Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Yippee!


I just finished the first draft of the first book in my new fantasy series - at least I hope it'll be a series, I've already got plans for the next book - working title Sienna Brown. It'll be a while before publication, as Books 5 (A Creature of Smokeless Flame) and 6 (The Lake of the Dragon) of the Applied Topology series are stacked up on the runway ahead of it. That's ok; I need to run it through some editing passes and think seriously about a better title.

But there's very little that can compare with the joy of finishing! It took me a long time to resume actually enjoying the writing, probably because it also took a long time to recuperate from that lingering mystery illness. But the last few chapters have been fun to write. Recovering the joy of writing is wonderful.

And now I'm actually feeling good enough to work on the Red Quilt as well... that is, to take some preliminary steps towards actual work, like cleaning up the sewing room and making at least a dent in the monstrous pile of mending and hems to raise that's currently threatening to topple over on me. In the next life I want to be 5'9" so I don't have to raise the hems on pants and skirts!

Monday, October 22, 2018

I don't want to live here any more


I used to love Austin.

I was born in Austin; my earliest memories are of horned toads in the back yard, the explosion of spring flowers in my mother's garden, walking down tree-lined sidewalks to meet my father coming home from the university.

I went to college in Austin: picking up and cracking pecans as I walked home from classes, dancing through a new pair of slippers in one night, soaring with Arrowsmith's lectures on Greek tragedy and R.L. Moore's pure abstract world of point set theory.

My husband and I have lived over 30 years in the same house in Austin: our children playing all over the neighborhood and building "forts" in the unused woodsy part of the National Guard camp, walking to school and griping because I wouldn't let them cross Perry Lane on their own, still keeping up with neighborhood friends from their school days. The checkers at the market ask about my grandchildren and the neighbor with the magic flower garden updates me on her latest battles with roaming deer.

But slowly, over the years, Austin has morphed from a lovably ditzy weirdness to something darker.
There's a group here calling themselves "The Red Guards" with no discernible sense of irony. Are they really crazy enough that they don't recognize what a horror China's Cultural Revolution unleashed with the original Red Guards? Maybe they think it was a good thing? I wouldn't be surprised, because here's what they're proud of:

Pigs' Heads on Doors

That's just the nastiest bit of leftist attacks here; there've been far too many smaller instances.
Our children still live here, and we don't go out much any more. But moving up to Hutto, near my older daughter, is beginning to look more and more attractive.

It's not the forest of "Beto" signs on our street. I don't really care how my neighbors vote.

What I mind is that we, like our neighbors around the corner, are afraid to put up "Cruz" signs. Yes, afraid. We're old people living in houses that were designed in a time of peace, and I don't want a brick through a front window or somebody accosting my husband in the driveway. I don't believe any of the neighbors are that crazy, but the anger and violence displayed on the Left worries me. I can easily picture some angry coward cruising down our street and deciding to display his hatred for opposition with a brick.

I don't like living in a town like this.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thank goodness that's over



"That" meaning either the Kavanaugh confirmation circus, the 5 weeks of feeling too sick to write, or the 6 weeks of cloudy-and-rainy... all together left me with nothing to say that anybody would want to hear.

On the bright side, all that rain has inspired the basil to burst forth gloriously; I'm feeling well enough to take advantage of it and fix pesto for dinner; and an exhaustive (and exhausting) series of medical tests, while failing to account for the long miserable spell, have found that I am clinically perfectly healthy. And now I actually feel well enough to take advantage of that theoretical health!

So: pesto, as I mentioned; walking up and down the house to remind my muscles that they're not retired yet; and getting back to the unfortunate characters whom I abandoned at a particularly difficult moment (one of them just caught fire.)

And having read and/or rejected a vast number of lightweight genre novels (constant reading was a way not to think about the unpleasant aspects of illness) I'm in dire need of more fluff. And, in general, I need to discover some new writers. Anybody have any recommendations?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Elves, stars and Literary Criticism

The thing is that I ducked most literature classes in college, because I didn't feel the need for somebody to tell me what I ought to like and why my favorite novels weren't really about what they said they were about and so forth and so on. So I filled out the English requirements with Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and continued happily liking the books I liked without giving a great deal of thought about where they fitted in the great pantheon of English literature.

On the whole, I think it was a good decision. Not only did I learn that Chaucer wasn't pronounced anything like the way Miss Ruby in our high school thought, but it left the opportunity for bright bits of discovery sprinkled through my life as I read more and put things more in context. I'm sure that Fanny Burney's influence on Jane Austen, for instance, means more to me because I discovered it for myself rather than being told about it by an English professor.

But, of course, one never knows what discoveries lie ahead. And the past few weeks, during which I've been feeling too crummy to read anything but old favorite comfort books, provided me with the solution to a mystery I had not been consciously pondering. I refer to the literary origins of Madeline Basset, the soupy, drippy girl who wanders through Wodehouse's Jeeves novels under the illusion that Bertie Wooster is in love with her. Remember Madeline? No?

This is Madeline on one of the occasions of breaking her on-and-off engagement to Gussie Fink-Nottle: "One morning we had walked in the meadows and the grass was all covered with little wreaths of mist and I said Didn’t he sometimes feel that they were the elves’ bridal wreaths and he said that he had never heard such a silly idea in his life."

One's sympathies are all with Gussie.

Madeline is also liable to tell anybody who doesn't escape fast enough that "the stars are God’s daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born."

I can't say I ever really wondered where Wodehouse got the idea for Madeline, I just assumed she was part and parcel of the teeming creativity that gave us Ukridge and Psmith and Jeeves and Anatole and the Empress of Blandings. (One thing I noticed while lying down and re-reading Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves: there are no bland walk-on characters in a Wodehouse book. The man's creative energy was daunting.)

However, it chanced that as I continued feeling pale and wan, I downloaded the Anne of Green Gables novels onto Kindle so that I wouldn't have to make the tremendous effort of walking from the end of the house with the beds to the end of the house with the books. And that decision, in due course, led to my finishing the first book, crying over Matthew's death, and moving right on to Anne of Avonlea.

Which led to my remembering why I don't own that particular volume in dead-tree format. None of the subsequent novels is a patch on the original, of course, but I'm willing to re-read some of them every twenty years or so just to keep a little of the Green Gables flavor. But not this one!

It's that ghastly, drippy, soulful little Paul Irving. I can't abide the boy with all his sweet little whimsies. And so, last week I was gagging over a passage where the kid really cuts loose with "poetic" ideas:

"Do you know what I think about the new moon, teacher? I think it is a little golden boat full of dreams... And I think the violets are little snips of the sky that fell down when the angels cut out holes for the stars to shine through. And the buttercups are made out of old sunshine; and I think the sweet peas will be butterflies when they go to heaven."

And instead of walling the book (an expensive luxury when you're reading a Kindle) I sat up in bed and said, "Madeline Basset!"

I'm pretty sure Lucy M. Montgomery isn't considered Literature, and even P.G. Wodehouse is probably looked at askance by professors of Literature who ought to know better, so this particular connection may never have been made before. You're welcome. Look on it as my contribution to academic scholarship.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Is Google evil?

I've been trying to ignore all the fuss about whether various tech giants are trying to censor viewpoints they find unacceptable, muttering, "I don't use social media anyway," and "What can I do about it?" and "I'm not a lawyer."

But sometimes the situation forces itself upon me.

In the upcoming elections I'll have to choose between 'Beto' O'Rourke and Ted Cruz. I've been sort of lukewarmly pro-Cruz on the grounds that (a) I don't know a lot to his discredit and (b) I don't like an Irish guy (O'Rourke) who suddenly just happens to start going by the nickname 'Beto' when standing for election in a state with a large Hispanic population. However, one of the offspring is fervently pro-Beto and wants to shower us with his campaign literature. I defy anybody to figure out anything useful from campaign literature; it all reads like, "I'm for God and motherhood and my stinky opponent is against apple pie."

So I browsed around a bit, starting with, okay, the candidates' campaign websites and then following links and looking up statements to figure out what they were really saying.

In the course of this work-avoiding activity important research I came across an assertion that O'Rourke had called for impeaching President Trump. That caught my attention. It's not the kind of statement I take an opponent's word for, so I looked it up.

The search string "Beto O'Rourke impeachment" on Google got me exactly two hits. One was a link to a Politifact article, "Is Beto O'Rourke the only Senate candidate to call for Donald Trump's impeachment?" The article, as you might expect, parsed "to call for impeachment" extremely narrowly, then asserted that " nonpartisan observers said by email that while O’Rourke appeared to be the only Democratic Senate nominee to speak out for Trump’s impeachment, he was likely not the only Senate candidate to do so." On that basis they rated the claim False. Well, there's a reason I don't bother reading Politifact.

The other hit was... an article quoting the Politifact article.

