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

My writing process – That Magic Moment

Writers are expected to write about their creative process. It’s on every handy list of blog topics for authors. But this particular topic is a struggle for me. On one level is the mystical Source From Whence All Inspiration Flows, and I haven’t got much to say about it. It’s my well in the desert. If it dries up, I’m toast.

On another level the creative process is a set of practices that, like rituals, give the writer access to the Source. But I have nothing as exalted or predictable as a ritual. I don’t need a special chair, a lucky pen, a certain place or time of day (although I usually write in the morning). And inspiration doesn’t always come to me in the same way.

I might experience a creative moment when an story comes to me in its entirety, a flash of inspiration with a strong emotional component. In that moment I experience the story and understand its meaning. The story is complete and perfect. My writing inevitably falls short of the original conception, but sometimes it comes closer than others.

Cover of YubiA long time ago I wrote a short story about a woman who falls in love with her parakeet. From the beginning I knew the last line would be “Daniele would love Yubi as long as she lived.” I began the story with Daniele’s brother giving her the bird as an unwanted gift and simply aimed toward that last line. It felt easy. (“Yubi” is available here as a free download.)

But my fiction isn’t always conceived in a magic moment. For my horror novel Daemon Seer I set out with only a goal, to write a sequel to Talion. And Talion began as a story about the friendship of two very different teenage girls. The serial killer’s role was to unite them against a common enemy, but somewhere along the way the son of a bitch highjacked my story.

Since Daemon Seer ends with a cliffhanger, I pretty much have to write a follow-up. Fortunately the story of Daemon Blood came to me in a flash of inspiration. I’m in the middle of writing the first draft now.

Before I can write, I have to discover the story’s tone. Sometimes this means reworking a paragraph several times. This part of my process contradicts the advice of writing gurus who advise never, ever stopping to revise a first draft. But I can’t help it. No way can I continue until the prose sounds right. Once it does, I move ahead at a decent clip. And sometimes tone isn’t an issue since I have it right from the start.

I outline my novels, for all the good it does. An outline is like a rough map of uncharted territory. You begin the journey and discover there’s no path where the map clearly indicates there should be a path. Instead you spot something off to the west that might possibly be a path. So you head that way instead, trusting that it eventually leads where you need to go. No matter how elaborately I plan, I come to a place where I have to trust my sense of direction. Maybe that’s what creativity is.

Occasionally characters refuse to go along with my plans for them. In Darkroom, a bartender named Nina Ivan gets drugged and raped at her place of work. There’s a scene in which the protagonist, Kelly Durrell, persuades Nina to report the rape to the police. That’s how I planned the scene anyway. By then I was working on a later draft of the novel. In earlier versions Nina was a much less important character and I hadn’t thought much about her background or motivation. I didn’t really know who she was.

While writing the persuasion scene, I reached a point where I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out why. The dialogue wasn’t coming and dialogue is usually easy for me. I stopped in frustration. When I came back to the scene the next day, I understood. No way was Nina going the police. She isn’t that kind of character. I wrote the scene her way and altered the story. Everything worked out.

It usually does.

Your Story is Still Unfolding

Usually. There’s always a chance of dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. Creativity takes faith.

Death and Dark Money: A riveting thriller

In his international conspiracy thriller Death and Dark Money—the fourth book of the Sabel Security series— Seeley James shows how loopholes in Citizens United open the door for foreign corporations and nations to influence American policy. Pia Sabel, ex-Olympic soccer player, now runs her adoptive father’s international security company. The company receives a contract from an influential firm of lobbyists that includes a mysterious twenty million dollar payment for seemingly nothing. When Pia wants to know where the money comes and what it’s buying, she becomes a target. One thread of the plot traces this money to its source.

Another thread follows the machinations of an underling to seize control of the firm of lobbyists. Spurred by his ambitious wife, a contemporary Lady Macbeth, he stops at nothing to gain control. As people begin dying, Pia and her father become caught up in the struggle for power.

