The Geographer’s Library; Half Delight, Half Disappointment, and Still I Recommend It

Jon Fasman published The Geographer’s Library in 2005. Fasman now is the editor on the Asian desk at the magazine The Economist. He spent several years in Russia and neighboring countries; when it comes to the east, it’s probably fair to say he knows his stuff.

Half of The Geographer’s Library disappointed me. The other half was a delight. That is not the most common experience for me to have when I’m reading. I’m recommending it, but I am going to talk about the problems.

The book, which is general fiction, is twelve years old and it’s probable that some of my problems stem directly from that; in many ways it’s dated. The “present tense” story involves Paul, a twenty-three-year-old reporter who has recently graduated from a tiny liberal arts college in upstate New York. Paul has drifted into a small town where he writes for the local weekly, expertly guided by the first of several male mentors, Art. Art was a big noise back in the day. Now he’s retired, kicking back, but keeping his hand in with the local weekly, and prepared to use all his still-considerable connections to smooth the way for Paul.

Paul is assigned to cover the obituary of an eccentric town resident who died in his home under unusual circumstances. It looks like Jaan Puhapaev died of natural causes, or maybe by accident, in his home. It’s odd, though that there was an anonymous 911 call made about his death. Puhapaev was a scholar and a professor of Baltic history at the very college Paul attended, and when Paul interviews people at the college, Pahapaev’s life, he uncovers mysteries and inconsistencies. And then the medical examiner assigned to the autopsy is killed in a hit and run accident.

The present tense story is leisurely, with Paul occasionally going out to ask a few questions or investigate something. He blunders into a strange and vaguely sinister drinking club, for instance, that the dead professor used to frequent. Mostly, though, Fasman uses this part of the book to give us detailed portraits of whimsical characters like the other writer on the Lincoln Clarion, or to introduce another one of Paul’s mentors, Professor Jadid. Then, of course, Paul meets Hannah Rowe, the beautiful, shy, innocent music teacher who was Pahapaev’s only friend in town. Hannah is sweet and likes music and she’s beautiful. She’s tall and beautiful. Did I mention she is beautiful?

No one would mistake this book for a mystery or a thriller because the pacing and structure aren’t right. The clues are tantalizing; the history of the Soviet Union and its collapse are interesting, and the prose shines now and then with beautiful bits of description. Paul’s passivity is a problem, but it seems that’s it’s his defining characteristic, so I guess I can’t complain.

Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I can. Paul’s passivity is his defining characteristic. He is hiding out from his overbearing father who is a high-powered lawyer. Paul attracts male mentors right and left, and my problem with the story is not this, or not only this, but that they do the work of the story for him. Art and Jadid, between them (there is another male mentor, Jadid’s nephew who is a police detective) do all the work and periodically loop Paul in to provide interactive lectures while he nods and says things like, “Oh, I get it.” Reading this, I realized how very tired I am of “literary” works that offer up passive male characters.

At the end of the Paul tells us that “I finally felt as if I were something other than an observer in my own life.” That’s good, but his final actions in the book don’t support that insight. Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know.

The other problem is the way women characters are treated. Art’s wife comes in to do a one-act skit that shows how in love she and Art still are. Paul’s ex-girlfriend Mia shows up to talk about Paul. And there’s Hannah, the Designated Femme Fatale; who is quite femme but not very successful at being fatale.  Women do nothing important; except for the Designated Femme Fatale, they aren’t important. And if we might have missed that point, Fasman underscores it for us by offering up Art’s daughter as a conciliation prize to Paul at the end of the book; a woman we have never seen and who is given two sentences in a summation paragraph. Dana isn’t a person; she doesn’t matter, and what’s most noteworthy about her is how much she looks like her father. She’s like a feudal European princess married off to cement an alliance, because what matters is Paul’s relationship with Art.

So, what did I like about the book? What I liked, what I loved, about The Geographer’s Library is the whole second story, the secret Pahapaev was carrying; a tale about a collection of alchemical artifacts, some dating from the eleventh century, and the secret society of (male) alchemists who are attempting to gather them all together. This part of the book brings us to what Fasman does extremely well; travel writing. The quest takes place during and after the collapse of the USSR. We follow a ruthless factotum as he tracks down and “liberates” each of the items. Through his eyes, mostly, we see marketplaces and hotels, landscapes and cityscapes in regions that were formerly the USSR: now technically independent, they exist in a power vacuum. We see tribalism and bad Soviet architecture. I held my breath sometimes as I hoped a character would survive, or as I feared they would. Fortunately, this was about half the book, and it kept me going.

I liked the conceit of the collection and the quest for immortality these men are pursuing. It tipped the balance of the book for me. Actually, Fasman’s line-by-prose tipped the balance. I’m going to quote a couple of lines I loved, and then end with one that made my snort and roll my eyes because it’s so bad.

“Jadid sat still, attentive and feline, while the smoke from his cigarette glittered with dust as it poured upward through the sunbeams.”  That’s just gorgeous.

This is my favorite passage in the book: “Storytellers and spice-sellers, he reflected, had an unnatural power over the memory and should be avoided.”

And here’s the passage that is so wrong it’s bad-movie-funny. This is Mia dissecting Paul as a boyfriend: “Sometimes I felt you were like a sponge, you know, just sitting quietly listening to me talk or vent, without giving anything back. I guess that quality would make you a good reporter. A rotten boyfriend, but a good reporter.”

Yes, because what women really hate in a boyfriend is someone who listens without interrupting, advising, or telling you what you should have done. Of course what Mia probably means is that Paul wasn’t present in the relationship. That isn’t what it says, though. The story sees Mia as a woman who cannot define herself without checking her reflection in the mirror of her boyfriend’s opinion.

In spite of my irritation, the balance tips towards “recommended.” I hope that with his first novel under his belt, Fasman got all that Golden Boy, I-can-afford-to-be-passive-because-everything-is-handed-to-me crap out of his system. He published a second novel, The Unpossessed City, set mostly in Moscow, and I liked this one enough that I plan to hunt it up and read it.

 

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Protected by Unicorns

This is a silly little story that isn’t very strong. I didn’t spend too much time on it, but I had fun writing it. Brian’s Comics in Petaluma was the inspiration, because of it’s location and unusual floor space. (I’m sure Brian will cringe at the thought of being associated with this.)  Anyway.

#

The sign had finally decided him: “This Space Protected by Unicorns.” How stupid was that? D’s Comics deserved to get ripped off. He might not only take the Cyberella #1 and New Adventure Comics #10 she had in the locked case behind the counter, he might break up the place too, just to show her how good her “unicorns” were.

