Reading

Two books by Richardson Wright

Two Old Gardening Books and Mr. Grahame’s Little Joke

Specifically, The Gardener’s Bed-Book and The Gardener’s Day Book, both by Richardson Wright (1887-1961), originally published in 1929 and 1938 respectively, the decade between the stock market crash and the start of World War II. Like many books about gardening, they are based on the calendar, with a short essay for every day of the year and a longer one at the end of each month. They reminded me of blog posts. I found myself wanting to press a “Like” button and write comments!

Most of the essays, as expected, are about gardening. Each one is followed by a timely tip, such as when to order seeds, plants, or bulbs, and dates by which various tasks should be done. The basics of gardening haven’t changed that much in centuries, so I could relate to Wright’s thoughts about different plants and musings on gardening as pastime and passion. Despite being written almost a century ago, many of the daily tips are surprisingly apt. I’ll have to pay more attention to some of them.

It’s a different story when it comes to pest control. The differences between then and now are substantial. Toxic chemicals were all the rage then, such as Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and slaked lime), Semesan (organomercury compounds), and Black Leaf 40 (nicotine sulphate). Next to advice to apply arsenate of lead to cabbages was a pencilled note — “Good Lord!” — I must have made the first time I read the book.

Wright’s attitudes and phraseology are of their time, and a few of his remarks are offensive by today’s standards, but there aren’t enough of those to make the book a complete turn-off. Some of his observations on “modern society,” like outrageously fast speeds on highways, seem a bit quaint. One essay includes an observation that Americans drink standing up rather than sitting down, gulping rather than sipping. He associates this habit with early death and suggests sitting down and savouring wine or beer. This sounds a lot like the recent “slow food” trend. The pleasures of food and wine are mentioned regularly, and there are even a few recipes.

I was amused by instructions such as “Check up on the the gardener to see if he has sharpened all edge tools,” and references to a “lawn boy.” Clearly, Wright was among the privileged folks who lived well during the Depression, although he could not afford to install a swimming pool due to “the wind that blew down Wall Street.” Frequent references to hot beds and cold frames made me wonder if these have been replaced by greenhouses, polytunnels, and similar structures.

I haven’t been able to find out much more about Richardson Wright besides his role as editor of House and Garden magazine. He appears to have been a respected figure, both as a promoter of gardening and as a writer, but as yet lacks a Wikipedia entry. In the preface to the Bed-Book, Allen Lacy describes him as “…a congenial soul with a good sense of humor and a well-furnished mind and the manners of a gentleman…” Wright’s garden was in the Silvermine area of Connecticut, a place he called “Sun House.” It must have been quite large, with space for luxuries such as nursery beds and those desirable features of great gardens, stone walls.

Dipping into these books is rather like a visit to a past time. Not that far back, though. I was surprised to read that cars had radios in the 1930s, and it appears that a certain type of book was called a “murder mystery” even in that pre-World War II era. Altogether, Mr. Wright’s books provided a pleasant and interesting diversion, just as they were intended to do almost a century ago.

I can’t remember when or where I bought these books. They’re reprints, not originals, published in 1989. A price of $23.95 appears on the jackets, but I don’t think I would have paid that much, so they probably came from a used bookstore. I recently rediscovered them with considerable delight. They’re chunky little books, about seven inches tall by five wide and more than an inch thick, a comfortable size for the bedside table.

Spines of two books by Richardson Wright

A Light-Bulb Moment

In the Day Book, Mr. Wright’s advice for March 30th is “Roll and rake the lawn.” This got me wondering why anyone would do that (aside from preparing an area for seeding a new lawn). Surely it’s the opposite of aerating, which one is now advised to do, with machines that remove small cores of soil and presumably let in air. Might frost-heaved areas need rolling? Or maybe mole runs? Indeed, on April 13th, one is advised to oil the mole traps. I’ve never lived in a place with moles, so have no experience of their activities.

