor has been an insect all along. An insect disguised as a man. His life hasn’t exactly been bursting with meaning. He has plodded through one day after another, working in an office to support his family, and their love for him dies when he’s no longer earning a paycheck.

Why Ig becomes a devil

Ig is a devout Christian until his girlfriend is raped and murdered. Suspicion falls on him, but his wealthy father hires a lawyer and forensic evidence is destroyed in a mysterious fire. Although never charged in the murder, Ig remains a suspect. Paralyzed with grief, his life drifts into meaninglessness.

The horns change everything. Under their influence, every person Ig encounters is moved to confess their deepest feelings and desires. He discovers that his priest and his family secretly believe that he did the murder and wish he would just disappear—except his brother, who has been protecting the real killer.

Embittered and angry, Ig sets out to punish the guilty man. Vengeance is what he’s wanted since his girlfriend died. His transformation into a devil makes vengeance possible by giving him the power to fight a ruthless psychopath. The transformation is rooted in his sinful life although it’s unclear why until the novel’s end. He isn’t altogether innocent of the murder of his beloved.

Horns and The Metamorphosis

Hill’s lengthy novel obviously lacks the economy of Kafka’s novella. Horns certainly lacks the mystery and thematic richness of The Metamorphosis. Hill keeps pointing to the novel’s religious symbols as if afraid you’ll miss something and trip over it.

What happens to Gregor is more profoundly horrifying—forced to choose, I’d rather be a devil than an insect—but the horror in Horns is riveting. While Gregor sickens and dies quietly in a mundane apartment, Ig is drawn into terrifying conflicts that make him doubt his sanity. He suffers brutal violence that would kill an ordinary human.

The germ of both stories is the same—a fantastic transformation that turns out to be less absurd than it seems at first. Maybe Gregor and Ig don’t deserve their fate, but each character’s metamorphosis makes sense in the context of his life. The inevitable next stage of his existence, the transformation reveals his true character and renders his inner reality visible.

A Valentine’s Day drawing

Are you a subscriber to my newsletter? Then you’re eligible to enter this drawing for three $15 Amazon Gift Cards. If you’re a winner, I’ll contact you by Friday, February 24. Let me hear from you within 72 hours. Otherwise a new winner will be chosen.

 

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By the numbers? Reviews of two thrillers

Recently I read two thrillers, Robert Bailey’s The Professor and Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye. When I related the plot of Connelly’s latest to my husband, he remarked, “Seems like it’s pretty much by the numbers.”

“By the numbers” alludes to the old-time hobby kits in which a painting—usually a famous one—is reduced to a schematic of numbered parts that correspond to its colors. Using paints included in the kit, the hobbyist dabs the correct color on each part to reproduce the painting in all its glory. Well, kind of. No matter how carefully the hobbyist applies the paint, the reproduction lacks the magic of the original.

“By the numbers” is a disparaging way of describing a novel that mechanically reproduces a plot line, tropes, or characters common to its genre.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye

I bristled at hearing The Wrong Side of Goodbye described as a “by the numbers” crime thriller. Okay, it’s not my favorite Harry Bosch novel. Like all of Connelly’s recent books, its sparseness leaves little room for contemplation or emotional resonance. Still, I enjoyed the story and cared what happened to the characters, who have enough complexity to be believable.

Forced into retirement from the LAPD and working as a private detective, Harry is hired by a billionaire to find the illegitimate child that the billionaire fathered with a Mexican cafeteria worker in the 1950s. The billionaire wants to leave his money to this child, his only offspring. Harry uncovers the heartbreaking and inspiring story of this woman and the son she bears. I anticipated much of the story (but not the rather neat twist at the end).

Harry Bosch—one of the great detectives of fiction

After a dozen or more books, I feel as if I know Harry, a stubborn man with a troubled past, a quick temper, and even quicker mind. He’s changed a lot since the beginning of the series. He’s much less hotheaded these days. When he receives a profanity laden email from a cop angry at him for suing the LAPD, he pounds out a sarcastic reply . . . and then deletes it.

