THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT THE SUSHING PRIZE [2019], by Denis Shaughnessy

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 8/10

What a wonderful surprise of a book! After self-publishing my own books and hoping to find some readers packing positive reviews, I’m doing my own part in reading works by other Indie Authors.

The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize by Denis Shaughnessy is an absurd, irreverent, 4th-wall-breaking crime thriller.

SYNOPSIS (from Goodreads):

Writer Marco Ocram has a secret superpower—whatever he writes actually happens, there and then. Hoping to win the million-dollar Sushing Prize, he uses his powers to write a true-crime thriller, quickly discovering a freakish murder. But Marco has a major problem—he’s a total idiot who can’t see beyond his next sentence. Losing control of his plot and his characters, and breaking all the rules of fiction, Marco writes himself into every kind of trouble, until only the world’s most incredible ending can save his bacon.

There’s a good mix of zaniness and police procedure here, though I can see how this novel might get on a reader’s nerves, with the constant reminders that out protagonist is literally making this story up as he goes along. Some readers, maybe. But this all just worked for me. I found it totally original.

A left-field comparison might be that of The Big Lebowski, with an protagonist who has no clue and is aimlessly following leads all over town.

The book becomes noticeably less funny in some chapters around the half-way and 3/4 points, but its memorable moments quickly make you forget about any lulls. Moments like the CERN backstory development (where the MC makes up a backstory for himself on-the-spot in order to solve a current dilemma), the Pope scene (yes, he knows the Pope of course!), and the Tom Cruise bit (so good!) were genius.

The novel reads very British. I know it takes place in America, by way of which I’m assuming the MC is also American, but there are just enough British-isms (tyres, manoeuvered, lavvy, S’s instead of Z’s, etc) to make it feel….off.

Overall, this is an impressive debut; one where I sometimes forgot this was Shaughnessy’s first novel, and that the book was not already a best-selling hit.

Some memorable quotes:

“If you had to do a re-write every time you found a flaw in a plot, you’d never get a book finished.”

“I wasn’t sure that we needed subpoenas to question people, but I’d always wanted to write the word since I’d heard it in Hawaii Five-O, so I pretended we did.”

“It struck me that protagonists in books never seemed to pee. I wondered if I was breaking new ground by mentioning it, or committing some enormous literary gaffe.”

“What have we got?” said Como. He started all our investigative scenes that way, and I wondered whether my readers would consider it laziness on my part or adopt it as a catchphrase that would go viral.”

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The Great Rise

THE GREAT RISE is a short story I wrote for the Owl Canyon Press Winter 2018 Hackathon Contest. My story placed in the 24 Finalists, and was published in an Owl Canyon anthology collection. You can purchase your own copy HERE!

It’s a quirky, fantasy world tale about life, death, hope, and the lack thereof, inspired predominantly by Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

Enjoy!

The Great Rise

by R.Tim Morris

Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!

The letters — as crimson as fresh blood from one angle, copper-brown like dried blood from another — had always been there in one hue or another. The enormity of the single word was near-overwhelming, looming over the surrounding scraps and vestiges of heavy hearted human regard. The town of Buffleton was filled with them. Photos of lost loved ones. Crumpled notes of melancholic thoughts, stuffed into coffee cans meant for donations. And yet, if one looked closer, one would see that the tiny, complex details within the surface of the wall — written in red and scribbled in gold — belied the word’s monolithic presence. Rejoice! The intricate details ranged from fine brush work to thick stabs of muted color. All of it added irony to the larger message: these were names of each and every citizen of Buffleton who had died. And how each one of them met their end.

From Alwyn EmberStone (natural causes) to Remi FrostBorne (lost at sea). From Tobias Brownbranch (eaten by goblins) to Her Highness Jaelynn Dew Rider (medical complications related to goblin bite). From the clumsy Bumper Marshburn (electrocution) to the brave Owl-Phoenix PhoenixBone (bee sting) to even the unfortunate Sir Ludwig FireScribe (bicycle accident).

On and on it went. Every moment that ended in tragedy was plastered to the surface of the wall; on what was known as The Great Rise. On and on. Were these meant as warning signs for the poor people of Buffleton? Lessons in the dangers that might present themselves to anyone at any time? A statement on the fragility of living? The trouble with goblins? Well, it was all of that. And none of that. On and on and on.

In all the annals of history, folklore, and wisdom, the word “hero” is not a word to be tossed about lightly. But for the sake of this tale of The Great Rise, young Jonathon Morningmist, by default, might be considered as such. To Jonathon, the wall was an enemy. It was a thief, having stolen his father from him years before. As his father would explain it — and just as all of Buffleton would carefully explain to every curious child — on the other side of that painted concrete wall was a whole other land. To even the most hopeful, it seemed virtually unattainable, like another universe entirely. The official belief, as Jonathon’s father first illustrated with his son on his knee, was that upon the grass on the other side there were no shrines. No candles or wilted flowers or stuffed bears. No names scribbled onto the surface of The Great Rise. Because there was one more thing that did not exist on the other side: death. There was no death by natural causes over there. No accidents. No goblins. There was only the possibility of ever more life and happiness. Ever more wonder and journeys of discovery. And always more love. A bottomless well overflowing with love. Jonathon Morningmist was both in awe of and afraid of this possibility.

