Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Category: Artdog Recommended Reading

On this multicolored square design the artist has grouped all eight of the covers for the books in the two posts covered in the “Artdog Adventures” Blog’s digest post that summarizes two posts filled with book reviews from The Weird Blog of Weird Sisters Publishing. In the left part of the design she grouped the five covers for the “Old Code” series by Anthony W. Eichenlaub. They are “Grandfather Anonymous,” “Grandfather Ghost,” “Grandfather Guardian,” “Grandfather Zero,” and “Grandfather Crypto.” In the right-hand part of the design are the three graphic books’ covers. They are The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” “The Book Tour,” “Fangs,” and “The Book Tour.” Below the grouped covers, the words say, “Covers Courtesy of Amazon.com.

More Book Reviews

I promised to return with more book reviews in March. With my time as crunched as it has been lately, I’ve started creating a monthly review of the posts I ran on The Weird Blog of Weird Sisters Publishing. Yes, it’s an aggregation and not completely original, but I hope you’ll enjoy my “digest” posts in lieu of no posts at all.

On a square black cover with a pale peach center, the book covers for “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” “The Book Tour,” and “Fangs” span the center, slightly offset from each other.
Book covers courtesy of Amazon. See Credits below.

I Hope You Give Graphic Books a Closer Look

I began the month’s posts by highlighting Three Graphic Books Worth a Look. The category name might make someone unfamiliar with it to worry about explicit sexual content or extreme violence, but don’t worry. They’re not that kind of “graphic.”

The three graphic books I reviewed in that post cover a wide range of subjects and approaches. I hope they demonstrate how very much graphic books do not inevitably have to be “just comic books” – and they are definitely not intellectually simple.

But wait! There are more book reviews to come!

The five covers of the books in the “Old Code” series, by Anthony W. Eichenlaub, are arrayed across this square image in two rows. On the upper row, L-R. are the covers of “Grandfather Anonymous,” “Grandfather Ghost,” and “Grandfather Guardian.” On the lower row, L-R, are the covers of “Grandfather Zero” and “Grandfather Crypto.” The covers are monochromatic blue, turquoise, or purple. A single slender man with a hat and cane anchors the first three covers. He is joined by a young woman in the latter two. All covers are courtesy of Amazon.com.
Book covers courtesy of Amazon. See Credits below.

The Old Code Series Makes for Excellent Reading

I discovered the first book in this series, Grandfather Anonymous, through a BookBub newsletterlisting. It sounded interesting and they were practically giving it away, so I thought, “why not?” I don’t normally find “hacker” stories all that intrinsically interesting. But I’m an old gal who hopes she still has her skills, so the idea of an old guy who still has his skills was personally appealing.

Within the first page I was engaged, and the quality of the reading experience in these techno-thrillers remained consistent throughout. I’m glad I found this series for many reasons – but the most fundamental of them is that the Old Code series delivers the goods from start to finish.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of reviews, and I hope maybe you’ll even look around for a copy of one or more of them.

On this multicolored square design the artist has grouped all eight of the covers for the books in the two posts covered in the “Artdog Adventures” Blog’s digest post that summarizes two posts filled with book reviews from The Weird Blog of Weird Sisters Publishing. In the left part of the design she grouped the five covers for the “Old Code” series by Anthony W. Eichenlaub. They are “Grandfather Anonymous,” “Grandfather Ghost,” “Grandfather Guardian,” “Grandfather Zero,” and “Grandfather Crypto.” In the right-hand part of the design are the three graphic books’ covers. They are The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” “The Book Tour,” “Fangs,” and “The Book Tour.” Below the grouped covers, the words say, “Covers Courtesy of Amazon.com.
Book covers courtesy of Amazon. See Credits below.

I hope you enjoy the reviews in the linked posts, and that you’ll buy (or borrow from your local library) any that you think look interesting. Please feel free to comment below if you’ve read any previously (and agree or disagree). And please let me know if you’d like to see more book reviews!

About the Author

Author Jan S. Gephardt is an artist whose first love is line art, and a longtime science fiction reader. Thus, the books highlighted in this post and the two linked posts were all right up her alley. She’s also a science fiction novelist, the author of the XK9 Series, including the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. The third book in the trilogy, Bone of Contention, is set for release September 24, 2024. A fourth book, Bones for the Children will extend the series past the trilogy and is now in the works.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Amazon for the book covers used in all the graphics for this post. The specific links for the first collection of three graphic books are: Fangs, The Book Tour, and Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts.

I also want to thank Amazon for the “Old Code” cover images, which represent the ebook covers for this series. See Grandfather Anonymous, Grandfather Ghost, Grandfather Guardian, Grandfather Zero, and Grandfather Crypto.

Header images for the three Weird Blog articles described in this post show book covers for nonfiction books "Sedition Hunters" by Ryan J. Reilly, "Burnout," by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, and "Why Does my Cat Do that?" by Catherine Davidson; a design by Erin Phillips that says, “Feed an author. Leave a Review. It takes five minutes and helps more than you can imagine. (from) Erin Phillips.me.”; and a montage of four covers representing books by two authors: By Jodi Burnett, "Extraction" and "Corruption." By Travis Baldree, "Legends & Lattes" and "Bookshops & Bonedust."

Recent Posts on The Weird Blog

The realities of SEO searchability have forced a change in how I’ve handled recent posts on The Weird Blog and here on Artdog Adventures. Unfortunately, Artdog got the shorter, messier end of that stick.

This blog, however, has been my “home blog” for a long time. I want to keep it current for the moments when my opinion pieces are a bit too “political” for my partner! 😊 And I’d like to keep you better in the loop, if you’re a loyal subscriber. To that end, I thought you might like some glimpses of recent posts on The Weird Blog that I am no longer able to share in full here.

This square image has a black background. The words are at the center, surrounded by a design of stars and dots. The words say, “Feed an author. Leave a Review. It takes five minutes and helps more than you can imagine. (from) Erin Phillips.me.”
Courtesy of Erin Phillips via Rebecca’s Write Inspirations (see Credits below).

Recent Book Reviews

I figured out what my New Year’s Resolution needed to be when I looked back over my recent book reviews from 2023. I only wrote eleven! Book reviews are essential for authors, so I decided that I must do better than that, if I’m going to ask my own readers to write reviews for me. Since I am reading many things every day, whether it’s fiction or fact, I have no excuse. Here’s how I formed my resolution to write more reviews.

This square image shows the covers of the three books featured in the blog post “Three Nonfiction Book Reviews,” by Jan S. Gephardt, published on “The Weird Blog,” 1/17/2024. The covers, L-R are those of: Ryan J. Reilly’s book “Sedition Hunters: How January 6th Broke the Justice System,” “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski DMA, and Catherine Davidson’s book “Why does my CAT do that? Answers to 50 Questions Cat Lovers Ask,” on a background that is a blend of the covers’ colors. Montage design by Jan S. Gephardt.
See Credits Below.

Three Nonfiction Book Reviews

In my first January post, I talked about book reviews that I have (and more importantly have not) written in 2023. At the end of that post I made writing more book reviews a New Year’s resolution. This post is my first installment toward making good on that resolution. In it I share three nonfiction book reviews, written either in 2023 or – a true start on my resolution – in 2024.

The covers of the four books reviewed in the blog post overlap each other slightly in a grouping around the central area of this square montage. The books represented are upper and lower left, “Extraction” and “Corruption,” both by Jodi Burnett. At upper and lower right are “Legends & Lattes” and “Bookshops & Bonedust,” by Travis Baldree.
Cover images courtesy of Amazon. (See Credits below).

A Post Full of Page-Turners

Rounding out my list of recent posts on The Weird Blog, how about a post full of page-turners? Book reviews have been the theme of the month. But fiction is my particular wheelhouse, and it’s the core business of Weird Sisters Publishing. So how about some fiction reviews? But not just any fiction. As promised above, it’s a post full of page-turners.

Header images for the three Weird Blog articles described in this post show book covers for nonfiction books "Sedition Hunters" by Ryan J. Reilly, "Burnout," by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, and "Why Does my Cat Do that?" by Catherine Davidson; a design by Erin Phillips that says, “Feed an author. Leave a Review. It takes five minutes and helps more than you can imagine. (from) Erin Phillips.me.”; and a montage of four covers representing books by two authors: By Jodi Burnett, "Extraction" and "Corruption." By Travis Baldree, "Legends & Lattes" and "Bookshops & Bonedust."
See Credits Below.

A Month of Book Reviews – Next up, Artists!

There were three recent posts on The Weird Blog for January, because there were three Wednesdays. I’ll post more book reviews and also share the links to them here in future months. In February I plan move on to a different theme, one that might be closer to the “home turf” of Artdog Adventures: profiles of fantasy and science fiction artists whose work I admired at science fiction conventions during 2023.