Tyler paused by the steps down to the arcade and casually adjusted his ball cap, flicking on the lights that edged the brim. His soft-soled shoes whispered on the treads as he stepped off the dark street level and headed down. He stopped, heart pounding, as a sentinel figure appeared out of the shadow. It was only a curve of gas pipe. He brushed past it and reached for the door.

The door into this low-rent space was locked but not alarmed, and Tyler broke the lock quickly. What would the fat-ass grannies at the call center think, he wondered, if they saw him now. Nobody at his stupid job knew about this side of him. He sidled in. He felt strong. His senses seemed sharper. He loved the adrenaline rush illegal entry gave him.

This subterranean space that paralleled B Street held only two businesses right now. The Hole Thing, Piercing and Tattoos, faced the boulevard. It was locked up tight, and there was nothing in there that Tyler wanted. He walked past the alcove where Wendell the Bratwurst Guy stored his cart, to the oddly-shaped shop on the left, D’s Comics.

Tyler had first seen the wooden A-frame sign three weeks ago. What kind of loser opened a brick-and-mortar comic shop now? Paper was dead and everyone knew it. He’d come down to check it out anyway. The woman who ran it was named Denise. She was too old for him. At first he had thought she was fat, but after spending a few minutes with her he decided he would totally tap that. She had a nice narrow waist and big hips, soft brown eyes. She was friendly and knew a lot about comics for a woman. He studied the locked case behind the counter and asked to see Cyberella #1. She unlocked the case, look out the plastic-sleeved comic, and carefully put the key back under the counter. When she put the zine back, she did the same thing. Amateur. As he was leaving with his copy of Ironman he noticed the sign in the window.

Okay, then. She deserved it. It was the kind of stupid thing the fat-ass grannies at work had in their cubicles next the screensaver shots of bug-eyed grandchildren; Don’t Drive Any Faster Than Your Angel Can Fly and that sort of crap. He hated that and the way they narked on him constantly. Another smoke break, Tyler? and Tyler, you’ve had a call in the queue for forty-seven seconds, do you need help? Like he needed help to upsell more useless “features” to every idiot who called to order basic service.

There were rumors about Denise, though. She had moved down from Oregon, and she had money. One story was that she had sold three patents to a black-box pharma-tech firm called Praxis. Tyler figured the patent story was bullshit. She might have grown some really good dope in Oregon. Or maybe her husband had invented something and was letting Wifey have a hobby.

He stopped in front of the glass door. The inner wall of the space curved, so when you opened the door you stepped into a short corridor. Four steps and the space opened out, with the counter and the locked cabinet directly ahead. The shelves that displayed the carefully sleeved single comics issues hugged the wall to the left.

He knelt and pulled the duct tape from his pack. He stuck four strips on the glass door, next to the thumb-turn dead bolt, then smacked the tape hard with the small punch he carried. The glass crazed. He pulled the glass-coated tape free, reached in with his gloved hand and opened the lock. Why didn’t she get a keyed dead bolt? That would have taken him a bit longer. Maybe the unicorns could help her with that.

He crouched for a minute by the broken door, waiting,listening. Outside, one car rolled down the street. Otherwise, all was silent. He walked in, heading for the counter. His foot hit something metal that grated on the cement floor. He looked down. Water lapped back and forth inside a good-sized metal water dish. Maybe she kept a cat in here.

He took another couple of steps toward the counter. His heart was pounding, and he felt like he was straining his ears to hear anything, like his skin was extra sensitive. It was almost as good as sex, and sometimes, when he crashed his hammer through glass and sent pieces flying, or felt pages rend between his fists as he tore books apart, sometimes it was better than sex.

Across the room, something made a soft noise, like a sneeze. He turned his head slowly, scanning the floor. Maybe she did keep a cat. He couldn’t see anything moving. He could hear something though, a soft clicking. It might be a rat. The back of his neck crawled. He stopped by the  collectibles case and tried the handle, just to see. It was locked.

Movement caught the corner of his gaze, and he turned. The bluish light from the cap lit up the creature that stood next to the shelves. Tyler’s mind struggled to make sense of the input his brain was giving him.

It wasn’t big, maybe the size of the nasty Jack Russell terrier his mom had. Its neck curved gracefully and a dark, liquid eye studied him as it tossed its head. One hoof pawed the floor. The light irradiated it; it looked silver. It had powerful, muscular haunches. From between its eyes a spiral horn sparkled with light. A shiver ran through him.

The animal danced toward him, sideways, curveting, its head lowered. A hologram, he thought, but he still backed away. Something moved in the shadows pooled at the bottom of the counter. Another one came out. Tyler stepped away without thinking, even though he knew he could drop-kick either one of them into the wall with no trouble. He shifted his weight to his left leg to do just that, when the one by the shelves charged him. He yelped, off-balance, and fell against the wall. Something jabbed his right ankle, just above his sock. The point of the horn pierced denim and sank into his flesh. He yelped again and it was closer to a scream.

He kicked at it and the first unicorn stuck him in the other ankle, dancing away, shaking its gossamer mane, before he could move. Both animals retreated into the shadows.

“Where are you?” he whispered, advancing into the store. His ankles stung. They were going to die, whatever they were. Genetically engineered pygmy goats, maybe? It didn’t matter. They were dead.

Warmth surged up his legs from the burning wounds. The darkness rippled in front of his eyes, and the muscles in his face suddenly stretched his mouth into a wide grin. He fell into soft fragrant grass and rolled over onto his back, laughing. A silvery horse creature nudged him and snorted. He laughed again. Above him, the sky was an impossible blue and a soft breeze flowed over his body. The other horse creature stood on his chest, nudging open his jacket. And then she came. He saw her feet first, bare, a ring with a twinkling blue stone encircling one toe, blades of grass bowing at her touch. She crouched beside him, smiling, and he smiled back.

“It’s you,” she said. “What’s your name again?”

“Tyler.”

“Tyler. You know stealing is wrong, don’t you?”

He smiled so widely his face ached, just at the joy of hearing her voice. “I know, Denise.” She smelled like ripe peaches. He could spend eternity staring into her welcoming brown eyes.

The horse thing lipped the cord on his hoodie, then chewed on it thoughtfully. Denise picked up the animal and set it beside him. “Don’t eat that,” she said. “You don’t know where it’s been.”

