Review: Dead in the Water

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

My latest read was Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder, published in 1994.

After reading this book, my resolve to never, ever step foot on a cruise ship has been cemented into reality. Nope. Not doing it.

For me, this ranks as one of the very scariest books on this list, so far.

The book opens with “This is how it will be when you drown:…” and by the end of the book, you’ve forgotten that there are other ways to die. Your brain is whipped, has been untangled and reraveled, so that you believe the only way anyone ever dies is by drowning.

As we meet the characters taking a freighter/cruise ship to Hawaii, they’re drawn in bold strokes. Caricatures and stereotypes, the tough female cop who is fighting against falling for her partner, the dying boy with his weepy physician father, the old woman who has lost her husband, and the constantly bickering rich couple. You probably formed a mental image of each of them as you read.

But then you learn more about them. Not that you’re going to love, or even like, all of them. But you get to know the people behind the facades. Not that weepy dad ever stops weeping, or dying boy stops having cancer, or rich couple ever stops bickering. But they become more rounded. Bloated by being in the water too long?

As the tale is told, reality becomes unstrung. You learn the truth ahead of the characters, but only just. It’s not a big, splashy book. But I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

DeAnna would want to know why I was scared, because the Big Bad is both seen and not seen, defined and yet left without any definite edges at the end of the book. I would say my preference would be to assume the depths of the oceans are filled with monsters, and not the bones of the dead waiting to devour my brain as they drag me down.

If you ever want to know how many different ways you can describe drowning, just read this book. But maybe not at night. It will leave you afraid to even wash your face in the bathroom sink.


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No! More!

That’s right.

No more new books coming into this household. Not headed for my to-read piles.

Piles. Who am I kidding? I have an entire bookcase of to-be-read books, plus a pile in my office, a pile in my bedroom, and a smaller pile of books I just received for Christmas.

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So. A moratorium on books. I will not buy new books, not even ebooks, until I have diminished the piles stacked around my house–and reviewed them.

Of course, this new rule excludes books that are given to me as gifts (Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and there’s a new Bujold out, for crying out loud), books that are lent to me, books written by my friends (admittedly, I have a very broad definition of friend), and books that I might purchase for other people. (You do know if I gift you a book, chances are good that I read it first, right?)

Any bets on how long I’ll last?

Or how long it will take me to make a significant dent in this collection?

How do YOU deal with an out-of-control reading pile?


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I need a theory to subscribe to!

Sometime in the month of December, my Spousal Unit received a copy of Men’s Health in the mail.

Odd. Neither of us asked for it or, more importantly, paid for it. We thought perhaps it was a fluke, or someone sent him a gift but didn’t claim credit for it.

Thing is, he subscribed to Men’s Health about 15 years ago, and we both read it for a year or two. Well, he read it. I mostly just looked at the photos.

When the new magazine came, I thought I’d check it out to see how it had been updated.

Still the same yummy photos, by the way. But the rest of the mag? The exact same articles we read 15 years ago. Which is why the SU stopped subscribing in the first place.

The fitness articles aren’t about fitness, they’re about getting shredded and having aggressive muscle tone. The cooking articles are about impressing a woman with a meal you don’t have to put much thought or effort into. The sex articles…well, I read it and giggled, thinking, “Really? They don’t know that already?” Maybe the fact that kissing isn’t just a function of foreplay is astounding news to a certain segment of the population.

But we’re still left with the question–how did this magazine find its way to us?

Then the mystery deepened, with the arrival of Glamour magazine, also in the Spousal Unit’s name.

It’s safe to say he never subscribed to this one in the past. Neither did I. And Things One and Two found the idea of this subscription hilarious.

This magazine is filled with women younger and thinner than I am, who all seem to have much more devotion to social media than I do. They wear clothes that aren’t practical for my life. My wardrobe needs are basically business casual, things without waistbands that allow me to sit in front of the computer for hours without binding me anywhere, and comfortable underwear.

I don’t think the SU would be happy if I decided our lives would improve if I started wearing jeans that cost more than an average mortgage payment. It’s still denim, people. And it really isn’t imbued with magical properties no matter what the ad campaigns say. The world economic climate is not going to plummet if I don’t realize that slim silver accessories are out and chunky gold or shellacked bird poop is in.

We’ll be watching the mailbox to see if any other interesting periodicals arrive with SU’s name on. His most recent subscriptions were Smithsonian and Rolling Stone, so I don’t see the overlap. If someone sent one of both of these as a gift, please let us know. And could you include a copy of People next time, so I’ll know who all the pop culture references in the other two magazines are referring to?

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Top 100 Horror: Sunglasses After Dark by Nancy A. Collins

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

Sunglasses After Dark is the first Sonja Blue book, originally published in, I believe, 1989.

When this was made into an e-book, there were some grievous errors made. I kept stumbling across typos, usually “ly” left off. So “actually” became “actual.”

But the worst error I found? “The looks on their faces…” became “The looks on their feces…”

Big, BIG difference there. I don’t know if it’s just the version I got from Amazon or what, but the book was riddled with errors.

