Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 2: The Forbidden Dance, The Waltz

Welcome to my second post on Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.
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"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."


"Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance."


--- Sir William Lucas and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

Oh, the scandal! Some strange foreign dance has invaded your country. It's bad enough that it's foreign, but it is also scandalous, indecent, and riotous. People are practically kissing when they dance! The young people in particular are very vulnerable to this insidious attack upon morality.


A decade into the 21st century, we often forget (or simply find quaint) that the line between acceptability and decadence is often quite subjective. During the British Regency, dancing, despite Mr. Darcy's complaints notwithstanding, was an acceptable activity. Anyone who has ever seen a film adaptation of almost any film set during the Regency that doesn't focus on the Napoleonic Wars probably witnessed a dance scene. The key, though, was people  performing only "acceptable" dances.


English Country Dancing, a type of contradancing (which basically describes dances where couples dance in opposing lines), was still popular though starting to fade somewhat in popularity. Most people have probably seen it depicted something like this (5 minute video) where it is calm and stately. The general historical evidence suggests the actual dances were actually rather lively in contrast to the more modern sedate forms.


Other popular forms included precursors to traditional square dancing such as the quadrille and cotillion. Despite the connotative baggage the term square dancing is currently associated with, originally a square dance just meant a dance where various couples danced in a roughly square formation.




Lively or stately, these various dances were a major aspect of the social scene, especially among the elites and the upwardly mobile. Today, though, I don't want to spend a huge amount of time talking about the complete history of Regency dance. I'll revisit some of the other dances in the future.


Instead, I want to talk about the shocking import that I alluded to in my first paragraph--the waltz. Yes, the waltz, not exactly a dance one would normally find questionable. Performed in triple time and with its requisite closed position (where the dancers were not only holding each other continuous, but doing often mere inches away from each other), the dance was distinct from the square dance precursors and line dances.


The waltz grew from other gliding dances of the 16th and 17th century. Most of its development took place in Austria and Bavaria. By 1780, it had become relatively popular in Vienna and by 1800 had spread to Paris. The British, however, resisted the dance with more force than those on the Continent. There's some contradictory information out there on when, exactly, it finally broke through, but generally many dance historians suggest 1810 or 1812 as dates. Arrival,however, was not the same thing as acceptance. 


In 1816, the always fun-loving Prince Regent held a ball that included the controversial dance. The Times was not at all pleased (emphasis mine):

"We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last ... it is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion." 




Residual resistance would linger for the next several decades in England, but by 1819 the dance had generally attained acceptance among most segments of society. The end of the Georgian era would all but crush the final anti-Waltzers. None other than Queen Victoria herself, not a woman normally associated with indecency or moral turpitude by British conservatives, was fond of dancing the waltz.

So next time you are feeling scandalous and wish to be shocking and indecent by the standards of Regency England, go find yourself a ballroom.


I haven't spent a lot of time describing the waltz in detail. Instead, I think it would be best if you just watched it: 








Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Parasites and Powers: An interview with YA Sci-fi author Chrystalla Thoma about Rex Rising

Today, I'm talking with spec-fic author Chrystalla Thoma about her new YA science fiction adventure, Rex Rising.



1) Tell us about your book.

My novel, Rex Rising, is a YA science fiction adventure set in a post-apocalyptic world, ruled by a race of women called the Gultur. In this world where parasites create new human races, Elei leads a peaceful life as aircar driver — until a mysterious attack on his boss sends him fleeing with a bullet in his side and the fleet at his heels. Pursued for a secret he does not possess, he has but one thought: to stay alive. Yet his pursuers aren’t inclined to sit down and talk, and that’s not the end of Elei’s troubles. The two powerful parasites inhabiting his body, at a balance until now, choose this moment to bring him down, leaving Elei with no choice but to trust in people he barely knows in a mad race against time. It won’t be long before he realizes he must find out this deadly secret — a secret that might change the fate of his world and everything he has ever known — or die trying. 
  
2) Parasites aren't something that one normally associates with special abilities. Where did you get the inspiration for that aspect of your book?

To see the connection between parasites and special abilities, you need to think where special abilities are supposed to come from. Unless you are born special, something happens to you that changes you – usually a form of possession by a spirit, or a spell cast on you, or, in science fiction stories, some sort of virus. Viruses are parasites, although they are placed in a category of their own. But real life parasites can do more than just grant one special abilities: they can also change behavior. Let me give an example or two.

An example of new abilities: The parasitic wasp Hymenoepimecis. Its larvae invade a spider’s body and cause the spider to make a new type of web. Instead of weaving a fly-trapping web, the spider weaves a tight, strong web which the larva uses as its cocoon.

An example of induced behavior change involves Toxoplasma Gondii, a parasitic protozoan whose final host is the cat, also infects rats. Infected rats not only lose all fear of cats and cat smell, but are drawn to them. This makes them easy prey for cats.

3) Did any research on real-world parasites influence your presentation of your ability-granting parasites?

Yes. I read up a lot on the aforementioned parasite Toxoplasma Gondii. Recent discoveries have shown how it may also affect humans. This parasite causes subtle changes to its host’s behavior and may have shaped human society in many ways – dictating how macho and jealous a man can be of his wife, and how promiscuous and outgoing a woman can be – as well as more general changes like a general tendency to paranoia and hypochondria.

As for the special abilities, consider that unless the parasite disperses through the host’s death, the parasite will do as much as it can to keep its host (and source of food) alive. For instance, a parasite may fight off other infections and make the host stronger (http://schaechter.asmblog.org/schaechter/2009/01/wolbachia-infection-a-good-thing.html). From there, making the leap to even impressive special abilities was easy.

4) You've not just generated an unusual background for your character abilities, you've created a whole world. What went into developing your setting?

The world of Rex Rising is a post-apocalyptic one. Nobody knows what is beyond the Seven Islands. A war, a few hundred years back, placed the Gultur, an all-woman race, in power and their dictatorial rule has brought on great social inequality, poverty and unrest. Parasites play a big role in shaping this world, too, since the Gultur gain their self-reproductive ability through a parasite called Regina, while the rest of the population, whom the Gultur refer to as “the mortals”, suffer from lots of parasitic diseases and plagues keep the population in control.