Being a single father has also changed Harry. He’s become more patient and sensitive, as shown when he and his daughter negotiate where to meet for dinner. She wants to try a new Vietnamese restaurant. Harry’s blunt refusal offends her. Being a man who keeps his feelings under wraps, he’s not used to explaining himself. But his need for her understanding overcomes his macho reticence. He explains that he had to eat Vietnamese food every day while fighting in the Vietnam War:

“You smell like what you eat. In enclosed spaces. It comes out in your pores. My job—I had to go into tunnels, and I didn’t want the enemy to know I was there. So I ate their food every day, every meal, and I can’t do it anymore. It bring it all back to me.”

The Wrong of Goodbye isn’t “by the numbers.” It’s original Connelly.

The Professor

Thomas McMurtrie, protagonist of Robert Bailey’s legal thriller, is a former star football player and now a venerable law professor at the University of Georgia. Tom is forced into retirement thanks to the machinations of the weaselly dean and Jameson Tyler, a hotshot attorney and one of Tom’s former students, whom he had considered a friend.

An old flame comes to him for help. Her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter died in a collusion with a semi. The driver was speeding and the old flame wants to sue the trucking company for negligence. Tom refers her to Rick Drake, another former student. Although definitely not Tom’s friend, Drake grew up in the town where the accident occurred and the case will be tried.

Enter the villains

The case becomes thorny when Jack Willistone, the owner of the trucking company, hires Tyler to defend his company against the suit. Willistone is a small-time tycoon whose hirelings commit arson and threaten and bribe witnesses.

It’s revealing that he sends the psychopathic thug Bone to intimidate the characters who are low on the social ladder. If they talk to the lawyers, Bone threatens to rape their wives and/or daughters while they watch and other fun stuff. Willistone feels he can have them killed and get away with it. But with the wife of the gas company, he goes after her reputation. He has pictures proving that her dead husband was gay and will make certain that her teenage boys see them unless she keeps her mouth shut.

That old-time machismo

This thriller is saturated with Southern machismo. The women are so hapless. They’re not incompetent, just unable to fend for themselves. They need the men. Even Dawn the law student needs help from Tom. And there’s lots of football stuff about loyalty to teammates and friends, playing to win, and never wussing out. Not that it’s unbelievable or wrong or anything. I just got tired of it.

In addition, I couldn’t buy into the moral simplicity. It’s always clear what’s right and wrong. Wrong actions in one aspect of life indicate a moral rottenness that infects every other aspect of a character’s life. The amoral attorney Tyler dates two women at once, so of course he ambushes his old friend Tom with the charges that cost him his teaching position, and he breaks his promise not to make public the supposedly compromising photos of Tom and Dawn.

Is The Professor “by the numbers”?

The plot rolls along at a brisk pace with the familiar tropes of legal thrillers: the surprise witness, evidence that surfaces at the last minute. But the setting is vivid and the characters transcend their stereotypes. I won’t forget Tom McMurtrie and might pick up another novel in the series sometime.

All thrillers are written “by the numbers” to some extent since writers follow the rules of the genre. I suspect that the term is a way of disparaging genre fiction in general. When critics dismiss novels as “by the numbers,” it means they dislike genre fiction—and not much else.

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Juliette – plight of a secondary character

On January 6 the TV show Grimm begins its sixth and final season. As a fan I’m disappointed to see the show end. Worse, the final season is half its normal length. But I’ll take what I can get. At least the story will come to an end instead of terminating abruptly, and I’ll find out what happens to the characters. I especially wonder about Juliette Silverton (Bitsie Tulloch), the hero’s girlfriend. She’s had a rough five years. From the start I’ve harbored the uneasy feeling that the show’s writers aren’t quite sure what to do with her. She’s too important to the narrative to remain static. She has to change. But how?

The saga of Juliette

Life is goodA perky veterinarian, Juliette lives with Detective Nick Burkhardt in a delightful old house in Portland, Oregon. Life is good. Then Nick begins seeing people’s faces change into monsters. He thinks he’s going nuts and doesn’t tell anybody. Shortly thereafter, his Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) shows up with an Air Stream trailer full of weird artifacts and some news for Nick. Grimm’s fairy tales are real and he’s a Grimm. Like many of his ancestors he has the ability to see various species of monsters called Wesen.