Which is a pity, because it’s a cracking good vampire story, and I don’t think or say that lightly. It’s not even apparent in the beginning that Sonja is a vampire, and even when you get to that realization…”vampire” just isn’t a big enough word to cover it all.

SPOILER ALERT! I liked the way this book built, and the way the reader is initially led down the completely wrong path in regards to Sonja Blue. Gradually, you realize your error, taking the word of those around her, or her enemies, for who or what she is. Then you realize that she doesn’t even know what she is. If you’ve ever tried to write that way, misdirecting the reader without them knowing that’s what you’re doing, then you know how hard it is to do well.

Although I loved most of the pace and the plotting, the big show down at the end fell flat for me. It was build up, build up, build up, fearsomeness, ohmygod, build up…and then poof, it’s over in a minute, and our heroine wins too easily. It’s one of those moments where the protagonist grits her teeth and decides to win, so she does. That always feels like a let down to me.

But the writing in the rest of the book? If I can find the next one in the series without all the hideous typos, I want to read more.


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Chutney Challenge Part 2: What Did YOU Cook?

In September I formulated the Chutney Challenge. Find something old that is languishing in the back of your cupboard in just use it. Because I listed the many, many bottles, jars and bags that I need to either use or lose.

Here’s the trick: don’t let your family read the expiration dates on the bottles before dinner. I mean, those bottles are sealed. The contents are just fine. So what if the company doesn’t make that product any longer, and has, in fact, gone out of business? Ain’t no big thing.

Moroccan Grilling Sauce. This was almost too easy. Poured the bottle over some boneless chicken breasts and grilled them. Tasted fine. Tasted like chicken. Marinade was a trifle sweet, but not bad. Served with couscous (for a pantry double play), and carrots roasted with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cumin, garlic and salt. I have to do carrots that way again, they were delicious.

Red Dragon Asian Sauce and Dressing. Well, hell. Got leftover chicken anyway, made Asian chicken salad. Lots o’ greens, snow peas, bean sprouts, cucumbers, a yellow pepper and chicken. The dressing was great, because it had a little kick of heat that crept in as you kept eating. I think this would be a great dip for pot stickers. Or could be awesome on chicken wings, but I’m on a chicken wing kick right now, and would probably eat them in a boat or with a goat.

Remember the Red Curry Dipping Sauce? Well, there I was, about to make a meatloaf that called for some tomato sauce. Wait! What if I subbed in the curry sauce? Which I did and it was delicious. I will say, I’m not the world’s biggest meatloaf fan to begin with, so it doesn’t take much to make an improvement on most recipes.

Next up was the Spicy Bulgogi Barbecue Sauce. What to do, what to do. Then I came across a recipe that everyone seemed to be talking about on Pinterest. It’s designed for a 9×13″ pan. You put a line of boneless, skinless chicken breasts down the middle of the pan, then pile small new potatoes (or cut up mature potatoes) on one side, and green beans on the other. As I had just been to the farmers market, I had the potatoes and the green beans. The interweebs says you’re supposed to sprinkle a packet of Italian dressing mix over everything, then pour a stick of melted butter over the top. Um, why are we taking the skin off the chicken if we’re just going to pour a bucket of another animal’s fat over the top? I don’t get it.

But I dutifully assembled the dish, and instead of butter and dressing mix, I drizzled the bottle of Bulgogi sauce over everything and baked it at 350 till the chicken and potatoes were done. And it was seriously delicious,  a little bit spicy and maybe a trifle too sweet for me. As you can tell, I don’t like my savory dishes to have too much sweet in them. But I realized I could try this recipe again any time, just changing out the sauces. Maybe try carrots in place of the green beans. If you attempt this at home, be sure you cut up the potatoes. I believe I also chunked up the chicken, so it would be cooked all the way through.

Next up, I need to use up more couscous. And what will I do with the green curry paste? I haven’t even mentioned the metric ton of fruit jam we now have, thanks to Thing 2’s experiments in the kitchen with a friend this summer.

What’s lurking in your cabinet? What are you going to do with it, hm? Tell me, i want to know. I need the inspiration!

And today’s bonus WTF moment: the spellchecker here wanted me to turn skinless chicken breasts into sinless chicken breasts. Because that’s a thing.

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A Choir of Ill Children from the Nightmare Magazine Top 100 Horror Books

And here we are with another book read.

Confession: although I never got to meet Tom in person, I got to know him through email when we were trying to invite him to Colorado Springs for a conference or workshop. Then I discovered he had written a mystery novel (not his usual fare) set in a small town in upstate NY, which led to me writing to ask him, “What the heck?” Turns out there had been some sort of family cabin on a lake there when he was growing up, and the memories never left him. He was a wonderful writer and a fine human being, and he was taken from us much too soon earlier this year.

Now then. A Choir of Ill Children. A Southern Gothic novel, which I fully expected to trudge through while women fainted and ghosts fluttered and nothing solid ever really happened.

