Saturday, September 16, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: A to Z Challenge" Letter O

The List:
-Occulus, ocean, orchard, oasis
-One o'clock, once, October
-orange, ominous, optimal, obligation, occupational therapy, octagram, octagon, occipital lobe, operation

The Result:

"The Octagram of Obligation"

Tricia had just found a quiet corner of the main floor to sit, when the silver-suited female android, Nerissa, approached her from some hidden door in the oddly-shaped walls.
Please follow me to the Occulus,” she said. “It is time for your first Occupational Therapy session with OPHELIA.”

OPHELIA—Tricia felt the pit of her stomach tighten and twist just a little. All she had ever known of the woman was the interactive talking face on a screen from her orientation tutorial. How different would she actually be in real life? Was OPHELIA an android like Nerissa? Or some new tech that Tricia hadn't encountered yet?
Nerissa waited a full minute before prompting, "You have not started walking. Do you wish to override the prescription?"
The young woman sighed. "No," she replied, pushing herself up to stand, "I'm coming."

She nearly fell over several times as the tall, stilted heels slipped and wobbled over the sleek obelisque floors. Nerissa immediately slackened her pace and matched Tricia's wobbling stride, sticking close to her in case of overbalance. The android's reaction speed was such that Tricia would barely falter before she felt the warm, artificial touch pressing on key points around her sides, keeping her upright with a controlled frenzy of precise movements. It occurred to the young woman that this could very well be the case for the women she saw drifting around the oasis with ostentatious grace—the reason they had the silver-suited entourage wherever they went. Even their sense of balance, like so many other aspects of the Peres life that she had secretly envied for so long, was a carefully-orchestrated farce.
Nerissa led her into a large foyer-type room, oblong with a long white couch in the middle. The walls swirled with digital displays of swirling abstract colors. The android waited until Tricia seated herself on the couch, and then departed.
Tricia waited, forcing herself not to pick at that one random orange spot on the side of her skirt. When would OPHELIA appear?
At precisely one o’clock, the swirling colors abruptly halted, and a soothing chime resounded through the room.

Welcome, Tricia Carson.”
Tricia felt a small thrill run through her at the sound of such a gentle voice saying her name.
The voice continued, “I am OPHELIA. Thank you for joining me.”
Tricia looked around her as the colors shifted into another pattern; walls began to form around her. “Where are you?” she asked.
“One moment, please.”

The image in front of her solidified, and Tricia gasped when a gigantic eyeball covered the space directly in front of her, spanning the screen from top to bottom.
“This is my original form; does it trouble you?”
Tricia could feel her heart ready to pound right out of her chest at the horrifying sight. “Yes,” she huffed. “I think it does.”
“One moment please,” OPHELIA said again, and after a brief screen jump, the “eyeball” slowly rotated, as if it had only been a decoration on the back of a round chair. Seated in the orange-cushioned interior was a familiar-looking woman who stood and walked toward her. Tricia immediately kicked off her painful shoes and rose to greet OPHELIA barefooted. She made it all the way to the point just before reaching out to take her hand—when her sense of reality clashed with the optical illusion and her fingers collided with the smooth screen.

“This form is more conducive to the intended relaxed atmosphere of our sessions,” OPHELIA intoned. She smiled, her ombre hair framing her multicolored eyes. "What assistance can I offer you today, Tricia?" OPHELIA asked from an untraceable distance.
"Offer me?" Tricia snorted. "These sessions are scheduled. You sent for me."
"It is true, these are mandatory training sessions, but I am here to tell you that there are many aspects of our sessions that are completely in your control. The environment, for example; this room is equipped to mimic the airflow and barometric pressure of all sorts of outdoor experiences. Care to join me in an orange orchard?" OPHELIA calmly took a step back, and immediately the blank walls melted and Tricia stood on a grassy strip between rows of trees, each blooming with fragrant blossoms and fairly-large fruits. Tricia inhaled through her nose and found the rich orange scent stimulating her olfactory nerves. Even the floor itself seemed to change texture, and Tricia could watch in awe as her toes curled around blades of grass projected over the once-smooth floor. She glanced around.
"What is this place?" She asked.
"The Oculus is where you will come for all your official sessions with me. It is where we can both be candid with one another, and harbor no fear of offense, no matter what we say." She paused to allow Tricia to absorb this information. "What would you like to talk about first?"

A million questions crowded into Tricia's mind: what if she didn't want this life? (What if she did?) Would she ever be able to see her family again? What about the ones who returned to St. Louis? What were the chances of checking in with them at all?

