Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Unhappy Anniversaries

Everyone knows about 9/11/01. Everyone wants to remind us of 9/11/12 today, too, although they seem more interested in talking about Hillary Clinton than honoring the dead.

9/11/12 is also the day my father died. Here we are in Homosassa, Florida. My father liked this restaurant because he could watch the water and the cavorting monkeys on the little island nearby. There were so many little pleasures he found in life.

Seven years later, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop--my mother's health is fading. I think a lot about death and dying these days. Despite his overflowing optimism, Dad had these thoughts, too. Starting in the 1990s, he mailed 'Open in the Event of My Death' envelopes to me, which he periodically updated. During his final illness, he had me open the most recent one so we could review the contents. He'd provided a list of people to notify, actions to take, and a personal message to the church congregation, which I read aloud at the memorial.

How I wish I had another envelope to prepare me now.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Interview: Michael Williams, Author of Trajan's Arch

Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early Weasel’s Luck and Galen Beknighted in the best-selling Dragonlance series to the more recent lyrical and experimental Arcady, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines. In Trajan’s Arch, his eleventh novel, stories fold into stories and a boy grows up with ghostly mentors, and the recently published Vine mingles Greek tragedy and urban legend, as a local dramatic production in a small city goes humorously, then horrifically, awry.
Trajan’s Arch and Vine are two of the books in Williams’s highly anticipated City Quartet, to be joined in 2018 by Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men.
Williams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey he made his way through through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in Humanities, and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the he Modern Fantastic in fiction and film. He is married, and has two grown sons.

What made you decide to start writing your own stories?
I think most every kid is in love with hearing and telling stories.  It's hard-wired in how we understand things and how we learn.  The big transition for a few people, though, comes at the moment when they say to themselves that they'd like to make storytelling a lifelong pursuit.
For me, that happened at 13 or 14 when I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for the first time. In chapter 3 of The Fellowship, there is a moment when the hobbits get off the road at the approach of someone—someone who turns out to be one of the Dark Riders of Mordor, who attempts to sniff out (literally) our heroes in the undergrowth.  I remember lifting my eyes from the page and realizing I had been immersed in Tolkien's world—completely there—for almost half an hour.  From that experience and a number that followed, I decided that creating that effect was something I wanted to do forever.

Which authors influenced your writing?
Obviously Tolkien, when it came to world-building and the use of myth and legend to inform and underlie the way my stories worked.  Several of the great magical realist writers—Garcia Marquez and Borges come to mine—for the way they wed the everyday with the wondrous.  My old mentor John Gardner (author of Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues) taught me invaluable things, and there are half a dozen or so poets (among them Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Ted Hughes) who were very formative for me around the time I really became serious about writing.

I'm a bit of a tyro in the humanities. What is the Modern Fantastic?
I'm thinking this question stems from your reading that I teach courses in the Modern Fantastic at the University of Louisville.
It's pretty much what it sounds like: fantastic fiction, film, and art from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.  The late 19th century, for me, is that time in history when we began to look at fantastic worlds as mental or psychological landscape, when these stories help establish the theory and vocabulary of thinkers like Freud and Jung.  Just think “fantasy from the 1880s to the present.”

Tell us about the City Quartet. Which cities are involved, and can you tell us a little about each story?
One city—Louisville, Kentucky, in both an historical and an imagined version.  These are four novels (you can enter the world of the books through any one of them—there's no designated reading order, no idea of linear “sequence” or “series”).  The stories of the books interweave, so that a principal scene in one novel might be glimpsed in passing in another, a principal character in one might make a cameo appearance in another.  In short, the books speak to the connections that bind us all in location and in history, and one of their major areas of meaning is in how our lives intertwine, how we depend and rely on each other.