But no one knew for certain what was over there. Over time, there had been a few who hopped the wall. Against town orders, they chose to leave everything in Buffleton behind in favor of the Forever-Life. They just wanted to know. They were so curious that they were willing to forget lovers, friends, and neighbors. Leaving vacant their blacksmith shops, janitorial supply stores, sushi bars, and generations old, family-run plumbing and heating businesses. Even young sons who once sat upon knees listening to fairy tales and legends of caution were abandoned with little more regard than day-old goldfish. All of the makings of these admittedly moderate lives were coldly, categorically dismissed in favor of what might be discovered beyond The Great Rise. For these were only ever temporary desires anyway, weren’t they? The hope for something more, shrouded by the unknown — that was the more powerful siren call, wasn’t it?

And yet, as the story goes, any and all who ever crossed over were never to be seen again. For whatever reason — whether it was the verisimilitude of the Forever-Life, or maybe something better, perhaps something worse — they never returned to the more hopeless and the less brave who continued to wait, and who continued to write ever more names on the wall.

Young Jonathon Morningmist did not know what to believe, only that his father chose hopping The Great Rise over the life he had in Buffleton. So Jonathon did not know much about heroes. He was just a kid — exactly as his father always called him: “a kid” — who wished for a day when the flames of hope might flicker. And one day they did, when a particularly curious wanderer found his way back to Buffleton again.

Jonathon had just finished his shift at Ye Olde Espresso, his aunt’s coffee shop, where he’d spent the majority of his day serving mintberry tea and cleaning the washrooms. Jonathon was not a terribly happy kid; he hadn’t felt much happiness since his father decided to make a spectacle of himself, catapulting over The Great Rise and disappearing forever. Unhappiness was not so uncommon a feeling around these parts, even for the majority of kids who hadn’t watched their fathers launch themselves into the unknown via a creaky contraption they’d cobbled together in their sheds the night before.

Truthfully, most kids were like Jonathon Morningmist. For one, they disliked school, because there was nothing worth learning at school that could possibly ever get them out of, and as far away as possible from Buffleton. To add further layers to their melancholy, there were a few more factors at play: boys were in love with girls and girls were in love with boys and all sorts of children were in love with all sorts of other children, but every last one of them was unable to show it. Also, the weather was always terrible in Buffleton, and no one is happy in terrible weather. Not to mention: there really wasn’t much in the way of hope for the children, since the grown-ups only ever seemed to care about what was or wasn’t on the other side of The Great Rise. Grown-ups, it seemed, were weak and afraid of everything. All of them. And all kids would become them eventually. And what is there about being weak and afraid that might ever be appealing enough to make a kid wish to become one of them? Better to simply make coffee but pour tea and be lonely until your aunt’s cafe is your cafe and you’re left with nothing but fleeting ruminations regarding what could have been had you not been so weak and afraid to be something better. And on and on it went.

On his way home, Jonathon Morningmist walked upon the crumbling sidewalk which ran alongside The Great Rise. Jonathon brushed his smooth, youthful hand along the rough bumps of the wall’s weathered concrete surface; generations of paint slapped on, layer after layer after layer. On and on and on.

Jonathon had just reached an aged, crooked telephone pole when he stopped. There was a new shrine that wasn’t there that morning, painted rocks were still drying. It appeared as though Finnigan Hambone met his demise sometime that afternoon (cause of death still unreported). Jonathon had heard distant sirens earlier and wondered who they might have been for.

It was then, as Jonathon contemplated the details of what might have taken Finnigan Hambone away, that Jonathon looked up. And it was as he looked up, that he spotted a pair of hands at the top of the wall; fingers from the other side, clutching the rim of The Great Rise. Jonathon gave his head a good hard shake, for no one had ever seen hands on the wall before. Never. It shouldn’t have been possible.

But those hands were definitely there. “Hello up there!” Jonathon called. The fingers were more gray than his own, but they were definitely human so the fear of another goblin attack was probably out of the question. For now, at least. “Hello?” he called again, perhaps with more emphasis on self-concern this time. After all, one never could know when one could definitively rule out another goblin attack. The fingers quivered a little; enough to make Jonathon quiver himself, and he stepped backward onto the road without even noticing. Then the fingers disappeared, sliding slowly from sight like slugs and snails might travel over a hilltop. And with that Jonathon shrugged to himself, believing the vision had to have been brought on by still-lingering death fumes in the air, and he stepped back up onto the sidewalk, and continued on his way.

To say something about his sheer indifference, Jonathon Morningmist had merely made it to the next twisted telephone pole by the time the whole occurrence was out of his mind; those gray fingers had slipped from his memory far swifter than they had from the wall. But Jonathon stopped immediately upon hearing a voice calling from behind him. He shook his head again, this time trying to recall what he’d seen mere moments before. “You, down there!” the voice called to the kid. It was a man’s voice. “Might you give me a hand?”

Jonathon turned. “Me?” he asked, and pointed limply at his heart. As though there had been any creatures around besides himself, a few scuttling sluice-newts, and piles of crusty, mud-soaked stuffed bears. Then he saw the fingers again, up on the cusp of the wall. The best he could do was continue to stare blankly, and while he was already at his most incompetent, Jonathon went ahead and gave his slipping pants a bit of a tug.