5) Do you have a favorite character in this book? 

This is always such a hard question to answer. I love all my characters, but I do have a certain weakness for the protagonist, Elei. It is after all his story, and he goes through a lot trying to survive and learning to trust. Still very young, he’s had a tough childhood. He’s shy and stubborn and would do anything for people he cares for.

6) Though your previous novel was also YA, it was more of an urban fantasy. Why the shift from urban fantasy to sci-fi?

I don’t see it as a shift. I have always written both fantasy and science fiction. To me the boundaries blur very often, magic explained as spiritual in fantasy and as a result of a virus or mutation in science fiction.

7) Have you planned any sequels?

Yes, I am in the process of writing the sequel to Rex Rising, and also a prequel from Kalaes’ point of view. Also, I have just completed a novelette from Hera’s perspective, set before the events in Rex Rising.

8) How can readers keep in contact with you?

You can read more about my stories, either published, in progress or planned, as well as samples and free stories, on my blog:





You can find Rex Rising at the following distributors:

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon DE
Smashwords

Monday, September 26, 2011

Magical Mondays #2: Divining the Future: Chinese Oracle Bones

Welcome to my second Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly overviewing various magical traditions and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical stuff to keep me busy for a while.


Today's topic: Ancient Chinese oracle bones.


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The power of computers and an advanced understanding of mathematics has allowed modern humanity to play at something our ancestors desperately wanted: predicting the future. While jokes about weather men prove that we've not mastered predicting the future, we're at least on the way to a semi-reliable method. Our ancestors were even more at the mercy of weather, plagues, and  warfare. Thus, prediction was not just about improving their control nature, but often a matter of urgent survival.

In ancient China, particularly during the ancient Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.-1045 B.C.), a particular form of divination developed, the use of oracle bones. Although the story of the oracle bones is actually fascinating from an archaeological perspective (ithe discovery of the bones actually confirmed the existence of the Shang Dynasty), today we're going to focus on the magic itself.

http://www.east-asian-history.net/

So, what are oracle bones? Originally, they were mostly the scapulae or shoulder bones of various types of animals inscribed with Chinese writing. The written characters were the basis of a divination system that I'll explain in more detail shortly. Before I do, I wanted to note that although the above bones were originally used, soon the turtle plastron (the underside of the shell) soon tended to be the go-to source material for the divination.

The beliefs underlying the use of the oracle bones involved the ancient Shang people's belief in both a variety of natural spirits (or gods depending on how you want to view them), particularly the chief spirit/god Di. In addition, the Shang people believed that the spirits of their ancestors could also pass and facilitate their concerns and request to the spirits, particularly Di.

To this end, specific inquires were written, in a polite tone, on the prepared bone along with what we might consider 'header' information (the diviner's name, date, et cetera). This is sometimes referred to as  the preface in contrast to the actual question/concern of divination (the charge). A proper charge would typically be two opposing paired questions on opposite sites on the bone (it will rain vs. it will not rain tomorrow).

In contrast to our modern conception about vagueness often associated with divination, the inquiries were generally rather specific. Animal sacrifice and the use of blood on the oracle bones was part of the ceremony. Given the attempts to appease various supernatural forces, one can make the argument that oracle bone divination was as much about attempting to influence the spirits as to seek their insight.

All the prep work done, the next step was to heat the bones until they cracked. Thus, this technique could be considered a type of fire-based divination or pyromancy. Now, here is where thing got a bit tricky. The diviner's interpretation was necessary to determine the meaning of the cracks. Later versions of Chinese divination were a bit more codified, but there was definitely a lot more room for error, as it were, with the earliest forms of oracles bones. This interpretation involved things such as assigning relative weights to the different cracks to judge the strength of the answer.

It should also be noted that not just anyone random citizen could attempt this. It was typically something associated with high-ranking officials, priests, royalty, and the like. In many cases, the kings themselves were the people attempting the divination. Much like the preparation of the golem, this power was something that relied on the education of the person who would seek to use it.

For information about oracle bones here are some sites you might also want to check out:

http://www.npm.gov.tw/english/exhbition/eyin0701/yin0701.htm
http://history.cultural-china.com/en/51History2941.html

If you have access to a good library, you might want to check out David Keightley's Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Ancient China. It book is currently out of print.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #1

Disclaimer: Please note for the purposes of these blog posts, I will generally be rendering Japanese names in the Western style: given name followed by family/clan name. I'll be doing my best to render the Japanese terms into something more familiar in English, but in some cases I'll just define the term and use the native Japanese word to avoid awkward translation.

Welcome to the first of my blog posts on the Heian Jidai (lit. the age of tranquility and peace). This is a period in Japanese history that, to my anecdotal experience at least, seems considerably less familiar to Westerners than the later samurai-ruled shogunate periods. While the Heian era certainly wasn't free of any and all bloodshed, it was a considerably more stable time in Japanese history than many of the following eras. There were few significant military conflicts until the bloody end of the period, at which point the full of rise of the warrior class, the samurai, was complete.

So, what defines the Heian era? Chronologically, it is covers the years 794 to 1185 A.D. The year 794 marked the move of the imperial capital to Heian-kyo (lit. the peace and tranquility capital, now the modern city of Kyoto). Incidentally, Heian-kyo was the capital of Japan for over a millennium (794 to 1868, with only a brief interruption in in the 12th century). Without getting too bogged down in the complex political details, the basic reason for the move of the capital involved restoring centralized authority to the government by moving it away from the power bases of various factions including competing noble families, Buddhist temples, and the like. The city itself is worth multiple blog posts, but I'll leave it at that for now.

