*** True Confessions of a So-So Housekeeper ***

About nine years ago, we purchased a Dyson vacuum cleaner because we had been buying — and burning through — crummy $100 vacuums every couple of years and were tired of the cycle. It wasn’t cheap, but we figured it was worth a shot. It came with a five-year warranty, and of course the “never-lose-suction” guarantee, so what the heck.

Five years ago, the dog chewed through the power cord. The vacuum was still under warranty, so while they were replacing the cord, they cleaned and serviced the entire machine. That being said… that was the LAST time that any maintenance (beyond emptying the canister) has been done, because I forget. Or get lazy. Or just… meh.

Over the last couple of months, I began to notice that the vacuum wasn’t picking up all the little bits that it used to, and last week it became evident that I was really only pushing the vacuum around as a form of cardio exercise because absolutely no actual cleaning was taking place. So I bit the bullet and called the vacuum service shop. They quoted me $150 to clean and service the machine, but I’m cheap, and I thought that after 9 years, there was a decent chance that we’d just need a new vacuum, anyway. So I took drastic measures.

I decided to have a go at maintaining the vacuum ON MY OWN. I know it was an insane thought, but hey… some of us have to be pioneers.

I turned to the google for help and — lo and behold — apparently there are filters that can be easily removed and cleaned. Who knew? I did this bizarrely simply task, then sat down and cut off all of the hair/yarn/string/ribbon/miscellaneous detritus from the beater bar. By this point, I figured I was the Queen of all domestic goddesses, and I turned on the vacuum…

Only to hear the same rattly motor sound and see that there was still no suction. Bummer.

I turned the machine this way and that, hoping to spy some offending hunk of flotsam clogging the works. I did, in fact, find a bobby pin, a piece of shattered mechanical pencil (the entire eraser end) and two crystallized fruit snacks. Success!

But no. Still the rattle. Still the lack of suck.

Just as I was about to accept defeat and pay out the hard cash to have a profession do the job, I noticed a button that I’d never seen, before. (Perhaps because I’d rarely ever actually looked at the vacuum in any in-depth manner.) Intrigued, I pushed it, and a small hatch opened to reveal what resembled nothing other than a dead rodent. (It wasn’t, thank all the Gods! Though I’m not sure how surprised I’d have been, if it had turned out to be a mouse corpse. It was really only a tightly woven blob of pet-hair, safety pins, paper clips, a juice box straw, and beads.)

Cringing, I removed the carcass of filth, replaced the secret door, and VOILA! That puppy sings like Old Blue Eyes, once more.

In closing, I cannot recommend the Dyson vacuum cleaner enough, if you — like me — have a tendency to vacuum up any and all clutter that gets in your way, without thought of consequences, while refraining from even the most basic level of maintaining your machine. Because hey… here’s to another nine years of half-assed housework! Cheers!

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Back to the ConFusion

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending ConFusion in Detroit, again, this past weekend, and OhMyGod, was it excellent. My friend, Andrea, who runs the Little Red Reviewer blog and writes for SF Signal and Apex Magazine (she’s just awesome like that), was there, and she took me under her wing, introducing me to many excellent folks.

I was super geeked to have the opportunity to meet Joe Abercrombie, who lives in the UK and doesn’t get to the US, often, but it was meeting Kameron Hurley (I may have mentioned my adoration for her more recent works, a time or two) that threw me over the edge. I did my best not to completely lose my shit as I explained that WE HAVE ALWAYS FOUGHT changed everything about the way that I write, but… well, let’s just say that I wasn’t as successfully cool as I would have liked to have been. There may have been hand flapping and fangirl tears. I might have squeed, just a little.

But the thing that I took away from hanging out in the same space as all of these excellent writers… They’re not so different from me. Once upon a time, they were a newbie. Once upon a time, they were looking for an agent, scrabbling for some sense of destination. They were overwhelmed and uninformed, and they were all so incredibly cool to talk about it with me, to share stories of their struggles in getting published. They were nervous, once, and some of them still are. Over and over, I was told, “Keep at it. If you want it bad enough, you’ll keep working at it, until it happens.”

I had the opportunity to talk with some relative newcomers (Ferrett Steinmetz has his first novel, FLEX, coming out in March, and Brian McClellan is finishing up his Powder Mage trilogy… AUTUMN REPUBLIC comes out in three weeks, and they were both super cool guys.) And I had the opportunity to talk to those that have several books under their belt, including some seasoned veterans of publishing. I got a TON of book recommendations from people whose work I appreciate, and I had a blast. (And I got to meet Robert Jackson Bennett, who is just as funny in real life as he is on Twitter, and whose work I really admire.)