They look like ordinary humans, but under duress Wesen show their true forms. Sometimes the transformation becomes so complete that ordinary people see them too. Hence the legends about werewolves etc. Some Wesen are dangerous and predatory, and Nick’s duty as a Grimm is to hunt them down and kill them. As a cop he already chases bad guys, so that’s handy.

Nick’s new identity spells the beginning of disaster for Juliette. She gradually becomes aware that he’s hiding something and their relationship suffers. Then one of his enemies, the Hexenbiest (witch) Adelind Schade (Claire Coffee), casts a spell on Juliette, a weird coma beyond the doctors’ understanding. This plot twist takes Juliette out of action for several episodes.

The writers could have let her die, but that would be too easy

Nick’s boss, Captain Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), happens to be a Zauberbiest, the male equivalent of a Hexenbiest. At first he’s in league with Adelind and her mother against Nick. Later he allies himself with Nick against “the Royals,” European aristocrats who use Wesen to maintain their power. As the King’s bastard son, Sean has never had a comfortable relationship with his family.

Juliette learns to shootSean and Adelind’s mother devise a spell to awaken Juliette. Unfortunately it has side effects. Juliette doesn’t remember who Nick is and she develops a sexual obsession with Sean. (Before your imagination runs wild, keep in mind this is NBC, not HBO.)

By the time everything is sorted out, Juliette’s life has radically changed. She lives in a world of monsters. Even Nick’s friends, the perfectly nice couple Monroe and Rosalie (Silas Weir Mitchell and Bree Turner), are Wesen. But Juliette adapts. She becomes a team player in the ongoing battle against the Royals and various species of evil Wesen. The trouble is she doesn’t have much to do. Her knowledge as a vet occasionally comes in handy, but without magical powers or physical prowess, she can’t do much.

Adelind strikes again

Adelind gets her powers backAfter Nick takes away her Hexenbiest powers, Adelind endures an arduous and disgusting ceremony to regain them and proceeds to take away his Grimm powers. Hey, tit for tat. It’s only fair. With a magic potion she takes Juliette’s form and seduces Nick, who acts surprised when she comes on to him. I get the sense that Nick and Juliette’s love life hasn’t exactly been on fire.

Now that Nick is no longer a Grimm, Juliette hopes for a normal life. No such luck. He’s now helpless against his enemies. Nor can he protect Monroe and Rosalie from the Wesen Nazis who consider their mixed marriage an abomination. (Rosalie is foxy and Monroe is wolfish.) The only way to regain his powers is to reproduce Adelind’s spell. Ever the good sport, Juliette drinks the potion, takes Adelind’s form, and has sex with Nick.

And turns into a Hexenbiest herself.

As one might expect, the transformation is disastrous for her relationship with Nick. Nor does it do wonders for her personality. Once perky and sweet, she becomes sarcastic, jealous, and vindictive—like a witch should be. When Adelind ends up pregnant with Nick’s child from their single encounter, Juliette flies into a rage. She’s on the brink of killing Nick when his Grimm apprentice, Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni), brings her down with an arrow from a crossbow.

Photo by: Scott Green/NBC

Of course Juliette doesn’t die

She’s spirited away by a secret organization devoted to fighting a secret organization of Wesen trying to take over the world. (The organization is called Black Claw like the daemon enforcer in my Daemon World series, so I must point out that my daemon existed long before Grimm‘s secret organization. If anything, they borrowed the name from me.) After extensive conditioning, Juliette reemerges into the narrative as Eve, a Hexenbiest who does nothing but fight. A weapon without life or personality, she appears not to care that Nick has hooked up with Adelind. Maybe she would have been better off dead.

Juliette slain

But here comes another twist. In the final episode of season five, Juliette is grievously wounded and healed through the power of a mysterious artifact. In the process she changes and becomes . . . what?

Poor Juliette. Human beings are merely at the mercy of fate. TV characters are at the mercy of script writers.