"Here is a topic of conversation that might help stimulate conversation: Eliminations begin in October; are you nervous?"
"Yes!" Tricia seized on the opportunity to fit in among the other recruits by responding the way they would. "What if I do it all wrong? There's just so much to remember! I don't think I have what it takes to succeed as Personal Assistant to President Peres."
Ophelia turned and fixed her opaline gaze on Tricia. "Has any of the medical staff approached you about the operation?"
Tricia frowned and leaned away from OPHELIA involuntarily. "What operation? I told Marcia I didn't want any body alterations."
OPHELIA smiled, and the forest melted away to a clean, white beach beside the ocean. Tricia wanted so badly to jump and splash in the waves beyond the... virtual therapist; but she knew they were just an illusion. It did remind her of the last day of freedom she and her Dad had taken, before answering the summons and leaving Paristown for Peres.
"It is not a body alteration procedure," OPHELIA was saying. "It is a small implant at the base of your occipital lobe—"
"My brain?"
"To aid in computation, comprehension, and retention of visual data, to help you become your optimal self."
"My optimal self?" Tricia hugged her shoulders. She hated the crawling feeling of inadequacy that overwhelmed her when someone started talking about optimizing—or a new, better kind of "self" than the one she was.
OPHELIA stopped at the edge of the surf, and Tricia imagined she could almost feel it crawl over her feet when it exceeded the limit of the screen.
"You have not yet heard about the Octagram of the Obligate Identities?"
Tricia immediately recalled the design of eight interlocking rings she had seen before, but the design had seemed so ominous that she had tried to ignore it. "I saw the pamphlet in my room, but I didn't read it."
"You should; it is more of a handbook to help you understand the eight identities and their proper order, to be more conducive to optimal performance."
The room darkened, and Tricia saw eight rotating rings projected on a dark background all around the room. OPHELIA appeared next to the one at the right of the front of the room. The word "Personal" appeared in the center of the ring.
"Optimizing starts with compartmentalizing your personal identity, recognizing its connections to the identities beside it, and how they support your sense of personhood, or self."
The words "Mental" and "Physical" appeared in the rings on either side of "Personal."
"As you can see," OPHELIA continued, "your Personal identity is linked to your Mental identity—your abstract, creative thoughts and your memories—and your Physical identity—your body's health, strength, and stamina. If one of these supporting links is weak or overlooked, the outcome will affect the strength of your Personal identity."
Tricia listened to the soothing voice for the rest of the tutorial, at first wondering where her father's constant iteration that she was a child of God fit into all the sequence, regardless of whether she actually understood what he meant by it. According to OPHELIA, her Mental identity was linked to her Personal and Emotional states—her feelings and instincts; Emotional identity, in turn, was connected to the Mental and Sexual identities—her thoughts, memories and instincts guided her in forming relationships and adjusting the way she related to others. "Particularly," the therapist advised, "the clients you will be called on to assist."
Tricia couldn’t restrain a small shudder at the ideas arising in her mind, but OPHELIA just kept on talking, distracting her from the ominous ideas.
Your sexual identity is linked closely with your emotional security and your spiritual flexibility.”
Spiritual! Tricia felt a sense of relief; perhaps now she could figure out a way to sneak in a bit of her old beliefs into this new set of principles she would need to observe.
Your spiritual identity, is of course, linked to your sexual identity—those you would form relationships with—and the beliefs that guide the core of your philosophical identity, or the basis for your logic and decision-making.”
Logic? Tricia frowned. If her spirituality was tied into the people she interacted with and her decisions, then she couldn’t necessarily justify clinging to an identity no one else had. She worried about this while OPHELIA explained the remaining three identities, and OPHELIA brought the session to a close, though Tricia was now in worse state over the nature of her obligation than ever before, and the overpowering murk of obfuscation clouded her worse than ever. She followed Nerissa back to the oasis without even noticing. The question hammered in her head, along with everything else:

Who was Tricia Carson?

Did you enjoy this excerpt? Today's story comes from a future project stuck in several layers of rewriting, potentially due for yet another overhaul--Focal Point, the story of Esther told in a dystopian cyberpunk setting. Click on the link for the ReBible series to find excerpts from this and other planned adaptations of Bible stories, to be finished sometime in the future.

 Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of previous Suggestion Box installments)

-Letter A*       ]     [-Letter K*
-Letter B*       ]     [-Letter L*
-Letter C         ]     [-Letter M
-Letter D         ]     [-Letter N*


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: A to Z Challenge" Letter N

The List:
-Nora Farthington, Ned Silver, Nelson Garrett, Naith
-Nebraska, Nigeria, the Nest, the NICHE, nowhere, neighborhood
-nighttime, next, never, Neanderthal, nanosecond
-napkin, necklace, note, nebula, nightclub, name, nightstand, nightgown, nerves

The Result:


(*A sequel to the story "Occupational Heresy")

Nora took a deep breath to steady her nerves; no sense in notifying the Occupants that one of their number was at present severely high-strung for no apparent reason. Ten minutes after Professor Silver departed, Nora made her way back into the neutral zone, back to the noxious hum that buzzed in her ears louder than ever before. She tucked the necklace back into her collar, felt the warm metal nestle against her skin.
Could she really be the one to liberate Earth, as the professor said? She wondered, for a nanosecond, whether it could actually be possible. No one had ever thought to resist the Occupation; the longer they remained nested in every continent, the more the Occupants negated any historical record in which they were not the dominant species. As far as anyone even knew, an insurrection had never been tried.

Until now.

