Monday, February 24, 2014

Reader's Review: "Domechild", by Shiv Ramdas

Synopsis from Amazon:

In the City, where machines take care of everything, lives Albert, an ordinary citizen with an extraordinary problem: He’s being blackmailed into becoming the first person in living memory to actually do something.
What begins as a chance encounter with an outlaw child swiftly spirals out of control as Albert is trapped between the authorities and the demands of his unusual blackmailer. Forced to go on the run for his life, he finds himself in a shadow world of cyber-junkies, radicals and rebels, where he discovers the horrifying truth behind the City, a truth that will make him question everything he has ever known.

My Review:

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. It started out blandly enough, introducing Albert in his comfortable, predictable little world within a dome, policed and monitored by robots who ensured that each citizen had the best quality of life and experienced nothing to arouse discomfort or curiosity, and where the only "work" anyone is expected to do is exactly what most people in today's world spend a lot of time doing: interacting via social media.
Welcome to the Dome, the last habitat on Earth, where everything is manufactured and extrapolated and regulated and nothing is left to arbitration or chance, from the food to the pets. 

Then Albert missed the bus.

In that one simple event, Domechild became less of a treatise on the immaturity of a society steeped in technology (which it never actually became, I was just worried...) and I found myself promising "Just one more chapter... okay one more... okay, I'll take a break after the next one... Ohmigosh, I have to find out what happens!"
I felt the disorientation of a man whose life suddenly becomes more and more unpredictable as he finds himself thrust into incomprehensible circumstances. I held my breath when the blackmailer initiated contact and issued very real threats of exposure and death unless Albert complied. And I wrestled with the endless shock of many revelations all happening at once, just when I least expected it to.
I never wanted it to end--but even books have their limits. Ramdas' cast of characters are wonderful in their individuality: brusque June, innocent Albert, rough-and-tumble Theo, volatile Marcus, explosive Ucho, shrewish Mrs. D'Amato, devious Vail.... and the inimitable SUE, with an agenda all her own. I made friends with these characters--and enemies.

In his book "Farenheit 451," Ray Bradbury observed, "Good writers touch life often." This is exceptionally true with my experience of "Domechild." While we might be a comfortable distance from dividing ourselves into Factions or Districts--a world where automation and technology are as essential as the very air we breathe, and the medium for every interaction we make, just might be closer than we are willing to acknowledge. From the descriptions of the well-intended "Intelligence Interface" for easier cyber-access (and subsequent consequences of experiencing such ease), to the death wish of a machine that has learned that a life that willingly forfeits the capacity to choose is no life at all--to the very real dangers of allowing another person to speak and arouse emotions without thinking for oneself of the true message behind the words, not just the feelings, everything about this book prompts the readers to consider the world in which they live, and their unique part in it. This is what all books should do. I give it *****5 STARS*****, and an Upstream Writer Certified TOTALLY RECOMMENDED!

Further Reading: (Sci-Fi/Cyberpunk/Dystopian)

-For None of Woman Born--S. D. Curran
-Dissolution--Lee S. Hawke
-Countless As The Stars--Steve Trower
-The Arena--Santana Young
-Adaline--Denise Kawaii 
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way 
       -The Truth 
       -The Lie 

The Jill Andersen Series--J. D. Cunegan
       -Blood Ties 
       -Behind the Badge 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Serial Saturday: "The Misfortune Cookie", Part FINAL

I immediately called the lead Bulldog.
“Task completed, you know where to go next.”
He paused, “That probably means the right guy was supposed to set the timer first, then go pick up the next message.”
“This one was in a hotdog basket.”
“Hmm, that’s different. Maybe that means you aren’t looking for cookies any more. Do you know where to go next?”
“Well, I found the hotdog seller by repeating last night’s clues. The next one led me from the office building to here. Maybe the next clue is somewhere around here.”
“Now you’re thinking! Call me when you get something.”
“Will do.”

I went back into the train station. The third fortune had only said that the timer was at Grand and 22nd. Timer... was it a clock? No, wait--
I took in every area of the station: the ticket kiosks, the bag-check counters, the souvenir shop--hey, perfect place to hide a timer! I walked over to the shop, more like a booth surrounded by partitions.
I scanned over every item, but nothing looked like a timer for a bomb. I did find something interesting though: a bunch of Scratch-it lottery tickets. There was a green one with a picture of a fortune cookie in the corner that I thought I recognized; where had I seen it?
It hit me and I almost jumped right there in the store. There had been a scratch-card just like this in the cubicle at 16th and Main! This was my next clue! It made perfect sense: every fortune came with a series of six “lucky” numbers on the back. These numbers corresponded with six rows on the Scratch-it ticket. I pulled out the first fortune and turned it over. It bore the numbers 16-25-38-49-61-70. Those numbers were on this card! I scratched them out, well-aware of the seller’s frown as he watched me deface a piece of merchandise I hadn’t paid for. Where usually the scratched-off numbers revealed the amount won, this particular ticket had words in the spaces! “Make corner second and car rose.” At first I was disappointed because I was sure I screwed up somewhere to see only this nonsense bunch of words, but I pulled out the second fortune--the numbers on the back matched six numbers on the next card! Then I understood--four fortunes, four scratch cards, four pieces to the puzzle! I pulled the two cards behind the second one and proceeded to scratch off the numbers on all three of them. The completed message read: 

“Make left turn on corner of main and second. Walk thirty paces and enter the black car parked by third rose bush from entrance.

It was all I could do to keep from cheering; I had solved it! I had cracked the riddle! Now I knew where to go!
I turned back toward the entrance and knew it was too late: the proprietor of the souvenir shop had already called the cops. Detective Martinez was among them.
“Well, well, well, Josh,” he shook his head at me, “Taken up gambling now, have we?”
I started to tell him, but he raised his hands, “Pay first, then come with me.”
I paid for the four scratch-cards, apologized to the proprietor, and followed Detective Martinez out to the curb.
Once we reached the patrol car, Martinez asked me, “Would you mind telling me where you went last night? I had men following you, watching you, looking for you, and we couldn’t find you anywhere!”

I told the detective everything I had discovered the night before: the two rival gangs, the fact that I had saved one and now they were my allies, and the fact that the leader had instructed me to keep following the clues.
“Okay, this gang lord,” Martinez asked when I finished, “Would you mind describing to me what he looks like?”
I hesitated, “I’m not sure I should,” I said, “but I will say that he looked a lot like a bulldog, with short grey hair.’
Detective Martinez laughed at my description. “Grey-haired bulldog, eh? Shoot, I can think of a bunch of guys that’ll fit that description! Oh well, I guess we have to leave it at that. Keep following your clues, then, Josh, but,” he wagged a finger at me, “always remember to pay for them!”
“Yes, sir!”

He got into the car and drove away. I got into mine and drove down to Main Street. When I reached 2nd street, I turned left and found myself pulling up in front of the entrance to the Park on Main Street, on the far corner of the block. Rose bushes stretched off on the left side of the front gate, in a single, evenly spaced row.
Parked just around the corner of 2nd and Long Street, I saw a black car with tinted windows. This was it!
Brusquely I walked down the block to the car: thirty paces exactly. I entered the car. The back seat and front seats were separated by a partition. The car began moving slowly and silently as soon as I got in. Great! Just great! Was I even now being brought to the Fortune Gang’s headquarters, where their leader would discover I was not who they thought I was and kill me?

