Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Book Review: Silver Tongue by AshleyRose Sullivan

Suppose George Washington was a werewolf? Even better: suppose his affliction caused him to delay crossing the Delaware River, and thus the patriots lost the Revolutionary War?

That moment spurs Silver Tongue, a wildly creative and enjoyable young-adult adventure following three young people in an alternate universe where three nations exist in what we would call America: New Britannia, Nouvelle France and Nueva Espana. 

Claire is a half-Native woman living in Nouvelle France, a bright and adventurous young woman with special powers and two best friends: Sam, the brooding werewolf who hid his secret curse inherited from his disgraced great-grandfather, General Washington; and Phileas, a young gay man fascinated by science. 

After mysterious men in red coats murder Sam’s family, the three set off on a journey across the three nations to find the killers. We come along for the ride, exploring a quasi-steampunk 1839 world with one foot in our history and one in the world of fantasy. Meet inventors and ruffians, traveling actors and religious fanatics; meet the Frankenstein family and P.T. Barnum, who has the best soliloquy I’ve read in years:

As you grow into this world, you come to realize the grit of it - the way reality lies on you - weighs you down. What I make, what I do in all ways… they are all valid. Their validity lies in the needs of regular men, regular folks all across the world who cannot sustain on mere reality…
My purpose is to lighten the mood, to bring light and hope in a world of grit and darkness. It is only to do that which the Creator himself does, it is only to provide something to believe in. Whether it be a gentle giant or an Indian princess, the people - all people - need something worth hoping for.

Alternate history stories rely more on world building than story, and Silver Tongue is no exception. The world AshleyRose Sullivan has created is fascinating, from her vision of the not-United States to the secret lives of werewolves. Claire is an enjoyable protagonist, with the inevitable love stories - but not ones that follow the traditional path, which brings a breath of reality to this fantasy. There are few enough young-adult books in speculative fiction with Native protagonists that Claire is a remarkable addition: her Native ancestry is not the primary focus of the book or her character, and yet it is not a passing mention; it is part of the tapestry of her story without being its only thread. 

Other characters are equally well-formed: Sam manages to overcome "brooding werewolf" in his sometimes-strained relationships with his two best friends; Phileas rises above the "token gay best friend" to be, sometimes, the most useful member of the team and often its conscience; and the mysterious William, who joins up partway through, is a brilliant twist on Frankenstein's aftermath in a way I have not read before.

If I have any quibble, it’s that I am a die-hard traditionalist on the issue of “all right” vs. “alright,” and while I know the latter is becoming acceptable in general parlance, I will die on that hill. It says something about this book’s fascinating world that I was able to move past that, one of my pet peeves.

It is clear that there is room to explore the three nations further, and one truly hopes Ms. Sullivan will do so. I will definitely sign up for the journey.

Purchase in print or ebook

Silver Tongue by AshleyRose Sullivan is published by Seventh Star Press. Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt notice that I am also published by Seventh Star Press. However, and I can't believe I even have to say this but these are the times we live in, no compensation was provided for this review, nor was its content influenced. For further details, please see the CultureGeek Credo. Please note: this review is cross-posted to CultureGeek.


Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Dragoncon Stalking Guide

Actually, you stand a pretty good chance of finding me this year. Due to postal shenanigans, my name didn't go out in time for me to snag panels, so I'm a late addition. My panel schedule is pretty light. Does that mean I might actually get to attend a panel I'm not on? Shush with the crazytalk.

Thursday: Traveling to Nashville. Hi, y'all.

Friday: Traveling to Atlanta.
- Panel: "And That's the Truth!" on building a career with nonfiction. 2:30 p.m. Hyatt Embassy.

Saturday: Atlanta.
- Panel: "For Survival: Four Days Later" on basic survival techniques once you've lived past the initial Big Whatever. 4 p.m. Westin Chastain.

