Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil is the third Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith. That’s the pen-name J.K. Rowling uses for her murder mystery series. Career of Evil is a dark book, darker even than the second novel, The Silkworm. Galbraith takes a deliberate detour through the world of apotemnophiliacs and Body Identy Integrity Disorder, and it is odd indeed.

I’m including a link to the first article I found on this desire people have to be amputees; you can certainly find more.* (This article is nearly 16 years old.) Galbraith did a lot of research on this topic, and it’s an important one for the series, because Strike lost half his leg in an IED incident in Afghanistan. His status has been a recurring point in the books and to be confronted with people who want to have healthy limbs removed (and who have started an online rumor that he is one of them) is emotionally difficult for him.

With each book in this series, Galbraith has tried out a different type of mystery. The Cuckoo’s Calling was a locked-room mystery. In The Silkworm, the readers learned about 17th century vengeance plays. (Of the three, The Silkworm worked the best for me, because the vengeance play template inoculated me against any creeping sense of disbelief.) Career of Evil ventures into the realms of both Agatha Christie and P.D. James; we get a very Jamesian sense of the dark spots on people’s souls, but the book is filled with small puzzles, names that sound like other names, mirror images, lashings of red herrings dragged across the trail, even a set of twins; all evoking Christie’s classic puzzles. The mystery in this one was good but not great. It didn’t matter too much, though, because essentially this is a relationship book.

The book starts with information that this murderer knows and hates Strike, and (this is not a spoiler) he has targeted Robin. Robin, who is maturing into an excellent investigator, is a bit distracted, because her wedding in only two months away. Early in the book she and her fiancé Matthew have a wounding argument and she discovers something about him she would rather not have known. In addition to everything else, she struggles to decide (again) whether to go forward with the wedding. As the clock ticks down, this becomes a suspenseful part of the story.

Robin’s relationship isn’t the only one that gets examined here. Strike’s mother, long dead, is brought up by the killer, and Strike immediately suspects his hated stepfather, who he believes, but can’t prove, murdered his mother. Robin and Strike still have to figure out what they mean to each other; Robin’s mother plays a larger role in this book, and is a counter point to Strike’s “super-groupie” mother Leda. And the mystery itself is entwined around the nature of intimate relationships.

The book is a little longer than it needs to be, in part because of Robin’s soul-searching, but I also thought the sections from the murderer’s POV were too long, and a bit self-indulgent. I didn’t want to stop reading, though. And the book ends on a dramatic relationship cliffhanger.

If you liked The Cuckoo’s Calling, you will like this book. If torture, mutilation and sexual assault trigger you or upset you, don’t start this series and particularly, don’t read this book. I don’t think Career of Evil stands alone, either, so if you think it’s for you, at least read The Cuckoo’s Calling first, so you understand where the characters are coming from.

*Here’s a more recent article on BIID.

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Critters I Can Do Without; a Discussion of Urban Fantasy

I read a lot of a fantasy subgenre called Urban Fantasy. Although the name implies that these tales take place in metropolitan areas (and many of them do) the real hallmark of a UF book is that is it set in our contemporary world or a close analogue of it, with magical or supernatural elements. The narrowness of the term “urban fantasy” can lead to embarrassing terms like, “rural urban fantasy” if the story takes place on a farm.

The heroines and heroes of UF usually battle supernatural monsters, ranging from the familiar to the obscure and the flat-out made-up. While I usually love seeing what a new writer is going to do with a traditional creature, some of these magical beasties are just plain over-exposed. Here is a list of critters I could do without for a while.


Vampires in fiction have been done, re-done and overdone. They all have the T-shirt and they bristle with the forks that have been stuck into them. They need a break.

The Romanian vampires of folklore were stranger (and scarier) creatures than today’s UF brood. They often behaved as if they had dementia, or some obsessive disorder, or both. Humans would come home from the funeral of a loved one to find the loved one sitting in their favorite chair, as if they didn’t know they were dead. If a Romanian vampire were chasing you, and you threw a handful of seeds, grain, sewing pins or jellybeans down behind you, the vampire would have to stop and count every single one. (Okay, I don’t think they had jellybeans in 13th century Romania.) Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was a genuinely scary monster because beneath his diabolically smooth manner and his skills at hypnotism, he wasn’t human.

Today’s fictional vampires are sexy female sidekicks, bad boyfriends or part of some vampire wannabe-Mafia family. They want to fit in. For a while, beginning in the late 1970s-early 80s (I think of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Le Comte de St-Germain as the first example) the vampire as the hero or sympathetic main character was interesting, because usually it meant they were fighting the instinctual urge to feed on their human friends and allies. That created suspense. Nowadays, artificial blood and ideas like “vegetarian” vampires have killed that suspense. Vamps need a nice retreat to the Romanian countryside to count flowers or something. Stat.


To be clear, I’m talking about USA, George-Romero-style zombies, not the entranced variety. These are the shambling, moaning, lurching, appendage-dropping  living-dead of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead and, of course, The Walking Dead.

Let’s face it: zombies are boring. They are bad conversationalists. They are slow. They aren’t very bright. What’s so scary about them, then? They eat human brains, but so do about half the things I consume daily, so that isn’t it. No, what’s scary about American zombies is how very contagious they are. No ritual “blood for blood” exchange like a vampire needs in order to turn you. If a zombie bites you, you turn into a zombie. If a zombie scratches you, you turn into a zombie. If a zombie sneezes on you… you get the idea.

