BOOK REVIEW—BIG LIZARD BY JOE LANSDALE

Reading

Friends, family members, and probably a good number of perfect strangers, know that I read a lot, and their first question (actually their second question, the first is usually what are you reading now?) tends to be who’s your favorite author? My answer to that question has changed over the years, but nowadays, more often than not, I say Joe Lansdale.

Lansdale writes a little bit (actually a lot) of everything—horror, crime fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, you name it. He does it all well, and with the Hap & Leonard books, he’s writing the most consistently entertaining ongoing series currently in existence.

All of this is to say that I was tickled ten shades of pink to be able to read Big Lizard, a new novel he wrote with his son Keith. Big Lizard is available for pre-order now (https://subterraneanpress.com/big-lizard) from Subterranean Press, and will be published in October. Jump on the bandwagon now, kids, this one’s a keeper! If you’ve read Lansdale’s Drive-In novels, he’s playing in the same sandbox here. Much like those novels, this is balls to the wall, gonzo storytelling at its finest. It features a rag-tag group of heroes, including an overweight security guard, a talking chicken with an eye patch, and a teenage tech genius who lives in an abandoned Noah’s Ark replica. Oh yeah, the security guard metamorphosizes into the Big Lizard of the title. There’s a deadly supernatural ritual that goes horribly wrong, and some interdimensional travel into the literal fires of hell. Also, lots of fried chicken and biscuits.

Did I mention the giant, homicidal chicken? There’s a giant, homicidal chicken, who turns out to be Big Lizard’s nemesis. Because, what Big Lizard also is, is a super hero origin story, and every super hero needs a nemesis. The Lansdale team delivers in every way here. Big Lizard is laugh-out-loud funny, profane, and brimming with cartoony violence. It’s also brimming with startlingly original language. Both men have a gift for describing what should be indescribable.

Do yourself a favor, and pre-order this novel now. You’ll be glad you did.

POEM—SAILOR ON AN ALIEN SEA

Writing

I woke to the pitch and the roll of the deck,
with a rope at my neck and rough planking beneath me,
the foaming white sea spray trying to reach me,
the sky a dark yellow that whirled above me,
and two pale red suns that the sky bled and ran.
I felt a soft touch and my fingers met silk,
and a girl with no eyes took me up by the hand.
Guided by fingers that slid along railing,
her hair whispering back to the sea wind’s lost wailing,
she led me past crewmen that bent at their oars.
With lean muscles straining and braided hair trailing,
they sliced at the water that tumbled and roared.
Each face looked up as we walked slowly past,
and each face was eyeless, from one to the last.
She led to a place at the end of the oars.
I sat and took hold of the long wooden handle,
and lost myself soon in the rhythm and pull,
in the flapping of wings and the screaming of gulls,
in the slapping of water ‘gainst the barnacled hull,
in the two suns that set and the three moons that rise,
in the dark yellow sky that whirls and sighs.
I am a sailor on an alien sea.
I have only the gulls to talk to me.
I have only the wind to hold me up straight and tall,
only my eyes to search for a shore that we never will see.
And a long ago dream that answered the call.

BOOK REVIEW: A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT BY BECKY CHAMBERS

Reading

I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers a couple of years ago. I went in blind, knowing only that it generally fell into the category of space opera, and that it had good word of mouth. That good word of mouth didn’t begin to prepare me for the delights of this novel. Chambers gave me a fully realized spacefaring future, then layered in quirky, fully realized characters, highly developed yet believable tech, a captivating story, and one more thing that catapulted it into the stratosphere: the best, most humane AI I have ever read.

As it turned out, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was actually the first in the Wayfarer series. A Closed and Common Orbit, the second book in the series, is, if anything, even better. It follows a couple of characters from the first novel as they make their way through an adventure planet side, while simultaneously taking us through the harrowing childhood of one of those characters.

Chambers is firing on all cylinders here. The environments are richer and more complex, the stakes higher, the space opera aspects of the story a ridiculous amount of fun. We are introduced to a wider, more varied assortment of alien civilizations, and each one is fully realized.

The journey Chambers began with AI in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is amplified here. She writes AI characters that are just as real, and just as humane, as the humans and alien lifeforms that populate the novel. A Closed and Common Orbit has a lot to say about the nature of sentience, about what makes someone who they are. Chambers writes with warmth and confidence, but also with a questioning intelligence, about family structures, friendships, and gender roles. All this, and a rollicking nail-biter of a story.