And as always, it was such a comfortable, welcoming environment. I’m not good at small talk. I don’t have a lot in common with the other soccer moms, or the PTO parents. But here, in the midst of a thousand geeks and nerds of all varieties, I could make small talk about the things that I love… writing, or gaming, books and words. I could comfortably and proudly be myself, and let my freak flag fly. It was awesome. It was amazing. It was invigorating. And I am counting down the days until next year’s con, and I just want to thank everyone who put together such an amazing convention, and everyone who was so welcoming and willing to talk.  Cheers!

mMHuOaOb

Book Review – THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley

There was a lot of pressure, riding on the shoulders of this book. Hype surrounding it was everywhere, on all of the review blogs that I follow, on Twitter, on podcasts–pretty much everywhere. And I was worried. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t make it through GOD’S WAR, by Kameron Hurley. Maybe I was a different reader, then. Maybe I didn’t give it a chance. Or maybe it just wasn’t for me, but I just couldn’t get into it.

THE MIRROR EMPIRE felt different, right from the first page. And I don’t just mean different from GOD’S WAR, which it obviously is (SF vs. Epic Fantasy, etc.). No. I mean that this book was different from anything I have ever read, before. The world was truly (TRULY) unique, the sociological aspects were incredibly diverse and fresh, the characters were unlike any that I’ve ever read, before. Except, of course, that they weren’t. What Hurley does with gender and the flip that she does to genre tropes is nothing short of astonishing. It is breathtaking. It is brilliant. It is… a bit daunting.

To be honest, I couldn’t have gotten through this book, even a year ago. I am a better educated reader than I was, then. I couldn’t have gotten through this book, before I read “We Have Always Fought,” Hurley’s Hugo Award-Winning Essay about gender in narratives. I couldn’t have gotten through this book before I read ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I’m still, even now, digesting the depth and breadth of what Hurley has done, here, with THE MIRROR EMPIRE, and maybe I will be, for a long, long time.

And maybe that’s the point.

The story–at it’s very heart–isn’t one that we haven’t heard, before. An orphan must become the Chosen One. A stern, military hero must soften, and find their heart. A person, unsuited to rule, must do just that. These are things that we have seen, and read, countless times, before. But Hurley makes you question everything you know about this story. She makes you doubt your memory of those narratives. She makes you want better.

Are there things that I’d change about this book? Yes. I found it dense, and in some places, confusing. I (ridiculously) didn’t like some of the names, and I had a hard time keeping them straight. I could remember their actions and their story line, but for me, their names didn’t fit. That’s a personal, stupid thing that I didn’t give any bearing to, in this review, because that’s my brain, working against the story line. I’d have liked more of some story lines, and less of others–but again, all personal tastes.

What I wouldn’t change–what I found amazingly fresh and inventive and beautiful–was the world building. I just want to wallow in Hurley’s notebooks, where she’s plotting out the plant-based public transit, developing the carnivorous species of plants that walk the forests, laying out the many genders and societies and governments and religions. I want to flip through the card file with the information about the different worlds that mirror the one that most of the story is told in. I want more, because it is clear that Kameron Hurley has been living in this world for a good, long while, and she must have volumes of glorious, intricate detail. I wouldn’t change the uncomfortable scenes of sexual dominance, where our militaristic, matriarchal character literally “manhandles” her kept husband–a man who is pampered so that he’ll remain soft and desirable. A man who is later treated quite horrifically, in ways that we have seen female characters treated innumerable times. I wouldn’t change the physically disabled protagonist, who despite her body, uses her mind to solve dilemma after dilemma. I wouldn’t change the relationships and the tenderness, the violence and the betrayal, and I wouldn’t change the feeling that I had at the end–

Which is to say, “There must be more, and I want it, now.”

This book isn’t for the faint at heart, and it isn’t for the occasional fantasy reader. This book is hard core, but it is beautiful in its hardness, and it is well worth the time and effort and occasionally feeling as if you are stupider than everyone else in the world, as you work your way through it. And for what its worth, if she hasn’t won the award, already, I’m voting for Kameron Hurley for smartest person in the room.

Next up, I’m reading CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Things That Shouldn’t Have to be Said

****** Trigger Warnings ********

In the post, I discuss internet harassment, including death and rape threats, in some graphic detail, especially in the articles linked. Also, I use my more grown-up vocabulary, so if you don’t like R-rated movies, read at your own peril.