About the Author

I, Jan S. Gephardt, have been writing this blog since 2009. Since I don’t want to let it die of neglect, I still plan to come around as often as I can to post new things and keep readers up-to-date with recent posts we’ve run on The Weird Blog. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best I can do right now.

I’m also a novelist, as well as being a paper sculptor. I’m currently in final edits on Bone of Contention,the third novel in my XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. The series centers on a pack of uplifted police dogs who live, and solve crimes, on a space station in a star system far, far away. It is scheduled for publication September 24, 2024.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Designer Erin Phillips and Rebecca’s Write Inspirations for the “Feed an Author” quote. Thanks to Amazon for the book covers used in second image, Sedition Hunters, Burnout, and Why Does My Cat Do That? And ongoing thanks to Amazon once again, for consistently high-quality cover image files! Here are direct URLs to the sources for Extraction, Corruption, Legends & Lattes, and Bookshops & Bonedust.

“There is no better distraction in this world than losing oneself in books for awhile.” — Cassandra Clare Thank you, Quotefancy.

Due a Review

By Jan S. Gephardt

I’ve been reading some very enjoyable books recently. They really are due a review. I’m an Indie author myself. Co-publishing out of a micro-press I run with my sister counts as “indie,” trust me. Thus, I know how vitally important reviews are. But frankly, reviews are important to all writers, whether indie or traditionally published.

Every single review posted by an individual reader tells the world that this author wrote a book someone felt moved to write about. It’s “social proof” that YES! Somebody out there not only read this book, but wanted to tell the world something about it. It’s the absolute, A-Number-One, hands-down, best gift you can give an author whose work you enjoy.

Reviews have the power to move algorithms, those arcane formulations that dictate which books turn up first in the recommendations a reader searching for new books sees. They also can provide an author with authentic voices to quote in their marketing efforts. Do you write reviews? Do you give star-ratings when you finish a book? If you do, God bless you!

This image is created from two square-shaped images. The one on the left features a drone’s-eye-view of an old-fashioned black manual typewriter on a white background. The words say, “Your words are as important to an author as an author’s words are to you. Please leave a review. Katieroseguestpryal.com.” on the left is a predominantly black design with white, gold and tan dots around the edges. In the middle it says, “Feed an author LEAVE A REVIEW it takes five minutes and helps more than you can IMAGINE. ErinPhillips.me.”
Many thanks for these images to Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Erin Phillips, via Rebecca’s Write Inspirations.

A Lengthening List of Books that are Due a Review!

I “preach the gospel” of review-writing, but all too often I vow, “I’ve got to write a review for this! . . . Um, just as soon as I can.” And then “as soon as” stretches on for way too long. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “Justice delayed is justice denied”? Well, that goes for book reviews, too.

I realized recently that I’ve accumulated a rather long list of books I deeply enjoyed, that are still due a review. In the interest of making good on some of those mental promises – and also amplifying their reach a bit more by sharing them here, I thought I’d collect four in this blog post.

When I do finally get around to writing reviews, I customarily write them using the online forms provided by Amazon or Goodreads, and make sure I post to both. If one is writing a review anyway, why not extend the book’s visibility as much as you can? Another good thing to do, while we’re on Goodreads, is add a book to one of their Listopia lists. Not sure how to do that? They publish a guide.

The cover for “Poison Pen,” Book One at left, is a predominantly blue view of an almost implausibly empty street in Los Angeles, with strong one-point perspective that pulls the eye in. From top to bottom, the words say, “’Dynamite’ – Starred review – Publisher’s Weekly Sheila Lowe. Poison Pen, a Claudia Rose Novel.” At right, the two-tone cover in greenish gray and brown also shows an empty road in one-point perspective, this time in the Nevada desert. From top to bottom, the words say, “Top Ten List, Independent Mystery Booksellers Assoc. Sheila Lowe Written in Blood A Claudia Rose Novel.”
Many thanks to Goodreads for these cover images.

Sheila Lowe’s “Forensic Handwriting” Mystery Series

Let’s start with the “Forensic Handwriting” (also called the “Claudia Rose Novels”) mystery series by Sheila Lowe. I saw this author mentioned in the acknowledgements of a recent Margaret Mizushima novel, Standing Dead (Timber Creek # 8), and I was intrigued with a forensic handwriting angle for a mystery novel. That’s what led me to look it up. I’m glad I did.

Longer-term readers of this blog might remember I have featured work by Margaret Mizushima before. Back in 2021 I included her Timber Creek K9 series in my post on K9 Mysteries. I recommended the series back then, and I still do. It just keeps getting better! Speaking of which, Margaret also is due a review (actually, several) from me! But first let’s turn to Claudia Rose.

Twists, Turns, Smoke, and Mirrors With a Heart-Pounding Finish

Poison Pen, Book One of the “Forensic Handwriting” mystery series, opens with an interesting situation and kept me engaged all the way through till the end. It’s extremely well-written, and paced to keep readers turning pages. Claudia Rose has a unique approach to the world and makes an engaging protagonist. Her friends and frenemies also come across as three-dimensional, sympathetic, and distinctly quirky people.

Author Shelia Lowe deftly balances character strengths and weaknesses and offers us a lively array of suspects and questionable motives. Set in LA and focused mostly on the high-stakes, high-glamour, highly competitive world of the almost-famous who orbit the Hollywood scene, this book evokes a richly textured world as colorful and quirky as the cast of characters.

Lowe has us double-and triple guessing about “What is real?” and “Who can we trust?” But make no mistake, the twists, turns, smoke, and mirrors lead us into a heart-pounding final sequence that’s hard to put down–and delivers a deeply satisfying finish.

“There is no better distraction in this world than losing oneself in books for awhile.” — Cassandra Clare
Thank you, Quotefancy.

The Action Never Lets up and the Pages Demand to be Turned

Once I find a series I enjoy, I tend to follow it for a while. There’s a special delight in returning to a world and a group of characters I liked, to see what they’re up to now. In Written in Blood, Claudia Rose faces new challenges and a new set of enemies, while trying to navigate a relationship we saw begin in the first book. In this one, we spend less time navigating the desperate glamour of second-tier Hollywood than we did in the previous novel. Instead, we tighten our focus to an exclusive Los Angeles school for troubled rich girls. But if anything, the stakes are even higher.

One note: This book was published in 2008, and I kept noticing little time-warps: teenagers went to malls, back then. Marijuana laws in California have radically changed. Technology back then was different, too. As with many long-running series, little “period” things crop up. That said, it didn’t spoil my fun one bit.

Once again, Claudia’s skill with forensic handwriting helps her navigate the treacherous rip-tides of “Who is lying?” and “What is this person’s potential to harm others?” But even she isn’t infallible. The action never lets up and the pages demand to be turned–all the way to the breathtaking finish.

Covers for the first two books in the Coyote Run series. At left is a predominantly blue and green cover of a young woman and a Belgian Malinois dog looking across a northern California landscape. From top to bottom it says: “Coyote Run Book One. “Acosta’s talent is staggering.” – RT Magazine. The Dog Thief. Marta Acosta.” The second, mostly green cover shows the young woman and a German Shorthaired Pointer gazing into the woods. From top to bottom, it reads: “Coyote Run Book Two. Mad Dog Down the Road. Marta Acosta.”
Thanks for these cover images, Marta Acosta!

Marta Acosta’s Coyote Run Books

My sister G. S. Norwood recommended the first book in this series. She knew I’d enjoy the focus and analysis of dog behavior, which is quite important in my own XK9 science fiction mystery novels.

About a third of the way into the first book, The Dog Thief, I felt certain my daughter would enjoy it, too – so I bought her a copy for her birthday. And clearly, this is another that’s due a review! If you like unusual perspectives, love dogs, and appreciate a good mystery, you might enjoy this series, too.

A Unique Protagonist Keeps Us Engaged All the Way

Dog rehabilitator Maddie Whitney appealed to me from moment she told a woman to take off her scarf because it scared the animals. It’s clear from the very first page that Maddie has a markedly different perspective on life. I enjoyed simply inhabiting the world as she sees it. But Marta Acosta’s fast-paced mystery The Dog Thief also is peopled by many other interesting characters and challenges.

Maddie’s neurodivergent quirks and issues plunge us into a fascinating way of interfacing with the world. As we inhabit Maddie’s point of view via the brilliant evocation Acosta sustains throughout, we grow in understanding. We get why she likes dogs better than people, and how some of her behaviors make perfect sense to her – even as we understand why others react as they do.

