Hem: Half Acre

No reason, really. I just think the song is beautiful.

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Some Books

The Great Sequestration let us all get caught up on our reading, right? In my case, I often couldn’t concentrate to read, a situation I’ve never faced before. That issue has faded lately. I thought I’d share a few I’ve read, and some brief thoughts.

I already wrote about With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo. This is YA, but I recommend it for anyone who feels like they are having trouble holding onto their dreams right now.

Leonard Goldman’s initial Joanna Blalock mystery, The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, was fluffy but fun. Narrated by Dr. John Watson Jr, the book tells the story of a suspicious death that is being ruled a suicide. The dead man’s sister seriously doubts it. She approaches Dr. Watson Senior, famous chronicler of the tales of Sherlock Holmes, and he enlists the help of a witness to the death, Joanna Blalock, who is… well, see the title. The book relies heavily (a little too heavily) on Holmesian deduction–a strange thing to say about about Holmes tribute book, I know–and doesn’t get Irene Adler right, but she isn’t as wrong as recent live action entertainments, large and small screen, have been. It’s Book One of a series and if you like puzzle mysteries and nasty villains, give it a try.

I reviewed Alexandra Rowland’s A Choir of Lies for Fantasy Literature. This is Book Two in Rowland’s series and both books are graced with absolutely gorgeous covers. Rowland is playful textually with the book, using a lot of footnotes. The premise of the book is that our first-person narrator has written down his version of events in a country that’s a fantasy analog of the Netherlands during a fantasy analog of the Tulip Craze, and given the manuscript to a person who was also there at the time. The reader has strong opinions that do not match those of the original writer, and engages passionately with footnotes and later by breaking into the narrative and writing partial chapters themselves. What’s not to love? Surprisingly, for me, quite a bit. The book is 450 pages long and for the first 171 pages, nearly nothing happens. And the Tulip Craze has been done before, so it wasn’t new enough or interesting enough to carry the philosophical or emotional weight of the story. On the plus side, Rowland’s prose is delightful and her descriptions lush and beautiful. Her exploration of the use (and ownership) of stories is interesting in both books. Read it for the ideas.

Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies, is one of a series. “Medieval” is specifically 12th-13th centuries in specific parts of Europe. This isn’t one I’m reading from cover to cover. I just dip into in now and then. Clear, readable prose and good research–some good photos and illustrations too. A reviewer at Powell’s calls it a good general introduction to the period and I would agree.

Currently I’m reading Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. I got it because it got a lot of genre buzz. I didn’t think I would like it because necromancy is my least favorite magical system, and because I grow tired of nasty characters. To my surprise, I am enjoying it in spite of myself!

There’s a handful. Feel free to check them out.








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The Way We Live Now #5

A man hurried toward me as I came out of the market. He touched his hip pocket, got a chagrined look on his face, and ran back to his truck, where the woman in the passenger seat handed him a face mask.

*

It was ridiculous how happy I was when my haircutter reopened for business. A tiny clear spring of happiness bubbled up in the center of my chest, and even I could hear the lilt in my voice when I called him. He has a one-station shop, so the deep-cleaning and safety protocols are do-able for him. He wore a mask, I wore a mask, which I held on my face while he cut around my ears.

*

Spouse was out on a walk. A woman walked toward him, maskless, and showed no intention of moving aside, so Spouse stepped off the sidewalk to allow clearance.

“Oh, don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” she said. “No one makes it off this rock alive!”

“A few hundred astronauts have,” Spouse said.

*

It is nice to see people sitting at outside dining establishments now, but I probably won’t be one of them for a while. And it will be quite a while before I choose the dine-in option.

*

Other things are happening.

It’s early June, and already the town of Winters has evacuated once due to a wildland fire. Parts of Southern California have been under red flag warnings for the past three days. People have stocked their freezers so they can limit shopping in the time of the pandemic, so how long will it before PG&E starts its rolling blackouts again, destroying all that food?

In spite of Covid, people are taking the streets (mostly wearing masks); risking their lives to save their lives and the lives of others. In Hong Kong, people fight for their autonomy. Here in the USA, people march and demonstrate for equity, justice, and real change in the corrupt and racist practices of police departments and a justice system that is systemically unjust.