Entering the same string on Bing got me page after page of hits, including such notorious right-wing sources as The Nation, The Dallas Morning News and The Hill (sarc /off) all of which quoted O'Rourke's words and interpreted them as a call for impeachment.

Hmmm.

Calling for the impeachment of a sitting President without reference to any crime justifying that step does not endear O'Rourke to me, but it would be too casual to stop there, wouldn't it? If I'm still stuck on this blasted book tomorrow I keep researching I may find something equally annoying that Ted Cruz said.

But I'm switching my default search engine to Bing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Bookstores in the good old days


Amanda had a post on Mad Genius Club today complaining about the book-unfriendly layout of a new Barnes and Noble and speculating that the chain's troubles may be as simple as the fact that they're more interested in selling gifts, doodads, Nooks, coffee, and music than in books.

She may be right... but her complaint revived memories of some notoriously customer-unfriendly bookstores of the past that survived despite the habit of beating their customers over the head if they tried to find a book and redoubling the beatings if we actually tried to buy said book.

Time was when I never went to Paris for longer than one night without a good browse at Shakespeare & Company, even though buying anything meant navigating through a multi-stop checkout path which they kept trying to explain to me in TGV (Tres Grande Vitesse, like the trains) French. I read French sort of okay, though slowly. I can say stuff in French if I've been in France for a couple of days, so it starts coming back, and as long as it's nothing too complicated. I cannot understand a native speaker of French in full spate; they might as well be saying "Oh la la la la la la la!" (Which, I was charmed to discover, French sports announcers really do say when something exciting happens in the soccer game.)

Anyway... moving on to English bookstores... the Foyle's at Charing Cross Road was an obligatory London stop. I spent many happy hours browsing in obscure departments... and some less happy hours looking for specific books and trying to pay for my finds. To begin with, there was the three-line checkout system, which to the best of my memory plagued Shakespeare & Co., Waterstone's, Foyle's, and probably every other bookstore on that side of the Atlantic. Under this system you stand in line once to hand over your book and receive a slip of paper bearing the price. At the second window (which is probably at the other end of the store, if not on a different floor as well) you fork over the price tag and the requisite cash, and receive in return something like a cloakroom ticket. If you can find the line for handing over cloakroom tickets, and stand in it long enough, you will eventually receive your book. Probably neatly wrapped in brown paper which you will wound the sales staff's feelings by ripping off so that you can read the book. It never occurred to them you would want to do that!

Then there was the time I found a forgotten book of reproduction maps of Georgian London in a corner on the fourth floor. There was no price printed on the flyleaf and any price sticker had long since shriveled and fallen off. There was a bit of a scene at the first window in the payment sequence, with a clerk refusing to sell me the book because he couldn't figure out how much to charge, and me clutching the maps and saying between my teeth, "Make me an offer." Somehow, I have no idea how, I got out of there with that book and its companion volumes (Elizabethan and Regency London, IIRC); suggesting that the Foyle's of that day still had some vague philosophy about pleasing the customer, even if they weren't very good at implementing it.

But my most searing memory concerns the time I was up in London for the day from the Dorsetshire village where we were staying, having been commissioned by my husband to get him more naval fiction by an author whose name he had carefully written out for me. The book he liked so much had been in paperback, so I charged happily into the serried ranks of paperback novels...

... and discovered that Foyle's arranged their paperback fiction not alphabetically by author, like every other bookstore in the known world, but alphabetically by publisher. Why? Because it made life easier for the stock clerks who had to unpack boxes of incoming books. And no, they had no way of cross-referencing to find out who published a given author, at least not one they were willing to share with a stray American.

And yet all these businesses survived.

It's really hard to depress the desire of book addicts to buy books. Publishers and booksellers have been working really hard on this problem for a long time. I hope they're grateful to Amazon for relieving them of their burden.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Not your typical Disney fairy tale



So, having finished up the Applied Topology series with an adventure (The Lake of the Dragon, forthcoming later this year) that takes Thalia up into the Pamirs, I'm starting a new series that has some links back to the first series -- notably, the language of that remote village in the High Pamirs, which turns out to have some very interesting properties. And at the same time, I'm mulling over a third fantasy series built around Lake Shaimak and its Dragon.

Reading the folklore of a region often feeds my fantasy plotting with new ideas, so I went hither and yon on the Internet in search of Pamiri folk tales and found just one book: Tales from the Roof of the World. 333 pages. In German. No translation that I could find. "Oh, well, it'll be good for my vocabulary," I groaned, and ordered a copy.

I've been relieved to find that it's not very difficult reading. The stories are written for a general audience, not a scholarly one (Thank you, God) and I can get by with looking up maybe 4 to 5 words a page if my dictionary's handy, or I can wing it making context-based guesses if the dictionary's in the other room. And the stories are starting off on an unexpected note.

I knew I was going to enjoy the first group of stories when I saw that the table of contents listed them under the sub-heading "The Power of Women." What I didn't see coming was...

The first story opened as all such tales always have. The king whose daughter's beauty shone like the light of the moon, check. Task for the princes who woo her,check. Prince after prince after prince fails, check.

Then, just as I was about to go to sleep, there entered the Hashish Smoker and his Water Pipe.

Not only that, the Hashish Smoker gets the girl because he tells the best stories!

Oookay. We're not in Walt Disney World any more, and I can't wait to find out what the next folk tale is about!

But if you want to look at traditions before they were Disneyfied, you might note that the Victorians wouldn't necessarily have been as surprised as I was by the entrance of the Hashish Smoker. Just look at the illustration to this post; it's one of Tenniel's original illustrations to Alice in Wonderland.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A particular talent for seeing hidden connections


A Tapestry of Fire

Once again, I'm trying to entice readers into a story with the chapter headings:

1. A particular talent for seeing hidden connections
2. Two truths and a lie
3. Something fishy
4. Practical demonology
5. The ice princess and the floozy
6. The imminent prospect of being unmasked
7. A rajah’s palace
8. Headstrong, reckless and irritating
9. ‘What is your good name?’
10. ‘I have no fiancée.’
11. Two thousand pounds of water
12. Loaded for grackle
13. A destructive force of nature
14. The jewel in the forehead of the idol
15. The experience of being a fish
16. Bombers’ moon
17. Falling stars
18. The death of a city
19. An order is an order
20. Lampposts wilting like flowers
21. ‘London can take it!’


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Scrambled languages


Yesterday, still slightly dazed from finishing a book, I took the day off and watched an old musical. And it's a good thing I didn't try to watch Csardaskiralyno while I was writing, because this version totally scrambled my brains.

See, I have a theory about brains and language development -- totally unscientific, but mine own. It stems from the fact that I myself seem to have only two places in my brain to stash languages. One is labeled, "English" and the other, "Everything Else." The second box is just a stack: whatever non-English language I last used is what it will give me next time I reach into the box.

Most of the time this isn't a problem; I've only noticed it when moving rapidly across Europe, where on one morning I may need German, on the next Italian, and the next day I want all one hundred words of my pitifully small Greek vocabulary. (It gets even worse when you figure that twenty of those are numbers.) Trips like that involve a lot of pulling out and discarding languages before the box finally starts delivering what I need.

But I've been around a number of people who were raised bilingual, and they're not just more fluent in their second language than I ever hope to be; they also juggle multiple languages with aplomb. They can have a conversation with a German, a Hungarian and a Russian without ever getting tongue-tied or stammering as they switch languages.

My theory, then, is that people who spoke two or more languages from the time they learned to talk have constructed better and more sophisticated language boxes than I have. Maybe they've actually got a separate box for each language they learn!

So how did the operetta mess over my language boxes? Well... I've listened to highlights from this operetta so often that despite not being very good at picking out words with music, I seem to have memorized the songs. In Hungarian.

Now, this production was being sung in German, and sometimes the words didn't mean anything at all like the original lyrics.

And since my German's no longer good enough to follow the story unaided, I was heavily dependent on the English subtitles. Which sometimes had little or no relationship to either German or Hungarian lyrics.

So... you try remembering in Hungarian, listening in German, and reading in English for a few hours! Go ahead; I'll wait. And then I'll wait some more while you try to compose a coherent sentence.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Dragon of the Lake

Talk about writing ahead of yourself... Yesterday I uploaded the ebook of A Tapestry of Fire, book 4 in the Applied Topology series. And today I finished the first draft of Book 6, The Dragon of the Lake.

The last few days have been exhilarating but exhausting, as I tend to write faster and faster near the end of a book. Now it's done, and I feel that I've wrapped up Thalia's story pretty well, and now I can start on the new series that's been whispering in my ear.

Not today, though. And quite possibly not tomorrow either. I want some time to wriggle my toes and admire the newly finished story. (Critical editing can happen later.)

So.... whee! The only things between me and publishing the last two books of this series are proofreading, formatting and cover art... and Cedar has already started thinking about cover art for A Creature of Smokeless Flame. I wonder just how quickly we can get these two out?