She’s facing a lot of stress, even before she finds the dead woman in her neighbor’s field. Money issues threaten the Whitney Canine Rehabilitation Center, and she’s heartbroken over a recent breakup. Even more misunderstood in her Northern California hometown of Coyote Run than some of the hard-luck dogs she champions, she hangs in there. She’s true to herself. And in her own unique way she bridges divides, finds new love in an unlikely place, and outsmarts a desperate killer who’s hiding in plain sight.

"To lose yourself in a book is the desire of the bookworm. I mean to be taken. That is my desire."  — Fran Lebowitz
Thank you, AZ Quotes!

A One-of-a-Kind Viewpoint and more Acosta Magic

Maddie’s back, along with the other colorful range of human and canine denizens in Coyote Run for Mad Dog Down the Road. This time it’s summer, and our favorite “Mad Girl” is struggling to make her way without younger sister Kenzie around to provide her accustomed guardrails. As ever, her neurodivergent quirks give her a one-of-a-kind viewpoint on priorities.

But once she’s locked on to the sad case of the torn-up “bait dog” tossed out like roadside trash by a dog-fighting operation, she’s found a new obsession for her whiteboards and indignation. She’ll also decry a new local guru’s adult, pajama-clad “summer campers” who set off fireworks in mid-July despite prime conditions for a bad fire season. And don’t even get her started on the new deputy.

Then a local fisherman dies in a suspicious boat explosion, and her new dog Vixen finds a grisly, inexplicable “clue” that doesn’t seem to fit. Soon she’s hip-deep in all the mysteries, and unwittingly setting herself up for the most dangerous night of her life. This is typically superb Acosta magic. I didn’t want to put it down.

“A book you finish reading is not the same book it was before you read it.” — David Mitchell
Thanks again, Quotefancy!

When We Read a Book We Complete It

As with all works of art, when we listen, view, and react to it, only then is the creative circle complete. And I would argue that part of reacting to it is writing a review, if possible. The ones I’ve written and shared in this blog post are around 180 to 250 words long, but if you can boil it down to one sentence, it still counts – as long as you share it.

I can think of a bunch more great books that are due a review from me. I hope to share some of them in future blog posts. I’d prefer to collect them in groups for which I can establish a theme, just as I’d say “unusual angles on contemporary mysteries” is how I’d group those in today’s post.

I hope today’s blog post has given you a lead on a couple of interesting series, and maybe also pricked your conscience (as it did mine!). Because if you’ve read this far, I bet you’re the kind of person who loves to read interesting books. And perhaps some of them are also due a review.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Erin Phillips, via Rebecca’s Write Inspirations for the visual thoughts on the value of a book review. I’m grateful to Goodreads for providing a prime forum for posting those all-important reviews, and also for providing the cover images for Sheila Lowe’s books. Many thanks to Quotefancy for the illustrated quotes by Cassandra Clare and David Mitchell. Thank you, Marta Acosta, for the cover images for your two books. And it wouldn’t do to ignore AZ Quotes, with gratitude for the excellent words from Fran Lebowitz. Thank you all! It would be a far less visually interesting post without those images!

“The shortest day—the longest darkness—takes place in a cold season when everything lies fallow. In the earliest ages, it was a time of privation, often of hunger, of death. A sort of nadir for the year.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in “A Bone to Pick” ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. The words appear against a black background. At lower left, a single red candle burns in a darkened environment sprinkled with small red holiday lights among a drift of sparkly red confetti.

Berwyn’s Solstice Story

By Jan S. Gephardt

I hope you’ll enjoy something a little different for today’s blog post, Berwyn’s Solstice Story. This post goes live on the exact day of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere where this blog, Artdog Studio, and Weird Sisters Publishing are based. So it seemed an appropriate time to share it.

This excerpt comes near the end of A Bone to Pick, the second novel of my science fiction mystery XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. It is ©2021-22 by Jan S. Gephardt (aka: Me), so please don’t borrow it without attribution or claim it as your own work! Fair warning: I have edited it slightly from the book version in a few places. I did it to make a few references clearer and take out a couple of spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet.

The viewpoint character is the Trilogy’s protagonist, Rex Dieter-Nell. He is an XK9, an uplifted (human-level intelligence) police dog. He, his Pack of nine other XK9s, and their human (detective) partners live on a large space station in another star system from ours, several hundred years in the future. It’s their job to track down the mass murderers who blew up a ship that had been docked in their jurisdiction’s part of the Rana Station space docks.

XK9 Pack portrait “Head Shot” illustrations for Razor, Shady, and Rex – the three XK9s in this story. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.
I don’t (yet) have appropriate portraits to share of the three humans who play a part in this scene. The three XK9s in this sequence are (L-R): Razor, Shady, and Rex. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Setting the Scene

This excerpt takes place in the specialized clinic that fulfills the Pack members’ health care needs. At this point in the story, we’ve had some wounded in action. I can’t say more without giving spoilers, but I hope you’ll enjoy Berwyn’s Solstice Story:

The retreat room was small, narrow, and pretty much maxed out, once three humans and three XK9s had squeezed themselves inside. Humans Berwyn, Shiv, and Liz all smiled a greeting, while Razor wagged his tail.

“Rex. Shady. Wow,” Berwyn said. “Would you like to observe the Solstice with us?”

“We came to wait with you,” Rex said.

“Then please join us. I was explaining to the others . . . What do you know about Solstice?”

“It is an astronomical phenomenon observable on many planets,” Rex said. “If there are seasonal variations in the length of daylight and darkness, then the longest and shortest days are solstices, and the days which are divided equally between darkness and light are equinoxes.”

Berwyn’s smile held a trace of sadness. “You sound like Cinnamon, when I first explained it to her.”

“We all attended the same planetary astronomy class,” Shady said.

“Well, let me tell you about the way my Family observes the Solstice.” He gestured toward a low table in the center of the room. Someone had placed a lighted, mostly-burned candle on it, next to a tall, new, unburned one.

Both appeared to be the same brownish-dark-gray tone to Rex. Humans probably saw them as one of the colors XK9s couldn’t distinguish, such as red or green. Between them, a small case pad ticked a silent countdown.

“The shortest day—the longest darkness—takes place in a cold season when everything lies fallow. In the earliest ages, it was a time of privation, often of hunger, of death. A sort of nadir for the year.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in “A Bone to Pick” ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. The words appear against a black background. At lower left, a single red candle burns in a darkened environment sprinkled with small red holiday lights  among a drift of sparkly red confetti.
Candle image is courtesy of Paula Onysko’s blog post “Light a Candle Ritual for Winter Solstice.” Words & design are ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt.

Berwyn’s Solstice Story

“My Family follows an ancient tradition that observed these variations on Mother Earth and found spiritual meaning in them. The shortest day—the longest darkness—takes place in a cold season there, when everything lies fallow. In the earliest ages, it was a time of privation, often of hunger, of death. A sort of nadir for the year.” Berwyn stared at the flickering candle flame for a moment. “This year, I’ve been able to very personally relate.”

“Oh, man, I hear you!” Liz’s eyes brimmed with tears. She reached over to squeeze Berwyn’s shoulder. Shiv clasped Berwyn’s hand. He did not speak, but he looked almost as haggard as Berwyn and Liz.

Rex’s throat tightened. Having almost lost his partner Charlie just a few weeks ago, he thought he understood some of what they must feel. Shady nuzzled him.

“But at the end of every ‘longest dark,’ the light begins to return,” Berwyn said. “It starts at that very moment when darkness and cold seem to conquer the world. The light comes back. The warmth begins to grow. New hope rises up, and the faith that things will get better.”

He looked at Liz, Razor and Rex. “We will heal and grow stronger.”

He met Shady’s eyes. “We will rise again to new heights.”

He turned to Shiv. “Unexpected new things may . . . may dare to take root.” The fearful hope in both men’s faces and scent factors filled Rex’s heart with empathic, joyful yearning and set Shady’s tail to thumping.

Berwyn drew in a breath. “Oh. It’s already later than I thought. In my Family, it’s our tradition to extinguish the old year’s candle at 23:50, which is .… now.” He blew out the candle.

“We extinguish the old year’s candle . . . Our tradition is to banish distractions, sit in silence, and let our minds find a centering peace.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in “A Bone to Pick” ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. Smoke from a blown-out red candle at lower left drifts upward and to the right on a black background.
Candle photo by Vit Krajicek/123rf. Words & design are ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt.

Darkness

The Retreat room went pitch dark.

“Our tradition is to banish distractions, sit in silence, and let our minds find a centering peace.”

No one answered. Six hearts beat quietly, although at different rhythms. Six presences breathed in and out. Rex noted that more than one ran a breathing pattern of the sort he’d learned from Charlie. Liz shifted in her seat. An itch prickled along his right shoulder blade. He lifted a hind paw to scratch it, then refrained. Stilled himself. The itch burned a moment or two longer, then died.

