Category Archives: Books are for Reading

Suburban Fantasy

His roar, even from the garage, shook the walls of the bedroom where I was busily ironing ruffled shirts. The outside door slammed open, adding to the collection of dents in the wall, and Javier Rodriguez de Orbaneja stalked in. I glanced up at him, then away. It’s never a good idea to lock eyes with an alpha creature, even one I was married to.

“Where is it?” he asked, the click of his fangs punctuating his question.

“Where’s what?”

“Do not toy with me, Kym. My pegboard.” He was suddenly behind me. I’d never seen him move. He had to be upset; Javier knew how much it bothered me when he did that. “I had a second piece prepared for my tools, and now when I prepare to attach it to the wall, I find that it is missing.”

I breathed in his scent, a twinned smell of fabric softener from his clothes and mahogany from his coffin that still lingered on his skin. “I haven’t seen it.” I ducked under the ironing board and walked into the garage.

He was already there. “Dear, you know I don’t like you moving faster than I can see.”

He wasn’t listening. Javier had lifted one pale hand to point, finger trembling, at the garage wall. “You see? The first piece is complete, lacking only its mate.” The hanging piece of pegboard was immaculate, with outlines for all of his tools. It reminded me of a crime scene, tape marking the spot where corpses had fallen. I was all too familiar with those scenes.

“I expect you loaned it to Arkas.”

Javier growled softly. I watched the fluorescent light play along the angular planes of his face. “Child, I would remember had I done that.”

It was my turn to growl. “Look, you may remember fighting the Grande Armée, but you have trouble remembering what we had for dinner yesterday morning.” First he pulled his his Road Runner tricks, then he reminded me of the three centuries that separated our dates of birth.

“Roast duck and pinot noir, and my usual glass of blood.” He ran his hand through his shock of pale white hair. “Mi amor, I am sorry. You are correct.”

I hugged him tight, feeling the heat leech slowly out of me as I did. “It’s not the pegboard that’s bothering you.”

“It’s not the pegboard,” he agreed.

I held him tighter. “You knew this would be an adjustment.”

“I know. But I miss it so!” The arm he had wrapped around me flung wide, gesturing dramatically. “The city! How could we leave it! The nightlife! The parties!”

“The crime. The late-night calls from the police.” I toyed with the blackout curtains covering the garage windows.

“I shall never have that pegboard back from Arkas, even were I to press the matter. If I offend him, he might retaliate.” Arkas and his wife, a dryad named Erato, were some of the newly-public Greek figures of myth. They had been hiding from mortals for thousands of years, only now revealing their existence as more and more supernatural creatures revealed themselves. One of Arkas’s neighbors had made fun of Erato’s oak tree, so Arkas convinced Demeter to fill that neighbor’s yard with kudzu.

I shivered, not liking where the conversation had wandered. “We can get another.”

“Just so.” Javier paused and sniffed. “What, pray tell, is that ungodly smell?”

“Oh, crap.” I banged open the door to the house and ran back into the bedroom, yanking the iron off of the now-burnt shirt. “Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap.”

Javier picked up his shirt, admiring how it shaded from its original pearl white to brown. The ruffles on the front were especially burnt. “This would certainly be a new look for me.”

“Crap. Four years of college and I still can’t iron shirts.”

“You did not study home economics, you studied forensics.” He held his shirt up against him, as if he might actually wear it.

“Whose fault was that?” I’d wanted to drop out of college, but Javier wouldn’t let me. Even before we were married he bossed me around. I supposed he was right. If I ever had to get a normal job with a police department, the degree would help. But, really, what does a girl who can talk to ghosts need a forensics degree for?

“Knock, knock!” Philip stuck his shaggy head in our front door. “Hey, Kym. Hey, Roddy. You guys ready?”

Javier tensed. One alpha male was bad enough, but having two in the same room could be deadly. Philip had always been very determined, a useful trait in a professional assassin, but now that he was a child of Lycaon, he was more alpha than ever. Unfortunately being a werewolf meant that he no longer had good control of his emotions. He’d had to give up being an assassin and fall back on his earlier training as an accountant.

“To what do you refer?” Javier asked. I could have chilled wine with his tone.

“Boys, boys, settle down.” I stepped between them, making sure not to meet either of their eyes. Philip had never taken it well that I had chosen Javier over him. “I’m sure Philip was making sure we were coming to the homeowners association meeting tonight.”