How can we so definitely mark the end of the Heian period so precisely to 1185? That's the year when the bloody Genpei War ended. Victories in this war against imperial-aligned factions would allow Yoritomo Minamoto to officially establish the first shogunate in 1192 (it unofficially was in place from 1185). This would completely shift control of the country out of the hands of the bureaucratic officials and the emperors and instead into the hands of the shoguns (hereditary military leaders).

During the Heian period, Japan began to pull away from its constant contact with China. Although it was far from the complete isolationism that would mark later periods of Japanese history, the separation did allow Japanese culture to take elements imported from China, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and certain governmental patterns and fuse them with their own native elements to create a distinctly Japanese take.

The overall success of the centralization plan and its accompanying goal of strengthening the empire is  marked by political irony. The emperor had limited power even before the events of the Genpei War. The real power was in the hands of the powerful Fujiwara clan who influenced the throne through intermarriage along with the holding of powerful regent positions (again, something I'll cover in detail in future blog posts) and other high court positions.

Politics and court life helped define the Heian era. Many of the most famous figures from this period aren't powerful warriors but bureaucrats and public officials. Under the cultural influence of the powerful Tang dynasty of China but with their own unique cultural spin, a complex bureaucracy grew up. Nobles aspired to governmental positions that could be gained through education and merit rather than a strong sword arm. Of course, as in any system, the theory and practice often differed even before considering the issues with social class limitations. That being said, the level of respect one could gain as a government official is demonstrated by Michizane Sugawara (845-903). A scholar, official, and poet of some renown (I'll definitely be revisiting him in a future blog post), he was posthumously deified as Tenjin-sama, the kami (roughly the spirit/god, we'll talk about kami more in the future as well) of scholarly work. To this day in Japan, there are shrines dedicated to Tenjin-sama that many, students in particular around exam time, go to pray.

Seimei Abe (921-1005) a leading onmyoji (a type of astrologer, divination specialist, spiritual adviser, and calendar expert) has become a legendary figure. While some of this is do to the superstitious nature of the times and his abilities obviously being inflated, it is important to note that being an onmyoji was a government position. He was a real-life professional "magical" bureaucrat who, while not achieving deification like Michizane Sugawara, still has gained a major place in Japanese history and folklore.

I mention those two examples to contrast them with the main Japanese historical figures from later period. Scholars, astrologers, and bureaucrats tend to define the shining lights of the Heian era rather than the generals and famous warriors that more mark many of the centuries that follow this period.

Similar to the British Regency that I discussed on Thursday, the Heian era was a time of great cultural flowering. Aristocratic culture placed a high emphasis to the ideals of beauty, scholarship, and elegance. Much of modern Japanese art style can be traced to some of the painting trends starting during this period.

 A well-educated person was expected to be able to produce poetry on demand. The lingering influence of Chinese culture had the men focused more on Chinese writing, but educated aristocratic women began to pen some of the great ancient works in Japanese.

The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by one Lady Murasaki, is considered by some the world's first real novel. The story follows the life and many love affairs of a nobleman (aristocratic Heian court life definitely wasn't without its torrid aspects). It is striking both in its rich portrait of Heian-era court life and its explorations of the psychologies of its characters.

Unfortunately, like many eras in history, the cultural flowering of the upper classes wasn't always reflected in the much broader lower classes. Economic mismanagement throughout the centuries would create issues. Though, many of the lower classes were still often faring better due to the lack of the constant bloody civil wars that defined much of later eras. This is a dark contrast to the Heian period, where the influence of Buddhism had even lead to the general abolition of capital punishment.

Political conflict and further decentralization would set the stage for the rise of the samurai and the feudal periods that would follow.

With nearly four centuries of history, culture, and people being covered 500-1000 words at a time, I'm doubtful that this blog series will end anytime soon. I hope you will enjoy journeying with me through the age of tranquility and peace.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Good Book Alert Review: Divine City: Bangkok Fantasies

Over at Good Book Alert, I review the literary magical realism short story collection, Divine City: Bangkok Fantasies.

Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular: An interview with Middle-Grade Author, Sarah Billington


Today, I'm talking with middle-grade author Sarah Billington about her amusing teen story of angst and friendship, Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular.





1) Tell us about your book.

Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular is a funny girl book filled with drama that is regularly compared to Louise Rennison's Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series. I take this as a high compliment, indeed.

Thirteen-year old Kaley’s best friend Jules is an alien clone. That has to be it. Because Jules wouldn’t dress like that or act like that…and she definitely wouldn’t be friends with Meg-a-bitch.

Kaley can't wait to start at her new school with her best friend Jules. Jules was away in Europe all summer (worst summer of Kaley's life!) But it's cool, now school is starting and everything is going to be awesome. However as the school bus pulls up on that first day, Kaley barely recognizes the silky hair and glossy lips as Jules gets off with the cool kids and with their arch-nemesis Meg, the popular girl (God only knows why) who made Kaley and Jules's lives miserable in elementary school. In Europe, Meg had somehow won over Kaley's best friend and Kaley finds herself frozen out.

Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular is a first person upper-middle grade told through Kaley’s eyes, chronicling the initial pain and incomprehension of what happened to destroy their friendship. But that doesn't last long. Kaley decides that underneath the bleached blond clone with the personality transplant, Jules is still in there. Somewhere. And she is going to get her best friend back! 


2) Middle Grade can be tough to manage. A lot of adults barely understand why kids do what they do, let alone understand it enough to write a convincing book from their perspective. Why choose MG versus something like YA where the greater sophistication can be easier to manage?

The book actually started its life as a YA, but the story is more about a topic that is of interest to younger teens than older teens. It's (mostly) not about boys, it's about girl friendships and how important your friends are in your life. So I aged the story down to thirteen year olds as it definitely speaks to them. It's about trying to work out who you are, testing out different personalities, different roles within your social sphere. At its essence, Life was cool is a coming of age book. 

3) Was managing a MG voice difficult?
Not for me, apparently you can hear me quite clearly in this book so obviously I haven't grown up since I was thirteen. :) 

4) Did you employ any young teen beta readers?