Our Ignoramus in Chief has done the best he can to gouge the wounds deeper and wider, to pour salt into them, to fan the flames or racial hatred, and feed and nurture white supremacy. In spite of him, police and military leaders are speaking out in support of the protests, statues of Confederate leaders are coming down, and even the NFL, which engineered the firing of Colin Kaepernick for speaking out on the very issue of police brutality four years ago, has apologized and aligned itself with its Black players who are speaking out against injustice.

*

It’s late spring. The parks are open. Juvenile birds are getting adept at flying, but they fluff up and squawk like babies, demanding food, whenever a parent bird is nearby. The weasels are back in Ragle park, and their press corps with them.

The farmers market is approaching its peak, with leafy greens, cherries, strawberries, blue berries, squash, beans, carrots, potatoes, and the beginnings of tomatoes.

*

I haven’t bought fuel for my car since March. That’s not really surprising, but it was an eye-opener.

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Book Two is On Its Way

Yesterday, June 12, I sent off Copper Road, the sequel to “Aluminum Leaves” to my publisher. Here’s a snippet to send it out on:

Aideen had visited smoke rifts and emberbeds since she’d been a child. She knew about their risks. She had hiked and climbed with her brother, and she knew the risks of the mountains, too. She had always feared heights. Standing at the edge of the mountain staring down into this passage, what filled her was greater than fear. She stood at the edge of a world, a world that did not know her, did not care for her any more than it might care for a single fleck of mica. Her whole body trembled. The beam of light danced wildly.

“Aideen,” Ilsanja said. Her voice turned flat and vanished. They were surrounded by smooth walls, but it did not echo. “Aideen, come back. Come back to me.”

“I can’t move.”

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With the Fire On High

With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo is not the kind of YA book I normally read. It’s general fiction, not SF or fantasy. There is magic in it, but it is part of main character’s life and culture, not the center of the book. I was beguiled by this beautiful cover but bought the book mainly to show solidarity, and shovel some revenue toward my local indie bookstore. I decided to read  chapter or two before I offered the book to a friend… and when I next looked up it was about two and a half hours later. I could not put the book down.

The book follows Emoni Santiago, a Philly high school student who is a single mom. Emoni lives with her grandmother who raised her after her mother died and her Puerto Rican father returned to his home territory to be a community organizer, letting his mother raise his only child. Emoni’s dream is to be a chef, and she can cook. Her recipes are mouth-wateringly delicious, and people who eat her food often find a good memory from their lives popping into their heads. Emoni is raising her daughter Emma, who she calls Babygirl, with the help of her abuela; she got into a charter school and is trying to keep up good enough grades to get into a college with a culinary program, and she works at a fast food joint. An undiagnosed learning disability makes reading and memorization hard for her and that makes school a struggle.

Emoni’s first-person voice is immediate and genuine. She has a lot stacked against her and a lot going for her; her abuela, her best friend Angelica, and a teacher who supports her. Babygirl’s father is in the picture, which is good for Babygirl, but dealing with him and his issues is even more stressful. When Emoni gets into a culinary arts immersion class at school, which has a class trip planned to Spain in the spring, the stakes get even higher, because there is no way Emoni can raise enough money for her share.

This young protagonist is a believable seventeen-year-old. She is fiercely committed to her daughter. She is smart and she fights for her dreams, and she makes teenaged mistakes. Emoni tends to bristle when adults try to tell her what she should do, because, as she sees it, since Babygirl’s been born, she’s been making decisions just fine. The book is good at showing Emoni being strong, and also making mistakes, and finally learning from them.

This is a great book to give any young woman with a dream. It’s not a bad book for an old person to read, either. I recommend it.

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Briarpatch From Page to Screen

Ross Thomas published his southwestern detective novel Briarpatch in 1984. His protagonist, Benjamin “Pickle” Dill (kids stopped calling him “Pickle” in the 4th grade after he beat up a bunch of them) returns to his New Mexico hometown to investigate the murder of his younger sister, homicide cop Felicity Dill, in a car bombing. Dill works for a clandestine Senatorial subcommittee chaired by a young, ambitious senator from Dill’s home state. Dill is a very good investigator, and the book implies he learned some extra-curricular skills working for the government in Europe and Southeast Asia.

