November Book Reviews, Part II

A short break from muse reblogs to share a bunch of reviews. My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is looking grim, but I’m still going for it. I have 3 weeks to read 20 books!

November’s Part II book reviews include my 4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal fiction, historical fiction, a short story, poetry, and a few suspense-thrillers! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Someone Close to Home by Alex Craigie

I read on the treadmill, and this page-turner made me exercise three times my usual minutes! I think I burned off an entire chocolate cake in calories. I couldn’t put it down (the book, not the cake).

Megan was a successful concert pianist with a bright future. But her career and happiness are a part of her past at the opening of the book. Megan lives in a neglectful nursing home, unable to speak or control her body, and someone in the home is determined to torment her.

The story covers a time period of about a month or so. The progression of Megan’s life, starting at age 9, weaves through her memories, and eventually the timelines intersect. Both timelines are gripping. Megan’s inability to protect herself is heart-wrenching and infuriating. Craigie did a great job of stringing me along as Megan navigates the danger and vulnerability in her life.

Megan is a great character and the most three dimensional and relatable of the cast. I empathized with her immediately, understood her choices (even the horrible ones), and was in her corner for the duration. The pace is speedy, the setting bleak. A great choice for readers who love a gripping thriller.

*****

Harbinger by Marcia Meara

I loved the book A Boy Named Rabbit and couldn’t wait to read Rabbit’s next adventure. Once again, this little 11-year-old kid stole my heart. Rabbit and his dad, Mac, are enlisted by the local sheriff to see if they can use Rabbit’s “sight” to figure out what happened to a little girl who disappeared twenty years ago.

The book is a paranormal mystery and thriller as well as a beautiful story about goodness and love. I enjoyed watching Rabbit and his new family interact. They’re kind and thoughtful and it warmed my heart. I also enjoyed the tension and disturbing actions of Cadey, the bad guy, who slowly loses touch with reality as the story progresses.

The plot is well constructed, with the pov alternating between Mac/Sarah and Cadey. There’s no mystery as to who the bad guy is, but there’s a great deal of tension as their paths draw closer to each other. The characters are well-done, realistic and with full emotional lives. The ending of the trilogy gives a sneak peek into Rabbit’s future, which I thoroughly appreciated. I could happily read more books about Rabbit, but this one ends on a high note and I appreciated that.

Highly recommended to readers who enjoy great characters and well-told stories.

*****

The Pellucid Witch by G. Owen Wears

If you like alien world-building, this book is the tops. It’s very cool; the world is bizarre, the characters are bizarre, the plants and animals are bizarre. I loved the author’s imagination. Kryl is a human-ish man with a fungal exoskeleton that is both a symbiote and a parasite. It’s protective of Kryl while it also feeds on him. When it’s turned on his enemies, it’s downright ravenous. Did I mention the world-building?

The plot isn’t as fascinating as the world-building but both are thoroughly entwined. It takes about ½ of the book to set the story up. Then in the second half, the conflict take off. The tale is told in the 3rd person from Kryl’s POV. He’s a relatable character, nothing special while being very special. He’s a brutal killer but also holds tight to a sense of fairness.

There is blood and guts a plenty in this read, but not gratuitous gore. Kryl, his exoskeleton, and the Pellucid Witch are characters who survive on violence. This isn’t a long book and I read it in a day without a problem. I highly recommend it to sci-fi fans who want to dive into some awesome world-building.

*****

The Nine by D. L. Cross

The third book in the Astral Conspiracy Series starts off in the thick of the action. There’s little backstory, so it took a while for me to get my bearings with the complex plot and large cast of characters. Thank goodness the series was released together and can be read in one long binge.

There are a lot of factions at play – more than one of them nefarious and more than one of them trying to do the right thing. They take off in different directions so there are several stories to keep track of at once. And none of the characters are particularly gentle people. With the fate of the Earth in play, almost to a person, the good guys are tough and the bad guys are tougher. Landon continues to be the most relatable, though I have to say I enjoyed Beck’s predicament (and humor) the most.

And then there are the Aliens. The world-building continues to impress, and little by little Cross reveals the aliens’ abilities and the power of the Atlantean artifacts, as well as who The Nine are. As in the previous books, the research into alien/Atlantean theory is fascinating and adds authenticity to this sci-fi adventure. This is a dense read that required me to pay attention. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy hard sci-fi, aliens, complex plots, great world building, and lots of suspense.

*****

Contract by John Howell and Gwen Plano

Pete and Teresa are sent from heaven to assume the bodies of Brad Channing and Sarah O’Brien, two strangers who recently died. Their mission is to prevent a political cataclysm that could destroy the world.

The first third of the book relates Brad’s and Sarah’s individual stories as they are given second chances at life and eventually find each other. It switches to solid romance until the midpoint when the action and thrills take off. Brad (an ex-Navy Seal) takes over as the book’s hero as Sarah fades to the background. I wondered why the authors chose to start the book in heaven, but it does make for a cool ending.