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Tapestry of Fire - Live!



Well, that was fast.
I just uploaded the ebook this afternoon, and it's already live: A Tapestry of Fire

Meanwhile, here's the blurb, which I hope will stir your interest:

Thalia Kostis is a budding magician (depending on how you define it), but she has a theoretical mathematician's grasp on socialization and people skills. When pressed into spying on a rival magician's company retreat to find out where kidnapped coders are being held, she expected things to go completely sideways.

She didn't expect to end up mistaken for her rival’s fiancée...

Now she has to juggle her own impending wedding, her cover, her magic, and company politics that might turn out deadlier than anyone expected!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Conflagration of Titles


I am so not good at titles.

My first agent once said, "You're so bad at titles, you should call your books MS1, MS2, MS3 et cetera."

I told her that was a dangerous suggestion to make to a recovering math major.

Oh well -- with lots of practice over lots of years, I hope I've gotten a little better at this arcane art. But I've been struggling with the title of the 5th Applied Topology book (not the one that's about to come out, that's #4.) I wanted to keep it in the format I'd used for the first four books: A(n) NOUN of NOUN. Like the title of this post. Not too difficult, wouldn't you think?

For a while I was calling it A Veiling of Djinn, but that never sounded right. It sounded awkward, and wouldn't mean much to people who hadn't read that the Djnoun veil themselves from mortal sight. (Djnoun being the Arabic plural for Djinn, but even I am not crazy enough to put that word in a title.)

So I switched to A Shadow of Djinn, and used that most of the time I was writing, and thought it was an okay title, until one of my children upset the applecart.

The other night at dinner I casually mentioned that the fifth book would be called A Shadow of Djinn.

Daughter and son-in-law: A Shadow of what?

Me: D-j-i-n-n. You know, like in the Arabian Nights?

D and s-i-l: The what?

Two takeaways from that: (1) I should have homeschooled that kid, and (2) time to think up a new title.

And I had to think fast, because #4 (A Tapestry of Fire is in the hands of the formatting service as I write, and at the back there's a short excerpt from #5 with the title.

So I'm going with A Smokeless Flame, in the hope that it will sound interesting to readers even if they don't happen to be up on the finer points of Islamic theology, such as the fact that Allah created the Djnoun (knew I'd be able to work that word into a sentence sometime!) out of smokeless fire. (I didn't want to use the word "fire" because it would echo Book 4's title.)

I hope this one works.

At least I feel reasonably sure that my semiliterate offspring and their spouses know the words "smoke" and "flame."

I'm still vacillating between just A Smokeless Flame and something like A Creature of Smokeless Flame. Any opinions would be more than welcome.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Yippee! New stuff to read!

Pam Uphoff's new book in the Wine of the Gods series,External Relations, went live this morning. I've downloaded it already and am working really, really hard to write another couple of thousand words and strip the basil leaves for tonight's pesto before I put my feet up and indulge myself.

Should you start with #37 in a series? Oh, why not? Pam's really good at setting the scene so that readers can dive in just about anywhere in the series. And if you don't trust my judgment, well, it's also available on Kindle Unlimited.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Did you know that I have a book coming out?

Thanks to The Passive Voice for pointing out this essay:

Did you know that I have a book coming out? If you’ve visited any of your social media channels even once in the past month, you should know. It is very important for the world to know that I have written a book that is actually getting published so I have posted pictures of the following: me writing my book; me editing my book; me pressing send on an email to my editor; a Boomerang of me opening a box of my finished books; a video of me in Barnes & Noble finding my book; a repost of every single reader who posted a picture of themselves reading my book; every review I’ve ever gotten (with negative bits artfully cropped out); and, of course, the obligatory publication day bonanza photo that I doctored with confetti. They really should create a dedicated “I wrote a book” emoji. Need to speak to someone in Silicon Valley about that.

- - -
Did you know that I have a book coming out? You should know because you’ve been invited to at least five different readings and six different parties celebrating my accomplishments. Wait! You’re kidding, right? Are you absolutely sure that other people don’t throw parties for themselves just for doing their jobs? That’s so strange. Are you telling me that if you finished your accounting reports on time and did all the work for which you were contractually obligated you wouldn’t have a cocktail party to celebrate?

But you should really click through to the original at McSweeney's and RTWT. It's all good.

And since the formatting service I use won't be able to get to Tapestry of Fire for a whole week, I may have time to forget how ugly unbridled narcissism looks before I start pushing the new book...

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Gaslight

For the last week I've been reading in circles. The ebook cover for the next Applied Topology book, A Tapestry of Fire, is ready and all I had to do was give the document a couple of serious proofreading passes before sending it off to the formatting service I use.
Or so I thought.
Instead, I've been going over the manuscript again and again with frustrating and confusing results.
I'm almost ready to go back to proofreading from a printed, dead-tree manuscript! That's how I used to do it, but since getting into indie publishing I've found an easier method -- at least, up to now it was easier. I convert the Word document of a book to PDF and send it to my Kindle via Amazon's automatic conversion program. That program isn't good enough to use for publication -- it gets kind of funky about hyphens, em dashes, and paragraphs -- but it does produce a version of the book which I can read on my Kindle. And it turns out that what I personally need for proofreading isn't necessarily hardcopy; it's something that mimics my reading experience. I read so many books on Kindle that this is quite comfortable for proofreading and minor editing.
The way it usually works, I read the Kindle version of the manuscript and use the Notes feature to highlight typos and wording changes. Then I open the manuscript on my laptop, in Word, and refer to the Notes on the Kindle version to find the places I need to fix. Two or three passes are usually sufficient to give me a nice clean manuscript -- and I'd already reviewed A Tapestry of Fire more than once. So, a piece of cake, right?
Wrong. This particular piece of cake has given me severe indigestion. On one reading, my Kindle decides to show me only the notes for the second half of the book. On another, I discover actual typos which I distinctly remember seeing and correcting at least two revision cycles earlier. I've been going over and over the manuscript and I think it's clean now, but I'm going to look at it again tomorrow. Just in case.
I've been at a loss to explain these sudden problems; or rather, any explanation I come up with is unsatisfactory. Amazon's Notes for the Kindle is suddenly experiencing random failures? Doesn't seem likely. Microsoft Word is sadistically refusing to save random editing changes? I'm almost paranoid enough to believe that one, but not without a motive.
Or -- here's the scary one -- my own brain is shutting down, giving me false memories of having corrected typos I never actually fixed?
That one is so terrifying that I temporarily quit thinking about the problem at all, because I am not ready to go soft in the head. I've got the last book and a half in this series written and I want to finish them, and then I've got a new book ready to go, and... not yet! Please don't let my mind fail yet! Can't it wait until I don't have any more book ideas?
Then, last night, it came to me.
Gaslight.
Of course. Amazon and Microsoft are teaming up to make me think I'm crazy, as part of their secret plan for world domination. And Charles Boyer is probably in on it too.
Paranoia. It's good for solving your problems.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Taking flak means you're over the target



I figured some of the books in the Applied Topology series would offend a few people; oh, I didn't set out with that object, but one of the pleasures of writing indie is that I don't have to slip everything past an editor who is bent on removing anything that anybody could possibly find offensive. A generation ago that attitude might have made sense, but nowadays there are far too many people taking offense at far too many things; if I tried to keep all of the Perpetually Righteously Offended happy, my books would be as bland as Cream of Wheat and I'd be too bored to keep writing.

Instead, I let my real characters have real opinions that haven't been passed through the Blandifier. The mathematicians are terrible intellectual snobs, the college kids think all of West Texas and the Panhandle are a boring wasteland, Thalia hates guns and she's dating a guy whose best friend is his Glock. And readers who lack the mental capacity to tell the difference between an author's opinions and those of a character are gonna get bent out of shape.

So... a friend just sent me a link to a really impressively offended review on Goodreads. I laughed my way through it. You gotta admire someone who can determine in the first five pages of a book that the author panders to the nasty and dangerous to sell books and can only move the story forward by touting racist ideology. As far as I can tell, the reviewer came to this conclusion based on the opinion of one character about one plot to establish a terror cell in Austin.

So. Having a character who thinks terrorists might be crossing our porous Southern border is racist. Having a character who accuses the first one of lacking compassion for innocent refugees is... irrelevant, I guess.

You can't argue with people so determined to take offense. You can only laugh at them and move on. Oh, wait. Laughing is also offensive; the same reviewer also complains that I "mock political correctness." Do tell.