They abided in silence.

Gradually, their breathing fell into a common rhythm. Their heartbeats slowly synchronized, too. The humans couldn’t consciously hear it, but somehow they also attuned.

A deep calmness and peace fell over Rex. A sense of oneness with his companions, and of resting after strife. He abided in the moment, content.

Soft bells chimed. They grew louder, a building carillon. They crescendoed into joyous, triumphant peals. The bells seemed to say, Darkness is banished. Light will prevail. Things will get better! Rejoice!

The sound broke over him, balm for his heart. Light and hope for his mind and spirit.

A scratch and a flare of flame. Sharp bite of burning struck his nose. Berwyn lit the new candle, then touched his case pad. The bells faded out. “Nadir has passed. The light is returning.”

On a black background, the words read: “It starts at that very moment when darkness and cold seem to conquer the world. The light comes back. The warmth begins to grow. New hope rises up, and the faith that things will get better.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in A Bone to Pick ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. At right, a tall new red taper candle burns in darkness.
The taper candle image is courtesy of Stone Candles. The words & design are ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt.

Nadir has Passed

“The light is returning,” Shiv murmured.

Berwyn straightened. “The light is returning, indeed.” He sat back with a sigh and a smile. “Thank you. Thank you, all of you. I thought I’d be doing this alone.” His dark eyes glistened with excess moisture.

Shiv shook his head. Gave Berwyn’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Not alone. Not tonight.”

“I know I needed to be here,” Liz said. “Thank you. Thank you for sharing this with us.”

Razor dipped his head. “Very much. That was amazing.”

Berwyn’s gaze swept the room. “Solstice blessings abound.”

I sincerely hope you enjoyed Berwyn’s Solstice Story. If it has sparked your interest in learning more about the series, click this link. For more about A Bone to Pick, click the link in the title.

If you’d like to read more short fiction about the XK9s and their people, you might enjoy a FREE subscription to my monthly Newsletter. Signing up for the Newsletter also scores you a FREE ebook copy of my prequel novella, The Other Side of Fear. In case you’re wondering – no, the Trilogy’s not done yet, and yes – I’m writing as fast as I can! Bone of Contention is scheduled for publication in September 2023.

Two visualizations of “A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt: at left the ebook cover is shown on a tablet. At right “A Bone to Pick” is visualized as a fat trade paperback. Below the two pictures a line of type reads: “Cover art ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.
This story is an excerpt ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt from her novel A Bone to Pick. It’s the second book of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. The cover artwork is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE CREDITS

I have a lot of people to thank for the images in this post. First of all to my dear friend and frequent illustration source, Lucy A. Synk, I want to lift up a hearty “thank you!” If you’d like to see more of her amazing artwork, check out her website and her Facebook page!

Likewise, I want to thank another longtime friend, Jody A. Lee, who does such a stellar job on the cover art for the “Bones” Trilogy. That’s her work on A Bone to Pick. You also might enjoy her website, Facebook page, and (while there’s still a Twitter) her Twitter feed.

The other sources are considerably more varied. I’ve credited them in the cutlines under the pictures, but here’s a rundown, for the record. Much gratitude to Paula Onysko’s blog post “Light a Candle Ritual for Winter Solstice,” for the candle photo used in the first candle picture with the opening quote from Berwyn’s Solstice Story. You also might enjoy reading Paula’s suggestions for a different kind of solstice candle ritual.

Deepest thanks to Vit Krajicek and 123rf for the evocative photo of the smoke from the blown-out candle in the second from that sequence. And I also thank Stone Candles for their photo of one of their beautiful red taper candles, used in the third candle-with-quote image. I deeply appreciate all!

Covers for G. S. Norwood's novellas, "Deep Ellum Pawn" and "Deep Ellum Blues."

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue: An excerpt

By G. S. Norwood, abetted by Jan S. Gephardt

00-HEADER-TWO-DEEP-ELLUM-COVERS

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Deep Ellum Blues’ publication, and some of our readers want to know. Will the Deep Ellum stories continue?

To that, we’re happy to answer an emphatic yes. Ms. Eddy’s adventures aren’t nearly over yet. But when’s the next story coming? Well, that’s a little harder to say. Death in Deep Ellum, the working title for the third story, is a murder mystery. It’s required some theological thinking and some careful interweaving of the plot elements, while G. also works on several other exciting fiction projects.

Oh, yes, and her job. Concerts are starting up again, and the grant proposals never did let up. So G.’s a busy lady in her day job, too.

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue

But yes. Rest assured. The Deep Ellum stories continue! To prove it, this post includes a first look at Death in Deep Ellum’s opening. But before that, a quick look at how we got here.

In the first story, Deep Ellum Pawn, we met Ms. Eddy Weekes, proprietor of Deep Ellum Pawn. Her shop is always there when you need it, and she rocks the most epic storage room and garden-with-water feature that you may ever have encountered.

“The Golden Fiddle is back. The Hell Hounds are Ms. Eddy’s problem now.”
The e-edition of Deep Ellum Pawn in a visualization from Book Brush. Cover artwork © 2019 by Chaz Kemp.

Deep Ellum Pawn Description

The Golden Fiddle is back. Can Ms. Eddy break its curse this time?

What’s a pawnshop owner to do? The cursed Golden Fiddle keeps coming back to Deep Ellum Pawn, the shop where Ms. Eddy Weekes stands guard over the historic Dallas, Texas, neighborhood of Deep Ellum. Each time the fiddle shows up, it leaves a swath of broken dreams and shattered lives, with a pack of fearsome Hell Hounds hot on its trail.

Music, magic, and legends intertwine in Deep Ellum, and things long buried have a way of coming back ‘round again. Only Ms. Eddy can end the fiddle’s curse, but first she must learn its secrets.

Will she have the tools she needs to fend off the Hell Hounds and get to the heart of the Golden Fiddle, before an ancient evil brings the darkness back to Deep Ellum forever?

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue with Deep Ellum Blues

We published Deep Ellum Pawn in November 2019, preceded by three successive blog posts with excerpts and a release-day announcement. People enjoyed it, so G. got to work on a second. You might also enjoy another post with some of the story’s background, and another one on the making of the cover.

We rolled out Deep Ellum Blues not quite a year later, again with a series of blog posts. They included an excerpt, an interview of G. by internationally-bestselling mystery novelist Deborah Crombie, and a look at the making of the cover. We also posted a Setlist with YouTube videos of Mudcat’s songs (scroll down), and a release notice. And we followed its release with a post by G. about the famous song Deep Ellum Blues.

“Mudcat Randall is flirting with disaster. Can Ms. Eddy break through, or will an old and tragic story make Deep Ellum sing a new kind of blues?”
The e-edition of Deep Ellum Blues in a visualization from Book Brush. Cover artwork © 2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Deep Ellum Blues Description

Free will is a rule she doesn’t break.

As the genius loci of Deep Ellum, Ms. Eddy Weekes is a hands-off goddess who won’t micro-manage human affairs. She’d rather sit on the sidelines and enjoy the show. Her motto? “People have the right to make their own hideous, life-altering mistakes.”

But there’s something different about the young blues musician Mudcat Randall.

Maybe if her old friend Waylon hadn’t called him to her attention, she’d have let things be. Maybe if she hadn’t glimpsed something special in his music . . . But Mudcat is flirting with disaster. Eddy’s old adversary wants him to sign a tempting management contract, and there are deadly strings attached.

When a third force enters the fray, everything Mudcat has ever prayed for is suddenly on the line, and Eddy knows the game is rigged against him. Can Eddy break through to the headstrong musician? Or will an old and tragic story make Deep Ellum sing a new kind of blues?

Coming Next: Death in Deep Ellum

We promised you an excerpt. Here’s a glimpse of the current draft’s opening.

Chapter One: Prayer of the Dying

There is no prayer like the prayer of the dying.

As the genius loci of Deep Ellum, the historically Black, funky, happenin’ heart of Dallas, Texas, I hear those prayers, whether the people praying live here or just come to hang out for a while. Think of me as the neighborhood’s resident goddess. You can call me Ms. Eddy Weekes.

I heard Perkins’ prayer just after dark on a scorching summer evening. Perkins was an alcoholic, and a member in good standing of the homeless population that still drifts through Deep Ellum despite all the developers’ efforts to gentrify. I’d kept my eye on him for the past couple of years, but I hadn’t anticipated any sudden downturn in his condition.

Ms. Eddy, a detail from Chaz Kemp’s Deep Ellum Pawn cover.
Ms. Eddy, ©2019 by Chaz Kemp.