There are some red herrings and twists, and it isn’t clear who the bad guys are until the end. The plot doesn’t answer all the questions raised by the story, and I questioned the bad guys’ motivations and choices here and there, but I also read the book in a day, so it clearly held my attention. An entertaining book for readers who enjoy a bit of romance and a lot of action.

*****

Virtually Gone by Jacquie Biggar

A serial rapist and killer is on the loose, and a DNA match links the killer to the murder of Detective Matthew Roy’s sister a decade ago. The story tracks the police investigation, led by Matt and his partner Connor. Conner’s girlfriend, Julia, a head-strong journalist, is also on the killer’s trail.

This book is part of a multi-author series that focuses on the same group of characters and features a different character per book. I read this story out of order, and once I got to know the characters, it worked fine as a stand-alone, tying up with a satisfying conclusion.

As main characters, I found Matt and Julia believable. The secondary characters were equally three dimensional with rich backstories. The reality and details of the investigation seemed plausible including the high-tech aspects that serve as a connecting theme of the series. There are red herrings aplenty, and the clues add up logically. Not a long read, I read this book in a day. Recommended to readers who enjoy police investigations and suspenseful murder mysteries.

*****

Elizabeth’s War by D. L. Finn

When WWI breaks out in Europe, brothers, sons, and fathers leave their livelihoods and families in the US to fight overseas. This story is told from the point of view of Elizabeth, an eleven-year-old girl whose life changes dramatically. At home on the farm, she begins her own version of “fighting the war” with new responsibilities and challenges – increased chores, learning new skills, nursing sick family members, worrying that Christmas may come without gifts, and more (no spoilers!). It clearly demonstrates the quiet strength of women and the valuable role they played while the men were away.

The young perspective and gentle kindness reminded me a lot of Laura Ingalls stories. I think this book is perfect for middle-grade readers and young teens, but can be enjoyed by adults too (like me). In the Afterword, the author writes about how the story is based on her own family’s experiences, and the details of the time-period seem well-researched. A lovely story.

*****

Reckoning Tide by Anneli Purchase

This book picks up right at the end of The Wind Weeps, which should be read first. Andrea’s reprieve and escape from her abusive husband, Robert, is brief, and he’s out to get her. What ensues is a stalking nightmare as Andrea and her lover, Jim, flee Robert through the windswept coastal channels and islands of the Canadian Pacific.

The action starts immediately and continues right to the end with several breaks for sexy romance. As in the first book, the authors knowledge of the area and the life of a fisherman add a lot of authenticity to the setting and action.

Purchase does a good job of showing the lingering complexities around domestic violence, how women aren’t believed, and how hard it is for them to be safe from their abusers. Even Jim is a bit of a jerk for a while. But Robert escalates rapidly and the need to escape him becomes critical to the couple’s survival. I liked Andrea’s arc from dependence on a man in book one to a strong woman who sticks up for herself and is determined to take charge of her life. A fast-paced series for romance and suspense readers.

*****

Conscience by Jonathan Pongratz

In this science fiction short story, Epher, the leader of the Free Thinkers is dead. The Corporation has the rebel’s body in their lab, and Rory Bennel’s job is to conduct a cerebral upload of Epher’s mind into data storage. When things go wrong, Rory makes a frantic adjustment, and the next thing he knows, he’s on the run.

This is an entertaining story of a brutal governing corporation, the manipulation of the masses, and the power of one person to make a difference. The story moves at a quick pace with a cohesive plot and empathetic characters. Recommended to readers of sci-fi short stories.

*****

Crimson Skins by Devika Mathur

I’m a fan of freeform poetry that’s thick with imagery, that explores the language of the senses and seeks out beautiful words. Mathur’s poetry does all that. Overall, the tone of the collection struck me as melancholy, full of pain and longing. There’s little romance, though the poems are often sensuous. The book is structured as a journey, starting with Isolation and moving through sections titled Detachment, Delirium, and Attachment, and into Revival (where the poems have a stronger, more self-assured theme).

The imagery often has a dreamlike quality, and I found myself reading aloud to “hear” the language and let the meaning and emotion behind the words find a place to settle. Some of my favorite poems were: Pointless, Sentiments like Silk, Madness, and the Art of Embalming. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy freeform poems, beautiful language, and a reflective journey.

*****

Picky Eaters 1 by S. J. Higbee

An elderly dragon named Castellan has to move in with his daughter and her family, which puts an end to his quiet life. His precocious granddaughter, Sammy-Jo, is full of energy and adventure and practically forces Castellan into resurrecting his time-traveling skills. His talent doesn’t go over well with the other dragons or the dwarves.

This story made me laugh a few times, particularly because humans are referred to as “food” and knights in armor are “canned food.” The dwarves fare about as well as their human cousins in terms of ending up crispy and delicious. This novelette moves quickly. A plot-based story, it didn’t steal my heart, but readers who like some time-traveling twists may enjoy this short tale.