“Nevermind,” the man said, struggling to keep himself aloft. “I — I’ve got this.” Then, with every bit of strength he could muster, the man heaved himself up and onto the top of the wall. He sat down and wiped his brow with a cloth he’d plucked magically from his pants pocket. “Boy, you really aren’t very good help, are you? I’m not the man I used to be, but looks like I still got it. Don’t I? Not that you would know what it was I had before what it is I’ve got now.” This man, even from Jonathon Morningmist’s point of view ten feet below, was slight. His bare arms were taut and sinewy, but overall he was certainly small, like a branch that had fallen months ago and begun withering. He wore a vest, torn pants, a belt with many pockets, and no shoes. Jonathon found it difficult to not stare at the man’s gray feet and blackened toenails.

“Who are you?” the kid asked the man on The Great Rise. “And what brings you to Buffleton?” A good question, since not only has there never been a single soul who had ever crossed The Great Rise from the other side, but no soul had ever willingly come to Buffleton before now.

The stranger laughed an impish laugh. The kind of cackle that clattered unsatisfyingly off of everywhere and nowhere at once. “What you mean to ask is: What brings me back to Buffleton?” Jonathon wasn’t sure if that was what he’d intended to ask, so he chose to say nothing more instead. The man stood back up and stretched his wiry arms out wide. “I am Doyle Finncaster! Rejoice! I’m back!” Jonathon could not even be bothered to shake his head in transience. “You don’t know the name Doyle Finncaster? I owned the auto shop on Blocker Street!”

The auto shop on Blocker Street had been vacant for years, before finally being razed and replaced by yet another paint store. But Jonathon didn’t mention any of that. He asked, “So what brings you back to Buffleton? And is anyone else coming back with you? And also, why are you so gray?”

“Well, you see. As it turns out, I forgot my wrench. Did you know there’s no such thing as wrenches over there?” With a traveler’s thumb, Doyle Finncaster pointed behind him, back over to the other side of The Great Rise. “I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without a wrench.” The man scratched at his scalp for a few long seconds, then inspected his hands, first the fronts, then the backs, and then the fronts again. “And what do you mean I’m gray?”

“Your skin—” The grayness reminded Jonathon of the eldest mountain range or the freshest of ash. The shadow of a dark rain cloud or the brackish marshes in Buffleton Valley. “You appear to be…well. You look like an old tea bag. Are you certain no one else is coming back with you?”

Doyle just shrugged. He observed the ground below him, scanning the heaps of mementos and shrines. It was not long before his eyebrows jumped. “Well, what do you know. Boy, do you see that shiny object over there?” At the foot of the telephone pole and partially hidden beneath a cardboard poster with the picture of a woman who had recently been eaten by goblins, someone had left behind an open toolbox. Jonathon crouched to look, though he could not identify any of the tools within. “The contraption that looks like the anticipative claw of a hungry crab-bear. That’s a wrench! Toss it up here, would you?” With an unsure arm, Jonathon miraculously launched the tool upwards and into the slight gray hands of Doyle Finncaster. “You may seem a bit angsty and angry, but you’re not so unhelpful after all. Enjoy the rest of your walk, kid.” And with that, Doyle Finncaster leapt off the wall, disappearing back into the waiting, curious land of the Forever-Life.

Angry? Jonathon Morningmist did not know he was angry, just as Doyle Finncaster did not seem to realize he was gray. Sure, he was unhappy that his father left him. And he was unhappy that he couldn’t seem to admit his feelings toward Gisele Cloudskimmer, the toothiest girl in his class. And he was unhappy about the angle of the sun on most days. But angry? The kid thought about the whole peculiar exchange that had just transpired. He thought about it a bit harder than he usually thought about anything, for he knew the chances of its details fading from his mind were very good, and he did not wish to forget them. So he continued to think all night, and all the way into the next morning when he suddenly — and most surprisingly — had a plan: that he would be the next resident of Buffleton to cross over The Great Rise. If Jonathon’s feelings were becoming muddled, then maybe there would be answers on the other side. And like his father did before him, he sounded the town gong in the middle of the Square the next morning, and made certain a crowd would be there to witness his bravery. And there was a crowd indeed.

~~

The kid got up onto a milk crate and raised his hand. A murmur went through the crowd and then it fell silent, except for a few people shouting words of encouragement at him. The kid acknowledged them with a nod and a shy smile. In the full light of day, he looked less angry and more beautiful. He waited until people stopped shouting. A siren could be heard, maybe five or ten blocks away. The kid raised the bullhorn, pressed the button, and began to speak.

He started, “Yesterday—”, and then realized the junky bullhorn he’d scavenged from the garage wasn’t working. But he continued to speak into it nevertheless. “Yesterday, a gray man named Doyle Finncaster appeared over The Great Rise, like a neighbor might stick his head over the fence, and he asked me for a wrench.” Some of the oldest amongst the crowd muttered and whispered, recalling the name immediately, for Finncaster’s auto shop was not only reputable for great service, but also offered a complimentary mug of mintberry tea with every visit. “So I tossed him a wrench and then he simply disappeared again. Just like my father disappeared many years ago. And like people you’ve all loved have disappeared from your own lives. Even though the wall tells us to celebrate. Rejoice!”