Sunday: Atlanta.
- Panel: "Developing Characters Who Come Alive," and I'm the moderator. Eeeek. Someone gimme questions! 2:30 p.m. Hyatt Embassy.
- Reading: Whatever I decide. Any suggestions? Offering a free limited-edition chapbook of Gethsemane while supplies last. 5:30 p.m. Hyatt Vinings, to be followed by alcohol.

Monday: Traveling to Nashville. Unspecified social gathering.

Tuesday: Home!

As I said, super light. I am not in the dealer's room, as I have run out of booths to bribe. I will have a small quantity of books with me, so if you want the new book, we can meet up! Or come to the reading, which is the best place to snag me.

I am not bringing my whole stock, and I am not bringing my artwork or posters unless specifically requested. Speak now or forever hold your pieces! This posts at noon Wednesday, so get your order to me at booksales @ tonight and I'll be sure to reserve your stuff.

I will be live-tweeting from Dragoncon on @edonald, which auto-posts to my personal Facebook page. Apologies in advance for the massive spam, but I'll try to make the costume pics worth your time. I'll be tagging the Dragoncon posts and possibly adding #falldeathmarch, for the fall tour of crazy.

Up after Dragoncon: Imaginarium is next weekend in Louisville, Ky., then it's Excellence in Journalism in Orlando, Fla. Whee!

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015


JIM: You're evil!
ME: Am not! How am I evil this time?
JIm: "Kill her, kill the main character." Even my editor said if I did that my readers would hate me.
ME: So? Screw em.
JIM: Evil! Just because you always kill everyone...
ME: Do not!
JIM: Do too!
ME: Sometimes they live! Dale* lived, and he will go on to have many other adventures!
JIM: *mutters* He just won't want to live after what you did...
ME: I don't believe in happy endings.
JIM You're living one but you don't believe in them.
ME: All love stories end sadly. They either break up or one of them dies.
JIM: Evil!


JIM: I guess two of my classes won't be on Blackboard, since I don't see them yet.
ME: You can always do what we did when I went to college.
JIM: What's that?
ME: Find out what your grade was at the next class.
JIM: No. I want to know now.
ME: You kids and your technology.
JIM: I'm not going to college in the days of stone knives and bearskins -
ME: *response redacted*


During a horror movie...

MOVIE: *jumpscare*
ME: Meep! *grabs arm* Protect me, brave strong man.
JIM: Wait here. I'll run for help.
ME: Oh, my fucking hero.



ME: Tell me stuff like that doesn't make you want to write.
JIM: Oh yeah, it does.
ME: Me too. My head is all full of super creepiness now, and I want to write all the things. But I have to go to bed. If I didn't have to work tomorrow** I would totally pump some caffeine and get to writing.
JIM: Mmmm. *peruses Amazon*
ME: YOU could write.
JIM: I might.
Me: You could write about a struggling writer trying to support his family, and sitting at the dining table working on a story while everyone else is asleep. And suddenly there's a horrid face at the window.
JIM: *looks at large window* No.
ME: Why not?
JIM: I don't want to see anything at the window!
ME: It's a story! Write it!
JIM: It's your story, you write it!
ME: Okay fine, I will! Um, tomorrow night. Still have to work. 
JIM: I have my own story idea percolating.
ME: Well, then get to it. *mutters* and it'll probably have a happy ending...

* Infinity, 2011. 
** Took place Friday.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Fall Deathmarch

I have really got to stop doing this to myself. I am too old to run around the country like this.

First, I must offer my regrets to the fine folks at River City Comic Expo in Little Rock. There will be many fine guests there this weekend, so please show up and visit with them!

So that kicks me off at Dragoncon, where some postal shenanigans unfortunately delayed my official confirmation and thus my panel schedule is pretty light. At the moment, all I know about are panels on the Writers Track at 2:30 pm. Friday and Sunday, an Apocalypse Rising panel at 4 pm. Saturday, and my reading will be at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. More panels may be added in the future, and I will offer chocolate and a free limited-edition chapbook to attendees at the reading on Sunday.

