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 LadyLand 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:
Although Stephen Graham Jones has written, by my count…umm…a lot of books, I just discovered him last year via word of mouth (word of Twitter, actually). My first was Mongrels, a white trash, southern, coming-of-age werewolf novel filled with mayhem, humor, and a wholly original werewolf mythology. Then came The Only Good Indians, a horror tour de force, fiercely original, uncompromising, and easily one of my favorite novels of the year.
Now comes Night of the Mannequins, a short and deeply satisfying read about—okay, here’s the thing, this novel did not go where I thought it was going to go, one of my favorite things about it. But that means that I don’t want to really tell you what it’s about, because that would ruin the surprise. It’s about small town teenagers, a mannequin, and an innocent prank gone bad, and that’s all you’re getting. Most importantly, Night of the Mannequins is a stellar example of an unreliable narrator. I mean, Tell Tale Heart level. Seriously.
What I want to talk about instead is voice. For me, voice is what separates good, even great, writers from the writers who redefine the genres they write in. Jones is one of those writers, and he’s not a one trick pony. What I mean is, his voice varies from novel to novel, and is always perfectly calibrated to that novel. Mongrels felt like it was written in a double-wide parked somewhere in deep Texas, the words dipped in blood and fryer grease. The Only Good Indians is steeped in Native American myth and lore, with long stretches of dialogue that feel organic and real. The horror, including some first class body horror, is visceral and disturbing, and the character’s lives feel true and lived in.
Night of the Mannequins is narrated by a snarky, smart-assed teenage boy, and like those other novels, Jones nails the voice. No matter how extreme the story gets, and it gets pretty extreme, Sawyer never seems like anything other than what he is, a teenage boy making some unfortunate decisions. By grounding the novel in a believable teenage reality, Night of the Mannequins is that much more disturbing.
I know I haven’t given you a lot to go on. Just get it, okay? You won’t be sorry.
When I was looking back through my notes to write my reading year in review, I wasn’t surprised to discover that I read more books by Joe Lansdale in 2020 than any other author. Lansdale is so prolific, and his work is of such a high quality, that his new books immediately go to the top of my TBR stack. So I was happy to start 2021 with what I knew would be a high point, Jane Goes North.
Jane Goes North is a cross-country road trip novel. Think Thelma and Louise, but without the murder, at least at first, and instead of two glamorous Hollywood actresses, we have two rode hard, put away wet white trash women from East Texas. Jane has lost her job, and her car has given up the ghost, but her uppity little sister is getting married in Boston, and dammit, Jane wants to attend the wedding, more out of spite than anything else. Henry is a one-eyed, weight lifting woman with more than one chip on her shoulder, and with even less prospects than Jane, but she’s heading north for reasons of her own, so the two for an uneasy alliance and hit the road.
As Jane and Henry travel, they meet a colorful assortment of characters, get into scrapes both minor and life threatening, and slowly, painfully, in ways that feel both honest and earned, form a grudging friendship.
This is Lansdale hitting on all cylinders. None of the characters we meet seem like cardboard cutouts dropped into the story strictly to be roadblocks in Jane and Henry’s path. Each one feels real, organic, like they belong. Lansdale has always had a gift for creating believable characters, even those who are just passing through. Jane Goes North is often riotously funny, with dialogue that’s both smart and smart-assed.
This being Lansdale, though, it’s not all humor. Jane and Henry (and eventually a faded but still ass-kicking country singer named Cheryl) face heart-stopping danger, with more than one dead body as a result. This is one of Lansdale’s other substantial gifts—the man writes action set-pieces as good as anyone today. He’s a natural born storyteller, and reading Jane Goes North at times feels as though you’re sitting around a campfire with a beer in your hand, listening to a thrilling tale recounted by a master who has you in the palm of his hand.
One final note. The ending of this novel caught me by surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did, and it also, just maybe, put a lump in my throat.
I’ve been exploring digital artwork, using an Apple Pencil and Procreate on an iPad, for several months now, and with this drawing I think I’ve gotten pretty close to what I can do with traditional pen and ink. I may add this to my RedBubble shop if I can figure out how to tag it in a description.
I just realized that, while I posted about my new edition of my novel Trapped In Lunch Lady Land, I never posted the cover art I created for it. I did this on an iPad with an Apple pencil using Procreate. I’m still getting the hang of digital art, but I’m really happy with how this turned out.
I’m not what you would call organized when it comes to choosing what book to read next. My TBR stack changes with the day, with what catches my eye when I look at the bookshelf or swipe through my Kindle. It can change immediately when something new by one of my favorite authors debuts, or when someone I trust suggests something. In this particular case, my last read of 2020 happened because my son, a high school English teacher with just about the same taste in books as me, told me that I would absolutely love The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Thanks, Eric, because damn if you weren’t right. This might be my favorite novel of the year.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a portal fantasy that ranks with the very best of that genre (from older classics like The Chronicles of Narnia to new classics like Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series). It’s also a heart stopping adventure, and a towering love story that spans multiple worlds. It tells the story of January Scaller, a young woman in the early 1900s who finds a mysterious door, and an even more mysterious book, that draws her into a story that will change her life completely.
I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, as one of the joys of The Ten Thousand Doors of January is following the wondrous twists and turns of Harrow’s novel. Suffice to say that I was enthralled from beginning to end. Harrow is a first-rate storyteller. She creates characters who, whether you love them or hate them, are fully realized and complex. There are good people who are also deeply flawed, and downright evil people who believe in their hearts that they are doing the right thing. Those characters populate worlds both familiar and strange, and it’s here that Harrow’s use of language is fully on display. She’s an unparalleled stylist. I found myself rereading passages, not just for the sheer joy of it, but to see if I could figure out just how she was pulling off her word magic.
The other touchstone that guides The Ten Thousand Doors of January is family, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we create for ourselves. Harrow is at her best here, digging deep into the various relationships that give the novel its heart. There are moments of true love and true sorrow, and it all rings true.
One other thing. Harrow has the mechanics of her story worked out beautifully, the science behind doorways, her version of portals, perfectly believable. As I was reading the novel, I found myself looking out of the corner of my eye, hoping to find my own doorway, and my own adventure.
In what was by just about any measure a shit-filled dumpster fire of a year, the year which shall not be named yielded a few positives. I wrote and drew more than I have in quite a while. It’s amazing how much more free time one has when there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. My wife and I both kept our jobs, so we were spared the financial hardship so many others have felt. My three young adult children have weathered the pandemic with humor and sanity intact, for which I will be forever grateful.