You are brighter and faster than they are, but there are so many of them! And the most casual contact can turn you into one of them. They’re like those homeless people you try to ignore on your walk during your work-break; or that neighbor whose husband still hasn’t found a job. Or those people from another country who don’t talk like you and who have twelve people living in one house. American zombies are the not-very-subtle symbols of toxic capitalism… because they want what we’ve got (whoever “they” are, and whatever it is we’ve “got”) and the slightest touch makes you… like them! Yes, there is a horde of them, a few rungs below you on classless America’s invisible ladder of success, but it only takes one to grab your ankle (one bad car accident, one serious illness, one layoff) to pull you down with them, and you will lose everything.

Well, the Great Recession is over, and we’re in the Recovery now. Let’s start acting like it, and give zombies the nice dirt nap they deserve.

Critters I’m on the fence about:

Angels, Fallen and Buoyant:

In Paradise Lost, that great urban fantasy poem (yes, kidding,) John Milton created a great fallen angel character in Lucifer. Neil Gaiman created a different and equally interesting take on the Fallen One in Sandman. Gaiman’s Lucifer works for God as the warden of God’s prison. He resigns, throws open the gates of hell, and follows his dream of playing piano in a blues bar.

Gaiman gave us another successful angel character in Neverwhere.

Tony Kushner’s angels in Angels in America are three-dimensional creatures who seem at turns both magnificent and pathetic as we learn more about their situation.

Ah, the good old days.

Angels have always had a grip on the American imagination, showing up for decades and decades in American pop culture as charming infantile creatures wrongly called cherubs (and oddly, confused with Eros, the god of sexual love) and as guardian angels. In the run-up to the millennium, they became big pop-culture players; messengers of God, beings of light, lingerie models with wings. What’s not to love? Of course, it was only a matter of time until we overdosed on the whole beings-of-light thing, and had to go to the dark side.

I blame the TV show Supernatural for the over-exposure of angels. I’ll watch actor Mark Pelligrino in anything, and his interpretation of Lucifer in the show was a treat, but Supernatural’s angel storyline demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with using them as characters, particularly adversaries. It tried to pull Judeo-Christian religion into the story as a basis for a magical system. That should work, but in the strength-versus-strength, videogame-environment of current UF in general, and the testosterone-laced, homoerotic milieu of Supernatural in particular, you can’t have a compassionate God who sacrifices himself to redeem humanity. That just messes up your plot. Then you crash head-first into that familiar dilemma; God is all-powerful, and God is all-good, but evil still happens. Either God is not powerful enough to stop evil, or God doesn’t care to. With humans, the answer is simple; we have free will. It’s on us.

Angels do not have free will. For fictional creatures who work with God every day, they cannot articulate or even discuss what God’s plan for dealing with evil might be. God really needs to be out of the picture completely; so we get the “absent father” that Kushner did so well, only stepped on and watered down. Angels are simple-minded warriors or steely-eyed control freaks; angels usually hate humans, which should be a trademark of the Fallen, not the heavenly host.

Exceptions exist. Jim Butcher’s angels in the Harry Dresden series aren’t bad, especially the mysterious archangel Uriel. In the right hands, they can be mysterious, intriguing characters. In the wrong hands, they are mangy winged fascists who bloviate more than Donald Trump.


I love werewolves. I love shape-shifters in general. My introduction to the werewolf as a pop culture icon came with the 1941 movie The Wolfman. Lawrence Talbot is a good guy, an innocent, who falls under an ancient curse and changes, without control, into a monster. The wolfman story is tragic, as a human fights and loses a battle with the violent instinctual creature within.

That was the original view of a werewolf; our struggle with anger, lust, greed, violence… and the times we lose that battle. The monster werewolf was a human, battling the natural world, and the natural world was bad. In parts of Europe, wolves were a genuine threat to human lives; a human out alone was at risk, even if they were riding a horse (a pack of wolves could easily pull down a horse). Wolves also predated on human stock like goats and sheep, direct competition for the food supply. They were a good pick to stand in for dark nature.

In the 1970s our attitude toward nature started changing, and so did the werewolf in fiction. It began to morph into a character rather than a monster. In later decades, people changed the werewolf lore so that wolves could morph whenever they wanted; morphing also into heroes or sidekicks. In UF novels like Laurel K. Hamilton’s works (which I do not recommend) and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, werewolves gather together in hierarchical groups called packs, usually ruled by an alpha male. The pack idea was inaccurate, springing largely from a study of wolves in captivity. The urban fantasy view of wolves often shows females as powerless within the pack political structure, having to resort to indirect means and manipulation to achieve their ends.

Still, shape-shifting is cool. A new imagining of werewolves, using the extended-family “alpha pair” model rather than tired old alpha males could be really interesting.

Critters I Could See More Of:

The Elder Gods:

I know that H.P. Lovecraft was a raging bigot and terrible person, but I love Cthulhu. I don’t know why, I just do. And I’m not alone! I saw a felted Cthulhu Christmas ornament at a kitchen shop the other day. I’ve seen knitted C’s dangling from rear-view mirrors and folks sporting tentacled Cthulhu hats. It could just be that we are beginning to admire the octopus, but I think there’s more to it.

