The book is propped next to my computer. A charming rat peers over the rumpled paper sign it holds bearing the book’s title: On Being A Rat And Other Observations. In the lower corner, the author’s name, Chila Woychik, is in red against a cheese yellow background. The cover was later changed to a more muted color scheme, no less charming in a ratty way, but I still like the bright original cover best.
Inside the cover, my name is listed with others for editorial assistance as well as for the illustrations; and it’s mentioned in the dedication. This particular book has a brief, handwritten note to me from Chila. When she wrote it, she had no way of knowing she dated it on my parent’s wedding anniversary. This very special book became unintentionally but personally, poignantly special.
I have to admit I was dubious when asked to edit On Being a Rat. I don’t usually read autobiographical works, creative or otherwise. But the first section I saw (and each one thereafter)—WOW! Just WOW! What a rare gem!
One of the things that captivated me most about On Being a Rat was Chila’s willingness to bare her soul, to be utterly transparent and vulnerable in her honesty. Honesty is a rare commodity in this present age; truth and honesty don’t always mean the same thing. Too often, all you see is the public mask— in …Rat, it’s totally “mask off”.
Another thing is the sheer beauty and creativity in the language Chila uses. Nothing obscure or convoluted, nothing so lofty that a reader can’t follow, but nonetheless powerful and thought-provoking even in the flashes of humor. Stark and lovely!
Her imagery is solid and logical even when she makes unexpected comparisons and observations. If one of her poems or lyrical passages were a photograph, the angle may be unusual, the focal point uncommon (or even bizarre); but the image is sharp enough that no one can say, “Well, there’s something on photo paper but I sure can’t tell what it is.” She writes with a razor.
She takes an uncommon genre, the lyric essay, to a new level that’s fierce and friendly, thoughtful and profoundly creative. On Being a Rat is a wonderful treasure to be read and reread with fresh discoveries awaiting the reader each time.
But there’s a bit more about what’s been called “the Rat book” or OBAR. For one thing, it’s shown me that creative nonfiction, the lyrical essay, is not dull autobiography or self-indulgent whining about life. It’s an art form with foundations in essay, memoir, and poetry. Content and structure combine with attention to poetic flow of words and sentences. Fiction writer that I am, I can’t help but feel the prickle of challenge — could I write this personally, this well? I don’t know, but I have doubt. I’m not certain I could override my reluctance to be so vulnerable on the page. Still, I’m inspired to try.
One other especially delightful thing about OBAR: After the initial straight-through reading, I found I can open it at any section without becoming a context castaway. Treasures abound even on a single page — a unique phrasing, a pinpoint metaphor, an illuminating observation. Some pages are chatty, as though Chila’s sitting across a café table from me. With each chapter I read, I come away thinking This one is my favorite chapter —until I pick the Rat book up again and read something that challenges how I think about writing or nature or… Then I think This one — more favorite than my last favorite. Or reading in a different mood This one’s my favorite today.
OBAR is a masterpiece on multiple levels, worth studying, worth learning from. Section by section, page by page, the whole book has taken its place among my favorites.
First, there will be no spoilers here. I know it’s fashionable to include them along with the obligatory spoiler alert. What can I say? I’m not fashionable.
Second, I did not read Deb Kemper’s books in the order they were published. It wasn’t necessary. They are stand-alone novels, though each contains more than enough potential story for sequels. So there are times reviewing isn’t always about a single book or series. Sometimes, it’s about an author’s body of works, individual pieces as well as the totality. Kemper is a flexible writer who ventures into more than one genre, more than one writing style.
For me, reading Kemper’s Mallory Ridge came after a long personal hiatus from reading almost anything classified as romance. Although I had plenty of reservations about opening the cover, I found myself quickly drawn into a contemporary later-in-life romance set partly in England and partly in Georgia. Written for the Christian market, Mallory Ridge contains religious perspectives, yet the overriding story of second chances and blending families is realistic and absorbing.
Scrolling forward in time, the next book I read was Full MacIntosh. In this, I realized what a flexible writer and thorough researcher Kemper is. Full MacIntosh has romantic aspects, but this is historical fiction. The milieu of 17th century Scotland comes alive in the details of daily life as well as historical incidents of the era.
Speaking of time, The Legend of Graeme Macpherson is a plunge into a speculative sub-genre, time-travel. Partly set in contemporary time, partly returning to Scotland of the 17th century, the tale is sumptuous in style and voices playing off each other as the legend unfolds.
But then, Kemper leaps into another genre. Lies and Old Lovers is contemporary blending mystery, family dynamics, and romance against the backdrop of modern Scottish politics.
Keeping Reggie’s Widow is a return to American fiction, this set in the beautiful Ozark country of Missouri. Family dynamics figure into this one, too, but an additional theme of anti-Semitism weaves throughout the book, inconspicuous at first but with increasing potency as the story progresses.
Kemper’s passion for Scotland shows in several novels but not exclusively so. Romance figures into all of her novels, but she is not exclusively a romance writer. Themes of second chances seem to run through most of her novels, especially the contemporary ones. She writes of family interactions, but not weighty multi-generational sagas; they are the intimate interplays of people at life’s crossroads who must still carry on with their daily lives.
Contemporary. Historical. Speculative. Mystery.