And I read some absolutely amazing books!
Let’s break it down by the numbers:
26—The number of books I will have read by the end of the year. I usually read between 25 and 30 books per year, so this is about average. I know a lot of folks found it hard to concentrate on reading with the shit-storm swirling around us, but I took solace and comfort in the escape books provided me.
10—The number of books I read by authors new to me. This surprised me. I have so many favorite authors that they often take up the majority of my reading time, so I’m happy to see that I branched out this year. Even better, a couple of those authors have become new favorites.
3—The most books I read by a single author. The fact that it was Joe Lansdale was not a surprise at all, as he’s a national treasure. Those books were Big Lizard, More Better Deals, and Of Mice and Minestrone.
2—The number of poetry books I read. I don’t read enough poetry, so I need to work on that, but I thoroughly enjoyed both I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland and Bloodhound by Marie Casey.
22—The number of books I read this year that fall under the umbrella of science fiction fantasy, or horror. For that matter, the other four novels are crime fiction, so also genre. Hey, I like what I like.
And now, my favorite reads of the year:
Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/01/31/book-review-coyote-songs/) A mosaic novel, Coyote Song follows the lives of several characters, some living and some not so much, who live on either side of the America/Mexico border, La Frontera. The book is set on the bleeding edge of right now, with border patrols, shocking violence, political upheaval, human trafficking, child stealing and murder. There are monsters here, both supernatural and human. This novel stayed with me for a long time.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/07/16/book-review-survivor-song-by-paul-tremblay/) A novel about a deadly pandemic, in the midst of a pandemic, with so much heart and humanity, not to mention heart-stopping terror, that’s it’s actually cathartic. In the space of just a few years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors. Check that, one of my favorite authors, period. After Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World, and his short story collection Growing Things and Other Stories, Tremblay is one of the few writers whose new work immediately goes to the top of my TBR pile. Survivor Song might be his best novel yet, and that’s saying something.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/07/30/book-review-the-only-good-indians-by-stephen-graham-jones/) The Only Good Indians is emotionally devastating, harrowing, sometimes gut-wrenching, with moments of body horror that are delightfully disturbing. The violence doesn’t just include humans, but animals as well, and it’s just as sad and painful. Jones excels at pacing, at ratcheting up tension to a nearly unbearable level and then sustaining it. Even in the quietest moments of the novel, whispered conversations under the stars, the tension is always there, waiting to spring. It’s exhilarating, if you can bear it.
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/04/10/book-review-come-tumbling-down-by-seanan-mcguire/) Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, of which Come Tumbling Down is the fifth entry, has set a new standard in portal fantasies. Come Tumbling Down continues the story of twins Jack and Jill, who we’ve already met in Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. You should also know that Come Tumbling Down is just as satisfying. My suggestion is that you read all the Wayward Children books, in order preferably, as each one does build, sometimes in subtle ways, on the last.
One final note—I’m currently a third of the way through what will be my last read of 2020, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. If it finishes up the way it’s started, this would be at the top of my favorites list.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors. Writing as both herself and Mira Grant, her Wayward Children, Incryptid, October Daye, and Newsflesh series, her non-series novels like Into the Drowning Deep and Middle Game—they are all different, and they all hit different pleasure centers in the brain. Her work ranges from ravishingly lyrical, to terrifying, to loose and funny, and sometimes all of it as once.
Dying With Her Cheer Pants On—Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins is, for the most part McGuire at her loosest and funniest. It’s a classic fix-up novel, made up of several previously published short stories and some new ones, along with excellent between-story material that explains and amplifies the book’s mythology. And because this is Seanan McGuire, that mythology is well-thought-out, internally consistent, creative and a helluva lot of fun.
The Fighting Pumpkins are the cheerleaders of Johnson’s Crossing High School, and as such, they are tasked not only with promoting school spirit and cheering for the Fighting Pumpkins football team, like most cheer squads, but also with keeping monsters, demons, student-eating zombies, and Cthuluesque otherworldly chaos at bay. See, the thing is, Fighting Pumpkin cheer squads have, for a hundred years, been the only thing standing between the town of Johnson’s Crossing and supernatural destruction. In McGuire’s world, school spirit is more than spirit bows and pep rallies, it’s a protective shield. If this sounds potentially dangerous for the cheerleaders, that’s putting it mildly. Over the decades, many, if not most, cheer squads have not survived to graduation. Even more devastating, when this happens the townspeople are fit with a sort of collective amnesia. The cheerleaders are forgotten, even by their own families.
Luckily, the current cheer squad has a few things going for it, namely that most of the cheerleaders aren’t totally, completely human. Jude, the squad leader, is half vampire (her mom, the vampire half, was a squad leader many decades ago); Heather was dead, at least for awhile; Marti is strong enough to support an entire inverted pyramid; Colleen is master of the mysterious Fighting Pumpkins rule book; even one of the J.V. girls is technically a demigod. Together this team is ready to face whatever monstrous entity comes their way.
The most important word in that last sentence is together. Dying With Her Cheer Pants On may be a sometimes thrilling, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny novel, but it’s also a poignant testament to the power of friendship and teamwork. McGuire has important things to say about family, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we form out of circumstance, love, or necessity. The book made me snort more than once, but it also choked me up.
I want to call specific attention to one story in particular, Turn the Year Around. Coming midway through the book, this long story was a standout for me, with a melancholy autumnal feeling that hit me hard.
I try to keep up with what Seanan McGuire is working on, but Dying With Her Cheer Pants On snuck up on me. I absolutely loved it.
I’ve talked about this before on this blog, but I once spent several years as the main artist and designer for Stampers Anonymous, a well-regarded rubber art stamp company. The owner, Ginny (who continues to be a friend to this day) has an artistic sensibility, and a love for the weird, that dovetails nicely with mine. I loved designing stamps for her, and probably did hundreds throughout the years.
The rubber stamp community is passionately creative, and one of their favorite people is illustrator and collage artist Nick Bantock. He’s probably most famous for the Griffin and Sabine series, but he’s done many other art books as well. His collage work often utilizes rubber stamps, which is part of what endears him to stampers.
So I’m in Ginny’s stamp store one day, and she hands me Bantock’s lavish, oversized hardcover art book, Artful Dodger, and tells me to look at the collage in the center spread. Lo and behold, there, in the center of the collage, is one of my stamps. Probably the proudest moment of my stamp design career. Check it out below. That’s my artwork, the stamp featuring a quote about art, there in the middle.