Naturally, a limited presence means less opportunity to sell books, especially in a zoo like Dragoncon among 65,000 of my closest friends. But I will be there, and I'm bringing the new book as well as some older titles and out-of-print rarities. I will not be bringing art unless someone specifically requests it, so if you'd like photo prints or posters, check out the store and let me know ASAP.

If I can, I will find a centrally located spot and camp out there in the evenings, bag beside me, and you can find me if you'd like some books. Please do! I have a hotel bill to pay!

On my way back, I may try to do a coffeehouse in Nashville Monday night. Anyone interested? If so, please let me know, and I'll set something up.

The weekend after that, I'm at Imaginarium in Louisville, Ky. with the full Literary Underworld. Last year's Imaginarium was delightful fun, but it was more than that. As I watched the programming last year, I thought, "If I were a beginning author again, there is no better place I could be than here." Everyone knows Stephen Zimmer does the best literary tracks on the mid-south tour, and he outdid himself at last year's Imaginarium.

My part includes my "Business of Writing" seminar on what to do when the book is written, and the LitUnd crew will be in full force in the dealer's room - which will be open to the public, so if you are in the Louisville area and aren't going to the convention, you can still come by and shop! If you do, please look for us under the grinning skull and say hello. Both evenings we also will have our Traveling Bar in our room for author cocktails, and I am looking forward to pouring the cheap booze once again.

The next week is Excellence in Journalism, the joint conference of the Society of Professional Journalists, Radio Television Digital News Association and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. I will be attending in my capacity as president of the St. Louis Pro Chapter of SPJ, as well as a member of the national ethics commission and as voting delegate for St. Louis Pro. Fortunately, this time nobody's going to ask me to speak, except maybe at the ethics commission meeting, so we can all reminisce about the good old day in Columbus. *ducks*

EIJ takes place in Orlando this year, and I am flying, so I am only bringing books if someone specifically requests it. Check out my website and let me know if you want me to bring stock. And if any of my Orlando pals wants to have coffee, let me know! Fair warning, though: I'm landlocked at my hotel unless I grow wings or taxis are free. We do get one day's admission to the House of Mouse, but it hardly seems like fun without Man and Boy. If I have time, I might pop over there just so I can get some pictures of New Fantasyland, take a selfie at the Scene of the Crime and make Jimmy cry.

The next weekend I actually get to stay home and unpack, only I'm working my Sunday shift for the newspaper - what's left of me.

The following weekend is Archon! And I'll be several tables away from one of my fearsome gods, Harlan Ellison. I stalked Ellison at my very first Dragoncon, and learned more in a weekend than I had in a year of studying the industry and reading every book on writing I could find. I wrote an essay called "Stalking Harlan: Here Be Dragons" about that Dragoncon, and I think I shall have to repost it before Archon. I am simultaneously excited and terrified to meet him again.

Archon is always a great show for us, both for sales and for conversation with readers, fans and friends. Literary Underworld will be there in force, and you can find our booth on Authors' Row... but no cocktails this time, folks. We can't afford the main hotel for Archon, so we will be commuting from our home where we keep the good booze.

Then I have a weekend off, I think. My brain keeps telling me I'm obligated to something that weekend, or maybe it's just that I'm so overbooked this fall I can't comprehend of a day off. Finally, we have Leclaire Parkfest, which thankfully is one day and only a block from our house, so it's a nice quiet coda to the Fall Deathmarch. That one will be just me and Jim with books and art.

At this point I expect I will be accepting only local signings for the Christmas season, unless someone makes me an offer I can't refuse. Next year is booking fast, too, and honestly, I'm not booking this many things in a row in the future.

I'm getting too old for this shit. I promise if y'all buy more books, I'll stay home and write more. How's that for a deal?

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mama Pauline and Papa Dick

Those of you who follow our family on Facebook know we were hit with some rough times this past month. Jim's mother passed away, and while it was not wholly unexpected given her health and age, it was a heartbreaking loss that has affected us all deeply, especially Jim.