James has borrowed liberally from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the sort of literary allusion that you don’t often find in thrillers, and  handles it deftly.

I literally could not put the novel down. I planned to read for an hour or so and instead read through the afternoon and into the evening. It wasn’t only the story that kept me riveted. It was characters that I loved or detested with a passion.

Sometimes thrillers are so plot driven that the characters aren’t very complex. The nonstop action keeps them so busy that they don’t have time to reveal much depth or nuance. Death and Dark Money provides memorable characters as well as a suspenseful and intelligent storyline.

Unlike the girl with the dragon tattoo, Pia doesn’t possess abilities that verge on the superhuman. Though she has extraordinary athletic ability, it’s sometimes not enough for her to triumph and barely enough to keep her alive. Pia is haunted and driven by the mysterious murders of her parents when she was a small child. Her search for the truth runs through all the novels of the series, a mystery that has me eager to read the next one.

Much of the novel is written in third person omniscient, a common point of view for thrillers since it allows the narrative to move quickly from one location to another and from one character to another, as the plot requires. But James has also included a first-person narrator, Jacob, a possibly crazy ex-soldier who works for Pia’s security company.

Jacob’s voice adds warmth and quirkiness to the narrative. He could have been a stock character. Instead he draws me so far into his hallucinations that I begin to believe they’re real. Who’s to say he doesn’t really see and speak with the Roman god Mercury? Except for conversing with pagan gods and being occasionally obtuse about women, Jacob has a firm grip on reality.

And who knows? Maybe Mercury really does exist.

If you enjoy political intrigue, contemporary relevance, and a dash of originality in your thrillers, I highly recommend Death and Dark Money.

Cover Death and Dark Money

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Excerpt from Darkroom – Day meets her soulmate

The Dangerous Darkroom tour is drawing to a close. If you hurry, there’s still time to enter the drawing for special prizes including a $25 gift card and autographed copies of Talion and Daemon Seer. Darkroom will also be on sale for $s0.99 through this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy this brief excerpt from Darkroom. The story centers on assistant art curator Kelly Durrell’s search for her friend Day Randall, a talented bipolar photographer who mysteriously goes missing. This section relates how Day meets Gregory Tyson, the dangerous man who becomes her lover.

At the top of the stairs, Day stopped and listened to the voices. They boomed in the open space above the white geometric walls of the museum. The building’s shape molded the sound. A blind person could hear it and know the height of the ceiling and the steepness of its vault. Another kind of sight. But Day was all eyes. Give her scaffolding and she could shoot the maze of gallery walls, the sophisticated rats nibbling snacks and sipping chardonnay. Not her kind of shot, though. She was more the up-close-and-personal, whites-of-their-eyes, breath-to-breath type, going for that flicker of an instant before the lens fogged.

She kept standing there, breathing funny. She couldn’t be scared of those fools. Not her, the woman who’d flipped Baba and lived.

She’d felt sorry for one of his child whores and called the girl’s parents. He chased her through the house with a blade until she locked herself in the bathroom. He slammed the door, yelling that he would cut her throat, bleed her in the tub and carve her like a chicken, wrap the chunks in newspaper and toss them in a dumpster behind the supermarket with the other rotten meat. She was too scared to feel herself, like her body had turned into air. Baba had a way with threats. He might have carried them out except for Shawn, his half brother. Shawn calmed him down and told Day to get the fuck out, warning her that if she stuck her hook nose into their business again, he would personally waste her skinny ass and save Baba the trouble.

That was an occasion for terror. This was just a crowd of art snobs. No blades here. Just voices, diamond-sharp.

“Going to the party?”

Day whipped around, startled.

Stocky guy in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, not much taller than her. Dark hair streaked with gray. Life stamped in his face, deep impressions around his mouth and eyes. Irony in his smile but no trace of cruelty. He held out a gnarly hand. “Leonard Proud.”

She reached out with caution. Not that he seemed like the type who gave women crushing handshakes, but he looked strong. “Day Randall.”