I love football. That isn’t a deep, dark secret, and it isn’t a guilty pleasure. I LOVE FOOTBALL. Sundays, at our house, are full of jerseys and chicken wings and cheering and occasional groans and outbursts of swearing. That is the game–you win some, and you lose some. When I was pulling this post together in my mind, I was going to talk about Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and the utter shit-tastrophe that last week was, PR-wise, for the NFL. I was going to write about how you can hate the things that these men did, and still enjoy the game of football. This isn’t an if/but situation. This is life, where sometimes people do bad things, and yet we must remember that ALL people associated with them are not bad. That’s what I was going to write, and that is how I feel. Do I think that the NFL should let either of these men come back to work? No… with the addendum that I believe in second chances. If either man went to counseling, saw the error of his ways, expressed honest, soul-changing remorse. Then maybe.

Adrian Peterson is still asserting that what he did to his son is just “discipline.” He’s got a long way to go before I will ever be pleased to see him in a jersey, again. Ray Rice and his wife seemed to have worked things out. Why she stayed is, quite frankly, none of our damned business, and has no bearing on how the NFL treats this situation. I’ve read a lot of victim blaming, in this situation, and it makes me sick. If you’ve watched the video (which I will not link to here, because it is disturbing and I don’t want to glorify it, any more), I would imagine that you would see that there is nothing that she did that deserved to be cold-cocked to the face. Blaming women when men are violent, or sexually aggressive, or just assholes, has gotten really old, folks. Can’t we just move past the “Boys will be boys” nonsense?

Did the Ravens have the right to cut him? You betcha. You can be let go from employment for just about any reason under the sun. Randy Moss, arguably one of the best wide receivers ever,  was traded away from the New England Patriots (for a 3rd round pick) and then cut by the Minnesota Vikings, all within a month–because he criticized the coaches. Ray Rice’s actions made the Baltimore Ravens look bad, and in that case, they have every right to protect themselves.

But where I started, with this post, and where it is going, are two different places. I’ve been somewhat horrifically mesmerized by the internet response (and the real world response) to these controversies. One woman showed up at the Vikings game on Sunday wearing a Peterson jersey and carrying a tree branch. People everywhere are watching that video of Ray Rice knocking out his fiance and saying, “Well… maybe she hit him first,” or “Well… if it was so bad, then why did she stay?” I’ve seen people defend Peterson’s actions as reasonable discipline. I’m sorry–any time a child’s genitals are lacerated during a “whipping” you’ve crossed the line beyond reasonable, a long time ago. According to the internet, Peterson was just doing his best to make sure that his son grew up to be a good person. Hell. Adrian Peterson is a damned hero.

And that’s where I fell down a toxic rabbit hole.

The internet, for good or ill, has transformed our lives in a million different ways. We now know the correct song lyrics, any time we want. (There’s no more excuse to sing “Wrapped up like a douche, another runner in the night,”–which does make me sad.) Information–vast, unadulterated piles of information–is in our back pocket. Social media gives us the opportunity to keep in contact with people we love, people we admire, people we’ve never met. The world is both bigger, and smaller, than it has ever been, before.

And mostly, that is a great thing. What’s not so great?

Anonymity.

Because it turns out that a chunk of the population is made up of people who get off on tormenting others. (Shocker, right?) And it may be that some of these douche-nozzles wouldn’t be so brave, face to face, but hiding under an anonymous avatar on Twitter, or Reddit, or 4chan, or wherever, they are willing to say some truly God awful things. “Maybe she deserved it,” or “Why did she stay?” look fairly innocent, in the light of some of the more heinous internet harassment campaigns that have taken place–Many of which, we (average, non-internet trolling citizens) will never know much about.

Take for instance the recent #GamerGate B.S.  A coder/video game designer named Zoe Quinn was “revenge-porned” by her ex-boyfriend. He wrote a detailed, graphic, 10k word rant about her sexual deviance and infidelities and posted it all over the internet. Not just one place–but dozens of places. Her name, her image, her personal details–splashed all over without her permission. That sounds bad, right?

Well, what happened next was worse. Some a-holes over at 4chan got ahold of the rant and realized that some of these alleged infidelities were with a game reviewer. Suddenly, this woman’s personal life (mind you, the reviewer in question had not reviewed, nor ever did review, her game–especially after the relationship began) became a rabid, scathing discussion on how women in the gaming world are using SEX (the most forbidden of tools) to heighten their ascent. Not only was Zoe Quinn a slut, but she was CHEATING!!!!

Seriously. This was a thing.

Quinn’s life was turned upside down. Her bank account and Social Security number were leaked online. Her dad received phone calls, calling his daughter a whore. People sent her death and rape threats. People exposed the personal information of her friends and co-workers. Anyone who dared to speak up for her was publicly threatened, their sensitive information exposed.

This. This is bullshit. But it’s just one case, right?

WRONG.

