A Positive Review

Chris Fried reviewed Beyond the Stars; Unimagined Realms. He gave the entire anthology five out of five stars, but then he singled out three stories he liked a lot, and mine, “Adagio for Tiamat Station” was one of those three.

Chris not only liked the story, he understood the story. That’s so gratifying. A few folks in places like Goodreads have mentioned the story in nice ways, and some of them didn’t really understand it. In one case, a reviewer described the genesis of the piece of music referenced in the title as “a humble servant girl inspires a composer to create a song…” and I was pounding my head on my desk saying “Nonononono…”

It was nice to read Chris’s take, who understood the origins of the music and why the piece keep reoccurring, and why it matters to the character at the end. His review reassures me that I did my job; I communicated what I meant to communicate.

Anyway, it’s a nice note to end a week on!

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Kickstarter! Or, an Exercise in Self-Promotion

I had a short story called “Bellwethers Know Best” accepted for the anthology The Wand That Rocks the Cradle. The theme, as you might have intuited, is “families and magic.”

LeGrange Press has a Kickstarter to raise the final bit of money to publish the anthology, and here’s the link.

I hope you keep checking out the Kickstarter site even if you don’t want to donate, because our publisher will be adding some great material. Bonus stories, including my flash piece “Location, Location, Location” (which appeared originally in Daily SF), will appear in the updates, along with some interviews with the authors (including me!). Keep checking back for those updates.

Bonus! Our first interview, Joanna Hoyt, provided a goat kid photo. Baby goats, you guys!

“Bellwethers Know Best” is one of my more lighthearted stories, even though it deals with sibling rivalry and the struggle you can have with a powerful, charismatic parent… especially when that parent, a former reality TV star, is a ghost.

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In the Village

A blond woman a few years younger than me was taking photos with a long lens. She wore a cloche hat over a stocking cap but I could still see locks of hair beneath the headgear. “Nice lens,” I said as I passed her.

“It’s a great lens, and I get some great photos but I don’t get to keep them. The pull them right out of my camera. It’s because I’m an enemy of the state, that’s what my ex-husband told Arnold Schwarzenegger anyway. Since 2005 they pulled all my pictures off the wall.”

“Uh,”I said.

“Since then they’ve used my house as a test site for microwave weapons. I know, I know, ‘Don’t listen to her, she’s mentally ill,’ but it’s true, they take everything of mine and put it in the cloud.”

“Oh. I don’t like the cloud.”

“Right? I just saw a cartoon of the cloud and it’s just a big old ball of pollution. What’s your camera? A Canon? You like it?

“I do. It’s old but it gets the job done.” As soon as I said I remembered that I had read that line in a short story recently.

“That’s what matters, right? What are you shooting?”

“Tonight? Ravens, I hope, They’re transactional, so I bribe them with walnuts.”

“Quid pro quo.” She winked at me. “‘Will work for walnuts.’ Have a great night.”

And off she went.

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Story Walk

These brightly colored pedestals are my tax dollars at work, and I’m proud and happy that my money’s being spent this way. This is the Story Walk that curves around the High Street entrance of the Sebastopol Library now.

The walk has several stations. On each stand is a page from an Early Readers’ children’s book in English and Spanish, a comment about trees and a suggested activity. Activities include, “Put your fingers in the earth and feel how it is,” “Reach high above your head like a tree. Now look around and see how many trees are nearby,” and so on.

The activities are also in both languages.

If I had a criticism to make — and I guess I do, because here I am about to do it — it would be that I wish the walk could be a bit longer and actually have a few more trees nearby. On the other hand, this is aimed at young children, and it isn’t a nature path in a park. It is right at the corner of Bodega Ave (Highway 12) and High Street. And with youngsters, probably seven and under, a longer distance between stations would probably result in a loss of interest. There are several kinds of tree to see in the immediate vicinity.

I love the book they chose. The colors are vibrant and the artwork is vivid and welcoming.

I went to every single station, of course. I’m not six years old, but the story walk inspired my interest in trees as I continued my amble home.

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Living Room to Library

We started a process to change our outdated living room into a library. It was never a living room. We live, to all intents and purposes in the space called the family room. The step-down room right off the front door became the room where I stacked books on the floor, piled up my crafts stuff, displayed some artwork and put furniture we weren’t using. There was a rickety sofa used only by our friend Jim’s dog, Tizzy, when they came to visit.

Spouse wanted the old “cottage cheese” texturing removed from the ceiling, and to repaint. I said, if we were going to repaint I wanted something other than white and since we’d be pulling everything out of the room, I wanted new carpet. Spouse said if we were going to do that, then we needed more bookshelves. Thus, a library.