When he called, I was with him in an instant. I found him curled on his side by a back-alley dumpster off Elm Street. He’d been shot three times in the gut, and blood was everywhere.

“I’m here, Perkins. I heard you. I can fix this,” I said. The day’s heat radiated up from the crumbling asphalt as I dropped to the ground, but Perkins’ skin was already going cold, his dark skin going gray.

He rolled onto his back, his head on my knees, and I put my arms around his shoulders, trying with all my will to knit his shattered intestines back together.

“It’s my time, Miz Eddy. Don’t worry ‘bout me. It’s my time.”

His voice was a thin thread, only sustained by the force of my will. He had called out to me in need. I had to know what he wanted me to do.

“What happened?”

“I’ze jus’ here, and he come up out of nowhere. Shot me. Didn’t say a thing. Then he’s gone.” Perkins bucked a little against my legs, racked by a cough, a shiver, or some spasm of pain.

“What can I do, Perkins? How can I help?”

“I don. Wanna go. To the bad place. I bin. A drunk. But I ain’t. Bin bad.” His breath was coming in short gasps now.

“You won’t go to the bad place,” I promised. I could see his soul starting to spin out and away from his body, so I reeled it in, holding it close. “What else?”

Perkins made a supreme effort. He used his very last breath to ask one more thing of me.

“Get that son of a bitch.”

He sagged in my arms as I drew together the last tattered fragments of his soul, winding it into a tight ball. Holding it in my heart, as well as my hands, I said aloud, “Nathan Allen Perkins, I see you. I see you in your entirety. I see your heart. I see your mind. I see your soul. You are worthy. You will be missed. You will be remembered. You are safe in my hands, and free to move forward without fear.”

Then I tucked his soul into a pocket of time and space not even my old foe, Nick, could hack into. I sent the little pocket to the store room of my pawn shop, where Perkins’ soul could rest until I delivered it on up to the next level.

That done, I paused a moment to absorb the loss of a man I had liked. I’d given Perkins sandwiches from the shop down the street. He’d kept an eye out for Morsel, my wandering cat. We had shared gossip, and the news of the neighborhood. Perkins’ belief in me had fed my being just as surely as my sandwiches had fed his. I am far too old to trade in human relationships but, as far as it was possible, Perkins had been my friend. I would miss him.

So I took the moment to mourn. Something vital was now gone from Deep Ellum, and I felt the loss.

A detail from one of Chaz Kemp’s working drawings of Ms. Eddy.
Ms. Eddy, ©2020 by Chaz Kemp.

Then I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and called 9-1-1.

It would only take the cops a few minutes to get here.

In those few minutes, I took a look around the alley. I wasn’t interested in the three brass shell casings I spotted at the corner where Crowdus Street intersected with the alley that ran behind a rag-tag assortment of take-out restaurants. I didn’t much care about the view from the youth hostel that loomed above me, or the rusty, reeking dumpster that must have all but hidden Perkins unless someone was looking for him. I saw the bottle he’d been nursing, smelled the rotgut that had spilled from it.

And, faintly, under the garbage, the booze and the blood, I smelled something else entirely. As I rose from the pavement to stand guard over my friend’s body, I caught just the barest trace of brimstone. Somehow, in some way I could not yet see, Nick had had a hand in this.

I would help the police, if I could, to find the man who pulled the trigger, but Perkins had asked me for more than mere human justice. He’d asked me to “get that son of a bitch.” That meant I was going to have to track down the Devil himself.

The Deep Ellum Stories Continue

We hope you’re looking forward to Death in Deep Ellum as much as we are. And we’ll keep you posted on progress!

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers for Deep Ellum Pawn and Deep Ellum Blues are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Chaz Kemp. The character developments for Ms. Eddy are also ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Chaz Kemp. Many thanks!

A hot, hazy Dallas skyline

My Summer Getaway

By G. S. Norwood

Well. I finally did it. I made it safely through months of writing major grant proposals. Organized three far-from run-of-the-mill concerts. Took on some new job responsibilities, on top of the two full-time jobs I’m doing already. And I survived. Now, my friends and readers, it’s time for my summer getaway.

I’m looking for a place that will allow me to relax. Spend some quality time looking at outstanding scenery. And be much, much cooler than Dallas, both in temperature and in vibe.

Not that I will actually get away. Between a resurgent coronavirus and the high cost of pet sitters, this year’s vacation is definitely going to be a staycation. Still, I’ve discovered a way to escape to a summer getaway destination without leaving my favorite chair.

Reading. Yep, that’s right. I’ll trade the 100-degree-plus heat of Texas for some prime summer getaway locations through the magic of books. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, family connections, and one stroke of good luck, I plan to immerse myself in several mystery and science fiction series set in places much cooler than Dallas. What more could I ask of a vacation?

Nantucket is Nice

Brant Point Lighthouse by Brian Thoeie.
The Brant Point Light during a gorgeous Nantucket sunset (Insider’s Guide to Nantucket/Brian Thoeie).
Cover of “Death in the Off Season,” by Francine Mathews.
Death in the Off Season (Francine Mathews).

Francine Mathews launched her career as a mystery writer with a series of books about Meredith “Merry” Folger, a detective on the small police force that keeps Nantucket Island safe for the year-rounders as well as the tourists. Starting with Death in the Off Season, Mathews reveals the private face of Nantucket the summer people rarely see.

The island teems with cobblestone streets, cranberry bogs, fishing boats, and homes that pass down through old island families, generation after generation. Mathews makes all of it come alive. You can feel the sea breezes and all but taste the salty air. There are six books so far in the Merry Folger series. More than enough to last through as long a vacation as you choose to take. Or to create a quick summer getaway no matter what time of year it is.

How about the UK?

The Isle of Skye's main town, Portree, and Constable country: Flatford in Suffolk.
Colorful Portree is the biggest town on the Isle of Skye, and Flatford in Suffolk is the onetime home of the artist John Constable. (Planet Ware/Global Grasshopper).
Cover of “A Dream of Death,” by Connie Berry
A Dream of Death
(Connie Berry/Amazon)

I stumbled onto Connie Berry’s Kate Hamilton mysteries by happy chance. Berry has just released the third book in the series, and was featured on my (other) favorite blog, Jungle Red Writers. She offered a copy of her new book to one blog commenter chosen at random. Lucky me! I got the book! Along with a tasty bonus of shortbread and tea bags, plus two very nice bookmarks. (And you know how I feel about bookmarks.)

While awaiting the arrival of book #3, The Art of Betrayal in the mail, I did the only civilized thing: bought books #1, A Dream of Death and #2, A Legacy of Murder on my Kindle. I wound up “chain reading” them. No sooner had I finished the first, but I picked up the second. By the time I was done with that, book #3 was right there, ready to start. After two weeks, I felt like I’d had a lovely (although somewhat murderous) summer getaway in Scotland and Suffolk, and only had one question: Where’s book #4?

Escape to the Wilds of British Columbia

A lake in British Columbia with rugged mountains in the background.
A gorgeous view from Yoho National Park in British Columbia. (Planet Ware/Lana Law)
Cover of “A Killer in King’s Cove,” by Iona Whishaw
A Killer in King’s Cove.
(Iona Whishaw).

British Columbia might be suffering through an epic heatwave at the moment, but in 1947 the climate there was darn near perfect. At least, if you believe author Iona Whishaw. In her Lane Winslow mysteries, Wishaw paints the Kootenay region of British Columbia as a hotbed of English ex-pats, Russian refugees, Soviet spies, and weary veterans, still recovering from the trials of World War I and the more recent World War II.

Into this paradise comes Lane Winslow, a young woman who grew up in Latvia and Scotland, speaks numerous languages, including Russian and French, and just wants to get away from it all. Lane spent the war working for British Intelligence, parachuting into France to help the Resistance, and learning many life-or-death skills along the way. Smart, funny, independent, and always curious, Lane’s character is based on Wishaw’s own mother. She’s just the kind of heroine I like to hang out with for a long summer getaway.

There are eight books so far in the Lane Winslow series. Whether you read them end-to-end as I did, or parcel them out like bites of candy from your big birthday chocolate box, don’t miss them!

The Ultimate Out of This World Summer Getaway

XK9 Rex takes a ride through an exurb of Orangeboro.
Motoring in Orangeboro is particularly thrilling with the windows down. (Weird Sisters Publishing/Jody A. Lee).

Of course, the weather is always perfect on Rana Station, the setting for my sister, Jan S. Gephardt’s book What’s Bred in the Bone, as well as the upcoming A Bone to Pick. Yes, I have read them both. Multiple times, as it happens. And I plan to read A Bone to Pick at least once more, when the final edition comes out September 15.

