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Sneak peek: final cover for Darkroom

Last month I received several intriguing cover ideas from graphic designer Pete Garceau. Any of them would have made a great cover for Darkroom, so to help me choose, I polled readers to discover which one they liked most. Two clear favorites emerged.

Darkroom_1

This cover captures the sinister mystery of a forest in the mountains, a setting central to the story. It received 42% of the votes. I love the subtle colors in the image and way the trees form a tunnel at their center. I’ve seen similar covers on suspense novels, which isn’t altogether a bad thing. Readers generally want a cover to signal the genre of the story. Since Darkroom is psychological suspense, the cover with the mysterious forest does tell readers what they’ll get.

But ideally I want a cover that does more than its basic job.

The other finalist won the poll with slightly more than half the votes, not a huge enough margin to make it an overwhelming favorite. The white frame suggests an old-fashioned darkroom negative. (The photographer in the novel still works in a darkroom even though most others have moved to the digital format.) I like the way the man in the image is only half visible and part of him is outside the frame, eluding the camera. Because he’s partially hidden (or hiding) he becomes sinister. The purplish darkness adds to the effect.

Darkroom_9a

This cover evokes the mood of Darkroom perfectly, and it’s more distinctive than the other finalist. Perfect except for one thing—the man. His appearance is wrong for the story. None of the characters looks anything like this guy. so I went back and forth between these two very good but not ideal alternatives.

Then Pete Garceau went to the extra trouble of finding just the right model for the cover. Unlike the other one he faces the viewer with an ambiguous gaze that suggests menace or defiance. He looks like a bad guy with dark motives.

And that’s just what I want.

 

 

Darkroom Cover

 

Thank you to everyone who helped me choose!

Gifted Thief will steal your heart

The protagonist of Helen Harper’s urban fantasy Gifted Thief lives the first eleven years of her life without a name. An orphan among the Highland Sidhe, she’s so despised that no one bothers giving her one. She lives in a castle, the ward of a nobleman, ignored or bullied until she escapes to the world of human beings. There she makes a life for herself with the help of a newfound human friend, Taylor. She names herself Integrity.

Taylor is a thief, so Integrity enters that profession.

Years later, she’s working with him and a team of magical characters, each with specialized skills. They look for high value targets, so when Taylor hears about a rare sapphire kept in a bank vault, he dispatches the team to acquire it. Integrity and her friends scale the building and break into the vault — only to find the sapphire isn’t there! Worse, Taylor has been lured into the debt of dangerous people. He needs money fast.

Then the trap closes. The debt and the elusive jewel are part of a Sidhe plot to force Integrity back to their lands. But why? For years they haven’t bothered coming after her.

Except in the prologue, the story is narrated by Integrity, and one of the novel’s attractions is her voice. She’s a funny, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator — the most likable protagonist I’ve encountered in a while. The band of thieves are endearing in their kindness and loyalty to one another. And then there’s the comical genie trapped in the letter opener.

Overall, the story is a bit too sweet for my tastes until the Sidhe show up. They come off as arrogant, vain, and treacherous — an entrenched aristocracy interested only in wealth and power.

With one or two possible exceptions.

Byron, the handsome son of a clan leader, may be hiding goodness beneath his jaded playboy exterior. He’s attracted to Integrity and offers to help her. Although she’s attracted to him, she refuses to give him her trust. He’s a Sidhe and she despises them all. Worse, he’s one of the Sidhe who made her childhood miserable. The romance between the two follows a predictable course of miscues and misunderstanding.

But once she returns to Sidhe lands, Integrity needs his help. She can’t be choosy about her allies as it becomes clear that the clan leaders mean to kill her once they have no more use for her.

Despite the danger, her return finally gives her an opportunity to find out about her parents and who she truly is. The search for identity is a central theme in literature, and Integrity’s quest adds weight to a story that occasionally seems frivolous.