He rolled his head sideways and looked down at her bare feet. They were the color of honey, with perfectly jointed toes, and the blue stone winked at him. Beyond her, he could see tall trees, and two dark figures like wolves.

“He’ll be like this for about three hours,” she said. “You want to make sure he’s secured; they get despondent sometimes when the euphoria wears off.”

The wolves drew closer; men in black leggings, with gray jackets, huntsmen’s caps and dark sunglasses. On second thought, Tyler decided they weren’t wearing dark sunglasses. They just looked like they should be. They came up to Denise and stood on either side of her.

“He’ll stay obedient, though?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Thanks for the call, D,” the one on her left said. “I didn’t think we’d hear from you again.”

“Well, an opportunity presented itself.”

The one on the right said, “What made you think he’d break in?”

“His aura read ‘thief’ in flashing neon letters,” she said.

“Literally?” one of the men said, and Denise snorted. Or maybe it was a unicorn.

“Tyler, this is Agent Corso. And this is Agent Marshall. You will do whatever they tell you.”

“Yes, Denise,” he said, pleased to be able to offer her something. He got up slowly. The two little animals pranced over and stood next to Denise, pawing the grass.

Agent Marshall said, “What about the delivery system? Can we borrow one?”

“They aren’t a delivery system. They’re my partners. I agreed to provide you with the venom, nothing more.”

Agent Marshall shrugged. “Can’t hurt to ask, right?” he said. “Tyler, come with us.”

Tyler walked over to stand between the two men. One touched his shoulder and guided him toward the door.  As they turned away from Denise, the blue sky faded and the smells of summer dwindled.

“I still think you should get a regular alarm system,” Agent Corso said. “This is really not fair.”

“You’re right,” Denise said. “The unicorns deserve better.”

 

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In Which I Get Grammar-Snobby and Reality Immediately Smacks Me

I’m not an expert on English grammar but that doesn’t stop me from being a grammar snob. I cluck and tsk and roll my eyes as I  observe punctuation errors and other grammar errors, not just in the comments section where I tend to be less concerned, but in the published content online and in print. In the old, old days — like the 1980s– there used to be people called line editors who fixed these things, but that occupation seems to have vanished or at least dwindled. Some badly constructed sentences that get through show a lack of understanding of the fundamental structure of English.

One thing I see more and more of is subject-verb disagreement. I know there is a technical name for the specific problem I am seeing but I don’t know what it is. This isn’t  just the confusion over whether the verb should be singular or plural, although we see that a lot too. It’s a specific problem when the writer has attempted an inverted construction of the sentence, flipping two clauses in order to create some variety and interest in the prose, and then can’t figure out which noun, in which clause, the verb supports. I don’t know what it’s called, but like art or pornography, I know it when I encounter it.

A couple of months ago, I was watching a restaurant review show and the narrator read a sentence that went something like this:

“Carved of a single block of redwood, customers can sit at the bar and sip classic cocktails.”

Quiz question: Who or what is carved out of redwood? Based on that sentence, the customers are, although I think if your customers are carved out of a single block of redwood, you run a very odd business.

I think the sentence wants to mean that the bar is carved out of a single piece of redwood. You know, like, “Carved out of a single block of redwood, the bar offers customers a place to sip classic cocktails.”

You can also go simpler and just say, “Customers can sit at the bar, which is carved from a single block of redwood, and sip classic cocktails.”

The other day I was reading a local print weekly. There was a column about music venues. I’m changing the name of the venue and I’m not giving the name of the periodical, but I wrote this one down because it was so convoluted.

“Nestled in the Sonoma County hamlet of Kenwood, music-lovers can dance to great bands at Freaky’s stellar line-up.”

This one just set my teeth on edge.

What is the subject of this sentence, anyway? Is it music-lovers? Is it Freaky’s? It is Freaky’s stellar line-up?

If it’s music lovers, this is pretty easy. “Music lovers can dance to great bands at Freaky’s, in Kenwood, which has a stellar line-up.”

If it’s Freaky’s: “Freaky’s, nestled in the Sonoma County hamlet of Kenwood, offers a stellar line-up of bands,” or even, “… offers a stellar line-up of bands sure to please music lovers.”

#

That second one really irritated me.  I mean, I wrote it down, that’s how much it irritated me. I indulged in a mental rant while I ran errands that morning. Come on, people! How hard can it be to keep track of subject, verb, object? This is what comes of not diagramming sentences anymore. You people need to pay attention when you are writing! I would never mangle the mother tongue this way. Never, never, never.

#

In real life, unlike fiction, the world usually creates a lag of a day or two before delivering a reality slap. In this case, however, reality wanted to try some creative writing, so later that same day, the very day I ranted to myself in the car and indulged my grammarly superiority, I sat down to revise an older story. As I read along, I crashed face-first into this:

“From underneath the flapping green coat, Ragged hears Whitelick call.”

Ummm… okay, who is under the green coat? (Here’s a hint; it’s not supposed to be Ragged.)

“Ragged hears Whitelick call from under the flapping green coat,” doesn’t fix it, although it’s closer.

This is really a simple fix, and it goes like this: “From underneath the flapping green coat, Whitelick calls.” Ragged is watching. She knows there’s a green coat and she knows her brother Whitelick is under it. Problem solved.

But the tragic part is that I had already sent this story out a couple of times, with that sentence in there. It’s buried in a longer paragraph, and it is the only complete snarl-up of that kind — and believe me, there were plenty of other reasons to reject the story than just that sentence — but how did I let it get by me?

I wasn’t paying attention.

I workshopped this story and had another person read it after the workshop and no one picked out that sentence. This is not to spread around blame; the level of confusion is pretty mild, and what I guess happened is that people liked the story, were vaguely unsatisfied with it, and never identified that particular sentence as being one reason. I was trying to do a couple of things in this story, and one was to tell the tale from the POV of an innocent (and nonhuman) character. All that bad sentence did was create an impression that the writer just wasn’t as masterful with her prose, or as professional, as she thought she was. And that was an accurate impression.

Lessons learned, then? A couple, for me. One is to pay attention to the prose aspect a little more, probably in the work on later drafts, once the characters, the story, the motivations, the plot, the imagery and all those things are worked out.

And while I will still make fun of people who write bad sentences, I will be a little less haughty about it, at least for the next few days.

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Grab your travel guide and suit up! Front cover of Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Grab your travel guide and suit up!

There is a lot of exciting information out of space these days. We’re finding out all sorts of cool things from outside our star system, but the facts we’re finding about our own solar neighborhood grow more amazing every day. If you’re like me, you’re starting to discover that what you thought you knew, or remembered, about our star and its planets is either outdated or just wrong.