His hand closed over hers—no squeeze or shake, but firm—and then let go. “Kelly says nice things about you,” he said.

“You’re her friend?”

“More like colleague. I’m on the board of the museum.”

She reached for the scuffed Pentax hanging from her neck, the first and only camera she’d owned, her longtime crutch and trusty third eye.

He waved his arm. “No.”

“It’s, like, official. Photos for the newsletter.”

“Even worse.” But he squared his shoulders and turned his face to stone. Ready for his close-up.

“Dude. I’m not a firing squad.”

Leonard clamped his mouth to keep the laughter in. His cheeks puffed a little and his eyes crinkled in amusement. She saw the moment and took the shot. Snap, snap. What she did best. Kelly would never use the photo in the newsletter—members of a board were supposed to look more dignified—but Day might add it to her portfolio if he agreed.

“Let me send you a print,” she said. “What’s your address?”

He gave her a business card, a plain one with a block font.

“You make Native American art? What kind?”

“Weaving and painting.”

“I’d like to see it.”

“There’s a couple of my pieces back there.” Leonard nodded toward the rear of the museum.

“Show me.”

“Some other time. I wanna get the meet-and-greet over with.”

Day followed him into a gallery of Inuit art. “Would you, like, do me a big favor? Point out the other board members so I’ll be sure and get shots of them. You and Joyce are the only ones I know.”

“How much is Joyce paying you?”

“She’s not.”

He snorted. “A new low, even for her.”

A glass case imprisoned several small totem animals carved from stone, including a curled-up seal so smooth and dark Day yearned to feel its coolness and weight in her hand. “It’s for Kelly. I mean, I’m not paying rent or anything, so I try to help.”

“You live with Kelly?”

“Yeah, for almost eight months. She’s in Chicago at a conference for curators, so I’m, like, helping her. It’s a surprise.”

Leonard raised his eyebrows. “You’re here without an invitation.”

“Do I need one?”

“Hell, no. You’re with me.”

Day followed him into the reception area, drafting in his wake like she sometimes drafted behind a semi in her Corolla to save fuel. She needed his forward energy to make her entry. She hated coming uninvited among these people wrapped in cashmere. Not hated—feared. You have to tell yourself the truth because these people are going to lie. Their smiles were rubbery, like masks.

Leonard veered toward the refreshments, tidbits of food on trays and glasses of wine lined up on the tablecloth beside them. Wine the color of pee after you drink way too much water. Day stopped. Too many people were crowded around the refreshments. She would catch Leonard after he got his food.

She felt something, turned, and caught Annie Laible staring from across the room. She smiled and waved and got a sour smile back. Annie had new and wilder hair, hennaed and spiked. Months ago, Day had asked permission to hang a few photographs for sale in her gallery—she needed money bad—and Annie had blown her off. Just a blunt “No” without saying why. Now it was like Annie still blamed her for asking.

Joyce was talking with two men in their forties. Older than Day, but not by much. Day was thirty-eight, though she tried hard to forget it. The short guy was wasted, face bright pink, eyes shining and empty. The other was tall and gaunt. His cheekbones drank the wind. She remembered the line from a poem she read growing up. She forgot what poem. Anyway, it described this guy. He turned his head as if he felt her stare. Their eyes met. Locked. She recognized him. Not personally. More like she was an alien species who finds another of her kind among strangers.

She lifted her camera, zoomed in, and took his picture. Then zoomed out and got the whole group. They were probably important if Joyce was talking to them.

He walked over to her. “You’re Day Randall. I bought two of your prints.”

Day knew which ones. Soon after she came to Boulder, she submitted her portfolio for an exhibit at the museum. Joyce turned down the portfolio but said she had a buyer for the prints at $350 each. A fortune for Day. Of course, Joyce never gave up the buyer’s name. She wouldn’t want Day selling to him and cutting her out of a commission. Now here he was, this guy whose cheekbones drank the wind.