In case it’s not obvious, I loved this novel! The third book in the series, a stand-alone called Record of a Spaceborn Few, is already on my TBR stack.

SONG LYRIC—HEAVEN (BETTER BE SOMETHING SPECIAL)

Writing

We haven’t spent a night apart
Since I first took your hand in mine
Our lives forever joined together
Like grape vines intertwined
We’ve driven down some bumpy roads
Without a light, without a map
The two of us we always knew
We’d somehow make it back

(chorus)
I don’t need a choir singing
I don’t need angels winging
I don’t need a cloud with a view
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you
I don’t need those golden gates
I’m in no hurry, I can wait
I don’t need a sign to know it’s true
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you

Images of days long past
Like breadcrumbs floating in wine
Surface now and then
Golden moments out of time
Every time I lose myself
In long forgotten memories
And travel back on through the years
Your smiling face is all I see

(chorus)
I don’t need a choir singing
I don’t need angels winging
I don’t need a cloud with a view
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you
I don’t need those golden gates
I’m in no hurry, I can wait
I don’t need a sign to know it’s true
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you

BOOK REVIEW: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Reading

Grady Hendrix is the author of several well-received horror/comedy hybrid novels, including My Best Friend’s Exorcism, We Sold Our Souls, and the recent The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I first got to know him through Paperbacks from Hell, his deep dive into the glorious world of 70s and 80s paperback horror fiction, for which we share a profound love.

I have a confession, which is that, despite having been told for years that Hendrix is the real deal, Horrorstör is the first of his novels I’ve read. I’ve had it on my TBR stack for a while, and my son kept telling me how much I would love it, but there are just so many damn books in the world, and so little time. Finally, I read that Horrorstör had been optioned for a movie, so I pulled the trigger. I’m so glad I did!

Horrorstör takes place over the course of one night in an Orsk Furniture Superstore in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Orsk is patterned after Ikea, right down to the individual room settings and the nearly pathological design of the path through the store. The morning shift has been arriving to unexplained nightly damage—broken furniture, smashed glasswork, disruptions in the pristine store layout. In order to solve this riddle and get the store back on track, three store employees (and two other employees with their own agenda) stay the night to discover just what’s going on.

The novel begins as a relatively light-hearted romp. Hendrix has an easy way with humor, as he allows it to occur naturally from the characters we meet, and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not forced. He takes his time, letting us get to know, and mostly like, these people. They’re three dimensional, not stock, cardboard characters. Then darkness, and madness, descends, and let me tell you, Hendrix can write the hell out of all-out horror. Once he starts twisting the screws, shit gets real. He has a masterful sense of pacing as he puts these characters I’ve come to identify with through the wringer. This is scary stuff.

That’s the basic set-up, but it’s not what makes this such a memorable novel. See, Hendrix is either one helluva researcher, or he’s spent a lot of time in Ikea, because his attention to detail, his sense of place, the specificity he brings to the story, is what puts this book over the top. Horrorstör looks and feels like an Ikea catalog, from the shape of the book, to the illustrations that pepper the pages and become increasingly macabre the deeper you delve. He puts you in the store with such a solid, concrete reality, that when the supernatural mayhem begins twisting and shredding that reality, it’s that much more jarring. Everything about Horrorstör, every little detail in book design, adds a richness to the novel.

On a personal note, when I say Hendrix gets the details right, that extends to the Cleveland setting. As a Cleveland native and fan, I get annoyed when writers are sloppy about describing my city. Hendrix is dead on. I could hop in my car and drive to the Orsk store.

Horrorstör was published in 2014, and I’m sorry it took me this long to read it. Get it now, before the movie comes out, and be prepared to be thoroughly frightened, and thoroughly entertained.

BALLAD—DARILYN, BEGIN AGAIN

Writing

In my head, I’ve always heard this one as a strummy but driving folk song, something like what the Indigo Girls might do.

On an island not on any map, on a rocky, windswept bay,
sits a rough and tumble harbor town that goes by Devil’s Cay.
The fishing boats set out each day with morning still a dream,
and straggle back long after dark, another day redeemed.
The longshoremen and sailors come with pockets full of pay
to Darilyn’s, the finest tavern in all of Devil’s Cay.
They come to drink, and talk, and fight, and tell a tale or two.
They come to laugh at stories that were old when they were new.
But every night at ten o’clock, wherever she may be,
the dark haired beauty behind the bar looks out across the sea.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim,
with eyes cast down she looks within,
and dreams of how it might have been,
her song so sad that eyes begin
to well with tears for her and him.