This happens all the time. ALL THE DAMNED TIME.

(I’m going to link to several articles, because I don’t want you to take my word for it.)

There is a case facing the Supreme Court, in which a man wrote and published, online, violent, misogynistic rap lyrics, plotting his wife’s murder and rape. 

There is a great write-up regarding the prominent violence in internet harassment, aimed at women, in TIME.

There’s an article by feminist blogger, Jill Filipovic, on TPM, that chronicles her own battle with repeated, horrifying death and rape threats–including a psychotic man showing up at the place where she was studying.

And there is a piece by Amanda Hess, at Pacific Standard, that takes a hard look at how nothing is being done to protect people (although it is mostly women) from this sort of harassment. A great quote from her: “But making quick and sick threats has become so easy that many say the abuse has proliferated to the point of meaninglessness, and that expressing alarm is foolish.”

Yup. Because we shouldn’t be alarmed when strangers feel comfortable describing, in detail, the sexual pleasures that they would take with our corpse. You know, because we are women, and we dared to have an opinion. There appears to be a small sect of the population who has decided that women are getting above themselves–working in fields they have no business in, standing up for themselves, speaking out of turn, speaking at all. And this group of hate-filled monsters are using the internet as a weapon.

We hear the term “revenge-porn” and it isn’t even surprising, any more. I had to have a conversation with my teen daughter about the dangers of sexting. NOT because I was worried about her picture being seen, but because I want her protected from her picture being used against her. We’ve seen that female celebrities aren’t protected from this–and again, we hear, “Well, WHY did she have those naked pictures?” We must be clear. A woman owning a nude picture of herself is NOT a crime. Stealing it, distributing it without her consent, and dehumanizing her with it, IS.  Oh, and then there’s this guy, who took his “revenge” to a WHOLE other, brutally disturbing level.

There is a segment of the population (and it is really hard to tell if it is 0.5% or 50%) that doesn’t see what is wrong, here–women, included. But I ask you–how would it seem if someone walked up to you at work and said, “Tonight, after you go to bed, I’m going to break into your house and rape you until you bleed.”  Not cool, right? Pretty terrifying. So how is it different when someone says that, on the internet? Why do we shrug it off and say, “Oh, it’s just those crazies.” I hate to break it to you, but I bet some of you know some of those crazies. People who think that, because they cannot be identified, they have the right to say whatever twisted and disgusting thing pops into their little minds. People who believe that words have no power, or people who enjoy the power that their violent, hateful words give them.

I started off wanting to talk about the NFL. But these aren’t just NFL problems. These are problems, across the board. I was going to write that Ray Rice was a coward, that Adrian Peterson was a coward. That there was no more craven act than a man abusing someone who doesn’t have the power to stop them–and that was true.

But even more cowardly than that is to hide your fists behind words, to hide your name behind a screen. To demean, dehumanize, terrorize, and torment someone simply because you can hide, makes you a vile piece of human garbage.

I’m so tired of it. I am so tired of learning, bit by disgusting bit, that the world that we live in is still (in the 21st fucking century) so bent upon keeping women down. I am SO tired of it. I’m tired of teaching my daughter ways to protect herself from it, and I’m sick of having to explain to my son the kind of man NOT to be, in the face of so many examples. I’m exhausted and weary and pained to see that so many men haven’t gotten that memo.

Please. If you are reading this, and you are a man, take a second to think about how you treat women. I don’t want royal princess treatment or chivalrous manners. Just, you know, don’t threaten to rape us when we do something that strikes you as opinionated. Don’t punch us in the face. Recognize our humanity, acknowledge our worth. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Forward Progress

As everyone in the world knows (due to an annual media blitz), today marks the 13th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack to ever happen on American soil. September 11, 2001 will live in our collective minds as the darkest day in United States History–hopefully forever. I don’t want to live in a place where the horror surpasses that of 9/11, so I fervently hope to never see a world where we live in more fear than we did, that day.

We’ve spent thirteen years rehashing the stories, remembering the heroes and those that died so tragically, and needlessly. I wasn’t in New York, and I didn’t know anyone that was. I was in the hospital, in pre-term labor with my second child. I was terrified for my baby’s survival, already, when the planes struck, and that juxtaposition of the horror outside–in the stark, unforgiving world–and the war that my own body was fighting against me, will always be a part of my life story. It will always be a part of my son’s life story, even though he was not even born on the events of that day.