*****

Happy Reading!

May Book Reviews

This is an upsetting time in the US with virus deaths reaching 100k, and the 9-minute public murder of an African American man by police. My heart is broken. Reading continues to be a release.

This month my offering of reviews includes beautiful poetry, fantasy, sci-fi, and a short story. I hope you enjoy browsing my 4 and 5-star reviews. There are some lovely reads here.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings by Gabriela Marie Milton

There are poetry books where the words feel like chocolates that melt on your tongue, where the imagery seduces you into a timeless place of mystery or lays out a universe of emotion, the crux of a life in a few perfect lines. I love free verse that’s evocative, where the sounds and rhythms sweep me off my feet. Gabriela Marie Milton’s poetry is and does all those things.

The book is set up into three parts. First, Love Poems, a generous collection of free verse that took my breath away. Part two has side-by-side poems, one in English, the other its Italian translation. And Part three has short prose that honestly, reads like poetry. All of it is sublime.

And none of it should be rushed. I read this collection over two weeks, savoring each offering in the darkness before sleep. A luxurious read for anyone who loves poetry and beautiful words.

*****

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

This book is charming, charming, charming. Did I mention that it’s charming? Isobel, a human, paints portraits for the fair folk, and something about her painting of Rook, the Prince of Autumn, thrusts her into danger. Stuck in the courts of the fair folk, they fall in love, but the penalty of breaking the Good Law that forbids such affairs is death.

Forbidden romance is a source of tension in this story, but I’m hesitant to call it a romance. There’s deception, danger, magic and glamour, hard choices, and sinister forces at play. The fair folk are beautiful and exquisitely described, but beneath the nearly perfect exterior, they are opportunists, decaying, hollow, and cruel.

Characterization is exceptional. The story is told from Isobel’s pov. She and Rook are sympathetic protagonists, and their perceptions of each other’s worlds, behaviors, and rules are fascinating. In general, the differences between the fair folk and humans are meticulously developed and kept me entranced. Secondary characters run the gamut from the human Aunt Emma, to the murderous fairy thanes, to Isobel’s delightful half-sisters who are also half-goats who eat everything and climb on furniture.

Descriptions of the landscapes are as immersive as those of the characters. The writing is quite beautiful. The plot is well thought out and keeps moving right up to the reveal at the climax. I wish this was a series because I had a serious book hangover. I’ll be reading more of this author. Highly recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who loves beautiful writing.

*****

It’s All in the Blood by Carol Forrester

I was looking forward to this generous collection of poems, and as soon as it was available on kindle, I picked it up. To me, Forrester’s style is gentle and reflective with an underlying poignancy. The free form poetry unfolds in short phrasing almost like an internal monolog but interspersed with the beauty of poetic metaphor. My favorite poems were those nostalgic musings about family, aging, loss and love, regrets, hopes, and an array of universal experiences that I could relate too. This poetry is simply stated, sprinkled with jewels of imagery, and rich with feeling. An excellent collection. Highly recommended

*****

Awakening: The Shard Chronicles by Ono Northey

I’m a reader of character-driven novels. A fantastic character will keep me riveted, and this book has a six-star main character. Steve is a veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan in an explosion that took out his team, and he wants out of the hospital. A strange murder ends up splattering his hospital room with a human smoothie and suddenly he’s on the run, learning to use a unique mental power that gets him into trouble as much as it saves him.

Why is Steve a fantastic character? He has a sardonic sense of humor that I thoroughly enjoy and that runs through the book from start to finish. External and internal dialog is exceptionally witty, consistent, and natural. He also has a complex personality; he’s a competent soldier, as well as a nice guy at heart who’s grasping at happiness while hiding from the police and visiting his unusual shrink, Tony. The secondary characters, Tony and Steve’s love interest Amber, are both perfectly believable personalities, and the relationships were interesting as well as genuine.

The pace rips along, and there’s a lot of action interspersed between Steve counseling sessions and his budding relationship with Amber. I was impressed with the military details as well as the psychological concepts resulting from Steve’s conversations with Tony. They seemed grounded in reality (I couldn’t really tell but was totally sucked in) and I found myself paying close attention.

Unfortunately, I struggled with the sci-fi-bad-guy elements of the plot. The bad guys have about 6 pov chapters out of about 60 chapters (Tony has one, Steve has the rest). I had a hard time grasping who the bad guys were, their relationships, and their motivations to kill or save Steve. The story ended with lots of loose ends, which I assume will be addressed in the next book. I’m looking forward to the read. I considered a 4-star rating, but the characters forced me to go with 5.

*****

Limbo by Laura Koerber

I wasn’t sure what I thought of this book at first. A teenager, Alyse, finds herself in Limbo after dying of a brain tumor. It’s a dismal place, populated by rather dreary ghosts like herself. The pov doesn’t stay with Alyse, and though I found this distracting for a couple of chapters, as the story progressed, I got to know this odd community, the characters’ backstories, their hopes, dreams, failures, and sorrows. Suddenly, they became deeply human, relatable, and utterly poignant. I was moved.