  • Trajan's Arch: Gabriel Rackett stands at the threshold of middle age. He lives north of Chicago and teaches at a small community college. He has written one novel and has no prospects of writing another, his powers stagnated by drink and loss. Into his possession comes a manuscript, written by a childhood friend and neighbor, which ignites his memory and takes him back to his mysterious mentor and the ghosts that haunted his own coming of age. Now, at the ebb of his resources, Gabriel returns to his old haunts through a series of fantastic stories spilling dangerously off the page–tales that will preoccupy and pursue him back to their dark and secret sources. 
  • Vine: An Urban Legend: Amateur theatre director Stephen Thorne plots a sensational production of a Greek tragedy in order to ruffle feathers in the small city where he lives. Accompanied by an eccentric and fly-by-night cast and crew, he prepares for opening night, unaware that as he unleashes the play, he has drawn the attention of ancient and powerful forces.
  • Dominic's Ghosts: A mythic novel set in the contemporary Midwest. Returning to the home town of his missing father on a search for his own origins, Dominic Rackett is swept up in a murky conspiracy involving a suspicious scholar, a Himalayan legend, and subliminal clues from a silent film festival. As those around him fall prey to rising fear and shrill fanaticism, he follows the branching trails of cinema monsters and figures from a very real past, as phantoms invade the streets of his once-familiar city and one of them, glimpsed in distorted shadows of alleys and urban parks, begins to look uncannily familiar.
  • Tattered Men (to be released in September: When a body washes ashore downstream from the city, the discovery saddens the small neighborhood south of Broadway.  A homeless man, T. Tommy Briscoe,  whose life had intertwined with a bookstore, a bar, and the city’s outdoor theater had touched many lives at an angle.  One was that of Mickey Walsh, a fly-by-night academic and historian, who becomes fascinated with the circumstances surrounding the drowning. From the beginning there seems to be foul play regarding Briscoe’s death, and, goaded on by his own curiosity and the urging of two old friends, Walsh begins to examine the case when the police give it up.  His journey will take him into the long biography of a man who might have turned out otherwise and glorious, but instead fell into and through the underside of history, finding harsh magic and an even harsher world.  Despite the story of Tommy’s sad and shortened life, Walsh begins to discover curious patterns, ancient and mythic, in its events—patterns that lead him to secrets surrounding the life and death of Tommy Briscoe, and reveal his own mysteries in the searching. 

How did you get from a triumphal arch in Italy to modern-day Louisville?
Sheer imagination, metaphorically and literally. The triumphal arch is present  only in an article Gabriel reads during his initial fascination and curiosity with Trajan. The real “arch” is the series of stories Trajan Bell has written, inserted in the novel and over-arched, you might say, by the novel itself.  There's another arch late in the book, but to say much more would be letting spoilers slip.

Is there a new author or book out there that you think we should be reading, and why?
I'm interested right now in more “world fiction”--magical realist stories from outside the Anglo-American world (and, for that matter, non-European writing).  Two women writers, strikingly different from each other, I've been reading with some pleasure.
Karen Lord is a writer from Barbados, with roots in Senegal.  Her Redemption in Indigo is a darkly funny mythic journey, a retelling of the folktales centering on the West African legendary figures of Anansi the Spider and Ansige Karamba the Glutton.
Lesley Nneka Arimah is a Nigerian writer who mingles magical realism and speculative fiction with the very realistic treatments of the harsh political realities in her native country. Her What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is a stunning collection of short fiction.
Recommending the work of both these writers is my gift to you, my thanks for giving me space to talk about my own work.

Many thanks! Trajan's Arch is now available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Friday, August 02, 2019


Ah, August. A time when my email boxes overflow... Strangely Funny submissions are pouring into the MAHLLC coffers, and my personal email has become a FEMA flood zone of politicians pleading for money. Volunteering is the gift that keeps on giving...
An update on the past few months:

  • I began temping in a call center in April, mere days after posting how discouraged I felt. In July, the center hired me away from Randstad. I'm happy to be wanted, but I can't figure out why. My father was a great salesman of school textbooks, and all I picked up was a love of reading. This belligerent introvert is learning new skills.
  • My ebullient sister-in-law is moving to Tampa Bay in the next few weeks. It will be good to have more family here, and I may develop a social life despite myself.
  • Gwen and I have finished Murder at the Million Dollar Pier, the sequel to Murder on the Mullet Express. It's the second book in the Three Snowbirds series, and we'll be doing a cover reveal in the near future.