Rana Station, as it turns out, is the ultimate summer getaway. It’s chock full of interesting characters, unusual cultural customs, aliens, dogs, alien dogs . . . And crime. There’s lots for Jan’s XK9s to sniff out and understand as they explore their new home and examine new ideas about their very nature.

Covers for Books # 1 and #2 in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy.
The cover art for Jan S. Gephardt’s What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

And this is the perfect time to dip into the first of the series, What’s Bred in the Bone. Both the books are longer than average—about four volumes if we count pages like we’d count dog years. By the time you finish What’s Bred in the Bone—then go back and savor some of the best parts—it will be time to dive right into A Bone to Pick! That will make your summer getaway last right on through the fall!

What books, characters, or universes do you turn to, when you need a summer getaway? Please share some of your favorites in a comment!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Dallas Magazine and Getty Images for the view of a sweltering Dallas, TX skyline. We appreciate the Insider’s Guide to Nantucket and photographer Brian Thoeie (for whom we could find no online profile) for the gorgeous sunset photo of the Brant Point Light. The cover for Death in the Off Season, by Francine Mathews, is courtesy of Mathews’ website. We appreciate it!

We’re indebted to Planet Ware for the photo of Portree, on the Isle of Skye, and to Global Grasshopper, for the iconic shot of Flatford, Suffolk (no photographer credits for either image). The Flatford view was immortalized in John Constable’s groundbreaking painting The Hay Wain. The cover of A Dream of Death, first of the Kate Hamilton Mystery Series, is courtesy of Amazon. Many thanks to all!

Planet Ware strikes again, this time with a photo from Yoho National Park in British Columbia by Lana Law. Thank you! We also want to thank Iona Whishaw’s website for the cover of A Killer in King’s Cove, the first book in the Lane Winslow Mystery Series.

Finally, the “tourist image” of motoring through exurban Orangeboro on Rana Station is a detail from Jody A. Lee’s cover painting for A Bone to Pick, second in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy of science fiction mystery novels. That cover is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee. Her cover painting for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. Please reblog or re-post these images with a link back to this post and an attribution to Jody A. Lee and Weird Sisters Publishing. We appreciate it!

The cover of the “We Dare: No Man’s Land” Anthology from Chris Kennedy Publishing.

Strong Female Protagonists

By Jan S. Gephardt

What’s your first thought, when you see or read the phrase Strong Female Protagonists? What memorable characters come to mind? Do you smile at the idea of finally seeing more strong women in leading roles? Do you grind your teeth a bitt, at the fact that Strong Male Protagonists aren’t pointed out?

You can search for “Strong Female Protagonist” in several genres on Amazon. There are BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories for “FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Women Sleuths,” and “FICTION / Women.” But you probably won’t be astonished to learn that no parallel Categories for “FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Men Sleuths,” or “FICTION / Men,” exist. Not unless you want to count “FICTION / Animals,” which I don’t.

And seriously: “Strong Female Protagonist” is doubly redundant. If your protagonist (male or female) is a wimpy pushover all the way through to the end, why would we want to read about her/him/them?

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien, Brie Larson as Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel, and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.
Three strong female protagonists from cinema. (Credits below).

You-Hoo! Half of the Human Population, Here!

I’m reminded of the time when I asked one of my elder family members, “We have Mothers Day and Fathers Day, but when is Childrens Day?”

My relative laughed. “Every day is Childrens Day!”

My child-self found this answer less than satisfying, as you can imagine. And I feel a similar irritation with singling out female protagonists as somehow “unusual,” despite the fact that biologically female persons are only narrowly in the minority among the humans on the planet. (In 2020, there were estimated to be 101.69 male humans for every 100 females in the world. The reverse—more females than males—was the norm until about 1957).

But these categories exist because, as in so many other realms, male protagonists have been a default setting. More than that, really. There was an active mindset among the editors who chose what to publish. They selected for male (cis, white, straight) “heroes.”

This quote from Drew Gilpin Faust says, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard.”
Eliminate the excess qualifier. (World Economic Forum).

Strong Female Protagonists

Very early in my writing career I was told “girls will read books with boy protagonists, but boys don’t want to read books about girls.” Therefore, write about boys if you want to sell better, was the bottom line. By that reasoning, girls didn’t have much choice, did they?

I started thinking about strong female protagonists most recently while reading We Dare: No Man’s Land: An Anthology of Strong Female Leads, edited by Jamie Ibson and Chris Kennedy. This is their third “We Dare” title. The others are An Anthology of Augmented Humanity, and An Anthology of the Apocalypse. The focus in all three is the subgenre Military Science Fiction.

On the whole, I enjoyed it. As in any anthology, some stories are stronger than others. Many had good moments. My personal favorites are Leaving Paradise, by Griffin Barber, None Left Behind, by Jonathan P. Brazee, and Ragged Old Golem, by Rachel Aukes.

And the best line I’ve read in months came from The Relentless, by Melissa Olthoff: “If you can’t have fun being a space pirate, what are you even doing with your life?”

The cover of the “We Dare: No Man’s Land” Anthology from Chris Kennedy Publishing.
This anthology inspired this blog post (Chris Kennedy Publishing).

Define “Strong”

Unfortunately, in some of the We Dare: No Man’s Land stories, the strong in “strong female protagonist” got a little twisted. Yes, I know most military science fiction leans toward the dystopic (read more about the appeal of dystopian stories). But in a few stories “strong” seemed more equated with kill ratio, ruthlessness, or “not dealing with trauma in a healthy manner” than it did with what I think of as strength.

Strong, to me, does not mean being so emotionally brittle you can’t have friends or trust anyone. It also doesn’t necessarily mean having the ability and willingness to mow one’s way through legions of enemies. Especially not when other approaches (involving less mayhem but more thinking) might also yield success.

This quote from writer C. Joybell C says, “The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have hand on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.”
Here’s one way to look at female strength (Quotemaster).

Finding the Strength

There’s a reason why less-violent and less-physical characteristics don’t always register immediately as strong, and it has its roots in sexism. If you think of “male” and “female” traits, the gentler, kinder, more peaceable and nurturing traits are all lumped on the “female” side, along with “weak,” “soft,” and “emotional.”

“Strong,” on the other hand, is assumed to be a “male” trait. With that as the subconscious and conscious bias, a strong female protagonist is starting from a disadvantage by appearing to be an oxymoron, right out of the box.

Writers and readers also may mistakenly think she must have traditionally “male” characteristics to be “strong.” As if stuffing your feelings, smashing things, and killing people are any variety of “strong.” Toxic masculinity is also toxic for men.

This quote from writer Ernest Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Everyone faces challenges, regardless of gender/identity (ItsWorthQuoting on Twitter).

Resiliency as Strength

I think a better way to look for true strength is to ask for a resilient protagonist. Sure, they need to be tough in the face of life’s outrageous fortunes. But to me the most important kind of strength isn’t so much in a person’s muscles as in their mind and their character. Are they strong, as in loyal to their word? Are they strong, as in steady and trustworthy? And are they strong enough to admit they can’t always handle everything without help?

Ursula Po, Gracie Medicine Crow, and Cassius were my favorite strong female protagonists from the third We Dare anthology. Well, Gracie was already a favorite, since I’m a fan of Jonathan Brazee’s Nebula-finalist novella, Weaponized Math (starring Gracie). Also of his Navy of Humankind: Wasp Squadron series, and his character Beth Dalisay.

Book covers for “Weaponized Math,” “Navy of Humankind: Wasp Squadron Book One, Fire Ant,” “Barrayar,” and “The Flowers of Vashnoi.”
Here are the covers of some books mentioned in this post (credits below).

Favorite Strong Female Protagonists

Branching out from military sf (not really my wheelhouse), my first thought is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan (Shards of Honor, Barrayar, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen). But then I realize that pretty much any woman who is a protagonist in a Lois McMaster Bujold novel. Ista of Chalion (Paladin of Souls) and Ekaterin Vorkosigan (Komarr, A Civil Campaign, The Flowers of Vashnoi) also leap to mind.

A speculative fantasy protagonist in a “warrior woman” vein, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Maggie Hoskie, kicks butt, kills monsters, and hates to admit she has a soft spot for some of her friends and allies. Find her in Roanhorse’s Sixth World books, Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts.

Book covers for “Paladin of Souls,” “Trail of Lightning,” “Storm of Locusts,” and “My Soul to Keep.”
Here are the covers of some books mentioned in this post (credits below).