“It’s going to be a doozy.” Philip’s grin revealed his strong white teeth. “Haven’t you heard? They want to pass an ordnance to keep people from covering any windows that face the street. The better for property values, they say.”

“They can’t!” I said, as Javier said, “Mierda.”

“They can and they will. Better get a move on.”

I was already in motion. Ten seconds later I had my go-bag in one hand and a scratched book in the other. I’d laughed at Javier when he gave me the homeowners association bylaws. The leather-bound volume seemed ridiculously over-the-top for a collection of rules and regulations. But after last year’s battle over allowable shades of house paint had come to blows and the book had stopped a neighbor’s claw from going through my chest, I stopped scoffing at Javier’s gift. “Let’s go.”

Javier took my hand and squeezed it. He stared, seeing some ancient bit of history unfurling in his mind. “There’s always another battle, eh, mi amor?”

“Don’t worry.” I hefted my bag, listening to the stakes, holy water, and back copies of the Skeptic Magazine jostling together. “We’re ready for this one.”

I had no idea how wrong I was.

–from my forthcoming book, “Subdivisions and Succubi”.

Gus was a friendly ghost

My mom saved a couple of boxes of my children’s books for me to give my kids. They’ve sat in the bottom of Eli’s closet since before there was an Eli. He’s looked through the books off and on a couple of times and has come up with a few gems that he likes to read. Curiously, the ones he’s picked out are some of the ones that were my favorites. In fact, I think he’s come up with three out of about my top five favorites.

Gus was a friendly ghost is one of them. It’s a kitschy 60s book with decent line drawings. Gus has a dashed outline that I’ve always itched to cut out. (I’ll have to ask Eli if he feels the same way.) My mom always groaned when I pulled Gus off the shelf. It’s amazingly long for a picture book. It takes 15-20 minutes to read and that’s why my mom hated it. It’s why I hate to see it come off the shelf as well. Often, if it’s late and we’ve had a long day I veto it because of its length.

Saturday night though, we read it and it was fabulous. When we opened it, Eli had to examine my five-year-old signature in the front of the book. Eli laughed at all the things in the story I thought was funny when I was a kid: “…on account of mice.” I cracked up the both of us reading it. We had a long discussion of what Tapioca is and why Mouse liked it so well. And when Gus gets mad at Mouse both of us were in the dumps as well.

The 20 minutes I spent reading that book was one of those times I live for as a parent. So thanks go to my mom for making me save those books all these years.

You Should Get Hungry Monkey

Hey, look, we got our friend Matthew Amster-Burton’s new book, “Hungry Monkey”!

Eli holding a copy of Hungry Monkey

Matthew’s a food writer whose daughter, Iris, is about three months older than Eli. His book combines helpful guidance, recipes, and awesomely funny writing while avoiding that strident, chiding tone so common to books that have anything to do with parenting. I’ve seen the book filed under “child care”, but calling “Hungry Monkey” a parenting book is like calling “Travels with Charley” a travel guide. “Hungry Monkey” is more a collection of entertaining essays about the travails of trying to feed a young kid. Here’s Matthew on why he didn’t feed Iris baby cereal when she started eating solid foods.

Some people deplore baby cereal, saying it gives kids an appetite for bland carbohydrates. These people presumably hang out with the mom who thinks she can keep her son away from pictures of breasts. We had a much better reason for rejecting baby cereal: everyone else starts with baby cereal, and we didn’t want to be like everyone else. I swear this sounded like a good reason at the time.

Unlike books such as “Super Baby Food”, “Hungry Monkey” is light on the kind of advice that should be accompanied by a wagging finger. Matthew’s thesis is simple: there is no such thing as baby food. It’s fine to let them try what you’re eating, and you don’t have to be crazy anxious about feeding your kid.

Matthew changed how we fed Eli and Liza. We started Eli on bland cereal, then began working our way through numbered Gerber baby food as if they were a counting book. In contrast, Liza’s eaten what we eat since she could grab it from our plates and shove it in her mouth. At nine months she was scarfing down spicy potatoes and tofu. Her face turned red and she coughed until we thought she’d pass out, but she kept eating it and demanding more. And she’s lived to be two so far!

I was especially pleased with how Matthew includes science with his advice. Where the science is lacking, Matthew falls back on the fact that your taste buds are smart; listen to them.

Eli eating a copy of Hungry Monkey

For me, the book’s real strength is that it recognizes how frustrating and hard feeding kids can be without giving in to parental despair, even if your kid eats frozen pizzas without waiting for you to cook them.