“Rejoice!” the people repeated, as was Buffleton custom. Even Gisele Cloudskimmer, the object of Jonathon’s affections, was calling out amidst the crowd. And maybe it was just Jonathon’s imagination, but Gisele appeared incredibly invested in what he had to say.

Jonathon bumbled a little, but he would not be deterred from delivering his somewhat awkward and poorly-planned speech. “Rejoice? Why are we meant to take delight in their leaving? Living forever sounds like a terrible bit of burden, don’t you think? What do you imagine they find when they get there? Do they ever get where they think they’re going? Do they ever find what it was they hoped to find?” He thought about the possibilities of what he could say next and how he might say it. What words would hit Gisele Cloudskimmer just right, so he might catch that wonderful, toothy smile of hers? “Do they ever think of the people of Buffleton? Do they miss us? Doyle Finncaster missed his wrench — enough to come back for it — and yet no one has ever come back for us. No one has ever really been a hero.”

Jonathon paused; a hope in the front of his mind that someone in the crowd would ask if he might be that hero. If he would cross over the wall for the good folks of Buffleton, rather than escaping in the middle of the night like so many cowards, launching themselves from crudely constructed catapults. Aside from fear, what was stopping him from treading into the Forever-Life? But no one asked these questions. They were too afraid to ask. Maybe it wasn’t heroism, but Gisele Cloudskimmer seemed impressed nevertheless. And to prove it, there was that smile of hers.

Then, someone did call out from the tense crowd. He said, “So what are you going to do, Ditch-Nut?” Hmph. I am going to cross The Great Rise, Jonathon thought to himself in his most bravest of inside voices. I will be the hero you all need. Another asked, “Will you bring them more wrenches?” Jonathon shook his head. Still another worried, “If you’re not here, then there’s one less person for the goblins to eat before they eat me. I don’t like those odds!” Jonathon shrugged his shoulders.

The interim Mayor of Buffleton — who was only in power until next Tuesday, when the body of the late Queen Dew Rider would be ceremoniously sent down the slough into the waiting maw of ocean-wolves and her successor would then be plucked from a lottery system held at the bingo hall (the caste system in Buffleton was nightmarishly complicated) — was there with his royal entourage. He had a working bullhorn, and he himself asked, “Son of Morningmist, are you saying you spoke with Doyle Finncaster?” Jonathon nodded. “He just popped up over The Great Rise and asked for a wrench?” Jonathon nodded at this, too. “He didn’t say anything about my car, did he? It’s long due for a fuel injection cleaning, and once you find a mechanic you trust, it’s terribly hard to change!” It seemed Jonathon was all out of nods. The town didn’t care, or they were too scared to endorse or reinforce his decision. Even his aunt — who was initially at the forefront of the crowd — was silent at the very back. Did anyone in Buffleton have any encouragement at all for him? Did

“When do you leave, Jonathon Morningmist?” It was Gisele. “When does your hero’s journey commence?” More sirens clamoured off in the distance; nearly everyone scattered so they could do a head count in order to find who was missing this time. Jonathon and Gisele remained amid the chaos. The two of them locked eyes, as if each was just now noticing that the other had noticed all along.

Jonathon motioned behind him. “Just as soon as I cross this wall,” he said. The Great Rise had felt so imposing before, now it seemed as though he could simply hop over it. Alas, even on the single milk crate, he still couldn’t reach the top. “Looks like I may need a boost, however.” Jonathon held out a hand for Gisele to take and she ambled closer. “I do have but one request of you, after I cross over.” Gisele cocked her head a little in anticipation of his inquiry. Jonathon patted the wall and said, “When I’m gone, please do not add my name to The Great Rise. Because I plan on coming back.”

From the milk crate to Gisele’s surprisingly sturdy shoulders, the kid lifted himself to the top of the wall. He had some difficulty balancing, but managed to stand on his two awkward feet. Bisecting the two lands, Jonathon could see the town of Buffleton behind him Gisele Cloudskimmer below him but he could not see anything before him but thick vegetation on the other side. With a deep gulp and a big breath, Jonathon Morningmist leapt off, eventually landing into the plushy palm of some still-dewey, exotic shrub.

Planting his feet in the unknown dirt, Jonathon immediately saw the other side of wall, covered in thick fingers of ivy and other similar vines; some blooming flowers of fuschia, cerulean, and ivory; others full of prickly though harmless-looking spines. Every spine and thorn on every plant in Buffleton looked like it would kill someone instantly. And though everything on the other side was as green as the greenest of poster paints made from the freshest of harvested mountainside joonee fruits, Jonathon did stop for a moment and wondered if there might be any beaches over here. He’d always wanted to see a beach, feel the ocean breeze, and smell the surf. He may have even had dreams of taking Gisele Cloudskimmer there one day.

When considering if she might enjoy that dream too, he turned back to the wall and called out for her. “Gisele!” he called, but was answered by silence. “Gisele Cloudskimmer!” he yelled louder. But there was no answer. Already he was having misgivings about crossing over. Should he turn back now? He asked himself aloud: “Did I just make a grave mistake?”