It's hard to know what to write, because her story really isn't mine to tell. What I know of Pauline Adams came largely from stories told by others. I know she was a stalwart mother of twelve children, ten of whom survived infancy, nine who lived to mourn her. I know she had the bravery to stand on her own as a divorced woman in the early 1970s, which can't have been easy, especially since (I think) at least seven of her children were still at home.

And I know how much she loved Dick Adams, Jim's stepfather. They married when Jim was very young, and Papa Dick, as they called him, must have been one hell of a man. There's hardly a person in Jim's very extended family whose voice doesn't choke up when they speak of him. Sadly, lung cancer took him away twenty years ago, and Pauline has been quietly waiting for him ever since. And each year, when Jim walks with me in Relay for Life, he does it in Dick's memory.

The first time I met Pauline, it was a family dinner in a noisy restaurant. She had just recovered from a bad cold, and had not recovered her voice. Thus, my first impression of Pauline was that she was very quiet and soft-spoken. This, however, shows the problem with first impressions. She may not have been able to speak much that day, but by all reports from the family, she was a firebrand of a woman who could smack you into next week if you got her wrong.

Jim told me a story once about a time in the late seventies when Pauline and Dick had started a small business. It was a furniture store, and not in the best neighborhood of Memphis. One day, a group of punks tried to rob the store. Pauline was on duty with only one other person, and there were eight of them.

Pauline pulled a .45 out from under the counter, aimed it and said, "I got five bullets in this gun. Which five of you want to die?"

The store was not robbed that day, or any day after. The neighborhood gang called her Jesse James.

There wasn't a single person who didn't have a fond memory of Mama Pauline's cooking, from her homemade fried chicken to the famous strawberry cake to biscuit bread. Several times I tried to wheedle recipes out of her, but Pauline belonged to a different era and culture of fine southern cooks. Her recipes were all up in her head, and her hands knew how much flour and salt and bacon grease and lard to cut in. I can't even think where you'd get lard these days, but I learned to keep a coffee can full of bacon grease in my fridge, not that I've yet figured out what to do with it. In Jim's eulogy, delivered with emotional grace at the funeral last week, he said "the angels will be well fed," and I think he's right.

She was Mama to her children and Nanny to her grandchildren, and I can never forget how she accepted me and Ian with love long before Jim asked me to marry him and we formally joined the family. Ian spent one long, very hot afternoon with Nanny, hiding under the air conditioning like the Illinois boy he is, talking stuff and nonsense all day as though he was grandson by birth.

Some people simply have a gift for love.

The moment I remember the most came at the end of that noisy restaurant dinner. We were gathering up our things and heading out into the parking lot, helping Pauline along as she had limited mobility even then. As we gave our farewells, she gave me a hug much stronger than I expected from one so small and deceptively frail.

Remember, her voice was gone, so she had barely spoken all evening. But she pulled me close and whispered in my ear, "I'm so glad he found you."

Thank you, Mama Pauline, for your love and acceptance, and for raising the wonderful man who became my husband. The tears shed last week were for us, for how much poorer we are for your absence, so keenly felt especially by Jim, who still wants to call you every few days for a chat. We know that you are finally shed of the pain and weakness that came with injury and age, and that you are reunited with Papa Dick at long last.

Rest at last, a well-earned peace. Heaven knows you were loved.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Prayers for Pauline

I have not said much publicly because, frankly, just about everyone who knows us is on Jim's Facebook feed as well as mine. So most of you know that his mother has been in the hospital and is not doing well.

Tonight we got word that they have to stop dialysis for her, as her heart simply can't take the strain. That ends most of the lifesaving options, and all that is left now is to make her as comfortable and pain-free as possible.

Jim is catching a bus to Memphis tomorrow night (tonight, when you're reading this). He and his brother will drive down to Jackson, Miss. on Thursday, so Jim can say his goodbyes. From there we play it by ear, as it is all in God's good graces now.

