Category Archives: Writings

2017 Writing Year in Review

This past year was a good one for placing fiction but an even better one for placing book reviews. Find below a list of writing highlights from the past twelve months, with loads of links to free content.

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A writing retrospective
Sometimes the work is slow, and in the midst of day-to-day endeavors it feels like not much is getting done. But looking back over the course of the year, it turns out a surprising amount of work does indeed get done, regardless of how it appears on any given morning. And then some of that even gets published. So here, for a moment in the sunset of 2017, I offer a comprehensive look back at what I’ve been doing over the course of the previous year. Four stories were published, including two fantasy pieces in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and ten book reviews in publications like Black Gate, Strange Horizons, and Grimdark Magazine. And it turns out I accidentally sort of wrote a book, which you can also find below.

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Fiction
Another chapter in my “Wizard’s House” series, an epic dark fantasy, British pumpkin soldiers, and hard scifi on first contact and universal dissolution. The first three you can read following the links below; the last is available in the magazine for purchase.

The Wind’s Departure,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Harvest,” Bracken Magazine issue 4
Deathspeaker,”Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Color of the Flame,” MYTHIC Issue 2

 

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Book Reviews
Most of the fiction I read this year found its way into print as book reviews. You can find links to almost all of them below. For the MYTHIC reviews though, you’ll need to purchase the issues if interested.

Strange Horizons
Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages
ODY-C: Cycle One, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Black Gate
The Man Underneath: the Collected Short Fiction of R. A. Lafferty, vol. 3
The Language of the Night, by Ursula LeGuin
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Grimdark Magazine
Three Books to Get you Stuck into Warhammer 40,000”

MYTHIC
Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson & John Joseph Adams,” (Summer 2017)
Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams,” (Spring 2017)
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Karen Joy Fowler,” (Spring 2017)

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Books
Making Stars Physical will hopefully be a part of next year’s end-year review, and I hope to very, very soon be able to unveil the cover for this forthcoming work. The folks at University of Pittsburgh Press are doing an amazing job with this, and I’m quite excited. In the meantime though I put together a small work for my father for Christmas that chronicled the history of our family in America. Along the way I found a document my grandfather had prepared of his recollections before his death, which I edited and included in the work and which blossomed into a 60-page book. I printed it via Createspace, so if any of my family are reading this update and are interested in a copy, it is available. The cost covers printing alone; it was meant to be a gift, and it includes my grandfather’s unpublished writings, so I will not make any money on the sales.

 

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Books Read:
I hope to get over this soon, but in the meantime I have a compulsion to review every book I read here on my blog. The list below are the books I read and reviewed in 2017 that did not have reviews published elsewhere.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
Lighthouses & Keepers: the U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy
One Summer, America 1927
Beginning to Pray
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Son of Laughter
Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Kindling the Divine Spark
Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Knowledge for Sale: the Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education
Victoria: the Queen
Praying with Icons
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
Good Boy, Achilles!
St. Siluoan the Athonite
The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

As always, thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2018!

Writing Life (for now)

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I snapped the picture above a couple years ago in Brescia, Italy. I was there teaching some astronomy lessons at a portable planetarium in a local school, part of a teaching exchange program that had taken me and Christine to Rome, Assisi, Gorizia, and ultimately Venice. I didn’t do much writing while I was there, but I occasionally find an image or photo that I captured on the trip that seems to fit with what I’ve been writing lately. This lane of Roman stones in Brescia, softened by green, was part of a tour we were given of the ancient corners of the city by our host. People have paced that lane for centuries, but on that particular afternoon we saw no one.

My writing lately has focused on keeping up with fiction reviews and research. For a while I was doing a good job (probably a pathologically good job) of posting a review of every book I read on this blog. It was fun. It helped me keep the books I had read straight in my head, helped me to enter into conversations with the authors and the concepts they were engaging. I hope to do that here again, but it got to be less fun. It started to feel like an obligation. Also, I started publishing my reviews elsewhere. (If you’re interested, my latest review appeared at Grimdark Magazine not long ago and I have others forthcoming in Mythic Magazine and at Black Gate.) So, things have been quiet here for a while.