Beyond “Spec-Fic”

Dystopian fiction does inescapably imply a certain level of trauma. Overcoming it and emerging on the other side is the classic story arc, especially in dystopian fiction. And the subgenre is full of strong female protagonists—including a few who don’t rack up a bunch of kills. An example who leaps to mind is Miranda Clarke, the strong female protagonist of Lynette M. Burrows’ My Soul to Keep. Miranda can defend herself, but she’s not cutting notches in her gun stock.

Leaping to yet another genre I’ve learned to love, I also should mention Margaret Mizushima’s Mattie Cobb (The Timber Creek K-9 mystery series) and Meg Jennings (along with her talented posse) in Sara Driscoll’s FBI K-9 mysteries. And just about any of Diane Kelly’s protagonists, although many of them would question that “strong” characterization at the start of the story.

I could go on and on, but I’ll offer just one more: Ms. Eddy Weekes, proprietor of Deep Ellum Pawn (and so much more) in G. S. Norwood’s Deep Ellum Series. Perhaps in a future post G. will offer her own thoughts on Strong Female Protagonists. Who are some of yours? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section!

Book covers for “Killing Trail” (Timber Creek K-9), “Lone Wolf” (FBI K-9), “Paw Enforcement,” and “Deep Ellum Pawn.”
Here are the covers of some books mentioned in this post (credits below).

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to IndieWire for the photo of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien. We’re grateful to The Guardian for the photo of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. And we thank Marvel Cinematic Database for the photo of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel.

We deeply appreciate the World Economic Forum for the quote from Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University. Humble gratitude to Quotemaster for the C. Joybell C quote, And we thank ItsWorthQuoting on Twitter for the Ernest Hemingway quote. The We Dare: No Man’s Land cover is courtesy of Chris Kennedy Publishing.

Many thanks to Jonathan Brazee’s website for the cover images for Weaponized Math and Fire Ant. We have Barnes & Noble to thank for the Barrayar cover. We’re grateful to Amazon for the covers for The Flowers of Vashnoi, Paladin of Souls, and Paw Enforcement. Lynette M. Burrows’ website provided the cover image for My Soul to Keep.

Our thanks go out to Simon and Schuster for the covers of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts. Margaret Mizushima’s website provided the cover for Killing Trail, first in the Timber Creek K-9 series. The Lone Wolf cover (first of the FBI K-9 series) is from the website of Jen J. Danna and Sarah Driscoll. And Weird Sisters Publishing provided the cover art (© 2019 by Chaz Kemp) for Deep Ellum Pawn.

The authors featured in this post are Jen J. Dana, Kylie Logan, Margaret Mizushima, Jodi Burnett, Diane Kelly with dog Junior, and Ann Vanderlaan with dog R. Kane.

K9 Mysteries

“K9 Mysteries” is a category that doesn’t currently exist. Well, it doesn’t, if you ask Amazon or the BISAC categories. But I want to wrap up our Women’s History Month series (a day late; sorry!) on women writers of mysteries, romance, and science fiction with some brilliant practitioners of this officially-nonexistent art form.

The mystery genre is chock-full of subcategories: cozies, thrillers, police procedurals, noir, and on and on. And many of those categories have subcategories: paranormal thrillers, for example. Or cat, dog, or animal cozies. But there’s no official niche for K9 mysteries. This is how sometimes-bizarre mismatches happen in listings such as Amazon’s Top 100 Lists.

But I’m here to plead the case for a separate “K9 Mysteries” subcategory. These are often closer in focus and tone to a police procedural detective mystery than an “animal cozy.”

Why a separate “K9 Mysteries category?

K9 Mysteries center on a human handler and his or her working K9. The detective is usually a professionally trained dog handler: an FBI agent, police K-9 handler, or search and rescue specialist (sometimes more than one of those). Like many in law enforcement, many also have a military background. You’ll meet a few of these folks and their K9s below. The professional status of the detective alone should distinguish this class of stories from animal cozies, because by definition a cozy centers on an amateur sleuth.

Also, a well-trained working K9 (real or fictional) is usually a German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Bloodhound, or other such breed. Their nature and work has relatively little in common with typical cozy mystery companion animals such as cats, Yorkies, or Dachshunds (lovable and perceptive though they might be).

The XK9 Pack consists of ten fictitious, sapient police dogs.
A gallery of “Pack Portraits” showing each of the ten members of the XK9 “Orangeboro Pack.” Top L-R: Razor, Elle, Crystal, Petunia, and Cinnamon. Bottom L-R: Scout, Victor, Tuxedo, Shady, and Rex. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

And yes, I fully admit that I have a Pack of ten dogs in this hunt. My XK9s would fit into yet an additional niche subcategory, Science Fiction K9 Mystery. Yeah, I’m not holding my breath for them to establish that one. Meanwhile, let’s talk about five female masters of the genre, who really know how to handle their K9 mysteries.

Diane Kelly

Among the first K9 mysteries I encountered was Diane Kelly’sPaw Enforcement” series. These books follow the adventures of Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her K-9, Brigit, with regular appearances by Megan’s primary romantic interest, firefighter Seth Rutledge and his explosives detection dog Blast.

A former state assistant attorney general and graduate of the Citizens Police Academy in Mansfield, Texas, Kelly’s research has resulted in a realistic portrayal of a patrol officer’s daily life and the kinds of mundane—and not-so-mundane—situations first responders deal with. She writes about Fort Worth with an authentic understanding of the local geography and climate that I appreciate.

Kelly’s tone throughout the books is more lighthearted than some of the series featured in this post. There’s also a romance element that (mostly) takes a back seat to the police work and each book’s mystery plot line. As a reader, I enjoy seeing the relationship between Megan and Seth evolve slowly over the course of multiple books.

Here’s Diane Kelly with her dog Junior and the 9 covers of her “Paw Enforcement” Series.
Author Diane Kelly (shown here with dog Junior) writes the “Paw Enforcement” K9 mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Jodi Burnett

Indie writer Jodi Burnett’s website calls her writing “suspense with a hint of romance,” and there are plenty of both in her Amazon-identified bestseller Avenging Adam (now also available as an audiobook). The first of her F.B.I. K-9 series, of which there currently are four books. Burnett publishes exclusively via Amazon.

I’ve only read the first in the series so far, but I found it to be a compulsive page-turner. The K9 work came across as authentic (the intra-office romance was less so, for me). It certainly was entertaining enough that I anticipate reading the rest of them. Note that the series’ protagonists change with each book, moving among a group of agents who know each other and are associates. Example: the romance of the second novel is set up in the first. We also meet the third protagonist in the first novel.

Burnett lives on a ranch southeast of Denver, Colorado in the Rocky Mountain region about which she writes. The F.B.I. agents of the K9 series work out of the Denver office. This offers an interesting variety of locations for the action, from urban to remote wilderness. She also has written the “Flint River” suspense trilogy, set in Montana, and recently a new K9 mystery, Renegade, first in a new series set in the Black Hills of Wyoming.

Jodi Burnett wrote the four books of the F.B.I. K-9 Series.
Author Jodi Burnett writes the “F.B.I. K-9” mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Kylie Logan

The amazing Constance Laux has deep roots in Cleveland, Ohio and is the daughter of a Cleveland Police detective. She writes prolifically under (at least) ten pen names (!), including Kylie Logan.

She was an established romance and mystery writer before she turned her hand to K9 mysteries. Indeed, she has written many cozies, Including the “League of Literary Ladies” series, which includes cats (and also is set in Cleveland). But she made this list because of her current and growing “Jazz Ramsey Mysteries” series, featuring a protagonist who trains cadaver dogs.

Laux/Logan has written stories set in a variety of places, but the fictional Jazz Ramsey lives in familiar territory—Cleveland. Based on an interview by local author Charles Cassaday, it seems she was inspired to write about cadaver dogs after a presentation to a dog club she belongs to. An Urban Exploration tour of the Tremont neighborhood gave her the ideal setting. As part of her research, she observed cadaver dog training, which she described as “incredible.”

Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan, wrote the three books of the Jazz Ramsey K9 Mysteries Series.
Author Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan, writes the “Jazz Ramsey” mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Margaret Mizushima

We return to Colorado with Margaret Mizushima, who lives on a small ranch in the northern part of the state with her veterinarian husband. They have two daughters. The unmistakable parallels with Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries main characters that include a veterinarian with two daughters, living in essentially the same part of the world, explain some of the authentic “feel.”

The stories center on Sheriff’s Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9, Robo in the fictional town of Timber Creek, Colorado (there isn’t a town, but there is a campground by that name in Rocky Mountain National Park). The series begins when Mattie, a seven-year department veteran receives her first call as a K-9 officer. There’s a slow-burning, evolving relationship between Mattie and the local veterinarian, Cole Walker, a divorced father of two daughters with workaholic tendencies. Mattie, with a history in foster care, has her own personal issues to sort out, along with the perplexing murder cases that come her way.