This time he expected silence as an answer. But then, a woman’s words startled him: “Of course ye made a mistake, ye bloated fool!” The words were spit from some knee-high bush. Its leaves rattled harshly, though none came dislodged. But Jonathon did not even step back. He actually leaned in and dipped his face of burgeoning courage even closer to the foliage.

The leaves parted in a kind of indescribable exoticism, like a magician might reveal some sleight of hand, uncovering what Jonathon could only describe as: “A goblin!?” Indeed, this scraggly woman was merely knee-high; her skin a green-gray sort of worn leather; her mouth a toothless cavern of echoing, virulent hisses.

“Nay!” she yelped. “I’d have eaten ye whole t’were I a goblin!” Jonathon wasn’t sure how that would have worked exactly — the eating-him-whole bit — considering how much bigger than her the kid was. “I crossed that wall, just like ye! Buffleton gave me the ol’ scaly hoof too, be knowin’ it.” She scuttled closer, seemingly unafraid of this new traveler in her midst. Jonathon steeled himself, determined to remain fearless. One of her eyes twitched so fervently it almost appeared shut. “Name’s Barbara. Barbo, I calls meself here. Use’ta teach kids like ye — smaller kids, mind ye — over in Buffleton.” Barbo spit into the dirt so hard some grubs wriggled loose from the earth. “Teacher?! Shoulda owned the paint supply store on account fer all the coats there’ve been put on that blasted wall. Wouldst have made a killin’. And then…well, then I go and find meself here.” She seemed to transform from indignant to dispirited faster than Jonathon could process. “Well?”

“Well, indeed.” Jonathon confirmed, though he was not certain what it was she was welling about. With hands in his pockets, the kid caught sight of a glint of something within a patch of long grass. It was a wrench. But this wasn’t the same wrench that Doyle Finncaster had brought back over the wall with him the day before. No, his wrench was an adjustable wrench and this was most definitely of the socket variety. Jonathon wondered if this was the woman’s home, here in the overgrown but wonderfully alive vegetation. He wondered if she realized that he was not a bloated giant, but she was likely just a shrunken, grayed version of her old self. He wondered many things. But instead, he asked Barbo: “You have wrenches here?”

Barbo tried to spot where the kid was eyeing, but she could not see anything of the sort. “Wrenches? Everyone perceives this cursed land differently. Be it the size of interlopers or the stink of a gringemeat sandwich. Some folks think they’ve come here to live, whilst others only remain for the hope of death. Some fools see wrenches, some don’t. But surely ye have better questions than this?”

Jonathon Morningmist thought about the perceptions of others. And a little bit about his own. He did not know if the wrench even mattered or why Doyle Finncaster must have stuck his head over The Great Rise in the first place. He did not care to wonder why the denizens of this side of the wall were apparently shrinking, nor did he have a clue what gringemeat was. In fact, for the moment, he was not even concerned about Gisele Cloudskimmer. Instead he asked: “Have you seen my father?” And he took a moment to try to recall the man from memory. “He had one eye of green and another of a color I could never place. He had arms like the mountains in fables. He had a beard so virile and thick it took it him four days to shave and one day for it to grow back. He was a wonderful man but a terrible dad, and he hastily shot himself over The Great Rise from a catapult without even a word. His name was Morningmist.”

“Doesn’t sound familiar. But everyone perceives this cursed land differently,” Barbo repeated. She plucked two grubs from the dirt and swallowed one whole, offering the other to the kid. “Would ye care? Methinks they taste like the pit of arm, but ye might find they taste like fancies.”

Jonathon declined the grub, and Barbo gulped it down. Thoughts of what might be found on the other side kept firing through his mind; crissing and crossing like dozens of zapper bugs in a jar under the moon. How far could his father have gotten on his journey? Perhaps it’s true: that those on this side don’t know death. But are they shrinking and shriveling into crazed goblin-folk and discolored wrench-hunters instead? Do they regret their choices in coming here? Do they ever miss the good people of Buffleton? “I have one question for you, Barbo. Do people here live forever?”

“Tis true we know not of death. But that don’t mean we don’t ever hope to meet her.” Barbo looked skyward; through the overlapping leaves and fronds and stalks and folioles, there remained a pinhole of sky above. She took it in, as though it were sustenance far, far more nourishing than a handful of grubs or gringemeat sandwiches. “Still, ye decided to come here too. But ye have yet to decide if ye be staying.”

It was then that Jonathon Morningmist first concerned himself with what must be the truth. “Once I’ve decided to stay there is no return, is there? This is why no one has ever crossed The Great Rise and come back to Buffleton?”

“Some decisions are our own. Some are not. But rejoice in the decision ye shall make, son of Morningmist. And I will rejoice for ye. But make it soon.” Barbo shuffled back into the vegetation, soon fully faded from both sight and memory. Perceptions of what is, what was, and what might have been, were indeed very much skewed in the land of the Forever-Life.

Jonathon stepped further into the foliage, though he stopped himself before he felt it was too far, or far too late to turn back. Somehow he knew he would know when. There was a luring call from the vegetation; what it was saying, Jonathon could not tell.

Turning back to The Great Rise, he now realized the ivy for what it was. The distance from it proved to be important, for he could not have read the message from any closer: the ivy and vines grew together, forming the words “Never Is Forever.” On and on and on.