My cellphone rang and I just about hit the roof of the vehicle. Before I could pull it out and find out who it was, the car stopped abruptly and I heard shouting. In a manner reminiscent of last night, a hand grabbed me by the arm and hauled me blindly out of the car. It was the Bulldogs! But now they carried large guns and wore uniforms printed with the letters F.B.I.


Bulldog Leader clapped me on the shoulder, “I have to hand it to you, Josh,” he told me, “We’ve been trying to track down these troublemakers for a very long time, but they’ve always managed to outsmart us! Who knew an average guy like you could be the key to taking down a link of one of the biggest criminal chains in America!”
“You guys are FBI?” I squeaked, still not believing it.
“Yep,” Bulldog Leader answered, “by the way, my name’s Agent 14* (not his real name or number!). Thanks for the help, Josh. Mission accomplished!”
“Wait a minute!” I cried, “Did you say link of the chain? There’s more of these guys?”

Agent 14 scoffed, “Of course! There are three guys in the car, and we found three more hiding in the park watching for you. That makes six, but this whole operation is definitely the work of more than six! There are more out there,” he leaned close to me conspiratorially, “and they probably won’t be happy that you’re the guy who ratted them out. Just warning you, Josh; I’ll make sure the official report doesn’t mention you, but you just might find yourself marked for elimination.”
Just when I was enjoying my newfound sense of self-confidence, my hands got clammy and I found it hard to breathe. “E-e-elimination?” I spluttered.
“I’ll always have eyes on you, Josh,” Agent 14 promised, “but I can’t promise nothing will happen.”

They carted the six gang members away, and Mina and I... well, I won’t say where we went, or even if we left at all. We are in hiding, she and I, to protect ourselves and our families. We changed our names, and every day, we pray that nobody from any sort of gang will find us.

Oh, and I’ve sworn off fortune cookies, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Where It All Began

As the first Throwback Thursday post, I thought I'd start from the VERY BEGINNING of my reading/writing escapades...

Such as my earliest memory, before I knew how to read. I know this, because of this book:
I distinctly recall coming across it and being intrigued by the stone bear and the little child with the blond hair that could have been me. I remember flipping it open, and finding only sparse illustrations (since it was a juvenile novel, not a picture book)--but I thought I could explain what was going on in each picture.
Imagine my surprise, five years later, coming across the same book and thinking I knew the story--and actually reading something completely different from what I remembered. That's when I knew I was going to be a writer.

My love for fantasy comes from my older sister, who loved to play make-believe and direct and stage her own plays and home movies, and was almost always my favorite babysitter. She could make the backyard turn into a magical world unto itself. She, too, had a writer's imagination. She didn't just write any book, though. I will always remember the time when my sister showed me THE BOOK. The book she wrote on our old Macintosh SE, if memory serves... some of the pages were definitely from a dot-matrix printer! Oh, I remember that printer... It was really noisy, and I would wait as the pages came out and would try to tear off the "dot" strips on the edge and make them as long as I could without tearing them... I remember doodling on them, folding paper caterpillars...

Anyway, back to THE BOOK. I found it the other day, digging through the closet of our old schoolbooks.

It's a heartwarming adventure about a young boy who brings home a mysterious book from the library, discovers its connection to a magical world, and finds out that he is intended to save that world from the oppression of dark, evil forces.
And so the adventure begins....

Unfortunately it was never finished. Perhaps someday...

Tune in next week for more glimpses into my writing history!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Works-In-Progress Wednesday: An Excerpt from the Revised "Laurel of Andar"

“Tell me about the castle, Grandfather!” she begged. “Have there been any more grand feasts? Is it a time of peace? Will you be staying with us for a while?”
Golon’s eyes shone with patient affection as the young maid clung to his arms, her mother-of-pearl eyes dancing in the streaming light of the afternoon sun.
“Let’s go into the parlor, Lairen,” he guided her by the hand. “Let an old Elf rest his feet while he tells you tall tales.”
Laurel giggled. “Grandfather! You cannot be old! Did you not tell me once that time runs slower here than it did on Andar?”
Together, they entered the rose-colored room at the front of the house, with its stiff chairs upholstered in tightly-stuffed satin that provided little more than a respite for your legs and very little comfort, no matter how you sat. Golon let Laurel seat herself on the plush velvet sofa and took a seat next to her.
“I did indeed tell you such a thing,” he answered her question, “but though I may not be advancing in years or djenu, I feel my strength dwindling after each battle, I fear.”
Laurel tucked her feet up onto the seat to keep herself from sliding and looked at him anxiously. “Do you—Are there quite a lot of battles, Grandfather?”

Golon watched the young maid. She barely looked older than the Glastorian schoolchildren, yet by human reckoning she was the same age as most of their parents. She had every right to know of their tenuous situation as refugees in this kingdom.

“Yes, there are, Little One. King Polograth protects his mountain of gold and jewels, as his ancestors did before him, all the way back to the generation when those riches were first discovered. Many nations are willing to attack Glastor to take some of the mines for themselves, and so this country must be defended.” He stroked the rosy cheek next to him. “But there is always a feast when we return from battle.”
Laurel picked her head up and smiled. “Always? Are they grand?”
Golon rolled his eyes to indicate the scope. “Massive, my dear! Such mountains of food that would feed the whole Quarter for a week, and yet the fare is served up for only one meal!”
“Everyone dresses in their finery—did you know, Laurel, that women in the court of King Polograth wear their skirts wide enough for a child to hide under?”
Really, Grandfather?”
“And the men wear short, stiff jackets that keep their arms stiff at their sides like so, which makes it impossible to move about freely—and all this because they believe it is fashionable!” Golon drew his elbows close and pulled a face like a trussed bird, which made Laurel giggle.

“What’s happening in here?” a calm voice called from the door of the parlor. Nareandor entered and smiled at his uncle and his daughter.
Laurel jumped up with a smile and ran to hug him.
“Father! Grandfather was just telling me about the feasts at the castle, and the big puffy dresses and the coats that keep you looking stiff!”
“And don’t forget the three frilly shirts that puff your chest out past your chin!” Golon added, standing up and extending that part of his frame.
Laurel laughed and covered her mouth with her hands. She was so delighted with Golon’s antics that she missed the look that passed between him and his nephew.
Nareandor patted Laurel’s head. “Lairen, go to the playroom and amuse yourself, eh? I need to speak with Grandfather for a bit.”
Laurel nodded. “All right, father.”

The two Elves waited till the young one had gone upstairs. Golon watched the Elf whom he had raised like a son. The short dark hair now showed patches of silver, but the keen blue eyes—his mother’s eyes—still glinted with icy fire.
Nareandor caught the glance. “Uncle, what is it?”
“It’s about Laurel, Nareandor.” The words came slow, weighed down by years of doubt and misgivings.
“She is growing more and more like her mother every day,” Nareandor said with a proud smile. His expression faltered when he saw Golon set his mouth mildly.
“Yes, more’s the pity,” Golon responded.
Nareandor sighed. “Do you still believe that my choice was unwise? Laurel is learning of Andar still, and she will continue to do so, just like all the other Elf children.”

“But is the tutelage shaping her into something against her natural bent? She is not like the other Elf children, Nareandor!”