Mizushima started writing after she sold a rehabilitation agency she’d started during her earlier career speech pathology. (See? It’s never too late!) Since then, she has won a variety of awards and become active in the writing community in the American West. She’s six books into the Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries series. As a fan, I hope she continues it for a good long time.

The 6 books of the “Timber Creek K-9” Series with author Margaret Mizushima.
Author Margaret Mizushima writes the “Timber Creek K-9” Series. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Sara Driscoll

Author Sara Driscoll, creator of the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series, is actually two people: she’s a collaboration between Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan. Confusingly, Fantastic Fiction uses Danna’s photo on the Ann Vanderlaan listing.

There’s a photo of The Real Ann Vanderlaan on her Amazon author page, and I also found it by way of her rescued dogs. (She’s sharing the photo with R. Kane, her rescued American Bully). So many aspects of the series and especially of protagonist Meg Jennings’ twin sister Cara (a dog trainers who owns two rescued dogs) suddenly made new sense, once I learned this.

The supporting cast in this series is one of my favorite aspects. Not only is Meg’s clever twin sister an ongoing part of her posse, but the women also have parents who run an animal rescue operation (and are quite a resource, themselves). And then there are their gentleman friends, Todd Webb (firefighter/paramedic) and Clay McCord (investigative reporter and avid local history buff). Together or separately, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Add to this combination a series of fascinating puzzles, new terrain and a new, fiendishly clever murderer in each book. It all adds up to a fascinating series in which I keep wondering how they can possibly top the last one—and then they do.

Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan write the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series under the pen name Sara Driscoll.
The “two sides” of Sara Driscoll, collaborating authors Jen J. Danna (at left) and Ann Vanderlaan (at right with R. Kane), who write the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Comments Welcome

I know I’ve barely begun to survey all the outstanding K9 Mysteries writers out there. I also haven’t even mentioned excellent male writers such as Steven Henry or Robert Crais, to mention only a couple. If you’d like to suggest others my readers and I should check into, please leave us a comment and tell me who I missed.

I also welcome other comments (keep them positive and relevant, please!) about this post if you have them. Perhaps you’ve met some of these writers, or have other thoughts. That’s why I’ve tried to make it as easy to leave comments as possible.

IMAGE CREDITS:

All montages in this post were sized and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt. Many thanks also to the talented Lucy A. Synk, who painted the ten “Pack Portraits” (©2020) showing the characters in Jan S. Gephardt’s XK9 books.

I’m grateful to Diane Kelly and her website for most of the cover images for her “Paw Enforcement” series (scroll down to it on the “books” page and click on individual titles for buying options), as well as her author photo. Thanks also to Barnes & Noble for the cover of the first book, Paw Enforcement.

Many thanks to Jodi Burnett and Amazon for the author photo of Burnett and the book covers for the F.B.I. K-9 Series.

I had to be something of a sleuth, myself, to dig down through the pseudonyms and find a decent photo of Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan. I am grateful to ScripType Publishing and photographer J. Kananian for the photo of Laux/Logan (holding The Scent of Murder, no less!). Many thanks to the Mystery Book Series website’s Kylie Logan page, for the book covers of the Jazz Ramsey books.

Many thanks to Margaret Mizushima’s website for both her author photo and the cover images of the “Timber Creek K-9 Mystery” series books. Click on the listings for book descriptions and varied buying options.

And finally, I want to extend my deepest appreciation to Jen J. Danna/Sara Driscoll’s website for the “F.B.I. K9 Novel” series covers, to the “Wording Well” blog, for the photo of Jen J. Danna, and to the “Coffee with a Canine” blog for the photo of The Real Ann Vanderlaan.

4-book Aces High, Jokers Wild pubishing.

For the characters

I’ve heard it said that people pick up the first book of a series for the plot, but they stay with the series for the characters. This is true in spades (sorry: pun intended), when it comes to the “Aces High, Jokers Wild” series by O. E. Tearmann.

Book Four is Aces and
Eights. Available now.
(Photo courtesy of Amazon.)

If you’re already a fan of this series, I have excellent news! The fourth book, Aces and Eightsis now available in e-book format (here’s hoping a paperback and audio version are released soon!).

If you’re not already a fan of this series, I have even MORE excellent news! There is a wonderful series awaiting your discovery–and it’s now four books long! (plus a Christmas-themed novelette, After Hours Game, that ideally should be read between Books 2 and 3).

If you’re not reading the XK9 books, why not these?

Dystopian warm fuzzies?

Personally, I tend to steer clear of fictional dystopias, although I have a dear friend, Lynette M. Burrows, who writes a great dystopian series. (Scroll down her homepage for a list of great dystopian novels, if you love to read them).

The Hands We're Given  (Book One) was a tour de force introduction to this world. (Image courtesy of Goodreads.)
The Hands We’re Given  (Book One) was 
a tour de force introduction to this world.
(Image courtesy of Goodreads.)

But I made an exception for the “Aces High, Jokers Wild” books–and I’m very glad I did. The people in these books are all their own kind of special. Talented, broken. Abused by the brutality of the world in which they live. But they rise above. They pull together. And, bit by bit, the oddballs and misfits of Base 1407, AKA The Wildcards, triumph. They use their unique talents and diverse strengths to succeed where more conventional approaches fail.

I love these people so much, I will gladly read anything Tearmann writes about them. Strictly for the characters, this series has become an “insta-buy” for me. 

I love them because they’re smart. They’re perceptive–about their situation, and about each other. They love first, and while they may quarrel about details, their love is unconditional. Put to the most severe tests, they stay true to themselves and their team.

If you haven’t discovered this series, you’re in for a treat (Image courtesy of the Aces High Jokers Wild website).

The world they inhabit

Raise the Stakes leads the Wildcards
into newrealms of possibility, and sees a promising new turn in the fight against the Corps. (Photo courtesyof Goodreads).
Call the Bluff, Book Two,
is a bit shorter, but every
bit as riveting. New dangers threaten,
and cherished lives are endangered.
(Photo courtesy of Amazon.)

Tearmann has done some interesting world-building in these books. The Unites States of America that we know has been overrun and subsumed. In this world, seven corporations rule much of North America, each with its own territory, its own rules, and its own moral code. Codes which are imposed on the subject-citizens, although the “Corps” themselves follow an amoral code of self-interest and absolute control to the greatest extent possible.

Climate change has wreaked its havoc on the world, and most of the formerly-verdant plains states are now desolate near-deserts. Only the areas farmed by AgCo, with its patented, genetically engineered food crops that can’t reproduce on their own (no seeds but those controlled by AgCorp will grow) feeds the nation.

The Co-Wy Grid (contemporary Colorado and Wyoming, where the Wildcards of Base 1407 stay on the run) is a patchwork of danger and sanctuary, respite and conflict. For the past 60-some years, the Democratic State Force (on the Co-Wy Grid they’re informally known as the “Dusters”) has sought to restore democracy.

The LGBTQ angle

Raise the Stakes leads the Wildcards
into newrealms of possibility, and sees a promising new turn in the fight against the Corps. (Photo courtesy of Goodreads).
Raise the Stakes leads the
Wildcards into new
realms of possibility, and
sees a promising new turn
in the fight against
the Corps. (Photo courtesy
of Goodreads).

If you’re not normally a reader of LGBTQ fiction, this series may take you by surprise. As with everything they do, the Wildcards don’t particularly adhere to conventional gender norms.

That starts with the protagonist of the very first book, Commander Aidan Headly (born Andrea), who gradually transitions into his true self over the course of several volumes.

The books include a fair number of rather graphic sexual interactions. They may or may not be your “cup of tea,” but as I noted in my review of the first book, I’ve never read a book in which such scenes were more essential to the plot, or more appropriately used to express character growth.

If you’re willing to roll with it and let your hair down, these scenes are pleasantly steamy no matter what your orientation. After all, love is love. And it’s masterfully handled here.

For the characters

But there’s also a lot of plot between the steamy sex scenes

Do you like suspense? Join Kevin and his team when they go on the Grid. Do you enjoy sticking it to “the man” and triumphing over the machine-like inhumanity of large corporate entities? Then Tweak and her unique talents are your sweet spot. She’ll have you cackling with glee.

Do you love the drama of bringing a traumatized human being into an accepting space, then helping him or her understand they are finally, finally safe? (Or as safe as it’s possible to be, in this world.) Then you will love these books.

Buy them. Read them. Do it for the characters. You will not regret it.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Amazon for the cover images for Call the Bluff and Aces and EightsThanks to Goodreads for the cover images for The Hands We’re Given and Raise the Stakes. And many thanks to O. E. Tearmann’s website for the four-book series image. I appreciate all of you!

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