I began Gifted Thief thinking it was pleasant fluff. But Integrity changed my mind. She likes to crack silly jokes, but she’s serious about defending herself and protecting her friends. By the end I loved her and hoped for her eventual triumph.

Gifted Thief is the first book of Harper’s Highland Magic series. The next one, Honour Bound, will be released on February 29.

My Reading Hangups

I start every book meaning to finish. But sometimes I put the book down and never pick it up again. Here are a few of the reasons why . . .

I love to read fiction. That’s one reason I became a writer — to create those magical portals called books. I begin each story hoping to be swept away, so caught up that nothing else exists, but sometimes it fails to happen. After a few pages or a few chapters I lose interest and abandon the book, never to return. Here are a few reasons why:

The dreaded info dump

Exposition is necessary at the beginning of a story. Accent on necessary. Writers can overestimate how much readers need to know. Suppose you’re reading a story that opens with a family in a car bringing their daughter to college. You’re getting to know the family from the daughter’s point of view — their conversation, her thoughts and reactions. Then you come to two lengthy paragraphs of background info — how she feels about her stepdad, the financial struggles of her family over the past year, her hopes and dreams. Nothing in the paragraphs is needed to understand the present scene. All of it could have surfaced gradually.

Those paragraphs are like lumps of flour in stew that hasn’t been stirred enough. They distract from the flavor. They may even spoil your appetite.

Read the rest at Novel Publicity. While you’re there, enter the drawing for a $50 gift card.

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Who Is the Second Person?

Here’s a rerun of  an old essay on use of the second person for new readers who missed it the first time around. I’m kind of proud of this one. 

You don’t see much fiction in second-person point of view. You encounter plenty of characters who tell their own stories and all kinds of third-person narration, but only a few quirky narrators who address you the reader directly. Second person is unconventional and unexpected. Readers can be put off by its strangeness. There is also presumption in addressing readers directly, telling them what they they’re doing and thinking. The second person takes liberties, like a stranger who seizes your arm and tries to steer you where you hadn’t thought to go.

Sometimes it can be downright aggressive.

Point of view defines the relationship between the writer, the character, and the reader. In first person, a character speaks to the reader with the writer as an invisible medium. In the various modes of third person, the writer becomes visible and mediates between reader and character, creating a connection ranging from subjectivity that reveals every thought to the objectivity of a camera that shows only external action.

With second person this triangular relationship becomes complicated. While a third-person narrator is understood to be the author – or rather, a constructed version of the author – a second person narrator might be either the author’s persona or a character in the story, and might be speaking to the reader, to another character, or to itself.

In Albert Camus’ The Fall, the second-person perspective is unobtrusive in the beginning. The novel seems to be written in first person. The narrator, a former lawyer, speaks to an unnamed and silent listener. They meet in a bar in Amsterdam, and the narrator begins the story of his downfall. He continues the tale as they meet several more times over the next few days. It’s a story of lost innocence. Like Adam after the Fall, the narrator sees he is naked and understands that he — like every human being — is guilty. Several events contribute to the awakening. The most crucial happens while he is walking alone at night and sees a woman jump from a bridge. Rather than trying to rescue her or calling for help, he walks away.

The incident changes the narrator. He becomes self-conscious, a divided being: “My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double.” He looks at the world with new eyes. Although he is guilty, he is beyond judgment. No one is capable of judging him since they are equally guilty. Once an earnest believer in law, he rejects morality and the concept of justice. He explains to the listener:

If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves are constantly innocent . . . That’s what must be avoided above all. Otherwise everything would be just a joke.

At first the listener seems no more than a handy dramatic device. The narrator has to confess to someone. But it slowly becomes clear that the listener is part of the story; he is implicated. The narrator admits to stealing a valuable painting, and the listener could expose him. But he won’t. He sees himself in the narrator, just as readers do. The second person in The Fall includes not only the listener, but everyone. We’re all guilty.