This is where Vacation Guide to the Solar System, by Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich comes in so handy! It contains a lot of useful information about our star system, perfectly written in the form of a Travel Guide. Weather and Climate, When to Go, Arriving, and Seeing the Sights… all there are very familiar headings to any Lonely Planet book, only this one presumes access to a working space suit and a space ship. The book is augmented with lovely poster-style art that has a delicious 1960s flavor.

I consider this a vacation or “summer” book. It’s technically nonfiction (or science fiction…) with a lot of good data; but set up to be browsed and read in bits; at the pool, in the park, in the hammock. At the family picnic or while you’re waiting for the fireworks to start,  you can amaze friends and family with tidbits; the moon is drifting out of earth’s orbit at the rate of one and a half inches per year. Mercury takes 88 Earth days to rotate the sun, and its average surface temperature is 333 degrees Fahrenheit with highs reaching to 880. Bring sunscreen. Jupiter takes 12 Earth years to orbit the sun. Startle your friends and enjoy the whimsy!  Locals can find it at Copperfields (in the Sebastopol store, it was on their Travel display.) Recommended.

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Canvassing in Manteca

Saturday started at 5AM for me. Shower, coffee, half a bagel, tote bag, purse, lock the door and out. I met Barbara G at her house around 6:10 and we drove to another house in Santa Rosa, where we carpooled to the meeting point in Napa, where a Wine Tour bus waited for us.

Canvassing, Napa style Wine Tour Bus

Canvassing, Napa style

We weren’t going wine-tasting. It just looked like we were; a bunch of graying mostly-women from Napa and Sonoma County piling into a wine tour bus. Instead, we were driving down to Manteca to canvass and do voter registration. It’s a clever way to fake out the opposition.

Barbara G, a retired executive staffer from Health Services, ran into me downtown one morning when she was walking her dog, and invited me along. Originally, we were going to Tracy, to canvass and be at “sites” to offer voter registration. I pictured myself sitting outside a WalMart at a table. I said “yes” anyway because I do need to do something more than send money and whine on Twitter.

As the next couple of weeks went by, the outreach started to shift, or maybe evolve. We weren’t going to Tracy, we were going to Manteca. And we’d be knocking on doors. I was still in.

There were 33 people on the bus. Many/most were from the Napa area, several group like RESIST and Rise Up Napa; some staffers from Representative Mike Thompson’s office. Representative Thompson was there when we got on the bus, and he gave us a pep talk. Then we were off for a brief stop in Concord where we would pick up more volunteers.

Representative Thompson said that going out into neighborhoods was something he liked the most.

Representative Thompson said that going out into neighborhoods was something he liked the most.

They had coffee and pastries on the bus. I caught up with old friends and bosses; Jo Weber, Tara Smith, Linda Deis, Jenny Tashieff and of course Barbara. The Sonoma County group also calls itself Rise Up. It’s the Rise Up Network. The name has nothing to do with Hamilton, that’s just a coincidence. Okay. If you say so.

Once we were on the road, a woman named Mary Jane made us all introduce ourselves via microphone and say a few things; I said, “I’m a newbie.” Others talked about their history with the Democratic party and grassroots organizing. It got a little bit competitive. People mentioned their mock-campaigns in the fifth grade, when they championed the Democratic candidate.

I could not help being reminded that most of us were women and most of us were gray.

My favorite on-the-bus story on the way down to Manteca came from one of the younger women, who said her proudest moment was when she persuaded her conservative, third-generation Dad to vote against California’s gay-discrimination bill, Prop 8. The riders all applauded when she said this. “It was an event years in the making,” she said.

After a brief stop to pick up four volunteers in Concord, we were on our way.

The view out the front of the bus.

The view out the front of the bus.

The California Central Valley in June, even in a year with above average rainfall, has long flat stretches and low rounded hills the color of butterscotch. Blue skies with a few fluffy clouds rose above the golden stretches. Wind turbines rotated in a stately manner as we rolled past.

The staging area, generously lent by the owner. Garage and driveway

The staging area, generously lent by the owner.

We met up in a newish house in a newish tract on the west side of Manteca. The houses are two-story, stucco painted a terra cotta color, probably ten years old. These are obviously the homes of a recent wave of residents, the bay area commuters. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are about eighty miles away; I talked to a couple of people who commute from Manteca to Hayward and Manteca to San Jose (which has got to be closer than San Francisco.)

Lucia Nunez. I hope some day she runs for office where I can vote for her.

Lucia Nunez. I hope some day she runs for office where I can vote for her.

Lucia Nunez, a community organizer, is being paid by the California Democratic Party to reach out to voters in this area (California Assembly District 10). Lucia made a great first impression. If there are more people like her in the Democratic Party, I have hope for the future. We all milled around for a while until a few more people showed up, and when we did a count-off, there were 56 of us, all ready to go out and do… well, something.

We had filled out a practice voter registration on the bus. On the bus, Mary Jane told us that even though local organizers were eager to talk about Jeff Denham, the Republican Congressional Rep, we were to soft-pedal any discussion, because it was known that Mike Thompson had helped organize this trip. At first it was presented as a “professional courtesy” thing; gosh it could be awkward for Mike to work alongside Denham if Denham knew Mike were actively trying to unseat him. Actually, it’s a little more than that. There isn’t even a Democratic candidate in the district yet; the election for Denham is in 2018. Denham made national news when he promised in front of a town hall of nearly 1,000 people that he would not vote to repeal the ACA, and then voted to repeal. The state Democratic party sees an opportunity and so does the DNC.

Anyway, when we got to the house, it was clear local organizers had feelings about Denham. They had opinions.

Indivisible Manteca

Indivisible Manteca

It was also still not really clear to me what we would be doing until finally, Lucia provided some training.

Every house we would be going to had, at some time in recent history, a registered voter in the household. We were to ask if they were still registered; if they wanted to get their ballot by mail; if they wanted to be more active in the campaign. And we were to ask what they thought about Trump, and what their main political issue was.

We did not need clipboards for this, except maybe the registration forms, because we had this handy app on our phones. It’s called MiniVAN. It is a canvassing tool. Once I understood that canvassing was the main deal, things became very clear. Still.

(L to R) Jo, Tara, Kate and Care. Not shown, Linda, Carol and me

(L to R) Jo, Tara, Kate and Care. Not shown, Linda, Carol and me

“They can have my clipboard when they pry it from my cold dead fingers,” I said.