Nora concentrated on her firm, measured steps all the way back to her small apartment. She had agreed to meet him at noon the next day; he promised information that would help her. It sounded so easy when he said it: in order to find the other keys, they would have to break into the NICHE—the National Interspace Command Headquarters Edifice from which the Occupants controlled the entirety of human governments worldwide—and find the Nest, which served as the nexus of power for these Occupants whose presence everyone felt, but never actually saw. She had initially objected at being the “lone heroine to save the day,” but Professor Silver had laughed and assured her, “You won’t be alone. There are others who will be with you every step of the way.”
Nora went through her customary nighttime routine, wrestling against the urge to change even a single moment of what would be considered normal. She combed her hair, exchanged her uniform for a nightgown, and brushed her teeth. Last of all, before getting into bed, Nora removed the earplugs, basking in the stark silence. She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep.

Not much later, the nightmare began. Nora found herself navigating an endless maze of dark hallways, with nebulous shapes wafting in the shadows, manifesting periodically in forms from the deepest, darkest corners of Nora’s psyche. Slithering tentacles, gnashing teeth, fearsome claws—Nora could do nothing but run from one horror straight to the next. She woke with a small whimper to an absolute mess of her bed, pillows and blankets thrown about, nightgown rumpled. She sat up and rubbed her face, panting hard to calm her shaken nerves. The earrings on her nightstand flashed a soothing green. The Occupant assigned to her neighborhood was trying to make contact. Nora groaned softly to herself as she obediently replaced the earring so the Occupant could network with her.
“Hello, Nora.”
“Hello, Naith.”
“I noticed you weren’t sleeping well just now. What seems to be the problem?”
“Nothing,” Nora tried to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Just normal things; a nightmare is all.”
“Nightmares are often caused by neural unrest. What is the nature of your nightmare?”
“Know what?” Nora murmured, “I don’t even remember it now. I think I can sleep just fine.”
“All right. I will be with you in the morning, Nora.”
“As always, Naith.”

Nora couldn’t get the small studs out of her earlobes fast enough. She laid the gemstones back on their stand, now returned to their customary blue hue, and laid down in her bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. She glanced out the window, watching the undulating nebula wavering over the sky. No one could pinpoint exactly when the nebula had first entered human cognizance—whether it had appeared as suddenly as the Occupants, or whether it had always hovered in the night sky, undetected until the present moment. Nora knew there was some important connotation attached to the phenomenon, if only she could figure out what it was.

Nora found it even more difficult to focus on the mundane routine the next morning. She fumbled through dressing, and she nearly walked out with only one earring in, and her necklace in plain view on the outside of her uniform. Frantically, she kept the door of her apartment firmly shut until she had everything in order, and only then did she allow herself to emerge like a good little Occupied student.
Nora fought to keep from nodding off during the Arithmetic lecture; at least here she didn’t have to worry about double-speak and ever-changing narratives—did she? Nothing about numbers and figures seemed in the least way out of the ordinary. Contrary to what she had told Naith the night before, she could remember the most intense moments of her nightmare, seared into her brain with vivid, excruciating detail.
Nora walked out through the university commons as the massive clock tolled the noon hour in digitized knells.
A note had found its way into her locker, in Professor Silver’s familiar handwriting and inscribed hastily on a napkin. He wrote in bold capitals for some reason, and the message was especially cryptic. “NOWHERE IS NOWHERE,” it said. At the bottom he had drawn a symbol she recognized, the logo of a long-defunct nightclub. Nora headed there now, nagged by the incessant humming of her earrings, knowing her every movement would be tracked—she could only assume the Professor had found another one of those “noise-canceling pockets” like he had near the library.

She passed through the narrow gate under the decrepit sign that read NETHER-LAND. Rather a naughty name for an establishment, however appropriate. Her hand trembled as she knocked at the door. The nozzle of a gun peeked out the window next to her.
“Nobody home! Buzz off!”
Nora held up her note, hoping that whoever was inside could see it. “Professor Silver indicated that I should come,” she said.
“You numpty!” The voice growled, and the door opened at just about the same time two large hands grabbed Nora by the arm and dragged her inside.
“Naming names in the open like that! Do you want to get us all nixed?”
“Who are you?” Nora demanded, wrenching away from the grip in the dark interior of the vacant nightclub. “Where’s Professor Silver? Is he here?”
“Ned!” the man called, leaving Nora standing in the middle of the room that stank of countless crowds, unwashed dishes, stale cigar smoke, and who-knew-what-else. “Someone here for ya!”
“Nora!” At last, a familiar voice! Nora nearly cried as the professor she barely knew stepped into the room and wrapped his arms protectively around her. “You got my note! You found us.”
“I did,” she admitted, swallowing the tears and rubbing her nose. “Though I’d like to know: who is us? What is this place?”
Ned Silver smacked his forehead. “I’m sorry; in my effort to hide our true intentions from anyone who could betray that information, I may have muddled things for you. Come! Let me show you!” He took her hand and led her further back into the club, where a large room completely hidden from any windows held many monitors and screens and some very sophisticated navigational equipment. “Welcome to N.O.W.H.E.R.E.!”