“She is in my eyes!”

“She is rarely in your eyes!” Their voices, though heated, never raised. The only indication Golon gave of a rising temper was to lean forward slightly as he spoke. He continued, “You have finished grieving, but you find other things to occupy your time, Nareandor—leaving Laurel to find her own means of activity and recreation.”
“And what is so harmful about that? There are plenty of other Elf-children to play with. She needs her own peers for companions, not solely her father.”

“Nareandor,” Golon pressed his lips in irritation, “in case you have not realized—Laurel does not play with the other Elvish children. She has not for a very long time. Lyberedd says they claim she is too loud for them.”

Nareandor stared blankly as the confusion set in. “Then where does she go when she leaves every day?”
“Lyberedd tells me she goes out of the gates and finds Glastorian children to play with.”

“Human children?”

“Yes.” Golon snorted softly. “And dwarves, as well. I hear footraces with the boys are among her favorite games.”
“Footraces?” Nareandor was still trying to comprehend the fact that his daughter had been rejected by the company of Elves—and moreover that she was encouraging the rejection by playing with human children.
Golon sighed and regained a more gentle composure. “Nareandor, I will say nothing against Mithiel, because I know how much she meant to you—but do you remember what we discussed when you were in the early stages of the courtship? Do you remember the warnings I gave?”
Nareandor nodded soberly. “You tried to tell me that if I defied your better judgment that I was risking my descendants being cast out as well.”
“I would never allow that to happen, if I had any say in the matter,” Golon assured him, “But, Nareandor, I won’t be around forever, and Lyberedd cannot be her governess as well as her nurse. If Laurel’s foolish behavior is permitted to continue—“

“I’ll see to it that more of this does not happen.”

Golon raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You’ll see to it?”
Nareandor nodded. “Personally; Laurel needs her father to be with her, and maybe that will help smooth things over as she grows.”
Golon nodded and rose to his feet. “I must take my leave now, in order to return to the castle before dark.”
“You will not stay and share a meal with us?” Nareandor followed him toward the entryway of the large mansion.
Golon shook his head, “I cannot. Good luck with your daughter, Nareandor.”
“Thank you, Uncle.”

As soon as the door closed, Laurel appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Grandfather couldn’t stay?” she asked, coming down to rejoin her father.
“No, Lai,” Nareandor replied. “He said to give you his love, and he will have more stories for you next time.”
Laurel smiled and hugged her father. Nareandor only patted her head, thinking all the while of what Golon had just said. He saw now that it was very likely unusual for an Elf to be as affectionate as Laurel was; would she eventually reject her heritage as her grandmother and namesake had? He hoped not.
“Laurel,” he said as they both headed to the dining room for supper, “What if I told you that Lyberedd was not going to be your nursemaid anymore?”
“She isn’t?” Laurel echoed in confusion. “Why not?”
Nareandor looked at his daughter and smiled. “Will you not have me, dear daughter?”
“You will teach me?” A smile illuminated her features.
Nareandor chuckled. “I will do my best.”
Laurel smiled and nodded. “Then I accept!”

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Serial Saturday: "The Misfortune Cookie," Part 4

When a man blindfolds you and demands information, the “spy” thing to do is refrain from giving it. Usually, the guys who don’t want you to see their faces are the guys who are up to no good and don’t want you to immediately find the nearest cop and set up a meeting with their sketch artist, nor do they want to have to deal with the mess of killing you.
When the guy starts twisting your arm, however, you really have to ask yourself just how much your information is worth. I, of course, had no idea for one thing, and for another I didn’t give a rip, so the minute my captor got physical, I squealed.
“Please don’t hurt me!” I screamed, almost weeping (because of the pain, okay? I wasn’t scared....much...), “I honestly have no idea what I was doing, the first message was in the fortune cookie I got off the platter, totally by random chance, and it said to set the timer for 10 o’clock, and to look by the southeast pillar, and so I did, and I’ve been following them ever since! I don’t know what this is, I swear, I’m just a patsy!”
Almost instantaneously, the pressure ceased. I heard whispering.
“Timer? What’s this about a timer?” The guy demanded.
I tensed myself, preparing for a lot of pain I knew was coming, but my better judgment didn’t quite get the message to my mouth in time. Before I could stop myself, I blurted, “I thought you guys knew everything: all the messages talked about a timer, how could you not know about that?”
The guy grabbed my wrist again, and I yelped, but he didn’t bend it this time. “Timer... that means a bomb... dangit, the slime-balls must be on to us! That must be what that package was: the bomb! We’ll have to move it out of the HQ.” He clapped me on the shoulder, which nearly scared the living daylights out of me, since I never saw it coming. “Son, you’ve saved us from getting blown to bits! We owe you our lives.”
“Um,” I asked, “since I had nothing to do with this, and I swear I won’t tell the cops about you, will you take the blindfold off?”
“What? Oh, sure.” Suddenly, the guy was in a much better mood, and a lot more obliging. He snapped the cloth from over my eyes, and I got my first good look at the guys who held me in the dim light of the train-car: all big, muscular guys, built like bulldogs and about as pretty, buzz-cut and looking bored out of their skulls to have to be the ones to “torture” a lead who turned out to be a wimpy patsy who broke down at the slightest touch. A couple of them might have looked a little bit grateful that I had apparently saved their lives with my information.
“So who are you guys, and who did you think I was?” I asked the man next to me, a swarthy fellow with short grey hair.
All six guys on the train looked sideways at each other.
“We’re a...gang, trying to track down...another gang.”
“Are they terrorists?”
The man paused, “They know how to look like them. Our headquarters are located underneath this train station, in an old subway tunnel that had been sealed off and forgotten. If that bomb had gone off, it would have collapsed the station and looked like an act of terrorism or arson, but more than that it would have killed us all, though no one would have realized it because no one knows about us.”
I shook my head, “So these guys infiltrated a package of fortune cookies to blow up a train station? I got myself in the middle of a gang rivalry?”
The grey-haired bulldog shrugged, “You could say that, except for the fact that now that you’ve saved us, we’ll have your back, and in return, you can help us find the other gang.”
I raised my hands, “Oh, please! Now that more responsible people know everything that I know, with all due respect I want out of this situation! I just want to go back to my normal life. I don’t do espionage!”
The man chuckled and shook his head, “Sorry, pal! You should have just given up on the first cookie! By now, though, they probably know what you look like, and know that you’re following them, so they’ll leave you more messages. As long as they keep doing that, you need to follow them, do as you’re told. But this time,” he handed me a small card with a phone number printed on it, “you’ve got us. Next time you find a message, you call me, and I’ll tell you what to do next.”
I let my head fall in my hands, “Oh great!” I moaned.
“What’s your name, pal?” the burly guy asked, standing to his feet.
“Josh*,” I told him.
“Well, Josh, get some rest, and keep a sharp eye out tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir.”
They drove the train out of the empty station and ended up near my car. I drove home and fell into bed.