Then I remembered something from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a favourite book of mine in past years. In the chapter titled “Dulce Domum,” Mole remembers the old home from which he departed in the middle of spring cleaning to seek wider horizons. When he and Rat revisit the place months later, Rat has a job of it to convince Mole that it’s really a nice little house and not a shabby, decrepit dump. Anyway, it seems Mole owns a lawn roller, because he doesn’t care for “animals” kicking up his lawn into little mounds. It’s taken me almost 60 years to discover and appreciate that little joke on Mr. Grahame’s part.

The garden roller at Hoveton Hall gardens, Hoveton, Norfolk
“A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other, a roller; for the Mole … could not stand having his ground kicked up by other animals into little runs that ended in earth-heaps.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Northmetpit dedicated to the public domain.)

Books: Supplies for the Brain

So maybe you’re quarantined, or in voluntary isolation, or just stretching your social distance to the walls of your own house. Everything is closed or closing, even your local library.

Sure, you have a tottering TBR pile, but it can’t hurt to add a few more books to it. You don’t want to run out of reading material in this time of uncertainty!

frog on toilet
Plenty of TP and something to read!

All my books are either free or half-price at the Smashwords store through Sunday, March 22nd. Use the Coupon Code LH52T when checking out.

More about the books here and here.

And of course, for us writers, it’s a great time to write!

The Relief of Reading a Printed Book

I’m reading a printed book after weeks of reading ebooks with the Kindle app on my tablet.

Switching to print has been such a relief! I don’t have to turn the tablet back on if I’ve happened to leave it for a few minutes, or dart back to flip the page back to prevent the device shutting off while I’m making that sandwich. I don’t have to check the battery level or remember to plug it in.

Ebooks are compact and convenient, no question about that, but print books provide a less demanding reading experience. Open or closed, they sit there obligingly, waiting to be read. Several times since I switched back to print, I’ve returned to the book after getting a cup of coffee and experienced a pleasant surprise when I realized I didn’t have to turn on the reading device and key in a password in order to continue reading. (Okay, I know you can set up your tablet not to require a password, but I chose not to do that.)

One problem with printed books is disposing of those you no longer need, often after a single reading. (I’m trying to reduce the amount of surplus stuff in my house, even books.) There are many good ways to dispose of unwanted books — give them to friends, donate to the local library, contribute to community book sales, etc. But each of those options requires more effort than pressing a “delete” button.

This is where borrowing books from libraries is a great choice. Read it and return it. If I’m reluctant to part with a library book after I’ve read it, that’s a sign I should buy myself a copy.

Am I going to restrict myself to reading only in print? No. Many indie-published books are never going to show up at the library. The best way to experience them is via the ebook format, especially when trying out books by authors new to me. As with books from the library, if I find one I really love, I can always order a printed copy — if one is available.

Which tells me that for indie authors, it’s important to make their books available in both print and e-format. It’s even worth the agonizing effort of formatting a Word document to create a professional quality printed book. If you want to do that, this free resource created by fellow WordPress blogger Meeka may be helpful.

What about you, fellow indies? Are your books available in both print and ebook form? Do you read in both formats or do you prefer one or the other?

mind movie image

Reader Brain and Critic Brain

The writer’s brain has two parts — the Imaginer and the Editor. Similar to these are two different parts of the reading brain: the Listener and the Critic.

Both writing and reading are complex activities. There’s more to writing than following rules and more to reading than seeing words on a page or screen.

It may be that the only thing a piece of fiction needs to do in order to be a success is engage the Listener in the reader’s brain. Like a kid by the campfire, all it wants is a good story. Once the Listener is engaged, details that bother the Critic — lapses in grammar, spelling mistakes, or typos — don’t matter. Not even plodding prose, cardboard characters, or warmed-over plots. As long as the Listener part of the reading brain wants to know what happens next and how the story ends, the reader will keep on reading.

This may explain some of those five star rave reviews for what discerning, critical readers believe to be mediocre books.

Editors, agents, reviewers, beta readers, and critique group members must perforce read in Critic mode. People who aren’t writers and are simply looking for entertainment, amusement, or diversion read in Listener mode.