“What’s your name?”

“My friends call me Gee.”

She grinned. “Am I your friend?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

“I feel like we’re the only ones from another planet.”

Gee reached out and stroked her cheek. His fingertips set off a tingling that reached down to her core. “Let’s play Find the Magic.”

“What’s that?”

“This exhibit is called Magic and Realism.” He pointed to a painting. “What’s magical?”

The painting showed a bird and a cat, the tension between prey and predator. The bird’s beak was open in frozen song. The iridescent feathers, intense cobalt and silky green, burned into her mind. “It’s like a window into someone’s dream.”

“We’re doing analysis,” Gee said. “Notice how the details aren’t realistic. The color of the feathers, the way they glow. Not like any finch in the real world. And the proportions are skewed. The finch is ten times bigger than the cat. It fills the whole room.”

“But it’s afraid of the cat anyway.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“Maybe because the finch is hunched and the cat’s kind of batting at it. Check out these claws. The tips are red.”

“Yeah, like with blood.”

“Exactly.”

Day shook her head. “I don’t have to take things apart. I see them whole.”

“There’s nothing whole. Everything is pieces.” Gee’s gaze played over her face and started her tingling just like his fingertips had. “The universe blew up a long time ago.”

Darkroom Cover

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Join the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour

The moment finally comes. The first copy of Darkroom arrives from the printer. Excited and anxious, I tear away the cardboard shell and behold the cover. It’s even more striking and sinister on the paperback than on the computer screen.The colors are deeper . The man lurking at the cover’s edge looks more compelling and mysterious. The designer has done a terrific job. I run my fingers over the glossy surface. Oh, it feels good.

Darkroom

I feel a bit shaky as I open the book. The interior is entirely my work, and although the PDF has been proofed by a professional and I’ve been over it  a dozen times, I fret that I’ve overlooked something so blatant and stupid that I’ll want to crawl into bed and hide beneath the covers. I thumb through the pages. The margins are right. The chapter headings look exactly as I’d envisioned, and none of them is out of place. The headings haven’t mysteriously vanished from any of the spreads.

Finally, my anxiety dies down. There’s probably an error lurking in there somewhere, but not a major error. I can relax and celebrate the launch of my newest novel.

Be sure to join me for the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour May 2-6, organized by the lovely people at Novel Publicity. You’ll get sneak peaks of the novel, interviews with me, and exclusive insights to the story and characters that make Darkroom a novel you won’t soon forget.

Enter the blog tour drawing for a shot at winning these special prizes:

  • A paperback of Larry Clark’s famous photo essay Tulsa. Darkroom features a talented photographer whose photos, like Clark’s,”uncover the secret of a face, its elusive life, so it becomes the portrait of an intimate you have yet to meet.”
  • A set of 10 custom note cards with envelopes, featuring a photograph of Boulder’s iconic Flatirons by moonlight. Photograph by Charles Pfiel.
  • Autographed copies of my dark fantasy horror novels Talion and Daemon Seer.
  • A $25 Amazon gift card.

Darkroom is a suspense thriller with a noirish atmosphere and unexpected twists. Art curator Kelly Durrell goes looking for her missing roommate, talented photographer Day Randall, and becomes entangled in a demimonde of powerful people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Here’s what advance readers and reviewers have to say about Darkroom:

“. . . tight, compelling, and convincing writing.”  — Jon A. Jackson, author of Hit on the House and No Man’s Dog

“A thriller with unexpected plot twists and suspenseful action.”  — RT Source

“Kelly Durrell is a deftly-drawn, intelligent, and likable heroine.”  — Daiva Markelis, author of White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life

“A solid mystery that involves a satisfyingly diverse range of characters.”  — D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“[Maddox’s] prose flows with beauty and clarity.”  — Tahlia Newland, author of The Locksmith’s Secret

The paperback is now available through Amazon and will soon become available through other online sellers. The Kindle edition is coming May 3, and you can preorder a copy right now at the special launch price of just $0.99. The price is going up at the beginning of next week, so don’t wait too long!