The next morning, Mina called me at eight o’clock.
“Josh!” She cried in my ear, “Are you okay? Did the police catch the bad guys? Did you get hurt? Why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“Good morning, Mina,” I slurred, “you woke me up. I was out late last night, and I was sleeping till now, that’s why I haven’t called.”
“So did you catch them?”
I almost reassured her with the news that now I was in cahoots with a rival gang out to catch the troublemakers, but then I reasoned that the less she knew, the better. “I didn’t find another message, and I didn’t find the timer, either. I don’t even think there was a bomb at all.” Two lies and a truth; there was another message, but not a timer--that I could see. Was there still a bomb? If the Fortune cookie gang could find the others’ headquarters the first time, couldn’t they find it again? Before my thoughts could go further, I remembered that I was still on the phone with Mina.
“I’ll talk to you later, sweetheart; bye!”
“But Josh--” click! I hung up the phone.

The words of Detective Martinez returned to me. “You think...these guys are going to miss their target?”
I realized that I had been looking for the timer when I got the message from the Bulldogs, totally unrelated to the original message giving the location of the timer. If I didn’t grab it, and the Fortune Cookie Gang were expecting it to be lost in the explosion, so they wouldn’t send somebody after it--what if it was still there?
I grabbed my keys and drove back to the station. I combed the area carefully for anything suspicious or conspicuous. The timer was supposed to be here, but where? The only thing that stood out to me, there on the curb, was a hotdog stand at the corner of the building...the southeast corner. What if the gang had usual locations for stuff, like southeast corners?
I walked over to the hotdog seller.
“What can I get ya?” he asked immediately.
Since the clue of the first fortune had led me here, I attempted to be clever and use a clue from the second one. “I’d like a magnolia special,” I told the seller. The worst he could do was take me for an idiot.
Contrary to expectations, he took me quite seriously. He nodded wordlessly and reached under the counter for a paper bowl, ignoring the three stacks of them he had right next to him. He made a hotdog with ketchup and onions, placed it in the bowl and handed it to me.
I walked to the opposite corner and lifted up the hotdog. Sure enough, there was a message on the bowl.
Task completed,” I read, “You know where to go next.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Works-In-Progress Wednesday: and the heavens opened and inspiration rained down like manna!

So after being so discouraged as of only a week ago, I puzzled and hemmed and hawed over my problem...
On Sunday I was finally able to connect with my "Writers' Critique Group"--and BAM!

Inspiration. It's a beautiful thing.

What I learned: Those who've asked me to critique their stuff in the past know that I claim that "telling what's happening in the story instead of showing the reader and letting them experience it" (commonly known in writers' circles as "show-vs-tell") is the single most frequent trap that any writers fall in. I then proceed to show them exactly how to make it more like they're "showing" in their stories.

Turns out I'm just as guilty as the next kid.

How can you tell when an author is "telling"? The story suddenly evaporates, and you're left with a bone-dry textbook instead of a novel. When an author gets too particular in his measurements and quantities ("Two steps from the front door there is a small table with three oranges in a blue bowl; five paces from that is the sitting room with three stools, having three legs each"..... YEAH WE GET IT MOVE ON ALREADY!) or too detailed with his  histories. ("Jordan--who was the son of King Frank and brother to the evil Greg--was on his way to visit his cousin George; George was not the kind of guy one would normally expect to receive a visit from any of his family, because of an incident several years back when...." Yeah... you get the picture...)

Then one of my "critics" pointed out that what I had been focusing on was too much of "telling" what happened, when "showing" the reader how it happened would work better.

Light-bulb Moment: When, as an author, you write about how the character does certain actions, this strategy automatically lends itself to revealing the character's individual personality. For example:

"Judy and Jimmy picked berries together."

Straight-up telling you what happened. Does it communicate anything about personalities, though? The activity of picking berries might look differently in the imaginations of various readers. However, if I wanted to show how the two characters performed the activity in a way that both communicated setting and established personality:

"Judy and Jimmy traveled high into the mountains. Judy started right away, crouching low over the nearest bushes and sweeping her hand through the soft green leaves to find the bright-red berries hidden within, while Jimmy took off over the hillside toward whatever flash of red caught his eye."

Automatically, Judy is presented as the quiet, industrious type, while Jimmy is now characterized as unfocused, high-energy, and independent. All this in a few easy sentences.

Once I understood this, I was finally able to re-construct the section I wanted to, in a way that would work perfectly.
So without further ado: here is an excerpt from the latest rewritten chapter of Laurel of Andar!

“Can’t catch me!”
The fair-haired Elf-maid trod lightly over the cobblestone streets, neatly slipping through the narrow space between the horse-and-buggy headed one direction and the fishmonger’s cart on the other side. Her human playmates could not make the gap, and one of them crashed into the cart of fish and received a trout in the face for his effort.

Laurel paused on the raised walkway skirting the road to survey her handiwork. It wasn’t often that she got to come out to the City Center and play, so she desired to take full advantage of it. At ten djenu, she was already much faster than these boys, who staunchly maintained they were twelve years—however long that was—but looked so much younger than Laurel herself.
“Kord!” the first boy swore, wiping fish-slime from his face. His companion dashed up from behind the carriage.
“How’d you make it so fast?” the second boy asked.
Laurel smiled at their vacant stares. “Oh, bin, that wasn’t anything; I just ran up and knew I would fit, and I did.” Her varicolored eyes—rare among other Elves, and nonexistent in those of her own race—fairly danced with excitement after the exercise. “So what’ll it be? Shall we play another game, or must I give it another go?”
The boys shared a glance. One eyed the young maid while rubbing his nose along a grubby sleeve. The other glanced around to see if any of their usual mates were watching.

“Tobin!” A woman’s harsh cry split the clamor of the city. A woman stepped up to the corner of the walkway across the lane, her eyes fixed on the boys and their Elvish playmate.
Laurel watched her totter over on tall-heeled boots, the frilly trim of her full skirt whirling around her ankles as her puffy sleeves flounced in time with her stride. She seized the hand of the boy who had fallen into the fish.
“Tobin Miller, what did I tell you about running off without telling me?” Her face was as pinched as her dress was full. She gave her son’s arm a little shake.
Tobin pulled away from his mother’s keen gaze. “Aww, Ma, we were just playin’!”
“And near getting yourself killed, too! Don’t think I didn’t see you run straight into that fish-cart, boy! Now look what you’ve done!”
“But Ma! Laurel could do it, I had to try!”
“Rubbish!” Mrs. Miller pulled her son closer to her side, eying the strange Elf-maid in the frilly green pinafore. “You know better than to make excuses—and you know what I’ve told you about playing with the Andarian children. You’re coming with me, young man!” She glared at Laurel as if blaming her for her son’s state.

Tobin’s friend watched him leave and then glanced back at Laurel. She smiled and tried to look as friendly as she could, playing with the ruffle on her pinafore like she’d seen some other girls do.
“Now look what you did,” said the other boy. “Tobin will likely be grounded for a week. Well done!”

Laurel frowned at him. “It’s not entirely my fault! I didn’t know you wouldn’t fit!” She tempered her hurt and tried to smile again. “But we can still play, can’t we?”
“Nah.” The boy shook his head and stubbed a loose cobblestone with his toe. “You’re a strange one,” he offered, and dashed away to find some other boys to play with.

Laurel scowled after him. “Not half as strange as you!” she shouted at his retreating back.
A passing Elvish couple did a double take at this young maid with the loud voice.

Laurel’s face burned; she knew it made her look different from all the other Elvish maids, but she couldn’t help it. This always happened—and more frequently as she got older. It seemed as if the children she would meet one djen would be gone the next. Grandfather—really her father’s uncle who practically raised him—had tried to explain that time for a human passed quicker than time for an Elf… but did that explain why people disappeared?