The world-building details are unique, clever, and enjoyable. For example, many of the characters are wearing hospital gowns (and many of us know that those don’t close securely in the back). They make poker cards out of peeling wallpaper, and have a tendency to float.

Most of the characters don’t understand why they’re in limbo or how to leave. Honestly, I didn’t understand why they were there either, and I didn’t think that question was answered by the end. For me, the lack of a reason for their presence made God (who is not a character in the story) seem cold and unkind. The end is incredibly touching. I recommend this short, well-written, and gentle read to anyone who enjoys a human story.

*****

No Pedigree: A Really Short Story by Nonnie Jules

Baylee is biracial and lives with her hardworking single mom. Mom wants her to get the best opportunities for a successful future and part of that means getting a great education in a posh high school. But in Oklahoma, racism is alive and well, and Baylee is the victim of both verbal and physical abuse. A lucky break enables her to get justice in the end.

This story is a 90-minute read and geared toward young adults, though I enjoyed it as an old adult. Lol. It takes on the important topic of racism and injustice as it still exists today in schools, communities, and the criminal justice system. I enjoyed Baylee’s strength of character and that of her good friend Carson. My only struggle with the story was the somewhat implausible way Baylee skyrocketed out of her situation, but her ability to get justice was satisfying.

*****

An Island Too Lovely by Deborah Kaminsky

Isadora lives on an island, her community isolated from the mainland, peaceful and prosperous, technologically equipped, but tightly controlled. A strange experience with a force field compels her and her friends Annie and Dylan to start questioning the mysteries of their island home.

The first part of the book covers her fruitless explorations as a child. Part 2, the bulk of the story, chronicles her “Walkabout” on the mainland with her friends, a once in a lifetime adventure that all island residents experience in their teens. Part 3, covers her return to the island and her discovery of its secrets.

For most of the book, the plot seems to wander with rambling goals and tangents… until part 3 when the whole thing comes together with an intriguing and clever twist. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelation. At the same time, I did struggle with the middle of the book and was left with questions, particularly about the structure of the walkabout (no spoilers here).

Isadora, Annie, and Dylan are great characters, and I particularly enjoyed Isadora and Annie’s lifelong friendship. They are richly-developed characters and Isadora’s point of view gave me a thorough insight into her personality. The sci-fi elements are detailed and techy, which I enjoyed. Overall, quite entertaining.

*****

Happy Reading!

Reaching #Writephoto

photo copyright Sue Vincent

Black limbs jutted from thick boles. Their skeletal twigs clawed at her clothes, snagged her hair, and scratched her arms. She’d lost her way in the twilit forest but didn’t dare turn back. Couldn’t surrender. Not after coming so far.

She pushed forward, stumbled over gnarled roots that writhed from the earth like snakes. Her imagination ran in wild spirals and panic stole her breath. Soon darkness would filter between the boughs and force her to stop, at the mercy of the autumn cold, the hunger coiling in her stomach. Wolves roamed the uncharted terrain.

Why had she fled with so little preparation? Had she made a mistake? Could she have endured her troubles a little longer? Even as a child, when her mother died, she’d dreamed of flight. Her father had fallen prey to a widow’s deft manipulations. He’d fawned over his new bride, unable to acknowledge her cruelty, terrified of the truth, of his grief.

Until he too rested in the graveyard.

She tripped over a root and pitched to the ground, bloodying her palms and gouging a knee. Lips pressed between her teeth, she brushed pine needles from stinging hands and slowed her pace. Animals rustled in the underbrush, and an owl hooted overhead. She cringed and stepped gingerly between the trees, outstretched fingers snapping the dead twigs threatening to blind her.

Despite her resolve, her current situation elicited a muttered curse. A year ago, she’d made a poor choice, but the only one her naive desperation had conjured. She’d fled her father’s home, a decision well and good, but she’d charged straight into a debacle with seven other men. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

She’d escaped a life of cruelty for one scarcely better, one where safety had depended on servitude. She’d slaved for them: cooked, cleaned, laundered. They’d expected cheerful smiles, merry entertainment, and endless doting from a paper-thin woman without a heart or soul or choice. They hadn’t allowed her beyond the garden, scared her with threats of wild beasts and dangerous hunters, of being murdered. And all the while, their own faults had gone ignored. They were lazy slobs, grumpy and witless. Even the happiest among them didn’t lift a finger.

The sun was losing its battle with the moon. Spindly shadows lengthened as night crept through the canopy. When her endurance dropped through the soles of her shoes and trudging onward seemed pointless, she crested a hill and gasped. The forest parted. Beyond the last filigree of barren branches, the day’s final rays graced a serene valley. Twilight reached over the distant hills in a ribbon of golden hope. Snow White smiled, free to chart a new path. She squared her shoulders and set out for a future of her choosing.