I didn't! Sadly, I don't actually KNOW any tweens or teens. I am the youngest person in my whole family (I have a small extended family) aside from a couple of babies, and as I'm 27, my friends who have children only have teeny weeny ones. In ten years I will hopefully have an abundance of teen beta readers though. :) 
5) What inspired you to write this book?

The title. It's funny like that. The title came to me one day and I liked it and decided to write a book about that topic.

I suppose, my whole life I've always felt a bit on the outside looking in, which may surprise my friends and family, but I think it comes with the territory: I am OFTEN looking in. Observing others. It doesn't mean I'm not a part of it all though. In the book, Kaley is on the outside, looking in, wanting to be a part of one element, and wanting to understand another.  It's something I could relate to which I suppose is why I wrote this book. To be honest I've never really thought about it too much, it just...the story was somewhere in me and needed to come out.

6) Do you think it is important that teens read books about characters like themselves?

I think it's important for teens, children, adults, for EVERYONE to read about characters like themselves, yes, but also about characters completely different to them.

It's important to read about characters like yourself because you can feel comforted, you're not alone, you're not weird etc. It's also important to read about people who are completely different to you as it helps you to understand them, understand their experiences and how it may effect the way they think and behave. To me, reading can teach empathy and compassion, regardless of the genre. 


7) A lot of MG and YA books are paranormal these days. Have you ever been tempted in that direction?

I do like paranormal and creepy things, but I'm generally not very mainstream about it. I've never been into vampires or fairies. That said, I am very into zombies, and zombies are becoming more and more mainstream these days, aren't they. I am currently writing a YA zombie novel under my pseudonym, Edwina Ray. It's a black comedy but also quite brutal and horrifying in parts. At least that's the goal. I want to write a book about a team of paranormal investigators as well, so the answer is yes. I am tempted by the paranormal.
I also want to write two sequels to Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular but will hold off on those until readers say they want them. There are just too many stories to write!

Thanks so much for hosting me, J.A.

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If you'd like to hear more from Sarah, you can find her at http://sarahbillington.blogspot.com,  http://twitter.com/SarahBillington, and http://facebook.com/SarahBillington

Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular is available from Amazon, Smashwords, and all good ebook distributors. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 1: The Regency defined and the Madness of King George

Welcome to the first day of Mr. Beard's Regency Tour.

Today, we're going to start off with something deceptively simple: What is the Regency?

Properly speaking, the Regency era is the period of British history comprising the years 1811-1820. During this period, the then Prince of Wales (the later King George IV) ruled the United Kingdom as Prince Regent for his father, King George III.

Why did they need a regent when they had a perfectly good king? Unfortunately, there was the slight matter of King George III's insanity. This is an area of historical controversy. Some historians think he suffered from the genetic disorder porphyria. Whatever the cause, through the late 1700s, George III would occasionally have bouts of derangement. His disorder would afflict him on and off throughout the years. With the death of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia, in 1810, he fell fully into insanity by 1811.

The Regency Act of 1811 (officially called the the Care of King During his Illness, etc. Act) set his son, the 48-year-old George, Prince of Wales, up as Prince Regent. He would continue on as Prince Regent until the death of his father at which point he assumed the full throne as King George IV.

1811-1820. Nine years? That's it? That's the grand period so many movies and books are set in? Actually, no. Often, the "Regency era" is used to describe a period from the end of the 18th century up to the time of Queen Victoria, in other words, the transition point between Georgian and Victorian England. That is the rough definition of Regency era I'll be using for these blog posts.

This was a time of great transition both in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Industrialization and land reform had begun to transform the fundamental nature of British society. Violent labor unrest rocked the countryside and cities.

The bloodbath of the French Revolution gave rise to the Le Petit Caporal, the brilliant French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe becoming an intercontinental slug-fest costing millions of lives.


In contrast, this was also a period of genteel society. The Prince Regent, in particular, was fond of parties, fashion, and luxury. The upper-classes took their cue from him. Lavish parties and balls made famous in many film treatments of the period spread. Industrialization led to a new class of wealth. Landed gentry and aristocrats began to find their social circles invaded by a growing class of increasingly wealthy merchants and industrialists. 


Literature and arts flourished. Many influential British novels were published during this period. Jane Austen would publish her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818. Walter Scott would publish Ivanhoe in 1814. Many of our current ideas about Robin Hood come from that novel. The modern vampire story was  created by John William Polidori when he published The Vampyre in 1819. 


The Regency and the later Georgian period was a time of surprising and fascinating contrasts. I will be exploring all aspects of this period, both the dark and the light. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Magical Mondays #1: The Imperfect Creation of Man: The Golem

Welcome to my first Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly touching on various magical traditions and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical stuff to keep me busy for a while.


Disclaimer: These blog entries should not be interpreted as either the promotion or insults against belief in any particular magical system or religion. I find this fascinating from an intellectual and creative stand-point and respect the wide variety of human thought.


Today's topic: Golems


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Modern humans take for granted the impressive scope of our current understanding of the world. Molecular biologists push at the very understanding of what defines and produces life. Physicists peer into the fundamental fabric of space-time. We've flown to the moon. For most of history, true understanding of any of the forces of nature has eluded us.

Our ancestors spent just as much effort trying to understand their world through various magical systems. In the end, despite the religious or spiritual elements that often accompanied them, magic systems were previous attempts to understand the universe or attempt to imitate the grandness they saw in nature.

Before genetic engineering or robotics arose, there were people who sought to create artificial life. Such was the case with legendary Jewish mystics and golems.


A golem, fundamentally, is an artificial magically-animated humanoid. Legends note they could be made from a variety of earthen materials with mud and clay the most commonly mentioned. According to the Talmud (the central written collection of Jewish Oral law and rabbi commentaries), when God created Adam, the first man, he remained as a soulless golem for the first 12 hours hours of his existence. Various methods have been described concerning the actual act of creation. Many of these procedures involve variations on invoking the name of God. Numerology based on the Hebrew alphabet often figures prominently. These methods basically involve borrowing the wisdom and power of the divine to invoke the power of the creation of life.