Stephen King excels at…well, just about everything. But for me, there are two things he often does that makes him one of my favorite writers. First, he take a single, often simple idea and examine all the ramifications of it, look at it from all sides. And second, he brings small towns, both the people and the place, to evocative life. Not just the idyllic, kids playing on the town square, young couples strolling Main Street while eating ice cream cones scenes, but also the evil and rot underneath, the dark undercurrents roiling beneath sunny skies. Richard Chizmar, King’s co-author on the first novel and the sole author on the second, shares those attributes with King, writing seamlessly with King on Gwendy’s Button Box, and continuing the story in Gwendy’s Magic Feather with deep skill and confidence.
Gwendy’s Button Box puts a modern spin on the Pandora’s box myth, as a mysterious stranger gifts young tween Gwendy with a magic box—a box capable of making her life better in immeasurable ways, but also capable of causing world-wide disaster and misery. King and Chizmar take this single, simple idea and gallop away with it, making it a complex meditation on morality. Gwendy is a richly sympathetic character, and we the readers feel her exhileration at the twists and turns her life takes, but also the confusion and pain when she makes potentially catastrophic decisions. All the while she and the box circle each other like prize fighters, and the fact that Gwendy never knows what the box wants from her, and the mysterious stranger gives her no guidance outside of assuring her that she’s the right person to have the box, gives the novel its power and intensity.
Meanwhile, all of this takes place against the background of small town Castle Rock life, with a gallery of other characters who feel absolutely real. The authors also drop Easter eggs from other King novels set in Castle Rock, and you’ll find yourself smiling as you discover them.
Gwendy experiences tragic loss in the course of Gwendy’s Button Box, but in the end proves that the mysterious stranger was right—she’s a more that capable steward of the box.
Gwendy is gratefully relieved of the box at the end of Gwendy’s Button Box. In Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Gwendy is a thriving thirty-seven year old best-selling author, and now congresswoman, when the mysterious stranger, and the box, comes back into her life. If anything, the stakes are even higher given Gwendy’s position, but for me the novel truly hits its stride when Gwendy leaves Washington D.C. for Castle Rock. Back in familiar territory, Chizmar spins a captivating story, and I enjoyed Gwendy’s Magic Feather just as much as the first novel.
Both Gwendy novels are quick, comfortable reads. You fall into their easy rhythms like being enveloped by a favorite quilt. This is not a knock at all. I love comfort reads, and both novels abundantly qualify. I read recently that a third Gwendy novel is on the way, and that’s news to be celebrated. Beautifully work, gentleman.
I originally planned to write this for Thanksgiving, but I was on a tight deadline for a short story I wanted to submit, and, well, better late than never (I hope).
So. I became a reader the first week of seventh grade when I walked into the school library and discovered the small science fiction section. That day I took home The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Once I exhausted all the SF in the school library (with roughly 200 Andre Norton novels) I graduated to my local library, which had a much more robust science fiction section. Over the course of several years I read them all, alphabetically, starting at the top left and working my way right and down. Just about all my first, favorite authors came from this time in my life.
In high school and college I branched out, discovering Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Tom Disch, John Irving and Tom Robbins (see, I don’t only read genre), and many others.
I continued to read many of these authors through my adult years, and still do. To this list I added a bunch more go-to writers whose work I cherish and will always read: Joe Lansdale, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Richard Kadrey, Andrew Vachss, Dorothy Allison, Katherine Dunn, Thomas Harris, Michael Chabon, Robert F. Jones.
The point of all this, and I do have one, is that as I read over the list of books I’ve read this year (yes, I keep track, I’ve kept track since 1996—don’t judge), I realized that many of the authors on the list are ones I discovered fairly recently, over the past few years. These are the writers who are now firmly on that go-to list, the ones I tell others about. These are the new (to me) authors I am thankful for:
SEANAN McGUIRE— The first novel I read by her was Every Heart a Doorway, and it was a revelation. Happily, she is so prolific that it will take me years just to read through her back catalog, not to mention each new novel.
CHUCK WENDIG—I discovered Wendig first through his website and on Twitter. I was thrilled to realize that his fiction is just as original, just as satisfying. Wanderers is a stone cold masterpiece.
PAUL TREMBLAY—Quite simply, the finest new horror writer working today. Head Full of Ghosts was Tremblay throwing down the gauntlet.
TAMSYN MUIR—I struggle even to describe Muir’s writing style, which is as incandescent as it is challenging. Read Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, and marvel. I see a pile of Hugos and Nebulas in her future.
SARAH GAILEY—Gailey’s literary output has been so varied, and of such an insanely high level, that it’s a little intimidating. Westerns with hippos!
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES—I’ve only read two of his novels so far, Mongrels and The Only Good Indians, but that was enough to make me a permanent, passionate fan. Like McGuire, he’s got a large back catalog for me to enjoy.
GABINO IGLESIAS—Another author I discovered first on Twitter. With Coyote Songs, Iglesias invented a new genre, barrio noir, that is both harrowing and captivating.
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS—Science fiction that sings. All The Birds In The Sky is unlike anything else out there, complex, exciting and full of heart.
JOE ABERCROMBIE—The premier writer of epic grimdark fantasy. Abercrombie writes battle scenes better than anyone else today.
In this challenging, maddening year, I am thankful that when I feel like howling into the void, there are always these writers, and many others, there to take me somewhere else, at least for awhile.
Harrow the Ninth is the second novel in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, following Gideon the Ninth, and I need to get this out of the way first thing—if you haven’t read Gideon yet, go do that first, I’ll wait (and here’s my review of Gideon if you’re interested: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/02/27/book-review-gideon-the-ninth-by-tamsyn-muir/). Everything that happens in Harrow is directly related to what happens in Gideon, and honestly, I think Harrow would be a tough read if you tried to tackle it first.
Assuming you’ve now read Gideon (welcome back to the blog!) you know that Muir is a writer of rare and miraculous skills. Harrow the Ninth continues the story started in the first novel, and if anything, the plot is even wilder, more convoluted, more open to multiple interpretations, with more layers of reality. Harrowhark Nonagesimus is the main character here—she joins a small group of god-like Lyctors, and God himself, as they prepare to face Resurrection Beasts, revenants of dead planets intent on annihilating them. She’s ascended to Lyctorhood as well, but she’s a broken, incomplete Lyctor, and to top it off, one of the other Lyctors keeps trying to kill her.