**

Oh, it’s so fun to be participating again in Sue Vincent’s Thursday #Writephoto challenge. Happy Writing!

Tranquil Cove #Writephoto

photo by Sue Vincent

The beach parking lot was jammed with cars. Outside their blue rental, Samantha stretched her stiff limbs while Jeff rummaged in the back seat for snacks and towels. A tow truck clanked its chains and ground its gears in the midst of hauling away one of several abandoned vehicles, the windshields dusted with a week’s worth of windblown sand.

According to the glossy pamphlet, the rocky headlands and clustered islands sheltered turquoise waves, and the soft sand welcomed blankets and picnics. All inviting. But after days of battling crowds of tourists, the feature that most appealed to Sam was the promised solitude. Unfortunately, Tranquil Cove didn’t look like it would live up to its reputation.

She sighed and read the sign pounded into the sand at the lot’s edge. Someone had hand-scrawled a sloppy “g” on the otherwise formal warning.   “Beware of the grocks. No swimming.” She glanced at her new husband. “What are grocks?”

Jeff smirked and started up the dunes through the quivering beachgrass. “Come on.”

She climbed after him, willing to make the best of it, her toes sinking into the path’s velvet sand. The sound of a gigantic belch reached her ears, and she groaned at the prospect of a mob of drunken rugby players. But when they crested the dunes, an empty beach lay before them. “I can’t believe no one is here.”

“Someone was. Look at all the blankets and towels.”

“And footprints. Where is everyone?”

“Probably exploring the grocks.” He chuckled and headed across the sand to a sweet spot out of the breeze.

Sam helped him spread out their towels. They chowed on granola bars and shared a beer. The beach remained delightfully theirs, and as the sun peeked through the midday clouds, she napped in the rising heat.

Jeff nudged her awake. “Let’s go for a swim. I need to cool off.”

“The sign said ‘no swimming?’”

“Because of dangerous grocks.” He pulled her to her feet. “The sea’s calm, and I can see the bottom. Not a grock in sight.”

She gave in without argument. The water was refreshing, and other than a few rounded rocks, the bottom descended in a gentle slant. She wiped water from her eyes and drifted toward him, pulling herself along the shallow bottom with her hands. He sat on one of the submerged rocks near the shore, staring down at the water.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

He leaned over for a kiss and then resumed his study. “There are bubbles coming from under this rock. What would cause that?”

She sat next to him. Sure enough, tiny air bubbles leaked up around their hard seat. “I have no idea. Some kind of mollusk?”

~

Eric and Penny unloaded their car in the packed parking lot as a tow truck hauled away a sand-strewn blue rental car. A huge belch split the air and Penny laughed. “You didn’t tell me your brother was here.”

“Ha ha ha.” Eric rolled his eyes. “This place isn’t supposed to be crowded.”

Penny glanced up from reading a sign. “Hey, what’s a grock?”

***

Update:

I’m still on hiatus, but figured I’d post something. And what better than a little story based on Sue Vincent’s Thursday #Writephoto prompt?

I’ll be visiting the blogosphere more often and should be back into a routine by mid-August. I miss you! But I’ve been reading between all the busyness, and that’s been wonderfully relaxing.

My parents are doing a little better after 8 months of health issues. Unfortunately, in a couple of weeks, I have to move them a second time. Their new housing will be more suited to their needs, and we’re all eager to get this last change in place.

Happy Blogging!

Diana’s May Story: Defining Human

Pixabay image by Brigitte Werner

Defining Human

by D. Wallace Peach

“I don’t know why you keep that decrepit thing around.” Delia sipped her iced tea and glanced out the window of her friend’s home. On the manicured lawn, Sherri’s cyborg pushed their children on side-by-side swings, a human arm heaving on one small back while a mechanical arm pressed on the other.

“His name is Carter, and he’s part of the family.” Sherri angled her head for a view of their laughing boys. Dainty sandwiches adorned a platter at her table’s center, and Delia nibbled though she wouldn’t feel hungry until noon. Sherri poured more tea. “I grew up with him, and he—”

“Saved your life.” Delia patted her friend’s hand in understanding, though honestly, she’d survive without hearing a repeat of the story.

The cyborg had pulled Sherri from a fire and sacrificed the flesh on half of his face and body. The repair costs for an archived model had been prohibitive, but rather than purchase updated technology, the family had elected to preserve the damaged thing. Out of gratefulness. As if it possessed human feelings. The mawkish sentimentality was disturbing, and the cyborg’s exposed gears hideous. “They’re wired to protect us, you know?”

“I know,” Sherri said. “But he’s generous with his time and kind-hearted, and he has a fun sense of humor. He’d do anything for us, and we love him.”

Delia rolled her eyes as she finished her tea.  Her internal clock struck noon, and she helped herself to another sandwich. Her friend’s affection for the machine irritated her, and as usual, any attempt at reason was an utter squandering of her time.

