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Sort of Review: On Being a Rat and Other Observations, by Chila Woychik

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.

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Review: Books by Deb Kemper

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?

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Frittering Away Bits of Time

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.

So…

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.

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Review: Redline, by Carol Parsons

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.

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Microfiction: County Road

Love the twist at the end!

Planetary Defense Command

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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Creating New Awards

Reblogged this intriguing idea for the Speculative Fiction community! There’s so much excellent Science Fiction out there that deserves recognition but too few award venues available.

Planetary Awards

I’m asking my fellow book bloggers, along with podcasters and booktubers, to join me in creating a new set of awards for science fiction and fantasy stories. Why invent another award? In addition to numerous regional and sub-genre awards, there are currently two broad awards: The Nebula and the Hugo. While both are based on good ideas, it’s possible they are overly influenced by the publishing industry.

Nebula Award winners are chosen by the members of the SFWA. Having authors choose the best stories seems logical, but has some drawbacks:

  • Most fans can’t participate.
  • The tastes of fans and creators may not overlap as much as the creators believe they do.
  • SFWA members have ties to publishing houses (or are seeking ties) and may be subject to influence.

Anyone who is willing to spend $40 can vote in the Hugo Awards. The large fee is probably meant to limit…

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A Goal in Mind

Every so often, something catches me off guard and I realize I may have presented a wrong or at least incomplete impression. One dimensional, really.

I rave about how much I lovelovelove lime sherbet–my very favorite!!!–so frequently that folks get the impression I don’t like blueberry frozen yogurt or chocolate/strawberry/vanilla ice cream. Or black walnut. Or pineapple sorbet.

But this isn’t about desserts.

I occasionally give myself a repeat of an old college assignment: list the titles of every book I remember reading cover-to-cover. No cheating by looking at my bookshelves or wandering through the library. The original assignment had a time limit of about a month, but with this most recent repeat, I gave myself a longer period.

I haven’t utilized Goodreads much, but as I look over the massive list that’s grown over the last several months, I think it’s time to organize this list both at Goodreads and here.  Here will be both reviews of books I like for whatever reasons as well list groupings of titles.
(BTW, I don’t take requests for reviews. The ones I post are because I want to, not because someone asked me to do so.)

Anyway, I just think it’s time to share that I like more than just “lime sherbet” in what I read.
And write.

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Cavalry in a Box

The thrill never grows old, and lessons never end. Some lessons are more memorable than others. This was one of ’em.

A short story accepted for publication. As I expect, the editor asks for a few reasonable changes, but one…I have no clue what she’s talking about.

“First page is too rainbowized.”

The story is science-fantasy and is not an LGBT tale. I’ve made no mention of Noah’s Ark. No leprechauns gambol around pots o’ gold at the rainbow’s end.

I read the first page. Then again. I look at her comment, re-read what I wrote, and I’m just as mystified as before. I fire off an email. “What do you mean by rainbowized?”

This is a teaching editor with saintly patience. She wants writers to learn for themselves how to write better, to figure out what to do with minimal guidance. She replies with a hint. “Too many colors in your first few paragraphs.”

My cybernetic navigator watches a blue-green planet growing larger on his monitor, and he reads a green line of data. That’s two colors, but no more show up until later in the story. I check to make sure the original attachment on my submission email is the same version I’m trying to fix rather than some early draft. It’s the same.

Where’s my literary cavalry when I need ‘em?

I invent a number of complex and pleasing finger-drumming rhythms while I stare at the computer. I’m no closer to figuring out what needs correction but infinitely closer to feeling thick-headed. If I calculated my density with ρ (kg/m3), it would prove comparable to a 1×10 to the 18th power stellar-mass black hole.

My next email: “I’m so sorry, but I still don’t understand.”

The first page comes back with three highlighted paragraphs. The dogs scatter from my primal scream. The cat stalks off to a less disturbing part of the house. Outside, tornadic wingbeats erupt as a thousand starlings launch off the roof.

Deep breath. I’m trying too hard. Time to step away, do something else.

I dig out art supplies for an illustration–a marionette troubadour–using watercolors with crayon resist. I sort through my crayons for the ones to color his bells and lute gears. My hand hovers over gold and silver crayons.

The cliché lightbulb over the head doesn’t flash. Instead, the top of my skull gapes open to the explosion of a nova.

Among many jobs, I spent several years as a machinist and several more in electronics assembly and inspection. Practical knowledge served well as I created details of my cybernetic characters and the ships they navigate. Gold, silver, copper, bronze, pewter, platinum–these are metals to machine, cast, solder, braze, inspect. Powdered sapphire is a component of certain types of ceramic substrates in electronics. Ruby, sapphire’s gemstone cousin, appears as tiny mechanical bearings, abrasives, laser components. Garnet, too, is used for abrasives as well as for water filtration fillers.

Returning to my story and highlighted paragraphs, I get it. Yes, there’s the sapphire console made of gemstone and ceramic, but anyone reading will simply envision dark blue. The ruby laser refers to the stone used for the light-stimulating rod in its guts, not the color of light it produces or a red hue of the unit’s paint. Gold, silver, and copper are metals of the pads and traces on the characters’ hands, but how many readers possess knowledge of conductive materials? They’ll see descriptive colors. I de-rainbowize my story’s first page.

My laughter’s a little hysterical, but I do laugh at myself. Specialized knowledge displaced more common meanings. Life experience bit me in the literary butt.

A box of crayons to the rescue.  My cavalry arrived.

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Shouting into the Wind

The dichotomy we so often feel about our blogs, our writing, our place in the world.