Sound confusing? It is, truthfully, and for me that’s part of this novel’s immense charm, because the plot is in part a vehicle for Muir’s marvelously inventive language, her high-wire act of storytelling. She alternates chapters detailing Harrow’s present-day story, written expertly in second person, with flashbacks to scenes from Gideon written in third person, but those scenes do not match up with the original story. Are they distorted memories, or something more complicated, more insidious?
As in Gideon, Muir uses words and phrases like her own personal playthings. Her language is dense, scintillating, intense, downright baroque at times. She mixes necromantic bone, blood, and spirit magic with hard science fictional concepts, presents an arresting and wholly original concept of an afterlife, introduces dead characters who may be alive and living characters who may be dead, and invites us to consider deeply serious meditations on the concepts of self, sacrifice, and grief. If I’m making this sound like reading Harrow the Ninth is too much work, it’s far from it. This novel is a rollicking good time, often uproariously funny, with thrilling action set pieces, and imagination to burn. The dialogue, as in Gideon, is often snarky, profane and utterly contemporary. None of this should work, yet it all works, beautifully.
Also like Gideon, the last quarter of Harrow the Ninth delivers a whole series of shocking surprises and emotional gut punches.
I have never read anything quite like these novels, and I can’t wait for the third novel in the trilogy. I feel like Muir is an utterly original artist of uncompromising talent.
When I started this blog a couple weeks sly of a year ago, I knew I wanted to talk about three things: Writing, drawing, and reading. The writing and drawing were easy—here’s what I’m writing and have written in the past, and here’s what I’m drawing and have drawn in the past.
The reading part of the blog, however, has been a fun exercise in discovering just what it was going to be about. I’ve written about books, and even song lyrics, that have influenced my life, about my go-to authors over the years, about my favorite opening lines. The part I’ve come to enjoy writing most, however, are reviews of the books I’m currently reading.
There seems to be an ongoing discussion in the Twitterverse on every facet of book reviews. Way more discussion than I expected, truthfully. Some of you folks have definite opinions. Anyway, here are some thoughts on reviewing books, from my perspective.
HOW I CHOOSE THE BOOKS I REVIEW—Here’s the thing. I read, on average, twenty five to thirty books per year. Wish it could be more, but that’s what I have time for. So the books I read are the books I truly want to read. The genres I love most are science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I read those the most. I don’t take a lot of chances, which means I’m absolutely missing out on some great reads, but it is what it is. I have eight or ten currently-writing authors whose new books I always read, and whose back catalogs I’m working my way through. I have a bunch of other authors I’ve been reading for years, sometimes decades, and if they write something new I’ll read it, and sometimes delve into their back catalogs as well.
DISCOVERING NEW AUTHORS—Okay, look, it’s not like I never read authors new to me. I follow a bunch of favorite authors on Twitter, I read Tor.com and io9 daily, and I belong to a few Facebook groups that talk about books. If a writer I respect suggests an author or book, that carries a lot of weight with me. Over the past couple years I’ve happily discovered newly favorite authors this way, including Chuck Wendig, Paul Tremblay, Seanan McGuire, and Stephen Graham Jones, just to name a few.
HOW I WRITE REVIEWS—I write the kind of reviews I like to read. What this means, most importantly, is I don’t do plot recitations. I talk a little bit about the author and my reading relationship with him or her, maybe how I first discovered them. I mention the barest of bones as far as what the book is about. And then I talk about the things that truly matter to me when reading a book—language, pacing, characters, imagination, setting, description—the things that make a book come alive. Is this the best way to review a book? No idea. Some readers seem to enjoy reading them, and I love writing them, so that’s good enough for me.
BAD REVIEWS—Simple. I don’t write them. At this point in my life I know what I like, and with my limited available reading time, I choose carefully. My track record is pretty good. In just under a year of writing reviews, I think I’ve only read one book that I didn’t care for, and chose not to review. It’s an easy decision for me. Writing is hard work, and I’d rather life an author up than put them down.
And that’s pretty much it. Now, when friends ask me, hey, what are you reading now? I can point them to my blog. Not that I won’t tell them as well, because I’m always happy to talk about books.
My first novel, a funny fantasy adventure for middle-graders titled Trapped In Lunch Lady Land was published by CBAY Books in 2014. It sold a few hundred copies, I had a fancy book signing at my local Barnes & Noble, and, most importantly, I did a bunch of school visits. I read from the book and answered the kids’ whipsmart questions (Kindergartners: “Do you have a cat? I have a cat!” 5th graders: “How much did you make from your book? Did you get an advance?”). Those visits are the reason I will never stop writing.
Then, a few weeks ago, a funny thing happened that I did not see coming, although in retrospect I probably should have. Trapped In Lunch Lady Land officially went out of print. I was a little bummed, at least at first, but eventually decided to look at it as an opportunity to enter the exciting, confusing world of self publishing.
My first step was talking to my publisher for some much needed advice. She suggested, first, that I create new cover art for the new edition. Her second piece of advice, which I’ll be forever grateful for, was to take the Self Publishing Class from author P.J. Hoover (@pj_hoover on Twitter). Great class, covered all the basics. At the end of those three hours, I was confident I could pull it off.
Based on what I learned in the class, and my own research, I decided to publish through KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing. I created new cover art on my I-pad with my handy dandy Apple Pencil. KDP has templates available in a variety of sizes. I’ve been drawing by hand my entire life, and I’m not a pro with the pencil yet, but I’m really enjoying learning to use it. I laid out the interior pages of the new print edition in InDesign, which I’m very familiar with. Developing the Kindle e-book edition was trickier. The first edition of Lunch Lady Land didn’t have a Kindle version, so this was new territory. Even with what I learned in the class, I had a few false starts, a few missteps. I tried to make use of my print layout, which potentially should work, but I kept losing all the formatting. Very frustrating. Eventually I downloaded KDP’s free app, Kindle Create, and that did the trick.
So, now I have both print and Kindle versions of the new edition of Trapped In Lunch Lady Land available. Will I sell some new copies? Who knows? That’s not what’s important. I just like knowing that the book’s out there in the wild. And maybe some kid will read it, and enjoy, at least for a little while, spending time in a world I invented.
If you’re curious, here’s a link to the new edition. If you have a kid, or know a kid, they just might like it.