I've been worried that the only people who actually read the books were the ones in my little circle of online friends, most of whom are equally politically incorrect. Well, hallelujah! Now I know I've broken out into a larger market!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Annoyance of Grackles snippet

Here's a bit from the first chapter of An Annoyance of Grackles:
Dr. Verrick stumped to the head of the table and regarded the four of us with the expression of a man who’s requested a SEAL team and received four of the Seven Dwarfs. At an age somewhere between seventy and a hundred and ten (none of us had the nerve to ask), you’d think he would have got used to people not living up to his expectations.
“In a few minutes,” Dr. Verrick announced, “you will have the opportunity to meet a young man who will be interning with the research department this semester. He will, of course, receive significantly less than a full research fellow’s stipend.”
That was an eyebrow-raiser. Considering the beggarly stipends he allotted full-fledged research fellows, the only way an intern could receive significantly less was if he paid for the privilege of working with us. And nobody was that crazy, unless…
“Oh, God,” I said involuntarily, “Tell me it’s not Vern Trexler.”
“Staff selection is entirely my prerogative,” Dr. Verrick said, and paused long enough for me to have one of those near-death experiences where your whole life zips past your eyes. I hadn’t had nearly enough life for this to take more than a couple of seconds; I was kind of counting on another fifty or sixty years of experiences to stockpile before getting to this bit.
“But no, Miss Kostis, the person I have in mind is not Mr. Trexler, but rather an exceptionally talented dissertation candidate who requires a brief sabbatical from his formal work.” I swear he enjoyed watching me start to melt down. Trexler – well, that’s another story. Not, praise gods and little stars, part of this one.
Nobody had ever suggested the Center for Applied Topology as a rest cure for troubled minds. We were more likely to shatter minds than heal them. Ben made that point and Dr. Verrick said testily,
“Exactly what gave you the impression that Mr. Bhatia was seeking a rest cure? I expect he will work harder here than he has in the entire rest of his academic career, and it will do him good.”
“Prakash Bhatia? That Bhatia?” Ingrid exclaimed. Maybe she knew the guy from graduate school. I’d have to get any juicy details out of her as soon as the meeting was over.
“Yes, that Bhatia,” Dr. Verrick confirmed. He went on to tell us that at this late stage in his studies, Prakash Bhatia had begun experiencing the minor, disturbing incidents that had drawn all of us – the research fellows, anyway – to the Center. Unlike us, though, he was determined to deny that anything unusual was going on. He hadn’t collected all the spades in play during a bridge game and spread them out in order on the table, somebody was playing conjuring games. He didn’t correct a research paper without touching it, he’d just forgotten that he had already edited it on the computer. And so forth and so on.
Continuous denial of reality is not good for the mind. Dr. Verrick hoped that being in contact with four research fellows who routinely did things a lot more amazing than messing with hands of cards would help Prakash Bhatia to accept the reality of his talent. But taking him in for this semester was not a work of charity; this young man had a lot to contribute to our work, if he could just let go of his crippling certainties.
He dismissed us back to our offices, saying that we should be prepared to interview the new intern in a few minutes. And that refusing to accept the appointment was not an option. We were going to work with Bhatia for a semester. Instead of giving him a conventional interview, he expected us to explain the structure and work of the Center for Applied Topology.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Shattered Under Midnight


After getting Annoyance up as an ebook and while waiting for Createspace to finish the annoying minuet required to publish the paperback version, I've been indulging myself in light reading (and light listening, but that is another story.) Dorothy Grant's new book, Shattered after Midnight, might have been designed for the purpose. I'd expected nothing less from Dorothy than an adventure story, constant plot twists, a likable heroine and a sweet romance that takes a definite back seat to the adventures. Shattered delivered all this with, as a bonus, some very intriguing quasi-living alien architecture that I would have loved to see illustrated.

If you've been working hard and feel like you deserve some time off, you can hardly go wrong with this story!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Annoyance of Grackles is live on Kindle


An Annoyance of Grackles is live on Kindle! (One typo in blurb, which I hope they'll let me edit.)


TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Sometimes a grackle is just a grackle
2. We try not to disturb normal people
3. The Mathematical Mafia
4. The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Turtle
5. I do not even wish to know that it exists
6. A job for the Center
7. Intelligent, competent, angry and amoral
8. A whirling cloud of grackles
9. Bollywood freestyle
10. Intoxicated by your touch
11. Liar, liar…
12. The Wrath of Thalia
13. A strong desire to duck and cover
14. Elvis meets the Ramones
15. The sacred knucklebone of St. Elias
16. A god of darkness and despair
17. The best makeout site in Floydada County
18. The reflexes of the average topologist
19. Vlad the Impaler on voicemail
20. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
21. A surrender with honor
22. Your very, very short future
23. You have just killed her yourself
24. All your nights and all your days

Monday, June 25, 2018

An Annoyance of Grackles


I've just uploaded the Kindle version of An Annoyance of Grackles, Book 3 in the Applied Topology series! It should be live in the next day or two; when it is, I'll edit this post to turn the title into a link.

For now, here's the blurb:

Problems come not as as single corvids, but as full flocks...
Life at the Center for Applied Topology is never precisely normal, but Thalia Kostis, Brad Lensky and their coworkers have been enjoying a brief run of peace, quiet, and optimizing the theorems that allow for teleportation and camouflage. Everything is within parameters, until they get saddled with an intern who's convinced that he's God's gift to math and that their applications of topology are illusory.

A rebellion is brewing - but bigger problems are afoot. Their old enemy, the Master of Ravens is back, and has teamed up with a mercenary with a grudge over the Institute's recent disruption of a profitable contract. Together, the two are planning on taking out the Center- and everyone in it!

I'm excited about this series. The first book, A Pocketful of Stars, is doing very well, and the second, An Opening in the Air, is catching up fast. It's very gratifying to see from the reviews that readers are finding the books as funny as I thought they were!
With books 4 and 5 already written, and book 6 in the planning stage, I hope to have a very good publishing year.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Magic gardens

Well, from my point of view it might as well be magic. People appear, plants appear, drip watering systems happen and suddenly the First Reader likes to spend evenings on the back porch, looking at all the new green stuff. I do have to fight down the occasional twinge of guilt that we're buying this splendor instead of doing it ourselves.

(stomp stomp stomp Look, idiot, there are things you can't do yourself, and some time in the last forty years landscape gardening got into that category. You think you're up to shoveling a small mountain of dirt? No? Now shut up and enjoy the greenery. stomp stomp stomp)

Okay, I think I got that under control now.

He's put wind chimes on the back porch. They go nicely with the chorus of cicadas.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The best dog park ever


It wasn't exactly what he had in mind when he hired the landscapers...

A couple of weeks ago the First Reader decided to celebrate our second grandchild by hiring some men with machines to do something about our back yard. When we moved into this house that yard was a smooth expanse of grass with a paved walk out to a tiny stone-build back patio; a wonderful place for children to run, shout, play, build forts, splash in wading pools, and so forth. Being able to turn the kids out to graze probably saved my sanity in those early years.

Time passed, the children grew up, my early gardening ambitions expired after the discovery that what we actually had out back was a thin layer of topsoil over a solid chunk of the Balcones Escarpment and the First Reader's interest in maintaining a lawn diminished under Austin's watering restrictions. What remained was a kind of wasteland in which live oak seedlings had conquered the grass and the paved walk had been turned into an obstacle course of broken concrete slabs by the roots of those nice volunteer live oaks that shaded the porch.

So... a couple of days ago the men and their machines showed up and spent an active day making a wide variety of noises. Chainsaws, wood chippers, and a thing like a baby bulldozer prowled the land. The dog moved into his favorite closet, the one he uses when thunderstorms roll through town. I moved into the library, streamed some Mzee Yusuf hits for atmosphere, and moved (mentally) into Mombasa's Old Town with Thalia and Lensky.

Come dinner time, the landscapers had departed and the children (the ones who haven't spawned yet) came over for our weekly date: enchiladas for the people, and a play date for their puppy and our dog. I looked out through the sliding glass doors in the dining room and said, "My God, where did they take our back yard?" What was left resembled a bit of Somalia after ten years of drought; nothing but bare earth with ditches and lines carved into it. (I later learned that the dirt had been trucked in.)

The dogs' reaction was purely ecstatic. They spent the better part of an hour racing around the bare dirt, going up and over the mounds and diving into the trench that is, I'm told, a future drainage ditch. "This is the best playscape ever, Mommy! Don't ever change it!"

I wonder what they'll think when the ground cover is planted?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Little rips in the fabric of the universe


Up through A Pocketful of Stars I'd never bothered with naming chapters. The only remotely creative thing I ever did even with chapter numbers happened a long time ago, and that (Mathemagics) is another story. But now that I've started exploring the world of indie publishing, it has been pointed out to me that good chapter titles can be a secondary form of advertising. If somebody downloads the free sample for a Kindle e-book, don't I want to use every tool I've got to interest them in the story? Of course I do. Well, a table of contents with chapter titles can give tantalizing hints as to what's coming after the short text sample. With any luck, the prospective reader will look at something like, "17. Time-traveling space aliens," and think oh, there's going to be lots of interesting stuff coming up, maybe I want the whole book.