In his short story “Videotape,” Don DeLillo uses second person narration directly. The story has no I, only you. The narrator is watching a video clip on the news. Filmed accidentally by a child, the clip shows a man being shot in his car by someone called the Texas Highway Killer. The narrator is obsessed with the clip and wants to watch it every time it appears on a news show. And he watches himself play out the obsession the way he would watch himself on video. He becomes an image of himself, objectified and placed in a framework for analysis:

You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast – a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending.

His thoughts stretch beyond his small obsession to reach the understanding that video has radically changed reality for him and everyone else in our culture. Even the killer’s modus operandi is inspired by video.

Second-person point of view is necessary to this story. It models the way video affects how we look at ourselves, shapes our thinking. It implicates readers, whose reality has been shaped by video whether they know it or not. It reveals our collective obsession with recording and replaying. Remember Rodney King’s beating by the police and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a half-time performance at the Super Bowl? Video clips of these events were aired hundreds of times on TV. They have become part of our collective reality, or as DeLillo describes it, “the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you are thinking.”

From these two examples, second person seems to be a technique for literary masters, but it’s available to any writer who cares to give it a shot. I wrote a section of my thriller Talion in second-person and present tense. A girl is enduring torture at the hands of a sadistic killer. I wanted the narrative to feel intense and immediate. First-person failed to convey the shattered state of a character whose personality is being destroyed along with her body and who struggles to hold onto a fragment of her personality.

I’m presumptuous, talking about my writing along with that of masters like DeLillo and Camus, as if I’m anywhere near their league. I write genre fiction, but I try to learn from the best. What matters is whether the technique works. If second person were wrong for the section, it would be a distraction. Apparently it’s not. Though a few readers have criticized Talion for its occasional shifts into present tense – something they think shouldn’t be done in genre fiction – no one seems to have noticed the second-person narration. Maybe the descriptions of torture are so harrowing that readers don’t notice she and her have become you and your and they’ve joined the victim beneath the killer’s knife.

As with any literary technique, second person works best when it has both a narrative and thematic purpose. Ideally, writers don’t up and decide to write in second person; they have a story that can’t be written any other way.

A small grief

The day I returned to work after my brother’s funeral, one of my former students, ‘Trevor’, dropped by to announce that his world had collapsed. His fiancée had dumped him for some guy with lots of money. He was going to drop out of graduate school and he didn’t give a shit what happened him anymore. I assumed, mistakenly, that Trevor wanted me to talk him out of his despair. I’ve never been much good at that kind of thing, but I gave it a shot.

He might see things differently in a few months, I pointed out. Why not finish the semester? Then he could take the summer to decide what he wanted to do.

No way, Trevor said. He was too devastated to go on.

I told him my brother had just died and I was still in shock, but I was teaching my classes. Not functioning at full capacity, maybe, but trying. I doubted it would ease my grief to sit around thinking about how much I missed my brother. It would probably make things worse.

“Sorry about your brother,” Trevor said, and then he added, “Well, at least your brother didn’t reject you.”

From Trevor’s perspective, his grief was more severe than mine because his fiancée’s desertion left him feeling worthless. Yet in ten years — if he didn’t kill himself or become a hopeless drunk — he might meet another woman, someone kinder and more deserving of his love. But no one could replace my brother.

None of us fully understands someone else’s pain or grief. We only imagine it based on our own experience. Although boyfriends have dumped me, none of them mattered as much as Trevor’s fiancée mattered to him. And supposing Trevor had a sibling who died, the two of them might not have been as fiercely close as my brother and I were.

The loss of anyone leaves a hole in your life, and the depth of your grief is roughly proportionate to the size of that hole. What did you share with the one who’s gone? How much of yourself did you give? Nobody knows that but you.

All of this brings me to Westie, my parakeet, who died on Christmas Eve. To many people the loss of a pet is unimportant, especially a small bird. But Westie meant a lot to me. I talked and sang to him every evening before I put him to bed. My husband talked and whistled to him every morning. As a result he knew quite a few words and chattered and sang to us every day until he fell ill. Some of his favorites were “Won’t you kiss me?” and “Smile when you say that,” and “That’s Mr. Westie to you.” He whistled the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Ride of the Valkyrie” and several other tunes.