Current UF writers are delivering the Elder Gods in great ways. Just read Cherie Priest’s stunning gothic horror novel Maplecroft, or Daryl Gregory’s novella “We Are All Completely Fine,” to see what some of our best writers are doing with those mad creatures from beyond the time-space rift.


Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, and The Golem and Jinni, by Helene Wecker, both show how these powerful fire elementals can shine when they are given the page space to so do. More, please!

Having pontificated, I will now say that a brilliant idea brilliantly executed will make me read about any creepy-crawly, even ones on my “no-read” list. One big exception to the zombie thing: Terry Weyna’s review induced me to read The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. It is a zombie book unlike any other, a must-read.

But it’s a big world! And there are so many of them! Worlds, I mean. Please, UF creators, step outside the smarmy comfort zone of hipster bloodsuckers, or the gross-out playground of living dead, and give us new creatures to love and fear.

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“My Mother, Dancing” by Nancy Kress

Hugo and Nebula award winning writer Nancy Kress just published a story collection with Subterranean Press. It’s called The Best of Nancy Kress. My review of the whole book is available here. (And a plug, ordering the book via FanLit’s link gets the site about twelve cents, which can go toward operating expenses.) The stories in the book span more than thirty years, and show a lot of Kress’s thought processes, as well as her considerable skill.

I don’t always like Kress’s characters, particularly her women, but I love her ideas and the direction she goes with them. I’m going to discuss one story in particular from the collection. It isn’t even my favorite, but I think it shows so well what she does.

“My Mother, Dancing,” is one of Kress’s rare far-future stories. The story toys with Fermi’s Paradox; if (theoretically) there are hundreds of billions of earth-like planets, why haven’t we been visited by other life?

In “My Mother, Dancing,” the conclusion to Fermi’s Paradox, after centuries of search by terrestrial humans, is that the universe is empty of life except for us. Centuries after Fermi, other human visionaries have pondered the question, and one group has come to the conclusion that it is the responsibility of nano-enchanced, gene-modded humans to spread hand-crafted life among the stars. These aren’t human colonies; these are other entities, seeded onto planets and monitored. It’s called the Great Mission.

The story opens with a quartet of humans, returning to a gas giant planet where life was seeded a millennium ago by the planet’s reckoning. The humans put a created life form at the bottom of a deep rift, where the atmosphere was protected. They promised to come back in a thousand years, and have left an AI to allow them to communicate with the life forms.

The opening tone of the story is celebratory. The quartet is throwing a party before contacting the life forms below. They anticipate a population of about 200,000. Carefully, they lecture their child, Harrah, about treating the lifeforms with respect, and their gentle, patronizing tone tells us volumes about these missionaries themselves.

When they reach out to Seeding 140, their contact, the life form reacts with joy. Through the hologram projection, the humans see their life forms, which look a little bit like oysters, dancing. Seeding 140 then says they are happy that “Mother” has appeared to help them with their problem; they are dying.

Instead of 200,000, there are about 80,000 life forms left. The humans assume immediately that some geological disaster like an earthquake killed off the colony, but Seeding 140 says no. It’s the Others. The Others came about ninety-two planetary years ago, and the seedings began to die.  The AI shows a picture of one of the Others. They look plant-based, and there are hundreds of them. A quick scan of the rift’s atmosphere shows that oxygen levels are changing to a rate the seedings can’t tolerate; the Others excrete oxygen, and the shifting levels are proving fatal to the seedings.

Seeding 140’s tone is clearly that of a faithful follower calling upon its deity for help. It knows, without doubt, that Mother will save them.

This is not a “science” science fiction story, where the humans must problem solve to make an environmental change; or even a science ethics story were they debate the rightness of choosing seedings over Others. The four human characters are devastated, shocked at the presence of the Others, because they can’t be there. Everyone knows there is no life in the universe except that created by humanity. Their databases show conclusively that the Others were not planted in the rift by another human team, or in error. Sentence by sentence, the smugness of the humans erodes away, and their arguments become flimsier and flimsier. The holographic evidence is corrupted, they decide. The oxygen readings are in error; they can’t send a probe, because it might become contaminated too, and there’s the child to think of. Not one of them can admit in so many words that this situation calls their belief system into doubt. Not one of them is strong enough in their belief to face this challenge. Kress strips away every rationalization, while at the same time giving us glimpses of these modified humans, the “beautiful deep-green eyes,” of one, for instance. Only one of the four will say out loud that the Others are alive.

What do we owe to the things we create? Until those things achieve sentience, it’s probably an abstract question. How do we react when everything we believe is challenged? Must we act on a cry for help? All these questions are asked in the story. This is also a story about the way we rationalize Not Us = Less Than Us. Humans now live centuries-long lives, and one of the four says that they’ve devoted their life to the Great Mission. They stop just short of saying what they mean, but the reader gets it; their life work, their ego, is more important that the truth… more important than a cry for help from the things they’ve created.

Kress shows us the spiritual hollowness of the healthy, beautiful, physically perfect missionaries,and makes us care about the seedings. Sadly for faithful Seeding 140, dancing as it waits for Mother to help, its creators are all too human.