I'm glad that my life is coming back together. We'll see what these changes bring.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Other Surprise Derby Winner

My S-I-L made a lovely hat for the Derby Party!
Yesterday's Derby was a major surprise. For the first time in Derby history, a winner was disqualified due to infractions during the race. Country House became the official winner after Maximum Security had already done a victory lap.

We no longer live in Kentucky, but we did go to the Derby Party thrown in our mobile home park. My sister-in-law is visiting, and she threw together a lovely hat at short notice.

While the television announcers talked about past Derbies, gave the changing odds on favorites in the current race, and interviewed trainers and jockeys, our group staged races with stick horses. There was betting going on with these races, too, but no one was going to win or lose big at a quarter per ticket.

We placed a wager at my table on the Big Race. Since I didn't know anything about the horses running this year, I chose Tacitus. I spent several years as a classics student, so it was a natural for me. Furthermore, it sounded like a real Derby winner name. The first time I was asked to identify Aristides on a test, I replied that he was the winner of the original Kentucky Derby. Oh, and that he was an Athenian statesman.

None of our horses won. However, Tacitus took third place after the judges declared the official winner of the race. Since I was the only one with a horse on the board, I won the pot. It was a pleasant evening with a suprisingly rewarding ending.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson

A Talent for MurderA Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first novel in a series starring the author Agatha Christie as the main character. Biographer Andrew Wilson spins several well-researched events of 1926 into a gripping tale of why Agatha Christie disappeared for several days, and what happened during that time. He's not the first person to do so - the movie Agatha springs to mind - but Wilson's version grabbed me from early in the book and wouldn't let go.
The book opens with Agatha's despair. Her husband, Archie (played in the film by the swoonworthy Timothy Dalton) has fallen in love with a younger woman and doesn't understand why his wife isn't being reasonable about giving him a divorce. Wilson must have suffered a broken heart at least once; he describes Agatha's pain in convincing detail. Her misery is interrupted when she is pushed into the path of a train, and then 'saved' by a man who is no hero. Dr. Patrick Kurs has been following her exploits for some time, and he believes she should perform a service for him. In exchange for not releasing love letters between her husband and his mistress, he wants Agatha to kill his wife. He will arrange to be elsewhere, and she can put her knowledge of murder to good use. When she balks at his demands, he threatens to harm her family, specifically her daughter. Convince of his ability to hurt them, she agrees.
Kurs only allows her to decide how to commit the murder; the rest of her actions follow a plan he has already devised. First, Agatha disappears into the countryside, abandoning her car and her fur coat for the police to find. She is allowed to keep her purse, which contains a pouch of poisons. He forces her to check into the Swan Hydropathic Hotel under the last name Neele (the name of Archie's mistress) and, later that evening, to dance the Charleston at his command. These have little to do with the crime he wants her to commit; they are designed to humiliate her and reveal how much she is under his control.
We are occasionally given a glimpse into the police investigation of Agatha's disappearance and a separate investigation by a young woman who is also determined to find her, but never for long. The focus always returns to the mental battle between the fiendish Kurs and Agatha Christie, one of the world's cleverest plotters. He humbles her again and again, but she finds an interesting way to give him what he wants.
This book is very well written and researched. Wilson shows us true details of Agatha Christie's life, and uses what is known about her disappearance as the framework for a powerful conflict between two very clever and determined people. I recommend it.

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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Unemployment and Depression

I'm afraid that the job I accepted in February fell through. I received about three weeks of pay for it, so I did receive some benefit. Around the same time, I came to the end of my severance pay. Since I'd been keeping track of my job applications, the next step was applying for unemployment.

You may have been told that the unemployed are lazy people sitting around collecting money for nothing. I need to tell you two things: 1) I'd rather be working than going to interviews and having my hopes dashed again and again, and 2) I get $275 a week, which might be a lot in some states, but not in the Tampa Bay area. An article in the February 7th edition of the Tampa Bay Times states that the 'survival income' for a family of four is $60K/year. That's $5000 a month, in case you don't want to do the math. The 'survival income' for a single person is a little under $21K.