The cyborg ushered the breathless children in for lunch, and Delia was thankful for the distraction. Not long after the meal, she packed her dawdling son into their transport. “Home,” she instructed. The vehicle hummed into travel mode, and she reclined in her seat with an e-mag.

“I like Carter,” her son said while fiddling with his recliner’s buttons. “He plays with us, and he’s nice.”

“He’s a machine.”

“He acts like a human.”

“Well, he’s not. We are human, superior to him and all his kind.”

“What’s the difference?”

Delia huffed at the obvious. “Quiet now, I’m reading.”

The transport glided to their front door. Their arrival home was later than planned, but she’d anticipated the delay and programmed naptime for optimum flexibility. Why carry the child when his feet were perfectly capable of walking?

She escorted her son to his room, tucked him into bed, and plugged his link into his temple. After several software adjustments, she retreated to her suite and flung herself down on her bed. She needed to reconsider her relationship with Sherri’s family. Their beliefs were having a radical impact on her son, and his confusion about what defined a human being was troubling.

Stress had taken its toll, and Delia decided to nap as well.  She set the timer for forty-five minutes, chose a pleasant dream sequence, and inserted the interface into her port. Her eyes closed as the software began its upload.

**

Note: I’m on the road again, helping my parents. I won’t be able to respond to comments or return visits until the evenings. Please bear with me. ❤ 

Clarifying Shampoo

pixabay image combo

Betsy over at Parenting is Funny was recently musing over a bottle of clarifying shampoo (yes, it’s a real thing). Her blog is a hoot, and I encourage you to visit. Her post popped a story into my head. I hope you enjoy.

Clarifying Shampoo

Clara was born a Libra. Not the normal kind of Libra with a smattering of other signs in her chart to balance her scales. She was an anomaly, an astrological case study, solid Libra from her Sun all the way across the galaxy to Pluto. She vacillated like a seesaw and simple decisions were intolerable with all the second-guessing.

Worst of all, she was the epitome of annoying. Potential friends stopped calling after a week, and romantic relationships unraveled before they had a chance to knit. She frustrated counselors. Even her mother had stopped answering the phone.

Clara had to do something, and the only thing she hadn’t tried was consulting a psychic.

Madam Bea’s Fabulous Fortunes occupied the basement below a hair salon. She specialized in Tarot, but the handmade poster on her sandwich-board advertised results, and that was exactly what Clara needed. Results.

At the bottom of the concrete steps, a peeling door led into a tight space cordoned off by red sheets tacked to the ceiling. A disorienting combination of odors—garlic, mildew, and sandalwood—assaulted Clara’s nose. A card table separated two folding chairs, complete with a sparkly glass ball on a plastic stand.

Madam Bea, a beak-nosed woman with painted eyebrows, sat at the table finishing off a pizza. She waved to the unoccupied chair while munching on the crust, and then tossed the pizza box behind the makeshift curtains.

Clearly, Clara had made another mistake, but she accepted the seat and laid out the saga of her peculiar horoscope complete with runny mascara—another miscalculation. She should have applied the waterproof variety.

The fortune teller listened intently while picking her teeth with a ruby fingernail. “I have joost the thing,” she said and disappeared behind the sheets. When she returned, she placed a half-empty bottle of shampoo on the table.

“Shampoo?” Clara frowned.

“Clarifying champoo.” Madam Bea’s eyebrows arched higher than already arched. “Trust me. I give you discount. That be fifty dollars.”

Clara forked over the cash with a sigh and drove home. Before dropping into bed, she washed her hair.

In the morning, she shuffled to her closet and ruminated over what to wear. Slacks or a skirt? Maybe a dress. Or slacks in case the office is cold. But what if it’s warm? A dress with a sweater? Although a skirt…

The lavender suit.

Clara froze. The whispered voice seemed to originate from somewhere above her head. She glanced up and then peeked over her shoulder. Alone. Was the voice real? Inside her head? She backed up and sat on the edge of her bed. Should she make another counseling appointment?

Ivory blouse and low pumps. Pearl studs but skip the necklace.

Clara jolted up with a yelp. She rifled through her closet and wriggled into the lavender suit. Studs in her ears, she dashed from her apartment to the sidewalk, the low heels a wise choice with all the running.

She inhaled a lungful of sunshine to calm her racing heart, shoved the morning’s weirdness from her thoughts, and wavered over whether to walk to work or take the bus. Or drive. Or walk. What if she got blisters? And then there was city parking…

Walk. It’s a nice day. You need the exercise.

Clara frowned and casually swept a hand over the top of her head. Was her hair giving her instructions?

I’m clarifying.

“Clarifying?” She wrinkled her nose. “Why? But what if—”

Clarity never hurt anyone. Now, no time for waffling or you’ll be late.

Still suspicious of her hair, Clara set off for work, and for the first time in three years, she arrived on time, a fact noticed by Harry, the tall, dark, and hunky cubical-occupant across the aisle. Her hair urged her to have tea instead of coffee and to check her emails before returning calls, decisions that would have taken an hour.