As far as research goes, I have a few grants that I’ve been working on, one of which I hope will be bearing fruit shortly (and perhaps sending me back down certain cobbled lanes). My forthcoming work of nonfiction, Making Stars Physical: John Herschel’s Astronomy, is at the presses now (in some kind of possibly literal sense) with University of Pittsburgh Press. We’re looking at a Spring/Summer 2018 release. I just saw copy on the book for their spring catalogue, complete with lovely blurbs from colleagues, so that was encouraging.

In fiction, I can’t stay away from Diogenes Shell and his floating house. There have been three installments in his saga to date, with a fourth, “The Wind’s Departure,” out today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you have a minute, take a look at it. Diogenes tries to keep his promises, confronts the god, and returns home– after a fashion.

Promises, I have come to understand, are the aureate chains that tether a wizard’s life, the margins that hem and structure his magic. We live by the promises we make, just as we draw power from the promises the world keeps with itself.
-Diogenes Shell, in “The Wind’s Departure”

Check it out, stay in touch, and as always– let me know what you think.

Threads: A Neoverse Anthology

Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1 by Aaron Safronoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neoglyphic is in the business of creating new ways to tell stories. It’s a transformation a long time in coming, the creation of media that unites story-telling, music, graphics and interactivity. Perhaps it’s been underway for years in the video-game industry, but it hasn’t yet carried over into electronic reading platforms. What I mean is this: prose itself is reaching the place where it can be transformed, for better or for worse. Publications are looking for submissions that blur the line between creator and audience, that find creative ways to use the now-fluid electronic medium to make stories more interactive. Again, some video games have been doing this very well for years, but they remain a specific platform and niche. Neoglyphic, it seems, is working to bring this transformation to story-telling itself, to transform how readers (not just players) engage with text.

To do that though, they have to position themselves as purveyors of story. They have to assemble writers and narratives, and they have to show that quality story-telling—with all the editing, advocating, and disseminating it entails—is part of what they do and what they do well. To this end, Threads: A Neoverse Anthology was born. Neoglyphic cast the net out for stories, and the anthology was their wide and varied catch.

What they caught was a school of strange fish, some frightening, some lovely, all of sleek and flickering hues, all from different depths and of different shapes and sizes. The stories in this volume, in other words, are of a huge variety. They range widely in polish and style and run the gamut from literary realism to psychological horror, from golden age scifi to technological thriller and on to lighthearted fantasy. (Full disclosure, this anthology includes my contribution, “Gold, Vine, and a Name,” which I will not be discussing below.)

Many of the stories feel like pieces of larger works (and the editor explains that this is indeed the case for some of the stories—that they are stand-alone chapters from novels, for example). This increases the feel (whether intended or not) that the work is meant to function as a patchwork showcase of sorts, of a collection of resources Neoglyphic can draw on in their quest to take storytelling in new and different directions. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but there’s the sense here of launching, of piloting some new projects to see where they might go or how they might develop.

The anthology was organized around a contest, and the first three stories appearing in the collection are ranked in prize order. After that, the stories are alphabetical. This may have been to ensure the rest of them were treated equally, but it meant there wasn’t editorial freedom for structuring the flow of the anthology by giving the order of stories some organizational structure. What the book lacks in unified flow though, it more than makes up for in the artwork Neoglyphic created to accompany each story and tie them together. Each story has an introductory illustration by the same artist, and the cover (recreated as a full two-page spread at the conclusion of the volume) brings elements of each tale together in a dynamic mishmash that makes the collection of narratives leap off the page.