They say it happened long ago, when she was just a girl,
and a sailor name of Captain Jim was the center of her world.
Jimmy was a handsome lad, and many a lady tried,
but the slender waif named Darilyn was the apple of his eye.
He pledged that they would marry on the day she turned eighteen,
but all that ended one March night when the wicked sea turned mean.
Jimmy saved a dozen men, then saved a dozen more.
As the clock struck ten his ship went down and Jimmy was no more.
Now every night at ten o’clock, wherever she may be,
the dark haired beauty behind the bar looks out across the sea.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim,
with eyes cast down she looks within,
and dreams of how it might have been,
her song so sad that eyes begin
to well with tears for her and him.

Tonight there’s something magic in the air at Darilyn’s,
and all eyes are upon her as the clock approaches ten.
Now the door swings slowly open on a ghost from days long past,
and Captain Jim says, Darilyn, I’ve made it home at last.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim.
With smile wide she looks at him,
and wonders what tomorrow brings.

With smile wide she looks at him,
and wonders what tomorrow brings.

BOOK REVIEW—THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT BY CHARLIE JANE ANDERS

Reading

I first discovered Charlie Jane Anders through her work as editor-in-chief of io9.com, one of my favorite websites. I found her to be at all times smart, thoughtful and passionate. When I started reading her short fiction, all three of those descriptors also applied there (her story “6 Months, 3 Days” won a Hugo), with the addition of an unfettered imagination. I loved Ander’s first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. Many others did, as well—it won a Nebula, and was a Hugo finalist.

I think her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, is even better.

The novel is set on a planet called January, where the straggling remnants of a generation ship from Earth landed long ago. January is a tidally locked world, with a permanent day side and night side. Humans live in two ancient, decaying, politically-at-odds cities, both clinging desperately to the only habitable area along the sliver of twilight between day and night. Outside the cities are dangers untold, including a blood-thirsty race of monsters that may not be what they seem.

Anders excels at world-building and creating fully realized, believable characters. Each city has a history, a complex web of politics and culture that instantly drew me in. The main human characters are equally complex and compelling, their relationships and friendships in constant flux, their joys, heartbreaks, loves, and terrors fascinating to follow. I felt for, and at times rooted for, each of them in turn. There’s palace intrigue, death-defying action, big set pieces, and small, achingly real moments.

Notice I said the main human characters. Where I think The City in the Middle of the Night really ignites, where I think it just may become a new classic, is in its description of an alien race that shares the planet. Talk about world-building. This is world-building on a grand scale that brought to mind, for me at least, Dune, or perhaps The Left Hand of Darkness. Anders treats us to an entire, densely thought-out, thoroughly alien civilization, describing, in an organic way, their technology, their culture, their art forms.

This is bravura writing, and I can’t wait to see where Anders takes us next. Which, speaking of, The City in the Middle of the Night ends on an open-ended note that makes me hope she returns to January sometime in the future.

SONG LYRIC—I’D RATHER GO CRAZY (THAN NEVER GO ANYWHERE AT ALL)

Writing

I can’t play or sing a lick, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a few songs recorded by various singers/songwriters. This one hasn’t been, but it’s one of my favorites, so I’m keeping my hopes up it will happen some day.

when I first met Tracy she was walking the ledge
outside my window, toes over the edge
she tapped on the glass, threw me a smile
that was a little bit crooked, a little bit wild
she stepped through the window like she did it all the time
said, hey how are ya, thanks I’m fine
or so I’ve been told–then she started to laugh
and that’s what I remember when I think about our past

she said, I used to walk the tightrope and swing on the trapeze
well, not really, but don’t you think that’s a cool thing to be?
did you ever tap dance ten floors up and know you just can’t fall?
you know, I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

we talked that night for what seemed like hours
but when she left I didn’t know a damn thing about her
can’t really say that night was the start of some big love
but that crazy girl with the crooked smile fit me like a glove
Tracy had her problems, I knew that going in
I could live with her addictions as long as I was one of them
I get high on life, she’d say, but smiling when she said it
there’s a lot of turns I’ve taken wrong, but I never will regret it

she said, I used to walk the tightrope and swing on the trapese
well, not really, but don’t you think that’s a cool thing to be?
did you ever tap dance ten floors up and know you just can’t fall?
I believe I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

she’d disappear for days on end, never tell me where
huddle in the corner, say, you know life’s just not fair
from the giddy heights of ecstasy to the bottom of her soul
Tracy was the pilot, but she never had control
I knew one day her dance would take her too close to the edge
I knew one day her fingertips would slip off from the ledge
I knew our time together was a trip that had to end
but I didn’t know how much it hurts to lose your dearest friend

Tracy used to walk the tightrope, and swing on the trapese
and if she said she did it, well, that’s good enough for me
I never learned to tap dance and ten floors is just too tall
but I think I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

SONG LYRIC: HELLBOUND

Writing

This is my attempt at a sort of noir song lyric. I always pictured Johnny Cash singing it.