This is why many (maybe most) writers are unable to read purely for fun. Poor things, they’re stuck in Critic mode. Typos, errors, and lazy writing habits irritate them and break the reading experience. Even when reading a stellar piece of work, they end up comparing what they’re reading to their own writing, rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the story.

This may also be why many readers don’t write reviews. If you’ve sailed through a book in Listener mode, it’s hard to marshal your thoughts about it to the point of expressing them in prose.

Most beta readers are also writers, and feel obligated to read critically. Perhaps another category (“alpha readers”) is needed — folks who read purely for entertainment but are willing to comment on their experience of a specific book.

Anything an alpha reader notes as problematic would need the writer’s urgent attention. Niggly details noted by the beta readers can be dealt with later. There’s no point in polishing your prose if no one cares where your story is going or what happens at the end.

Maybe all this applies mainly to genre fiction — stories with inciting incidents, arcs and climaxes, and chapters with cliffhanger endings. Literary fiction, with its emphasis on artful prose, symbolism, and underlying themes, is a different matter. Even so, literary writers may want to consider recruiting one or two alpha readers from among their acquaintances.

So, fellow writers, do any of you seek out alpha readers? Are you able to read uncritically, purely for enjoyment?

Three Books, Three Thoughts

I’m trying a new style of book review that may be less intimidating than the dreaded “book report” essay many readers are reluctant to write. Three thoughts about three books.

I read almost 50 books in 2019. These three were my favourites:

  1. The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head: Volume 1, The War of the Stolen Mother / Lorinda J. Taylor
  2. Eternity Began Tomorrow / Kevin Brennan
  3. Annals of the Former World / John McPhee

The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head: Volume 1, The War of the Stolen Mother / Lorinda J. Taylor

…the Champion Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head and the Remembrancer Di’fa’kro’mi set out on an epic quest to reach the sea. In the Champion’s home fortress we learn that Ki’shto’ba has a twin and that he may have been sired by the Sky-King. Later, the Companions visit a fortress that has been at war for nine years with its neighbors

Book description at Smashwords
  • The Characters. Yes, they’re termites. Giant termites living on a distant planet. Their personalities, thought processes, and emotions are similar to those of humans, which makes them relatable. But their anatomy and physiology are true to type, which is fascinating.
  • The Plot. It’s an epic quest adventure, full of unexpected hazards and tests of courage and ingenuity. Recognizing similarities to legends of the human world woven into the plot offers the reader happy surprises.
  • The Language. I’m referring to the termite language devised by the author. It’s more than a random collection of made-up words. This is a constructed language (conlang), with a structure and internal logic whose patterns are relatively easy for the reader to discern. It’s interesting in itself and enriches the fictional world and its cultures.

Eternity Began Tomorrow: a novel / Kevin Brennan

When Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a young hotshot reporter for an online news outlet, is assigned the biggest story of her career, she’s eager to run with it. Her subject, John Truthing, has built a cultish organization called “Eternity Began Tomorrow” to fight climate change, and it’s starting to snowball big time. As Blazes digs in, she’s both impressed and disturbed by Truthing, a charismatic eco-warrior with revolutionary ideas. Disturbed because his followers are mainly millennials, all hooked on a drug called Chillax and so devoted they would jump off a cliff if he asked it of them. … Blazes knows that the final story in her EBT series could destroy his movement, but she’s torn. The cause is worthy. The stakes are high. And the election of 2020 could decide the fate of life on earth.

Book description at Amazon.com
  • The Protagonist. Molly “Blazes” Bolan, journalist. She’s smart, funny, and irreverent, but vulnerable. And man, can she tell a story.
  • The Relevance. The story is happening right now. Climate change, social media, the power of charisma to change the world.
  • The Ending. You think you know where the story is going when — wham! — it takes off into unthought-of territory and punches you in the gut. And the heart.

Annals of the Former World / John McPhee

The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion years. … Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.