 

Photos from fanpop.com and NBC.

checking your grammar day and night
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When a comma matters

Grammar Nazi deplores sloppy punctuation. My own attitude is more ambiguous since I think communication matters more than correctness and nobody is perfect—least of all me. But sometimes punctuation matters. While reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I came across an example of how much a missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

In Cronin’s novel a virus developed by the military changes test subjects into vampires with familiar characteristics: blood hunger, razor sharp teeth, aversion to sunlight, and indeterminate lifespans. The monsters also have psychic powers that enable them to escape from the fortified lab and infect the entire North American continent and perhaps the world. Eventually they number in the millions and and very few human beings or other animals are left, creating a problem. Whose blood are the vampires going to drink now?

Humanity’s only hope is a young girl, Amy, who is infected with a variant of the virus that gives her the vampires’ powers without turning her into one.

A familiar premise, but The Passage is remarkable for the breadth of its story and the depth of its characters.

The second half of the novel concerns a small colony of human beings in California roughly a hundred years after the catastrophe. They survive by following strict social rules and keeping the perimeter outside their high walls flooded with light through the night. But the batteries that store power from a nearby generating plant are failing. It’s just a matter of time until the lights go out. Then Amy arrives. Her unlikely survival outside the walls arouses suspicion and her presence upsets the colony’s social balance.

Cronin provides ample backstory to create characters that become like people whom I’ve known for years. This narrative strategy could have been a drag on the plot, but the histories are dramatically rich and always pertinent to the current action.

One of the colony dwellers, Peter Jaxon, has always felt overshadowed by his older brother Theo. Theo is a leader, a warrior, the inheritor of their father’s mission to leave the safety of the colony and search the world for other survivors. Peter reflects bitterly that while he cared for their mother on her deathbed, it was Theo to whom she spoke her last words: “Take care of your brother, Theo. He’s not strong like you.” Peter feels disregarded, belittled. His mother’s words drive home his belief that he is—and always will be—second to his brother.

Only much later, after a lot has happened, does Peter realize that he might have misinterpreted his mother’s words. Perhaps she said, “Take care of your brother Theo. He’s not strong like you.” In other words, Peter is the stronger of the brothers and their mother knew it. This interpretation is more likely. Unless she was altogether delirious, she would know which of her sons was sitting at her bedside.

Apart from what the misunderstanding implies about Peter’s sense of himself and his relationship with Theo, it shows how important a comma can be. The comma after brother puts Theo in the vocative case and indicates that she was addressing her older son. Without the comma Theo becomes the object of the verb in the sentence, the one with whose care Peter is charged.

(Grammar Nazi reminds me that if Peter and Theo have no other brother, this should be indicated by placing a comma after the word brother. Grammar Nazi has a habit of complicating things.)

Obviously people don’t use punctuation when they speak, so this kind of ambiguity is inescapable. But writers have the tools to communicate with greater precision. They just have to use them.

You may have noticed that I’m no longer blogging at Ancient Children. The blog is now part of my new website, created by Kate McMillan of Outbox Online. I hope you’ll take a look around while you’re here.

Winter Wonderland Contest

Night Owl Reviews is hosting the Book Lovers Winter Wonderland Contest from November 23 until December 15. Dozens of authors, including me, are coming together to sponsor this exciting event. The timing is perfect for Darkroom, since Kelly’s search for her friend Day takes place during the same time span in November and December. The contest offers some suspense of its own. Eighty-one Amazon gift cards will awarded, including the grand prize—a $100 gift card! For the chance to win a prize and discover a whole bunch of new books to read, head over to Night Owl Reviews and check out the contest when it starts on Wednesday, November 23.

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Bedtime Stories: My adventures with Audible

A while ago I began a three-month trial subscription to Audible, a company that sells audio versions of books. Instead of staring at a page or screen and risking eye strain, you listen to a narrator read the book. I’d resisted the idea of audio books for a long time. When would I listen? I prefer to keep my attention on the road while driving. I don’t even listen to music.

Then inspiration struck.