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
high whine of sirens following me
back country roads, gravel and dirt tracks
carry a full load, U-turns and switchbacks

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
trying to get by but nothing is free
across the state line, getting lost in the shadows
biding my time, retreating from battles

travel at night, sleep through the day
stay out of the light, finding my own way
keeping in touch with the man with the money
playing my hunches, sometimes it’s funny

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
no one can follow what no one can see
doing my work, each job as it comes
wherever they lurk, just keep myself numb

slipping through shadows, feeling the fear
nothing worth loving, nothing held dear

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town
hellhound, holed up in hell town

TWO SF&F AUTHORS I DON’T HEAR MENTIONED ENOUGH ANY MORE

Reading

My coming of age, reading wise, happened throughout the 70s. That’s when I went from discovering The Martian Chronicles and I, Robot during the same week in my junior high library to becoming the hardcore science fiction and fantasy fan I’ve been ever since. A lot of the authors responsible for my lifelong journey are relatively household names, at least for folks who read within the genre. I’m thinking about golden age writers like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Sturgeon, Bester, Farmer, and Pohl (to name just a few off the top of my head). And the “new wave” writers who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s, like Ellison, Silverberg, Malzberg, Dick, Russ, and Tiptree, Jr.

But a couple of the authors that really set my imagination ablaze, that solidified my love for the genre, don’t get talked about much these days. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter. I’m sure someone will read these two names and say, “Hey, that’s my favorite writer!” That would make me ridiculously happy, because these are authors I truly love.

R.A. LAFFERTY
Neil Gaiman once said that, for a while at least, Lafferty was the best short story writer in the world. I couldn’t agree more. His stories, many of which I read as I worked my way through the Orbit anthology series, are whimsically strange, wonderfully quirky, and all-together incandescent. I can tell a Lafferty story, even one I haven’t read before, within one or two sentences. He takes complex ideas, outrageous but humane characters, and startlingly original language, and whips it all together into something that should never work, but always does. He also wrote a bunch of excellent science fiction novels, some historical novels, and one of the finest books about Native American life I’ve ever read, Okla Hannali. But it’s his short stories—shaggy dog folk tales, darkly comic, undefinable—that should be remembered and celebrated.

TOM REAMY
If R.A. Lafferty isn’t as well know as he should be, Tom Reamy really isn’t as well known as he should be. Like many other great writers, Reamy started out in fandom, including editing a well-regarded fanzine that made the final Hugo ballot more than once. When he started writing fiction, the stories came fast and excellent—he sold his first two on the same day. Altogether, Reamy wrote just thirteen stories and one novel. The stories—Twilla, San Diego Lightfoot Sue, The Detweiler Boy, Beyond the Cleft, and the others—are darkly imaginative, the literary stepchildren of Harlan Ellison by way of Ray Bradbury. Speaking of Bradbury, Reamy’s debut novel, Blind Voices, concerns a sinister traveling circus traveling through 1920s rural Kansas. It’s a richly imagined work that pairs nicely with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Sadly, Reamy died from a heart attack at just 42, which at least partly explains why more folks don’t know about him. Search his stories out, he’s that good.

Trapped in Lunch Lady Land

Writing

In 2013 CBAY Books (which, I was happy to discover, stands for Children’s Brains Are Yummy Books) held their first writing contest, and I was the first winner in the Middle Grade category. The manuscript I won with clocked in at 15,000 words, but my wonderful editor, Madeline Smoot, suggested it would be a much stronger novel at 30,000 words. Turns out she was right.

Fast forward to 2014, and Trapped In Lunch Lady Land was born. Did my life change? Was I able to quit my job and become a full time author? Nope. But having a published novel was way up there on the bucket list. I had a book signing event at my local Barnes & Noble (no indie bookstores in my neck of the woods, unfortunately), which was a blast.