Gwen and I are a family of two. I am bleeping grateful that she still has a job, because I am alloted a little over $3000 for this year. That's how unemployment works. To qualify for it, I'm supposed to list five places I applied for work during each week. I usually list ten or more. I want out of this arrangement. Next week, I'm doing a workshop on successful interview techniques because I haven't done many, and I'm enough of an introvert to need help with social interactions that involve charm as well as answering questions.

Being rejected again and again is painful. It's especially so when I've taken skill assessments for temp agencies and been told how good my scores are. Sometimes I've been rejected because I lacked 'front office' experience. Other times, I've been advised to leave some of my experience off my resume because of either a) age discrimination or b) I would look too skilled for the jobs I was applying for. Folks, my ambitions are in writing, not in becoming a corporate raider.

This past week, I learned of a new complication: at least one of my previous employers doesn't give references. Instead, they use a service to confirm employment. This service costs money for prospective new employers to use, and I've learned it's not a new practice. I will contact the service to get what free verifications I am entitled to, but now I'm wondering how many jobs I lost because the employer could hire someone whose records they could verify without a charge. Stupid me.

This whole experience has eroded my ideas of who I am and that I have something to offer to the world. I've always been a steady worker; I spent over seven years in my first 'real job' and about fifteen in my second full-time position. I was approaching five years with my last employer when I was laid off. They treated me well in the process and gave me good severance, but I haven't found a place in this Brave New World of Work.

I'm not ready to quit looking for work. But I understand why some people have.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review: Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee

Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham, #3)Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The first drag of the first pipe was a deliverance, like the breaking of a fever. With the second pipe, the shaking stopped, and with the third, the nerves steadied."

Sam Wyndham's error was calling for a fourth. Smoke and Ashes spotlights Wyndham's opium addiction in the first scene--and nearly ends his career with the CID at Lal Bazar, when the vice division raids the Calcutta den he's visiting. During his escape from the authorities, Sam discovers a dying man, curiously mutilated. He continues his flight, but begins a low-key investigation into the murder, which mysteriously appears to remain undiscovered as far as the authorities are concerned.

A more pressing matter is on his superiors' minds - the Indian National Congress and its leader, Mahatma Gandhi. The cause of self-rule have swept the country, with protest rallies, labor strikes, and the burning of British textiles. The Prince of Wales is touring India to restore goodwill and the status quo, and he is coming to Calcutta for Christmas. Alas, there will be no carols about it. One of Gandhi's primary supporters, C.R. Das, is leading the non-cooperation movement in the city, and Lord Taggart is sending Sam and his sergeant, "Surrender-not" Banerjee, to persuade him not to stage protests or stunts during the visit.

Sam Wyndham isn't looking forward to the job:

"I hated this new breed of pacifistic Indian revolutionary. So often they acted like we were all just good friends who happened to disagree about something, and that once the issue was resolved - obviously in their favour - we'd go back to taking tea and being the best of chums. It made punching them in the face morally difficult."

Shortly after their first visit to see Das (fruitless, of course), the second body turns up - mutilated like the man from the opium den.

The Das intervention and murder investigation turn the wheels of the plot after that, taking us into an unsavory part of British history in India, until all the elements come together at the climax of the book, shifting what was a mystery into a thriller.

My greatest pleasure in reading Abir Mukherjee, comes from his use of the language, his ability to slide between cultures, and his philosophical view of his subject matter. His commentary through Sam reminds me a bit of John D. MacDonald's writing.

"Calcutta was a city divided in more ways than one. To the north, there was Black Town, home to the native population; to the south, White Town for the British; and in the middle, a grey, amorphous area full of Chinese, Armenians, Jews, Parsees, Anglo-Indians and anyone else who didn't fit in. There was no law demarking the city, no barriers or walls; the segregation was just one of those things that seemed to have evolved when no one was paying attention."

His observations and seamless writing make the entire series a worthwhile read.

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