My son is now going from a boy, to a man, and as such transitions tend to be–some days are harder than others. He is nearly as tall as I am, and his shoulders grow broader, each day. Some days, he is sweet and kind-hearted, offering hugs and help–a bigger, stronger version of the little boy I’ve always known. And some days, his fuse is short and his grudges are long. His sense of fairness is skewed, and the ribcage that protects his heart from hurt is thin and inconsequential. In short, he is learning how to navigate the world–how to be a citizen of the world. He is learning how to treat others, and how he wants to be treated. He is becoming something other than he was.

I’d like to think that our thoughts on 9/11 are becoming other, as well.

I’d like to think that as a nation–as a world–we can begin to move past fear and hatred. That we have grown enough to see that a small, non-representative group of extremists do not represent a greater culture. I’d like to think that we can remember and memorialize those that lost their lives, that day, without a renewed call to arms and bile and venom and mistrust. I’d like to think optimistically.

We live in a world full of ugliness and violence. Ferguson. Ray Rice. ISIS. Unrest and war and pain. Control and domination and abuse of power. The United States feels divided and broken–us vs. them–like some schoolyard rumble.

And yet, I see so much hope for the future. I see my children making friends with people from a diverse number of cultures, and backgrounds. I see women rising up and being recognized as capable, admirable leaders of society. I see marriage equality winning the day. I see the discussion for an ecologically sound America moving forward. I see America, growing.

September 11, 2001 was a dark, terrible day, and the deeds done on that day–both heroic and villainous–were epic in proportion. Those that did wrong, that day, did unforgivable wrongs, and those that risked themselves–those that died, needlessly–they will always be heroes in our collective memories. But I believe that we–as a nation, as a culture, as a species–must move forward. We must make progress. We must continue to grow, and change. Our transformation is not complete.

The United States is–in the scheme of world history–merely a teenager. We do not always respond to situations with the best possible response. In regards to September 11th, we are all, quite literally, teenagers, now. It is time that we begin to see the entire picture. Let go of our grudge against those that are only associated with the villains in this tale through cultural and religious ties–those that reject extremism and wish, like us, for a better world.

I, for one, plan to remember those that lost their lives, thirteen years ago. I plan to honor them by continuing to hope and pray for forward progress for humanity. And though the ribcage that protects our heart is thin, and vulnerable–the bones newly knitted back together–I have hope.

Crisis Averted

So, here it is.

Two weeks ago, my computer crashed and I lost about 65,000 words of the novel I’ve been working on, all summer. I spent some four or five hours in a frantic tizzy, trying to bribe a guy named Hutch at Google to help a girl out, before he and I finally found a way to “sort-of” recover my words. This was a big frickin’ crisis. I mean, I had a total mental breakdown–sobbing-in-the-fetal-position-lost-my-mind-kind-of-day.

BUT the words were found, and though there will be some effort required to get them back in the shape/format that I want them, all is not lost.  I have a hard copy, and that is all I can ask for. That was the worst day of the summer, for me.

Until… fast forward seven days, to last Thursday. My two big kids had gone to the high school football game. Hubby and I had finished dinner and cleaned up, and we sent the two littles upstairs to brush their teeth and put on their pajamas. A moment later, they came back down, announcing that the lights wouldn’t turn on upstairs and that there was a weird smell up there.

Hubby and I investigated and found smoke, though the source was uncertain. We checked lamps and plug-in air fresheners, radios and fans, to no avail, until I went into the kids’ bathroom. The first thing that I noticed was something odd had dripped onto the toilet seat. At first, I thought that little man had made a mess when he’d gone to the bathroom and just hadn’t told us, but when I looked up, I could see scorch marks on the ceiling. Hubby brought in a flashlight, and when he touched the metal cover of the ceiling vent fan, it was hot.

I’d like to say that we were totally on the ball, rushed into our pre-planned fire escape scenario and handled the whole thing with aplomb, BUT that would be a lie. First, he removed the cover and we stared up into the smoking remains of a clearly fire damaged fan. Then, I opened all the windows upstairs to let out some of the smoke. We sent the kids to the basement, to get away from the bad air, but at this point, we were seeing no flames and we honestly thought that the motor had blown on the fan, but had been contained by the metal box that held it.

So, we talked about electricians and told the kids that they could sleep in the basement overnight, and that was that. Except it wasn’t. Hubby called his dad to see what he thought about the situation, and I got on the Google. Turns out, a lot of house fires start in a bathroom vent fan. Turns out that it can start the insulation in your attic to smoldering, and you won’t even know you have a fire until WHOOSH! Your whole attic and roof goes up in flames.

I was sitting there, at the computer, and in the back of my mind, I could hear my dad’s voice. For those that don’t know, my stepdad, who raised me, passed away a few years ago. He was a fixer and a tinkerer, and he was my go-to handyman. If he were alive, I’d have been on the phone with him, right then. I stared at the screen and I heard him say, as plain as day, “Don’t you leave it like that. Get up. Go check.”