Nora gazed in bewilderment at the assembled group: people milled about the screens, entering information, reading articles and streams of text she couldn’t possibly dream of understanding, and speaking together in small groups over short stacks of printed material. “Nowhere?” She repeated.
A man stopped in the act of walking by. “Yes, we are the National Organization of World Historians to End Research Entropy.”
Nora frowned. “Research Entropy?”
Ned nodded. “What can I say? The acronym came first, before the official title. Basically, what we are doing—right under the noses of the Occupation—is collecting and preserving any records we can find of pre-Occupation historical events. That way, no matter what they try to do with replacing or negating our past, we can still know how things really happened.”
“And someday,” the man agreed, “When we figure out how to neutralize the Occupant’s surveillance, and how to re-activate the Stonehenge Shield, we’ll be able to correct the nullified records.”
Ned smiled and squeezed the young woman’s hand. “That’s where you come in. Nora, meet Nelson Garrett, one of the first historians on the team. Nelson, this is Nora Farthington—and she is the key-holder for North America.”
“Key-holder?” Nelson gasped, and the same time Nora cried, “North America?”
“Yes,” Ned agreed. “You recall how I told you there were five keys? Well, thanks to some very relentless hacking, our team has discovered that potentially the other four keys are located somewhere within four other continents: Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. We’re still narrowing down the specifics—which we can’t do unless the neural network spanning the nation is neutralized—but thus far we’ve been able to isolate four different regions: Norway in Europe, Nepal in Asia, Nigeria in Africa, and New South Wales in Australia.”
Nelson snorted. “Yes, well, if we were at the Home Office in Newfoundland, I could network with all the agents in those areas, thereby making our search more effective, but no! You had to call us all out to bleeding Nebraska, of all places—“
“Oh!” Nora gasped, noting the nature of Nelson’s complaint. “That’s what your note meant! “NOWHERE is now here.”
Nelson would not be so easily deterred. “We are indeed, and we have precious little to show for it. I mean, really! I acknowledge that Nebraska might be a nexus of power for the Occupation in this part of the world, but the accommodations are bordering on Neanderthal!”
“Nevertheless,” Ned cut in, raising his hand, “we’re doing pretty well with what we have, working in secret like this, and—if you’re on board, Nora—we can start planning how we’ll infiltrate the NICHE.”
Nora took one more glance around the room, and then nodded at Ned.
“Count me in,” she said.

 Original Suggestion Box Image
 Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of previous Suggestion Box installments)

-Letter A*       ]     [-Letter K*
-Letter B*       ]     [-Letter L*
-Letter C         ]     [-Letter M
-Letter D     

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reader's Review: "Cry of the Firebird" by Amy Kuivalainen

Synopsis from Amazon:

After the murder of Anya's shaman grandfather, Tuoni the Finnish God of the Dead, arrives to give her a mission; awaken her magic and take up the family mantle of Gate Keeper to Skazki, the Otherworld, before monsters and dark gods break in and start a war in the real world.

Joined by Yvan, a Skazki prince who can transform into the legendary firebird, Anya is hunted by the prince's dark-magic-wielding brother, and they are forced to flee to Skazki for safety. There, they meet a host of friendly and hostile forces, and Anya learns the secret history of her family.

Anya's magic is unstable, and she finds herself returning to the real world, bringing all of her new enemies with her...


My Review:

I picked up the whole trilogy when it was on a promotional sale, intending to get to it at some point--imagine my surprise when I found it on the shelf at my local library! Needless to say, this title got bumped up the TBR list on the spot, and I plowed through it in a matter of weeks!

I loved the story right from the start. Anya is a lonely, headstrong farm girl with very little family and a very strange grandfather--and her life gets completely turned on its head when Death himself meets her for coffee, and a flaming phoenix appears at her isolated little farmhouse. From then on, mythology mixes with the real world as Anya travels with the phoenix (and the man with whom it shares a body) to the mystical world from which her legacy came, the realm of Skazki, and discovers a host of new magical abilities her grandfather never told her about, while fighting to stay out of the reach of a diabolical enemy who will stop at nothing, not even killing her.

It was like reading a fresh new story from all my favorite mythological-fantasy authors, particularly the likes of Cornelia Funke and Naomi Novik, since a large part of the mythology used was Nordic in origin. Whether it was volk kroi (werewolf) or vampire, Thanatos (the "Grim Reaper" of Greek mythology) or a pair of Native American mystic Twins--each developed into their own unique character, with real-life struggles and strengths that weren't dependent on their other-worldly identities, which made them all incredibly relatable.
I loved the narrative style, the way the characters had time to build banter and interact between crises, the way Kuivalainen would pull back at times and give a brief "omniscient" view of an impending threat, calling attention to exquisite detail and building up the thrill for what is to come. The adventure is enchanting, and definitely be prepared to read for long stretches at a time, because each chapter pulls you in further until it's near impossible to put down!

In case it wasn't obvious, I definitely give this book a *****5 STAR***** rating, and if you're a myth and fairy-tale junkie like me, I would add an Upstream Writer Certified DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED. You will laugh, squeal, gasp, and turn pages all the way to the end--and then you will feel the urge to get your hands on the next book in the series (Ashes of the Firebird) as soon as possible! The Firebird Fairytales is a complete and utter win on all fronts, and not to be missed!