I wrote this song for local Cleveland group The Advocates, let by singer/songwriter Paul Senick. To this day it’s one of my favorite lyrics of all I’ve written.
GIVE IT BACK
Joanie’s husband beat her like a drum for nineteen years, Held her ego hostage in a cage of pain and fear. Bruises heal and bones mend, but what about the soul, His fists and words just beat her down, and each one took its toll. Joanie suffered silently, she never made a scene. She kept it bottled up inside, a never ending scream. Until the night her husband woke to the smell of gasoline. As Joanie struck the match she said, give it back to me.
Give it back, give it back to me, All the years and all the tears you took from me. Give it back, give me back my life, How’s it feel to dangle from the sharp edge of the knife. Give it back, give it back to me, Give it back, give it back to me.
Patty Anne was barely ten when her father came to call, Creeping like a prowler in the darkness, down the hall. You won’t tell a soul he said, here’s what it’s about. I brought you into this world and I can take you out. Patty suffered silently, she never made a scene. She kept it bottled up inside, a never ending scream. Until the night her father woke to the smell of gasoline. As Patty struck the match she said, give it back to me.
Give it back, give it back to me, All the years and all the tears you took from me. Give it back, give me back my life, How’s it feel to dangle from the sharp edge of the knife.
Give it back, give it back to me, All the years and all the tears you took from me. Give it back, give me back my life, How’s it feel to dangle from the sharp edge of the knife. Give it back, give it back to me, Give it back, give it back to me.
I first discovered Gabino Iglesias in the writing community on Twitter. I was immediately impressed with his voice—funny, passionate, sometimes pissed off in the best way, and, above all for a writer still finding his way, incredibly supportive of other writers. He regularly doles out wise advice, and occasionally the much needed exhortation to put ass in seat and get writing.
Then buzz started building, and authors I respect began talking about Iglesias’ novel Coyote Songs. Holy hell they were right. This dark, dangerous border noir, with a delirious mix of incandescent language, bravura storytelling, gritty realism and supernatural horror absolutely blew me away. Iglesias is a writer in complete control of his craft, and there are scenes in Coyote Songs I will never forget, even if I wanted to.
Zero Saints is an earlier Iglesias novel, but the things that inspired me in Coyote Songs are on full display here. The brutal, beautiful language, the harrowing violence, the heady mix of myth, religion, and magic—it’s all here. This short novel follows one young low-level drug dealer trying to survive the mean streets of East Austin after a run-in with a group of heavily-tattooed, possibly demonic gangsters. Zero Saints reads like hardcore crime fiction, but the touches of supernatural horror, while not as pronounced as in Coyote Songs, are very much in evidence. Iglesias’ gallery of characters, from a Russian hitman to a flamboyant cowboy of an enforcer, all the way to a surprisingly human-like dog, are well-developed, quirky individuals. The plot moves at a breakneck pace that never lets up. His descriptions of Austin are far removed from what tourists at SXSW experience, but it feels lived-in and authentic.
Much like with Coyote Songs, I found myself occasionally visiting Google Translate while reading Zero Saints, particularly with some of the prayers to Santa Muerte included in the novel. Iglesias moves fluidly from English to Spanish and back again, but I never lost the meaning or the story. If it’s not clear, I loved this novel!
Most folks, here in the states at least, know the bare bones of the Donner Party story—that a wagon train made up primarily of the Donner and Reed families, on the way to California became trapped by vicious winter weather in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Snow bound, starving, some members eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes the bones of that story and through meticulous, exhaustive research, makes you feel every back-breaking mile. She shows you the camaraderie and hopefulness, at least in the beginning, but then the danger, the extreme discomfort, the fear for the unknown, the gnawing hunger. All of it is made shockingly real. Alma excels at introducing many of the real historical characters that made up the wagon train, mixing them so expertly with characters of her own invention that I found myself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to learn who was real and who was not. She gives every character, real or not, their time to shine, weaving in their backstories, showing us the friendships that develop along the way, the halting possibility of love, but also the petty jealousies and hate. There are no real heroes, but there are acts of heroism. The villains of the story are multi-faceted, never hackneyed cardboard characters. The Hunger reminds me, in some ways, of Emma Bull’s Territory, in the way Katsu mixes deep historical research with the supernatural. (and if you haven’t read Territory, which combines the very real characters that populated Tombstone, Arizona, with a supernatural undercurrent, please do.)
If Katsu had stopped there, she would have had one hell of a historical novel, brought to life with bravura language and vivid description. But no, she does not stop there. Instead, Katsu takes this already thrilling story and drapes it with a ratty, diseased shroud of supernatural horror. That horror begins to seep into the lives of the settlers early in the novel, and then escalates, unstoppable, suffocating, ratcheting the tension and dread to an unimaginable degree. There are scenes unimaginable brutality, and scenes of quiet terror, and Katsu handles both with aplomb.
The Hunger is first-rate historical horror. I loved this novel!
I wrote this a long time ago, after my first visit to New York City. Reading it now, I realize it sounds like I don’t like the city at all, but the truth is it’s one of my favorite places in the world. I was playing a character here, imagining the lives of some of the people I watched streaming past me.
HIT THE TOWN
my old man drove me as far as the station but he wouldn’t get out of the car shook my hand and palmed me a twenty told me again I was straying too far every small town punk wakes up one morning with big city lights alive in his dreams but I guess we all have to find out for ourselves those big city lights aren’t as bright as they seem go on now, boy, your bus is waiting I know this is something you think you have to do but take this advice along for the ride someone gave it to me when I was a punk just like you
you’ve got to hit the ground with both legs churning shine like a comet with both ends burning sweat and strain ’til the weight gets lighter keep coming back, like a punch drunk fighter and most of all, don’t forget this, Jack sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back
Grand Central Station at three in the morning is something no boy from Ohio should see so many lost people huddled together so many dead eyes following me I sat on a bench to wait out the daylight wondered again how I’d come to this place an old woman tugged at the hem of my coat she said, don’t worry son, we’ll save you a space
you’ve got to hit the ground with both legs churning shine like a comet with both ends burning sweat and strain ’til the weight gets lighter keep coming back, like a punch drunk fighter and most of all, don’t forget this, Jack sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back
now here I am gazing from fifty floors up at the lights of the city, completely alone thinking that maybe those lights aren’t so bright thinking that maybe it’s time to go home I’m tired of running just to keep up I need to sit down and rest for a while I’m tired of thinking each handshake a challenge it’s been so damn long since I wanted to smile
Grand Central Station at three in the morning is something that no longer bothers me much my eyes look away when voices are raised I don’t get too close, I’m afraid to be touched It’s hard to admit that my father was right but there comes a time when you must face the facts I won a few battles but I sure lost the war sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back
A confession—I don’t read enough poetry. In truth, I’m a little intimidated by it, which is funny, because I write a bit of it, but there you have it. I’m also not quite sure how to review poetry, as it’s such an intimate, personal thing. At its best, I think poetry is a kind of communion between the writer and the reader, and as such, is review-proof in a way.