Feeding a young child is stressful and unpredictable, you do whatever it takes to make it work, and the job is never done. But you could say the same thing about snowboarding or touring with the Rolling Stones. “Stressful and unpredictable” doesn’t preclude fun.

And this book is fun. It’s got great recipes and funny stories. Don’t take my word for it, though. Matthew has the first three chapters up on his book’s website. Read those, then go buy the book. You’ll have a great time with it.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m in the acknowledgments.

Solomon Stone is Rad

If you’re like me — and I know you are — then you like things that are awesome. And have I got something awesome for you!

Cover to The Chronicles of Solomon Stone

Solomon Stone! He’s a half-vampire private eye who’s also a skateboard champ, and he’s so amazing that he has three fists of justice, and all of them are filled with revolvers. Chris Sims‘s creation is a sight to behold, and it is possible that you will not survive reading about his exploits.

The whole first issue is free to read online, and you can even grab a CBZ or PDF of the comic. And if you die from far surpassing the LD50 of awesome, you can thank me later.

Book Review: The Trouble with Boys

Peg Tyre’s publisher solicited me to read this book for the site, and I was intrigued enough by the book to say “yes.” I remember being fascinated by the Newsweek article she wrote a few years ago, but it was published while my son was fairly small. I wasn’t thinking about him going to kindergarten or how the educational system might treat him. Her book came to my attention while Eli’s debut at school is looming large on my horizon. The book couldn’t have come at a better time for me because of that.

Tyre’s book is an incredibly readable look at what children–and most especially boys–are facing in the educational system as it is now. With little unstructured play time and the ever-increasing pressures of No Child Left Behind testing, our boys are indeed getting left in the dust. She details where we do a disservice to our boys starting in preschool, and suggests things for us as parents to do to start helping them get back on track.

This book is a must read for parents of boys and all educators. I’ll definitely be asking Eli’s teacher next year if she’s read it and suggesting it to her if she hasn’t. I feel like it has shown what to watch for as Eli is in school. This book is the first thing I’ve read that has ever made me potentially contemplate home schooling for my kids if they aren’t getting the educational experience that I think they need. That is powerful stuff indeed, as I have pretty much always been a vocal supporter of public education.

Tyre’s site has other good info about The Trouble with Boys and other articles she’s published. I highly recommend checking out the site as well as the book.

A Review of Couch, by Benjamin Parzybok

Thom, Erik and Tree have a problem: they have a couch they literally can’t get rid of. After their upstairs neighbor’s waterbed accident floods their Portland apartment and leaves them homeless, the three decide to take a trip. Thom’s an unemployed computer guy, Erik’s a low-rent grifter, and Tree is a commune refugee who doesn’t like to work, so there are no impediments to their trip, save the apartment building’s owner telling them to take their couch with them when they leave.

That’s when they discover that they can’t get rid of it. The Goodwill worker turns them away. So does the worker at another second-hand store. A cop just happens to drive by when they try to ditch the couch at a burrito store. And never mind that the couch gets heavier if you try to carry it in the wrong direction.

So goes “Couch,” Benjamin Parzybok’s debut novel. It’s a blend of magical realism and picaresque novel, as Thom, Erik and Tree carry the couch — or are carried by it — through encounters with a wide range of people. It’s a welcome change from the many contemporary fantasy novels about vampires and the people who love them. The novel builds slowly and inexorably to its conclusion, the fantastical elements piling on top of each other. Unfortunately, as the couch’s mystery was revealed, I became less and less interested in the story, and near the end “Couch” hit on a topic I feel strongly about and I was yanked out of the story.

Thom provides the novel’s center. He’s a rational guy, someone who’s far more comfortable with the logic of computer programs than with people. As things get more and more fantastical, though, he finds himself becoming a believer in the mystical. It’s handled deftly, and was the most interesting part of the novel for me.

One of the big ideas behind the novel, as Ben has said elsewhere, is more of a question: what knowledge have we lost as we’ve lost ancient cultures? It’s an old question, one which leads people to fantasize about the Egyptians using alien technology to build the pyramids. I’m not a big fan of this trope, and was a little disappointed to see it turn up in what had been until then a very original novel. One character has a several-page speech about this topic, ending with his declaration that he doesn’t see doctors any more after a curandero cures his cancer by laying on hands. His speech presents the big idea in a giant wodge, the message flashing as if on a Jumbotron.