Despite all the links to the divine, there's still a heavy element of scholarship and analysis (this is a recurring motif in Jewish mysticism that I may revisit in a future article, though certainly not limited to Jewish mystical traditions), thus golem creation is typically associated with rabbis. The implication being that enough study and wisdom can grant the knowledge of creation. The magical power is not inherent to the rabbi. The details vary, but it is very common that the Hebrew word emet (truth) is inscribed on the golem's forehead. The construct can then be deactivated by removing the final Hebrew letter forming met (death). Another word-based activation involves Adam being inscribed on the head. The word inscription is not universal and one interesting variant includes walking around the golem chanting the secret name of God (also worth of an entire entry itself) backwards.


There are numerous other legends and details associated with golems, and mystical manuals in the Middle Ages even purported to offer detailed instructions on the proper creation methods.What is rather striking that despite the mystical and spiritual links to the divine, golem creation is still often defined in legend as a process that can be learned through the acquisition of knowledge. 

This human-limited creation can only manage a limited act of creation. Golems possess great strength and durability, but they lack intelligence and have to be given literal commands (in some legends these were oral, in others they were literally 'fed' instructions on paper). The inability of golems to speak is a continuing motif. Many legends focus on golems getting out of control.

The last point is an interesting theme repeating even to this day. In one of the more famous stories set in the 16th century (evidence suggests the legend didn't arise until the 19th century though), Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, created a golem to deal with a spate of antisemitic violence. Though it defended the Jews, it eventually fell to violent rampaging and had to be deactivated by the rabbi. Many variants of this particular legend claim the golem is still around in storage, deactivated.

Indeed, the Golem of Prague has made appearances in such diverse places as the beginning of Michael Chabon Pullitzer Prize's winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the far less literary The Simpsons. I doubt that any of those ancient rabbis were ever thinking about anything like that when they were trying to learn how to create life.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Changes (The Non-Jim Butcher Kind)! Call the Prince Reagent, have him talk with a Fujiwara regent, and then go find an alchemist

Okay, this has been coming for a while, but I'm going to slightly be shifting the content on my blog (and in some cases already have).

I'll still going to be doing weekly interviews and guest blogs from other authors. I think this is a great way to help out both authors and readers.

In addition, starting next week, I'm going to try and be efficient and combine two of my writing-relating activities together: blogging and research.

So, starting next week, I'm starting three new weekly features. On Mondays, I'll be talking about different magical systems. I'm a very non-magical person and don't believe in any magic (except the magic of compound interest), but in the course of writing various fantasy and paranormal stories I've become fascinated by the varied types of magical beliefs and systems that people have thought up. I intend to focus both on historical magical systems and those that have only appeared in the pages of novels. I intend to call this 'Magical Mondays'. What can I say, I like alliteration.

On Thursdays, I will be sharing tidbits about Georgian and Regency England (Mr. Beard's Regency Tour). On Sundays, I will be sharing tidbits about Heian Japan as part of my "The Age of Tranquility and Peace" (a rough literal translation of Heian jidai, not necessarily an objective statement about the entire period).

These entries will usually be modest in size, but I hope to communicate at least some small bit of useful information in them.

I'll no longer be participating in SFFS or SSS due to time constraints, though I'll still be trying to stop by many of the blogs I routinely visit to comment, but it will probably take me the entire week to make it through those.

I hope, if you're interested in any of those topics, you'll stop by.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Elves Among Us: An Interview Julia Crane about her YA paranormal, Coexist


Today, I'm talking with Julia Crane author of the elf-themed YA paranormal novel, Coexist.

1) Tell us about your book.

Sixteen-year-old Keegan is struggling to keep her huge secret from her friends--she's an elf, descended from a long line of elves that live in secrecy alongside humans.  

In elfin society, mates are predetermined but not allowed to meet until they are eighteen.  Against tradition, Keegan's brother Thaddeus told her Rourk's name because his visions warned him she'd need Rourk's protection, especially since Keegan will play a key role in the coming war between the dark and light elves.

Rourk finds himself drawn to Keegan's side every time she thinks his name. He wants to talk to her but remains in the shadows, silently guarding her every time she mentally beckons him. A twist of fate thrusts the two of them together when Rourk is forced to step up his protection and make his presence known.

An ancient prophecy deeply entwines Keegan's family and the future of their society. Somehow they must find a way to thwart fate and win the battle...without losing Keegan. With war brewing, and dark forces aligning, will Keegan and Rourk ever have the life together that they both desire?

2) What inspired this story?

It was the first thing I thought of when I sat down to write a YA novel. A lot of things influenced Coexist consciously and subconsciously. My family has Irish roots and my grandmother always told Irish Tales. Certain elements from the story I took from my everyday life. I have a teenage daughter, and all the drama that goes along with that. My husband is retired military so that’s a lifestyle I have lived. Mainly what inspired me was free time. Once we moved to Dubai I had a lot of free time on my hands, which I turned into writing time. 

3) Supernatural beings of all sorts are gracing our shelves these days. Why did you choose elves for your book?

My family tends to have pointed ears, round rosy faces, and small statures. So we were often teased about being elfish or having an impish look. So it just seemed natural when I thought of what kind of paranormal book I would write. It’s easier to write paranormal because with magic anything is possible. 

4) Elves have been reinterpreted constantly throughout the centuries from everything from misanthropic tormentors to heroic stewards of the Earth. Do you think your reinterpretation fits in with an existing tradition or were you trying for something else entirely?

I didn’t really think about that when I started writing. My main premise was that elves have evolved enough to blend in with humans. I honestly don’t know if that has been written about before or not. Surprisingly, I really haven’t read many elf books. 

5) Why do you think people are so fascinated by elves?

I believe people are fascinated with anything supernatural. Elves are just one of the many. The current fascination still seems to be vampires, werewolves, and zombies. 

6) YA has exploded in popularity. When I was younger (which wasn't all THAT long ago), you just didn't really see huge dedicated sections to YA. Now obviously the success of YA books is what is motivating publishers, but why do you think so many people both teens and adults are attracted to YA books?