Through Alien Eyes

Sometimes writing a blog feels like shouting into the wind—tossing words out into emptiness without listeners. But I knew when I started this blog it was apt to be like that. As an introvert, I’m less likely to engage with large numbers of people, and with my busy school schedule, I have little time and energy left over on the weekend to keep up with the massive chat campaign necessary for successful blogging.

So why do it? Why blog and throw out my opinions and ideas on a vacuous sea of cyberspace?

The challenge. Writing a blog challenges me as a writer and as a person. It takes work to come up with an interesting article that doesn’t bore me or potential readers. I like the thrill of crafting words that might touch a reader or stick in someone’s mind long after they’ve forgotten who wrote it.

The interaction

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A Little Life, A Little Mystery

This isn’t a eulogy–not really–although it’s about a fur-friend who’s gone now. It’s ruminations and memories about a cat who shared her life with me and my husband for over 17 years.

I love cats but I was never a cat person. I always had more dogs than cats in my life, so it never occurred to me they might not be teachable. To me, cats were a bit like odd, special-needs dogs who simply required extra patience.

Folks at the pound thought the kitten was 7 weeks old, but when I brought her home, she didn’t know how to eat well. The vet guessed closer to 5 weeks. My husband was…not really afraid of cats but wary of them. All those claws as well as teeth. From the beginning, though, Phoebe was incredibly gentle with him. She’d walk across my lap–this is Mom, I pin-dance with joy, with gusto! On my husband’s lap, she sheathed her claws so tightly, she walked on her tiny back pads. Her vocalizing was loud, chatty, sometimes demanding with me, but with him, her purrs and trills were soft and flirty. She won his heart.

The Sit command dogs mastered in a couple of training sessions took Phoebe about 6 weeks of short sessions 2-3 times daily. By the time she was 10 months old, she was reliable with Sit, Off, Spit It Out, Upstairs, Downstairs, and Let’s Go (a version of Heel). Her socialization was as thorough as what I did for show puppies. She went for car rides, and everywhere I took her, I made sure people petted her. She had fun visits to the vet as well as appointments. Throughout the rest of her life, she never stressed, never blew fur from nervousness at the vet office; she was a polite, relaxed patient anyone could handle.

She expressed distaste for any bath at the top of her lungs but held still for the indignity. Teaching her to accept nail trims was like trying to train a ferociously thorny rose bush, but within a year, she enjoyed the procedure, even purring as I worked on her feet. To her, brushing was almost as good as a treat.

She had a feisty streak–what cat doesn’t? More than once, the older hounds sought (with much flinching) rescue from her wrapped around a leg or swinging from an ear. I worried that the younger dog, Miss B (67 pounds, from a bloodline with sharp temperaments), would hurt her until my husband discovered Phoebe chasing that dog up and down the basement stairs and slapping the long houndy snout when Miss B flopped down for a breather. I’m not done playing, dog!
She and Miss B also engaged in bizarre dead mouse soccer, batting & flipping the soggy body through the air to each other. Inventive games between fur-friends.

Phoebe’s first sight of a puppy litter shocked her (They’re Everywhere!), but by the time the puppies were tottering around the whelping box, Phoebe was playing with them. You’d think she would’ve been eaten for messing with the babies, but mama-dog seemed relieved to have a sitter. As the puppies grew, Phoebe taught them manners. She tolerated respectful nosing and slobbery kisses, but play too rough and her quick slap restored instant order. One of the male dogs we kept grew to 102 pounds of muscle; he wilted to the floor when he got out of line and the 11-pound kitty corrected him, holding his nose with the tips of her trimmed claws. Never scratching or puncturing–just holding.

The day she screamed, the dogs haired out at the raw terror in her voice. I bolted downstairs, certain I’d find her crushed under a fallen bookshelf or impaled on some tool in the shop. She stood in classic Halloween black cat arch, hair puffed to triple her size, pupils fully dilated. A wolf spider had fallen in her litterbox. It raced around the box’s perimeter in 8-legged panic. A canning jar capture and trip to the garden later, all was well with two mutually horrified creatures.

Other than arachnophobia, not much rocked her serenity. Oh, except for the time she decided to stroll out the back door. A dozen steps from the door, she looked up and instantly flattened to the sidewalk. The lack of ceiling overhead unnerved her. It didn’t stop her from joining the dogs lined up at the window for the daily neighborhood watch and adding feline commentary to theirs. I don’t like that guy on the bicycle! Me neither! Did you see that woman let her dog poop in our yard? Disgusting! Bad, bad! Oooo–look a rabbit!
I didn’t offer them binoculars.

Although a passionate mouser (with woods behind our backyard, there was a lot of incoming mice to be passionate about), Phoebe developed an odd relationship with a baby squirrel we rescued. By the time we realized Bart couldn’t be released, she’s struck up a friendship. Over the next 8 years, she sat on the stairs, sometimes for hours, and they stared at each other, engaged in long chatty burbles, trills, and chirps, and touched noses. After he quietly passed, she still paused on the same step to stare where his cage had been and trill for a few moments. The tone was questioning rather than chatty, and she continued doing this until her own last days.

Despite what animal experts tell us about feline behavior and intelligence, she didn’t forget Bart, nor did she forget the dogs she outlived. I’d seen many dogs weep tears of sorrow, worry, even joy, but she was the first cat I witnessed doing the same. We learned never to speak their names in her presence.

Seventeen years of relationships and interactions more complex than I thought possible for a housecat: intelligent, ornery, mannered, loving. How much was innate personality? How much was early training? A mystery I’ll never solve but one I treasure as I cherished her.

Hers was a little but full life, well-lived. Her final breath was a purr.