“Laurel! Laurel, di’taskenaf?
Laurel rolled her eyes; only one person knew little enough Murindan to be forced to use Andarian outside the Quarter: her nurse, Lyberedd (*pronounced LYE-ber-eth). She would only venture out of the designated area in search of her young charge.
Di’taskenaf, Laurel!” Lyberedd called again. Where are you, Laurel?

Part of the limited Andarian vocabulary Laurel knew was the answer to this all-important question. “Aren ness, Lyberedd! I am here,” she dutifully remained where she was until she saw the tall, gaunt form of the silver-haired apothecary appeared on the walkway, skirting the humans and dwarves as if they carried some disease fatal to Elves.
Lyberedd began to babble furiously in Andarian, taking Laurel by the hand and grimacing at the frilly pinafore. Laurel meekly walked along behind Lyberedd—but secretly, she tried to walk like Mrs. Miller, with the short, hammering step that made the skirts of her pinafore swish just so.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Poetry Post: "The Road Not Taken (Still)".... A Poetic Parody

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”
And I, being master of my will,
In my inquisitive, pensive mood,
Predicted the path as far as I could,
And took the second, for good or ill.

Though seven years have passed from thence,
I live in the same old neighborhood,
I’ve come to that road often hence,
and take the same road, by the fence,
the second path, it’s done me good,
the first winds still, I know not whence.

Perhaps in the future I’ll take that road,
Partake of some adventure grand,
But would I return? Ah! Who can know?
Dare I risk danger all on my own?
When safety is but to understand,
This road-not-taken bears fear and woe!

I tell this tale with nary a sigh,
‘tis safest to travel along with the flow,
for then you can be sure, for aye,
when you take the road most traveled by,
you’ll always know where it goes.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Inkweaver" Excerpt: The Morning After

The next morning, I was grateful for the way my friends treated me gently, letting me rest from the previous day’s escapade. Larryn, as usual, overflowed with energy to face the day.
“Get ready, Shereya,” she said, holding the tapestry like a newspaper as I picked at my breakfast the next morning. “I think we shall very soon come upon a certain event involving a rich dignitary of some sort in which you must play a part.” She indicated a section of the tapestry that showed a character resembling me in the midst of discourse with an official in Aberonian livery.
“That’s probably the count,” I said, squinting at the figure. Of course I knew at once that it wasn’t, but I wanted to leave as soon as possible. “It’s a scene from last night, I think.”
“No,” Larryn pointed to another part of the tapestry, “Last night shows you in that fussy dress you wore. See? You’re wearing this very outfit in this scene.”
At that moment, Belak entered the room. He was smiling, ready for anything—like he always had been, since I first knew him.
“What’s on the agenda today, girls?” he asked us.
“We’re leaving,” I said, at the same time Larryn maintained, “I think we should stay at least another day.”
I gave Larryn a hard stare. “I don’t see any reason to stay in Aberon.”
“Yes you do!” Larryn retorted. For once she did not spout off about the tapestry and my destiny. I was getting weary of her doing that in front of Belak, who surely thought we were mad. She grabbed my hand. “Let’s just take a walk for now.”
I had no objections to activity—so long as it sped us on our way. I followed Larryn once more out to the streets of Aberon. For once, I didn’t care to see the sights of a city so different from our own village; I feared that if I looked too hard, I might see a situation that reflected my dream.
“Look!” Larryn cried, with such fervor that of course I had to.
I saw nothing spectacular about the sight she indicated. “Larryn,” I murmured to her, “It’s nothing but a young man sitting in front of his house.”
“Yes,” she said, glancing significantly at me, “but how many young men do you know pass their days sitting?” I failed (or refused) to see her meaning, so she took it upon herself to act. “Hello!” she called to the young man.
He looked up, squinted a bit, and smiled at us, waving pleasantly enough.
Larryn was determined that he should prove her theory correct. “What is a strong young man like you doing sitting at home like an old woman?”
“Larryn!” I hissed; what did she hope to prove by insulting him?
Luckily, the young man was good-natured enough not to take offense at her brazenness.
“I’ll have you to know that I remain at home today for the good of my health!” he informed her.
“Are you ill?” Larryn asked.
“Hearty as an ox!” the young man answered. “It’s my day off today.”
“Oh, pardon,” Larryn rejoined, and only I could detect the note of sarcasm in her voice, “I did not realize today was a holiday in Aberon.”
“No more than in the rest of the world,” the man allowed mildly. “But I have been feeling a bit overworked for about a week now, so I asked leave of my employer to rest until I felt well enough to return to working.”
Belak chuckled, “Now there’s the kind of employer I’d like to work for!”
I felt the words escape my mouth before I could stop them. “If you think that taking days off till you feel like returning is a good work ethic, then you will find only poverty, as no one will hire a slacker.”
I clapped my mouth shut; how could I talk to Belak this way? He stared at me with such a confused, hurt expression that I knew the words could not have been mine—but only I knew they were the exact words of the Inkweaver that she had been telling me for the last two nights.
Larryn grinned at me, “Now you’re talking! Say that a little louder so our new friend yonder can hear!”
“Certainly not!” I snapped, moving on as my whole face burned with shame.
“Come, Shereya,” Larryn begged, trotting after me. “You can’t blaze through this whole town without at least trying to help someone, at least!”
“Watch me!” I called over my shoulder.
“All right, Larryn, that’s enough,” I heard Belak step in and come to my defense. “Maybe it’s safer for us if Shereya doesn’t try to meddle where she’s not meant to be.”
“But she is meant to be!” Larryn insisted. “I think the whole point of the existence of this tapestry—which is the very reason for our journey—is to teach Shereya the Shrinking Violet the importance of taking risks!”
I froze in my tracks, lest I got so far away from my friends that I would miss the conversation, or run into another one of Larryn’s “risks” unprotected.

“Consider the other side, though, Larryn,” Greyna spoke up. “Taking risks purely for their own sakes would not be wise, either. One must ascertain the amount of risk before jumping into it.”
This resonated with my own feelings on the matter. I felt safe enough to return and give Larryn my rebuttal.
I walked back to the group as Greyna finished speaking and said, “That is how I feel on the matter, Larryn; I want to be the one to decide what risks to take, not some picture on a cloth. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to take it!”
My friend was undeterred. “But maybe you should, for once!” she crossed her arms and stared hard at me. “I dare you, Shereya: go ahead and find yourself a risk here in Aberon, and take it—I see you need to prove to yourself that one cannot see the worth of a risk until one takes the leap of faith.”
I held Larryn’s gaze; she didn’t think I had the capacity to believe in something enough to follow through with it? I would show her where risk-taking got me!
“I accept your challenge,” I stated, and marched away toward the center of town.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Serial Saturday: "The Misfortune Cookie," Part 3

I felt no hesitation as I snapped the cookie and pulled out the next message.

The timer is at Grand and 22nd.”