“Couch” didn’t immediately lose me because of this character’s speech. It was one character’s theorizing, after all. But then the trope showed up again in the mouth of another minor character, and this time it had an added layer of science versus belief. Once science comes to town, the character says, witch doctors’ cures no longer work. “Once roads go in, the logic of science comes in, television will come in, a Western belief system, people will take painkillers and decongestants.” It’s not enough that we see the witch doctor heal. It’s not enough that the novel’s magical elements are part of the story’s world. All must be explained explicitly, and we must be told that the magic really works until science shows up.

I don’t like being hit over the head like that, but even if I was okay with a shout-don’t-show approach, this topic provokes a strong reaction in me. There are countless people who abandon medical science in favor of alternatives, and it doesn’t work out. But there’s a ready-made excuse! “If the one being healed believes in the treatment, then the healer will be far more successful,” the character says. The unspoken corollary, of course, is that, if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t believe enough. You made the mistake of trusting in science and medicine. It’s us versus them, and by virtue of being a physicist, I’m in the “them” camp.

(I warned you this was one of my triggery topics.)

If you removed those two characters’ speeches, I’d have been fine. Goodness knows I balance rational thought with belief in my life, and the novel’s big idea comes through without those speeches. Absent those speeches, the story is strong and affecting. You may not be as sensitive to science-versus-belief as I am; if so, you’ll likely deal better with the speechifying. It’s just a shame I wasn’t.

Couch is published by Small Beer Press and is available from them or the usual online vendors. Ben, like all right-thinking people, also has a blog.

An Unusual Fit of Cleaning

We’d been talking for a while that we needed to do some cleaning before Christmas. Specifically in Eli’s room so there’s actually room to bring in some new stuff.

So to show him how Mom and Dad can clean up their stuff too, Stephen started pulling books off of bookshelves and chunking them in a pile to go to the used bookstore. Some 60 books later, we have a bit of space on a few shelves around the house. And a whopping pile to trade for other books!

The office was also a bit of a mess. Stephen still had portal gun bits and pieces strewn around for Liza to impale herself on and I had a corner that just seemed to continually expand when I wasn’t actively beating it back. So we spent about 30 minutes last night and here are the results:

Today, I’m going to try and convince Eli to part with a few things as well. If you hear the moaning, it’s Emo Eli trying to part with his toys.

The Soundtrack of My Life

I was thinking the other day that I would post my top five favorite songs so then I could get others to post their favorite songs. Then I realized that I couldn’t narrow it down to five, and frankly ten was a bit tough as well, so I decided that I’d just list my favorites in no particular order and you guys could chime in with your faves as you like.

The Bands/Singers I Love & My Favorite Songs from Them

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2
This is my favorite song. No question. It is the song I return to when I need to be comforted. It is a song of hope for what is yet to come. The song is so joyful about the search that I am pulled up out of my day-to-day life and reminded that the good is out there and I need to open my eyes and look for it.

I was in junior high the first time I heard U2. A friend of mine handed me The Unforgettable Fire and made me swear to take it home and listen to it. He was a bit on the kooky side and I thought it was another of his weird hair bands. I listened to the album once and knew it was something that would affect me for the rest of my life.

Other U2 songs that I can’t ever hear enough of: Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pride (In the Name of Love), Love and Peace or Else, Beautiful Day, 40.

Losing My Religion – R.E.M.
This song, while it is about a relationship breakup, makes me smile. Only in the US South could “I’m totally fed up with you” become the phrase “losing my religion”. At one time it was a breakup song for me too, but now I just listen to it and think I’m glad that I’m not that tired of anybody in my life.

Other R.E.M. songs that were in the running: Fall On Me, Bang and Blame, Leave, Welcome to the Occupation, Lotus, Turn You Inside Out.

Why Should I Cry for You? – Sting
I love this Sting song for two reasons. At the beginning there this ‘beewedup’ sound that makes me think of water and floating on the ocean. Then there are the lines towards the end of the song: “Sometimes I see your face, The stars seem to lose their place, Why must I think of you?” I think that’s just about the best description of how you can ever possibly feel about your significant other followed by the saddest thing that could ever probably come after it.

Other Sting songs that I heart: Love is the Seventh Wave, Desert Rose, Inside, Mad About You, Shape of my Heart.

Police songs that I can’t do without either: Next to You; Bring on the Night; When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around; Hungry for You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim de Toi); One World (Not Three); Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.

Yeah, I know the list is long. What can I say? I loves me some Gordon Sumner.