“Isn’t that a Charleton Heston, NRA thing?” Linda Deis said.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”

However, I did register one person (one whole person!) to vote. Jo, my buddy, (everyone worked with a buddy) got one person to fill out a contact form to do more. Hurray, us!

The MiniVAN app is actually very cool; elegant and easy to use.

(UPDATE. I am writing this on Tuesday, June 13, 2017. The elegant and easy-to-use hold-in-you-hand data app appears to be one of many things the Russians were able to hack.)

A quiet neighborhood drowsing on a June Saturday

A quiet neighborhood drowsing on a June Saturday

Our drivers took us to neighborhoods closer to the center of town. These were older homes, a lot of 1930s/1940s vintage bungalows and cottages that had seen better days. Many households held two or three generations. Most people either weren’t home or weren’t opening the door; some greeted us and said they weren’t interested.

I knew intellectually that the Central Valley was conservative. I was still surprised, more than once, by the people who said they were Trump supporters. They had some things in common; they were forty-plus, and they were white. They said the same things too, things I often read quoted from Fox News. (All of us on the bus say the same kinds of things; just on the other side of the spectrum. It’s interesting.)

One woman said, “We need the wall. We need the wall to be safe; look at London.” Since we were there to take information, not debate, there wasn’t any point in trying to figure out how a wall limiting immigration from Mexico had anything to do with terror attacks in London. Except they do. Because Scary Brown People are… scary. And whites, in Manteca, make up less than one-half of the population.

Trees in yard of Manteca Day School

Some pretty trees in my neighborhood.

(I have some strong ideas about what makes a low-income white woman in her forties link terror attacks in London with brown people in the same town as her, but I think they belong in another post.)

Our first house was a lady with a lot of tattoos, who said she couldn’t vote because she was a felon. Her biggest political issue, though, was that homeless people in Manteca get, “Medi-Cal, they get food stamps, and they get free cell phones.” She didn’t know she was saying this to a former Director of Human Services and a former Assistant Director. It was pretty funny. And I don’t know how people in San Joaquin County are scoring those free cell phones.

One man said he was not a Trump supporter and his biggest political issue was that “I’m afraid he’ll blow up the country.”

We almost, almost got that guy’s son to register to vote, but he slipped the hook and swam free.

After we finished the first neighborhood, we went to the second, from the list that was on my phone. While I would guess our first neighborhood was low-income. The second, which was also low-income, abutted an industrial area and had a different flavor. We didn’t get to very many houses, and we chose not to approach a few. One really nice woman greeted us and said she had to be in Elk Grove by two-thirty and she hadn’t taken a shower yet, so, good-bye. At two thirty, when we were walking back to our rendezvous spot, she passed us in her car and waved. She was late.

However, this was the street where we found a woman who was interested in getting more involved.

A couple of the yards were fenced with loose dogs, usually pit bulls, in the yard. I am not afraid of dogs. I like them. I’m not afraid of pit bulls as a breed. The gated yard with a loose pit pull and a padlocked outbuilding with painted-out windows sent me a message. That message was not, “Welcome! Come up to the stoop and let’s talk politics.” We didn’t go to that house.

While we were waiting for our ride, I glanced up the street and saw what looked like a huge kite hovering over both lanes. I thought, who’d fly a kite in the street? Then the object tumbled, and floated across the lanes to crash onto the sidewalk and roll out of sight. It wasn’t a kite; it was a pavilion. The wind picked it up and carried it off. A moment later Jo said, “Look!” and there were two people (who hadn’t answered the door when we knocked) carrying it back over their heads like people portaging a canoe.

Did I mention it was windy?

Shortly after two-thirty we got back to the commuter house. We did a little bit of wrap up. Then back on the bus.

Jo and the bus crew.

Jo and the bus crew.

We had one man who answered the door in a towel, but another woman topped us; they talked to a naked man. The woman said, “You know me, I’m an old hippy, so I just started talking to him through the window,” (where he was standing naked.) Then his wife came into the room and yelled at him to put some pants on.

There was wine on the way back. Yes, we rolled down there in an air-conditioned wine tour bus, and sipped wine on the way back. (Well, I didn’t for a couple of reasons, mostly because I thought I’d fall asleep.) There’s your image of northern California privilege, in one sentence.

With or without wine, I would do this again.

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BBC America’s Class; Didn’t Do Its Homework

I watched the entire first season of the Doctor Who spinoff Class, all eight episodes. If the show returns, I probably won’t watch it. There was plenty of material of value to start with, but the story squandered most of it and my emotional state, at the end of the finale, was one of boredom rather than excitement or intrigue.

Let’s take a look at what they had going for them, and what they still have going for them, and where it went wrong.

Class is set at Coal Hill School, a recurring location for the Doctor Who series. Fifty-two years ago when Doctor Who premiered, the Doctor’s first two human assistants were teachers at Coal Hill.  Most recently, Clara Oswald and Danny Pink taught there. In Class, a rift in the time-space continuum puts the school at risk and a quintet of students, along with one grouchy alien protector called Miss Quill, must protect the school and students from various incursions.

Here’s what they had going for them at the start:

"Where's Mattheusz? And why was he wearing that red shirt?" Cast Photo

“Where’s Mattheusz? And why was he wearing that red shirt?”

Doctor Who
They are a spinoff. They had the Doctor Who lead-in. The audience got a warm handoff in the first episode. (The Doctor, metaphorically speaking, turns to audience and says, “Audience? Meet Class. Class, meet your audience.”) Sadly, the Doctor didn’t make any return visits. That’s a shame because it might have helped the first season, although it’s doubtful it could have saved it.

Quill
Quill was a flat-out brilliant character played to over-the-top perfection by Katherine Kelly. Quill and Charlie, who is a prince, are in hiding on earth after the Shadow Kin exterminated both their races. Quill was a revolutionary, fighting to gain parity and respect for her people from Charlie’s people, the Rhodians, a society of entitled oppressors. The Rhodians won the war, and punished Quill by binding her to their crown prince as an enslaved “guardian.” Nothing could have been much crueler, and Quill knows it. Quill is Caliban if Caliban worked out, did martial arts and went to the firing range three times a week. The twisted logic of the oppressors trapped Quill, via an implant in her brain, in a vicious Catch-22; she cannot wield a weapon, but she must protect the prince. Thus, in some cases, she can wield a weapon only as long as it takes to protect him. It would be easier to feel sympathy for Quill if she had not manipulated a human student into fighting an alien, which led to his death. It is this discomfort, the ethical uncertainty of Quill, that made her so compelling. That, and Kelly’s performance.