Further Reading: (Mythology Meets the Real World/Girl of Destiny/Excellent Characters)

The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie
-Songstruck--Sofia Black
The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair
        -Street Fair
        -A Fair Fight  
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart
       -Wolf's Path
       -Tiger's Shadow 
Spirit Knights--Lee French
       -Girls Can't Be Knights
       -Backyard Dragons
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd
The Books of Winter--R. R. Virdi
       -Dangerous Ways
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -Dream Stalker
     -Barrow Fiend  
-Kalla--Amber Morant
-The Seventh Crow--Sherry D. Ramsey
Tales of the Fallen--Katika Schneider

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: A to Z Challenge" Letter M

The List:
-Mid-morning, minute, month
-Mesa, Minnesota, Malibu, Mangrove Row, Mimi's Cafe
-mile, makeup, mocha, matcha, muffin, manicure, meal, maverick, money

The Result:

"Musings in Mesa"

Meredith shifted her posture as the low murmur of the car engine coaxed her to wakefulness.

“Morning, sunshine!” Chirped a gentle voice from the driver’s seat.

Meredith peeked over at her traveling companion, Phoebe Russell. A merry twinkle glinted in the older woman’s eyes.
“Ugh!” Meredith moaned, “Are we there yet?”

“Not hardly! It's only mid-morning; you've been asleep since we crossed the border into Arizona a few hours ago, Mer,” Phoebe chuckled. “We still have six more to go till we reach L.A.”

“Six hours!”

“That puts us on Rodeo Drive in time for an early dinner, just as George prefers.”

“Murder me,” Meredith muttered, raising the seatback to try and coax herself to wakefulness. “Can we at least stop for some coffee and a muffin?”

Phoebe shrugged, switching lanes, and tapping on the navigation screen in the Chevrolet Malibu. Her extensive acrylic manicure made it difficult to interact with the digital display. “Hang on, we might be able to stop for breakfast if it’s not too much out of our way—“

Meredith waved her hand aside. “Here, you drive; let me be navigator.” She pulled up choices of the closest diners in Mesa, Arizona. “How about Mimi’s CafĂ©? It’s only a few miles off the freeway.”

Phoebe glanced at the screen, narrowly missing a lane-changing driver just ahead of her in the process. “Good enough for me!” she announced, and promptly changed lanes while flashing her blinker briefly at the same time.

Meredith’s hand flew to the handle of the door. They’d been on the road since the previous evening, and yet she couldn’t manage to overcome her nervousness at Phoebe’s haphazard driving style.

Minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of Mimi’s and took an outdoor table. Meredith ordered a mocha, while Phoebe primly schooled the unprepared waitress on the minutiae of a perfectly-crafted matcha macchiato.
While they waited for their meals, the two women sipped their beverages in relaxed silence.
“So,” Phoebe mused, “are you excited to finally be back with your family?”

Meredith snorted and swiped a dollop of whipped cream off her coffee with her finger. She glanced narrowly at her friend and longtime mentor. “Oh yeah, I am just beside myself with jitters at the prospect of once again occupying close proximity to my father who is obsessed with his own image, and my sister who is intent on controlling absolutely everything and everyone around her.”

Phoebe sniffed. “Well, you don’t have to be so mean about it,” she chided. “I’m sure they’ll be excited to see you again. Besides,” She raised a narrow-penciled eyebrow, “I wasn’t aware that you were altogether enjoying your time back in Beaumont, either.”

Beaumont… Mangrove Row… the Estate with the Crofts… listening to Cassandra complain and fret about Lily, with the threat of Fred “stopping by” hanging over her head from Sofia’s sociable suggestions… “I’m just—what do you call it—in transition, I guess,” Meredith mumbled. She huffed and tapped the table with her fingertips. “I don’t know; just nowhere feels like home anymore.”

Phoebe smiled. “Nowhere except that miserable little flat in Houston, you mean?”

Meredith rolled her eyes. “Now you sound like my sister; it was plain, but it was cozy, and most of all—it was mine. Ever since I had to move back to the estate, well…” she shrugged. “You know how it’s been.”

Phoebe gave a warm chuckle. “Oh Meredith! Every day you sound more and more like your mother.”

Meredith blinked. “I do?”

Phoebe nodded. “Sarah could never quite fit into the same social circles the Elliots traveled in. She was a bit of a maverick, the outsider from Minnesota that no one could quite pin down.” Phoebe sighed, relishing the delight shining in the young woman’s eyes. “She wasn’t about to indulge in that movie-star life like everyone expected her to. George could be adamant about a lot of things, but the one person who managed to throw it back in his face every time was the woman he married. No one could figure out how they could stand each other, much less adore one another as much as they did.”

Meredith’s expression softened from the jaded sneer to a rampant curiosity. “Dad doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who likes to be ignored a whole lot.”

“Oh, trust me, it wasn’t easy for him.” Phoebe laughed lightly.

The waitress meandered over with their plates, and they paused to take a few bites before Phoebe continued. “Many’s the time poor George called me in an effort to make me convince Sarah that she shouldn’t do whatever she pleased. Of course, I had only recently married Tobey, myself, so I wasn’t quite the relationship maven I am now.” She paused to pluck a piece of lint off her sleeve. “As if anyone could make Sarah do something when she didn’t want to!”

Meredith felt the calm washing over her as she thought about her mom. No one else talked about the Elliot matron, and the lack of photo albums that weren’t family heritage records or collections of newspaper clippings from every time the family name made it into the headlines of the Beaumont Enterprise made hearing these stories from Phoebe that much more thrilling.