I suffer from chronic insomnia. Most nights I struggle to fall asleep and then wake four hours later, my mind revving. It can take an hour or more of reading to lull my overactive brain. I wondered if listening to a book would help. It’s more passive. You can do it with your eyes closed. It would be like a return to childhood, listening to your parents read bedtime stories.

The Girl on the Train Audible CoverI used my first Audible credit to buy The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, a popular and widely praised suspense novel. I donned my ear buds and crawled into bed, tapped the “Play” button and began listening. A pleasant female voice with a British accent described lying under a tree, and within minutes I was asleep. Four hours later I woke up to another female reader with a pleasant voice and a slightly different British accent reading . . . I had no idea what. I shut off the book and promptly fell asleep.

Success!

But not really.

When bedtime came, I had no interest in revisiting The Girl on the Train. But I restarted it from the beginning and once again Reader #1 launched into her description of gazing up at the tree. As Reader #2 gazed out the window of a commuter train, I tuned out. I awoke somewhere mid story and shut off the narration. This time I didn’t fall back asleep. And I felt an aversion to plugging myself into The Girl on the Train. Instead I got up (much to the annoyance of my husband, who considers me to be his personal snuggle bunny) and stood in the kitchen reading an entertaining steampunk novel called The Black Orchid on my Kindle.

The third night I picked up my Kindle and wrote off the Audible experiment as a failure. But I didn’t cancel the trial membership and a month later a message arrived in my mailbox. I had another credit available. So I downloaded another book, Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, a new science fiction novel.

Dark Matter Audible CoverThis time I listened only a few minutes before drifting off. In the middle of the night I woke up, skipped back several chapters, and picked up the thread of the story. When I fell asleep again, the hero, a physics professor, was leaving a Chicago bar.

The following night he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Sleep ambushed me as the hapless professor walked naked and shivering into an abandoned power plant. I slept until morning.

Success!

A little too much success.

I couldn’t wait until bedtime for more. I went through the day plugged into my ear buds as the hero of Dark Matter discovers he’s been transported to a parallel universe and undertakes an odyssey, wandering from universe to universe to find his way home.

As soon as I finished Dark Matter, I exchanged The Girl on the Train for Stephen King’s 11.22.63, a thirty-hour listening extravaganza. Now I look forward to bedtime.

The takeaway from this experience?

Certain books don’t lend themselves to narration.

The Girl on the Train has THREE first-person narrators, and although the audio book employs three different narrators, the rhythm and tone of the prose stays pretty much the same. I won’t get into the question of whether multiple first-person narrators is a good idea—Hawkins has sold a gazillion more books than I have—but the technique doesn’t work for me as a listener. Add the story’s arty, oblique approach and it becomes even harder to follow. I suspect that reading the novel is far more satisfying.

Dark Matter has ONE first-person narrator and lots of dialogue and action. Crouch vividly describes the many universes that his hero explores. The details are fresh and concrete and succinctly described. Most of all, the reader never has to wonder what’s going on.

The reader makes a huge difference.

As a writer I’ve given readings of my own work, and as a teacher I’ve read the poetry and prose of other writers to my students. I have some idea of how difficult it is to read aloud. It requires talent and extensive training. An incompetent reader would no doubt ruin the whole experience.

The three Audible novels I’ve tried were major releases from mainstream publishers. Unsurprisingly, the readers in all of them are top notch. My favorite is Jon Lindstrom, who reads Dark Matter. He has an expressive voice and speaks the dialogue of every character in a distinctive way.

Audible at bedtime won’t work for everyone.

When I described my experience to my writing group, reactions were varied. One person, already an Audible subscriber, thought it was an interesting idea. Another shook her head. “I move around too much. I’d probably strangle on the cord of the ear buds.” Another person imagined herself swallowing the buds. And I guess a few princesses might have trouble sleeping with giant peas in their ears.

11.22.63 Audible CoverComprehension is poorer than with reading.

I remember what happens in Dark Matter along with some especially striking details, but not much about how the hero moves through parallel universes in his box that turns into a corridor. Something about Schrödinger’s cat and a drug that suppresses key areas in the brain . . . Oh well, the important thing is that the contraption works.