He spent his last day snuggled against my chest while I wrote and read and watched videos on my iPad. That night I dozed in a recliner with Westie cupped in my hands. At four in the morning he fluttered away from me. I picked him up and he tried again to fly away. He wanted me to let him go. I placed him in his cage, where he died a few minutes later.

Only a parakeet, you can always get another one, but I felt like part of myself had flown away.

The loss of Westie is a small grief, but it hurts.

 

(The quotation is taken from Daemon Seer whren Lu’s parakeet, Foster, is bird-napped by daemons.)

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Help me choose a cover for my new novel

My new novel Darkroom is coming out next year. It’s a noirish suspense tale about a woman who searches for her missing friend, an old school photographer who has taken photographs that threaten some dangerous people. Here’s the description that will go on the back cover:

There’s plenty of room for another grave in the mountains . . .

Talented but unstable photographer Day Randall has been living rent-free in Kelly Durrell’s Colorado condo for eight months. Day needs someone to keep an eye on her. Kelly needs someone to draw her out of her stable but not spectacular life . The arrangement works for both of them.

Then Kelly comes home one day to find Day gone. There’s no note, no phone call. Day’s car is still parked out front, but her room is starkly, suspiciously spotless.

No one seems to care. The police certainly aren’t interested in a missing bipolar artist, but Kelly knows something is wrong. Day wouldn’t just leave.

Alone, Kelly traces Day’s last steps through shadowy back rooms of Boulder nightclubs and to a remote mountain estate, where the wealthy protect themselves behind electric fences and armed guards. Along the way, she uncovers a sinister underworld lying just below the mountain snow, and a group of powerful people who will do anything to protect the secrets hidden in Day’s enigmatic photographs.

If she trusts the wrong person, Kelly herself will be the next to disappear.

Graphic designer Pete Garceau has created some terrific images for the cover of Darkroom. Please take a moment and let me know which one you find most eye-catching and intriguing.

Include your email address if you wish to receive  announcements of exciting special offers and contests and be entered in the drawing for a $20 Amazon gift card. This part is optional. I’d love to have your feedback either way.

Click HERE to help me choose the cover for Darkroom.

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I was a teenage changeling

It would happen as I walked to school alone, or sat in the cafeteria with schoolmates chattering around me, or came home to find my mother had left work early and stopped at the liquor store for a fifth of vodka, now half empty. I suddenly knew this wasn’t my life. I belonged somewhere else, to different parents. Why they’d abandoned me I had no idea. They must have had a good reason, I thought, and someday they would return for me. I imagined my real parents as powerful, unearthly beings who could transport me in an instant to the unknown and hardly imaginable world where I belonged. They might come anytime, I told myself. One more minute and I could be out of there.

The reasons for my make-believe were plain to see. I was an introverted kid with not many friends. My mother was depressed and numbed her misery with alcohol. “I wish I was dead,” she said often. “If I had any courage, I’d find a gun and shoot myself.” My brother, Steve, the only one who shared my experience, had gone to live with our father in another town. But his absence hardly mattered. Something had changed between us since we became adolescents. The onset of adolescence probably had something to do with my feelings of strangeness as well. I hardly recognized my body anymore. Hardly recognized myself. I felt alone and insignificant, and my fantasy allowed me to feel special.

A changeling is a child left by fairies in exchange for a child stolen. An inferior, sickly thing left in place of what is precious, like the fake diamonds a jewel thief might leave to conceal his theft. I wanted to believe I was worth the trade. I wanted to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of my own life. But first I had to accept my life as it was. Once I did, things got better.