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Second Site

Mockingbird Books in its second location

Mockingbird Books now has a second store, in Guerneville, in the space that Twice Told Book occupied for decades. The address is 14045 Armstrong Woods Road. Shannon, who owned Twice Told Books and brought it into local prominence during the past three years, was ready to retire. With River Reader closing a few years ago, a casualty of the recession, Twice Told was the only book store in the county, west of Sebastopol, to the coast. Now it’s Mockingbird.

The stores are open!

The store, about one-third the size of the Sebastopol shop, shares space with The Coffee Bazaar, who makes, I can attest, a good and spicy Mexican mocha. The Coffee Bazaar also provides ice cream, pastries, and lunch items. It’s a gathering place for people, including those who are using the laundromat that is also part of the complex.

This building floods. Of course, most of us can’t remember what a flood looks like. Since the last really bad ones, rural county towns have gotten their protocols together, and this building can be easily sandbagged if it’s necessary. Basically, moving all the inventory off the bottom two shelves would probably protect against most flood damage, other than structural damage to the venerable building itself. It’s something many of us don’t think about anymore, since it’s been so long since we’ve seen rain.

With Linda, in blue, ready to help you find a book.

Mark, Geronimo and Jeff spent a busy several days cleaning, conducting inventory, and shelving, and they opened around the first of November. Some, but not all of the signs have arrived, but the locals are stopping in to check out the changes.

The Coffee Bazaar has tables on the sidewalk. I wanted a picture of the sign and the front window, but there were coffee patrons there, and the locals of Guerneville… well, let’s say they value their privacy, so I didn’t want to take a picture. I’m pretty sure, though, that closer to Christmas we will see a train set in that window.

The store will have mostly used books, but will carry a small selection of new, and most likely they will order books for locals, since the easiest other option is on-line, and we don’t want to encourage that habit! The store also offers calendars, greeting cards and journals. Currently they are observing winter hours; 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Geronimo frantically lists book to be ready for opening.

The store serves an interesting set of demographics; locals, and tourists. It’s right on the road to Armstrong Woods, and next door to a coffee-and-ice-cream place, across the street from a wrap-shop. It’s the perfect place for the vacationer who has finished a book, or who forgot their Kindle-charger to pick up a mystery, local history book, romance or western… or something for fussy kids. The locals are a diverse bunch; some very liberal and monied folks in and around the town, long-time Sonoma County families up-mountain in Cazadero who vote Republican (or libertarian), sheep and dairy cattle farmers closer to the coast, and several varieties of self-employment.

I drove out to take pictures today and got a bonus; the leaves along the way were in full fall glory, spangles of gold against the backdrop of the evergreens.

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The Throne of the Slacker Despot

(This is original fiction. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote it or cite it, give me credit. Marion)

“Our roads are rutted. The books in the university library are older than us! There’s still no bridge across the Tumblebukket River.” Merf the Passionate University Student banged his glass of juice on the table and tried to look fierce.

“Shhh!” his One Loyal Friend said. They glanced across the tavern, where two of the Despot’s Royal Guards sat sipping from tankards.

“I won’t be silenced!” Merf the Passionate University Student raised his voice. “We need action! We need progress! What this country needs is, is a revolution!”

One of the Despot’s Royal Guards tipped back his head and rolled his eyes. “Oh, my God!” he said. “Can you keep it down? Otherwise, I’ll have to get up, walk all the way over to your table, put my hand on my sword hilt and glare… Don’t make me come over there, student!”

The students immediately grew silent. “The Guards of the Slacker Despot are fearsome indeed,” Merf whispered.


On the anniversary of the victory of the nation’s army over some enemy, during some war, sometime, Merf the Passionate University Student organized a protest march to the Castle of the Slacker Despot. About thirty people joined him. Most were students who wanted to avoid studying for their exams. Some were townsfolk. Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid joined in because it was her lunch-break and she enjoyed walking. They marched from the tavern. They reached Victory Square, where a huge block of granite marked the spot where, maybe, someday, the Despot would commission a statue carved to commemorate something. Nine of the marchers got tired of walking and stopped for a sandwich. At the Crossroads of Manythings, six more remembered something they had to do at home. A block later, two more decided to take a nap. Five paused to skip stones over the still water of the Tumblebukket River. Five more, including the One Loyal Friend, stopped to try on shoes in the Cobbler’s Quarter.

Merf and Aimee approached the castle. Aimee thought they weren’t making a very good impression, but she didn’t say that because she wanted to be supportive.

“I demand to see the Despot!” Merf the Passionate University Student shouted.

The guard shrugged. “Whatever.”

Merf the Passionate University Student stormed into the great hall, where the Slacker Despot lounged on his throne, his feet dangling over one arm of it, the ancestral crown worn backwards. He was watching a game. His courtiers portrayed the game pieces, each wearing a placard that gave their character’s name, talent and a bit of background. The Slacker Despot rolled dice and turned over cards. This seemed to be part of the game.

Merf the Passionate University Student cleared his throat and pulled out a packet of notes. “Your Majesty, I am a loyal subject– ”

“Who is this guy?” the Slacker Despot said. He was about the same age as Merf. “Oh, hey, hi,” he said to Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid, who curtseyed.

Merf lost his place. “I um… Your Majesty, you must do something!”

“Like, what?”

Merf waved his arms, because he was a Passionate University Student. “I don’t know. Just something. For goodness’s sake do something!