Book Reviews – The Bullet and Playing with Fire

I don’t post many negative book reviews. When I’m not connecting with a book, for whatever reason, I stop reading unless I’ve committed to reviewing it. And I don’t feel comfortable judging books that I haven’t finished. I liked Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet and Sherry D. Ficklin’s Playing With Fire enough to finish them. Despite their differences, the two thrillers share one quality that always draws me into a story: an engaging first person narrator with a distinctive voice.

Playing With Fire

This YA novel centers on Farris Burnett, a teenage hacker whose father is a Marine Corps officer. The story begins as he assumes command of Cherry Point air base and she enrolls in a new high school. When someone hacks the base computers and begins wreaking havoc, Farris sets out to find the culprit.

Playing with Fire CoverFarris has a strong voice, and the secondary characters are complex and interesting. Overall the writing is good, but the book could have used better editing. The author uses principal in a context that calls for principle, and there are a few confusing sentences.

The main problem with the novel is the plot structure. The hacking problem begins almost halfway into the story. Everything up to that point involves Farris’s life—her dead mom, her somewhat distant relationship with her father, the unfair ostracism she faced at her last high school, the challenge of making friends at the new one, the dilemma of liking two guys who hate each other. The characters introduced in the first half do play important roles in the hacking plot, but the author could have told readers what they needed to know in half the space.

The upshot is that Playing With Fire is more teen high school drama than it is thriller. This might not be a problem for the novel’s teen audience, but the book description led me to expect more suspense and less romance.

The Bullet

Caroline Cashion, a professor of French at Georgetown University, discovers that she’s adopted and has a bullet in her neck. The bullet has been there since she was three years old and her birth parents were shot and killed. I struggled with the premise. This woman is in her 30s and none of her doctors ever noticed the bullet lodged against her spine until it began causing symptoms? And her adoptive parents never told her anything about her origins? I was willing to give the improbability a pass because the first-person narration hooked me from the start.

The Bullet Cover 2Caroline flies to Atlanta to find out who her parents were and what happened to them. She learns that they were killed in their home and that the bullet passed through her mother before entering her. Removing it from an infant would have been too dangerous. The killers were never found.

While she’s busy talking with reporters and the detective who worked the case, her doctor shows up at her hotel. He’s flown all the way from Washington because he’s smitten with her. They strike up a romance. Later she finds out he’s married, making the subplot even more irrelevant than it already was. I have nothing against romantic subplots if they somehow advance the story. This one is mostly filler. It shows an aspect of Caroline’s character, that’s about all.

A reporter in Atlanta also tries to seduce Caroline, but he’s not as attractive as the doctor. He writes a story about her, though, and soon after her return to Washington, someone breaks into her apartment with the clear intention of doing her harm. Events escalate from there.

Caroline’s later actions surprised me since they seem to contradict her character. Readers are supposed to believe that the revelations about her past have changed her profoundly, but there’s nothing about her life beforehand that makes her behavior believable. Not to mention the unlikelihood of someone intelligent and mature traveling around the country shortly after dangerous surgery.

The story is well told, but the credibility issues and pointless romance put a drag on its momentum.

The Locksmith’s Secret – A Rich Narrative Tapestry

In The Locksmith’s Secret, Tahlia Newland has woven several narratives into a complex story about the joys and pitfalls of love and the enduring power of the imagination.

Writer Prunella Smith, whom readers may remember from Newland’s last book, Worlds Within Worlds, has found love with Jamie Claypole, an English transplant to Australia. The two are happy together, but Ella knows little about Jamie’s past. The gaps in her knowledge become apparent when Jamie is summoned home after his brother’s sudden death. All at once he becomes secretive about his family and where they live and how long he intends to stay with them.

The other narratives reiterate in various ways the problem Ella faces: whether to pursue Jamie and uncover his secrets or to reclaim the solitude she lost when he came to live with her.