Some of the stories in this collection were especially striking on a first read. For example, Chuck Regan’s “Dysphoria” (the third-place winner) presented a grippingly horrific vision of a near-future alternate reality awash in chemicals. When most of the world has forgone a physical existence for a virtual one, a market has arisen to create and produce new psycho-chemical experiences. But who’s actually in control: the emotive artists creating them or the corporations selling them? “Say When” by Pamela Bobowicz and “Hotel Marietta” by Sabrina Clare were other stand-outs, literary pieces that look at issues of loss and how families (biological or adoptive) come together to cope. There’s a certain level of the saccharine in some of the works of the anthology, but these two do an excellent job of treating issue of the heart with earnestness and skill.

There’s great fantasy here as well: “Vanni’s Choice” by David A. Elsensohn and “Stormsong” by Tessa Hatheway, for instance, are solid and satisfying. In the first, we follow a thief breaking into the magical fortress of an enemy sorcerer and the choice she must make once she realizes the nature of what she’s been hired to steal. Elsensohn did such a great job building a world and a character in a manner of pages I wanted to follow Vanni directly to her next heist. Likewise, Hatheway’s “Stormsong” is a straightforwardly haunting tale of hubris and deep water.

“A Knight, A Wizard, and Bee— Plus Some Pigs,” by K. G. McAbee, is another fantasy piece in this volume that stuck out. The plot is straightforward—a knight arrives to slay a powerful wizard—but the tone and style is in the tradition of Terry Pratchett, and the humor makes it come to life. Like Vanni, I want to follow Bee and her new master across a few more pages. If a goal of the anthology was to generate readers for new adventures, McAbee and Elsensohn succeeded.

There were several good pieces in the anthology, but there was one that stood out above the rest. (No, I’m not talking about my contribution.) This was Katie Lattari’s “No Protections, Only Powers,” which the author admits in the introduction was written as an attempt to channel Stephen King. A young girl dabbles in some harmless witchcraft and makes a new friend along the way. In the background though, there are much darker things afoot. What makes this story so devastating is the way Lattari balances the details of suburban life and the shadowed view of a surly teenager but then makes those shadows hide genuinely frightening details that only become clear later on. Things are left unsaid or only alluded to, and the story becomes exponentially more chilling by its conclusion. Lattari has stepped into something deep in this one.

Where some anthologies have an overriding theme that ties the contributions together, this one has rather an overriding purpose: to tell and celebrate stories. It gives the work something of a patchwork feel, but it also means that whatever your tastes, if you have an appetite for short stories you’ll certainly find something in here to satisfy.

A Story about Gene Wolfe (and me)

This is the story about how Gene Wolfe saved my life. The summer before eighth grade, a summer that is now almost twenty years past, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What followed was a long chemotherapy protocol that involved lots of complications and secondary infections, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and extended hospital stays. Not the way you plan to spend a good portion of junior high school.

In the midst of this I retreated ever more into books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. I had always been a big reader, but being sick gave me an additional excuse to lose myself in secondary worlds. I was particularly fond of long, multi-volume epics like Shannara and the Wheel of Time. Eventually I heard (maybe through the Science Fiction Book Club?) of this author called Gene Wolfe who also had a few multi-volume epics. I asked my mom if she could go to Borders and try to find some of his stuff.

At that particular time, the only books she could find were the two pocket Tor paperbacks of Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. So I was dropped directly into the middle of the Whorl, with Silk captured and Auk stumbling around in midnight tunnels beneath the city. It didn’t matter. I was instantly enthralled. There was something about the characters themselves: Quetzal, Inca, Auk, Chenille, and of course especially Silk. Suddenly every other fantasy novel I was reading seemed childish.

The character of Silk and his relationship with the Outsider resonated with a Christian pre-teen who felt very much on the outside of everything at the moment. I moved directly from the second half of the Long Sun to the omnibus edition of the New Sun (the SFBC edition that had all four volumes in one) and read it through twice in a row. I hadn’t experienced literature like this before, and I was reading Severian’s meandering travels in the midst of some pretty heavy medication. I remember reading chapters and then going back when my mind was clearer and wondering how much I missed or how much I was simply too ill to have captured entirely. I started keeping a notebook— my first— of words, clues, and gorgeous phrases I wanted to capture.