The Slacker Despot straightened up. His gaze grew distant. “Yeah…” he said. “Do something. That sounds… good. I will.”

“You will?”


“That’s great, Your Majesty! I will carry the word to your people!” Merf the Passionate University Student started to back away. Two steps and he stopped. “Um, any idea what, Your Majesty?”

“What, what?”

“What you’ll do.”

“Oh. Yeah. Uh, something.”

“Any idea when?”

“Oh, you know.” The Slacker Despot shrugged. “Whenever.”


“The Slacker Despot is a liar!” Merf the Passionate University Student fumed as they headed back to the tavern.

“Pssst,” said the robed, masked man in the shadowy alley. “I can help you, Passionate University Student.”

“Sure,” said Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid. “That’s why you’re skulking in an alley, wearing a mask. Because you’re helpful.”

“I am Cosco the Enigmatic Wizard. I’m in disguise. I have a potion that will cure the Despot and help him reach his full potential.”

“Right,” said Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid. “Come on, Merf.”

“Suit yourself,” Cosco the Enigmatic Wizard said, “but without me, the Despot will never do anything.”

“No!” Merf cried passionately. “I can’t risk that, Aimee.” He marched into the alley.


The face of Merf the Passionate University Student scrunched up like a crushed sponge. “My God, that’s horrible! The Despot will never drink that!”

“I don’t know why you did,” said Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid, who stood at the mouth of the alley, arms crossed, tapping her foot.

“Here, try it like this,” Cosco said. He poured milk into the dark brown potion and added a dollop of honey. Merf tasted it.

“Well, it’s a little better but— whoa!” His eyes opened wide. “Wow!”

“What?” said Aimee.

“The blood is coursing through my veins!” Merf the Passionate University Student shouted.

“That’s what blood does,” said Aimee.

“Not like this! Whoa! I feel like I could, I could, I could do anything! Cosco, my man! What is that stuff?”

“It comes from deep in the equatorial jungle. The fruit is picked and dried in the sun for days and days, then roasted over coals and — ”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, cut to the chase! What is it?”

“It’s called cawfii. It’s harmless, but it will return the Despot’s ambition to him, which he seems to have lost,” said Cosco the Enigmatic Wizard.

“Oh, that is awesome! I’m running back to the castle right now! Let’s go! Aimee, c’mon! It’ll be fun!”

“Oh, no,” Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid said. “You’ve gone mad, and my break’s over. You be careful, Merf.”

“Hah! Careful is for losers!” Merf the caffeinated Passionate University Student snatched the pitcher of cawfii from Cosco and bolted away. Aimee the Comely Tavern Maid shook her head, glared at Cosco, and headed back to the Tavern.

Alone with no one to observe him, Cosco cackled and rubbed his hands together. “Soon my plan will come to fruition!”


“The Despot wants a sandwich,” the courtier said.

“Oh, he does, does he?” said the Irascible Castle Cook. “I’ll tell you, his father never sent some flunky in to demand a sandwich in the middle of the day. You know what he would do if he was hungry? Invade a country, that’s what. And eat their sandwiches. There was a real despot. Now I’ll have to get up, walk all the way over to the cutting board, slice the bread, twice, slice some roast, layer it onto the bread… it’s exhausting.”

“Hi!” Merf the Passionate University Student said, skidding to a stop in the kitchen. “Excuse me. Hello. I’m a messenger. I bring important tidings for the Despot.”

He had sneaked in through one of the many secret passages that a guard had shown him. The guard did not normally show people the secret passages, but Merf would just not stop talking, and the guard caved under the pressure.

“Who’re you?” the Irascible Castle Cook said.

“I’m a messenger. Try to keep up. I’m bringing the Despot the most amazing drink. Here, try it. Put some honey in it. No-no-no-no, not by itself, with honey. Honey and milk. Just try it. Try it. Go on, take a sip.”

“Shut up, you,” said the Irascible Castle Cook. She sipped from the cup Merf had shoved in her face. “That’s weird.” She took another swallow. “Mmm. I don’t think the Despot will like this.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Wow! That is amazing!” She leaped to her feet, catching the falling cup of cawfii before a drop spilled. “The Despot needs a sandwich! That stuff, it smells like burnt wood, but whoa!” She sliced up half a loaf of bread, whipped up three roast beef and onion sandwiches and carved a bunch of radishes into rosebuds that she used to garnish the plates.

“Here, give him this,” Merf said, putting the pitcher on the tray next to the plates.

“Oh, heck yeah!” The Irascible Castle Cook picked up the tray. “The Despot will love this stuff!”


The Despot started projects. Sculptors carved the block of granite into royal cawfii tables. Engineers designed a bridge across the Tumblebukket. The Despot recruited an army and sent it on maneuvers. He ordered new books for the University and hired more professors. He ordered that the roads of the city be repaved. To pay for all this, he raised taxes.

Cosco the Enigmatic Wizard became the primary provider of the magic cawfii beans, and changed his name to Cosco the Unbelievably Wealthy Merchant.


“This is intolerable! We work ten hours a day! We’re expected to serve in the army and complete university in three years!” Merf the Disgruntled Second Generation University Student downed his cawfii. His fingers shook, but he ignored that, and tried to look fierce. “We need a rest! We need vacations! We need calm! What this country needs – is a revolution!”