Memories of unhappy past experience with a lover who abandoned her overshadow Ella’s hope for happiness with Jamie. Ella had been a ballerina with a promising career until a back injury forced her to give up ballet. Her lover, who was also her onstage partner, promptly discarded her once they could no longer dance together.

A Buddhist, Ella mediates regularly, and during meditation she’s transported into the world of Daniela, an Italian nun. On the brink of taking her final vows, Daniela finds herself attracted to the man who tends the nunnery’s garden. Like Ella, she faces an unexpected choice about the direction her life will take.

In addition, Ella has a recurring dream featuring a locksmith who may or may not be Jamie and who holds the secret to unlocking doors into countless other worlds, a metaphor for the creative and spiritual freedom that she seeks. She pursues the locksmith, but he seems always just out of reach.

Although troubled by Jamie’s secretiveness, Ella keeps writing fiction. Woven into The Lockman’s Secret is a steampunk novel that has taken hold of her imagination. The chapters appear as she writes them, and the story of intrepid reporter Nell and her efforts to uncover the villainy of Lord Burnett generates as much suspense as the main narrative. Like Ella, Nell values her independence and strives to prove her worth in the professional world. She worries that marriage to her employer’s son will mean the end of her career.

Newland interweaves all of these threads with consummate skill. Not once do they get tangled. Not once does the suspense flag, which is especially impressive in a contemplative novel like The Locksmith’s Secret. The credit goes to Newland’s mastery of narrative structure, to her concise and transparent prose that is eloquent without ever drawing attention to itself, and to her wonderfully varied and complex characters.

The worlds of Prunella Smith have a clarity and power that you won’t soon forget.

Cover Locksmith's Secret

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Return to Tanglewood

I found the paperbacks in a used bookstore. Their pages were yellowed and they had the distinctive smell of old books. New, they cost $0.60 and $1.25. They were A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s adaptations of classical myths for children, and when I was nine years old they were my favorite books. Or actually book. The book I read long ago was a hardback that contained both volumes.

So I bought the old yellowed paperbacks.

I remember reading them in the living room of my neighborhood friend ‘Alicia’. I was lying on the carpet, which had a swirly pattern that reminded me of waves. Alicia was a grave little girl. I liked her because we did things like read quietly together. It may be I borrowed the book from her rather than from the library. She had quite a few books.

At the time my brother and I and our mother lived with Nana, our grandmother and Mom’s ex-mother-in-law, in Ocean Beach, California. The two women had a complicated and sometimes tense relationship.

Nana ended my friendship with Alicia. Alicia’s mother didn’t invite me to Alicia’s birthday party because she couldn’t invite me without also inviting the other neighbor kids, including two sisters she disliked intensely. I understood. The sisters were nasty bullies and I didn’t like them either. But Nana didn’t understand. She took my not being invited as an insult. So when my birthday party rolled around, Nana allowed me to invite all the neighborhood kids except Alicia.

During the party Alicia came to the door. I still remember Nana’s hard voice as she spoke to Alicia through the screen, telling her she couldn’t come in and have cake with the rest of us.

Reading A Wonder Book again, I understand why I loved those stories so much. They must have been a challenge. I doubt my nine-year-old self knew words like erudition, vagrant, and audacity (and those are all in one sentence). But the truth is you don’t have to understand every single word when you read. Seeing a word like dominions the first time, you kind of guess the meaning from the context and can be pretty sure it meaning something like kingdom.

MinotaurHawthorne’s tales lifted me from everyday life into a world of magic adventures where the mysterious Quicksilver comes to the aid of Perseus as he sets out to slay the Gorgon, where greedy King Midas is cursed with a golden touch, and where Theseus  braves the labyrinth and battles the Minotaur. I got lost in those stories. As Hawthorne says in the preface (which I doubt I read back then), “No epoch of time can claim a copyright in these immortal tales. They seem never to have been made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish.” They awakened my love of fantasy.