I took the flashlight out and shined it at the roof, and my heart stopped. I could see smoke leaking out of the roof. Our home was on fire.

The next moments were a whirlwind of activity. I called the fire department, gathered the kids and their beloved blankies. We unplugged the external hard drive that holds all of our pictures and I grabbed the file folder with the hardcopy (see above: the only copy) of my novel, and the kids and I hopped in the car and drove away. We passed a multitude of flashing lights on the road–four huge fire engines, a couple of smaller fire trucks and an ambulance, maybe a police car. To be honest, I lost track. In my mind, all I could see was that smoke, rolling out of our roof.

In the end, we discovered the fire, just in time. The damage was fairly minimal, in the scheme of things, and we have a great Home Owner’s Insurance policy. We have worked with an excellent restoration company that has gotten the mess (mostly insulation from the attic) cleaned up and livable, once more. We are very, very lucky and very, very fortunate.

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The fire department told us that we had maybe 15-20 minutes before the whole roof caught. If we hadn’t been home, or if we’d been asleep–we could be looking at a total loss. We could be looking at a loss of life. We could be looking at the kind of grief that I cannot even put into words.

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The last few days have been hard. The mess was being cleaned up, but I needed to wash every piece of clothing and stuffed animal and bedding and everything from the kids’ rooms. We’re talking about 40 loads. We couldn’t run the A/C until the ducts were cleaned, and it has been hot and humid, these last few days. I got sick–whether it be stress, or back-to-school germs, or allergies from the dust, and that hasn’t made things easier. And I’ve been walking around with that feeling, like after you narrowly avoid a car accident.

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Holy Shit. Something really, devastatingly horrible almost happened. Something that changes everything, forever. But it didn’t. You know the feeling that I mean? Adrenaline shaky and checking everyone over for bumps and bruises? Waiting for the other shoe to fall.

I nearly lost my mind when I thought I’d lost my book, and now, faced with the possibility of actual, horrible loss, that feels downright trivial. It feels microscopic. It feels like it happened to someone else, entirely. I haven’t cried over the fire. I don’t need to. We lost nothing that cannot be replaced. We were lucky. We were fortunate. We are blessed.

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Two weeks ago, I almost lost my book.

Last week, I almost lost my home, and I could have lost so much more than that.

This week, I am just going to breathe deep, let the tears come if they ever need to (although, I don’t expect them). It’s all good. I’m going to watch both of my sons play football, tomorrow, and I’m going to try to relax. Because when that book–the one that I lost, and then found–gets published, I’m going to have a damn fine story to tell.

Best Wednesday Gift, Ever.

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That’s my grandfather. When I was growing up, he and my grandmother lived fairly close to us, dropping in each day for coffee and a chat. When I was very small, before Grandpa retired, they lived outside of town, on a dirt road. Every day, Grandpa got dropped off at the corner, some 3-ish miles from his house, by his carpool buddies. And every day, rain or shine, or three feet of Michigan snow, he walked home in it.

One of my earliest memories is of waiting for him at the edge of their yard. He was a whistler–beautifully skilled, with a little tremor to his tune. Just thinking about it, now, makes me well up. But back then, that whistle crested the hill before he did, and I can still remember the giddiness, knowing that he was almost home. He’d come over the top of the hill, swinging his metal lunchbox, and I’d squeal with delight. When he reached me, he’d pick me up and toss me in the air. Call me a “Dutchman.” Then he’d pick up that silver lunchbox and open it up. No matter what, there was always something in there for me. A half a brownie, or a Twinkie. A sandwich bag with potato chips inside.

That lunchbox carried within it the smell of overripe bananas and bologna, which is a pretty odd scent for me to associate with love, but there it is–as strong in my memory as if it happened, yesterday.

When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a poem (one of my first) about that lunchbox, and I gave it to my grandparents. When I graduated from High School, they gave me the lunchbox. It is maybe one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.

 

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About a dozen years ago, the lunchbox (“dinner pail” as Grandpa called it) was lost in a move. I was heartbroken, but of course, sometimes you can’t go back. This was one of those times, and it wasn’t until cancer was eating away at my Grandpa that it really hit me, how much that dinner pail had meant to me. When he died, I lay in bed that night and dreamed of the smell of bananas and bologna. Losing that dinner pail is one of my greatest regrets, in all my life.

It’s strange, the things that mean the most to you, once someone is gone. When my Great-Grandmother died, the only thing that I wanted from her was the round, cardboard cheese box that she kept crayons in, for when we came to visit. I was 23, when she died, but all of my memories of her are tied up with those broken crayons in that beautiful, ancient cheese box. (I have it, and it still has the wonderful bits of crayons inside, some 35 years after I first used them.)