I worked harder in school and won encouragement from some of my teachers. I joined high school organizations and made more friends. After losing ten pounds and getting fitted with contact lenses, I found a boyfriend. And if I wanted to enter unknown and hardly imaginable worlds, I picked up a book or wrote a story. Eventually my stories and plays won national contests sponsored by Literary Cavalcade magazine, which led to a scholarship at Knox College, a school famous for its program in creative writing.

Looking back, I know my unhappiness wasn’t that unusual. I’ve met people whose childhoods were far worse than mine and who had the same sense of not belonging, of being an outsider. Now I value the experience. Though it caused me plenty of suffering then — and later — it made me a writer. It helped me imagine Lu, the hero of Talion and Daemon Seer, a teenager trapped in hopeless circumstances until the daemon Talion tells her who she truly is.

I wonder how many others have imagined themselves as changelings of one kind or another. I would like to know their stories.

I wrote another version of this post almost five years ago. Now that I understand my life better, the story has a happier ending.

CATALYST – Free eBook by Mary Maddox

What would you do to stay young and beautiful?

Melissa will do whatever it takes.

She has the wealth to buy eternal youth and destroy anyone who challenges her. Then she meets a young artist with a secret . . .

I’m offering my new short story Catalyst free to all subscribers of my newsletter. Here’s a short excerpt:

The young man in Melissa’s parlor stank of mildew and tobacco. The stench kept her from inviting him to sit, but she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was beautiful. His black hair fell in loose curls around his face. Wide blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones, full lips — an angelic face. “Do you smoke?” she asked.

“My girlfriend did.

“She quit?”

“We’re not together anymore, but the smell gets everywhere.” He studied the painting on the wall above the sofa. “That’s a Rothko. An original?”

“My husband acquired it not long before he died.” Melissa smiled. “You know something about art.”

“I’m a painter.”

Which explained why he needed money. The artists and writers were the saddest of all those Gerard brought to her. Doomed to awaken from their dream in a dark place, youth and hope gone. Nobody cared about their creations except family and a few friends. She felt a stab of sorrow for him. “What’s your name?”

“Chad. What’s yours?”

“You’re twenty-two, is that correct?”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat with a phlegmy rattling that alarmed her.

“Are you ill?”

“No, it’s just sinus. Allergies.” He spoke too fast.

“You’re sure?”

“That and the pollution. The air feels good in here. Pure.”

Something in his voice, a mix of bitterness and yearning, twisted her heart. She stopped the pity. It was one luxury she couldn’t afford. “I want you to take a hot shower. Would you like that?”

“Yeah, why not.” His nonchalance amused her, touched her a little. He couldn’t possibly afford a place in the city, not on his own. No doubt he lived in a cramped apartment with several others, and they all shared a slimy little bathroom half the size of her shower stall.

“Then Gerard will —”

“First I want to know what I’m getting.”

“Twenty thousand. Cash. Didn’t he tell you?”

“Not the money. The blood.”

Melissa studied her hands. Emerald polish gleamed on her shapely fingernails. No freckled spots yet, but the skin was starting to crepe. The hands of a middle-aged woman. The treatment would plump and smooth them. “Standard, from a blood bank. The donors were screened for disease.”

“How old were they?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “All ages, I suppose.”

Both of them knew better. The young sold to a more lucrative market than blood banks. Only the old and desperate traded a measure of their precious lives for a few dollars.

“So I should bounce back pretty fast?”

To read the rest of Catalyst, just subscribe to my newsletter using the button below or the form on the sidebar. Within 24 hours you’ll receive a message with a link to the download, available for Nook or Kindle.

I hope you enjoy the story!

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Have Your Hugged Your Driller Today?
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Memories of my brother

My brother’s birthday is coming up, but he won’t be around to celebrate it. He died of a heroin overdose in 1987. Here’s what I have left of him: The hardhat he wore as an oil exploration worker. The old trunk, plastered with decals, that held his clothes and books when he traveled. Old photographs. And of course my memories. Some of the photographs are inherited from my grandmother. On the back of each one she diligently noted the date it was taken and who was in the shot. I’m grateful to her for that. Sometimes I can’t recognize faces from long ago. Looking at them makes me sad. Steve died young. Life wasn’t always kind to him, and he wasn’t always kind to himself. The photos show how he grew. And changed. They stir memories that have been submerged a long time.