Grand and 22nd! So the recipient of the first cookie would not have had the timer with him. What were these people trying to blow up, then? I had assumed it had something to do with the museum, but this changed everything. Now it had something to do with whatever was at Grand and 22nd!
I checked my watch. It was 9:40, and if I started walking now, I could reach Grand and 22nd in 20 minutes--10 o’clock exactly. Suddenly it hit me: 10 o’clock in Army time is 2200 hours! The time on the first fortune! These guys had timed it down to the minute, that their man at the gala would get all his instructions just in time to set the bomb at the prearranged time, yet if any of the cookies had been found out of order, there was not enough information in any individual cookie for anyone to find out what the plot was about.
I chose to take the stairs instead of the elevator again. I ran all the way down and straight out the front door. Right as I got to the corner, a patrol car with lights flashing pulled up.
“Excuse me, sir,” the cop called, “Are you Josh*?”
“Yes!” I cried. I had never been so elated to see those flashing blue and red lights in my life.
“I’m going to have to ask you to come down to the station with me, sir,” the cop informed me.
“Okay!” I agreed. I didn’t even mind hopping in the back seat.
The cop turned around to face me, “Are you some sort of criminal, son?” he asked.
“Not exactly--”
“Then I don’t want you where you don’t belong. Get up in the passenger’s seat.”
I switched seats and we drove down to the station.

Mina was pacing the floor of the station when we arrived. She fairly jumped on me and threw her arms around me, “Oh, Josh! What happened? I was so worried about you! Where did you go? Can you tell me everything?”
“Excuse me, Mr. *Josh*?” A Hispanic man in a suit tapped me on the shoulder. He extended his hand, “Head Detective Martinez. I understand you came to us with some trouble?”
“Yes sir!” I answered immediately, “I think I’ve gotten mixed up in something, and I’m not sure what it is.” I showed him the three fortunes and explained the whole situation. Mina just sat next to me and stared wide-eyed.
“I’m really glad you came when you did, sir,” I told him when I finished, “because it’s almost ten o’clock, and I didn’t want to have to set any bomb at all!”
Detective Martinez just stared at me. He shook his head. “I don’t think you realize your situation, man,” he scoffed, “You think just because a timer isn’t going to be set right at ten o’clock, these terrorists are gonna miss taking out their target? No way!” He wagged his finger, “If they went so far as to plant predetermined messages in fortune cookies, it means this thing was a long time in coming. I’m going to have my people on the alert for a contingency plan. Meanwhile, we can get you to Grand & 22nd by exactly ten o’clock, so if you are being monitored at each location, no one will know you’ve got help from us.”
“Oh please!” Mina begged, putting her arms around me again, “Does he have to go? Can’t you send someone else?”
Martinez motioned for me to stand and follow him. I tried to do so as he explained to my girlfriend, “Ma’am, we will make sure your boyfriend is well-protected. Here, Josh, put this on under your clothes,” he handed me a thin Kevlar vest, “just in case there’s anyone in place to take you out once you’ve set the timer. I’ll have a few plainclothes follow you at a distance, too.” He clapped me on the back, “We’ll see to it that you get back to your girl safely.”
I gulped. “Mina,” I turned to her, “I know it’s late, so why don’t you get a taxi and go on home. I’ll just drive straight back to my house as soon as this is all over.”
“Promise you’ll make it through the night?” She begged, looking just as scared as I felt. Yet, having come this far, I felt a strange sense of warm adrenaline boosting my confidence. “I’ll call you first thing in the morning, no matter what, okay?”
She sighed, “All right, Josh.” She gave me a kiss and left the station.

I rode with the cops down to Grand and 22nd--the train station. A few lights were still on, as the last few red-eye trains were coming and leaving.
Detective Martinez looked me in the eye before I got out. “Remember, we’ll always have eyes on ya,” he said, “just proceed as you normally would. We’ll find the dirt-bags who are behind this, no doubt!”
I nodded, even as my heart was pounding in my chest. The adrenaline rush had long since gone; my skin felt clammy.
I tried to keep a casual pace and at least bear the appearance that I knew what I was doing as I strode into the station. Once in there, I stopped; I had no idea what to do next. The message had said that the timer would be here, but it didn’t say where. Obviously, the guy who should have gotten the message had a usual spot he would go to at the station, and perhaps the timer would be there. I, however, had no such clue. I scanned the area. My first thought was, “Gee, are the plainclothes guys supposed to be that obvious?” I could clearly count ten people scattered all around the room who were definitely not there waiting for a train. I shook my head and started milling around all the areas where one might hide a timer.
Over by the ticket kiosk, I was checking the shadows when I felt a tap on my shoulder. A small, grey-haired lady with deep green eyes smiled behind me.
“Is this yours?” she asked me. In her hand was a fourth fortune cookie.
“Yes,” I said, taking the cookie and--lest hanging around her would get me into trouble--moved away from her, toward the train platforms. I broke open the cookie. Maybe it would give me the location of the timer.
All it said was, “Train 23.”
I scanned the trains that were loading up. None of them had the number 23 on it. Just then, I heard a horn and train #23 pulled into the station. I waited till the onboard passengers got off, fully expecting one of them to be my contact. When all of them had left, I assumed that maybe I was supposed to get on it. I fell in line with the boarding passengers for Train 23 (out of the corner of my eye I saw my “bodyguards” moseying toward me), and climbed onto the train as if it was what I intended to do. What bothered me was trying to figure out what I would do when the conductor asked for my ticket.
I shouldn’t have worried; just as the train started moving, and I saw the first plainclothes cop preparing to board the train, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me out the door on the other side of the train. I stumbled out with the force, but before my eyes could get used to the darkness the hand hauled me into a stationary car. I briefly heard the squeak of the engine as Train 23 pulled out, and I imagined the plainclothes cops searching fruitlessly for me in the train while Detective Martinez and the others would furiously try to follow Train 23 to it’s destination, expecting me to be there, never knowing that I wouldn’t be.
Meanwhile, the person holding on to me stood behind me and a blindfold slipped over my eyes and pressed tightly against the back of my head. Whoever had me wasn’t happy about it.
“All right, tell us what we want to know, and we won’t have to hurt you,” he said.
“Who are you?” I asked, “What do you want? I don’t know anything!”
“Oh yes you do!” my captor cuffed me over the side of the head. “We know you receive your instructions through fortune cookies, and we know about the one at the Asian gala. We followed you to the building on Main Street. There isn’t much we don’t know, so you might as well tell us everything!” He grabbed my wrist and bent my arm behind my back and up toward my shoulders. “Tell me or I’ll break your arm! Tell me now!”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Works-In-Progress Wednesday: The Valley of the Shadow.... of Editing....

Another new thing! From here on out, I will be posting regularly on Wednesdays, talking about the things I'm currently working on. If I'm actively writing, you'll see an excerpt. If not... it will probably look something like today's post... 

You know that moment when you write something down and it's totally golden and you turn it in and the instructor gives you 100% and you only had to write the thing once?


Yeah... unfortunately, that only works for essays, not novels. I'm learning this. The novel in question is Laurel of Andar, of which I've posted several excerpts over the last year. I'm working on editing that in preparation for publishing--and so it goes. A friend in my critique group remarked, "I'm really not getting a sense of the world around your characters, what they look like, how they dress, where they live, what they eat--that sort of stuff."

Okay, confession time: the issue I'm having is that this novel actually started out as a work of fanfiction. (give you three guesses to the source, and the first two don't count!) So when I first wrote it, the "world" was already in existence--and why reinvent the wheel? What little geographical anomalies I needed for my own story, I could easily "plug into" the existing locations.