My grinchy subconscious insists on pointing out that they may also think, "This is way too weird and crazy for me."

Shut, up, subconscious. Anybody who reacts that badly to the chapter titles probably wouldn't have given me a good review anyway.

So I put chapter titles into An Opening in the Air, and after going three rounds with the formatting service I finally got them into the clickable table of contents in the e-book:


1. More fun than I’d bargained for
2. Little rips in the fabric of the universe
3. A finite set of stars
4. Close enough without sharing body parts
5. By force if necessary
6. Let sleeping case officers lie
7. A topologist in motion tends to walk into the wall
8. I frequently feel like locking them up myself
9. The most embarrassing mother on the face of the earth
10. God’s Own Amusement Park
11. Shot at and missed
12. Black sheets, white sheets or the kitchen table
13. “Sexist, racist, KKK”
14. The next Ice Age
15. The best vintage car festival ever
16. A message to the future
17. Time-traveling space aliens
18. An extremely embarrassing incident
19. The imminent prospect of torture
20. We astonish Ben bigly
21. And yet it walks and breathes
22. Come alone and tell no one
23. Words like broken glass
24. You cannot let him think he has broken you
25. The resident djinn

I hope at least a few of these will intrigue potential readers. I can't think of any way to measure that, so I expect subsequent books will also have chapter titles; it's fun dreaming them up.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

An Opening in the Air

The second of the Applied Topology books, An Opening in the Air, is live as an ebook today. I hope the paperback version will join it in a few days.



Here's how it starts:

CHAPTER ONE

More fun than I’d bargained for

The job applicant Dr. Verrick had brought over edged into my office, kicked the trash can, dropped a sheaf of papers and went down on his hands and knees to scoop them up. “I’ll take those,” Dr. Verrick said when he stood again. “Miss Kostis, Mr. Edwards.” He collected the forms Mr. Edwards was clutching and disappeared. He probably considered that a lavish and informative introduction.
“Call me Colton,” the young man said with a tentative smile. “Colton Edwards.” He pulled a chair out of the corner, banged it into his own shins, and sat without, thank goodness, further mayhem.
Asking if he was naturally clumsy or just nervous would probably scare him even more, so I repressed the question. Though I did wonder. Given his appearance, I was voting for natural clumsiness. He didn’t look like a college graduate; more like a farm boy from a West Texas high school, one who had shot up eight inches and two shoe sizes the previous year and hadn’t yet learned to manage his extra height. Shaggy blond hair fell over a wide forehead and framed an open, friendly face. The rest of him seemed to be trying to figure out what to do with his outsize hands and gigantic boots.
Before I could even introduce myself, the interview was interrupted by a crash of furniture and a string of curses in the office next door. “Would you excuse me for just a moment?” I abandoned the job applicant and zipped around the corner to the next office. What had happened to Ben? Unlike this Mr. Edwards, he was not given to falling over the furniture.
His office was built on much the same lines as mine: a tall narrow room partitioned off by flimsy temporary walls that looked shabby against the exquisite woodwork of the oak floor. That’s the kind of décor that happens when you turn the top story of a Victorian house into office space.
He had knocked over a stack of three chairs in the corner of his office, his hair looked even more like a light brown bird’s nest than usual, and there was a quilt trailing from his desk to the floor. Ohio Star pattern.
I’m used to adding up clues, though in the research division of the Center for Applied Topology the addition was likely to involve numbers like the square root of minus one rather than anything as simple as two plus two. “Ben. Were you walking around with a quilt over your head? And why?”
“I’m trying to use Riemann surfaces to make light. Operating on the molecular level.”
“I still don’t get the function of the quilt in this theorem.”
“I thought maybe I had made light, only it was too dim for me to see it in here.” He gestured at the sunlight pouring in through his office windows. “So I was trying to create a dark working space.”
For a topologist at the Center, this was as close to making sense as it got. “Well, next time just sit in the supply closet, okay?” I was dying to know how he thought a Riemann surface would enable him to make light out of nothing, but the theoretical discussion would have to wait until I didn’t have a nervous job applicant in my office.
When I got back, the young man facing me across the desk looked even more nervous. I couldn’t blame him. Before Ben’s little problem, Mr. Edwards had walked through a wall in a way that twisted space around on itself – and that was only the start of the tour. That, and signing the stack of non-disclosure forms and agreements that Dr. Verrick had carried off. Since the spook from the secretive three-letter agency had come to stay, there were a lot of new rules and procedures aimed at preserving the secrets of the Center for Applied Topology. If this guy had even glanced at the fine print on the forms he’d just signed, he would know that he had acceded to terms of service even worse than Microsoft’s. Whether or not he got hired, discussing what he was about to see here with anybody outside the Center would guarantee that he spent the next twenty years in jail, and not a nice American one, either.
That was the kind of arm-twisting Lensky’s agency did for us. Before they’d taken a hands-on interest in the Center, our secrecy-preserving measures had been more ad hoc: Dr. Verrick warned research fellows not to pursue their research in public, yelled at us when we did so, and hired an exceptionally gifted fabulist to persuade anybody asking inconvenient questions that they hadn’t actually seen what they thought they saw. Annelise was, in my opinion, a much better security system than a bunch of signed forms, but that’s not how Washington does things.
“So, Mr. Edwards, why do you want to work for the Center for Applied Technology?” The question wasn’t a mere formality. Only a certain type of crazy person would want to do academic research for a miserly stipend, out of an office in a creaky Victorian building, with no prospect ever of publishing any results.
“I don’t know that I do,” Colton Edwards answered, and I blinked.
“Well then, what brought you here?”
“Dr. Verrick. I took a topology class from him last year, and he… well… some odd things happened, and he suggested I come and talk to you people. Strongly suggested,” he amplified, and I understood a little better. Dr. Verrick’s strong suggestions could have turned the Titanic around. His force of will had been what created the Center in the first place: our office space here on the University of Texas campus, our funding, our shaky position as a part of the University’s research efforts. A strong suggestion from Dr. Verrick could, in fact, do almost anything except make the Center’s research fellows behave like normal human beings, and he hadn’t yet given up on that.
“But the suggestion wasn’t strong enough for you to act on it immediately?” Spring semester would have ended last May. It was mid-October now.
He twitched slightly. “Summers, I usually go home and straighten out the books on the family farm. They were counting on me to do the same thing this year. Actually, they were counting on me to stay, now that I’ve got my degree.” I took a moment to skim his transcripts, which were heavy on things like Calculus Concepts for Business Majors and Statistical Inference in Management, but remarkably light in terms of actual mathematics. “What inspired you to take first-year honors topology in your final year?” Most students’ final semesters were heavy with the boring required courses they’d put off in the hope that they might die before actually having to take them. Annelise, our receptionist, had spent her last semester as an undergraduate doing little but satisfying the Diversity and Anti-Bigotry requirements.
He offered me a crooked smile that showed where one tooth had been chipped and never repaired. “It looked interesting?”
“But your entire background was in business-oriented math?”
“Which is boring,” he said. “I wanted to have a little fun before going back to be the business manager for the family farm.” He took a deep breath. “Introductory Topology turned out to be… a little more fun than I’d bargained for.”
“What did you move?” We’d all started out with a little unintentional telekinesis on small, light objects; I was willing to bet Colton’s experience had been similar.
“Ah, the chalk?”
“A stick of chalk?”
“Um, no, the chalk on the board.” He wriggled his shoulders unhappily, “See, Mr. Nesmith was putting up a proof, but he’d got one line backwards, and I was thinking really hard about the way the third line should have gone instead of what he’d actually written and trying to get him to look at me so I could, you know, signal him or something, and instead… Well, you probably won’t believe this, but…”
“The writing on the board changed.”
His eyes blazed with hope. “Yes! You get it. You really do get it!”
“Oh yes, Mr. Edwards. All of us got here through similar experiences.” Some more traumatic than others. Colton had gotten off easy.
A colored bubble floated through my open office door. A glowing colored bubble. Bubblegum pink, if you’re interested. It was followed by friends in a rainbow of different colors. Each bubble in turn hovered over my desk, shrank down to a pinpoint and disappeared. I wondered if Ben had planned the color show, or if this was just a temporary stop on the way to full-spectrum lights.
“Ben, keep the closet door closed!” I called out, then gave Mr. Edwards an apologetic smile. “At least we don’t have to give you the what-we-do-here tour. Mr. Sutherland is taking care of that all on his own.”
Colton grinned back. Without the grin he’d just looked like a clumsy farm boy, all big boots and too-long legs and big hands. With it – well, he still looked likely to fall over furniture and small animals, but his face lit up in a very appealing way. I wondered – briefly – whether he was likely to give Ben competition in the unending courtship of our lovely, lying receptionist. Well, not my problem.
“So are you looking for a short post-grad stint before going back to become the family business manager? Or for something more permanent?”
“More permanent would be really good.”
“There’s more money in accounting,” I warned him.
“There’s more boredom in accounting. Also, I spent way too much of this summer trying to explain to my big brother why it would be a really bad idea to keep two sets of books. Now somebody who’s not related to him will have to tackle that issue. I mean – if you – if I can—"
A panicky yell from the supply closet interrupted his incoherent words. I raced around the corner and yanked the closet door open. Colton was right on my heels.
There was a faint smell of something burning, but it didn’t seem strong enough to justify panic. “What did you set on fire? The floorboards?”
Ben gestured towards the floor. “I think it’s under the floorboards. In the middle of a supporting beam. We can’t just let it smolder indefinitely. And if we open up the floor to dump water on it, the fire will blaze up. What are we going to do?”
I was tempted to say, “What do you mean we?” but the fact was that he had created a problem for all of us. Our tenure of the third floor of a Victorian mansion on campus was based on the requirement in Chester Allandale’s will that the university preserve and use his home in return for the rest of his extremely generous bequest. Setting a supporting beam on fire was exactly the sort of thing the trustees would not understand as part of “preserve and use.”
“Can you invert the process and, I don’t know, create water inside the beam?”
Ben shook his head. “I’m afraid to try. I don’t even know how the fire started. I was only trying for light.”
When in emergency… I nipped back to my office and grabbed the three-foot silver snake coiled up like a paperweight on my desk. “Mr. M.! Help!”
The turtle head at the business end of the snake opened one eye part way. “I’m hibernating.”
“It’s only October, and it’s still hot in Austin! And we need your help.”
The coil of silvery scales shook, expanded, became a long metallic snake body behind an organic turtle head. Mr. M. slithered out of my arms to the floor, undulated around the corner towards the closet, lifted his head and sniffed. “Apply the Lights to the problem.”
“Are you sure? Seems to me we need less light, not more.”
“You disturbed my sleep to demand advice. I have given it. Do as you wish.” The turtle beak closed with a snap. So did both the turtle eyes.
“Ben?”
He was already opening the glass jar from his desk. A cloud filled with sparkling points of light streamed from the jar into his hand. Behind me, Colton sucked in his breath. This was possibly not the ideal way to introduce him to the infinite set called the Lights of the Medes. Or to Mr. M. himself, for that matter.
Ben knelt and placed his open hand, palm down, on the closet floor, and closed his eyes. I could feel the miniature stars moving from his hand down into the wood. There was also a feeling of… not-enough? There were infinitely many stars. Not enough topologists, then? I stuck a hand in my pocket, then knelt and laid my palm beside Ben’s. Now I could feel the movement of my own stars. They swirled joyously around the grain of the wood and returned to my hand, slightly warmer. The sense of smoldering heat slowly dissipated and Ben looked at me. “I think it’s all right.”
“I think so too.” I would save my blistering recommendation that he repeat the Elementary Physics semester on heat, sound and light until later. It would be nice if Colton could maintain the illusion that we were all one big happy family until he’d been formally read into the program.
I scooped up Mr. M. and returned to my own nice, dry, not-on-fire office, followed by Colton. “Where were we?”
With a visible effort, Colton averted his eyes from the sight of Mr. M. coiling himself back into a tight spiral on top of my papers. “I thought that was a paperweight.”
“No, he’s more of a… colleague.” It would probably be best to save the detailed story, which involved Nebuchadnezzar, a magic-damping ring, a beheading, and the involvement of a robotics engineer, until Colton had had time to assimilate what he’d already seen. Even the White Queen had limited herself to six impossible things before breakfast.
“You’d have your own office, though,” I promised Colton. “The only reason Mr. M. has to share with me is that he’s not very good with doorknobs.”
“Then – am I hired?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. By the time Dr. Verrick brought an applicant over to the closed side, he was as good as hired; this interview was just a chance for the topologists to object. Nothing objectionable about young Edwards, as far as I could see. “You’re definitely crazy enough to fit in here. I don’t have any more questions. What about you?” When he started on about pay and benefits, I’d shunt him back out to Annelise.
“Just one,” he said, surprising me. “What’s a Riemann surface?”
I started to answer him, but the building fire alarms drowned me out. They drowned out just about everything except Meadow Melendez, from the public side, shouting, “Ben, what the [fornicating] [expletive] did you do now?”
The automatic sprinklers went on. Mr. M. uncoiled, slithered to the floor and headed for the stairs in the public section. I scooped up most of the papers on my desk and followed, towing Colton by the hand. Leaving the private section was easier than getting into it, but the kid could be excused for being too rattled to realize that.
By the time we’d crossed to the other side of the wall, Mr. M. was a silver flash on the heels of Meadow and Annelise, and Ben and Ingrid had joined us on the public side. Jimmy DiGrazio grabbed Ingrid’s arm and barked, “Downstairs!” as if he thought she was too dumb to move without orders. That wasn’t going to improve their relationship.
I really, really hoped the stairs weren’t on fire too, because they were the only way out for some people. The trustees had felt that fire escapes would be a blot on the visual integrity of the building.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