When the first two volumes of the Long Sun were released as a combined trade paperback, I was thrilled. I think they were the first book I ever ordered online, and I don’t know if I’ve ever waited to read a novel with such anticipation. And then there was the Christmas where Gene started it all over again, and I received On Blue’s Waters as a gift. I forced myself to read it slowly, bit by bit, buying time before the rest of the Whorl books were released.

I don’t know if these books literally kept me alive during my encounter with leukemia (and subsequent secondary malignancy of Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But I know they were very bright spots in an otherwise very dark time.

And then I discovered Wolfe’s short fiction, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I’d still need to get a career and do something that would earn a living, but I realized the thing I’d measure myself by. I had always wanted to be a writer, but Wolfe’s stories brought this into focus. They showed me what it meant to tell a story that had beauty and depth. They gave me something to emulate and something for which to aim.

I started writing.

I haven’t really stopped. The cancers went into remission, and I finished high school and left for college. The writing endured, always being worked on in the margins of my time as much as possible. College became graduate school, and the writing intensified. I began a correspondence with Gene and what had been imitation and emulation became to a certain (small) extent a mentored process. Finally, after graduate school (round one), the constant stream of rejections turned into a few acceptances. Then a few more.

Now, with almost twenty short stories published and one novel I’m still a very, very long way from the output or the quality of the Wolfean corpus. And whether I achieve anything like his depth and his beauty remains to be seen, though I no longer attempt to emulate him quite as sharply as I used to. So it was rewarding to read a review of my first collection of short stories that said things like this:

“There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age- anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.”

And then of my novel: “The world-building in First Fleet is truly top-notch . . . rich and complex. ”

Sound familiar?

So I owe Gene’s writings a lot, almost as much as I owe Gene for writing them. I’ve come a long way from a hospital bed and meeting Patera Silk for the first time. But I’m still writing, still trying to infuse wonder and awe into what I do.

Writing Update: Anthologies!

I write short stories. By definition, that means bits of fiction, snippets of story, brief windows into other worlds. It’s the medium that works best for writing at the margins of my day, which is my modus operandi right now. But it’s also the medium that lends itself well to community, to being one voice among many in a larger chorus of narrative. Often that means publication in magazines, alongside other stories, poems, or essays. Lately it’s meant appearing in anthologies.

Two anthologies have hit the shelves recently featuring my fiction, and both represent communities of story-telling of which I’m proud and excited to be a part. Both are available on Amazon and other platforms as both e-books and hardcopy.

The first is Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, edited by Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz. It’s not a collection of Christian fiction; rather, as the editors explain, it’s an anthology of writers who use their fiction to question, explore, or even challenge different aspects of the Christian tradition. It features my story “When I Was Dead,” which was inspired by C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and received a wonderful review at Fantastic StoriesMysterion is available here.

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The second anthology just arrived on my doorstep, so I haven’t had a chance to dive into it yet though I’ve been thrilled to be a part of it. This anthology is Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology published by Neoglyphic as the result of their first short story contest. Out of thousands of entries, they culled these down to twenty stories, including my fantasy piece “Gold, Vine, and a Name.” I was blown away when two copies of Threads arrived in the mail including a print of the custom artwork created for my piece. Threads looks to be a sampling from the entire spectrum of speculative lit, and you can get your copy here.

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As always, if you read and enjoy, please consider leaving a review on Amazon.

Besides the anthologies, I have fiction forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s a fantasy piece that completes a trilogy of stories in my “Wizard’s House” universe, all of which have appeared so far in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’ll send out another update when it’s published.