I don't have the words for what Jim and his family is going through, or anything like coherent words to write about Pauline and what she means to us. I hope those words will come, because it's all I know how to do. 

In the meantime, I ask your prayers, good thoughts and healing energy for the Gillentine family, for Ian (who spent a long, sunny afternoon with Pauline and got to know her shortly before we officially joined the family) and especially for Jim and the Super Stepkids, who love their Nanny so very much.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Smile, you're on camera...

Our awesome bungee trip to visit the folks this weekend came with an extra bonus. Well, besides retrieving the Spawn.

It was a bungee trip because I had to work Sunday, so we booked it back in the wee hours of Sunday morning so I'd be back to start my shift. But at least we had 48 hours to hang out with my dad and stepmom at their awesome lake house.

Friday was highlighted by parasailing over the Lake of the Ozarks. Boy and I had the most awesome time. It was an amazing experience, with a spectacular view and not at all scary or insecure - hell, the seats on the Sky Screamer at Six Flags sway more than that parasail harness did.

Jim did not fly. Jim is a giant chicken-man who stayed on the ground sipping beer with my folks. He still owes me for the hot-air balloon ride that didn't happen the day after we got engaged, and now he owes me parasailing too. Bawk bawk bawk, husband-o-mine.


The next day was a ride on their boat, which they still haven't named, and if they don't come up with a name soon, I'm going to dub it Titanic. We all know what happens then. Anyone with good suggestions for a boat name? Don't worry that you don't know my folks; they had their chance to name their own boat. *snerk*

Jim... sat on the floor of the boat again. But this time he sat up front instead of braced at the back. Progress. He managed about three minutes actually sitting up in the seat. Okay, my dad does drive the lake with a lead foot. But that's the fun of it!

JIM: Being a wuss has kept me alive a long time.
ME: Nah, it just seems like a long time.

Work in progress.

Before the boat ride, we had breakfast at Stewart's, this little restaurant right by the dam. Yummy, but fair warning: portions are huge. We could not finish our food and ended up bringing leftovers back with us. This is what their cinnamon rolls look like.

This is not forced perspective. The roll is almost as big as Jim's head.

In between, we lounged around the house, chatted for hours, caught up with the folks, decided against the hot tub due to the 100-degree temps and 400-percent humidity, and Jim taught Dad a few things about smoking ribs for barbecue. Yum.

And Dad gave me a present. Seems he no longer needs his Nikon D80 camera body, so I HAVE A DSLR. Squee! I'm ridiculously excited about my new toy. I can't play with it yet as it doesn't have any lenses, and I don't have the slightest idea what to do with it yet, so I have a lot of learning to do.

But so far all the photography I've done has been accomplished with a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot, or occasionally with the iPad. For a long time I have wanted to step up my photography to the next level, but I always fell into this catch-22: All the DSLR photography classes require you to have a camera already, but I didn't want to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on equipment and then find out I bought the wrong thing or spent too much. There are surprisingly few resources for true beginners in the DSLR world.

Now I have the Nikon, and Dad advised me a starter lens to get. I'm going to run a special this week in the art shop in the hopes of raising funds for the lens and the basic class, so feel free to drop by. This is not the cheapest endeavor, and I've told Jim that I am leery of spending too much more than we make off it. It won't really be practical for newspaper work, either; I will probably keep using the iPad for that, as it is very simple to do photo and video with it and switch back and forth. The D80 does not do video, so it'll be solely for the art photography. I can't wait to play with it.

I'm quite excited. And tired. I woke up this morning at the Lake of the Ozarks, was back in the metro-east for work by 11 a.m., and then worked a full shift before grocery shopping to feed the Thing, who is now returned to the homestead, and then the 10 p.m. Shuffle to give Jim the car so he could get home from work. Sometimes I need to be twins...

But we brought back a cinnamon roll from Stewart's. That'll be breakfast on Monday. For all three of us.

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