“Phoebe,” Meredith asked as she carefully quartered her chocolate-chip muffin with a fork, “what was the craziest thing mom ever did?”

Phoebe looked up from inspecting her makeup in the silver compact. “By whose standard?” she asked. “Mine or your father’s?”

Meredith grinned impishly. “Oh, do dad’s!”

Phoebe laughed. “Troublemaker,” she muttered. “Well, according to how long they argued, and how much he refused to let it go—it would have to be the day your mother went out and used a whole month’s allowance to buy herself a zippy little cherry-red truck.”

Meredith clapped a hand over her mouth and giggled. “A truck?” she gasped, just imagining the horror on her dad’s face at seeing the vehicle parked next to his luxury sedans in the carport. “What did she need a truck for?”

Phoebe shrugged, peeking over the check brought by the waitress and smoothly handing over her card. “She didn’t need it, and that was the whole point. She wanted it, and she put the money down to get it, and nothing could induce her to rescind her purchase.”

“Dad didn’t get mad at her because it was expensive at all, was it?”

“Oh, lord, no! It was the simplest, plainest thing you ever saw!” Phoebe wagged her head, glancing out the window as if she could see the grill of her dear friend’s truck pulling in, even then. “I think the thing that irked George the most was the fact that Sarah offset the cost of the truck by refusing to buy new clothes for two months.”

Meredith chuckled. “Yep, that would do it.”

The two women stood and Meredith even stretched her arms a bit.
“Ready to go?” Phoebe asked.
She nodded. “California, here we come!”

This scene is meant to be a part of "Merely Meredith: A Modern Persuasion", an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel "Persuasion." Follow the hyperlinked title above to read more excerpts from that project!

Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series:
-Letter A       
-Letter B      
-Letter C     
-Letter D     
-Letter K
-Letter L


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: A to Z Challenge" Letter L

The List:
-Lorelei, Lexie, Lewis
-last night, long ago, last-minute
-Labyrinth, ledge, lawn
-leather, leash, lion, larch, ladybug, lightning

The Result:

"The Labors of Lorelei"

(This story is a continuation of "Stained-Glass Wings")
Lorelei lay where she landed amid shards of broken glass. Slowly, she eased herself up to her feet. Luckily, her wings in stained-glass form were not wholly attached to her body, being representational of her own biological wings—but it would be a while before her own wings grew back to replace the glass ones, so she was bound to be on foot for the foreseeable future.

A small gasp reminded her of the reason for being here and losing her wings in the first place. Lorelei whirled around just in time to see a lithe young woman make a mad dash for the looming walls behind them, disappearing into the mist.
"Oh no you don't!" The archangel muttered, running after the mysterious lady.

She reached all of two steps past the limit of the first wall, when the fog lifted and she learned the location whereupon she had inadvertently stumbled: a gigantic Labyrinth.
She knew, from past experience, that this maze hadn't been there before. It must have been conjured by the lady with the crystal pen.
"Leapin' lizards!" Lorelei groaned.

She did her best to follow the lure of the pen's power. She could feel the latent magic of it, pulling her like a lodestone down one path and then the next.
Lightning crackled somewhere nearby, and Lorelei followed the lead of the pen right into a trap in the middle of the maze.

A lion prowled on the lawn, next to a looming larch, and the lightning she had heard appeared caught in its branches. Every step Lorelei tried to take toward the path she knew she needed to follow to get the pen, the lion would lunge at her.
"Of all the legendary artifacts from other dimensions, it had to be this one!" Lorelei complained, sitting down on the grass to muse over how to get past this challenge. Every moment she spent here was a chance for that pen to get further away, and the fate of more than just this dimension would be at stake!

The young archangel regarded the mass of electricity arcing from the sky.
"I don't want to get the lion struck," she mused, "but I do need to get close enough to the tree to liberate the lightning—I need to get control of the lion somehow!"
She trailed her fingers through the grass as she pondered.
At the sudden movement, a tiny ball of light sprang up and wavered erratically in the air. Lorelei looked toward the tiny glowing pinprick, snatching it out of the air with her hand. It stopped glowing at once, and Lorelei could get a good look at it: a delicate ladybug crawled around her palm. When Lorelei opened her hand, it lit up as it flew away once more, leaving a luminous trail as it lighted through the shadows. Lorelei lurched to her feet and followed the bug down a lane. Part of her concentration remained aware that she was leaving the mysterious lady far behind, but with one last corner, Lorelei knew she had come to the right place:
A bold leather leash hung among the leaves of the labyrinth hedge. Tugging it down, Lorelei affirmed that it was indeed large enough to fit the lion. She could only hope that she would be swift enough to restrain it in a direct confrontation, because she didn't have time for anything less.

"Okay, Conrad," she muttered under her breath as she marched back to the lawn. "You are so going to owe me for this!"