In the meantime, when I’m not writing, I’m reading. Most of the books I review appear on my blog, but sometimes I’m lucky enough to review upcoming work by some of my favorite authors. This summer I was treated to a pre-release copy of Peter S. Beagle’s latest novel, and my review of it has just appeared in Strange Horizons here.

That’s all for now! More posts as events warrant . . .

Hypnos 5.1

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I tell myself I don’t like scary stories. I definitely don’t like gore. I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t like walking away from a novel or collection of stories feeling like I need to give my mind a shower.

And yet I do love a good ghost story. When I was in grade school, my notebooks were filled with stories of monsters hiding in the dark. Years later, my first novel was born in a science fiction short story. And my most recent published story, “Bone Orchard,” found a home in the latest issue of Hypnos, a journal of the macabre.

Hypnos is horror with class. It has a certain sophistication (my story’s inclusion notwithstanding). As the magazine’s website explains, it wants to be a publication that highlights the strange and the weird lurking beneath the everyday and ordinary. It isn’t horror for the sake of shock value or goresplatter. Rather the stories in here are finely-wrought pieces (for the most part) with the twists and the subtle unsettling wrongness of Lovecraft or Victorian horror. This is about the thing in the attic, the thing in the woods, the thing almost forgotten in the past—not about the serial killer down the street.

There were some genuinely creepy bits in here. We Shall All Eat of the Tree by Lawrence Buentello was horrific in a monstrously Lovecraftian way, and The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers was also genuinely frightening. There were stories dripping with atmosphere, with the setting itself providing the depth and unnerving aspects, like Fishhead by Irvin S. Cobb and Old Dominion by Michael Gray Baughan. Especially impressive (to me) though are those stories that can take on the tone and time of another place or culture seamlessly, like Edward Lucas White’s Lukundoo in Africa, James M. Preston’s Dr. Price in colonial America, and Ralph Adams Cram’s Dead Valley in Scandinavia.

There were also a handful a pieces that, though they were still rich and creepy, didn’t feel quite like they had the depth of atmosphere of these other pieces and rather would have been at home in a contemporary magazine where the shadows didn’t lay so heavy. In particular I’m thinking about I Baked Him a Cake by Samantha Kolesnik, Way Station by Jamie Killen, and The Cold Girl by Michael Fassbender. Almost all of the works in this volume were solid, and only one or two felt amateurish by comparison. The issue concludes with a reprint of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil.

It’s an enigmatic production, thick and perfect bound with a cover that makes it look almost like a historical journal. There is no context to the authors within, no bios or links to websites or funny quips about how they live in a cottage in Kentucky with seven cats. They’re all anonymous wanderers who have stepped in out of the storm for a moment to tell their tales. If you want to know more about these writers, you’re going to have to do some digging on your own. Even the editorial that opens the volume, which discusses the comparative influence of Poe and Lovecraft, makes no mention of them.

But perhaps because of this, the issue (and assumedly the proceeding volumes as well) captures an overall tone or mystique more effectively than other speculative magazines I’ve read of late. But trying to define exactly what that tone is is more difficult: an unease, a chill, but one that doesn’t simply frighten with raw horror. Rather a richer experience, a ghost story told around a fire on a perfect evening, with the story lingering over the details of the place and time itself, giving a thick context for the central horrific element.

Take a look. Leave the light on.

April Skywatch

I’ve promised a column on some telescope basics, and as the evenings start to warm up it’s finally time to deliver. Maybe you’re interested in more stargazing than casual naked-eye observations from your back porch, but you’re unsure of where to begin. Sometimes the options for purchasing a good starter telescope seem quite daunting. Where to begin? What type should I get? Which mounting is best? How do I avoid a cheap dud?

This month, I’ll offer a few pointers on choosing and getting started using a telescope for some basic backyard observations. As I’ve mentioned before, I focus on observing objects that you don’t need to be in perfectly dark skies to see. My own stargazing takes place in the city limits of Kankakee, with streetlights, trees, and the occasional porchlight marring the view. With a little knowledge and patience though, even a city sky can be a treasure trove.