We do have different definitions of “library,” though. Spouse views it as a room lined with shelves, with books on them. Pretty much full stop. I discovered this when I said that maybe, budget permitting, I would add a couple of chairs. “Why chairs?” he said.

I said, “Because it’s a library.”

Negotiations continue.

Phase One, ceiling and paint, is complete. I chose two shades of dusty blue, intending to have an accent wall. I’m pleased with both colors, but because of the way the natural light hits that room, you can only really tell it’s an accent wall certain times of the day. Well, now I know.

Phase Two was carpet and blinds. This got a little more complicated. We are splitting the costs of the project and I’m taking on: carpet, blinds and bookshelves (which is why I will prevail on the chairs; I still have dollars left in my budget). This should have been easy, but somehow it wasn’t. I started at Home Depot but could not find a single carpet sample that I liked. I also checked a sole-proprietor shop in Rohnert Park, same problem. I ended up checking with World of Carpet One, where I found exactly what I wanted. Yes it was more expensive, but the entire process from choice to installation went without a hitch. “More expensive,” in this case, is a relative term; this is a fairly small room, so while the price per square foot was higher than Home Depot, the overall cost came in under my top estimate.

For the window coverings I went back to Home Depot. I had to special-order for that window because of its length, but this was the least expensive aspect of my part of the project. We added the dining room and substituted the tired curtains for another set of blinds.

I’m picturing two comfy, upholstered chairs around the table. No sofa, and we intend to keep it that way. One of the wooden chairs may go to a new home. I haven’t made up my mind yet. The not-so-clearly-an-accent-wall will hold three of the four new cases. The fourth will probably go on the north wall.

It’s coming along!

An important note. We are temporarily holding onto the cushions from the old sofa, because Jim and Tizzy are coming for a visit later this month. Tizzy will still have a comfy sleeping-place.

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Trail of Lightning

Last year Rebecca Roanhorse won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards for her short story “Welcome to your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM.” Her first novel, Trail of Lightning, is out, published by Saga Press. I loved the book’s action, its definitely out-of-the-ordinary setting, and Roanhorse’s vivid physical descriptions.

Maggie Hoskie is Navajo, a monster-hunter whose clan powers give her great speed and great killing power. They also, in her mind and in the minds of others, make her a monster herself. Maggie lives in the land of the Dinetah, the former Navajo reservation, which is now sealed off and protected from the rest of the former USA by a magical wall, while the nation-states that remain beyond the wall deal with much larger oceans and the depletion of nearly every resource. This is merely backstory, not part of Maggie’s quest; Maggie is in search of a monster that stole a little girl… and the witch who created that monster. Along the way, Maggie faces a familiar trickster, and her former mentor, a folkloric monster hunter himself, who abandoned her with no explanation or warning nearly a year ago. On her side is Kai, a movie-star handsome man who may be trustworthy, and a few others who reluctantly give Maggie their support.

The book has plenty of action and just enough quiet moments. The descriptions range from the austere beauty of the desert to the groundedness of a hogan; from the laugh-out-loud funny image of Maggie dressed in a Hot-Slayer getup in order to get into a nightclub to the realistic feel of the do-it-yourself businesses and bars and the repurposed vehicles that run, not on fossil fuel, but on moonshine (the distilled kind).

Maggie herself is a difficult, prickly character, shaped not only by PTSD and loss but to some extent by the impact of her clan powers. While she may not be immediately likeable, she is certainly interesting, and I was curious about her from the first few pages.

There is grit and gore throughout the story, but Trail of Lightning reaches back and embraces historic tropes, while speaking in a refreshingly original voice.

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Why I Love the Internet; Reason 701

I wanted to check and make sure that flashlights were in common use in 1930, for a scene in a story. I thought they probably were because I think they are mentioned in some of Dashiell Hammett’s fiction, but you never know, do you? And flashlights were used in World War I. I needed to see what a flashlight from 1930 looked like, though, so I headed on over to Google.

And I found pictures. Lots of pictures. Yes, a couple of these shapes are… well, suggestive might be the polite word.

More than pictures, I found links. There is a flashlight museum. I’m torn between, “Who knew?” and, “Well, of course there is.” And I learned that there are people who collect flashlights.

I learned that flashlights have been around since 1896 (although they weren’t in common use back then).

I found a perfect late-1920’s camp flashlight that really does look like a thing someone might keep in the trunk of their car.

This is Reason 701 why, in spite of all the kvetching I do about the internet, I love the internet.

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The Scandalous Poet’s Daughter

Sometimes a well-written book fails to satisfy simply because it isn’t what the reader wanted or expected. This was largely, but not entirely, the case for me with Jennifer Chiaverini’s book Enchantress of Numbers.