Taking hold of the sturdy branch of a mossy and scaly-barked tree, the kid heaved himself upwards. He held tight; the branch seemed to pulse in his grip, like it had a heart of its own. Perhaps regrets of its own as well, if that was even a possibility. Likely it was. He carefully maneuvered along the trusty tree arm, before finally stepping off and returning to the top of The Great Rise. He could still see Buffleton there, but Gisele’s whereabouts were cloudy. He sensed the worry and fear within the town, but also, he could simultaneously sense the misgivings and wantings within the green land of the Forever-Life. And just as a hero would do, Jonathon Morningmist made his decision.

INFINITE BLUE, by Darren Groth & Simon Groth [2018]

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 6/10

A brotherly work of fiction! Infinite Blue was co-written by brothers Darren & Simon Groth. Not sure how the work was divided, or which part each brother wrote, but the end result is seamless; not feeling at all like there were multiple voices. Loved the magical realism bits in this book, and the subject of competitive swimming is something new to learn! I did feel the adult characters within the story were a little too cliché, but in a novel this length (which reads even shorter than the 180+ page count suggests) some stereotyping can be forgiven. Great book for high school libraries, and appropriate for most reading levels.

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan [2017]

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 8/10

I don’t think I’ve ever taken SO LONG to read a book I enjoyed SO MUCH. Seriously, I don’t know what took me, maybe it was because I was reading this as an eBook (a format I don’t typically reach for), or perhaps it was the pacing of the book. And In Other Lands has a very unusual pacing to it. Yes, it’s about a 13-yr-old boy (Elliot) who goes to “school” in a different world (a fantasy world with mermaids, harpies, elves, etc) and it’s about Elliot meeting and making friends, discovering truths about himself and his orientations through multiple relationships, and it follows Elliot until he’s 17 and graduating from said school. But within that plot, there’s quite a few moments where I wondered where the book was really going, only to find it wasn’t really going anywhere other than that. And for this book, that is 100% okay.
In Other Lands almost feels like a bunch of growing up vignettes, and the fun is really in the book’s humor, Elliot’s well-crafted personality, and his interactions with all the other characters.
This one was recommended by a good friend, and although it’s not my normal genre, I enjoyed it IMMENSELY.
Maybe it took me so long to read because I didn’t want it to end?

There She Was [2018]

Everyone else had left an hour ago. The only reason she was still there was because she’d promised him a ride back to the station. And although she was ready to call it a night, she was much too polite to say a word. They had been talking, but the conversation had become more trivial, the increased banality correlating almost directly to the number of bourbons he’d consumed.

The bar was the kind of place in the city that didn’t attract many locals, not with the club scene being so much farther West. With its bizarre, kitschy American diner vibe, it seemed to want to draw in tourists, but tourists didn’t typically venture this far East. The bar didn’t even have a name, only an address attached to the door in crooked numbers; an address which was almost identical to the couple of office towers that expunged a variety of worker bees every lunch and evening, and a fraction of them ended up here daily.