Now forget about everything I just said, because Bloodhound, A Poetry Collection, by Marie Casey, is absolutely wonderful. It is intimate, and it is deeply personal. It’s not horror, per se, but much of it is horrific. There are scenes that are reminiscent of body horror, the very words flayed and shredded. As you can imagine from the title, blood is often mentioned. In fact, it binds the pages of this book together. Casey’s language is raw, visceral. Much of the book is centered on relationships, on their dissolution and destruction, on the painful things we do to each other in the name of love and sex.
Casey leaves a lot to the imagination—these poems, some just fragments, few of them named, are open-ended and ripe for interpretation. I absolutely love her imagery, the way she uses language to open and probe emotional wounds.
Bloodhound, A Poetry Collection is not a light read, and may be too much for the faint-hearted. I can tell you that, based on this book, I’ll read anything Casey writes.
I discovered Joe Lansdale and Hap & Leonard at the same time, when I found a battered copy of Bad Chili at my local Half Price Books. I took it home and dove right in, finished it that evening, and headed back to Half Price Books the next day to pick up the other three or four Lansdale novels they had. In the many years since then, I’ve eagerly snapped up each new Hap & Leonard, while simultaneously working my way through Lansdale’s intimidatingly large back catalog. These days, when folks ask me who my favorite author is, I usually answer Lansdale. (On the days I don’t answer Lansdale, I answer Neil Gaiman, but I’d say that’s pretty good company to keep.)
Over the years we’ve gotten to know Hap Collins and Leonard Pine pretty well, watched them settle into middle age. Actually, settle is the wrong word. They’ve entered middle age kicking and screaming, cussing and fighting, and if they’ve reached some level of maturity, it’s been hard-won and doesn’t always stick. They may give a potentially violent situation some thought before engaging (Hap more than Leonard), but they aren’t afraid to fight the good fight if it’s the right thing to do. Hap and Leonard have both found love, and both have lost it.
Through the various novels and novellas in the series, we readers have been able to follow the twosome through just about their entire adult lives. The one thing missing, except for the occasional stories they would tell, was their early lives. That began to change in 2017 with Blood and Lemonade, a collection of loosely connected short stories that delved into Hap and Leonard’s early years. The book was a revelation, and included their very first meeting, a truly epic night that fits neatly into their wild and wooly mythology.
Now Lansdale has gifted us with OfMice and Minestrone, subtitled Hap and Leonard The Early Years. If anything, this one is even better. Lansdale is one of our very best short story writers, and every story here is a gem. By seeing Hap and Leonard as teenage boys, we’re given an intimate glimpse of the men they will become. OfMice and Minestrone features everything Lansdale is best at, including lovingly described hand to hand combat, real, flesh and blood characters, the best dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard, and sometimes scatological, always laugh out loud humor.
One more treat—Lansdale describes several meals in the course of the book, and his daughter Kasey Lansdale has contributed a bunch of recipes based on those meals. They all sound amazing, and I’m planning on trying several.
For fans of Joe Lansdale, and particularly fans of Hap and Leonard, Of Mice and Minestrone is a must read.
The title of Joe Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings was inspired by the words Louis XIV had cast on the cannons of his armies—Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for “The last argument of kings.” A declaration of war, in other words. Like the first two novels in the epic First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself and Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is about war, in all its permutations. Battles between massed armies, one-on-one to-the-death clashes, the political machinations that guide the various skirmishes, and finally violent internal battles with characters’ very souls at stake.
If you’ve read the first two novels in the trilogy (and if you haven’t, you really should before reading Last Argument of Kings, as taken together the three books tell a cohesive, continuing story) you’ll be happy, or not so happy as the case may be, to see many returning characters. Logan Ninefingers, the Bloody-Nine; his companions from Before They are Hanged, Bayaz, Ferro, and Jezel dan Luthar; Superior Sand dan Glokta; Ardee West; The Dogman; and many others, all of them traumatized to greater or lesser extent at the beginning of the novel.
I don’t like to do plot recitations—I’m not fond of them myself, and they’re easy enough to find elsewhere. Instead, that list of characters above brings up the first of three things I do want to talk about here, three of the many things that make Abercrombie, to my mind, the preeminent author of grimdark fantasy working today. I’m speaking, of course, about his characters. Love them or hate them, Abercrombie’s characters are fully realized people with deep backstories, deeper flaws, strengths and weaknesses, love and pain. They are prone to self reflection, although not always honest about it. And each and every one has taken a rough and violent road to get where they are now. Abercrombie’s physical descriptions can be brutally devastating, but I think he loves them all.
Next up, world-building. The world of the First Law trilogy is extravagantly imagined. Abercrombie has worked out everything in granular detail. The settings, whether a rocky mountain stronghold or a richly appointed palace, a desolate, forbidding forest or a king’s bedchamber, are lovingly described. The political intrigue, at the national, local, and personal level, feels authentic. It feels right. There is magic in the world of the First Law, and like everything else, Abercrombie’s magic systems are internally consistent and well thought out. Magic in this world has weight and consequences. It’s not to be trifled with.
As mentioned, Last Argument of Kings is about war, about battles large and small, epic and intimate, and this is where Abercrombie truly excels. When describing sweeping, large scale battles, it never feels like he’s just moving chessmen impassionately around a board. You never forget that these are living, breathing, dying people, that these are individuals, not mindless hordes. When it comes to descriptions of hand-to-hand combat, Abercrombie makes you feel every punch, kick and stab. The only other author I know with a comparable gift for the mechanics of fighting, for the raw emotion and sheer physicality, is Joe Lansdale.
Last Argument of Kings is a dense, massive, brutal work of art, and there’s more. Besides the First Law trilogy, there are currently three other books set in the world of the First Law—Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. A new trilogy is also on the way, with A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace already published. So much Abercrombie goodness!