In lieu of anything original...

...here's a copy of my madgeniusclub.com post for today. The current book is zipping along at such speed that I hardly have time to be opinionated about anything in the news, much less write it down.

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T READ THE REVIEWS



“I feel my very existence threatened,” the Sila said.

Mr. M. cast a sardonic eye on the space she claimed to occupy. “How is that new? You’re only a shadow of smokeless flame anyway.”

“I can manifest myself to mortals,” she snapped, rapidly flashing into view as a beautiful almost-human woman, a serpent with flames flickering along its scales, and a cloud of blue smoke. “And at least I’m not limited to one form. Don’t you ever get tired of slithering around as a metal snake attached to an ugly turtle head?”

“They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground, They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound,” Mr. M. quoted, loftily ignoring the insult.

“Your Kipling obsession gets old very quickly,” said the Sila.

“Illiterate djinn! That was Chesterton. And he goes on to describe much what your current master is demanding: ‘And chase the Giaours flying, night and day, not giving rest, For that which is our trouble comes again out of the West.’”

“Well, I won’t be chasing anybody if your progenitor doesn’t stop reading her reviews. The most recent one complained about her introduction of one non-human creature – that would be you. Now she’s wondering how that reader will feel when he meets a Hindu God and an Islamic Djinn.”

“The Master of Ravens was only an imitation of the god Shani,” Mr. M. corrected her.

“Details, details. I tell you, she’s on the verge of deleting me from the book!”

“Oh, don’t get your flames in a flare-up. She isn’t that fragile. If anything, she will end up even more determined to give you a major role.”

“You’re sure?”

“She isn’t that stupid, either. She knows she cannot delete me; I’ve been with her since the first book of the series. And you are safe too.”

“I am?”

“Annoying though you are, you are integral to the plot.”

The Sila’s flames flickered in sinuous, winding patterns. “So I am. I am also the most interesting character in the book, and by far the most beautiful. All the same, I wish she would not get all wobbly over the slightest little criticism.”

“So do I,” Mr. M. sighed, “but trust me, she will get over it. I fear such insecurity is in the nature of writers. In the old days it was easier to persuade them not to read their reviews.”

“It was?”

“Oh, yes. All one needed to do was point out how expensive subscriptions to Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus Reviews were. Now writers can check their reviews on Amazon daily for free.”

“Perhaps,” the Sila suggested, “we should offer a protective service.”

“Protective?”

“We will look at the Amazon reviews daily and send an email summary to the writer whenever there’s something new. That way we can tactfully gloss over anything that might upset her.”

“Good idea, but she’ll never buy it. You wouldn’t believe how paranoid that woman is about forking over her email address!”

“Do you have an email address?”

“Naturally. Babylonmage@mesopotamia.com. What about you?”

“TheSila.”

“At?”

“Hotmail, obviously.” The flames gusted up and died down; the Sila had departed.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The best thing in life

The main character in the Applied Topology books would say it's the exhilarating experience of teleporting through the in-between. Her sidekick would take Churchill's position: "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."
I think I've got them both beat, though sometimes I lose the thread for a little while.
It’s been a somewhat trying couple of weeks. Hence the failure to post; I’m not a nice person when in pain, and something – probably a period of rapid changes from cool to hot to cool, with rain and sun alternating – has given my arthritis new power to overwhelm. It even interfered with writing for a few days, because suddenly it was painful to sit with the laptop in the room I’ve been using and I have had to find a different setup.
So… I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and whining nonstop, until this morning I realized that it was way past time to count my blessings.
During the worst of the pain I couldn’t concentrate enough to write, but it didn’t stop me gazing besottedly at my new, beautiful granddaughter or exchanging funny memes with her mother.
And in the four days since I found a new writing setup, I’ve crashed into A Mask of Djinn full speed and have knocked out four chapters.
That I actually like.
And there is nothing, nothing, like the high of telling a new story. How lucky is that? I’ve got this thing I do that makes me happy and that I can continue to do despite increasing physical limitations. Sometimes other people actually like it too and tell me so. (Two new Amazon reviews for A Pocketful of Stars certainly contribute their share to the present euphoria.)
So, onward and upward. (And pass the aspirin.)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Joy in the morning

I try not to embarrass the offspring by posting details of their personal lives on this blog, but today I can't contain myself. Yesterday the Organizer presented us with our first granddaughter! (Oh, all right, I suppose her husband had a little to do with it too. But she certainly did the heavy lifting.)