When I decided to take out all of the copyrighted material and "rework" it into my own original story... the "plugins" stayed... but apparently the context disappeared...

Lesson learned: Don't misplace (or displace) your context.

So this week I've had to reinvent the "context" of my novel--and if there's one thing you can't "tweak" into a novel (like a mere matter of word choice or adding a sentence or two of explanation), it's context. Does this mean a total overhaul?

I do not relish the idea of "Extreme Makeover: Novel Edition." There was a lot of work that went into this novel the first time around, and the prospect of having to do every little bit is daunting, to say the least. I'm experiencing that kind of regret that goes with wishing I would have thought of this the first time around.

A Dose of Cleverness:

The setting is supposed to be a fantasy world--and everybody knows that a fantasy world is most often a medieval-era world. (thank you, Professor Tolkein...) I had already broken the cliche of "segregated races" by having the different races living among each other and interacting (how American of me). So I decided that a further breach was no great offense. I thought:

-Why not allow the races of the main "continent" to reflect a post-Industrial-type society, like Regency-era or Victorian?
-This would allow the Elvish "refugees" who are my central characters to feel a sense of patriotism when they maintain their medieval-style traditions, and keep their skill with weapons like the bow-and-arrow, and swords and such, when the rest of society around them has "moved on" to such things as firearms (at least the portable kind); it would set them apart in regards to fashion as well. The refugees would favor long dresses, tunics, jerkins, and boots--and sneer at the flounces, corsets, and frills of the "modern" society.

It totally works and it's a brilliant idea... but unlike the original idea, which could "plug into" a pre-existing world, it doesn't exactly "plug into" the novel I already have. (Or if it does, I haven't found it yet...)

This has been Works-In-Progress Wednesday. See you next week! (Hopefully I've made progress by then!)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Monthly Reading List: January

Okay, new thing! I've decided that since I've started visiting the library regularly again, I will start keeping track of the books I read each month, and at the beginning of each month, I'll post a list of the previous month's books and quick reviews on each! Enjoy!


Split Second- David Baldacci
This is the first book in Baldacci's "King and Maxwell" series. Baldacci is a well-known name in fiction, like Clancy, Patterson, or Grisham, but I never thought I'd get a taste for his books. Then my sister shared an audiobook of a sequel in this series (called Simple Genius) and I was hooked—namely because we hadn't finished it and I wanted to know what happens! I am now working through this series. Split Second was great. Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are wonderful characters—and the villain is one disturbed individual. I followed the characters after every red herring and down every dead end right to the big reveal.

- Shannon Hale
Shannon Hale is one of my favorite juvenile fiction authors. She knows how to give her readers the "warmfuzzies." Austenland is a suitably fluffy book, if a bit more adult in content than her other books. It's one of those that has you rolling your eyes at the unabashedly ridiculous characters (a cast as colorful as an Austen novel) and softly smiling at yourself as you read the conclusion and set it aside.

Beautiful Darkness- Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
I'll admit, I'm not usually swayed into the realm of teen witches and darkness, and this series is definitely out of the ordinary, but this is the sequel to the book Beautiful Creatures and I can't help the title, okay? And as for the witchy part of it—it's all a part of fiction, and completely made up; I have no qualms with that understanding, and no issue with keeping the real world distinct from the fictional one. I ignore it. Instead, I watch the characters. They're not sappy and smutty like SOO many supernatural romances out there. (Like the draw of supernatural teens is an excuse for the author to use adult-level steam... Yeah right!) They're actual teenagers just trying to figure out how they fit in their respective families. Granted, I didn't like this book as much as the first one (and I probably wouldn't recommend it unless you've got a strong filter) but the style of writing, the characterization, and the descriptions are all masterfully done and, indeed, beautiful. I'm probably going to skip the next book, Beautiful Chaos (don't need to know just how bad it's going to get, thank you), and go right on to the last book, Beautiful Redemption.

Code Name Verity- Elizabeth Wein
This being another Young Adult novel with a highly-suggestive-without-actually-communicating-anything image on the cover (two hands clasped and bound with twine; what's that all about?? I wondered) I saw it over and over again at the library before a friend recommended it and assured me that it was NOT SMUT. So I read it.
At first it was entertaining. A captured Scottish flight officer (a fiery young woman who repeatedly maintains she is NOT BRITISH) having a field day with the distasteful task of spilling all her countries secrets on paper for her German captors, in return for her life. She's a snarky young thing giving the Germans a run for their money as she unloads story after story onto the paper. One can almost smell the cigarettes, hear the screams of other prisoners, see the cold grey walls of that little room.... What an amazing story!
The Kinsey Millhone Series-Sue Grafton
A is for Alibi
B is for Burglar
C is for Corpse 
Hey, if Baldacci, why not Grafton? This series has always intrigued me: did someone really write an entire series with a book for each letter of the alphabet? Even the impossible ones like Q and X?? (Q exists, but X is forthcoming... The most recent novel is W, so there's a chance she might end up skipping right to Y... But that's still very impressive!) By now I'm about halfway through D—and I just might make it through the whole series without issue! There is some adult content—but it's neither surprising nor garish. These are adult characters in novels that adults read. Sue Grafton chooses her themes (the central plot device for each letter: Alibi, Burglary, Corpse, and so on) with tact and careful management, producing mysteries that confound and confuse till quite literally the last chapter.

Lord Peter Wimsey
-Dorothy Sayers
I was bemoaning my Sherlock withdrawals and the loss of dear Hercule Poirot, when a friend (the same one who recommended Code Name Verity) told me about her favorite detective: the unquenchable Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. (Yes, that's his name; fascinating, no?) so I began hunting down the elusive author Dorothy Sayers. This particular book I'd had on hold for about four months, just waiting for it to become available—that's how rare it is, at least in my library system. This particular publication is rather like the Sherlock stories, short installments compiled into one anthology. Lord Peter is a highly entertaining character, suitable for all ages! I confess the mysteries were not quite as intriguing as I was becoming used to, because there were lots of times when a clue was given, but the reader could not grasp the significance of it because we did not know the relevant piece of trivia Lord Peter could conjure at a moment's notice. But the adventures were nothing if not whimsical, to say the least!

The Sisters Grimm-Michael Buckley
I am only a few books shy of finishing this series, I believe. Can't say it really aligned with my expectations, though. It's a fascinating concept, sort of a "Once-Upon-A-Time-meets-Grimm-for-kids" kind of a premise. The author is brazen in his use of the fairytale characters, and seems to rely heavily on the "gross" factor that so many adults believe kids find so entertaining (too many, in my opinion). The consistent characterization of the sisters that are the main characters is the older girl with anger issues and the younger one who knows and believes the stories, making her the one who can keep track of what is going on. A story arc so unbalanced it comes across rather blasé.
So there are the books I read in January... I currently have a stack of eight books on my nightstand for this month... so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Musings: The Fighter, The Fish, and The Floozy

Someone in my Bible Study group recently said this about his formative years: "I knew what I knew, but I didn't know what I didn't know." I am convicted of the truth of this in my own life.

I know that I know the Bible; but more and more I am discovering how much I didn't know that I didn't know it.