Like it happened before, when Lorelei approached the lion, it roared and lunged for her. This time, instead of retreating, Lorelei leaned forward, slipping the open collar under the luxurious mane and latching it shut. When she darted out of the way, the lion roared and pawed at its neck, well and thoroughly subdued.
"There's a metaphor here somewhere, I know it," muttered Lorelei.
To free the lightning, she used the same matter-manipulation spell that allowed her to pass through things to render the branches of the larch incorporeal. The air around her crackled, and Lorelei leaped out of the vicinity as the lightning bolts dropped all the way to the ground before the cloud dissipated, and the storm ceased. Finally, she could leave the area.
Lorelei once again focused on the location of the pen.
What luck! She gazed intently at a corner of the ledge leading to the rest of the maze.
"All right!" She called. "Party's over; come on out, whoever you are!"
She heard a gasp and a furious rustle.
"Don't even try it!" She growled, folding her arms. "Come here, now!"

A foot tentatively emerged from the bush, followed by a leg, then the rest of the body, till a shamefaced young lady stood before Lorelei. She clutched the pen in her left hand, and when she looked up at Lorelei she began trembling. 
“I saw you fall,” she stammered, “Wh-what are you?”
Lorelei crossed her arms and raised a dubious eyebrow. “Name’s Lorelei,” she said. “Who are you?”
The woman brushed her dark locks out of her face. “I’m Lexie; I swear, whatever it is you think I did, it wasn’t me!”
Lorelei choked. “On the contrary, it was most certainly you! Now if you don’t mind, I’d like that pen back.”
Lexie looked down, lifting the pen between them. “What, this?”
Lorelei took a step forward. “Yes, that—“
The lady leaned back, holding the pen just out of her reach. “No! It’s mine!”
“It’s not yours, and I am legally sanctioned to take it from you!”
Lexie lurched out of Lorelei’s grasp and dashed down the lane a little ways. “Stay back!” she shrieked. “I’m the only one allowed to touch it! I swear, it was enchanted expressly for me!”
Lorelei stopped in her tracks. “Whoa, wait, what?” She tilted her head. “You aren’t—you didn’t…” She huffed and thrust out her bottom lip in a pout. “What do you mean, enchanted for you?”
Lexie hung her head and pressed her lips. “I, er, my boyfriend Lewis—he’s been interested in all the mystic arts of long ago, and he recently started researching literomancy.”
Lorelei felt the weight of responsibility weigh on her. “A literomancer with a special crystal magic pen?”
Lexie shrugged. “Well, he needed something to write with, and so one of his friends said they knew a lithomancer who made excellent pens—“
Lithomancer!” Sweet Lucifer on a lance! “All right, let’s get one thing straight before you say another word,” Lorelei shifted to a more aggressive stance. “Your boyfriend, a low-level literomancer, bought a pen from a lithomancer, but he never asked any questions about it? Do you have any idea what he's done? That pen you're holding gives the writer ultimate power beyond the limits of time and space.
Lexie shook her head, a tremor shaking her body. “No—No!” she whimpered.
“Yes, yes!” Lorelei retorted. “There’s a prophecy involved—and the very essence of reality is at stake!”
Lexie’s face faded to a lifeless pallor, and she stared at the implement in her hands. “This? It’s just a pen!”
“Oh really?” Lorelei laced her words with as much sarcasm as she could muster, drawing out the syllables languidly. “Then were did all this,” she gestured to the labyrinth surrounding them, “come from?”
Lexie shrugged. “I don’t know! I was here when I woke up—“
The archangel snorted. “Woke up from what?”
Lexie chewed on her lip again. “Lewis and I—we broke up. He was going crazy—he’d been raving like a madman for a while, I was being lenient with him because I really thought he loved me. But last night—or the last night I can remember—we had a fight, and I blacked out while he was still talking, and when I woke up, I was here among the ruins with the big maze behind me, and he’d left the pen behind with a letter saying how much he loved me but it was too much…“
Lorelei shook her head as she realized that Lexie had plopped onto a nearby rock, and was now poised to drag the pen across its surface. “No, wait, Lexie—don’t!”
Too late; the infernal nib scratched deep into the stone surface, and a wave of darkness snuffed out the light…

Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series:
-Letter A       
-Letter B      
-Letter C     
-Letter D     
-Letter K


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reader's Review: "The Seventh Crow" by Sherry D. Ramsey

Synopsis from Amazon:
When you can’t remember most of your life, you’d better be prepared for anything. The day a talking crow meets her on the way home from school, fourteen-year-old Rosinda is plunged into a forgotten world filled with startling revelations: magic ability flows in her veins, she’s most comfortable with a sword in her hand, and the responsibility for finding a missing prince rests solely with her.

While dark forces hover in the background and four forgotten war gods from Earth’s past plot to reclaim long-lost power, Rosinda struggles with waves of slowly-returning memories as she searches for clues about her past and the true identity of her family; a search that takes her back and forth between two worlds. In a race against time to recover her memory, find the prince, and rescue her loved ones, Rosinda has only her friend Jerrell and an unusual trio of animals as companions. And as the gods prepare to bring her world to war, Rosinda is unaware that the shadow of betrayal lurks within one whom she trusts the most… 
My Review:
I received this book in return for an honest review—so I won't mince my words!

I have read a LOT of books where a young female finds out the existence of a strange world. More often than not, she has to team up with a rather good-looking (sometimes "in-his-own-way") young man to save the world/the realm/the kingdom, and completely sass the pants off anyone who disbelieves her along the way. Being that it's such a common trope, it takes a really good author not to make a complete "Mary-Sue" out of a premise like that. In truth, I almost expected it.