This pregnancy has not been without problems and complications; I feel as if I'd just let out a breath I've been holding for the last four months. I have a healthy daughter and a healthy granddaughter. The baby is currently ticked off about having been expelled from a nice warm place with all the conveniences, but I expect that won't last. And her older brother is thrilled about finally getting to see his little sister - although that may not last once they get home and he discovers that this interloper is keeping him out of Mommy's lap.

Life. On the whole, I approve of it.

And in thirteen years I plan to move into the Organizer's living room, draw up a rocking chair and watch as she discovers the joy of dealing with a teenage daughter.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A celebratory snippet

The paperback edition of A Pocketful of Stars is live and linked to the Kindle edition! And I'm celebrating by posting another snippet demonstrating that the rest of the Mathematical Mafia isn't any easier to deal with than Thalia....

**********

“You can do teleportation.” His blue eyes pinned me like a bug in his collection. “Telekinesis.” Ingrid got the treatment. “Invisibility.” Back to Ben. “You people can be very useful to me. You’re just trying to wriggle out of it.”
“Ingrid,” I said wearily, “would you bring something over from the coffee cabinet?”
She closed her eyes and moved her lips soundlessly. There was a furious jiggling in the condiments rack; then a plastic stir stick dropped on the table in front of her.
“Thank you. Now how about a sugar packet?”
This took longer. Eventually a pinch of brown sugar fell onto the table.
“Ingrid can’t move an entire sugar packet,” I explained to Lensky. “It’s too heavy. The best she could do was to move a little sugar out of the packet.”
“Without tearing it!” The man was determined to be impressed. I soldiered on.
“If you’d like, I can go to my office and get the plastic pieces I use for set selections, and you can verify that they too aren’t very heavy.” I wasn’t eager to demonstrate the measly six to twenty-four inches that constituted my current teleportation range, so I tried to focus his attention on the accidental telekinesis that started this whole thing.
“Poker chips,” Lensky said, “and Darth Vader. And other action figurines.”
I was surprised. He flashed a tight smile. “What, you think I’m totally unobservant? Noticing things like that is in my job description. And even granting you have some limitations, you people can make yourselves useful. I want a look inside one of our suspects’ computers. A man called Raven Crowson. I don’t have enough for a warrant. But you should be able to get access by changing bits inside the computer. Little, light things moving very tiny distances. Piece of cake, right?”
What did he think we were, computer nerds? “Wrong! To do that, we’d have to have a detailed image of how a computer works.”
“You’re math majors, don’t you already know all that stuff?”
“We’re pure mathematicians,” I tried to explain. Naturally, that meant nothing to him.
“So that means what? I need to find some slightly sullied math majors? Some who’ve already lost their virginity? Or do I need to sully you… personally?” He gave me a slow once-over, obviously trying to embarrass me. I did not blush. Well, not very much.
“Clean up your act!” Ingrid snapped. “She just meant, you’d have to talk to applied mathematicians for this.”
“Actually, I don’t think that’s going low enough.” Ben joined the argument. “He might need a computer science major.”
“These days, they’ve gone all theoretical. He really needs an… engineer.” Ingrid looked as if she wanted to wash her mouth out with bleach after using the E-word.
“And there’s no way anybody in engineering could visualize abstractions well enough to do applied topology,” I finished. “So you see, it’s not possible to make this work.”
“Sure it is. I’ll get somebody who understands computer architecture and they can explain it to you, then you guys can do the voodoo part. Or are you just giving me the runaround because you actually can’t do anything at all with your so-called magic?”
“We do not,” Ingrid said icily, “call it magic. Boris.”
“And you were just arguing that we could do more than we were admitting! Can’t you even stay on the same side of your own arguments?” I’d begun a slow burn when he tried to embarrass me, and this contradiction turned up the flame. “You ignorant, intellectually challenged imbecile, can’t you even follow a simple logical argument without holding onto the rope with both hands? It’s not our job to educate a dysfunctional kindergartener.”
I had more to say along those lines, but “Boris” had tilted his chair back and was laughing. “Go on,” he urged. “How many more polysyllabic insults can you come up with?”
“For you,” I said, “I’d better stick with insults of one syllable. Try this: If you want a big bang, you don’t need us, you need a gun!”
He pushed his coat lapels back. “That, I’ve got.”

Friday, April 27, 2018

A POCKETFUL OF STARS is live on Kindle!

I think there's some way to make the picture clickable, but can't remember and don't have time to fool with it. Just click the title. It's only $2.99, and if you like reading this blog, you'll like it... and if you don't like reading this blog, what are you doing here, anyway?

OK. That's as close as I can come to a hard sell. Try this snippet, why don't you, and maybe it'll make you want to know what happens next.

