Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Things She’s Seen”

Given my tendency to write long, winding novels that later have to be hacked back like overgrown rosebushes, I’ve come to really respect those writers who’ve mastered the art of trim fiction.

The Things She’s Seen, the work of brother/sister duo Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, is a prime example. At just 193 pages–half of which are in verse, making them even less text-intensive–this young adult novel nevertheless tackles heavy themes with succinct, heart-pricking grace.

Set in small-town Australia, Things is told in two voices. 15-year-old Beth Teller, recently dead, has lingered as a ghost only her detective father can see. When he’s dispatched to investigate a suspicious death, she accompanies him, desperate to help him survive his grief. Isobel Catching, found wandering near the murder site, is the sole witness of the crime… but will only tell her story in poetic riddles.

Continue reading “Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Things She’s Seen””

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe”

The newest offering by Matched author Ally Condie, The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe is not unlike crowd favorite Firefly in its futuristic-meets-Old West atmosphere. But where Firefly is about traversing the skies, The Last Voyage is all about navigating waterways.

Set on what appears to be a near-future Earth where the human population has fragmented and thinned, The Last Voyage follows Poe Blythe, the 17-year-old captain of the Gilded Lily. A gold-mining dredge, the Lily is designed to scoop up riverine gold for the Admiral, who leads the remote Outpost where Poe’s society resides. But for Poe, who designed the ship’s deadly armor, the dredge is the means to a very different end–revenge against the raiders who destroyed all she loved. But this time, there’s a traitor aboard….

I found a lot to like in Poe’s story. Condie clearly did her research on river-based gold mining and the corresponding destruction. I recently spent a few years living in Suriname, a South American country with a large gold mining sector. My day job at the time included reporting on the impact of mining on Suriname’s rivers and rainforests. The effects are bleak indeed. Condie’s evoking of the heat and noise, grime and devastation of mining is spot-on.

The Last Voyage is also well paced. The novel has a fair number of twist and turns and Condie manages them nimbly–the pace is tight without being rushed. The various story complications unfold gradually, keeping the reader guessing. And flashbacks are skillfully woven throughout, in support of later plot revelations. There’s also disinformation sown by various characters, both intentionally and accidentally. By leaving the reader unsure what to believe, this sprinkling of deception replicates what Poe would experience as she hears rumors and reports, accusations and counter-accusations: deep uncertainty about who to trust.

Continue reading “Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe””


Here’s another one of my short-fiction assignments from my undergraduate degree in Professional Writing….


A time-warp had swallowed the months since I’d last stirred the air here—the NYU lecture hall hadn’t changed a bit.

“Mags!” Professor Beckett’s beard scratched my cheeks as he kissed one then the other. “Great to have you back, Tex.”


He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses, his lime-colored tie, casually preening as always. “I want to see you after class.”

Before I could ask why, he’d flounced to the lecture hall’s front, out of range of interrogation. Uneasiness simmered in my gut.

Glancing at the clock, I moved for the nearest empty chair. My uneasiness boiled into discomfort when I realized who occupied the desk neighboring mine, but it was too late to find another seat without it becoming awkward. Tentatively, I lowered myself into my ill-chosen chair. Continue reading “Wasted”

Characters & Complexity

Recently, I had a bizarre moment. A person (we’ll call them Person #1) who has largely been kind to me–even going out of their way to be so–was portrayed by someone else (Person #2) as having a completely different, far less amenable side.

The tricky part of this was that I totally buy Person #2’s take. I trust their opinion, believing them when they say they’ve had this bad experience. But I also don’t think the kindness shown me by Person #1 is totally fabricated.

So it was throwing me for a bit of a loop, trying to square Person #1’s very-opposed-but-apparently-equally-genuine qualities. I kept thinking: “How can they be like this to me, then turn around and act like that to others?”

Here’s the truth, though: People are complicated, complex, mysterious creatures with shades of motivation, perception, and desire that can be difficult to impossible to untangle. Sure, some universals exist (at least among those not tormented by serious psychoses): We’re all selfish. We all want to love and be loved. We’re all afraid of something. We all see ourselves as the hero of our own story. But we can never entirely know what it’s like to inhabit another person’s shoes, because each pair of shoes is so marvelously unique. What to me looked like dissonance within Person #1’s character made perfect, logical sense to them.

I sometimes feel badly because I’m prone to the writerly habit of seeing the living, breathing people around me in character-terms. I pick up this person’s quirky gesture. I crib that guy’s unique cadence of speech. I tuck people into categories: courteous southern gentleman. Friendly, fun-loving party girl. Brash, bullying Type A father. Continue reading “Characters & Complexity”


Just for fun, here’s one of my assignments from my undergraduate degree in Professional Writing: a short story for my fiction writing class….


The New York skyline zipped past, grim and garish through the cab’s window. Pain pulsed in my temples and my throat was sand dry, but my cramped muscles had finally started uncoiling. The return flight from Greece had been interminable. Stoli vodka on the rocks tweaked with two lime wedges, then bed—that was the cure for jet lag. I’d have Candice fix me a drink the minute we got home. She wouldn’t mind.

Closing my eyes, I dropped my head back against the seat. Twinned odors of stale tobacco and cheap Chinese food puffed up from the upholstery, assailing my nostrils. I sat back up, scowling at the cabbie. Bum couldn’t even be bothered to hang up one of those in-car air fresheners.

“Not feeling well?”

My gaze slid to Candice. Her grey eyes were studying mine intently.

“I’d planned to get a few minute’s sleep. But certain service providers haven’t learned the value of providing their customers a filth-free environment.” I caught the cabbie’s eyes in the rearview mirror, making sure he knew whom I was speaking of.

I turned my frown on my wife. “You should’ve driven the Jaguar.”

“I’m so sorry. It’s being detailed.” Candice’s tone was appropriately apologetic. Unclasping her Versace purse, she plucked out a vial. “Aspirin?”

Should’ve hired her instead of marrying her, I thought. Never the best of wives, she made for a flawless assistant. Continue reading “Agamemnon”

In Character

Writing professionally necessitates the performance of linguistic/syntactical/genre-ic acrobatics, as you have to be able to write in a variety of modes, producing products as varied as reviews, articles, instruction manuals, press releases, and SOPs. It requires the creation of quality, well-communicated material, even when you aren’t particularly excited about the project at hand.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a favorite genre. In my nerdy little writer heart, it is the novel which stands unequivocally enthroned as the beloved. I was thirteen when I wrote my first one. Years later, now in my early late twenties, I’m writing them still.

But not every season can be one for storytelling. For a variety of reasons, this particular moment has me working exclusively on non-fiction projects. For the next few months, I’ll need to eschew my passion for fiction and devote my active writing time to less-fanciful projects. Continue reading “In Character”

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing….

Lately, I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking about romantic love within story-telling. It’s been said that love makes the world go ’round. Nowhere is this truer than in the microcosm of fiction. Holding what may be a unique position in writing, romantic love is equally popular as a plot point and a story theme.

Of course, the way love manifests in these roles is incredibly varied. Love as a theme might be true love or love unrequited, love’s futility or love’s endurance. Love as a plot point might be the reunion of childhood sweethearts or the fracture of a mature marriage; jealous love turning a character to rage, or sustaining love uplifting a character from despair.

But at the center of these variations is the core concept of romantic love, at once divinely simple and inexpressibly complex.

My philosophical waxing on this subject is inspired by my current novel project. Continue reading “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing….”