The very best part of the whole publishing experience, though, was doing school visits. I did a bunch, reading to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, taking questions, and generally being flabbergasted by just how smart and funny they were. Kindergartners wanted to know what kind of pets I have, and told me in great detail about theirs. By fifth grade they were asking how advances work.

So what’s Trapped In Lunch Lady Land about? Here’s the elevator pitch:

Josh and Patty Anne aren’t exactly the best of friends (ok, they detest each other), but after they both end up trapped somewhere beneath their school in a land made completely of school cafeteria food, they quickly learn they have to work together if they want to survive. With the help of some unusual friends they meet along the way, the two must brave countless dangers unlike anything in the normal world. If they can survive the skybeater, the canisaurs and the tater-tot throwing ladle monsters, Josh and Patty Anne might just make it home alive.

Interested? Know an eight to eleven year old boy or girl who might be interested? You can check it out on Amazon at:

Here I am doing a school visit!

A Few of My Favorite On-Going Series

Reading

Because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and because a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers struggle to contain their imaginations to just one volume of work, I have read, and continue to read, quite a few book series. It could be worse, actually. I don’t read much epic, heroic fantasy, where series often seem to run into double digits.

And, for the sake of this post, I’m only going to mention series that are on-going, with new books still to come. If not, this would be a very different list, with trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials, and series like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels.

In keeping with this narrow focus, here are a few of the on-going book series I love. In some cases, I’m all caught up and waiting impatiently for the next book. For some of these, I’ve started the series recently and have a wonderful backlog to work my way through.

WAYWARD CHILDREN, OCTOBER DAYE and INCRYPTID, all by SEANAN MCGUIRE
The only thing more impressive than McGuire’s prolificness (Is that a word? If not, I’m going with it anyway.) is her talent. Her Wayward Children novellas have redefined portal fantasy. The story of what happens to children when they come back from fantasy worlds, each book is a perfect gem of lyrical storytelling, unfettered imagination, and sometimes heartbreak. There are currently five books in the series, with a new one coming this year. The October Daye novels are urban fantasy at its best, set in a beautifully realized San Francisco, at the intersection between the human and fairy worlds. October herself is a private investigator with one foot in each camp. I’ve read the first four of the twelve novels so far published, and I can’t wait to read more. The InCryptid novels are also urban fantasy, and concern a family of cryptozoologists, who for generations have been trained to keep the peace between humans and cryptids, the mythological creatures who live secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, among us. I recently read the very first novel in the series, Discount Armageddon, so I have at least four more to go to get caught up.

HAP AND LEONARD by JOE LANSDALE
Hap and Leonard are best friends and running buddies. They’re not exactly criminals, although they sometimes stomp all over the line, and they’re not exactly lawmen, although they work as private investigators in later novels. Through twelve novels, several novellas and a bunch of short stories, Hap and Leonard cruise the backroads of East Texas, getting into scrapes and raising hell. The books are violent, scatalogical, and uproariously funny as long as you’re not easily offended. There are also three seasons of an excellent Hap and Leonard TV series now available on Netflix.

SANDMAN SLIM by RICHARD KADREY
Sandman Slim is part human, part demon, and all badass. This series is set in a Los Angeles alive with all manner of monsters, angels and demons, with detours to heaven, hell, and all points in between. Kadrey has a real gift for magic and mayhem, and he backs it up with a deep knowledge of religious mythology. Stark (Sandman Slim) is a deeply flawed and altogether original character, and his cast of supporting characters are all equally engaging. The next Sandman Slim novel debuts this year.

These are just a few of the series that make me happy. You really can’t go wrong with any of them!

BOOK REVIEW: THE LAST SUPPER BEFORE RAGNAROK BY CASSANDRA KHAW

Reading

I first became aware of Cassandra Khaw and her novel The Last Supper Before Ragnarok on Twitter, where folks whose opinion I respect, many of them authors, raved about it. Turns out they were absolutely right!

One thing, though, right off the bat. Reading this novel was a sometimes disorienting experience for me. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of the story, and there were things I had to puzzle out, connections I had to make, character motivations I had to work to understand. As it turns out, that’s on me, because The Last Supper Before Ragnarok is actually the third novel in a trilogy, Gods & Monsters. I’m generally (okay, always) a stickler for reading a series in order, so I have no idea how I missed this. I blame my Kindle, where I tend to skip over the stuff I’d probably notice on a book cover.