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When my grandmother passed away, the only thing that I could even think of asking for was the plastic wigs that my sisters and I had played with, as children. (You can see how thrilled my young man is at modeling the “lady hair.)

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And when my grandfather died, the only thing that I wanted in the whole world, to keep of his, was that old dinner pail. Which I had lost. Which I could never have. Which brings me to the reason that I write this, today, and why I found myself sobbing in the grocery store parking lot, this afternoon. I received a text from my sister, who confessed that she has been looking for a dinner pail, just like Grandpa’s for the last twelve years. Today, she found one, bought it for me, and she sent me this picture.

 

 

 

 

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My sister and my cousins are all younger than I am. Most of them hardly remember Grandpa going to work, so this particular talisman is all mine. I realized, when I saw that picture, that while I loved the dinner pail, and while seeing the one that was so like the one I had lost made me so, utterly happy–that wasn’t the whole of it. 

I can still smell the inside of Grandpa’s dinner pail. That’s what love smells like. And today, that’s what my sister smells like. I cannot put it any plainer than that. This is the second greatest gift I have ever been given, in my life.

Book Review – HOUNDED by Kevin Hearne

I haven’t read much Urban Fantasy, and as such, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. HOUNDED might have spoiled me, since it was absolutely hilarious. A fun, quick, incredibly engaging and entertaining read, I devoured it in about a day and a half. 

Atticus is old–21 centuries old, in fact. But he looks like a 21-year-old hipster playing at magic in his occult bookstore. Seriously, that might be the best, simplest premise I’ve ever heard. Add to it his Irish Wolfhound who is laugh-out-loud hilarious, a healthy dose of pop culture references, and some pissed off Celtic gods and you have a story that sucks you in and keeps you reading.

I liked everything about this book–the depth of the setting, the obvious research that Hearne put into it, the humor and juxtaposition between Old World and New-all of it. EXCEPT I didn’t love Hearne’s treatment of his female characters, and that kept me from giving HOUNDED five stars. I felt as though every woman (mortal or not) got the “super sexy movie star” treatment, and that Atticus had a hard time concentrating when they spoke because all he wanted to do was jump their bones. We’re talking about seriously powerful women, who can manipulate your perceptions of them. Why would they all choose sex as their manipulation of choice–Why not intimidation? Why not terror? Why not groveling respect? I’ve got no problem with a sexy female character, but I felt like it was a little one-noted.

I look forward to reading more of the IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, as the story was clever and funny and greatly entertaining, and I hope that Mr. Hearne has found a way to flesh out his female characters in later volumes.

Next Up: THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley. You know I’m excited about this one. 🙂

Book Review – ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb

 

 

In an effort to broaden my horizons in Fantasy, I have been keeping my ears open for recommendations from authors that I respect and admire. A few months ago, Chuck Wendig posted on Twitter that ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE was a must read, and (I’m paraphrasing) a beautiful, brutal book. If you’ve read anything by Wendig, you’ll be interested to know what he sees as brutal. So, I put it on my to-read list and (when I couldn’t find it locally) ordered it online. 

In the meantime, several other authors and reviewers that I follow brought up the glory that is ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, and I learned more about Robin Hobb. Here’s the thing–I love Fantasy. I think it, and write it, and breathe it, and worship the very ground that it bleeds on. But I didn’t find it until I was an adult, really. So I am behind the times. This book–I should have read it almost 20 years ago. I should have, by this time, been wrapped up in an obsession with this series, and the others that follow it, for most of my adult life. I should have already been as obsessed with this world as I am with Westeros. Hell–even GRRM blurbed about ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, “Fantasy as it ought to be written.”

Those are great big words from a great big author, and I doubt that I have anything to add that others haven’t already said, but I’ll try.

The first thing that drew me into this book was the age of the protagonist, Fitz, at the opening of the novel. He is six years old. I have a six year old, and as Fitz went about some truly life-altering experiences, in my mind, he was my little guy. And that’s where the brutality of this book lies. Fitz, throughout this first book, is a child. This is not the gruesome, bloody savagery of Martin’s Westeros. This is the terrible alone-ness of a little boy, thrust into a world that will only ever see him as a tool.