I’m really not sure. I didn’t start reading YA until my daughter brought home Twillight. She wasn’t a reader so I was curious to find out what had caught her attention. I got sucked in as easily as she did. It’s nice to have an easy read that you don’t have to think about too much. Also teen years are exciting on so many levels. Drama is always fun to read. I still read everything she reads, and I have read some great books that way. Plus it gives us something to talk about. 

7) When you wrote this did you intend a sequel?

When I wrote it I wasn’t sure I would finish it until I was about half way done. At that point I already had ideas for book two. I’m working on book three now. I think that will be all for the Chronicles, but I might do some spin offs on characters that readers have expressed interest in. 

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Thanks, Julia.

Please stop by and visit Julia at www.juliacraneauthor.com.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: Ten Years and Dogs

Ten years already? It honestly does feel like yesterday.

May all who died RIP.

One story flashes to my mind. Something that really brought home the horror in a strange way. Many of the search and rescue dogs they were using to find survivors would get depressed because they would go so long without finding anyone alive. The handlers had to set-up fake "rescues" to keep the dogs' spirits up.

Six Sentence Sunday #21: Reflections upon a mother's overreaction

Please check out other samples from participating Six Sentence Sunday authors at  http://www.sixsunday.com/.

For today's Six Sentence Sunday, I'm returning to my Regency paranormal romance, A Woman of Proper Accomplishments. Here, we see the protagonist's mother reacting after an incident that, while serious in nature overall, only resulted in a sprained ankle:


"You are not free of distress," Helena's mother said. "You are a cripple now. Oh, Mr. Preston, our daughter is a cripple! She cannot even be a governess if she is a cripple. Sophia, you must take your sister in when you marry. She injured herself to protect you.”








Friday, September 9, 2011

Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday #12: Superhero fashion


Welcome to #SFFSat – Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday -  a chance to post snippets from a piece of speculative fiction. Want to join in? Check out the site and links to other great speculative fiction authors at Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday and follow the hashtag #SFFSat on Twitter.
This snippet is from a middle-grade superhero WIP, Woodland Girl and the Mechanic:

Here, the main character, Jared, has just offered his newly super-powered friend, Maria, some comic books to give her costume ideas.

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"Most of these women are almost naked.” Maria rolled her eyes. "You’re such a pervert, Jared. I 'd prefer something like they wear in Venusian Princess Himiko.”

I snatched the stack out of her hands. “Give me a break. Venusian Princess Himiko? Don’t they fight in dresses? How can you fight in a dress? That’s just stupid.”

“They’re magic dresses,” she said, a pout on her face. She shrugged. “It’s no more stupid than fighting in a bikini. I’m not going to wear anything like those slutty girls in your comics.”

Good Book Alert Review: Concerto

Over at Good Book Alert, I review Sandra Miller's suspense tale of a violinist being stalked, Concerto.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

There Is Only One Truth: An Interview With Jerry Hanel


Today, I'm taking with Jerry Hanel author of the paranormal mysteries Death Has A Name and Thaloc Has A Body featuring his psychic detective character, Brodie Wade.

1) Tell us about your about your books.

Brodie Wade is an unusual character. He's timid, broken and not your usual John Wayne-like hero. He sees into a realm that he calls The Truth. When an apparition from that realm manifests, he can't control it. Nor does he want to see it. He wants it to go away and leave him alone.

His best friend is a police detective named Phil Dawson. Phil is a big, round, lovable teddy-bear of a man. He's meticulous and at times gruff, but always has the best intentions. Whenever he runs into cold cases that need to be solved, he calls on Brodie to see if there are any facts about the case that are struggling to break free and become known. At least, that's how it should work.

But in the cases of the two stories here, Phil's dilemma is that the cases aren't cold, yet, and they are already beyond bizarre. He calls Brodie in to investigate the fresh cases, which causes all sorts of oddities. For one, the fresher a scene is, the more violent The Truth's manifestations become. Brodie must walk a fine line between losing his sanity, solving the case, and staying alive.

2) What is distinct about Brodie Wade from other psychic detectives?

Most of the other "psychic detective" mechanics I've seen to date rely on the psychic initiating the event. They touch a photo, or go into a trance, or in some way make themselves available to step into that other place. Brodie doesn't have a choice. The Truth imposes itself at the worst possible times, not just at a scene. Because no one else can see these manifestations, Brodie has been declared Schizophrenic three different times in his life, even as a child, spending the vast majority of his life before meeting Phil in a mental institution.

The institution didn't cure Brodie of his visions, but it did give him the tools by which he has learned to hide the manifestations from those around him to at least give the appearance of sanity.

3) How do you think the paranormal elements enhance the thriller aspect of your work?

The main paranormal twist to these stories is a concept called The Truth. The Truth is an awkward concept to explain. Imagine if events that happen around inanimate objects were somehow ingrained into the space around that area. Now, imagine that as you are going about your business, things would pop up out of nowhere and threaten your life until you heard every last drop of detail they wanted to tell you.

That's what Brodie has to deal with, all while trying to maintain the appearance of sanity. There are many times that he doesn't know, himself, if he is actually crazy. Those awkward moments when The Truth pops in unannounced cause extreme tension in Brodie, and I believe that tension translates to the reader, keeping the action fast, furious and on fire.

4) How did you come up with the character of Brodie Wade?

My original story for Death Has a Name was a who-dunnit basic crime novel. I wanted an odd psychic guy to come in as an expert for a scene to give it a twist. The more I wrote the scene, the more I really enjoyed this guy. His name was Brodie. He didn't even have a last name at the time. He was just "Brodie." 

I stepped back from a work that was an absolute mess and was getting worse. I was absolutely frustrated. I wanted writing to be fun, so I decided to write more about this character I really liked. You know, maybe take him into the next scene with Drake (the main character at the time). The more I wrote, the more I really loved this guy. He was odd. Quirky. Freaky... Interesting. Very interesting.

