Tag Archives: writing

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.

Mysterion

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.

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.

mysterion

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.

threads

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 . . .

The Six Directions of Space

The Six Directions of SpaceThe Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Alastair Reynolds has been a contemporary science fiction author on my list of writers to check out for a while. It was near the end of Christmas break that I visited my local public library and grabbed a small pile of novels that included Swanwick, Moorcock, and Benford, and a very thin volume by Reynolds. The Six Directions of Space, like The Best of Michael Swanwick, was published by Subterranean Press (one of a signed run of 1000), but unlike the Swanwick, it was a disappointment. From everything I hear, Reynolds has done impressive contemporary science fiction, but The Six Directions of Space, though a quick and easy read (actually a novella in hardcover), is not among this.

I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me about the work as I was reading. It was a compelling idea: a reality in which the Mongols had conquered the known world, become a space-faring civilization, and then—after stumbling across alien technology—a galaxy-spanning one. An agent of the Khan is sent to the periphery of this empire to investigate rumors of phantom ships appearing in the sub-space corridors (the Infrastructure) that allow FTL travel. Doing so, the protagonist stumbles across evidence that these conduits linking space actually link together much more.

I don’t like writing bad reviews. But I do like analyzing stories to help improve my own. So I’m going to do that for this one, with the understanding that Reynolds is a very successful writer and that this particular review says nothing about his overall work, from which I just appear to have selected a poor sample.

Finishing this work though (within a day, as it is really quite short) I realized it was a good example of how great ideas can be executed in a way that leaves a story feeling limp and passive, which is how this one felt. I was motivated to keep turning pages to see when the twist was going to come, not because I was gripped or because I had fallen in love with the characters or because the vistas were sharp and compelling. I just read to keep reading. If it was a full-length novel I would have put it down after a couple chapters.

Why? I came up with three reasons, and each of them is something that I continually struggle with in my own writing. Each of them is something that I think often keeps Stephen Case-level writing from becoming, say, Michael Swanwick-level writing.

Here they are:

1. Narrative passivity: Yellow Dog, the main character, doesn’t really do anything in this story. She’s sent on a mission and takes some small initiative near the beginning to get some information, but she’s captured early on. From that point the plot is just stuff happening to her. She doesn’t seem an agent; she doesn’t have to make any hard decisions; she doesn’t develop as a character. She’s carried along by the stream of events, so it’s hard to care about her or what happens to her. Her horse dies. She meets a guy. She solves a puzzle. But none of this seems to matter to the ultimate outcome of the story.

2. Telling but not showing: From the beginning of the story I felt like I was reading not a story but a report. Yellow Dog was telling what happened, maybe typing it up to send to her superiors back on Earth. At first I thought this was narrative method, but even when it was clear this would never become a report it didn’t stop. And because of the tone, there was no tension. To take just one example, when their ship was caught in Infrastructure turbulence and the stabilizing whiskers were ripped off and we weren’t sure if our heroes were going to make it, we didn’t get a description. We didn’t get anything about what this looked like or sounded like or how it make the characters feel. We just got a report, like maybe we were interested in designing a ship with replacement stabilizing whiskers. The writing style made it feel like everything was already predetermined, and it was kept up throughout.

3. And finally, triteness, and here’s a *major spoiler*

*spoiler space*

It turns out that the Infrastructure is bleeding into other realities, and our heroes get lost among them. But the realities disappointingly turn out to be little more than caricatures: a Christian (or at least Western) civilization, a galactic Caliphate, one where monkeys evolved, and one with intelligent lizards. This might have worked in the 1960s, maybe, but now we need more subtly, more piercing realities than these, especially when the final take-away is that even people from such radically different backgrounds can learn to work together.

I have heard lots of good things about Reynolds, so please feel free to offer some alternative suggested reading in the comments, but if you’re looking to get into his work don’t start here.

FantasyCon!

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Last week I participated in my first con, a local one here in my hometown. I thought it would be a good way to get the word out about First Fleet, especially as we get close to the fourth and final installment being released this summer. I approached my publisher about getting some promotional materials printed for distribution, and he had the idea to print up pamphlets of First Fleet 1: Bones with links on the back to the rest of the installments on Amazon.

I did a bit of research online about what makes a good convention table stand out. My goal was to look professional, catch people’s eyes, and get copies of Bones into as many hands as possible. Also to have fun.

I had business cards printed through Vistaprint with a QR code on the back that links to my Amazon author’s page. I considered going with Moo, but as cool as their card designs look, the price differential was just too high. There are some complaints online about the quality of Vistaprint’s cards, but I was quite pleased. I had mine printed vertically on Vistaprint’s recycled paper option and found a couple old Gundam figurines in the basement that served quite nicely as card-holders (and got attention from the sort of people who like robot figurines– of whom there were many).

The table was focused on First Fleet, but I also wanted to highlight some of my other publications. I borrowed a book display from work and set out copies of some of the magazines in which my work has appeared. None of these were for sale (though you can access them through my Amazon author’s page), but several people stopped to thumb through them. The Lore cover in particular with the lovely monster drew a few..

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I read that a table should have something with good height, and the fantastic poster my publisher sent featuring the cover of First Fleet 2: Wake (which was available for free download the day of the con) served this function nicely. If I was going to do this again, I might replace the poster (which took up table space) with a collapsable vertical banner to stand behind my table.

Again, my goal was primarily to make local contacts, have fun, and get the word out about First Fleet. To that end, I think it was successful. I distributed about 250 copies of Bones, and online stats showed almost 200 downloads of Wake that day. That’s a pretty good “activation rate,” considering it means that many people took the additional step of going online and downloading the first portion of the novel.

Plus, I learned that our town once again has a local comic book shop.

So, wins all around.