I drew both of these for my Redbubble.com shop, but they got flagged. Weird, as a search for “Yoda” delivers more than 4,000 returns, and “Lord of the Rings” more than 5,000, but it’s not worth fighting about. Anyway, I loved working on both of these, and I learned a little more about using the Apple pencil with each one.
I originally wrote this as a guest post on another blog, but I never posted it here.
The youngest of my three kids, a daughter navigating her junior year of college during this pandemic, is halfway to turning 21 as I write this. Which means we no longer have any teenagers in the family, let alone high school kids. I’m not really sure how that happened.
My wife and I are both readers, and we naturally shared books with all our kids from a young age. But there’s something special, downright sacred and altogether delightful, about sharing the perfect book with your kids when they’re in high school. That’s the age where, if you get lucky and choose wisely, if the stars align, the book and the child will connect in miraculous ways. It’s been my experience, at least, that some books we read in high school become touchstones, favorite texts we reread and treasure. This is not an exact science, every kid is different, and I certainly had some missfires. But when you get it right it’s uniquely satisfying.
Here are some of the books where I got it right.
CRUDDY by Lynda Barry
I said above that every kid is different, and not every book is right for every kid. Cruddy, an illustrated novel, is a case in point. Cruddy is not for the faint of heart. The story of Roberta Rohbeson, who lives in “the cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house on a very cruddy mud road” is filled with horrific violence, rampant drug use, and pain. It’s also one of the most deeply humane, heartbreaking yet surprisingly hilarious, and truly original novels I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever read Barry’s weekly comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, then you can already guess that her illustrations enhance the story in brilliant and unexpected ways. For mature older teens.
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA by Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out of Carolina is basically fictionalized autobiography (her book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure covers the same material in a nonfiction format), and much like Cruddy, it deals with difficult subjects, including child abuse and incest. Set in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s, Bastard tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always moving story of Bone Boatwright as she navigates adolescence through troubling waters. Bone, a stand-in for Allison, is the kind of rare protagonist you will cry for, howl in rage for, and fall in love with. This book is sometimes hard to read, but Allison’s incandescent language never allows you to look away. Read this, and then read Two or Three Things I Know for Sure to meet the real people behind their fictional counterparts, photos included.
HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman
This is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time (sorry, Lord of the Rings) and I suggest it to pretty much everyone. Maybe you only know it from the not particularly good movie version of the first volume, The Golden Compass, or the better, recent Hulu adaptation. Maybe you’ve only read The Golden Compass, and not the other two volumes, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Here’s the thing—the trilogy gets better as it goes. By the end, it’s a complex examination of morality and religion, all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful fantasy world building ever commited to paper. Every character is memorable, every scene exquisitely rendered. There’s breathtaking adventure and genuine sorrow. Some readers have taken issue with Pullman’s treatment of organized religion, and I’ve seen charges of racism leveled concerning some characters. This is fertile ground for discussion, just one more reason I find the sharing of books so rewarding.
BOY’S LIFE by Robert McCammon
McCammon is known chiefly, I think, as a writer of intelligent thrillers and apocolyptic horror (Swan Song belongs on the same shelf with Stephen King’s The Stand). This is something else entirely—part murder mystery, part the exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures of a twelve year old boy and his friends in small town Alabama in the early 60s. Boy’s Life is infused with a childhood sense of wonder, nicely spiced with moments of magic realism. The reality of southern racism and poverty is not shied away from, but it’s tempered with a genuine but clear-eyed feel for life in that particular time and place. Quite simply, one of the best coming of age novels ever written.
EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire
By the time this novel came along, I only had one child still in high school, my youngest daughter. I handed it to her the moment I finished it. In Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire asks a deceptively simple yet profound question: What happens to all the children who enter portals to other worlds, and then come back? We’re introduced to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, a sanctuary for those children whose parents don’t know how to deal with them, and to several of the kids now trying to make their way through our drab, dissapointing world after having left the magic behind. There are now five novels in the Wayward Children series, each one a small wonder of whimsical, ravishing storytelling.
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones
This one is a little different. Blood Sport was published in 1972, and a found a battered paperback copy a few years later, when I was in high school. It blew the top of my head clean off. Fast forward to my son’s high school years, and I couldn’t wait to share it with him, but…but, Blood Sport is extreme. It’s the fever-dream story of a father/son canoe trip down a mythological river, chocked full of magic realist imagery and audacious language, but also brutal violence, explicit sex, and some truly squirm-worthy scenes. The time had to be right. When he was sixteen, he and I joined his Scout troup for a father-son canoe trip on the French River delta in Canada, and I felt like the planets had alligned. It was indeed the perfect time.
BONUS: THREE RECENT BOOKS THAT ARE GREAT READS FOR HIGH SCHOOLERS
WANDERERS by Chuck Wendig
A big, meaty, doorstop of a novel, with big, meaty ideas. The story of a world-wide pandemic with echoes of The Stand and Swan Song, but very much its own thing. Heroic, flawed, altogether believable characters, and science that seems frightenly prescient.
GIDEON THE NINTH by Tamsyn Muir
I can’t really sum this novel up better than Charles Stross does in his cover blurb: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Just to add—so many skeletons! A gonzo masterpiece.
WHEN WE WERE MAGIC by Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic revolves around six female friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidently, at the hands of one of those friends. Gailey excels at navigating the complexities of friendship, and her descriptions of how magic works are breathtaking.
A couple of months ago I bought an I-Pad and an Apple Pencil. I realized quickly what a fun and versatile drawing tool I had with the combination, and an idea was born. Introducing Fan-tasm, a redbubble.com shop featuring artwork inspired by iconic books and movies. I’m working fast and loose, and really enjoying the process.
Here’s the link to my shop:
And here are a few samples of the kind of work I’m doing for this. I plan on adding lots more designs in the coming days. I’m also more than happy to take suggestions, or even custom orders. Drop me a line!
As I write this it is Labor Day, 2020, here in Northeast Ohio. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, we had plans for the day. A little yard word early, then a socially distanced backyard cookout later with my mom and stepdad. Nothing big, but something to look forward too.
Then we woke up to rolling thunder that rattled the windows, lightning that lit up the roiling grey clouds, and slashing rain that refused to let up. By noon there were two ducks swimming in the newly formed pond behind my house. All of our plans, modest though they were, ruined.
And…I don’t care one little bit. We spent the day holed up in our comfy little sunroom, watching the sky light up and listening to the rain beat against the windows. I munched on snacks and drank iced tea (take away my writer’s license if you must, but I’ve never liked coffee).