By the time the clock struck noon, her lips curved into a relaxed smile, the day’s decision-making handled entirely by her hair.

Harry cleared his throat. “Clara, would you like to join me for a quick lunch?”

“Oh, er, hm.” Clara didn’t know. Should she? What would she order? Maybe she shouldn’t. But then he might not ask again. So, she should. But what if she did, and he ended up being a creep, and then he’d ask her every day? She might have to quit her job. Or he could be nice. “Um, I…”

Gah! Just say yes!

“Yes,” she blurted.

Eighteen years later, while Clara unpacked her shopping bags, her daughter, Elizabeth, sauntered into the kitchen, phone in hand. “Mom, there’s a bonfire at the park tonight. Chantelle and I were planning to go, but her mom needs their car. Can I take ours? I’ll be home by nine.”

Clara wanted to say yes, but driving after dark… And what if there was beer? And boys? There would be boys. Was Elizabeth old enough? Should she say no? Eventually, she’d have to trust her daughter’s choices. She could drive the two of them. But that might be humiliating. Was it worth a fight?

She’s a responsible kid. She said she’ll be home by nine.

Clara sighed. “All right, you can go. I trust you to make good choices.”

“Awesome, mom. I have to hurry and hop in the shower.”

“Oh!” Clara perked up and searched through her bags. “I bought you some shampoo.”

Fragrant #Writephoto

Copyright Sue Vincent

Agatha inherited her grandmother’s home, a small thing as houses went, with creaky floors and spidery cracks, a kitchen with two hundred years of updates and none of them modern. The place smelled of beeswax and herbs, lemon polish, patchouli, and memories.

She loved the quaint place that would become her home, but it was the formal garden that she roamed first. The Garden of Good Intentions, a little hand-painted sign said at the start of the nearest path. Neatly edged walkways, lined with bright fireworks of lavender, divided the round garden into quarters like slices of pie. All well-tended. But it was the myriad roses that had soaked up her grandmother’s devotion—old garden heirlooms and hybrid teas, exotics and wild species, miniatures and clusters of grandifloras.

The garden had once filled Agatha’s childhood with magic, but now as she strolled the pathways, her eyes widened with dread. She was born with a withering, wilting, aphid-prone, black-spotted thumb. In a year, the cherished garden would be dead.

Despite its impending doom, the place was worth an effort at least. Lips pressed between her teeth, Agatha rummaged in the shed for clippers and gloves and donned her grandmother’s straw hat with plastic daisies wired to the brim.

She watered too much when she wasn’t watering too little, cut away dying canes and broke a few living ones, deadheaded, and made her own fertilizers and bug sprays that scarcely worked. In the autumn, she trimmed the bushes back so far that she figured a few would never see spring. And yet somehow, they always recovered after a year… or two, heavy with blooms, vibrant, and smelling like heaven.

Jocelyn inherited her grandmother’s home with its creaky floors and spidery cracks, and though the kitchen had been updated, the place still smelled of honey and herbs, lemon polish and memories. She loved the quaint place that would become her home, but it was the beautiful garden that she roamed first. The Garden of Good Intentions, a hand-painted sign said at the start of the nearest path.

**

This story is in response to Sue Vincent’s #Writephoto prompt. Sue shares a new prompt every Thursday.

February’s Speculative Fiction Prompt

Pixabay image by Marianne Sopala

For visually challenged writers, this is an image of an elephant in a snowstorm next to a little house that’s resting crookedly in a tree. A handful of white mice are on the roof of the house.

**

Thank you to everyone who responded to January’s prompt. There are marvelous imaginations out there, and I loved reading and sharing your stories, poems, and artwork. Now, for something a little different! Above is February’s image. If interested, you have until February 21st to submit a response. Happy Writing!

Here’s how it works:

On the first of every month, I’ll post a speculative fiction prompt from Pixabay. These images are attribution free so you can use them on your blog without worrying about copyright restrictions.

Throughout the month, in order of receipt, I’ll reblog as many of your prompt-inspired creations as I can. And on the last day of each month, I’ll share a complete round-up of all contributions with links to the original posts. Visiting the blogs of participants is a great way to meet other speculative fiction writers.

Post your response on your own blog and link back to this post with a pingback, so I can reblog your post as well as include you in the month-end round-up. There are no word limits or style restrictions, but please keep it somewhat family friendly.

If you’re unsure of how to create a pingback, Hugh has an excellent tutorial here. If you prefer, you can copy and paste your link into the comments of this post.

Above all, have fun.

Diana’s January Story: Dead Planet

via Pixabay by Stefan Keller

Dead Planet

Our planet died, for no living thing can thrive forever beneath the grinding thumb of neglect. But the blue squalls and wind-carved rime weren’t the first to herald a long overdue demise. We endured fires, then the parched ash and dust of rainless drought. Snow seemed almost a blessing until summer never returned.