Book description at Amazon.com
  • The Subject. Geology and geologists. McPhee travels east to west across the US along Interstate 80 in the company of geologists, relaying their expertise to the reader in a way that opens the eye and the mind.
  • The Scope. No less than several billion years, but the focus zooms in and out to human as well as geological time, covering matters such as frontier life, academic life, the oil business, the California gold rush, how geologists think, and a minute-by-minute account of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
  • The Writing. It’s vivid, precise, lapidary. McPhee doesn’t avoid or dumb down the language of geology, but incorporates it into his narrative in a way that that both informs and delights. Writers should read this book; even if they don’t give a damn about geology they’ll learn something about writing.

Well, fellow writers — what do you think of this attempt at giving impressions of books? Did any of these mini-reviews spark your interest?
All my reviews may be found on Goodreads.

pocket watch and book

The True Price of a Book

Self-published authors often see advice about pricing their books — not too cheap, not too expensive, as though there’s a Goldilocks price for an ebook. I’ve seen 2.99 to 4.99 recommended as ebook pricing “sweet spots.”

Authors sometimes wonder how potential buyers can be so reluctant to part with the few bucks they charge for their ebooks. It’s only $2.99! You can’t buy a cup of coffee for that. What’s the problem?

I suspect the amount of currency isn’t the real problem. The problem is that paying for a book commits one to reading it. Reading takes time. And time is priceless.

The real price of a book is the reader’s time.

We all know the process a potential book buyer goes through — Hmm, nice cover. Cool title. What’s it about? Sounds kinda interesting, but… Do I really want to read this? I already have 20 books waiting… Only 2.99. Well, maybe… someday.

“Someday,” meaning never. Another sale gets away.

Free books, on the other hand, are snapped up eagerly. Because they don’t involve a financial transaction, maybe they don’t register as time commitments? Some say free books are rarely read. But what about when the “price” is your email address? Are totally free books read more or less than those exchanged for contact info? Has anyone compared the two?

Recently, I read that a potential customer needs to be alerted to a product many times before they feel a need for it, as though an inherent resistance needs to be worn down. I don’t know about that — if a book’s cover, title, and description don’t appeal to me, repeated sights of it are irritating rather than inviting.

Maybe when a potential buyer is teetering on the brink, the sight of one more promo of the book creates the “Oh all right, I’ll buy it!” moment.

Advertising is a huge business, involving clever people with backgrounds in psychology and brain science. Some indie authors may decide to pay attention to these fields, but it’s unlikely that many have the resources to make practical use of such research.

So what’s an author to do?

If the reader’s time is the real price, one answer may be to write books that go down easy — quick reads with lots of action and stripped-down prose. Fifty thousand words priced at 0.99 may be more appealing than 100K words at any price. Especially if a glance at the first few pages shows multi-syllabic words woven into long, elaborate sentences.

I should have written this post before I wrote my books.

SWCF 2019

Nevertheless, all those long books are available for FREE. Only until 11:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 1st, 2020. And only at the Smashwords store. Click HERE.

Image by Tentes from Pixabay

Happy Holidays!

Wishing all Pressers of the Word a splendid holiday, however celebrated!

Followed by an inspired 2020!


And another reason to celebrate…

The Smashwords End of Year Sale

December 25th 2019 through January 1st 2020

All my books are on sale, along with hundreds of others. At the Smashwords ebook store only.

collage of Herbert West Series cover images
SWCF 2019 revision reduced
She Who Comes Forth book spine

Cover Image Answer

I’m grateful for all the responses to my post asking which of two cover images for my novel, She Who Comes Forth, was preferred by readers. Thank you to all who commented, expressed a preference, and explained why they liked one of the images (or both!)

Yes, two people noted things they liked about both images and said they couldn’t decide between them. Fourteen expressed a preference for image #2, the close-up of a woman’s face with hieroglyphs and the title in a sans-serif font. (The font is called “Glacial Indifference,” by the way.) People who preferred this image said it was mysterious, intriguing, sophisticated, and professional.

But seventeen people preferred image #1, which is the original cover image for this novel. Some comments said it represented Egypt better than #2. Other details mentioned were the warm colours, the figure that appears to be “coming forth,” and the mysterious quality of the silhouette.