I bought the book at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The book was on a display of biographies. Ada Lovelace’s name appeared on the cover, so I grabbed it. I think Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, is one of the most interesting women of early nineteenth-century Britain, and I thought I was getting a biography. If I had looked more closely, I would have seen the word “novel” both on the front and the back of the book.

Chiaverini is known for historical novels, and if I read a lot of historical novels I would have recognized the name. Ultimately, though, I picked this up expecting a biography, and found out it was a novel.

I got over my disappointment and continued to read. The novel disappointed me again, though, by choosing to emphasize the parts of Ada Byron King’s life that are least interesting to me: mostly, her famous, scandalous parentage, and her inherited fame. Ada was the daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron. She was his only legitimate child, although her parents divorced in a high-profile divorce shortly after she was born.

Ada Byron King was fascinated by mathematics, was a friend of Charles Babbage, and may have invented the first computer program. (That’s disputable, but even the disputes are interesting.) She was fascinated by Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and suggested ways to improve it. She translated and then expanded upon a treatise written by a French scientist; Byron King’s notes and additions made the concept of the engine vastly more accessible and understandable.

Most of that is in Enchantress of Numbers, but it’s touched on lightly. It might make up fifteen percent of the book. Chiaverini doesn’t bother to imagine what thinking about mathematics might be like. She writes sentences, in Ada’s first-person voice, like, “I worked on the algorithm.”

I wanted so much more.

And I wanted so much less of the Cinderella-style take on Ada’s childhood. Ada’s mother, Anabella Milbanke, was both neglectful and controlling of her daughter. Her fear that Ada would somehow inherit Lord Byron’s crazy and selfish behavior made her ban poetry and fairy tales from her daughter’s life, instead having her tutored in natural science and mathematics. Young Ada grew up with no children her own age. The book portrays her in youth as lonely, somewhat introverted and very sheltered.

Milbanke was an educated woman in her own right. She was very interested in a system of public education in a country that didn’t have that, and she funded several schools for working-class children. It’s clear from history that right or wrong she believed the worst of her former husband, while still managing to admire his poetry. Her fear that Ada had inherited “bad blood” was plausible for her time, although it does not explain or imagine explanations for some of the choices Milbanke makes once Ada is a adult and married.

In the novel, we see Annabelle, who believes she has weak health, frequently decamping to various spa towns, leaving Ada with a trio of her unmarried women friends, who Ada calls The Three Furies. One disappointment in this book is that the Furies are presented basically as an aggregate character, the Wicked Stepmother function in a story with no fairy godmother. According to Ada’s first-person narration, they dislike her, and always tattle on her, casting everything she does in the worst light as they write their reports to her mother. This may have been true; it would have been nice to see the motivations of the Furies, if only later in the book, perhaps through Ada’s adult eyes. Maybe one of them was truly envious of Ada’s place, or maybe they were genuinely worried that she’d go the way of her father. Maybe they were just sour, unhappy women. We never know.

Annabella and Ada are both smart, passionate, complicated (and often inconsistent) women. Since mathematics and the working of Ada Byron’s excellent mind weren’t going to be the focus after all, more depth in the fraught relationship between these two women would have been nice. Instead, somewhat ironically, we get the very thing Ada says repeatedly that she does not want; we get the story of Scandalous Lord Byron and His Daughter. Chiaverini can’t tear herself away from the marriage and subsequent Separation; from the rumor (which Annabelle believed whole-heartedly) of Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister and the possibility that they had a child together. While Ada Byron King, like her mother, ultimately helped support the other woman who claimed Lord Bryon as her father, this story was not Ada’s at all. The book shifts away from the interesting stuff about Ada time and time again, however, to dwell on the old scandal.

Chiaverini spends more time describing Ada’s dress for her first Season in London than she does on any of the mathematics. Most disappointingly, she talks about young Ada’s fascination with flying and the time she spends as a child in a DaVinci-like pursuit of a flying apparatus. Ada tells us she “worked on the formula,” but we never see, through her eyes, a sketch, or a model made of paper (we’re told there are some in her room) or, well, anything. I would have loved to have seen this keen young mind imagining a device that allowed her to fly.

If you want to read about a nineteenth-century thinker, scientist and influencer overcoming the sexism of her time, don’t read Enchantress of Numbers. On the other hand, if you want to read a pretty interesting story of two strong women of the British aristocracy during the early days of the Victorian period, Enchantress of Numbers might be for you.