I don’t remember where or when this picture of Steve and me was taken. It looks like an airfield. Those are the Wasatch Mountains in the background. Steve and I used to make up stories for hours on end, speaking in the voices of the characters we imagined. Maybe that’s why I rely so much on dialogue in my fiction.

This one with me in the ridiculous dress was taken on Easter. Every year on Easter Sunday we went with Mom and Grandma to an all-you-can eat buffet, always the same one. Steve loved their pie. One year we noticed the restaurant had raised the price for children and blamed the increase on Steve. But I’ve attached that sweet memory to the wrong picture. We’re too young here. The buffet came later.

Here is Steve with Grandma. He was in high school then. Since he lived with Dad and I lived with Mom, we only saw each other on holidays and during summer vacations.

He was a party animal who could down a six-pack faster than anybody. His favorite novel was Crime and Punishment. He got straight and stayed that way for a year or so before he relapsed.

Steve and I lived a thousand miles apart and seldom saw each other as adults. But when we did, things were the same as they always had been. He never stopped being my brother.

The Threshold – urban fantasy at its finest

I’m always on the lookout for a good urban fantasy. I found a great one in R.L. King’s The Threshold, the third book in a series chronicling the adventures of mage Alistair Stone. Alistair is a white mage; he doesn’t power his spells by siphoning the life force of other human beings.  In The Threshold, Alistair and his companions, Verity Thayer and her brother, Jason, are battling an extra-dimensional enemy called the Evil that feed on human emotions and seek world domination. The trio must find and destroy the portals through which the Evil are invading this world.

As incorporeal beings the Evil can possess the bodies of most humans, but not the bodies of mages, although a few black mages allow themselves to be possessed  in exchange for the power the Evil  gives them. A mysterious group known as the Forgotten are also immune to possession. The special abilities of the Forgotten come with a downside: — they suffer from various mental disorders that make it difficult for them to function in society. Most of the Forgotten are homeless.

The story moves briskly without sacrificing the descriptive detail so necessary to this genre. The author weaves the magic seamlessly into a very concrete everyday reality. The extra-dimensional portal in the basement of an Indian restaurant, aptly named A Passage to India, seems as real and believable as a broom closet.

Alistair and his companions are altogether sympathetic. I prefer antiheroes, so this threesome is a bit too white magic for me. But their quirks and passions keep them from being bland. Englishman Alistair comes across as a typical college professor, unconventional and sometimes acerbic. His mysterious past makes him intriguing. Teenager Verity is both Forgotten and a mage. Apprenticed to Alistair, she is discovering her abilities as she wrestles with the problems of adolescence. Jason’s only gift is the ability to power Alistair’s spells without depleting himself, a kind of magical battery, but his fierce love for his sister makes him stand out.

Secondary characters are well-drawn, even those who make only a brief appearance. Eleanor Pearsall, the white mage in the opening chapter, is so sweet that it hurts when she’s ambushed by the Evil. And gray mage Trevor Harrison is so compelling that I wish he had a larger role in the story.

Later books in a series are tricky. Often the beginning gets bogged down by exposition or the story cannot stand on its own. King avoids both these pitfalls. She gives just enough information so readers can understand what’s going on. At times the Evil seems like an abstract menace, though, and the trio’s history with the Forgotten feels thin. After finishing The Threshold I backed up and read The Forgotten, which filled in everything that was missing — and more. The first book, Stone and a Hard Place, tells a separate story featuring Alistair Stone.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you don’t want to miss this series. You can read The Threshold first, like I did, but for the optimal experience, start with The Forgotten. Or better yet, Stone and a Hard Place. Once you enter the world of Alistair Stone, you won’t want to leave. And you won’t have to. The Source: Book Four of the Alistair Stone Chronicles, is coming soon.