But it never quite happened. 

After reacting quite calmly to a talking crow at the beginning, Rosinda does a fine job of behaving exactly like somebody who isn't at all sure about these magical powers she is supposed to have. I especially appreciated the way Ramsey scattered the return of the memories that had been taken away, so that it's when someone makes a reference, or when they arrive at a location that she comes up with the information they need. (followed immediately by "Wait! But how did I know this??")
Most of all, though, I loved all the characters involved. It can be tempting to use peripheral characters for exposition or Plot Device of Total Convenience... but the secondary cast is just as fascinating and dynamic as the main character, and each individual carried their own "voice" very well indeed!
I loved the lore that went into creating this story. It drew me in and held my interest, I never felt bored or that I "knew what was going to happen"... in fact, it almost seemed that every time I tried to predict an outcome, something else would happen and the adventure would bend on a whole new twist! 

THE SEVENTH CROW earns *****5 STARS***** for Simply Delightful Storytelling! It isn't super-heavy on the feels, nor overly complex, but it's marvelous in its simplicity and the sheer creativity of it all makes this an Upstream Writer Certified TOTALLY RECOMMENDED adventure! 

Further Reading: (Magical Girls Save The World/YA/Middle Grade/Adventures/Talking Animals)

The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie  
The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair
        -Street Fair
        -A Fair Fight
Spirit Knights--Lee French
       -Girls Can't Be Knights
       -Backyard Dragons  
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -Dream Stalker
     -Barrow Fiend 
The PSS Chronicles--Ripley Patton
       -Ghost Hand
       -Ghost Hold
       -Ghost Heart
       -Ghost Hope

Monday, August 21, 2017

Book Lover's Blog Hop: "Which author would you most want to interview and why?"

Leslie Conzatti (Me!)

I would definitely for sure want to interview either Mark Lawrence or Cornelia Funke. Mark Lawrence because he used to work on like National Security-level stuff (the kind of job, as his bio quotes, where you could actually say, “This isn’t rocket science! Oh wait, yes it is.”) in the scientific field, working with artificial intelligence stuff, but then he quit his job to help his wife care for their daughter who was severely disabled--and he took up writing fantasy--but like, the BEST kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy you will EVER READ. So yeah, definitely want to ask about that!
Cornelia Funke, I would love to talk to because her fantasy work is just so phenomenally above and beyond any kind of fairy-tale fantasy I have ever read, so I want to know what her inspirations were, and how she came up with so many different ways to twist old folk tales into something entirely new and enchanting!

Tabitha Caplinger

Ever since I found out that Keirsten White had been tapped to write the new Buffy spin off I have wanted to meet her, talk to her, ask her all the questions and become best friends with her. Because...Buffy. I know that isn’t very profound but I’m a total fangirl on this one and can’t help it. 

Brandy Potter

For me the clear choice would be Neil Gaiman. The man has such tremendous insight, but also the greatest imagination that I have ever read. I have watched his interviews and I am always taking notes or quoting him. He never has the same answer. He’s sarcastic and witty and just wow! He just seems to be the most amazing teacher for any writer. 

Jo Lindsell

I would love to interview JK Rowling. This woman is so inspiring, and not just as an author. Obviously I’d like to ask her about creating the best selling book series of all time, and a million other questions related to being a novelist, screenwriter, and producer. She’s so much more than that though. From her rags to riches tale to the work she does for charities, I’m sure she’d make for interesting conversation. 

V. L. Jennings

As a writer who has been interviewed multiple times, I can’t quite think of any GOOD questions to ask any of my favorite authors. I don’t really think I would like to interview them really. I’d much rather have dinner with them, or just sit and talk about their world and their characters. Brian Jacques is the author that really inspired me to write, but he is unfortunately gone from this earth. I would have loved to spend a day with him!  J.K. Rowling is my next choice.

The only issue with J.K. is that I’m sure she’s already been asked every question under the sun 15 times over. Could her and I just go to the Harry Potter Theme Park for a day and just geek out maybe?

Jebraun Clifford

I would love to sit down with Marissa Meyer and chat about the Lunar Chronicles. Such imagination! Such fun! Such a great fairy-tale retelling. I’d love to know how she came up with the idea, and where her mind might go next.

Skye Hegyes

 There are so many authors I’d love to interview, but I think I’d most like to interview Mercedes Lackey and her husband, who’s also her cover artist, Larry Dixon. They are a brilliant team and know how to bring so many fantastical worlds to life that I feel like a conversation with the two of them would be wonderful and that I might also learn a thing or two.

Kessie Carroll

I’ve wanted to have Jim Butcher over for dinner for ages. Ever since I saw him at a convention panel, I’ve wished we could just sit down and chat about crazy fantasy topics. He’s written high fantasy, urban fantasy, and he’s just started a new, amazing steampunk series. He’s also what I call “a high-functioning introvert”--he’s clearly not comfortable in crowds and would be so fun one-on-one.

How about you? What author would YOU most want to interview? Let us know in the comments! Don't forget, you can always go back to my Introductory Post to check out any questions you may have missed, and feel free to comment with your own answer!