In a blur of frustration, I scrapped the original story and wrote the first three chapters of the novel in one sitting. Those chapters have undergone several transformations in the writing process, but in that flash of creativity, Brodie was born. For the first time in a long time, I felt that I enjoyed writing, and I could see the whole plot right in front of me. It felt right.

5) The Truth is a fascinating and unusual concept in paranormal thriller. How did you come up with the idea of The Truth for this book?

I wanted to explain to readers part of what I believe about life. There is an absolute truth. In today's world where what we believe to be true depends on what we've learned in our education, our families, our pastors, our friends, etc., we've moved away from the fact that no matter what we believe to be true, there is, in fact, one item that IS true. And that item cannot be wished away. We can't simply believe it into becoming something that it is not. It is what it is, and it will always be that. It is unchangable. Immutable. Solid as stone.

How can I convey such a concept? Enter The Truth. It is real, whether Brodie wants it to be or not. And it tells the events that occurred or will occur, whether we want to believe them or not. And many times, like the mundane truth that I mentioned above, it must be deciphered through a specific knowledge or event to be understood, otherwise it is like garbled nothingness to the person who hears it.

6) You already have two books out. How many books do you have planned featuring Brodie Wade?

There is a final book in the works right now. I'm holding back on the name at the moment, but it will be Brodie's big test. Brodie is a lovable character, and I've been told that I could keep going with him for years, but I started the series with three specific books in mind. And I will wrap up the third book with a measure of finality. 

Every story has an end. The worst injustice you can do to a good story is to write past the end and try to keep a story alive that really wants to fade away. I believe that the third book is where Brodie will reach the end of his particular story.

Now, keep in mind that Brodie is very dear to me. He is the first major character that really captured my attention. I've written thousands of other characters in so many yet-to-be-published stories. But Brodie is my favorite. He will undoubtedly appear in future works, just not ones where he is the star. Keep an eye out for random cameo appearances.

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Thanks, Jerry.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Life After Divorce: A Guest Blog by Susan Ricci

Today, I'm talking with Susan Ricci who is currently working on Dinosaurs and Cherry Stems, a post-divorce self-help novel that started life as a non-fiction project and now is being transitioned into a fiction project.


I asked Susan about her inspiration, her odd title, and the advantages of self-help via fiction.


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My book first took substance with the experience of Internet dating after my divorce.  It's truly an insane way to meet people, what with the weirdos, scammers from Nigeria, and guys who just want to enjoy the Friends with Benefits kind of thing.  What transpired, though, was the evolution of a bitter, divorced woman, who'd rendered herself a recluse for nearly a year, then turned herself into a don't-you-dare-take-any-more crap type woman who took technology by the proverbial, ah, you know whats, and twisted them to her advantage--or so she thought.  Because happy endings do happen and I'm a very lucky lady.

During that time, though, I learned much.  I decided I wanted to share it with a self-help, get-you-through-it narrative, so people don't waste valuable time feeling regret regarding former relationships, or feeling leery of forging new ones.  Stepping stones, baby steps, call them what you will, but all are learning experiences that bring us to the next, fantastic level.

I think we're all following the same equation.  As writers, who have something to say with an audience that needs to hear what we share, no matter what genre' we've chosen.  I am also working on a novel, called Slick Trespass.  When I started Dinosaurs and Cherry Stems, I was flipping back and forth between the two, and each day when I began working, I wasn't sure what mood would drive me; either into the nonfiction arena, or the liar's club, because I do so love to make stuff up.  One day, I realized I had to focus on one project, or I'd accomplish nothing.  I chose Dinosaurs and Cherry Stems, because it's timely and I gravitate to the truth.  Fiction never dies, or so it's been told.

Dinosaurs and Cherry Stems won an award at the Philadelphia Writers Conference this past June for nonfiction narrative.  My workshop leader, author Ellie Slott Fisher, (our picture is on my Facebook home page), told me these type of books do well as memoirs, but only if you're famous or have a notorious character within, neither which was me.  But I also gained the interest with an agent, who requested a book proposal, but I've been too busy editing and revising to submit it.  Then I found IWU, and my thoughts have swung into a diverse and very welcome option.

As far as the title, the original was too cliche.  I chose Dinosaurs, etc. because my kids think I AM one, (and maybe I am), and cherry stems because it relates to a very interesting, or so I think, chapter of the book.  So, regarding your inquiry, that this may be based on personal experience:  Well, yeah, sure it is.  Write what you know.  Isn't this to what Those Rules imply?

I imagine there's tons of folks out there, people of any age, who've experienced similar scenarios as mine, and perhaps have given up hope on a satisfying, loving relationship.  I know I did.  And If I can inspire anyone to never to give up, I think my message will have been delivered.  Thus,  I'll be satisfied I've done my best, as a writer, delivering that message.

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Thanks for sharing, Susan.


If you want to see more from Susan check her site out at http://www.susanjeanricci.com/.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday #20: There's something in the water

Please check out other samples from participating Six Sentence Sunday authors at  http://www.sixsunday.com/.

For today's Six Sentence Sunday, I'm remaining with my YA urban fantasy WIP, Osland. Here, the protagonist runs into a rather odd new restriction at her new school:

After we passed a few fountains, I said, “This school is f. . .this school is f. . .this school is messed up.” The f-bomb wouldn’t come out—more than a little weird. While I’d like to think I wasn’t super-foul-mouthed, on occasion, I did let a few colorful words slip out. Sure, I’ll admit after Mom and Dad died, the f-bombs started dropping a bit more often, but I never had trouble pushing the words out. Now I could barely even think of them. Did the teachers drug the water or something? 

Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday #11: Magic User's Guide to Educational Reform

Welcome to #SFFSat – Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday - a chance to post snippets from a piece of speculative fiction. Want to join in? Check out the site and links to other great speculative fiction authors at Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday and follow the hashtag #SFFSat on Twitter.