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The Magician’s Lie by Greer MacAllister

The Magician’s Lie opens in 1905 Iowa. In the early pages, two off-duty policeman watch a woman illusionist chop a man in half onstage. The trick is gory and breath-taking, but after the show ends, they find a body killed with an axe, just like in the act. The Amazing Arden, architect of the trick, is wanted now, for the murder of her husband. Virgil Holt, a small-town cop who is standing at the crumbling precipice of his own personal destiny, finds The Amazing Arden in a coffee shop, and arrests her. The rest of the book plays out in an interrogation room, as Ada, or Arden, dodges Virgil’s questions and instead shares with him the story of her life.

Greer MacCallister lets us know right away that this book is a performance and not a naturalistic novel. The scenes in the interrogation room are loaded with stage directions and many of them will prove important as the story progresses. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, so suspending disbelief is usually not a problem for me. It was a little difficult here in a few places.

Ada – the Amazing Arden – has a magical ability to heal quickly. She not only heals herself, for much of the book she can speed the healing of others, just by wishing it. I had no trouble accepting this fantastical quality. I also had very little trouble with the manipulation and see-sawing of the power differential in the interrogation room, which is quite well done. Holt believes in Ada’s healing ability with very little prompting, explaining that his mother believed that some people had magic; just small magics that “made things better.” I think this is a rationalization on Holt’s part (intentional on the part of the writer); Holt believes in Ada’s magic because he needs to.

Where the suspension of disbelief faltered was in Ada’s recounting of her life. Ada’s life is a fairy-tale. Although she is illegitimate, she and her mother live in wealth and privilege in her grandparents’ house; Ada is taught to dance and the grandparents pay for travel costs for her mother to go to Europe and pursue her musical career. The mother, however, cashes in the tickets and runs away to Tennessee with a new man, taking Ada with her. On a poor farm in Tennessee, Ada meets Ray, the villain of the piece. Ray is a few years older than young Ada. He survived the fever that took both his siblings when he was a child, and from this, Ray concludes that he something special, blessed with special gifts. Seeing that Ada heals quickly, he assumes a bond between them, but that bond is ownership and he grows more possessive and dangerous as the story progresses. Ray is not just a villain. As the story continues into Ada’s adulthood, he becomes the boogeyman.

Ada flees her home to escape Ray, but for a teenaged girl on her own, she has remarkably few problems. This is where I began to disengage from the book. We are supposed to believe that Ada overcomes terrible hardships to get where she has gotten, but things go her way quite well. She sneaks into a great country home and disguises herself as a maid, only to be caught by the housekeeper – who keeps her on because another maid was let go earlier that week. When Ada is caught in a compromising position with one of the gardeners by the house’s owner, he is amused and lets her off with an avuncular lecture. This is very good luck for a maid in the late 1890s. The mistress of the house would have sent her packing.

I thought Ada had it awfully easy for much of this story, but once we met Adelaide Herrmann, I was willing to forgive nearly everything. Herrmann is an actual historical person, a woman illusionist who kept her husband’s show running after his death. This part of the book, with Ada – now called Vivi – learning the ropes of stage-magic, was delightful. Once again, things are very easy for her; the other women in the chorus line don’t like her, but Ada doesn’t really mind because she would rather hang out with the men and learn the secrets to the tricks. “Backstage secrets” always appeal to me, and MacAllister does a nice job of sharing tricks that are already pretty well known, while maintaining the mystery in the others. Soon, Ada is performing as The Amazing Arden, with a show of her own, and an eye toward a happy ending, when Ray reappears on the scene, bringing terror and pain.

Holt, back in the interrogation room, the “present tense” of the story, has his own problems, which are described lightly. I thought there was a slight failure of suspense here. MacAllister plays very fairly with her audience, we see what Holt sees and hear what he hears, and that gives us an edge. Holt’s question is whether he can believe what The Amazing Arden is telling him. Our question is somewhat different.

I did think I saw too much of the plot’s scaffolding through the story at times, but the depiction of the stage show and life on the road, and the larger-than-life character of Adelaide, made this an enjoyable read that I didn’t want to put down, even when I thought I knew what was going to happen (and I was right). MacAllister has also written plays, and to some extent, the staginess of the “present tense” story shows that. I’m also not convinced that the ending works completely, although by the end of the story, Ada/Arden’s choices are somewhat limited. Overall, though, I enjoyed The Magician’s Lie.


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The Scarecrow Parade

Once again, Main Street Benicia is hosting its Halloween scarecrow contest! There are many to choose from.

The figures break down into some natural categories:


Two actual scarecrows and a skeleton display represent the best of the “classic” theme.

Classic scary scarecrow

Some detail on our burlap buddy.

I liked that they used burlap and used clothing, like a real scarecrow. The skeletons are well arranged and the spiders were creepy-good, but they lacked that homemade flair.

Scary skeletons

The skeletons were part of a larger diorama that included some ghouls (but I didn’t like how my photo of them came out). This is their annual display.

Too much pumpkin ale, dude?

The community garden contributed a basic scarecrow, who looks a bit like he’s had too much to drink and is about to vomit. Not sure that’s what they were going for.







One of the galleries contributed a beautiful Day of the Dead scarecrow.

Day of the Dead

Detail of Day of the Dead


This category included the most innovative sculpture — Legoman!