 

 

The Threshold Cover

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Autobiographical fiction: I was there when none of this happened

Fiction writers often begin with autobiography, especially young writers. Life is painful and incomprehensible. Their stories cry out and struggle to comprehend the world. My early fiction was cathartic in this way. But I soon figured out that personal experience is limiting. The characters in autobiographical stories are distorted fragments of the people on whom they’re based, and what happened is often less significant than what might have happened.

There’s a sea of darkness beyond the uncertain light of memory. The truth is somewhere out there, and once my imagination enters the darkness, I abandon any pretence of autobiography. I’m not writing about actual people or events anymore. I’m writing about ghosts and dreams. The story can become anything.

I’d reached that point when I wrote “Mandarian Training School.”

Although rooted in experience, the story is fiction. Most of the events never happened, and the characters only loosely resemble people I met at a summer school for high-school students with mathematical ability at San Diego State University. The distinction matters. The story reflects my imagination, not any kind of objective reality.

At fifteen I was a year younger than most of the participants. People who know me now might be surprised that I applied and even more surprised that I qualified. My friends at Charleston Scrabble Club will tell you that I’m not exactly a whiz at keeping score. My interest in math is mild at best, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. These days I can barely solve a binary equation.

Mathematics is an elegant and challenging language. It expresses concepts that cannot be understood in any other way. As a child I loved math. The summer in San Diego changed that. Emotionally I was unprepared for the workload or the competition. I worked my butt off and felt like the stupidest person in the program. But when I received our class rankings some months later, my name appeared in the middle of the list. I wasn’t a failure. Only mediocre. Somehow that seemed just as bad.

“Mandarian Training School” chronicles my emotional struggle during that summer long ago. And yes, writing it was cathartic. In retrospect, it marked a milestone for me as a writer, the point where I broke away from personal experience and learned to see in the dark.

Read the story here.

 

Image from fotolia.com

“You just like looking at that blond psychopath.”

This is my husband’s acid comment when he catches me watching an episode of Sons of Anarchy for the second time. It annoys Joe when I view TV shows more than once. He and a coauthor write books on film and eco-criticism, and they study certain movies over and over to analyze them. Maybe he wonders why I would subject myself to the monotony for no productive reason. Or maybe the obsessiveness of my behavior disturbs him. (He’s threatened to divorce me if I re-watch another series that shall remain unnamed.)

The blond psychopath he’s referring to is Jax Teller, hero of Sons of Anarchy, played by Charles Hunnam. And yeah, I like looking at Jax. A more macho version of Brad Pitt, Hunnam frequently displays his lean, muscular, elaborately tattooed body in the shower and in bed. He talks in a flat, kind of dumb California accent and — in the early seasons before experience hardens him — walks with the swagger of a juvenile delinquent. Somewhere inside me, a sixteen-year-old self is altogether smitten. “He’s so tortured,” the sixteen-year-old sighs. “He’s good at heart, I just know.”

For those who missed the series, it follows the exploits of the Sons of Anarchy, a biker gang who make their living as gunrunners. They buy weapons from the IRA and sell them to other gangs, who seem to go through them the way a whore goes through condoms. The Sons style themselves as a motorcycle club and have a clubhouse at the Teller-Morrow automotive repair shop in the bucolic town of Charming, California. They even have their own acronym, SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original), pronounced Sam Crow. The townsfolk call them Sam Crow as if they were one individual, which is about right. Like any gang, they’re a tight-knit group with one set of rules among themselves and another set for the outside world.

However likable they seem at times, the Sons are psychopathic ruffians. Hardly an episode goes by without them gunning down two or three dozen people. If they walked into the bar where I was sipping my non-alcoholic beer, I’d head for the nearest exit. Slowly. I wouldn’t want them to notice me. Yet I can’t get enough of them on screen.