Mattheusz
In the first episode, the student Mattheusz seemed like a minor character. Crown Prince Charlie has a crush on him and invites him to Prom. Mattheusz comes out to his family, with predictably unpleasant results. I was biting my nails as Mattheusz looked more and more like a redshirt in Ep 1 (the way another character’s date was.) M lived, and went on to smolder sexily at Charlie’s side all the way through season one. Not only do Charlies and Matthuesz get some of the most romantic early-stages-of-love dialogue I’ve heard anywhere (ever), M has an ethical center and a gift for cutting through the nonsense and getting to what’s right. Once again this character was in the hands of an actor, Jordan Renzo, who made a complete commitment to the role.

Good actual parents
Tanya is a prodigy who has skipped several grades. Although she is fourteen, she is in class with sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. Her Nigerian immigrant mother wants her to excel, and wants to protect her baby, and only daughter, from the physical and social dangers of British high school. Mom is overprotective in a laughably inept fashion (since this is a show about space monsters attacking the school on a regular basis); but she tries. She is a loving mom who may be clueless about the real goings-on at Coal Hill School but loves her daughter and knows to say, “Take a break and have some fun,” as well as, “Are you talking to a boy?”

Ram is the jock of the group, a footballer with a brilliant future until, in Episode One, his girlfriend is turned into cinder by the bad guys, and his legs are cut off. The Doctor attaches some spare legs, but they aren’t exactly human legs. It is safe to say Ram doesn’t bounce back quickly from his setbacks. His parents are separated and his father is his unreserved champion. When Ram finally shares the truth and shows dad his new legs, his father accepts it and refocuses Ram on his soccer kicks, and it is his Dad’s faith in him that helps Ram relearn the skills of the game.

A rift in the time-space continuum
Because, you know, its sci-fi horror and it’s a DW spinoff, so they had to.

Now, with Season One complete, let’s look at what’s left:

Quill.  Matthuesz. Multiple tiny little rifts in the time-space continuum. (Plus the existing one? I’m not sure.)

What went wrong? Let me make a brief list.

King of the Shadow Kin. We're dark. We're boring. We don't care who knows it.

We’re dark. We’re boring. We don’t care who knows it.

The Shadow Kin
There were a couple of walk-on villains this episode when the show still had the potential to be good, but we could not get away from the evil Shadow Kin. They leaped through the time space rift to mess with Coal Hill School –and ruined Prom! In Ep One the Shadow King and nice girl April ended up sharing a heart. The Doctor sent the Shadow Kin away, but they came back. April went to their planet and fought their king, won the fight and sent the Shadow Kin away, but they came back. The Shadow Kin are like ants in your kitchen. They are boring villains who use too much CGI. They are also too closely tied to the really annoying secondary storyline about the Ikea entertainment center that Charlie has in his room. It’s (dun-dun duunnnn…)

The Cabinet of Souls
Yes, they called it that. The Ikea entertainment center holds all the souls of Charlie’s people, the Rhodians, whose souls, in their pure form, can be like a super weapon that could kill all the Shadow Kin, only that would be wrong. Or, if Charlie did that, he really would be the last of his kind instead of just pretending to be. And [YAWN]. This was just awful; Quill hissing “Use it, uuuuse it!” like a frat boy chanting “Chug, chug, chug!” at a party, while Charlie dithers over whether to use it. Charlie thought about the cabinet every time the Shadow Kin showed up, which was every other minute. It’s bad to commit genocide. This should, somehow, be a serious moral question that plays throughout the season. Instead it managed to be… boring.

(Spoiler Alert) The Weeping Angels
From the solitude of my family room (Spouse was in the shower) I actually said out loud, “You have got be kidding me!” They were not kidding me. The shadowy human villains in the piece – because of course there had to be some – are actively working to bring about The Arrival (not to be confused with the excellent SF movie of a similar name), and are in league with the Weeping Angels. I can only guess that the Doctor Who prop room had a bunch of polystyrene angels left over and someone thought, “What the hell, why not?” I didn’t think anything could be worse than the Shadow Kin, but this… this could be.

As a surplus of “bad,” the weeping angels now kill humans in a different way than they did in every Doctor Who episode in which they appeared. Their new technique, whatever it is, leaves behind corpses. Isn’t that odd?

You’ll notice that on the list of things they still have going for them, “parents” has disappeared. Yes, no surprise to anyone, the two supportive, practical and loving parents were killed by the Shadow Kin in the finale. Because of course they were.

Could anything save this show? I think one thing could. Here’s the Season Two I’d like to see: Quill, who was pregnant –it’s a long story—at the end of the finale, is now a single mom with a shape-shifting baby; and has been inexplicably promoted to headmistress of Coal Hill School. With the implant removed, she can kill whenever she wants, and she doesn’t like human children, but she swore to the Doctor that she would protect the school, so she’s stuck; stalking around the school in her perilous high-heels, delivering edicts about the snowflakeness of human young, and in general being Quill. There’s a show I’d watch.

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Mockingbird Books Moves Away

Mockingbird Used Books

Mockingbird Used Books

For the last five years I’ve been slightly involved with a local secondhand book store called Mockingbird Books. I volunteered there the first two years of my retirement. It was like a dream; getting to work in a bookstore. It was great to reconnect with my writing friend Brandy. I learned a Point of Sale system and discovered I could do retail (not that I’m particularly good at it).

Over the past five years things have changed. Brandy has left the store, and now Mark and Geronimo have announced that they are going to move the Sebastopol store to Tracy, Ca, where they are relocating. They will still own the second Mockingbird location in Guerneville. It is a smaller store and it is thriving. The bigger store has some challenges, mostly around expenses (pricey real estate, pricey rent). Mark and Geronimo have already rented space in Tracy and will be closing the local store this Wednesday.

There is some good news out of this. Tracy is one of those towns/cities with no

"Thanks for the memories." The store will close 6/7/17 in Sebastopol

“Thanks for the memories.” The store will close 6/7/17 in Sebastopol

independent bookstore, so Mockingbird will be a good addition for them. For people in west Sonoma County, the Guerneville store is accessible and charming, and it’s in the Coffee Bazarre so you can get a nice coffee drink on your way out.