The Legoman scarecrow

And a Public Service Announcement:

Do Not Text and Fly

Mermaids are mythological, but they’re experiencing a renaissance as a fad, so this one (from Sailor Jack’s, our home away from home) definitely fits in the “contemporary” category. That, and her outfit.

Stylish mermaid.

And a surfer girl witch in front of the ice cream store.

Surfer girl witch


I’m not positive this is a theme, but since we had a cigar-chomping bride in white and a “merry widow” in orange and black, it seemed as if the condition of marriage was well represented. (Unless, of course, the pumpkin figure is actually a woman from Old California, in which case… )

The bride wore white.

In black, and having a blast.

Commercial themed:

Several shops went with a scarecrow that complemented their store, or even carried the brand. Bookshop Benicia provided a forbidding character made of folded paper; the “dog and cat outfitters” had a dog-scarecrow, and Teakman just went with… Teakman.

It’s Teakman. He’s a man. He sells teak.

Far from scary, this one captures the essence of canine.

A bit grim at arm’s length…

Close up, otherworldly.

I love this event. The creativity and humor are wonderful. I’ve said before that I wish Sebastopol’s Downtown Merchant’s association would think about doing this.



















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The Hugos, 2016; Some Good Novels

I’ve read four great SF novels this months, and three of them would be eligible for Hugo nominations. One I read as an ARC and it will not be released until 2016.

The others, however, I recommend highly, depending on your taste:

Raising Caine, by Charles E. Gannon. I’ve reviewed all three of Gannon’s books in this series, and they get better with each book. This story follows Caine and a small group of terrestrial humans as they interact with various exo-sapient species. Earth’s sworn enemy, the Ktor, are well-represented with a new adversary-character who is fascinating. Gannon is a champ of the Big Idea, the “what-if?” and his non-human characters show us various models of physical and societal evolution. Plus, it’s got close shaves, narrow escapes, space battles, double-crosses and mysteries. There’s something for everyone.

Gannon’s two previous books were both short-listed for the Nebulas, and he narrowly missed the Hugo ballot in 2015 – but we all know what happened with the ballot this year. His work qualifies as both Military SF and “hard” science fiction and provides pleasure for those of us who are curious to see how groups of beings work together and those of us who like space ships and explosions.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. I think Jemisin pulls a great switcheroo here, making us think we’re reading fantasy when we’re really reading science fiction, but since this is the first book of a series, I may be wrong. I can’t wait to find out! Jemisin lets us follow three POV characters, at different points in time, across a continent that is seismically dynamic. Two of the storylines take place before a cataclysmic rift opens across the breadth of the continent; one takes place immediately afterward. Certain people have a magical ability to connect with the earth, and control tremors or volcanic flows; far from being revered, these people are feared by their neighbors and enslaved by the Empire. The story opens with a dramatic event that leaves us gasping questions; it ends with two of the storylines resolving (maybe a bit too conveniently) but with the third one poised to deliver still more questions. Along the way the books grapples with questions of morality and power. Excellent.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Leckie triumphs here with a beautiful closure to her genuinely original space opera trilogy. What is a person? What happens when empires collapse? What exists beyond the Ghost Gate? How you have a civil war with yourselves, or more accurately, your selves? What is Breq’s place in the universe? What is up with Seivarden? And what will the Translator eat next? These questions and more are answered in Leckie’s final work, which also noses beyond her usual dry wit to outright laugh-out-loud humor, provided mostly by Translator Zeiat.

I had a few quibbles. I thought Seivarden’s story got a lot of play for basically being a relationship dispute. And in some ways, folks got off lightly at the end. Leckie managed, however, to do brilliantly the thing I feared she would not; bring this whole innovative, original story to a plausible and satisfying close. Through all three books, this story has belonged to Breq, a former “ancillary” or human node of consciousness of a sentient starship. Breq was Justice of Toren. Justice of Toren was betrayed and murdered by the Lord of the Radch, and Breq only survived because her body was temporarily offline. Throughout the trilogy, Breq has tried to make sense of what she is, and finally, in this book, she comes to an answer that is honest and balanced.

The fourth book is Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades which will be released in January, 2016. I loved City of Stairs. Loved it. This one is better. And heartbreaking.

I’m going to break my own rule here, because you can advance order City of Blades via Amazon. I don’t like it, but there it is.

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Michele Anna Jordan: The Good Cook Comes to Copperfield’s Books

Winona introduces Michele.

Michele Anna Jordan gave a presentation at the Sebastopol Coppefield’s on Saturday, October 17. Jordan has revised and reissued several of her classic food books, and she highlighted them for us.

This particular Saturday she had driven down from an event at Fort Ross where she fed over 150 people, along with two other chefs (she did the middle course). Jordan brought her two daschunds, Joey and Lark, to Copperfields with her because they needed a mom fix.

Michele Anna Jordan

Jordan was excited about the growth of local resources, including butcher shops like the Sonoma County Meat Company which provides locally raised meat and also makes an ingredient called caul fat available in small amounts, for the home cook. Caul fat is the lacy membrane that covers many internal organs, and cooks wrap meatballs in it, holding them together, which reduces the need for bread crumbs and creates a different texture for the meatball. Jordan expanded from meat into artisan cheese-makers, mentioning Weyrich Farms from Petaluma among others.