The story of his cop sister’s life and death makes no sense, and soon puts Dill in contact with his childhood friend Jake Spivey and an elusive arms dealer named Clyde Brattle. Dill is shortly reacquainted with the power politics, corruption and discrimination that fill his old home town.

Executive Producer Rosario Dawson picked up Briarpatch as a star-project, updated it, and engaged in some judicious gender and race swapping, in a ten-episode series on USA. USA partnered with AMC.

Changing the ethnicity of characters can be tricky (and often lead to pathetic failures) but for the most part it works here just fine. The biggest switch (other than the MC herself, played by Dawson and called Allegra Dill) is the lawyer Anne Marie Singe. In Ross’s book, Singe was basically there to provide needed exposition and become Benjamin’s Dill’s sex partner. This character, now a Black man called A.D. Singe played by Edi Gathegi, functions in a very different way as he… provides needed exposition and becomes Allegra’s sex partner. Okay, so… not so different. It seemed different because Dawson and Gatheri had awesome chemistry together.

TV Briarpatch adds characters, like the chief of police Eve Raytek, and throws in some B-plotline complications, like an immigration trafficking storyline, oh, and changes the state to Texas. As another review I read noted, the television version tries hard for Texas Weird ( the review said it’s part “Twin Peaks in Texas”) most obviously with the premise in the first episode that an eco-terrorist released all the animal in the zoo, so various animals wander in and out of scenes… including, in the most Twin-Peaks-like and least plausible example, the tiger that roams the hallway that Allegra’s hotel room is on. Believable? No. Cool-looking? Yes.

Dawson, as the cool and detached Dill, is arresting in this role, but the two outstanding characters are Jake Spivey, played to weird perfection by Jay R. Ferguson, and the fey, strange and deadly Clyde Brattle, embodied flawlessly by Alan Cumming.

I thought we were supposed to assume something from Dill’s emotional detachment; deep psychological trauma, for example. Then I read the book, and saw that Dawson is playing Dill exactly as Ross wrote Dill. Apparently, nearly psychotic emotional detachment seemed normal for 1984 male MCs. Either that, or I still have gender biases. Whatever it is, it works the way Dawson does it. The one flourish I found unnecessary was the mild SM relationship with the handsome ambitious senator. Please! We get that Dill is in a position with no power. We get that she can only slap the Senator as foreplay, because he has all the power. We get it.

Updating was disheartening easy, really; black ops in Viet Nam easily translated to black ops in Afghanistan; political corruption is still political corruption, and shady land deals are always good drama. The way Dill and Felicity Dill communicated was awkward, because in the book, the younger sister wrote letters. In 2020, explaining why she uses this instead of email doesn’t quite work. Some of these episodes were quite slow. I think this story would have worked well in eight, rather than ten episodes.

I watched them all, but I’m still not sure I liked it. It isn’t something I will watch again, probably, but there were some interesting details. I think as a showcase for Dawson, it worked quite well. And, bonus, there were giraffes.

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White Silk Pajamas

Late last week I was pulling some clothes out of my closet to add to the growing things-I’ll-give-to-the-thrift-store-someday-when-I-can-again pile and I came across the pair of white silk women’s pajamas on a hanger near the back.

I say white, but they’re off-white, maybe an “old ivory” or “cream” shade, with roses on them. They’ve been in the closet a long time and survived a number of purges. I’d never gotten rid of them but I’d never worn them.

I pulled them out and looked at the size. They’re Large, which means they’d be a little big on me now, but pajama bottoms have drawstrings, so that problem’s solved. I tried to figure out how old they are. As near as I can tell, I probably bought them in the 1990s. And not the late 90s, most likely mid-90s.

These pajamas are old enough to vote and buy alcohol. If the pajamas had children, those children might be in elementary school by now.

These pajamas could have finished college and post-grad work and be defending their doctoral thesis.