The time travel in 11.22.63 is less of a problem. Stephen King sticks with how it works and doesn’t delve into why. It’s a mystery, a “rabbit hole.” At least so far. I haven’t finished the novel yet.

In spite of the drawbacks, bedtime stories work for me. It looks like Audible has a permanent subscriber. I could use some recommendations for my next book. If you listen to books on Audible or iTunes, I’d love to know about your favorites. Just leave a comment below.

Easy ways to write a book review #AugustReviews

In this post, reviewer Rosie Amber does a solid for authors by encouraging readers to leave book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. She gives some helpful tips to make the process easier. All of us authors rely on feedback from readers, not just to help sell books but to let us know where we get it right and where we fall short.

Authors WANT  Reviews

Simple! How many times have you read pleas on social media for readers to write reviews? – Probably Loads.

Does the thought of writing a book review send you racing to the hills? – I can see plenty of you nodding in agreement.

WHAT holds you back?

Reading Soft edge

6 common replies:

I can’t write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book.

I don’t know what to write.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books.

I don’t have the time.

Let’s turn this around

I can’t write – I bet if you can read, you can write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book – Good News, Amazon accepts one sentence reviews now as do many other sites.

I don’t know what to write – Ah! Quick Question – Why did you like or Dislike the book? Got an answer? Then you have a starting place.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review – Facing fears is part of life, it is hard, but I bet you’ve faced much harder challenges. Authors LOVE reviews, other readers also like to read them to see if they agree or disagree. Every reader will get something different from their experience. An honest review from someone who genuinely read the book IS REALLY APPRECIATED.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books – This one STOPS TOO MANY AUTHORS from writing book reviews and it shouldn’t. In fact if you are an author, one way to hone your writing skills is to READ, READ, READ and from this you will be noting what works, what doesn’t and you will have all the skill sets to write a review. IF YOU WRITE WITH HONESTY AND COMPASSION I can’t see an author would want revenge or to be labelled a TROLL, these are far and few amongst the millions of authors who GENUINELY WANT A REVIEW.

I don’t have the time – time is what you make of it and those who have this as their reply probably won’t have time to read this post, so we’ll say no more.

So BE BRAVE – make a promise that the next book you read you will write a review.

Read the rest for useful tips on how to write a review.

Pat Down! My encounter with Agent Jackson

The first two weeks in August, I’ll travel west to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles to visit friends and family. I dislike flying and try to ease the discomfort by using frequent flyer miles to pay for business class tickets. But no upgrade can save me from airport security. I first posted this story six years ago and nothing has changed since then. 

Coming home from Los Angeles in August of 2010, I experienced the TSA’s new enhanced pat-down procedures. I’m unsure when the change went into effect—the TSA didn’t exactly trumpet them with a publicity campaign—but I might have been among the first airline passengers to get groped.

The journey did not begin auspiciously.

I had an abraded cornea. The night before my flight, the pain and blurred vision reached the point that I called the advisory nurse for my HMO. She ordered me to get to an ER at once. My friend Carol, with whom I was staying, offered to drive me, but I imagined spending hours waiting my turn behind drug ODs and gunshot wounds and heart attacks and a hundred other emergencies more life-threatening than an abraded cornea, then dragging back to Carol’s apartment just in time to pack. I imagined Carol going to work after a sleepless night spent holding my hand. Better to wait and see a doctor at home.

The next morning, I stood on the curb of Laurel Canyon Blvd., surrounded by my luggage, awaiting the car that would drive me to the airport. I entertained myself by staring at the building across the street out of my damaged right eye, trying to gauge whether the blurriness was worse and hoping I wouldn’t go blind by the time I got home.

The pickup time came and went. Still no car. Finally I phoned the limo service. The woman on the phone told me I was scheduled for pickup at eight that evening, not eight in the morning. But not to worry, she said. She would find a driver. Twenty minutes later the car pulled to the curb, and I made it to LAX in time for my flight.