I’m pleased to say i was so, so wrong. I loved this book. The language is lyrical with a mysterious beat that hooks you and draws you in. The characters are drawn in bold, strong, colorful strokes, and the creepy atmosphere of Kingdom Come, the backwater swamp town where the story is set, will creep into your bones so hard you’ll be itching from imaginary mosquito bites and sweating in the literary humidity.

I sometimes complain because not enough questions are answered in horror novels. In this book, while every single question isn’t answered, there is a sense of completeness, of story finished when you reach the end. Some might call the ending too pat, or too much of a turnaround, but I don’t think so.

I will also never see the word “vinegar” the same ever again. But this book is full of that, little twists and sidesteps that you don’t see coming.

For instance, the main character owns the town sawmill. There are a million ways Piccirilli could have played that character in that situation, but he made it unique. Not the literary hero drowning in white man’s guilt, and not the bored and/or cruel overseer that we’ve seen a million times.

The main character is aware of his town, his family, and his place in both. That sounds frustratingly vague. I don’t want to give up too much about the plot. You’ve got granny witches, conjoined triplets, ghosts, missing parents, a best friend who is truly afflicted by speaking in tongues, a documentary crew of two, and a mysterious girl found in the woods. It all ties up in ways you won’t expect, that you couldn’t expect.

I kept telling myself, as I read the book, “I should hate this. It’s too lyrical. It’s not straightforward enough.” At the same time, I was falling in love with the words and couldn’t put it down.


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The Other (Real) NaNoWriMo Prep

The days are getting shorter. The wind is starting to stick cold fingers under your collar. Your favorite writers are talking about this strange being, NaNoWriMo. Making plans. Making outlines. Writing character sketches. Writing blogs, if you can believe it, telling unsuspecting citizens how they can write 50,000 words in thirty days.

I have no writing wisdom to share. I’m here to talk about the dark and gritty underbelly of National Novel Writing Month, and how to survive with some shreds of your sanity intact. You want to know how to really get prepared in the next couple of days?

  1. Buy new underwear. You can wear the same sweats all month long, but your ideas and your genitals will both stagnate if you wear the same underwear for thirty days in a row. If you really stock up, you won’t have to do laundry until the Thanksgiving turkey is going into the oven. Or later.
  2. If you have a sweet patootie, have sex now. When you’re getting up early and staying up late to squeeze all those words out of your brain, while convincing yourself you aren’t an absolute worthless hack, you aren’t going to be feeling particularly sexy. Make the beast with two backs now, then maybe you can canoodle again on Thanksgiving, while your underwear is all in the washing machine.
  3. Warn your family. Don’t be coy about your writing or your schedule. This way, when you start snarling in week two about not having met your quota, they’ll nod and go off to happy hour without you, their eyes wide in awe and admiration, whispering “Writer!” (This is not a free pass to act like more of an asshat than you usually do, by the way. Because when December 1 rolls around, you’re going to need all the support your poor, battered ego can get.)
  4. Delete all your game apps from Facebook and phone. I would suggest ignoring Facebook for the whole month, but I’m realistic enough to know that nobody is going to do that.
  5. Get realistic about your menu for the month. Lower your standards. You could go all Betty Crocker and make a month’s worth of freezer meals, and I have walked that path in years past. But it takes cooking skills and time. Stock up on cereal and take-out menus, and tell your children it’s their turn to cook. Realize that pizza is not your enemy. Throw in some fresh fruit, though, because I don’t want to be responsible for anyone coming down with scurvy. Do not try to live on utter crap, like dollar store taco chips and generic chocolate soda.
  6. Get a flu shot. Then stop by the drugstore and stock up on allergy meds, vitamins, tissues, and Visine. The latter two are helpful for colds, allergies and crying jags when you realize you’ve written yourself into a corner. For the third time. Today.
  7. Don’t try to change your entire life. This is not the time to tack on a new running program, a 30-day plank challenge, a switch to vegetarianism, marriage counseling and adopting a litter of feral cats that have possibly been contaminated with actual alien DNA. If you try to do it all at once, you will implode. And some other enterprising NaNoWriMo participant will watch and write about it.
  8. Stock the bevs. Get your favorite caffeine or sparkling water, cider, cocoa, whatever fuels your muse. You might want to save the booze to celebrate at the end of the days when you make your word count. Fueling your muse at 8 a.m. with a couple of shots of tequila is not recommended, especially not if you have a day job. Employers tend to be quite unyielding in their expectations of “fit for duty.”
  9. Make the call: dawn or dusk. You already know if you’re more productive in the mornings or at night. If the idea of 5 a.m. makes you weep, write late instead of early.
  10. Don’t be a snob. Stop being a hipster princess and fussing about monsooned coffee, designer fonts that nobody can tell apart and what indie music is just exquisite to listen to while you’re writing your pivotal enigmatic scene involving horn rimmed glasses.You don’t actually need a computer or a snuggly blanket or the perfect light to get words onto the page. Scrawl notes on a napkin at lunch. When the boss takes a smoke break, jot your ideas into a small notebook. Record thoughts on your phone at stop lights. Write whatever you can, wherever you, whenever you can.

That’s how you get 50,000 words in thirty days.

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