Also as it turns out, it didn’t really matter, because I loved this book. What’s it about? Glad you asked! A ragtag group—a quasi-immortal chef who keeps dying but can’t stay dead, a god killer, a snake woman assassin, and a prophet, along with the entire internet personified as a young woman—road trip in search of the father gods, the ancient deities, in order to stop ragnarok. Apocalyptic mayhem, and several meals, ensue.

The real star here is Khaw’s prose. Thrilling, muscular, violent and anarchic, her language shimmers and shouts. There are laugh-out-loud moments of humor that punctuate the propulsive plot, and quietly heartbreaking moments as well. The Last Supper Before Ragnarok travels some of the same ground as Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods, but it definitely does not suffer in comparison. This novel could not be different in outcome or execution. Khaw is a writer of uncompromising skill, and she’s distilling real magic here.

I wish I had read this trilogy in correct order, but make no mistake, the first two novels will be heading to the top of my TBR pile.

MORE GREAT NOVELS THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD OF

Reading

There are a lot of novels I’ve discovered, either by accident at the suggestion of others, that I think deserve a wider audience. Give these books a read, and give them some love!

LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS by Kirsten Bakis
I found a used paperback copy of this in a little bookstore in Greenwich Village, and was intrigued enough by the cover to take it home. Best decision ever. As it turned out, this was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, so it’s not exactly unknown, but I never hear it mentioned. Isolated deep in a forest compound, a cruel but brilliant surgeon creates a race of monster dogs. Through Island of Dr. Moreau style experimentation, surgical butchery, and genetic engineering, the dogs gain human intelligence, the ability to speak and walk on their hind legs, even prosthetic hands. When the dogs overthrow their masters and make their way to New York City, they are at first the talk of the town. And then they are not. This entire novel is steeped in an at times unbearable melancholy, yet I couldn’t put it down. A true original.

THE DOLPHIN PEOPLE by Torsten Krol
A group of Germans near the end of World War II, enroute to a remote jungle outpost, crash land in the Amazon jungle and are taken in by a stone-age tribe. Whatever you think happens next based on that beginning, I guarantee you are wrong. This is the damnedest fever dream of a book, chock full of hallucinatory passages, nazi proselytizing, and a bravura sequence involving genital surgery that had me shaking my head in wonder. Pure, unadulterated lunacy of the finest kind. Look, just read this book and see for yourself.

TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan
The very first piece of fiction by Margo Lanagan that I read was the short story “Singing My Sister Down“. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and go find it online, I’ll be here when you get back. It’s a revelation. Lanagan has several collections of short stories, all of them excellent. Her novel The Brides of Rollrock Island is a stunning take on the selkie myth. But I digress. Tender Morsels tells the story of a young woman (a girl, really) who escapes her brutal life in a small village by living in her own personal fantasy world, where evil can’t reach her. That’s the bare bones, but it doesn’t come close to describing the wonders Lanagan achieves here. She writes about tough subjects like rape, abortion, and even quasi-beastiality in the heightened, evocative language of fairytales, walking a tightrope I think few authors could pull off. Lanagan is one of our very best writers, and Tender Morsels is one of my favorite novels ever.

DR. RAT by Willaim Kotzwinkle
In some circles, William Kotzwinkle may be best known as the author of the E.T. novelization. For others, it’s his novel The Fan Man, or his short story collection Elephant Bangs Train. Not me. For my money, his best work, his crowning glory, is the batshit crazy Dr. Rat, the story of the world-wide uprising of animals against humans, narrated by an insane laboratory rat. Part sustained howl against animal experimentation and the subjugation of animals by people, part war story as whales, elephants, and all the creatures of the wild go on the attack, and all of it filtered through Dr. Rat’s extraordinarily skewed intelligence. One of the best examples of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. There are moments here where Kotzwinkle’s language is positively incandescent.

FOLLOW—A BALLAD

Writing

My SUV gave up the ghost just outside Junction City
Left it there, no burial, I guess death is never pretty
Walked twenty miles through corn and wheat as far as the horizon
I know that it’s good exercise, but I wish I was still drivin’
Sad and sleepless in a Motel 6, waiting for the break of day
Out of luck, and that damn girl is still half a state away

She said,
Call me a dreamer, call me a fool
Prove that you love me as much as I love you
Come climb a mountain and lay down beside me
Follow the trail to the love deep inside me
Leave that life behind and start everything new

Come on, she said, let’s run away and keep on running for a while
I shook my head and silenced her with an absent, condescending smile
She was gone next morning, left behind a map from Triple A
That led to Colorado, where she wrote, “I’m heading this way”
And she left behind a letter that cut right to the heart
And I knew I better hit the road ’cause she had a good head start