She has reissued nearly all of her original books, including the Book of Days; The Good Cook’s Book of Days is now titled The Good Cooks’ Journal. I bought this as a gift for a few people when it was still Book of Days – it’s a great gift for an organized cook or entertainer. The photos are lovely.

The Good Cook’s Book of Mustard:

Not much has changed in the world of mustard since she wrote the original book, Jordan says.

The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes:

While not much has changed with tomatoes either, she said (which surprised me given the explosion of heirloom varieties) much has changed about her, and she brought a different sensibility to this revision. She did mention that a couple of varieties of tomato that were popular in the 1990s because they transported well and looked a certain way were no longer grown.

The Good Cook’s Book of Oil and Vinegar:

Jordan said that she published the original book in 1992. Within two months of that pub date, one firm statement she had made in the book, that California did not produce olive oil that competed with Italy and France, changed completely. The Cohn family was the first local family to start producing olive oil, but now several companies do. Jordan walked us through the olive-pressing process. She talked about other oils, saying she was surprised canola oil was still around and as popular.  Vinegar hadn’t changed as much except maybe for the introduction of things like white balsamic vinegar.

The Good Cook’s Book of Salt and Pepper:

Jordan wanted to call this book “A Love Letter to Salt and Pepper.”  Very little has changed with pepper, but much has changed with salt. Jordan is skeptical of the chefs and restauranteurs who have gotten faddish about salt. There are places now, she said, where the salt sommelier comes to your table with a rasp and shaves salt onto your portion from a big chunk “Guys, it’s a rock,” she said. She’d delighted that she can get Hawaiian salt easily now, though.

The best story of the evening, although the most disappointing, was why the US doesn’t get the best pepper in the world. Most pepper is grown in Malaysia and Borneo, on small family farms. The fruit is dried out in the yard of cloth mats, with someone raking it daily so that the fruit dries evenly. It’s subject to contamination by birds, chickens, and animals, so when it comes to the US it’s either irradiated or sterilized with some chemical that’s so harsh nobody but the US uses it anymore. This destroys the high, floral notes in the fruit. There is a large plant in Malaysia that buys pepper from local farmers and pays them a bonus if their crop is delivered within 24 hours of coming off the vine. They clean it using water and dry in under driers. They sell the bulk of it in China and Japan, and so none comes to the US.  (I may have a connection in Japan… )

More Than Meatballs:

This is her new book and it’s gorgeous. I brought it home after the event and found three recipes I want to try in the next month.  It does go beyond “meatballs;” there is a section on vegetable fritters. This looks like a pretty versatile collection and may become another go-to for me, the way her book Vinaigrettes did.

Any or all of these would make good gifts for the cooks you know. Jordan puts cooking basics in all her books, so they’re good for a young person moving out on their own. Copperfield’s should have all of them or be able to order them for you.

If you get a chance to see Jordan in person, take it (especially if she’s providing food as part of the event!) She is always interesting, and she’s a great champion of local food producers, artisans and farmers alike.

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Whose Story is This, Anyway?

Two years ago I wrote a short fantasy story. It had a first-person narrator, in the person of a slackerish teenaged boy in a strange family. It started off with an almost-funny premise, and I tried to create pop-culture-weird family members, but I couldn’t maintain the light tone. The story was okay, and it had cool things, but the plot was predictable, and there just wasn’t enough there to make it compelling. Everything worked all right, but it wasn’t good.

Part of the problem was backstory. I had Ty, the narrator, tell us a story about his father and uncle, in 1970s California, and how they found a magical artifact. I used storyteller-third person, and it was a fun section of the story. It was the most fun section. It also made the father much more interesting than Ty.

I sent it out a couple of times, got it back, and that was that.

Now I’m working on it again, making it longer, letting myself explore the father’s and uncle’s adventures. This changes the story to a multi-generational saga. And, again, while Ty has his problems and could be the main character… it’s Dad who is driving the family minivan.

Just whose story is this, anyway?

Ty is a character who is acted upon, in the story and by the story; he always has been. Dad has agency.

I was talking with a writing friend the other day, telling her my dilemma, and she said, “It sure sounds like it’s the dad’s story.”

If it is, it changes the whole story. Not the plot, not the string of events. It changes what the story is about. It also dramatically changes the role of the sister. In the first version, the sister was kind of a “stealth” agent, and that worked okay. In the new version, she exists primarily as the ignored voice of sanity, as an object. The family doesn’t treat her like an object; the story does. She doesn’t have anything useful to do.

If the story belongs to the son, who is twenty, it becomes a story of self-exploration and, basically, in some ways a coming-of-age story. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If it belongs to the father, it becomes more tragic, because it’s about a man who tries to keep his family together, and in doing so, does everything wrong. It’s also about a man who uses/abuses power, gains fortune and loses everything. And if it’s the dad’s story, the sister has a chance to take steps to get what she wants.

As I read that over, it still doesn’t seem very original, but I realize that’s what I’m interested in.

To rewrite it will not be that big a deal, actually. The same things will happen; the emphasis will change. A lovely first-person flashback that I wrote for Ty yesterday will have to be changed to third person, from the father’s POV. That will be interesting.

When I’m done, I’ll have about 13,000 words, a story that will basically be un-saleable even it’s good otherwise at that word-length… but maybe I’ll like it better. And that would be a good outcome.

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