So, #1 it will be. After considering one comment, I made some subtle changes to make the figure less blob-like ambiguous. One was to remove the face. Did anyone notice the face? It was barely visible, intended to be a sort of hidden surprise. I decided that wasn’t a good idea and removed it. I also increased the opacity of the silhouette to 100%.

All this reminded me of how I allowed myself to be distracted from writing She Who Comes Forth while it was a work in progress. I would fire up Canva and create yet another image. I must have made more than a dozen in all.

At first, I was determined to include a cello. After all, the main character’s cello is a character in her own right. She has a name and plays (ha, ha!) a significant part in the plot. I looked at hundreds of pictures of women with cellos. Somehow, I couldn’t make any of them work, except for two gorgeous photos. Using them, I made two beautiful cover images, but I had no luck contacting the copyright owners. Those creations remain in my private files, never to be published.

But here is one version that shows a cello player. Note the emerald ring! I put it together from three different shapes, and I’m quite pleased with it. Overall, though, this image implies the book is mainly about music, and it isn’t.

SWCF cover image cello player
Fonts: Great Vibes, Cinzel, Sacramento

At some point, I must have gotten a bit desperate, because I also created this little whimsy…

SWCF cover image whimsical version
Fonts: Tenor Sans, Princess Sofia

Yeah, I know. This one was never in the running, but it’s sort of cute.

Then I decided to go for a stripped-down look focussing on the title. Quite a few recently published bestsellers feature titles against backgrounds that play second cello fiddle to the fonts.

SWCF cover stripped-down version
Fonts: Great Vibes, Norwester, Sacramento

In the end, I settled on the combination of female silhouette and a couple of the great pillars of the Karnak Temple in Luxor (which also appears in the story). And that image (with a few adjustments) will continue to be the one to represent this book.

SWCF 2019
Font: Libre Baskerville, upper case, lower case, and italicized

Some people commented on the fonts. The sans-serif font in #2 was thought too modern or to suggest science fiction. Someone else said the mixture of upper and lower case, italics and colours in #1 is visually confusing. An earlier version of this image (which you can sort of see in the photo of the paperback at the head of the post) sported no fewer than three different fonts for the title. This mashup was pretty much lambasted on the Book Designer’s Monthly Ebook Cover Design Awards site, so I changed to a single font, but in a number of cases and colours. I think the background images are sufficiently strong and simple to withstand the variety.

Thanks again for all the nice and helpful things you said about my designs!

All images by Audrey Driscoll, created with Canva. Some include elements from Pixabay.


Here is a recent review of She Who Comes Forth by Lorinda J. Taylor (from Amazon and Goodreads).

A uniquely compelling story, employing the mythology of ancient Egypt December 11, 2019
This book grabs you at the beginning and keeps you reading, because it’s not a book with any clues – I found it impossible to guess what might happen in the end. Just like France Leighton and her talking cello, this book is something special. I particularly liked the conjunction of the Egyptian mystique and the minutiae of everyday modern life. France may accomplish wonders, but that doesn’t keep her from feeling pain, getting sick, and having doubts and second thoughts. She’s both human and hero.
If you’re fascinated with ancient Egypt and its grotesque and alien mythology, you’ll love this piece. I’ve never gotten hooked on Egyptian mythology, probably because I’m basically a rationalist with a scientific bent. Greek mythology has always appealed more to me, because its flawed gods are extrapolated from humanity, based on what we experience every day. That may be why western civilization developed from Greek culture, and the Egyptians faded into the fabric of history and became only a subject for esoteric study. I can understand how people can believe Egypt was influenced by extraterrestrials, because they had such strange concepts of the nature of the spiritual world and what was needed to ensure eternal life.
This book has feminist undercurrents – it’s the goddesses who have the real power – and there is also a subtext involving a condemnation of our scientific/technological civilization. Science becomes a tool of the gods to destroy more than it will ever create.
I must say a few words about what a fine writer this author is, especially in her descriptive talents. She really makes you feel and smell Egypt in the 1960s, even though she states in an afterword that she has never been there. I’ll close with a few examples:
“The sweet smell of cedar wood mingled with whiffs of turpentine, lamp oil, and ancient stone.”
“The shape of his lips as they formed words fascinated me, like watching a time-lapse film of a flower opening, or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.”
And, finally, something to make you chuckle: “Below us lay a field of temple ruins; the Colossi of Memnon looked small and ridiculous, like constipated stone trolls on matching stone toilets.”
I heartily recommend this book as a uniquely compelling story. I would also suggest reading the author’s Herbert West series first, since She Who Comes Forth refers often to prior events and characters.