Mostly, I read. A lot. I usually read at night before bed for the most part, so this daytime reading was luxurious, glorious. I made headway in the enormous, wonderful novel I’m reading now (Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie, review to follow eventually) without worrying about what time it was, what I should be doing rather than reading. It rained, and I read, and it was the best day I’ve had in quite a while.
Through the course of eleven novels and one short story, James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, has been through a lot. The nephilim (half human/half angel) has fought demons in hell’s arena, spent some time as Lucifer himself, and died and been resurrected more than once. Back home in L.A. he’s tangled with ghosts, monsters, and more demons, sparred with God and gods older than that, worked for and against L.A.’s magical underground the Sub Rosa, and dealt with Hollywood scumbags who are sometimes the biggest monsters of all.
Ballistic Kiss, the eleventh novel in the Sandman Slim series, finds Stark at a crossroads, besieged with self doubt and not sure where he now fits in with his circle of friends and loved ones. Besides his usual crew—Candy, his monstrous on-again off-again love; Janet, purveyor of donuts, possible new love; Kasabian, human head on a mechanical body; Vidocq, immoral alchemist; and Carlos, bartender at the Bamboo House of Dolls—Stark must deal with the continuing angelic war in heaven, an infestation of murderous ghosts in L.A.’s Little Cairo neighborhood, and the Zero Lodge, a group of high-stakes adrenaline junkies.
As you may surmise from the above description, Ballistic Kiss, and every Sandman Slim novel, is an anarchic thrill-ride through the streets of L.A., with side-trips to hell and the Room of Thirteen Doors. Kadrey excels at the very many things that make the Sandman Slim books such glorious fun. He writes believable, fully-realized characters, whether they’re fully human or not. His action sequences and descriptions of violence are ballets of mayhem. No matter how crazy the scene, you always know what’s going on. His sense of place is second to none—L.A. is almost a secondary character, lovingly described in all its opulence and and decay.
Kadrey’s world-building started out strong from the beginning, and he’s expanded on it with each novel, from L.A.’s magical underworld to heaven, hell, and places in between. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of christian mythology and angelology, and he uses it to expand his world in surprising and satisfying ways.
It’s almost embarrassing how much I’ve loved all the Sandman Slim novels, and Ballistic Kiss is no exception. If you haven’t read them, now is a good time to get caught up, as Kadrey has announced that the next one will be the last.
I’m participating in a flash fiction competition where we’re given three prompts—a genre, a location, and an object—and must write a short story of 1,000 words or less. For the first challenge, my prompts were historical fiction, swamp, and pillow. I’m really happy with the result:
The swamp was different in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana.
Down there they were wet more often than they were dry, waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitos.
Third night on the run a gator took Leon. He was six years old. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then a gator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown.
Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah could not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along.
The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, lost themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.
The pillow had been Mina’s prized possession, a gift from the boss’ grandmother she tended to. It was down filled, trimmed with lace. Judah told Delphine she had to leave it behind, but she was adamant. She said, “Papa, this is all I got left of Mama. I’ll carry it, you don’t have to. Mama never laid a free head on that pillow. I’m gonna keep it wrapped up safe and clean, and I won’t lay my head on it until I know we’re free.” Judah started to argue, but he saw the same fierce look in Delphine’s eyes he used to see in Mina’s, and he let it be.
Delphine was true to her word. She kept that pillow swaddled like a baby, kept it dry through the swamp and all the way to the Jackson station. They were taken in there, given a hot meal and a place to sleep. From there they made their way to Montgomery, then Nashville, and Frankfort, Kentucky. In Frankfort they heard that two teams of slave catchers had been hired to track them. It was decided they had a better chance if they split up, and Judah and Delphine continued on alone.
They crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, huddled in the bottom of a jon boat, covered with a tarp. A preacher dressed as a farmer met them with a hay wagon on the Ohio side. The wagon had a false bottom Judah and Delphine crawled into, stifling hot, black as pitch. They were stopped twice on the way north. Judah held his daughter close, both of them numb with fear, as they listened to slave catchers try to bully the preacher. The preacher remained calm, serene, unflappable, and in both cases the slave catchers finally walked away, frustrated.
They parted ways a little north of Lima. They were staring at a wall of trees that went on for miles in both directions. The preacher said, “This is the Great Black Swamp. There are easier ways to reach Lake Erie, but this is the safest. Not even the slavers will follow you in there.” The preacher handed Judah a compass, and they shook hands. “Stay north. When you come to the Maumee River, follow it to the mouth and wait. Stay hidden. A week from now, a fishing trawler will anchor in the bay, with three lanterns hanging in the bow. They’ll take you to Canada.” They shook hands again.
If the Louisiana swamp was unending muddy water, cypress trees and hidden dangers, the Great Black Swamp was mud. Cottonwood and sycamore forests, the trees so close together you could barely squeeze through, grassy lowlands, and everywhere deep black mud that sucked at your feet, sucked the energy, the very life from your body. One thing was just the same as the other swamp, and that was the mosquitos, great clouds of them.
When they finally reached the Maumee, Delphine burst into exhausted tears, and Judah felt his own eyes well up.
They had been holed up for three days in a grove of trees on the banks of Maumee Bay when the trawler arrived, three lanterns shining brightly in the dark. Judah and Delphine were both sick with fever, half starved. A small skiff rowed in to take them out to the larger boat. Delphine hugged the burlap sack to her chest.
Lake Erie looked like rippled grey glass beneath a canopy of stars. The ship cook fed them bowls of stew until their bellies were full. The captain offered them a place to sleep below deck, but they chose to stay above, settling in near the bow, the lanterns above them. “Are we really free, Papa?” Delphine asked.
“We are,” Judah answered. “When we dock, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll make a new life. It’s what your Mama would want.”
“Then I think it’s time,” Delphine said. She untied the twine that held the burlap sack closed, and removed the pillow. It was clean and dry. Delphine made a nest in a pile of fishing nets on the deck. She placed the pillow carefully, and laid her head down. As she drifted off to sleep, Judah heard a whispered, “I love you, Mama.” Judah was soon asleep himself.
I finally broke down and got an Apple pencil to use with my iPad and, wouldn’t you know it, I love it. I can tell there’s going to be a steep learning curve to really figure out everything it can do, but here’s my first attempt. All things considered, I’m happy with it.