So here I am with thumb outstretched and not a car in sight
But I think I crossed into Colorado sometime late last night
There’s a mountain in the distance that I know I’ll have to climb
You know, it’s worth the trouble if it makes that dreamer mine

She said,
Call me a dreamer, call me a fool
Prove that you love me as much as I love you
Come climb a mountain and lay down beside me
Follow the trail to the love deep inside me
Leave that life behind and start everything new

SHADY BUSINESS—MY COLORED PENCIL & MARKER TECHNIQUE

Drawing

Back when I was designing rubber art stamps, my local stamp store (Hi, Ginny!) asked me to teach a class in coloring. Turns out, once stampers do their stamping, they sometimes like to color the resulting work. It also turns out that folks in the stamping community are uniformly delightful people, and the classes were great fun to do. This is a handout I prepared for the class, outlining some tips, and techniques that work for me. They may work for you as well.

BOOK REVIEW: DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON BY SEANAN MCGUIRE

Reading

Seanan McGuire is so prolific, and so good, that it’s downright intimidating. She writes fantasy, science fiction, and horror (and for all I know tractor manuals) with equal excellence, under both her name and Mira Grant. Her fantasy work is audaciously imaginative, her science fiction grounded in solid, believable science, and her horror terrifying.

McGuire has several ongoing series (did I mention she’s prolific?), all of them excellent. The October Daye novels are urban fantasy at its best, set in a San Francisco where the lands of Fairy and humans intersect in exciting and delightful ways. The Wayward Children books are, in my opinion, the new yardstick against which all portal fantasies will be judged. And the InCryptid novels, of which Discount Armageddon is the first, are a whole other species of urban fantasy.

Discount Armageddon introduces us to Verity Price and her family of cryptozoologists, who for generations have been trained to keep the peace between humans and cryptids, the mythological creatures (some would say monsters) who live secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, among us. Verity is a fascinating badass—traveling the rooftops of New York City in her strip club cocktail waitress uniform, bristling with weapons, sarcasm always at the ready. Did I mention that in addition to monster protecting/fighting, Verity is a competitive ballroom dancer?

Meanwhile, New York’s cryptids are disappearing at an alarming rate, and Verity must figure out why. Her life becomes even more complicated when a member of The Covenant of Saint George arrives in town. The life mission of The Covenant is to eradicate every cryptid in existence, which puts him on a collision path with Verity. Mayhem ensues.

This is a fast-paced, exhilarating, and often very funny romp of a novel. The characters, both human and cryptid, are well-developed. We get to meet several other members of the Price family, each of them a badass in their own right. McGuire has done some first-class world building here—always believable, no matter how outlandish. This was the first InCryptid novel that I’ve read. I’m thrilled that there are now a bunch of books in the series, because I’m ready to dive back into this world.

SONG LYRICS THAT INSPIRE MY WRITING

Writing

I like poetry as much as the next fella. I even write some myself. But there’s something about a perfectly written song, a set of lyrics that speaks to your head and your heart, words that ride a melody like a longtime lover (or a brand new one), that makes me want to put pen to paper.

Here are some lyrics that speak to me, and, to be honest, lyrics I wish I had written. These were the first songs that came to mind. I’ve just scratched the surface. There are so many more, and I’ll probably do this again.

NEW YORK, NEW Y0RK Ryan Adams

I remember Christmas in the blistering cold
In a church on the Upper West Side
Babe, I stood there singing, I was holding your arm
You were holding my trust like a child

CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD Lucinda Williams

broken down shacks engine parts
could tell a lie but my heart would know
listen to the dogs barkin in the yard
car wheels on a gravel road
child in the backseat about four or five years
lookin’ out the window
little bit of dirt mixed with tears
car wheels on a gravel road

RICH MAN’S WAR Steve Earle

Bobby had an eagle and a flag tattooed on his arm
Red white and blue to the bone when he landed in Kandahar
Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl
A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world
Been a year now and he’s still there
Chasin’ ghosts in the thin dry air
Meanwhile back at home the finance company took his car
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

THE ONLY FLAME IN TOWN Elvis Costello

But you blew hot and cold
Turned my heart to a cinder
And with each passing day
You’re less tender and more tinder
Now you’re not the only flame in town

32 FLAVORS Ani Difranco

and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying back

EVERYBODY KNOWS Leonard Cohen

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Oh, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
Everybody knows

TENNESSEE Arrested Development

Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg and Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climb the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young
Go back, from whence you came
My family tree, my family name
For some strange reason it had to be
He guided me to Tennessee

WHEN I WAS A BOY Dar Williams

I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw
My neighbor come outside to say, “Get your shirt,”
I said “No way, it’s the last time I’m not breaking any law.”
And now I’m in a clothing store, and the sign says less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

POEM—MAN BOWS OUT

Writing

The closing jaws of entropy

that snap and foam and say to me,

you are the stumbling primate, tamed.