You can find out more about She Who Comes Forth, including purchase links, by clicking on the image in the sidebar or right here.

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #4

In November 2000, I started writing the first novel of what would become the Herbert West Series. This November, I have set myself a goal to finish writing a collection of stories I intend to publish in 2020. Call it my own version of NaNoWriMo. So, I’ve scheduled posts for the next four weeks featuring each of the four books of the series. Oh, and November 7th was Herbert West’s 133rd birthday!

The final book in the series is Hunting the Phoenix.

Journalist Alma Halsey chases the story of a lifetime to Providence, Rhode Island and finds more than she expected – an old lover, Charles Milburn, and an old adversary, renegade physician Herbert West, living under the name Francis Dexter. Fire throws her into proximity with them both, rekindling romance and completing a great transformation.

In writing The Friendship of Mortals, I wasn’t sure what to do with Charles Milburn’s girlfriend, Alma. I sent her off to be an ambulance driver in the Great War, after which she became a journalist in Boston and New York City. To compensate, I decided she would be the narrator of Hunting the Phoenix, in which Herbert West/Francis Dexter’s story ends. Before that, Alma rediscovers her poetic talents as well as shocking things about Charles, Herbert, and herself.
In this final book, the theme of alchemy as a symbol of transformation is evident, both in the titles of the five parts and in the narrative itself.

This scene is from the section titled “Calcination.” It’s followed by one of Alma’s poems.


I woke up so suddenly that the dream I was dreaming came with me. I had to save my brother Danforth from taking off in his homemade flying machine and falling to his death. To do that, I had to figure out the plans for it that he’d left in his room. I had to read them aloud to the wind, so the wind would know how to help him. There were so many papers! They kept re-shuffling themselves as I scrabbled through them. I would catch a glimpse of the drawing I needed – the machine drawn in blue ink and Dan’s neat block capitals labelling the parts. My fingers grasped it as it flipped past, and I began to slide it out from the other papers. But to my horror, the ink was crumbling, shifting into other shapes that meant nothing. If I couldn’t preserve it, I couldn’t read it, and Dan would die. I strained my eyes. “Aileron,” I stammered. “Flange. Wing control lever. Strut.”

“Strut,” I muttered, coming awake. The word hung in the air as the urgency of the dream faded, to be replaced with the beginnings of relief. But instead of sliding back into sleep, I came fully awake, slowly becoming aware that something was different. Something was wrong.

There was a smell of smoke. Sometimes Jim Priddy would light a wood fire in one of the fireplaces, as a treat on a cold evening. But he hadn’t done that tonight. “No damn wood left,” he’d said. Donna Maria burned garbage in a metal drum in the back yard every few weeks. But never at night.

There was a flicker of orange light under my door. I thought I heard people shouting, far away.

I scrambled out of bed and ran to the door. The doorknob was warm and the floor was warm too, pleasantly warm to my feet. And smoke was thick around me.

Panicked, I pulled open the door. As though they had been waiting for my summons, flames leaped and rushed into my room from the inferno of the stairwell. Closing the door was impossible. I jumped back, but not quickly enough, heard an intense crackling and smelled my own hair burning. Heat enveloped me. I beat at the flames with my hands and arms. Fire seared my skin, pain shrieked through my body. The window! The window!