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Notes From the Bookstore

Wednesday was a slow day at the bookstore. First of all, it rained off and on all day. Secondly, it was a work day for most people, so while there was a small flurry of activity from around 11:45 to 1:00, and a pick-up in browsers after 4:30, for long stretches of time there was no one in the store.

Shortly after 10:00 (we open at 10:30) a nun came to the door. She was an old-fashioned nun, in a black habit that came down to her ankles, her wimple completely covering her hair. I have not seen such a traditional nun in… I don’t know when I last saw someone in this type of habit. Maybe fifteen years ago when I went to an event at Angela Center?  I told her, through the door, that we opened at 10:30, but I was already thinking I could let her in because the cash register was set up. She asked if I knew where there was another public restroom, because the ones on the plaza were locked.

I let her in to use ours.

Without violating the good sister’s privacy, I will say she took a while in the restroom. A while… long enough that I wondered if I should tap on the door ask if she was okay. Long enough that I began to wonder if she were 1) a ghost or 2) a hallucination. (Okay, I didn’t seriously consider either of those two possibilities. Or at least, not too seriously.) Eventually, though, she came out and began to browse the store. She stopped at the counter to say the store was lovely, and to ask if we accepted donations of books. I said we did. She told me that her community was in Calistoga, and they had lots of children’s books because they worked with children. Usually they donated to the Calistoga library. She had come to Sebastopol for a doctor’s appointment. Then she thanked me for my kindness and said she wanted to leave a tip. I told her it wasn’t necessary, but she left five dollars. That is generous.

I said to spouse last night, “In thirty-six years working at the county I never had a nun leave me a tip, and today I did. It’s a career first.”


A boy and his dad came in. The boy was recovering from a dental procedure that involved both numbing and gas. He went right to the book he wanted and sat in one of the chairs with it while his father looked around. He told me about the dentist. He said for a while he saw two of everything. “That went away, though.” He also said after they were done, “Everything looked funny and I said to my dad, ‘how come the car looks funny inside?’ and then later it didn’t look funny anymore.” One of the better descriptions of coming out of anesthesia.


A young woman, maybe thirteen, came in with her mother. She also found a specific book she had been looking for. It’s the second book in a series and she had already read the first. I asked her about them so I could give a good recommendation of it for other customers. She said the author includes her two daughters in the writing process, asking them to check for realism. She acknowledges them in every book.

Her mom bought “The End of the Pursuit of Happiness; a Zen Guide.” The daughter took one look at the title, wrinkled her nose and said, “Well, that’s uplifting.”

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The Cover Design Survey

Falstaff Books purchased a novella from me back in early 2018. A few months ago they advised me that my work was with the copy-editor and I would be hearing from them at some time in the future. Last week they sent me a cover survey.

I’d never seen a cover survey before. I’d never heard of such a thing and when I googled “cover survey” of course I got a bunch of hits for surveys of effective cover letters for a variety of types. I did find a “cover design questionnaire” site which I think is the more familiar term.

The cover design site markets towards self-published writers. Falstaff is a small independent publisher and they do not have a standing art department as far as I know. Much of their cover work comes from stock images. Their survey to me said that. I don’t mind. I was delighted to even be asked.

The questionnaire is fairly in-depth, and reviewing it, I didn’t assume that it was going to be sent to anyone who had already read the story. It asks for a 250-word synopsis of the story; it asks for the genre and whether this is part of a series. If it is, what number in the series is it? I think this novella is part of a new line Falstaff is bringing out, but I don’t have any idea how many are in line before it. It asks for the subgenre, and whether there are key elements that should show on the cover.

They also asked about color preferences, and that the writer provide thumbnails of covers they like or think would be appropriate.

That sent me on a search of alternate world fantasy covers. Most of the covers I love are the fancy ones that some traditional publisher’s art department spent a lot of time on, and that’s right out. I ended up selecting one for an example of a font, one for the overall composition and one that had human figures composed in a way I liked relative to the background. 

The novella is called “Aluminum Leaves,” and those leaves are not the leaves of a tree; they’re the leaves in a book. While I was filling it out, I realized that I actually had a picture in my head of a nearly-perfect cover and it’s from a Kate Wilhelm novel, Juniper Time. If we tweaked those 1970s colors a bit and added a buy wearing the same kind of hat, it’d be perfect.

I didn’t send that one, and I doubt that’s going to happen.

I also realized that in the final third of the story there is a parasitic creature pulling energy from people via copper skullcaps, which would probably make a great cover but would shift the story away from fantasy into a horror look. And that might be the direction Falstaff will choose; I don’t know.

I don’t assume that I’m going to get everything I want on the cover. Input isn’t influence, and input isn’t choice. Still, I was delighted to just have input. And I’m waiting, now, to see what happens next.

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