So the place ended up being chronically closer to empty than full, but still remained alive with a modest energy of semi-drunken, post-work bliss.

~~~

He’d seen her in the office on his inaugural day at the new job. Previously, he’d worked across the city in a shinier office tower, but quit because he needed a change. He was the first one from his pod to make it to the meeting in the boardroom across the hall (how does the new guy manage to be the first one to a meeting?), and she was already in the room, laying some innocuous paperwork across one end of the big conference table. She wore a midnight blue pencil skirt and some vintage styled, vanilla ice cream-colored top that had pleating down the front, and little keyholes on the cuffs of the shortened sleeves. She was stunning, and he always appreciated a nice top. Before either of them said a word, another head popped into the room, a woman whose only business was to inform the girl that her team was actually meeting in Conference Room Seventeen instead. “Sorry,” the girl said, and she began collecting her papers back into a manila folder.

She smiled at the new guy on her way out. That “Sorry” was nearly the only thing that rattled through his head during the day’s meeting. And for much of the next three weeks too, because he didn’t see her again until his fourth week on the job. As soon as the elevator doors slid apart he recognized her. It was easy. She was wearing the same clothes, prompting him to begin building up in his head the idea of this girl out of time, or like a heavenly apparition, maybe? They made eye contact, though she was in the middle of a conversation with another girl. She gave him the kind of mask-like look that made it clear he didn’t leave as much of an impression. Exiting the elevator on the very next floor, her careless, teacup-like elbow accidentally brushed into his arm. “Sorry,” she said once again before disappearing. But she didn’t disappear for quite so long this time.

It was that same evening after work when he’d seen her next. At the bar with no name. She was across the room, in a cloud of introverted quietness, but when she noticed him she waved him over, and when she smiled it was with everything she had. Her face looked different; not anomalous, but new. He didn’t know if it was just the way light seemed to fill certain spaces or if there was some otherworldly countenance at play, but her features – though unmistakable – seemed to fluctuate depending on if she was in that office boardroom, on the elevator, in the back of this bar, or wherever they might cross paths next. Like her face was indecisive about whether her eyes wanted to be the most prominent component, or her cheekbones, her lips, or the curl of her ears.

They became friends; there was no secret modus operandi at play. A married man, after all, can be drawn to a beautiful married woman without the need to pursue anything more than friendship. Don’t most people prefer being in the presence of beauty, rather than not? There weren’t any games, maybe some harmless flirting, but they both returned to their families at the end of every day; he to his wife and three children; her to her husband of only two years. She talked about her husband a lot, clearly head over heels in love. Still, he looked for cracks – Did she ever have regrets? Did they both want different things in their relationship, but were too afraid to voice their desires? – even though he knew there would never be an opening wide enough to justify creating a problem involving so many people.

Still.

In his mind he played out the scenarios. He couldn’t help being drawn to her so. That surreptitiously-splintered smile. The vulnerability and solicitude in her unsteady eyes. He envisioned movies and fairy tales, and considered how make-believe worlds only ever wanted to simply be believed. He imagined horrible scenarios too, where good people actually got hurt, or even died.

But the one thought he couldn’t shake was this: if he and she had known one another when they were younger, his life might have been irrevocably and extraordinarily altered. He held onto that thought so strongly, it was beginning to feel like something that was just barely out of his reach.

He knew most all of her favorites by now: the food, the music, the books, the animals, the jokes, the films, the podcasts. He knew her fears too, but likely just the surface fears and not the real ones.

But they were still strangers, really. Unless someone is sharing a world with someone else, then a stranger they will mostly remain. The intimacy of home life, and those behind-doors tendencies could never be fully grasped by strangers. The infinite ways in which lovers need lovers. The availability of shoulders and ears in times of need. None of that existed here. All that applied were the ways in which barely-known people acted around others, how they needed the company in ways they were not aware of. How a picked apple needs a tree, or a tree might need the apple. Like separate pieces of a singular thing that don’t even know they used to be one.

She made him lonely, and he sometimes wondered if he made her feel a bit lonelier too. And within that loneliness existed the possibility of something that could have been.

If he was honest with himself, there were moments when he didn’t enjoy his time spent with her. She had tendencies to go on a bit too long about subjects he had very little interest in. But those slipped into his selfish scenarios too; if they’d known one another when they were younger, then it stands to reason she would have assimilated much of his knowledge and many of his interests, and vice versa.

Once, he asked her what she was like in high school. What he envisioned, he thought obvious: homecoming queen; popular like the stars at nighttime; her initials scribbled inside boys’ notebooks and carved into trees. But she admitted to being a bit more of a wallflower. Unconfident. Insecure. She hated her teeth and loved to dance, and didn’t want anyone seeing either. She cried basically all the time. At parties. At home. She cried for help, but no one ever heard or paid attention. And there were certainly never any boyfriends in sight.

He told her he didn’t believe any of that. She had to have been perfect, because how else could that sad, unsure girl have blossomed into this wonderful creature he was lucky enough to have uncovered?

Her wandering eyes stopped, and she thanked him, though with a near-undetected skepticism. While she was in the midst of considering the limits of friendship – maybe even questioning her own reasons for staying out at the bar after work so late and so often – he was preoccupied with a misplaced nostalgia. Maybe even some animosity toward fate’s unjust hand.

He regretted his own bygone decisions, made in earnest so long ago.

He yearned for a different set of youthful dreams; those dreams he’d once been content with now seemed ludicrous.

He thought about every calculated kiss and conquered courtship, and now considered them wasted moments.

And still, the more he knew her, the more forlorn he became.

~~~

Eight months ago, they sat together for the first time. From there, once a week, they continued to sit together, not really ever picking up where they left off because they tended to talk about many of the same subjects over and over again. An hour ago, the rest of the bar had cleared, and she’d simply been waiting for a sign that he was ready to leave.

He was never ready to leave.

“Come on,” she said with finality. “We’re later than usual. My husband’s probably wondering what’s taking me.” Her phone had been on the table the entire evening, but it hadn’t buzzed or bleeped once. Not once.

There was a lump in his throat. “You could text him. Let him know you’ll be a bit longer?”

She placed a palm on her phone, then warily spun it around on the Formica tabletop. “He never checks his phone,” she says. “I’m trying my best to not be so phone-dependant myself. He tells me it’s actually very liberating.”

“Is it?”

She laughs a slight laugh, just for herself. “Not so far, no.”

How does he say the one thing he wants to say without sounding crazy? I wish I knew you years ago, he thought. Nope. Too ambiguous. Maybe a bit creepy. I’m not really unhappy but I am sort of unhappy and don’t I deserve to be happy? Too whiny. She’d never again agree to meet him after work if he said something like that.

There was a framed picture above the bar of a man who used to work there, but had died some years before. Like the bar itself, the man’s photo did not have a name attached to it either.