Now we trek south, burdened only by the essentials, all luxuries of the past abandoned along the way. Lighten the load. Always lighten the load. Learn to survive with less because that’s become the single, intentional goal. To survive.

I wonder, do the southerners trek north? Will we meet in the middle and goggle at each other, our doom reflected across the narrow gap separating our frozen breaths? These are the things I ponder as my snowshoes cut a jagged groove through the crust.

We reach the mountains’ divide. Finally. Ahead stretches a white tundra, a wind-scoured wasteland. The moon hangs in the sky, thin as spilled milk. Far ahead something unnatural rises from the barren land, and I take it as a sign, an assurance of progress. I aim my feet in its direction.

A small chuckle escapes my chest, a white cloud of warmth. Despite my misery, I still nurture a spark of hope deep in my heart, a promise as bright as midnight fire. Even amidst the endless days of frost and cold and muted color, the world is beautiful, and I long to believe that the gods haven’t forsaken us. Our ancestors cursed us, and we have made mistakes indeed, but salvation must lie ahead. This can’t be the end of everything, can it—our planet a sparkling blue orb, spinning onward, devoid of life?

I sweat beneath my coat and yet my toes are numb, both portending danger. But I cannot die. Not with the gods watching over me. Not with the prayers that I drop like cairns along my trail. The bodies we have left in the snow say otherwise, but I will not accept it. I cannot.

The distant monolith draws nearer, a pale blue mountain, sharp as a dog’s tooth. Its final shape eludes me, but I know it is something unnatural, something fashioned by man. I should rest, tend to my feet, but I quicken my pace. The others lag behind me, but my tracks are simple to follow. If I possessed the strength, I would run.

There is a point in most lives, I think, when we must accept our failures. When we realize there is no turning back the hands of time, no do-overs, no choices but to recognize that our wishes are as ephemeral as our breath. I reach that moment of clarity when I come close enough to decipher the frozen shape. Our gods too have perished in this desecration. I hang my head and march onward, knowing I will die before sunrise.

**

This is the last of the January stories.
Sorry to end on such a dreary note!

Stay tuned for the February prompt on the 1st.

Spirals of Time #Writephoto

photo by Sue Vincent

I’ve always known I would travel here, to the heathered moors and verdant hills, to wander narrow roadways past stone cottages with views of the cold northern sea. Perhaps it was the Brontes or Hardy who first entranced me with the raw emotion that seems embedded in the very soil, that sweeps through castle ruins and keens across ancient cairns and holy places.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on the pulse of my yearning. But after my accident, I chose to wait no more.

The stone chapel was once part of a larger manor. It’s a quaint place of colored glass and worn reliefs, of strange carvings above its arched doorway. But also a place of layered faiths and archaic mysteries, imbued with ghosts of the past like a spiritual lodestone. I can no more ignore it than deny my heart to beat.

The day wanes, and I worry that the door might be locked. I give the latch a tug, and my fears prove true. Undaunted, I circle the perimeter, looking for another way in. To break in, frankly, though my intentions are harmless overall.

“Can I help you?”

The voice startles me, and I turn, sputtering apologies, only to encounter another shock. The fellow stands so close we nearly bump noses. “I was attempting to find a way in,” I explain, retreating a step.

“I can see that.”

“I’m from the US.”

“Do people from the US normally break into private chapels?”

“No!” My nerves force a laugh. “Not that I’ve heard of anyway. Rarely. I’ve… Well, this will sound strange, but I… It seems so silly really.” A blush pinks my face, and I stick out my hand. “I’m Daphne.”

“William. The guardian.” He takes my hand and bows, kissing it.

“The guardian?” I blink at him, flustered and nervous, but not afraid. He seems a part of this place, bonded to the stones and wildflowers, the crooked graveyard, and the weathered cross at the roof’s peak. I blow out an awkward breath. “What I meant to say is… I think destiny delivered me here, to this exact moment, to this chapel. It’s puzzling, but I feel as though I belong here and always have.”

“And I’ve been expecting you.” He smiles, looking quite noble, and sweeps his palm toward the door.

I laugh at his odd comment, but his kindness puts me at ease. He unlocks the door, and I enter without a sound. The room is tiny, though I hardly notice, my eyes drawn to a tomb illuminated by the sunlight lancing a slender window. “Whose tomb…?” I begin to ask, but William has withdrawn and awaits me in the garden.

The place is silent and still, and yet it’s thick with souls and reeling with the passage of time. I can scarcely breathe as I approach the tomb and gaze upon the sculpture of a knight. He appears asleep, his features tranquil and familiar. William’s face. A red rose, the only color in the gray-washed chapel, lies near his belt, and a white note in a woman’s script, my script, rests at its side.

Wait for me, my loyal knight, and trust my heart,
for through the spirals of time, 
I will return.

My fingers pass through the paper without a flutter. I now know why I have come here. I am home.

**

Thanks to Sue Vincent for the beautiful Thursday #Writephoto prompt. It was hard to resist a little romance. ❤