Of course, it all starts with a good telescope. When I was preparing to purchase a new set of telescopes for my astronomy labs at Olivet several years ago, I asked the members of the Kankakee Area Stargazers for advice. I wanted instruments that were high quality but relatively inexpensive, easy to use and train students to use, and resilient enough that I wouldn’t worry about them being easily damaged The scope most recommended was a basic 6-inch Dobsonian reflector from Orion Telescopes. I purchased a small fleet of these instruments for student use and have had no regrets. They are simple, durable, and offer great viewing.

So what exactly is a 6-inch Dobsonian reflecting telescope? We’ll start with “reflecting.” Telescopes come in two basic types: reflectors, which use mirrors to gather light, and refractors, which use lenses. If you walked into Wal-Mart for a cheap telescope, you’d almost certainly be buying a refractor. Though there certainly are many refractors that are very high quality, you’re not going to get one like that at Wal-Mart. For a real quality refracting telescope, you would be spending several times more than you would for a reflecting telescope of similar size. If you’re looking for a serious but affordable starting instrument, stay away from refractors and start with a good reflector.

The next question is regarding aperture or (in simple terms) size. Generally speaking, the larger the diameter of a telescope, the better view you’ll have of objects. But also generally speaking, larger aperture also means larger price. Six inches offers enough light-gathering power to easily showcase Saturn’s rings or the moons Jupiter, hone in on the Moon’s craters, or (in dark skies) reveal distant nebulae and galaxies.

Next, you need to consider how the telescope is mounted. As it turns out, pointing and holding the telescope steady is one of the most important parts of getting good views (and not getting incredibly frustrated). There are lots of different ways to mount a telescope, but the type known as a Dobsonian mounting is the sturdiest and easiest that I’ve worked with. A Dobsonian mount makes it very easy to point the telescope to an object in the sky (especially if you spring for a simple laser-finder) and to keep the object in sight and steady once found. And if you’re observing with students or young kids, having a telescope that is on a steady and solid mounting is crucial.

Once you have your telescope picked out, the second step is to get a handful of eyepieces to use with it. Eyepieces magnify the image of the telescope, with the general rule that for a specific instrument smaller eyepiece focal length yields higher magnification. If you’re looking at large objects like the Moon or star clusters, you’ll want to use an eyepiece with a longer focal length (e.g., 25 mm). Then, when you want to zoom in on lunar features or try to split very tight double stars, you use an eyepiece with a shorter focal length to magnify the view. Most telescopes come with two or three eyepieces, and this is usually plenty for the beginner.

Finally, you need to know how to find the objects in the sky you want to view. I tend to eschew computerized mounts that point the telescope for you or tell you where to point it, because I think part of the fun is becoming familiar with the night sky yourself. But you’ll need some good resources to get you started. A quality star atlas is a must (I use the Cambridge Double Star Atlas), but it’s not much to go on if you’re just beginning. I’ve found James Mullaney’s Celestial Harvest to be an excellent guide to highlights in each constellation, and a tool like Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar (which unfortunately won’t be published after this year) lets you know what planets and constellations to spot when.

Then comes patience. Wait for clear nights and determine what constellations will be overhead. Do a bit of reading before you head out (or take a red flashlight with you to read at the telescope) and simply try to become familiar with the objects in one or two constellations at a time. Don’t feel like you need to learn the entire sky immediately. This month, for instance, Leo is a great place to start, from the lovely double star Algieba in the Sickle of Leo’s mane, to Jupiter and its moons just below the constellation (always a wonderful sight to start with), to the sweep of galaxies beyond Leo’s tail (though you’ll need to get away from the city lights to really appreciate these).

You’ll be amazed at what passes over your head each evening, generally unappreciated and unobserved, but within reach with a simple, good instrument.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.