In honor of completing the draft of my fantasy WIP, Mind Crafter, I'm putting up a snippet from that work that gives some insight into the protagonist, Shala. She's a scholar-mage who doesn't quite understand why everyone doesn't value knowledge and access to knowledge as much as she does (btw, a crafter is a type of magic user and silja is an abstract strategy board game kind of like a cross of chess and go):

     Ansa looked down at her hands, an uncomfortable expression on her face. “Mistress, I don't know how to read. I can write and read the characters for my name, but no more. I am sorry. You shouldn’t have been sent such a foolish girl.”

    “A mind that can grasp silja with such ease is never one I would call foolish,” Shala said, keeping her voice neutral. “Well, I suppose I must teach you how to read. You will find it a useful skill. With a quick mind like yours, I am sure I can teach you many of the most common characters in a rather short time.”

     The ways of the palace befuddled Shala. Not cultivating basic reading in the servants of the important officials seemed absurd. At House Lran, none of her fellow crafters would tolerate an illiterate servant.





Friday, September 2, 2011

Men Like Pie: An Interview with Mary Pat Hyland

Today, I'm talking with former journalist, chef, and novelist Mary Pat Hyland about her latest novel, The Terminal Diner, a suspenseful character study about a woman discovering herself after the 9/11 attacks jolt her, and the entire United States, out of complacency.


Tell us about The Terminal Diner. 


This novel tells the story of a family that runs a diner near an upstate New York airport. The main character, Elaina Brady, is still recovering from the day her mother ran away with a trucker from Missoula (after he ordered a slice of her delicious lemon meringue pie). That very morning, Maria’s last words to her daughter were, prophetically, “men like pie.” Elaina, just 16, takes on her mother’s job as pie maker at the diner and finds her life stuck in its routine. A decade later, all she knows to be true about men are the words her mother told her. The story opens on the day before Sept. 11, when some new customers come into the diner who will change Elaina’s life forever, especially as the country tries to recover from the horrific acts of terror the next day.

Many authors often put a little of themselves into their leads. What went into developing your main character?

This novel started out as a short story called “Spice of Life,” inspired by the day I first tried the spice blend masala and thought, wow, how sad it would be to eat the same foods over and over and never try exotic flavors like that. In my day job I’m a personal chef and I’ve often daydreamed about what it would be like to run a diner. It was easy to imagine the routine.

An author's background often influences their style and choices of subjects. Does your journalistic background influence your fiction at all?

Definitely. I’m always looking for the story, the headline of the lives of people I know, meet randomly or observe from a distance. When I converse with someone, I shift into interview mode asking many more questions about that person than sharing information about myself. Can’t seem to help myself—I’m naturally curious. At the time I left journalism, my job was editor of the Op-Ed page. Sometimes it’s tough to hold back the urge to analyze or moralize the characters (like I used to with the news) and just let the story unfold in its own way. That said, I do come from Rod Serling’s hometown and have been inspired by his work. “Twilight Zone” episodes always reflected the morality in decisions of the characters.

The backdrop of one of the most seminal events in modern American history, 9/11, is a key aspect in forcing some changes in your main character. In a a little over  week, it will have been ten years since th attacks. Did you ever worry about people reacting negatively to you setting a book during this time?

No. I think it’s important to remember and record, accurately, what it was like to live through that day. Throughout civilization, the arts have always reflected what occurred during major historical events. Though the wound is still raw, I think enough time has passed and we’re at the point where can talk about it this way. That day changed everyone’s life in some way; it’s important to share those viewpoints.

My job at the newspaper on Sept. 11 was to pore over photos on the Associated Press wires and select the images that best told the story of what happened. The awful task was made more unbearable by the fact that my former boyfriend worked at the World Trade Center and I spent a good deal of the day trying frantically to get in touch with him. You couldn’t get a call through to Manhattan. I called his home and got his answering machine. I feared it would be  the last time I’d hear his voice. He worked in WTC 5, but I thought he was in WTC 2. So when the towers collapsed I was a wreck, but I had to keep my cool and get the pages laid out. Later that day, I sent an email and he responded immediately with a harrowing account of fleeing the falling towers. I was so relieved he that made it. That joy didn’t last long. Two days later I found out that another old
friend had an office in WTC 1 right above where the first plane hit. For ten years since his death I’ve seen his family work through the stages of their grief and try to reconnect with the world. It’s been so painful to
witness the depth of their sorrow. Writing this story has helped me process all of the tough experiences I’ve been through related to that day.


You set this book, along with, from what I can tell, your other novels and short stories in upstate New York. I'm assuming you're probably from there. Have you ever been interested in setting any of your works somewhere else? 

Write what you know, the experts tell us. I grew up and still live here and find upstate to be a continuous source of inspiration and fascinating characters for my work. It’s a working class area with a rich ethnic blend and keep-going attitude despite economic hardships lingering from the departure of the  company town industries. Sometimes you feel like you’re in an Edward Hopper painting when you drive past the empty factories. You can sense the desperation and resignation that the area’s heyday has passed.

I don’t just write about upstate, though. My many travels over the years are also woven into my works. For example, you’ll read many scenes set in the west of Ireland and part of The Terminal Diner was inspired by a trip to the Pacific Northwest that included a drive across Montana.


This is your fourth novel. How is similar to some of your previous work? How is it different?

 I think the aspect found in all of my writing is strong, unforgettable characters that readers relate to and genuinely miss when they finish the book. They’re woven together with the Irish sense of humor that rises up when times get tough. The Terminal Diner differs from my other works in that it’s my first suspense novel. Some scenes were very difficult to write and frankly made it hard to fall asleep some nights. It was interesting to take a walk on the dark side. I enjoyed the genre very much and hope to revisit it someday.

As a middling baker (yes, men do like pie), and given some of the elements of your book, I have to ask: What's your favorite kind of pie? 

I could tell you liked pie! Nothing beats a pie made with Cortland apples served warm from the oven with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese on a chilly fall day. (It’s an upstate thing.)

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Thanks, Mary Pat.

You can find The Terminal Diner in both physical and electronic formats at Amazon.