Take James, for example. How many of us wish there were more to the Gospels, more about Jesus and what He was like and how He lived before He comes on the scene as an itinerant missionary on His way to the cross? Did you know that James was Jesus' younger brother? If anyone had the "inside scoop" on that mysterious portion of His life, pre-disciples, it would be James.
How did I not know this? I've memorized the first book, but to me, James was always "James-the-servant-of-God-and-of-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-To-the-twelve-tribes-scattered-among-the-nations-Greetings." Paul's epistles start the same way, so I just assumed James was like that. It was just another guy who wrote a letter about Christianity and all that preliminary stuff was just words to be gotten out of the way so I could go on and embark on what the book was really saying.

Then the pastor at my church starts preaching through the book of James, and it totally blows my mind to think, "Hold up! This guy is Jesus' brother! That must mean they practically grew up together!" The passages of James take on new meaning as I realize that when James is talking about "Let the lowly brother rejoice in his exultation, and the exalted brother in his humiliation"--he's referring to the fact that a Godly believer, though he be poor, will be exalted, and the ungodly person, though he be rich, will come to ruin. When James mentions "trials" and "temptations" and how they will "develop perseverance"--probably the first thing on his mind is his brother Jesus when He returned from spending forty days hungry, isolated, and tired--and tempted by Satan. Watching his brother's face as Jesus relates the events of those trials, and how He stood against them like a prizefighter and didn't give up and didn't give in, it's no wonder that James can tell us with such confidence, "the testing of your faith develops perseverance, and [when] perseverance finishes it's work, you will be complete, not lacking anything." Because even a man who had nothing to sustain himself for forty days, and yet survived even the direct confrontation with the Devil, because He relied on the strength of the Holy Spirit to pass the test of His faith.

Today's sermon was on the passage that speaks of temptation. James uses three analogies that I have paraphrased into three distinct characters: the Fighter, the Fish, and the Floozy.

The Fighter

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)

The first analogy is that of a fighter--but an athlete, not a soldier. The "crown" is the traditional laurels given to the victor in a competition. This is significant in the fact that temptation is the battle cry that sounds in the skirmish, not the whole battle. As the pastor said it, "It's the kickoff, not the whole game." Being tempted is distinct from actually following the urges and doing the sin that you have been tempted to do. 
Jesus was tempted. Luke makes no bones about that in his account (Luke 4:1-13). He was hungry, isolated, and tired--and vulnerable. We are the same way; we let ourselves get tired, isolated, and hungry (whether spiritually or physically) and Satan takes opportunity of our vulnerability and seeks to drag us down with temptation. Because we are vulnerable, we tend to look at the size of the oncoming temptation and see only the outcome Satan wants us to see: our own defeat, our selves caving to the irresistible draw yet again.

It doesn't have to be this way. Temptation is the beginning of the test, not the end.

A competitor who has trained in his sport does not give up the minute he sees the other team walk onto the field. Will the temptations be easy to withstand? Not always. Does that mean that it's impossible so we might as well give in when they come? Certainly not. "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Corinthians 10:13) There will always be a way to beat the other team. We just have to rely on God to show it to us, and we have to take it. The temptation doesn't count as a failure if we resist it. Just because we have temptations doesn't mean we're somehow slipping or lacking. God's timing is never off; just because you've never faced a situation this difficult before doesn't mean you're going to fail. In reality, you've never been more ready. God works through the trials to bring you to the point where you can remain steadfast in circumstances that--had they come any earlier--would have chewed you up into little pieces. 
Temptations are tests of our maturity. If we resist and remain steadfast, the result is that we have "let steadfastness have its full effect, that [we] may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:4) We have won the match. We have earned the crown.
And it doesn't have to end there. The winner of a sport receives a medal or a trophy--something to remember the victory. When you achieve a victory in the face of temptation, log it away, write it down somewhere, so that the next time opposition hits, you can remember how far you've come to get to where you are.

The Fish

"Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." (James 1:13-14)

Sometimes we face temptations with all the mental capacity of your average salmon. It's instinctual, a knee-jerk reaction: we see the bait and we scoop it up without even bothering to entertain the slightest suspicion. It's flashy, it's desirable, it feels good in the moment--and all of a sudden we're in the fisherman's boat trying to figure out how we got there.
What's the remedy? If it's desirable, we should avoid it? Does it mean that to avoid swallowing the hook we must shun every kind of goodness and happiness we see, no matter how wholesome it may appear? That does sound effective: "Avoid all manner of bait-like foods, and you will never swallow another hook." And yet...if we call the match because we don't like the size of the opponent, how can we receive the victor's crown?
There are desires within us that God gave us... for HIS glory. They are gifts that bring us the most fulfillment when we use them according to HIS direction. When giving in to our desires leads to consequences and destruction, it's not God's fault. It's ours.
The Fall was the consequence of a desire (the desire for nourishment and wisdom) perverted and turned away from God's design. God's not sitting on His throne with a fishing pole, waiting for us to nibble at the bait so He can sink His hook and whack us on the head for being naive idiots. He's watching over us with the desire that we will resist the alluring temptation and remain steadfast in our submission to Him.
Just because we follow Christ doesn't mean we won't ever be tempted; just because we have temptations doesn't mean we aren't followers of Christ. Christ Himself was tempted; His man-nature had the same desires and needs that we have. (Hebrews 2:17-18) And yet He did not sin--by the power of the Holy Spirit, He faced the temptation and resisted it. The Victor remained steadfast, that He might redeem the victims. And by claiming that victory, we too can tap into that same strength to withstand the temptations. Not by shutting our eyes to any kind of sensation of pleasure--but by turning the desire over to the Holy Spirit working within us, by submitting that desire to the authority of Christ, as He submitted to His Father.

The Floozy

Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:15)

The third way we might respond to temptation is in the manner of a "floozy." We see it, we like it, we'll "date" it, we know it's not good--but there's just a little part of it that makes us feel "good" in a little part of ourselves... and we just keep coming back... until it happens... The "inevitable conception" (sin)... and by then it's too late to say we've resisted, too late to revert to the "steadfast virgin"... but if we let the sin become "fully grown," the end is always death. 
It never looks that way at first; temptation never reveals it's ultimate goal of death. We're promised a "good time" and "health and wealth and happiness"....

The end result of sin is always death. God tells us sin's ultimate result, because He loves us and He doesn't want to see us "messing around and ending up hurt." He tells us exactly where "running around" with sin--no matter how glamorous or "warm-and-fuzzy" it feels--will get us.

The end result of sin is always death--but sin doesn't have to be the end for us. Jesus faced temptation; Jesus resisted temptation. Jesus paid the penalty of sin (which is death) for anyone who would accept His payment and submit to His leadership. If we repent of the sin and rely on the redemption provided for us by Jesus, He will redeem us. "If we confess our sins, He [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)  By a "one-night stand" with sin we birth death; by a "once-for-all" death, Jesus gives us life.

So where does that leave us?

At the end of the sermon, the pastor pointed out that the first word of this passage is "Blessed." Do we want God's blessing in our lives? I know I do! I also know that I have yet to develop consistency in resisting temptations. Yet therein lies the key to living the God-blessed life: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial." I have all the tools I need (namely, the redemption of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit) to step into the prizefighting ring with confidence. I just need to practice the moves, I just need to strengthen my muscles--I just need to hold on to His strength. It's not just a nice sentiment, it's a promise:

Persevere, and you will be blessed.