Kindling for the star-fed flame.

The slow and terrible unwinding,

the fabric of the void untwining.

God’s hand draws the star strings tight.

You huddle with your feeble light.

You rattle a tired fist and curse

the gods and all the fates diverse,

and rant at the darkness that slowly comes,

and the stars that blink out one by one.

The last man dies, insane and alone,

and his scream is the voice of Gabriel’s horn.

DO DIFFERENT TYPES OF WRITING MAKE ALL YOUR WRITING BETTER?

Writing

When I talk about my writing here on the blog, I’m talking about fiction writing. Whether writing for kids, or writing science fiction, fantasy or horror for adults, fiction is my favorite pool to splash around in.

What I don’t talk about much here is my day job, which I’ve done now for almost forty years. I’m creative director for a small, close-knit ad agency here in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio (And no, I’m not being sarcastic. I love this city, except for the weather.). Funny thing is, if I add up the minutes, I spend more time writing for work than I do at home. Don’t get me wrong, my main gig is graphic design, but in any given week I write radio and TV scripts, website copy, blog posts, print copy—the list is long. My co-workers are aware of my fiction writing, and insanely supportive, which is very cool.

The questions I find myself asking are these: Does the fiction writing make me a better advertising writer? Does the advertising writing make me a better fiction writer?

I don’t know for sure, but I think the answer to both questions is yes.

My fiction tends to the fantastic, to flights of fancy, often to humor. I lean on my imagination pretty hard. I would argue that all those things come into play when I’m writing advertising copy, because I try to look past the first, more mundane ideas, and aim for somewhere near left field. I might be selling sewing machines, or home heating and cooling systems, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a fun and unique way to make that sale. The skills I’ve learned writing fiction help me do that.

Conversely, When I sit down to write fiction, the skills I’ve learned writing advertising copy come into play. I’ve had to learn to make a point clearly, succinctly, in as few words as possible, to describe something so that the mind’s eye can see and understand it. I find this really helpful when writing action scenes in particular, the ability to keep all the pieces moving without the story desolving into a muddy stew of imprecise verbs.

So, in a word, yeah. I think writing a lot makes me a better writer in both my day and night jobs.

I would love to get some other opinions here. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know!

BOOK REVIEW—THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR BY AMAL EL-MOHTAR AND MAX GLADSTONE

Reading

Here are the bare bones: Two female time-traveling agents, Red and Blue, from the opposing sides of a war raging across time and space. They are, each of them, the very best at what they do, traveling up and down a vast complexity of multiple timelines, altering events both mind-bogglingly large and infinitesimally small. They commit the wholesale slaughter of entire armies, then change the path of a single wandering monk. Both are playing an unfathomably long game that stretches across thousands of years.

If you read the above description, you might mistake this novella for rather old-fashioned, hard science fiction, something that could have been written by Heinlein, or maybe Bester.

Nope. This is a different and much wilder animal.

See, as they work the timelines, braiding and unbraiding events, the agents become aware of each other. They begin to leave notes, letters, for each other to find, at first taunting, then showing a certain grudging respect for each other’s skill, and finally, haltingly, love. This Is How You Lose the Time War becomes, at least in part, an epistolary novella, and the most unusual, ravishing love story I’ve ever read.

Take, for instance, those letters I mentioned. Yes, some are written by quill, in longhand. But some take forms by turn whimsical and scarifying—in birds, in seeds, in lava flows, in words that can be ingested into the body.

What sets this novella apart, and one of the reasons I think it was recently nominated for a Hugo, is the language. El-Mohtar and Gladstone are working in rarified air here. The words leap and dance off the page, incandescent, intoxicating, alive. There were moments here where I was a little adrift, not exactly sure what I was reading, and I never gave a damn. I just went with the flow of the story, let it wash over me, and came out the other side.

Whatever I say, I can’t possibly do This Is How You Lose the Time War justice. Just read it, fall in love with Red and Blue, and get lost in the best possible way.