Passengers going through airport security check

Everything went smoothly until I reached security. I had a liter bottle of drinking water in my carry-on bag. The guy manning the x-ray machine flagged it, and suddenly I found myself confronted by Officer Jackson, a plug of a woman with a jutting lower lip and a gun. She ordered me to stand in a specific spot. “But my purse!” I protested. “My iPad!” They were still on the conveyor belt of the x-ray machine, and I was terrified they would be stolen.

At this sign of potentially violent resistance, Officer Jackson scowled and said, “Let’s not have a tantrum now.” Well, she had the gun. And the power to decide whether I got on my plane. So I stood there, my eye throbbing, while she put her hands all over my body. The side of her hand brushed my crotch, but she didn’t actually grab it.

I made it onto the plane. As we taxied onto the runway, I composed an indignant letter of complaint on my iPad. “Perhaps I ought to accept that your security people are rude and seemingly feel entitled to treat passengers without respect,” I huffed. “But I refuse to accept it without comment.”

I never sent the letter, realizing it would have no impact whatsoever. By the time Joe picked me up in Champaign, all I wanted was to get to a doctor and have my cornea treated. Since it was nighttime, we went to the ER at Carle hospital. There were no drug ODs, no heart attack or gunshot victims.

I got right in.

Looking back, I suffered no damage from from my brush with airport security except a few ruffled feathers—unlike this poor woman.

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A shiny new object changes everything – and nothing

Last year I got an awesome deal on a camera. I “saved” over $500 off the purchase price. (And no, I didn’t buy it off the back of a truck. It was last year’s model, on sale, and I had credit card points.) Of course I could have saved more by passing on the camera and continuing to take photos and videos with my phone like most people.

FlowerI justified the purchase in various ways. I was writing a novel, Darkroom, in which a photographer and her photographs play a central role. Hands-on experience with an actual camera was research. (The photographer in the novel is old school. She uses shoots with film and develops her prints in a darkroom. I wasn’t ready to go there, especially since darkroom equipment is hard to find.)

Instead of shelling out money on stock photos, I could use my own high-quality photos on my blog and in the process learn more about working in Photoshop. And I could make videos!

I could ask an onlooker to videotape some of my riding lessons so I could study and improve my form.

As webmaster of the local Scrabble club, I take pictures at the meetings. This particular camera has a setting called “Beauty Shot” (I’m not kidding) that processes images of faces and eliminates flaws. I could get better shots of the people who hate having their picture taken. They might stop threatening to kill me if I posted photos of them online.

PlaygroundAnd the shiny new camera would give me a reason to detach my brain from my iPad and get my butt out of the house once in a while.

Once I started snapping pictures, I came to some unhappy realizations. All the fancy features were pointless until I knew how to use them, so I studied the manual enough to be minimally competent. More than that would take practice. A lot of practice.

SAMSUNG CSCAnd I soon realized were things that my camera couldn’t do. A few outdoor sessions showed me that even with the correct settings I couldn’t capture birds in flight. My husband, Joe, a sometimes photographer who gave me invaluable help in researching Darkroom, explained that I needed a lens with a longer focal length, which would cost almost as much as I’d spent for the camera.

HydrantMaybe someday . . .

It wasn’t only the camera that had limitations. I lacked the eye for photography. My gaze slipped past the unlikely objects that make good photos. I didn’t think in terms of frame or perspective or angle. Joe helped me. When I walked around town taking pictures, he came along and pointed out what I overlooked. He set tasks for me. One was to photograph the fire hydrants in our neighborhood. I came to think of the project as a travel guide for the dogs who might journey to Charleston, Illinois.

His tutoring helped. I learned to see more possibilities in places so familiar that I’d stopped  seeing them.

Locked

And I made a heartening discovery. Photography helps my writing. Not only do I see the world in a new way, but my photographs have become a kind of memory, capturing mundane images in more detail than I could ever remember.Shadow Box

But there are limitations here as well.

Memory is more than an visual image. It’s the smell of mud, the bark of a dog and the rumble of distant thunder, the flutter of the wind and the damp touch of the air. Above all it’s the convergence of thoughts and moods with the input from the senses—that complex thing called experience.

Broken Dishes