************

I was mulling over the Klein bottle problem when he interrupted me.
Coming out of a strong visualization can be tricky. Fortunately, I wasn’t exactly trying for one. I was just thinking about the fourth-dimensional version of a Möbius strip and wondering exactly what would happen if I could hold an image of it in my mind and traverse the dimensions. I wasn’t all that eager to find out, so the image in my head was rather fuzzy.
This meant that I was able to respond to the interruption relatively quickly. Fingers drumming on my desk, check. Do not whack fingers with a book, good for me. (No matter what Ben says, I have never chopped anyone’s fingers off with a cleaver. I don’t even have a cleaver in my desk.)
Fingers… attached to a man who might have been attractive if he hadn’t looked so impatient. Oh hell, scratch that. Even wearing that unfriendly expression, he was hot. Being a little, dark Greek type myself, I’m a sucker for that California beach boy look. This one had the blond hair, a little too long, and a squarish Northern European face with – of course – dark blue eyes. And you could sort of tell that under his loose-fitting jacket he had a body no surfer need be ashamed of, compact and muscular. With impressively broad shoulders.
“Well?”
I blinked. “Well… what?”
“Aren’t you going to offer me a chair?”
“No.” I’d never seen this man before; what was he doing in the Research Division? He shouldn’t even have been able to find it.
He dragged a chair from the corner, ignoring the horrible screeching sound of wooden legs on a wood floor, and plunked it beside my desk. Then he sat down, straddling the chair and resting his arms on the back. “I need to talk to you.”
“How did you get here?”
“Huh? Jet Blue, rental car from the airport.”
“Here. The Research Division. Topologically speaking,” I hinted, although I didn’t for one minute believe he would have been capable of the necessary visualizations. He’d initiated contact; his pretty blue eyes met mine whenever I glanced at his face; he was, right now, invading my personal space. Almost certainly not a mathematician.
“Walked up the stairs and through the door.”
I waited.
“With Dr. Verrick.”
I relaxed slightly. That’s the other way to find the Research Division; get escorted by someone who already qualifies. This guy himself didn’t have the talent; he had already convinced himself that there was a door in the wall that he’d been Möbiused through. But if Dr. Verrick had personally escorted him, he must want me to make the man happy… whatever that took.
Could be interesting.
I was still thinking vaguely about making him happy when he began removing all desire to do so.
“I’m from your sponsoring institution.”
“The Moore Foundation?” He didn’t look like a Foundation person.
“If you like.”
An odd answer. I’m pretty sure that if we had any sponsors besides the Moore Foundation, I’d have noticed, if only because of the time wasted to appease them. Dr. Verrick makes all of us dress like adults and stand around at the Foundation’s occasional formal parties. (If they throw any other kind, I haven’t been invited.)
“We have need of some information that you people may be able to procure for us. We want you to look at the computer user behind a series of messages and find out what he’s planning and who his associates are.” He plopped a folder onto my desk and knocked off Darth Vader, five poker chips, An Overview of Hyperbolic Geometry and my notes on strongly connected graphs.
(Don’t you know that a neat desk is a sign of a sick mind? Countless studies confirm the link between a messy workspace and creativity. And I happen to be very creative.)
“Aren’t you even going to look at the messages?” he asked while I was still giving his folder the evil eye.
“After you pick up my things.” I folded my hands in front of me and stared off into the distance. Well, where the distance would have been if it hadn’t been blocked by a bookcase.
Grumbling audibly, he condescended to abandon his chair and collect the stuff that had fallen off my desk. When he stood up again, he placed the textbook, my notes, and Darth Vader in a neat stack, very precisely. He put the poker chips in a separate stack, perfectly aligned, beside Darth Vader. As body language went, it was an excellent projection of “I’m patiently putting up with this tiresome female.”
“Now let’s get down to work,” he said, straddling the chair again. He wasn’t that tall, but I felt like he was looming over me.
I don’t take well to being loomed at.
“Not so fast! We’re a research institution. We don’t just take on odd jobs from every Tom, Dick or Harry who strolls in here.” Not that Tom or Dick or Harry would have been able to stroll in, unless they were really good at visualizing and mentally traversing a Möbius strip - or were escorted by a staff member. Well, you couldn’t get a higher-ranking escort than Dr. Verrick himself. If this fellow’s story was true, Dr. Verrick presumably wanted me to cooperate with him, and I should comply.
If, on the other hand, he’d been smuggled in by Ben or Ingrid as part of an elaborate practical joke aimed at me - which I was beginning to think must be the case, as surely no one could be this irritating by accident - it was high time I stopped letting him pull my leg.
“What I don’t understand,” I said, tapping the folder, “is what interest the Moore Foundation has in your problem, why they should think we could solve it, and why I shouldn’t be worried about the legal penalties for hacking into someone’s computer.” Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do that, and I didn’t think my colleagues did either.
“If you’d look at the messages you might understand better.”
Oh, all right. I flipped the folder open and looked at… a confusing collection of very innocent-looking emails. There was one cluster about a birthday party, another about travel plans for someone’s niece and her friends, another on a hotel in Austin where they could stay.
“What are you, the Division in Charge of Investigating Birthday Parties? I do not see anything relevant to research in pure mathematics, which is the purpose of the Moore Foundation. Much less the relevance to applied topology.”
“I am not… exactly… from the Moore Foundation.”
Aha! I knew it! I looked around. Ben and Ingrid must be hiding somewhere, ready to leap out and yell, “Surprise! Candid Camera!”
If so, they were very well hidden indeed.
“I’m from the sponsor which actually gives the Moore Foundation the funding which they pass on to you, and I’ve been seconded to your group for the duration of this investigation.”
“And that sponsor would be?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s on a need-to-know basis. All I can tell you is that this is a matter of national security.”
An ugly thought chilled me. “If it’s a matter of national security… Was I cleared to read this folder?”
“You are now. The entire staff is cleared to be read in on this investigation.” He looked very pleased with himself. It wasn’t a good look for him. “I do still have some influence within the… agency.”
“Does Dr. Verrick know?”
“Of course.”
“And this silly business is important to your employers because…?”
“The messages are coded,” he said impatiently. “I thought anybody working here would be bright enough to recognize that without having it spelled out. We believe these emails and transcripts are actually from a shadowy group involved in smuggling Middle Eastern terrorists over the border and transferring them to a safe house here in Austin.”
I glanced at the contents of the folder again. All right, I could see that with a simple substitution code his interpretation would make sense. The “niece” could stand for a terrorist leader, the “friends” for his supporters, the “hotel” for a safe house. And I didn’t even want to think - “What does the ‘birthday party’ stand for?”
“What do you expect?”
I expected it stood for something involving bombs and bloodshed. It would have been nice to be told otherwise. “We need to shut this down before the ‘party,’” he went on. “Or - at a minimum - find out the time and place, so that we can increase security.”
“Why would they be based in Austin, instead of closer to the border?”
“People who actually live near the border,” he said, “do not feel nearly so benign about illegal aliens.”
“In Austin,” I corrected him, “we say ‘undocumented immigrants.’” At least, if we didn’t want to get a lecture from Ingrid Thorn about it.
He waved one hand. “Tomato, tomahto. In… the agency… we still speak English. Well, I do, anyway. Austin’s a sanctuary city; as long as these people pretend they’re just helping poor Central Americans to escape violence and find a better life, they’ll get support from most of the population. And anybody raising questions will find themselves the target of a high-tech lynch mob dedicated to shutting down the opposition.”
I had to think about that, but not for long. I’m as apolitical as you can be while still having a pulse, and I haven’t felt the need to have an opinion on border controls and illegal immigration given that everybody else in Austin had already staked out a position. But the bit about shutting down opposition was different. Those were fighting words for Thalia Kostis, Girl Mathematician. I’ve been loudly and vocally opposed to all manner of things during my life, beginning with the family’s plans for me. He was beginning to get my interest.
“But why us? Despite its name, the Center is a pure research facility. We don’t do applications.”
“You do now. As a first priority, you do whatever the sponsoring agency requests. After that, you may play with your little research papers to your heart’s content.”
And I’d actually contemplated trying to make Mr. Nameless happy!
“If you’re representing a three-letter agency, surely you’ve got computer experts and other resources to throw at this problem.”
Now he looked not so much irritated as like someone who’d just bitten into a green persimmon. “There are… various groups within the agency… with various goals. A lot of my colleagues built their careers during the previous administration, and they don’t approve of ‘persecuting undocumented immigrants.’ Even suggesting that we should focus on potentially dangerous illegals made me persona non grata. Oh, I tried to start an official case. It’s been tied up waiting for approval from several committees. It may never get out of committees. The funding for your group via the Moore Foundation has already been allocated, I don’t have to get special approval, and it’s about time you did something to justify that funding.”
“Riiight. We always jump up and kiss the ring of a nameless man from a secret agency.”
He looked faintly amused. “At the same time?”
“What?”
“Simultaneously jumping up and bowing down to kiss a ring would seem to be contra-indicated. Unless your meaning is that you’re constantly falling over yourselves.”
He stood and extracted a card from his wallet. “I do have a name, actually. Talk to your boss if you need to check my bona fides, then look at the folder and decide on a plan of action. I’ll be in touch.”
He dropped the card on top of the folder and walked away. I hoped Dr. Verrick would escort him out; otherwise he’d probably return to my office, complaining that he couldn’t find the door.
The card was less than informative. There were only two words on it, probably his name. No issuing agency, no email, no phone number.
Bradislav Lensky.
What an all-American name.
Just like Thalia Kostis.

***

"You'd have to hear this jerk to believe him, Ingrid." I lay back on the living room floor and poured some more water on my chest. As long as my T-shirt was soaking wet I could pretend that the air sighing out of our ancient window unit was actually cooling the place down.
Ingrid Thorn, my colleague and roomie, never did anything so uncouth as pouring water over her body. Mind you, it was just as well she didn't make a habit of it. With what she had under her blouse, she'd probably be responsible for a breakdown of civil order if she ever cooled herself off that way in public. I, on the other hand, could have stood under a sprinkler for half an hour and then walked through the math department without eliciting any reaction other than, "Hey, Kostis, did you know your hair is wet?"
Ingrid shrugged. "Maybe I'll get the chance tomorrow. You did say, a staff meeting?"
"Ten o'clock.” Dr. Verrick, being one himself, understands that topologists are not morning people. “In the break room, like always." We didn't exactly need an auditorium for Dr. Verrick to speak with all three of us. On the other hand… "It may be a little crowded if this Bradislav Lensky shows up."
"One guy? We've got eight chairs in there. Not a problem."
"I... don't know. He has this way of taking up space. You should have seen him, Ingrid, he dragged a chair right up to my desk and straddled it and leaned. I felt like he was trying to dominate me.”
"He should be so lucky! I've been trying to dominate you into not taking long showers in the small hours ever since we moved into this place."
Ingrid wasn't all that interested in my personal hygiene; it was just that the pipes in this apartment building clanked and groaned and generally carried on like the ghost of Hamlet’s father whenever one of the tenants asked them to do something like, oh, providing water. "There are eight apartments in this building. Somebody's always going to be using the plumbing. You need to learn to sleep through it, Princess."
Ingrid stopped unplaiting the braids she wore wrapped around her head all day and threw a Kleenex box at me. "Remind me again why I share living space with an unsocialized infant like you."
"Because you can't afford a place this close to campus on your own, and you don't dare share with anybody else."
It was, after all, the same reason why I put up with her and her yards of blonde hair and her D-cups and her exalted status as an actual graduate student who might get a Ph.D. some day. Neither of us could risk having a normal roommate who might freak out over us making buttons dance in mid-air or scooting a couple of feet forward without visible means of propulsion.
"If this Lensky comes to the meeting tomorrow, you'll see..."
"What I don't see," said Ingrid, "is why you can't stop going on about this man you talked to for all of fifteen minutes. Is he incredibly handsome or something?"
"Or something. Not exactly pretty." I knew, because I could still see his arrogant face clearly when I thought about him. "Good body, though."
"Ha! I knew it! He's hot, isn't he? And you're crushing on him."
"Don't be silly. He's annoying, is what he is." I reflected for a moment. I had been very briefly interested in making him happy... before he started laying down the law. "To be fair... I guess he would be kind of hot - if he weren't so obnoxious. You'll see tomorrow."

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