Hobb is brilliant in her weaving of the tale. Not too gentle, yet not too barbaric. We are dipped, lovingly, into the Six Duchies. Cradled in the warmth of the stables, drawn out, into the intrigues of Buckkeep. We, as readers, are granted the indulgence of seeing the adult characters through adult eyes, while simultaneously viewing them through the hooded, shadowed lenses that Fitz sees them through. Fitz is a remarkable child–observant and kind, intelligent and gifted. But he is also a child. We are given the gift of seeing those around him as he cannot–the silent, secretive protectors, the adroit handlers that do all that they can, including risking themselves, for the love of Fitz’s father who cannot acknowledge his bastard son.

Because I know, so intimately, a six year old boy–I instantly fell in love with Fitz. As he grew, in my mind, he became my older son (now twelve) and full of his own ideas of what a man is. Fitz is flawed in only the way a child can be–beautifully. Brutally. 

In the end, the story left me gasping for more–so clearly is there so much more to tell, and I am infinitely grateful that the next books are readily available. This is a hero’s quest, flawed and damaged as our hero may be, and it has become clear to me that I have only scratched the surface. Robin Hobb has done something stunningly complex–building a man from the skin and bones of a tiny boy. Fitz comes to life, on the pages. Her words breathe into him the stuff of life. Not just the heroics, the kindness and the brilliance, but also the failings, the weaknesses, the hubris. 

I also ADORE the gentle gender-politics that play out, throughout its pages. Certainly there are women that are mistreated and abused, dismissed and ignored. But also, there are men, just as maligned. Beautifully entwined, are women of power and strength. There are leaders among them, there are teachers and masters and Queens. There are petty women, women of integrity, and every sort of women in between. Just like the men. And not a damsel in distress among them.

There was truth to what Wendig said. The book is beautiful and brutal, but it is much more than that. It is not the grim darkness that we’ve come to expect from Martin and Abercrombie, nor the bantering heroics of Rothfuss. It is something different. Something special, a vicious hopefulness. With this book, I have come to understand why Robin Hobb’s name is spoken amongst the greats of Fantasy. She has certainly, in my estimation, earned every fair word.

Book Review – Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Sometimes you go to rate a book on Goodreads and it makes you rethink every book that you’ve ever rated, before. RED COUNTRY was that book, for me.

When I started reading RED COUNTRY, I did not know that it takes place in the same world as the FIRST LAW TRILOGY. I had read Abercrombie’s short story from DANGEROUS WOMEN, so I was familiar (a bit) with Shy South, but there was no telltale clues that Shy’s world and the world of Bayaz, Glokta, Logen and Ferro were the same. Discovering that A.) This was the same world and B.) That there were some spillover characters–was like receiving a late birthday present. I was giddy.

RED COUNTRY is to epic fantasy what toe nails are to hair–It’s slightly related, but it isn’t really the same thing, at all. This is a western, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and, ironically, Mark Millar’s brilliant comic, OLD MAN LOGAN.

It is the wagon train and the hardscrabble, sinew-and-bone frontier folk. It is dusty and exhausting and wear-through-your-boots toiling. It is not pretty–no courtly meetings or feasts with the nobles. It is the very definition of the word ‘gritty’–and yet, it is also a freshening of a world that we’ve spent more than a thousand pages exploring.

Here, in RED COUNTRY, we see new, deeper sides of characters we thought we knew. We scrape away all of the magic and the spirits and the politics and the city and we encounter a raw, bare-skinned tale of a family. They are broken and battered and not always very kind to one another. They don’t even share blood. But make no mistake, this is a family saga, and it is beautifully rendered, even in its brutality.

I have contended, previously, that Abercrombie’s strengths lie in the exquisite characters that he creates, and RED COUNTRY is no exception. I am repeatedly drawn to, and amazed by, his dexterous handling of “gray” characters. Each and every one of the people that populate this book is deeply flawed. They are cowards, bastards, murderers, thieves–monsters. They are beautiful, horrible monsters, and he makes us love them, in spite of their weaknesses, despite their failings. He is so successful in doing this because he shows us the contradictions within them–the murderess that fights for her siblings, the coward that wants desperately to be brave, the savage killer that sings his children to sleep. Over and over, I find myself drawn to his characterizations because they have the stink of real people on them. No one is perfect. We are all flawed–tiny, monstrous failings, fracture each of us.

There are a handful of scenes in this book that, due to avoiding spoilers, I will not further discuss. However, I would like to say that I was moved by this book in a way that THE FIRST LAW books did not emotionally move me. There are scenes and events within RED COUNTRY that made me cry, that made me laugh, that made me hold my breath in fear. There is a myth in THE FIRST LAW world, of a nine-fingered Northman–bloody, barbaric songs are sung about him–The Bloody Nine.

This book, for what it’s worth, made me a believer.

*** I am very eager to now read Abercrombie’s other books–THE HEROES and BEST SERVED COLD–both of which also take place in the FIRST LAW world.***