What genre and themes will Deb Kemper tackle next?
A new confession: sometimes I indulge in blatant procrastination. Not major blocks of time, you understand. I don’t have major blocks of free time, but there are little 5-10 minute swatches when I could do something productive but just don’t want to.
I’m not sure whether to be amused or disturbed by one of the ways I fritter away bits of time: those crazy little on-line quizzes.
My choices in each quiz are honest, partly because I don’t like slanting results toward what I hope for, but mostly because I don’t always know what results are available or how they calculate results from my answers.
My hippie name would be Breeze, but my birth name should’ve been Phoenix. My Native American name would be Likes to Play.
Depending on which quiz I take, I’d be a German Shepherd or a Basset Hound if I were canine. If I were equine, a Quarter Horse. (Figures it’d be a working horse, but why couldn’t I be a sleek Thoroughbred or showy Friesian or even a Shire with hooves bigger than dinner plates?). As a lizard, I’m a chameleon, but as a dinosaur, a velociraptor. I’m a shot of whiskey—completely at odds with my claim that I’m aging like fine wine.
In mythological quizzes, I’m a mermaid, a griffon, and Cerebus. (Combined results, maybe a 3-headed lion/eagle hybrid that can swim as well as fly?)
I don’t take many of the tv character quizzes; I don’t watch tv enough to know what most shows are about or who the characters are. Still, the occasional character quiz catches my eye and captures my time.
Among super-heroines, I’m Wonder Woman, but in a Marvel Comics quiz (without gender choice), Hawkeye. To be fair, I took a couple of villain quizzes (we all have a dark side, oui?): Catwoman and Moriarty.
In the Star Wars universe, I’d be Boba Fett, which kind of surprised me—I thought it’d be Chewbacca because of a bit of scruffiness around my edges—and I had to look that one up. I like Star Wars but didn’t remember some of the minor characters. Good excuse to fire up a SW marathon, isn’t it?
For a Peanuts character, I would be Snoopy, and for a Lord of the Rings character, Legolas.
Hmmm. If I merge those two results, would I be an athletic beagle with awesome archery skills or an elf with long floppy (and pointed) ears, WWI goggles, and a Sopwith Camel?
Likes To Play—that one got it right.
Although my primary interest in both reading and writing is Science Fiction and Fantasy—really, all the sub- and sub-sub- genres under the umbrella of Speculative Fiction—I cut a lot of my reading teeth on Westerns. Louis L’Amour, Zane Gray, Max Brand, Luke Short, and a lot of lesser known authors. Other reading teeth were cut on mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Anyway, no spoilers here except that there are no little green men or lost alien civilizations. The Martians of Redline are third generation descendants of the first colonists from Earth.
First and foremost, Redline is science fiction set on Mars after colonists arrived on the terraformed planet, which now provides enough atmosphere to sustain life, but it’s a challenging life. A life for people with pioneer spirit, hard-working and more than a little hardheaded, brave visionaries willing to put muscle into making their dreams come true. Natural dangers abound—winters rival the most brutal Antarctic conditions and the storms can be deadly to the unprepared—but the politics of a faraway colony brings more subtle dangers. Certain people on Earth want control of environmental matters on Mars and, by extension, control of the colonists, most of whom don’t take kindly to such interference.
Aside from the technology and Martian setting, Redline also embraces the most engaging aspects of those old Westerns as well as touches of mystery and adventure (and even a bit of feisty romance). Parson’s characters are well-rounded, and the glimpses into their daily lives amid growing mayhem is utterly absorbing.
This isn’t, however, simply a story fancied up with tech and dry facts which could take place anywhere else. Parson’s research and extrapolations about the directions colonization of our neighboring planet might take are intriguing, thought-provoking, but worked into the story so smoothly, I found it naturally matter-of-fact, easy to take its exotic realities for granted. On Mars, there are descendants of imported caribou herds (rather than horses or cattle). The trains running from town-to-town are maglev (magnetic levitation), carrying people, supplies, and trade goods. The close-knit Martian families garden and make much of what they need. They enjoy restaurants and dances. They have a sense of humor as well as fortitude. They even take showers.
But there are enmities, too, born of jealousy , bitterness, or the hunger for power. Ultimately, there are betrayals which will affect not only the main characters but also the settlements and futures of the people on Mars.
Science Fiction, adventure, mystery, romance, intrigue—with a Western flair. Redline is a fascinating and fun blend of genres. Makes me want to load up the next interplanetary moving van to Mars.
Love the twist at the end!
The Sheriff slid his patrol car to a stop on the gravel shoulder of county road 555. He got out, looked at the setting sun for a moment, then opened the trunk and pulled out a rifle. He worked the rifle’s lever action, loading a round into the chamber as he walked towards a campfire. Homeless think they can just waltz through my county. Third time this month.
A sitting man warmed his hands over the fire. A rope tied to two trees with a tarp thrown over it served as his tent. The man stood as the Sheriff approached. “Hello officer.”
“It’s not officer. It’s Sheriff. You alone here, son?”
“Yes, Sheriff. Just camping for one night. I’ll be up at first light and on to the next county. I won’t leave any mess behind.”
“Uh-huh.” The sheriff lifted one end of the tarp with the rifle barrel, revealing an…
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