Episode-5-12-Darthy-Promotional-Photos-sons-of-anarchy-32833730Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the grizzled club president, is one of nine founding members of the Sons. Another is John Teller, who died years ago in shadowy circumstances. It’s gradually revealed that Clay and John’s wife Gemma (Katey Sagal) — now married to Clay — caused John’s death. As John and Gemma’s son, Jax is heir apparent to the club’s leadership. He eventually takes over from his unwilling stepfather.

The other Sons, in fact all the show’s characters, are given enough complexity to make them real. Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) earns extra cashes for alimony payments by performing as an Elvis impersonator. It’s hard to reconcile the overweight, sequined guy on stage with the hitman who guns down a venal government official. Tig (Kim Coates)  is eager to pull the trigger but tortured by guilt afterward when his bullet hits the wrong target. Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) burns for vengeance against the psycho IRA guy who sliced his face from ear to ear and stole his wife and daughter. Wayne Unser (Dayton Kallie), Charming’s chief of police, has been in bed with SAMCRO for decades and at times almost seems like a member of the club. He’s in love with Gemma. When she’s framed for murder and on the run, he aids her without a moment’s hesitation.

Jax finds himself torn between his father’s idealism, as revealed in the journal he left, and the hard pragmatism and ambition of Clay and Gemma. His ambivalence about the club’s criminal enterprises drives much of the conflict within the family.  There are echoes of Hamlet, with Jax as the brooding son and Clay as the uncle who has taken his dead brother’s wife. Gemma, however, is no foolish Queen Gertrude. She’s more like Lady Macbeth without the guilt.

When Jax marries his childhood sweetheart, Tara (Maggie Siff), Gemma’s connection to her son is threatened. A skilled surgeon, Tara stitches up the Sons’ gunshot wounds and learns to shoot a gun, but she doesn’t want the outlaw life for their children. She urges Jax to abandon the Sons. He also wants something better, but his loyalty to the club and lack of middle-class job skills keep him from walking away. After Clay cedes the presidency to him, he tries to move Sons out of gunrunning and into pornography, a less violent business, but various forces work against against him. Tenuous alliances with other gangs and with the IRA suppliers depend on the continued arms trade. Feuds with other gangs and various federal investigations require his immediate attention. And both Gemma and Clay want things to remain as they are.

Clay will do whatever it takes to protect himself and SAMCRO. He coldly orders the death of Opie (Ryan Hurst), a brother he believes has turned rat. Opie has been set up by villainous ATF agent June Stahl (Ally Walker), but Clay doesn’t know that. When Opie’s wife is killed by mistake, Clay feels — kinda bad, but not bad enough to fess up. The truth would destroy the club and turn Jax against him since Opie is Jax’s best friend. So he deflects blame onto a rival gang, leading to needless killing.

Tara discovers the truth about John Teller’s death. Clay tries to have his daughter-in-law killed. The attempt fails, so he settles for destroying evidence and killing a club member in whom Tara confided. Once again he deflects blame onto another gang. More needless killing.

newclubimage-sons-of-anarchy-37962003Knowing that Tara is serious about leaving Charming for good, Gemma frames her daughter-in-law for a crime and testifies against her. To save Tara from prison, Jax makes a deal. If the DA’s drops the charge against Tara, he’ll plead guilty to one of the many crimes he’s committed. It comforts him to know his children won’t grow up to be outlaws. Gemma learns that Jax is going to be arrested and assumes Tara has ratted him out to save herself. In a rage Gemma stabs Tara with a carving fork and drowns her in a sink of dirty dishwater. A brutal scene, but far from the worst in this series.

Jax goes crazy after his wife’s death. Gemma fingers an Asian ganger for the murder she committed, leading to yet more needless killing. (Seeing the pattern here?) Of course Jax wants revenge. He tortures and kills the poor guy. Brutally. At great length . . . Well, at least he strips off his shirt before getting to work. Those muscles and tattoos look good even with blood on them.

 

Photos courtesy of always fabulous fanpop.com.