Center of Attention – Guster
I’m pretty sure this is how we all feel inside our own heads. I love to sing this song really loud in the car when I’m by myself. The song’s overly bouncy beat with the lyrics’ complete self-centeredness makes me giggle.

Other Guster songs I thought about putting on this list: the whole rest of the “Lost and Gone Forever” album. It’s that good, really.

You Don’t Love Me Yet – Honest Bob and the Factory to Dealer Incentives
Ok, I’ll admit that Stephen and Dan of Honest Bob have been friends for something like ten years. So should I count a friend’s music in my list? I think I should get to count it double on the soundtrack of my life because it’s both something that I enjoy listening to AND I know Dan in real life. This song cracks me up for a variety of reasons but mostly because I can imagine Dan laughing his butt off while writing it.

HBatFtDI songs that I could’ve also listed as my favorites: The Benefits of Language, I Don’t Want to Hear About Your Crappy Boyfriend, My Dinner With Laurie.

A Heading I Cringe at: Christian Music

Radiate – Eric Peters
Geof gave us this album not too long ago and I rolled my eyes because he’s pushed his Christian version of “crying in my beer music” on us before. I am totally eating those words because there is nothing better and brighter (or less “crying in my beer”) than this song.

I dislike being marketed to as a Christian. I hate the idea of a Christian music label. “Oh, you’re a Christian, so you must like ______________.” Usually, not so much. But there are a few gems out there; you just have to dig.

Other contemporary Christian songs that I love: Art in Me and Flood by Jars of Clay. Share the Well by Caedmon’s Call. The Turning, River of Love, Libera Me by Leslie (Sam) Phillips. God Made Me and Passover Us by Andrew Peterson.

Songs I’d love to sing in church that aren’t labeled as Christian music: Seasons of Love – Jonathan Larson Yeah, I know the musical is about drug-addicted AIDS artist wannabes living in NYC, but when I die someone please sing this song at my funeral just so one time this song gets inside a church where it belongs. These are the Days – 10,000 Maniacs “These days you might feel a shaft of light make its way across your face. And when you do you’ll know how it was meant to be.” So completely totally the best line ever.

My Favorite Love Gone Wrong Songs

Mess – Ben Folds Five
Nobody does love gone wrong as well as Ben Folds. And this song is the end-all be-all example of “I have made a huge mess of my life and everything is crap and I don’t even believe in God”. No matter how bad I think my situation is, I can always listen to this song and know I didn’t screw it up as bad as the narrator of this song did.

In Between Days – The Cure
I listened to this song for many years before I realized it was about a love triangle. And when has that ever gone right? At least the narrator apologizes and says he wants you to come back. But we never find out if you do or not. Oh well, it’s at least really catchy dance music.

Porcelain – Moby
“Tell the truth you never wanted me…tell me” Ouch. The first time I heard this line I was listening on headphones. I had heard the song many times and had always managed to miss it because it is whispered inside the music. I think I went back and listened to that about half a dozen times. It still gets me every time. It totally makes the song. Uh, now that I know to listen for it.

Windmills – Toad the Wet Sprocket
I think this is a love gone wrong song. Maybe not. Frankly I’m not really sure, but I love the song anyway. “Take the darkest hour-break it open, Water to repair what we have broken” Love that baptismal imagery.

Three Songs that are in a Category All Their Own, I Just Don’t Know What to Call the Category

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star – as sung by Eli and Liza
I’ll just say that pretty much any time your kid starts singing a song that you’ve been singing to them their whole life you want to freeze time and remember it forever.

Baba O’Riley – The Who
I don’t know what it is about this song. I loved it before I knew the technical wizardry that it took to produce this song. Then once I knew that, I was a total goner. I don’t know what to call it. Teen anthem? It makes me think about being free, with what little hair I have whipping in the wind as I drive down a long road.

Women in Chains – Tears for Fears
A woman’s lib song by men. I don’t know why that works for me but it does.

Two Songs that I Love that Have About a Million Versions

All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Actually, Jimi Hendrix’s is not my favorite version. My favorite version is by Michael Hedges, at least this week. The story is great, and surprise, the guitar part is great too. And I love hearing how so many different people have interpreted it.

Such Great Heights – The Postal Service
I loved this song as soon as I heard it. It was pretty much an instant I’m-gonna-love-this-forever kinda thing. Then Eli started to sing it. Then Ben Folds covered it and then many, many college a capella choirs. We all love it. I am a sucker for the catchy, catchy pop tune. And so is everybody else, I guess.