Monday, July 25, 2011


There's nothing like travel to get the writerly juices flowing. Today I, along with several members of my family, hit Coney Island. We went on The Wonder Wheel (89 years without an accident!)

And...The Cyclone (um, no signage about accidents or lack thereof).

These are things you owe it to yourself to do, unless of course you are afraid of heights or being hurtled down steep heights and around tight corners at terrifying speeds, especially on rides that'd have been around for a very very long time.

Overheard conversations:

"Dear God I'm no ready to die!" (on the Cyclone, naturally)

"I love, love, love Pop-Tarts. There is nothing better than Pop-Tarts."
" "
"Pop-Tarts are poison!" (on the subway to Coney Island)

"' his hat all cock-eye like this, you know, 'cause he just got hit upside the head..." (on the boardwalk)

All fodder for stories. Have you taken any trips lately that inspired you to write something new?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cultivating literary touchstones

I just saw the final Harry Potter movie with one of my daughters and my son. My daughter, now 23, grew up along with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. My son, 18, was a precocious reader after a rocky start, finishing the first Harry Potter book by the time he'd finished first grade. We began reading the series together and then, as the kids got older, individually, passing the books from one person to another. I've really loved reading those books and watching the movies with my kids, watching them grow to adulthood as my children did the same.

As it turns out, it was my son who introduced me to a series of books that would become the real literary touchstone that we would turn to when the alternative was sullen silence or argument. We had just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for six months. The year was 2006, my son was in 8th grade, and for obvious reasons very unhappy about the move. He had begun reading George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, and loved the books. He urged me to read them, and although I don't normally read a lot of fantasy, I knew it was important to him. I was training for a half marathon, so I downloaded the first book on and explored Geneva and its environs as I listened to Martin's marvelous story. That first book led to the next, and the next, and now of course we've been watching the TV series together (the racy scenes are a bit much to watch with him, but we both kind of avert our eyes). I've yet to download the latest; my son is reading it on his Nook, and he's already pressuring me to do so.

My relationship with my son continues to be somewhat rocky. But we know that when other topics of conversation will inevitably lead to an argument, we can always fall back on Martin and Rowling and those other storytellers who find a way to bring us all together.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Okay, so it’s July, and you and I both know that at some point this summer you’ll have to crack open whatever book the schools have decided you need to read this summer. Fine, you gotta  do what you gotta do. (Can you tell I’m no great fan of assigned summer reading?) Here, then, is my antidote to the summer reading assignment: “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack,” by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2010). It’s a rollicking, head-spinning steampunk adventure that is unlikely to find its way onto any summer reading list.

The book’s hero is Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great British explorer, linguist, and scholar, and his diminutive sidekick, Algernon Charles Swinburne, the thrill-seeking young poet. (In an appendix titled “Meanwhile, in the Victorian Age,” Hodder gives brief biographies of these and the many other real-life characters who appear in the book.)

Although it opens in London, 1861, this is not the familiar Victorian London. For one thing, the young Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840; her husband, Albert, is King. The country is in the midst of a technological and social upheaval. Engineers, part of the new Technologist caste, have created steam-driven velocipedes, flying rotorchairs, and giant crab-like robotic street cleaners. Eugenicists, the other half of the Technologists, have created messenger parakeets with the unfortunately tendency to pepper their messages with insults, giant swans pulling passenger-carrying box kites, and most frighteningly, werewolves that carry off young chimney sweeps. The new Libertines oppose repressive laws, while the Rakes dabble in magic, drugs, and anarchy.

Enter Spring Heeled Jack, a bogeyman legendary for groping young women, leaving them shocked or permanently damaged. After an encounter with the strange creature, Burton is commissioned to investigate. I don’t want to give too much away, but the Rube Goldberg-style plot reveals just how Victorian London was transformed into Steampunk London, and it’s satisfying indeed. Throw in a talking orangutan, a sinister albino panther-man, appearances by Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Florence Nightingale, and you’ve got one heck of a fun summer read.

I found this book on the adult science fiction shelf in the library, but it’s suitable for older teens. There is some rough language, the most colorful of which is spoken by the messenger parakeets (“Message for the Marquess of buttock-wobbling Waterford!”), talk of attempted rape, and the sort of violence you’d see in superhero movies, including exploding werewolves. If you liked this book, Burton and Swinburne return in “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man” (Pyr, 2011).

This review originally published in The News-Gazette, July 17, 2011. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Corpse Flower

Mme. Hardy
One of the criteria I have for the roses I plant in my garden is that they must be fragrant. I hate those hybrids that look OK but have no smell. You might as well stick some plastic roses in the ground. Shakespeare got the point of a rose, after all, when he wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." 

Corpse flower

Recently, though, I've become a little fixated on a flower currently blooming at the University of Illinois' Plant Biology Conservatory, Amorphophalus titanum. Native to Sumatra, it's more commonly known as the Corpse Flower, due to the Eau de Rotting Flesh fragrance it gives off when it flowers. Rotting flesh? Yes indeed--all the better to attract the carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies that pollinate it. To add to the illusion, the texture and reddish-purple color of the plant's large spathe, or petal. resembles...rotting meat. AND! If those things weren't clever enough, the temperature of the spadix, the baguette-shaped thing in the middle, rises to about 100 degrees, which helps release all of that lovely perfume into the air. Here's a picture I took this morning--it's not fully open, but oh, boy, does it smell...not like a rose.

Here's what it looks like when it's fully open. It's really kind of pretty, isn't it? Whether you call it Amorphophalus titanum or corpse flower or any other name, it still smells rotten. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What a character!

Have you ever met someone and thought to yourself, "Wow, now HE'S a character!"? I've been following the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky with my husband, a writer friend, and her husband this weekend, and we've met our share of the characters along the way.

Take our innkeeper at the B&B in Louisville. A small, prim man with a Colonel Sanders goatee, he was clearly uncomfortable in the role of host. It was a bit of a challenge to get him to serve us orange juice, because he didn't think we'd indicated it on our breakfast card the night before (we did). And then, probably because he had read in Hosting a B&B for Dummies that you should tell stories to your guests, he told us a tale about visiting a Dairy Queen on his honeymoon with his wife in Arizona, and his extreme surprise at this thing called a Blizzard! With Snickers or any old kind of candy mixed in! His Puritanical mind, he said, couldn't quite accept such excess. We were not quite sure what the point of his story was.

Later, in Frankfort, we found Rick's White Light Diner, which we soon found had been featured in the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives." (The food, by the way, excellent! I recommend the pulled pork BBQ sandwich and the coleslaw.) Rick, a bearded old hippie, cheerfully greets everyone in his tiny diner and dispenses his political philosophy (far left) in colorful and often profane language.

Two characters, one day, both ideal fodder for writers. Can you imagine a conversation between these two? Write it down, see where it takes you. They may just become characters in your next short story or novel. (Thanks, Alice, for the idea!)

The Bourbon Trail, in case you're wondering, is just a collection of distilleries in the region in between Louisville and Lexington. Many of the distilleries offer tours and tastings--we visited Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark, both well worth the trip. More about the tours when I can post some photos.