Spouse and I had a standing joke when I was working. When I had a particularly bad day, I’d come home and Spouse would say, “How was your day?” and I would snarl, “I can always get a minimum-wage job in a bookstore!” Well, now I know I can work in a bookstore, at least a used bookstore. I loved being around books, discovering new writers and poets, browsing beautiful coffee-table books I’d never buy but loved to look at. I enjoyed doing table displays. I loved trying to find a book or a writer for someone who wanted to read something new. I even liked cleaning books and shelving, because shelving gave me the illusion of order.

I liked being part of downtown and seeing familiar faces like Michele Anna Jordan, Sarah Glade Gurney and others. The store helped me make a bridge from full-time and more than full-time work to retirement; it helped me leave administrative stuff and get back to direct services. I learned some things about retail and some things about publishing that I think will help me as I continue to try to sell my fiction.

Over the past year my connection with the store had dwindled to where I was helping on their Facebook page and with an occasional blog posting or promotion. Still, seeing the store close is like having a friend move to Australia. I know they’re still around; I know I won’t be seeing as much of them.  I wish Mockingbird the best in its new location.

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Author Interviews

At the start of the Memorial Day weekend, my writing friend Kate (you can see a story of hers here) sent me a link to an author profile. The piece, published at the Writers Collective, compared the careers of interviewer Faye (that’s not her name) with the acclaimed, award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin (and that is her name).

My first question was, “Is this a brilliant satire?” Alas, it was not.

With a little care and preparation you can avoid this result. [Wrecked car.]

With a little care and preparation you can avoid this result.

The post about Faye’s life and aspirations with a few lines about Jemisin was supposed to be the first of a series. I won’t link to it because I think it needs to die a quiet death. Since it was posted, the Writers Collective had taken down the post.

Jemisin said that when she asked to see the original interview, she pointed out that much of what she said was characterized, not quoted, and when she said that some of it was mischaracterized, Faye said that she had captured “what Jemisin meant.” Jemisin did not agree and asked Faye not to use the interview. I guess that this is when the piece became, instead, the comparison of two writing careers.

I do four or five author interviews a year for Fantasy Literature. We have, on our work site, a list of guidelines for how to do an interview. I thought I’d share a few of them, along with some of my own thoughts, here.

First of all, many authors like getting interviewed, especially when they have a new book coming out. They may be swamped with interviews, though, so take that into consideration. While I detoured a bit to froth with envy over the idea that Faye got to interview Jemisin in her home, nearly every interview I’ve done has been via e-mail. In two cases, Laini Taylor and Charlie Jane Anders, I was able to do part of the interview in person, but both interviews included an email follow-up.

Email gives the writer a little more time to think about the answers. If you have the good fortune to interview someone in person, it’s still not a bad idea to email them the questions in advance. Always ask if you can follow-up on answers so that the interview is a true exchange and that you can clarify exactly what the writer intends.

These tips are meant for interviews that showcase an author and be fascinating for the audience. I am not an investigative journalist, a gossip writer or a hate-interviewer going for a “gotcha.” That doesn’t mean I won’t follow up on a statement I don’t understand or want to debate. It means I want to give the writer the best chance to present themselves well. My interviews have always been in the context of a current or upcoming work, so my guidelines go in that direction.

Read the work of the person you’re interviewing.

You might have an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of the upcoming work, and it’s good to have read it because frankly that’s most of what the interview will probably be about. It helps if you have read at least one other work to get a sense of their range, their style and their issues.

And, seriously, if you don’t like the writer’s work, why are you interviewing them?

Research the person’s background before the interview.

Lots of contemporary writers have Wikipedia pages. It is just that easy to find out date and place of birth, education, and literary milestones, keeping in mind that the writer probably wrote the page. If there’s nothing on Wikipedia, the publisher’s website will have something, and the writer may participate in sites liked Linked In. Give yourself twenty minutes to do some background. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll find out.

Lots of writers have blogs. Find and read a few posts on their blog. If they have written posts on the current work, most likely they have singled out something they thought was interesting or a challenge to them in the writing. Read those posts. You will also get a sense of other interests the writer has. Your award-winning writer loves to knit. Can you put in a knitting question?

Read other interviews.

You don’t really want to ask exactly the same questions; or if you do, you want to put a different spin on them. If it is a similar question, acknowledge the previous interview. “In your Vanity Fair interview, you stated that Gemilessa represented the spirit of rampant American consumerism. In retrospect, do you feel that Starbuck’s Unicorn Latte validates your symbolism?” It shows the writer that you are interested enough to have done a tiny bit of research.

Read other reviews as well, because this lets you know what others are seeing in the book, (or the writer’s work generally).

Google-search the writer.

You want to be aware of controversies/pitfalls. If, for instance, Publishers Weekly just posted an article saying the author is accused of plagiarizing their most recent work, you really should know that before you post an interview.

Imagine your audience and what questions they would have for this person.

Your own curiosity is your best resource, but it helps to take a couple of minutes to think about what people want to know. Again, reading other interviews will help you weed out the common questions.

Look for the thing you loved that hasn’t been mentioned in interviews or reviews.

“I loved the character of Indigo. Tell us how Indigo was developed.”

“Throughout the book, you use the color green to represent life and growth, but near the end, there is a long passage about the green of venom. In making that contrast, what was your intent? Was that planned or did it emerge organically in the work?”

Most writers love it when someone asks about the thing other reviewers are overlooking. It also tells them that you gave a work a careful, thorough read.

Ask about current projects.

If they have a book coming out now, it means they finished creating it at least a year ago. They are probably working on something now and maybe several somethings. Writers are self-employed and appreciate a chance to advertise their work.

Are there broader topics that would interest your audience?

To use N.K. Jemisin as an example, one of the most interesting things about her is how she has leveraged a crowd-sourcing instrument called Patreon to free up more of her time to write. If I were interviewing her, I would ask at least one question about her decision to do that. I might also mention, if not ask a question about, her column in the New York Times.

Be polite and respectful.

Because… really. It doesn’t mean you can’t ask penetrating questions. And here, a note about e-mail is required. E-mail carries no non-verbal ques, and emojis really aren’t going to do it. “You have a book coming out, why should I care? (smiley face) Haha,” does not read as charmingly snarky. It reads as rude. If you have a serious question underneath the snark, try to frame it differently. “What do you want people who haven’t read you to know about your latest book and why they should read it?” is marginally better.

Use quotations where possible.