But Hawthorne also gives the stories a frame. A group of children, brothers and sisters and cousins, are staying together at a beautiful estate called Tanglewood. They sit together on a spacious porch overlooking a misty valley, or beside a shady brook, while their college-age cousin Eustace Bright tells the stories.

Tanglewood seemed like paradise to me. It was a world without divorced parents or kids who were nasty bullies. The children in the book might tease one another gently, but they’re never mean. If one of them had a birthday party, all of the others would be invited. And if one of them showed up at the door, wanting to be let in, she wouldn’t be turned away.

A clone in the world

I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means. The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty— just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives are supposed to end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go Cover

A taxing week

There are kids who dream of growing up to be entrepreneurs. They set up lemonade stands at the end of 10K races. They seek out jobs stocking supermarket shelves or hawking mall fashions as soon as they’re old enough to work.

I wasn’t one of those kids. I put off getting my first job as long as possible, preferring to spend my summers reading books.

So it’s ironic that I find myself the president of a corporation.

Okay, it’s not much of a corporation. Its assets might keep a dog in kittles for a lifetime as long as the dog isn’t too large and price of kittles doesn’t skyrocket.

How did this happen?

A few years ago I decided to quit looking for another agent and publish my novel Talion on my own. A newbie to the world of publishing, I learned that a book must have something called an ISBN, a number that identifies it for cataloguing and marketing. There are several ways to obtain an ISBN free of charge, but whoever gives it to you is the publisher of record for your book.

If I was going to invest time and money to publish my novel, I wanted to be the publisher of record.

That meant becoming an official publisher. It’s easy to do. Just go to myidentifiers.com and buy a batch of ten ISBNs for a little less than $300. You’re now a publisher.

Logo Attempt 7-aI called my publishing company Cantraip Press. Cantraip is an archaic Scottish word meaning “magic spell.” I hired a graphic artist to design a logo with a Celtic flavor and I was ready to go. (Since then I’ve redesigned the logo.)

A year later, I agreed to publish Occasional Writers, an anthology by the Past~Forward Memoir Group, a group of local writers who meet twice a month to discuss each other’s work and hone their skill. Since the group is funded by our local arts council, I had to enter into a contract with a corporate entity as well as with each of the nineteen writers whose work would appear in the anthology. With advice from an attorney, I drafted the contracts myself.

Cover correct with type WebIt was time to separate my business obligations from my personal obligations and those of my husband. The press became an S-Corp, Cantraip Press, Ltd., which looks kind of cool on letterheads.

The process of incorporating isn’t difficult—fill out a form, pay some money to the State of Illinois, acquire a credit card for business expenses.

When the fiscal year ended, I thought vaguely about corporate taxes. Given that Cantraip Press, Ltd. had made only a few hundred dollars in profits, I doubted it would owe the government any tax. But I figured the government would expect me to submit a return, which I would prepare along our personal income tax returns.

Then at the beginning of April I got a letter from the IRS. Cantraip Press, Ltd. owed them $200, the penalty for failing to file a return by the deadline.

But, but . . . April 15 was two weeks away.

Was this some kind of sick April fool’s day joke perpetrated by the IRS?

The letter gave a phone number to call if I had questions. So I called. The lady who answered explained that corporate taxes are due on March 15. I apologized, telling her it was my first corporate tax return and I was clueless. She was kind enough not to laugh. Instead she put me on hold. A few minutes later she was back. Since I didn’t know about the March 15 deadline, she said, the IRS would waive payment of the penalty—this one time only.

Whoever said the IRS is heartless?

Every year since then, I’ve prepared my corporate tax returns, federal and state, and mailed them well before March 15. In May I mail off another form and a $100 check to renew the status of Cantraip Press, Ltd. as an official S-Corp in the State of Illinois.

But here’s the thing. I hate—just hate—keeping books and doing taxes. I have the requisite software programs, QuickBooks and TurboTax. They make the work easier, but they cannot make it interesting. For me it’s a slog. I can concentrate for hours on writing or editing or playing Scrabble, but ten minutes of bookkeeping spaces me out.