As I looked at them – they’re in good shape, no moth holes, no stains (I mean, I’ve never worn them) — it did occur me that they could have been bright white when I bought them and yellowed to the cream color during their decades in the closet, but the shading is not quite yellow enough, and it’s completely even throughout.

As I said, made of silk, with roses on them. In other words, so not me. But I remember buying them. I can’t remember why I bought them. (I almost wrote, “what possessed me,” but maybe I don’t want to go there.)

Luxurious nightwear for a getaway, like maybe to St Orre’s? Okay, sure, but… they’re not sexy. I’m as covered wearing those as I am in a blouse and trousers. So that doesn’t seem like it. The fabric feels wonderful. Maybe I just bought them for myself? I remember that the cost, while high for sleepwear, was not outrageous for clothing, if that makes sense, and I remember buying a black silk paisley bathrobe at the same shop, which I used as part of a costume for a couple of years. That sartorial wonder did find its way to the thrift store. But I kept these.

I kept these, but I never wore them.

I mean, nobody wears tailored pajamas anymore, do they? We wear pajama bottoms and T-shirt-like tops, or long nightshirts.

I wrote earlier than I didn’t know why I bought them, but I think I do know that. I know how the silk feels against my fingers and how quickly it gets warm. I know the way the light plays down the fabric in a tone that’s something between the light of an August full moon and a pearl. But why didn’t I wear them? Maybe I thought they were too fancy? Too self-indulgent?

Anyway. I wore them Friday night and Saturday night. And they are wonderful. Maybe I’ve reached the time in my life where I can have silk pajamas.



 

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4:55 AM

The irregular pattering on the leaves of the olive tree woke me. The breeze blew puffs of rain-sweetened air through the opening in the slider, filling the dark room.

I was lying on my side so I didn’t see any flash of lightning, but the thunder rolled across the sky from north to south and seemed like it might go on forever.

Finally, though, it faded. The rain picked up, and over its murmur, one of the owls who nests in the neighbor’s redwood tree hooted three times, soft and low.

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All About the Stakes

I recently finished the first draft of the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. The beginning was pretty good. I thought the end was pretty good too; the plot threads came together in something that looked like woven cloth rather than a snarled thicket. Unfortunately, that left the middle, which dragged and sagged. Worse, it was boring.

I had more exposition than I needed. This is largely what a first draft is for me — a way to write down everything everything I need, and then decide what the story needs. So yes, there was too much talking and summary writing, but the real problem with the middle was more fundamental. The characters in the middle section forget what the stakes were.

Well, that’s not fair. I forgot what their stakes were.

It seems silly to say “stakes matter,” because of course they do. But I guess I mean, they really do. They don’t have to be global or heroic. They have to grow organically from your character and be part of that character’s motivation.

In my case, the second part of the book follows Erin and Trevian (or, as I like to think of them, E&T), the MCs from Aluminum Leaves. They are on a quest to save Trevian’s world from an inter-dimensional invasion. Those seem like pretty big stakes. Erin, in particular, would probably have some strong opinions about the need to do this thing, shut down the portal, and stop the invasion force. You’d think, anyway. In the first draft, though, she spends more time leafing through old manuscripts from Trevian’s world and debating vocabulary with a local scholar.

Part of the problem is that the plot and the timeline require E&T to be stuck in one place for several days. What I’d missed about that was what kind of emotional toll it might take on Erin, and what she would say about the delays that slow down their immediate, necessary project.

I could say that I took it for granted that the reader would remember that the stakes were high, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I forgot that the stakes were high.

And by the way, if the reader cares more about the outcome than the character does, you’ve got a story problem on your hands.

On some level I knew the tension wasn’t right because I planned from the beginning to have a couple of outside attacks from folks trying to get the artifact. And those are needed for plot reasons, so they are still in there, but they did not substitute for the real tension the story needed. A second observation; if you have to drag in a lot of outside action to create the tension, once again you’ve probably got a story problem.

And here, I’m going to put something I saw on Writer Twitter the other day, and I can’t remember who said it, “Action isn’t tension. Action is the relief of tension.”