One beauty of e-mail is that you have a record of the exact reply. Why not use it? In some cases, you might have to edit for length. Remembering that my goal with interviews is to help the writer look their best and provide an entertaining interview for our readers, when I plan to edit a response, I share the edited version with the writer before the interview goes up. You don’t have to do this, but it seems professional to me. It gives the writer a chance to point out if valuable context is lost, or to say, “No, what really important to me is not rampant consumerism, but the high-calorie content of the Unicorn Latte.”

*

Before you do your first interview I suggest reading a lot of writer interviews. Study the ones you like best to see what those interviewers are doing.

*

Faye, unable to use a poorly developed interview, turned her piece into a comparison of her career and Jemisin’s. This was awkward because there is little comparison. Faye plainly wanted the piece to promote her writing, so she told us about it. And told us. And told us some more. It ranged from the boring to the desperate; hence the satire question. I will not quote from the article, but I’ll give you a couple made-up examples of the tone and structure.

“While N.K. Jemisin has won the Hugo Award and achieved a modicum of fame, I recently read a chapter of my book to my husband, and he told me it was good.”

“Like Jemisin, who attended NASA’s Launch Pad program, gives talks at college commencements, conventions and various academic conferences, I too am renowned for my genius and am frequently asked to discuss my work at family picnics.”

This does not elevate me to the level of Jemisin. It makes me look like a Miller Genuine Draft “I am rich” commercial without the self-awareness.

If you want to showcase your writing, the better way to do it is by developing and presenting a thoughtful interesting interview. Save the “I’m just as good as [famous name]” stuff for your personal blog, where exceptions for that type of thing are more likely to be made.

By the way…

Here a few examples of FanLit interviews that I think are good. I am promoting the site but I am also being lazy, because I knew where these were.

Oh, look! Kevin interviewed N.K. Jemisin!
I interviewed John Langan.
Jason and Tadiana interviewed Sylvain Neuvel.

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The Barlow Flower Market

California Sisters Florist has coordinated a Sebastopol flower market, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 7:30 am to 1:30. It’s held in the Barlow, directly behind Taylor Maid in the space that used to be Taylor Maid’s roastery.

I stopped there today to admire the flowers from Serenity Farms, Front Porch and Oak Dale farms. Beautiful stuff! They’ve been doing it for about 4 weeks now.

Flowers from Front Porch and Serenity Farms

Flowers from Front Porch and Serenity Farms

A friendly smile and violets.

A friendly smile and violets.

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Jenny Who Fan Fiction Part One

I recently finished the final version of Draft One of a work in progress. (To my mind, there are multiple drafts and there can be more than one version of each draft. I’m complicated.)

I also finished up a short story. My writers group reviewed it, I have one other “first reader” taking a look at it, and then I plan to start sending it out.

Right now I have three stories out in the mail. That isn’t really enough, so there’s my task for the rest of this week; take a look at what’s hanging around on the hard drive and what markets are open to submissions right now.

Anyway, when I finally sent the Project off to the writers group, I had this weird surplus of energy. (It was probably nerves.) Anyway, practically glowing with left-over creative fervor, I thought, “I’m going to write something fun! Something just for me! I know… Doctor Who fan fiction!”

In this column I wrote about a Doctor Who character named Jenny, who is a clone of the tenth Doctor, and one way I imagined she might get a TARDIS (that’s one name for the Time Lords’ time ships). So, I thought, why not write that story?

It’ll be fun! I don’t have to worry about anything; not really story logic or plotting. It can just be… fun! It’s just for me. Well, I planned to post it on the blog, but still…

I’m on my fourth start. Here are the first three false starts.

Writing is hard.

First Take: Soldier Jenny and two of her mates are guiding civilians out of a bombed out city up into a cave complex in the hills, where Jenny hears a faint signal and… Nope.

(She’s been hearing the signal since she left the planet where was created. She doesn’t just start hearing it now. And, if the city is being bombed/attacked, then there is a war or something going on. That’s going to interfere with Jenny tracking down the signal, which is the point of the story.)

Second Take: In a frontier town on a peaceful planet, Jenny hikes up a hill towards a cave complex where she searches for the source of a mysterious signal. She crosses paths with three former mates, who are obviously villains now. They were all mercenaries together. The trio is doing something bad and they don’t like that Jenny has stumbled into it. They threaten her ineptly and she responds with repartee. They glower and go down the hill. She searches the cave complex for a while, off the page. Several paragraphs of exposition. She returns to the riverside town (exposition about the planet, town) bumps into the sheriff (exposition exposition), they go for drinks, he tells her about the Time Wars (exposition) and Nope.

(There’s a kernel of an idea in the opening… but … how boring. And drinks with the sheriff?)

(And, is the point of the story that Jenny finds the source of the signal? I thought so, but… no. The point of the story is Jenny finding the source of the signal and becoming a Time Lord. And what is a Time Lord, exactly? Jenny only has one model.)

Third Take: All of the above up to Jenny going into the cave. Story cuts to an alternate POV while Jenny searches the cave off page; the Alt POV mourns the death of a companion and thinks that it has found another. (Hint, hint.) Jenny returns to where she is staying, talks to her landlord who is also a public servant. He tells her about the Time Wars (exposition). Jenny makes some connections. She and the landlord have dinner and Nope.

(Okay, the dinner may stay. The problem here is the cave or cave complex. What is it with me and caves anyway? Doesn’t every single thing I’ve ever written have a cave in it? It seems like it. And caves would have been picked clean by the scavengers who are looking for other artifacts that are like the thing sending out the signal. Nope. Nope,nope,nope.)

(On the other hand, while I was making them eat dinner and talk, I did learn who the villain is, I pictured the valley and the city better, and I realized a badly cobbled together border-dispute could be turned into something plausible. And I like the landlord/former version sheriff/government drone guy, so he will stick around.)

Fourth Start:  On the way to the waterfall made by the river that marks the northern boundary of the country Jenny is in, she encounters three former comrades who are now obviously the villains. She cottons on to what they’re doing almost immediately. Threat, repartee, and etc as before. Jenny returns to town with the express purpose of filling in her landlord/government drone on some shenanigans. No cave, just a waterfall with a strangely deep pool at its base (even by waterfall standards) Meanwhile, the other POV speaks…

Fourth Start with a tweak:  On the way to the waterfall, etc, Jenny studies her erstwhile companions and sees various alternative futures for each of them. Jenny ruminates that this was a benefit in combat and in battle, but as she’s gotten closer to the signal, the alternatives have proliferated and it’s becoming overwhelming. She does not recognize this phenomenon, but Doctor Who fans will, or should, I hope.

We’ll see how it goes.

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