Between bringing QuickBooks up to date and doing the taxes, the last week of February was no fun. It would make sense to hire an accountant if my tiny corporation made any money. But it doesn’t.

Trace - Ebook SmallThe press has grown, though. It has published six books altogether, two by me and the rest by other authors. This spring Cantraip will release two more books, my novel Darkroom and a two-novella volume, Vibe/Sync, the second in Letitia Moffitt’s TraceWorld series.

I’ve had to buy more ISBNs. The truth is I like publishing books, I just hate balancing them.

Three ways to reap a profit from dead bodies

Most people would agree dead bodies are not a good thing. When one falls into your path, you step around or over it, or else you bury it with ceremony and weep. But there are a few enterprising folk who know how to make dead bodies work for them. One such creative entrepreneur is James Lewis, whose story is recounted by Joy Bergmann in her article “A Bitter Pill” in The Chicago Reader. Here’s a guy with oodles of initiative and imagination. He spots a dead body, and instead of thinking, “How sad!” or “Maybe I should call the police,” he asks himself three questions:

Does the dead body have money in the bank?

In 1978, Bergmann relates, the body of a Kansas City man named Raymond West was found dismembered in his attic. The body was too decomposed to determine a cause of death, but the cops soon learned Lewis had been lurking around the house after West’s disappearance and had cashed a $5000 check, supposedly signed by West. A business loan, Lewis insisted. Perfectly legitimate. After he was arrested, he told the cops the truth: Finding West dead in his home of natural causes, Lewis had done what any clever fellow would do — dismembered the body and hidden it in the attic, taped a note on the door so people would think West had gone on vacation, then helped himself to the checkbook. He was no killer! Only a scavenger.

Old House Smaller

For a while it seemed Lewis would be punished for showing some initiative, but he had an excellent attorney who glommed onto various procedural errors and argued eloquently:

“It’s one thing to kill somebody, it’s another to thing to dismember them after they’re dead. And while dismembering somebody after they’re dead is repulsive and repugnant, it’s not homicide” (qtd. in Bergmann).

Does the dead body scare the bejesus out of people?

In 1982 a wacko in Chicago bought several bottles of Tylenol, replaced the painkiller in some of the capsules with cyanide, and then replanted the bottles on various drugstore shelves. Some younger people might wonder how he put new plastic seals around the bottle caps. He didn’t have to. In those days bottles of over-the-counter medicine and vitamins were unsealed. After seven people died from taking the poisoned Tylenol capsules, that changed. We now have tamper-resistant packaging. James Lewis seized the opportunity to blackmail the company that made Tylenol, warning that more people would die unless he was paid a million dollars. Instead of being praised for trying to make lemonade from these unfortunate dead lemons, he was caught and sent to prison for extortion. Worse, the cops suspected him of being the wacko who did the poisoning. But they never made a case against him.  Of course not. His only crime was trying to generate some income.

The Tylenol poisonings remain one of the major unsolved crimes of the last century.

Do people want to read about the dead body?

In this case, the answer seems to be no.

Several years ago Lewis published a novel about — what else? — mysterious poisonings that spread panic through a community. He promoted the novel on his Web site as part of a campaign to uncover the truth about the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. To date, the novel has three reviews on Amazon.com. One of them, written by Lewis himself, extols the novel and awards it five stars. The second reviewer titles his review “The Only Book I’d Burn” and the third declares that Lewis isn’t getting any of his money. I usually disapprove of reviews by people who haven’t read the book, but not this time.

If the FBI doesn’t finally nail James Lewis, I hope he ends up in a nursing home where the caretakers treat him callously, ignoring his complaints about the unbearable pain that never leaves him. “Bring me some fucking Tylenol!” he’ll scream. And the attendant outside in the corridor, slumped in her chair, will turn another page of People magazine.

 

Joy Bergmann’s article is worth reading: A Bitter Pill