Rushing over to it, I fumbled with the catch. It was stuck. No use. Break the glass! Grabbing a shoe from the floor, I pounded the glass with the heel. A star of cracks appeared, but it held. Frantically, I pounded harder. The glass shattered and my hand came down on a jagged shard. Hot blood steamed in the icy air that blasted in, whirling snowflakes over my desk. The shoe fell from my hand, teetered for a second on the outside ledge, was gone. I grabbed a towel from the back of a chair, wrapped my bleeding hand in it and thumped out the remaining shards from the frame.

Behind me flames capered, feeding joyously on the fresh air. Time to go, Alma! Thought fragments whipped through my brain like bullets. Bathrobe? No time. Coat? No time. Slippers? No time. Shoe gone. My notes? My notes! They’re in several piles, all over my desk. I start to gather them up.

Stupid Alma! Stupid!

But I’ve got to –

Go, you fool! Go!

The room is full of fire. There’s no more room for me. Too late – the hem of my nightgown is on fire. Monstrous pain screams up my legs. Clawing frantically at the garment, I tear it off and scramble naked over the desk, scattering papers to the flames. My hand catches on something solid and I clutch it as I push myself through the window, feeling a long tear on my left thigh from an up-pointing glass fragment. The house has teeth, it’s fighting back. But it should bite the fire, not me!

Now I’m on the edge, on the ledge, the very edge, a tiny balcony, just wide enough for me to crouch on. I’m still burning; soon I’ll be a torch. There’s no fire escape. (“Oh, there was a ladder once,” Donna Maria had said, “but it got rotten. I’ll get Jim to make another one in the spring.” Yes, Maria, but I need it now). It’s a long way down, to black and white studded with faces looking up. Their mouths move, yelling things I can’t hear. A siren wails and wails. I know, I know it’s burning! You don’t have to make all that noise!

The fire is done with my room. Now it’s coming for me. No more time, Alma.

I stand up. What a Juliet I am! There’s no Romeo here and this isn’t a nightingale night. Snowflakes swirl around me, turning orange from the flames. Or maybe they’re sparks. Orange flowers in the air. The wind howls. The mouths below me howl. The fire talks to itself, smacking its lips as it eats the house. I’m alone. This is no place to be. I clutch my hands around the only thing I’m taking with me – square, smooth, hard. Is that Charles down there? His face is like a flesh-coloured flower. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see his lips moving.

Closer to you soon, Charles.

The fire gives me one last shove and I’m in the air, snowflakes all around me, swirling themselves into a net, holding me up. So this is what it’s like inside the star globe! But where’s my unicorn?

A long rush, a hard thud. Then nothing.


Once I built with wood,
Stone, steel, bricks, cement–
Heavy, straight, squared off and carefully measured.
A life for a lifetime, solid and strong
And all my own.
My house of life.

I did not think it could be so easily destroyed,
Corroded by resentment,
Weakened by desires deferred, ambitions unrealized,
Split by ambivalence
And burned, burned, burned.

Rebuild now?
I have no materials,
My tools are gone to rust,
Mud, air, the water of my tears,
The sulfur of solitude,
And the salt of sorrow.

These are my matter,
But I have no formula,
No vessel except myself.
I need a catalyst.
I need magic, a secret fire.

Is there a magician in this house of night?


What readers have said:

double quotation mark open
  • “… the culmination of the final book is exactly what it should be: tragic, but beautiful. I wish there was more, the story was brilliant.”
  • “I absolutely loved this series. Beautifully written and unpredictable. At times both heart pounding and heart breaking.”
  • “I really wish I could give ‘Hunting the Phoenix’ a 10 out of 5 but even my limited math knows that’s impossible. Suffice to say that this book, in fact the whole series, is as close to perfect as a story can get. It joins a relatively short list of books, including Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, that I consider to be exceptional, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants /more/.”
  • “A noteworthy aspect of this book is the author’s skill in evocative description. She really knows how to set a scene and create a mood; furthermore characters appear, take shape, and are molded in front of your very eyes.”

Hunting the Phoenix is available from:

Amazon: US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

This is the last of four posts about the Herbert West novels. Here are links to the first three: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.