*

On the other end of the “stakes” continuum was Aideen, Trevian’s sister, who is back in Trevian’s home town. Aideen doesn’t know about inter-dimensional invasions, or inter-dimensional anythings. Her father had a near-fatal accident; suddenly she is on the verge of losing the family company. These are hardly global stakes, but somehow, I convinced people (my writers workshop, anyway) that they were real. Mainly, Aideen cared about these stakes, and the early chapters show her as a person who tries to do the right thing. It’s not like she’s J.R. Ewing, and the folks who want to take over the company are bad guys.

A lot of Aideen’s identity is wrapped up in the company, but so too is the well-being of her town. It’s not a big and flashy a goal as “saving the world from an invasion,” but it’s real.

*

What have I learned?

Don’t forget the stakes. Don’t let the character forget the stakes.

Make the stakes something that matter to the character, and make us see why they matter. Yes, making the cheer-squad in high school can be a goal that really raises the stakes for a character, if that desire reveals character.

If you’re feeling the need to throw in car bombs, random kidnap attempts, shootings, etc, your writer-mind might be telling you that you aren’t focused on the heart of the story; what drives your characters. (There might be an argument to be made that this doesn’t apply to thrillers– but I’m not convinced.)

Action is not a substitute for conflict, and it doesn’t increase the tension — it relieves it.

*

Now I’m going to go off and discover if I have correctly applied these insights to my own work! I spent a big chunk of time on the middle section earlier this week — now I’ll see if it paid off.

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Epix’s Pennyworth is Overpriced

Spouse and I watched some free shows from the premium cable channels during Watchathon. One series we watched was Epix’s fantasy Pennyworth.

I didn’t know the show was based on a DC comic book set in an alternate Britain. I thought, from the previews, that this would be Batman’s Butler; the Early Years. But no.

Alfred Pennyworth, former army-boy, SAS trained, is never going to be a butler. At first, he wants to start a security firm with his two army-buds, Dave-Boy and Baz. Soon, though, Alfred (or Alfie) is drawing on his SAS-honed skills to help CIA operative Thomas Wayne (who is, I guess, not Bruce Wayne’s father in this world) and the No Name Group, one of two minority parties struggling against Britain’s corrupt administration.

At or around Episode 5, Alfie’s fiance Emse is stalked and killed by someone with a grudge against Alfie. In other words, she is fridged. Fridging occurs when writers introduce a female character solely to have a villain murder her, usually in a horrible way, so that the male protagonist will suffer. Esme’s murder ticks every single box for “fridging,” and with it, Pennyworth pivots from being a mildly interesting action show to a white-male-power-fantasy delivery system.

Alfie can kill anyone he wants, he can hurt anyone he wants, be an asshole all he wants, because he’s grieving. The social consequences that affect everyone else don’t apply to Alfie. In the first or second episode we see lawbreakers hanged and eviscerated — when Alfie fatally shoots two people in full view of about six police, he gets seven years, and is immediately sprung to commit an assassination. Which he doesn’t do, because he doesn’t want to, but his sentence is commuted anyway because he saves the Queen who has been abducted.

The story has no moral code, nor even a code of conduct. Alfie can do whatever he wants, and if he wants to do it, it’s… well, not good (they don’t go that far) but acceptable.

The world through which Alfie strides, drinking, sulking and killing, is thicker than tissue, but not much. It’s about the consistency of cardboard, like stage sets drawn by children and propped up on chairs. The two minority political parties are socialist and fascist, both equally corrupt at the top. The government is corrupt… Yawn. This post-WWII (maybe?) world is not explained. The story tosses in notorious British celebrities with little or no explanation — there’s an undertaker named John Ripper (get it?) and Aleister Crowley is less Satanic and more Satanically annoying. I mean, he does roofie a woman and probably rape her (we don’t see it), but onscreen he’s just a smug entitled jerk.

A bright spot in this disappointment is Alfie’s mother, who is a great character beautifully played by Dorothy Atkinson.

Watchathon offered 10 of Season One’s 13 episodes. I watched the ninth and tenth on a Sunday, with an excellent vodka tonic; fresh lime juice, Spirit Works Vodka and Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic. I can enthusiastically recommend the cocktail.






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