He couldn’t take his eyes off that photo, or pull himself away from the tendrils of sad thoughts. “Yeah,” he said ultimately. “I think maybe it is time to go.”

~~~

They barely spoke during the drive to the station. That lump in his throat feeling bigger. She stole glances at him. His stark white shirt appeared fluorescent amidst the moon and street lights, making it easy to take note of the wetness that streamed from his cheek to his collar.

He didn’t show up at work the following week. The sudden, precipitous need for change had found him yet again. Sometimes she wondered what became of him, and imagined, with some degree of melancholy, whatever might have been had they crossed paths in some other time and place.

Love, Music, Madness by Tabitha Rhys [2018]

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 6/10

I was given a copy of this debut novel by the author in exchange for an honest review. The book was published by the independent Soul Mate Publishing.
Love, Music Madness has a lot going on within its small, 200-page package. This is the story of Lawson “Law” Harper, a young, somewhat lost musician who seems to float from page to page; fortune and misfortune almost landing in his lap at random. He’s got a thing for the older Jessa Warlow, herself an ambitious musician, and a high school friend of Lawson’s older brother. The two pair up for some song writing and a bit of fooling around, before things go sour and Lawson takes advantage of an opportunity to move out west to LA. Here, Lawson gets into another relationship, takes some work as a sound engineer, and explores LA’s music scene. All until Jessa moves out west too, and they decide to put the past behind them and take their music more seriously, recording an album with their old songs. Things get worse before they better, but through it all, the novel still does have some degree of hope within.
The Cons:
-Throughout the story, the characters seem to all be playing parts; as though the story demands certain moments, reactions, and scenes, which does take a bit of the realism out of it. Lawson’s new girlfriend needs to be jealous of Jessa, so she flies off the handle intermittently, and with flimsy reasons.
-For a book all about music, I wish there was more detail on this collection of songs of Lawson and Jessa created. There are hints of some of the enigmatical tracks, with titles like Estrella, Ravens, Andromeda. And although Tabitha Rhys does an incredible job with explaining the details of making music, sadly there’s a lacking of the songs’ actual descriptions, which I would have really enjoyed. I imagine there could be an accompanying soundtrack with the novel, but even an idea like having lyric excerpts in the book would add a lot.
-It’s sometimes hard to get a handle on where the book is headed. With so many moments happening just to progess the characters’ journeys, the novel has that feeling of being a slice of life, rather than a definitive, linear story arc.
The Pros:
-Rhys’ descriptions of locations – whether its houses, apartments, clubs, restaurants, or beaches – is incredible. It really helps to put the reader exactly where the author is imagining, and it’s a tough skill to learn.
-There are plenty of nice, literary moments too; Rhys’ use of language when dealing with mood and metaphors is great. There’s one scene where the MC takes note of the night sky, comparing the blinking stars and shining planets above as a “celestial cabaret”. Fantastic.
Here are a few other excerpts that stood out to me:
“Hopes can be dangerous things. One minute they’re bobbing on the horizon like hundreds of brightly-colored zeppelins. The next, the sky is full of Hindenburgs, burning down to their metal skeletons and falling to the earth in flames.”
“Jessa drew her knees up and sat next to me in silence for a long time. The pipes gurgled and hissed above us. In the air, the sour tang of mildew mingled with the sweetness of fabric softener.”
“Bright marquee lights chased each other atop Hollywood’s tourist traps. The restless breeze, murmuring with the sounds of distant hubbub, was like the zephyrs stirred by roller coasters.”
“Charlie stepped out into the dim hallway, lit by the few fluorescent fixtures still in operation. The rest were merely mausoleums for Hollywood’s dearly departed moths.”
In all, Love, Music, Madness is an admirable debut by an author who’s got some wonderful tricks up her sleeve. Hoping there’s enough tricks left for future stories.

To Be Honest [2018]

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To Be Honest (2018)

Wattpad Link

Adult Contemporary Humor. 80k Words.

Chester K. Eddy isn’t completely honest. But he’s trying to be.

When the struggling New York stage actor decides being totally open and honest is exactly the change he needs in his life, Chester doesn’t expect being so obnoxiously transparent will only make things worse. After his brother kicks him out, his favourite bar cuts him off, and his best pal Melissa tells him she needs a break from their friends-with-benefits relationship, Chester quickly has few people left who still want to listen to him and his self-professed Honesty Movement.

Along his way to newfound self-discovery, Chester will finagle his way into the tenuous role of Director’s Assistant for a small-time theatre’s production of an unknown play; he’ll accidentally attend Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings; he’ll find himself in the company of suspected serial killers; he’ll drink a bit too much. And he might even have an eye-opening encounter with a talking dinosaur.

But there’s one truth Chester realizes he hasn’t been capable of admitting: he’s in love with Melissa. And he can’t be completely honest until he’s ready to tell her as much.

MOSQUITOLAND (2015)

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R.Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10
It’s not too often that I’ll find myself really enjoying a book, but then there’s a sudden shift along the way, and I realize I’m actually not enjoying the book as much as I’m enjoying the writing. David Arnold‘s debut MOSQUITOLAND (2015) surprised me. His writing is sharp, clever, funny, sad, and filled with fantastic metaphors. But he falls into the YA trap of making his characters a little too quirky, seemingly for the sake of merely being quirky. Some of Mim Malone’s road trip from Mississippi to Cleveland feels like random events that may have happened to the author himself, and he’s just cramming them in there at breakneck speed just keep things moving. As a writer, it’s aggravating, but it’s also a first novel (my own first novel fell for similar traps), and I could tell there’s enough writing chops here that his next books will probably feel a bit tighter.
There are also some frightening moments in the book; creepy, malicious characters that show up and do terrible things, yet there never really feels like it’s for a certain purpose. But overall, this is fantastic character book, and Mim Malone’s voice (though maybe some years beyond her age, in the “no kid really talks/thinks like this” sense) is fun, funny, and heartwarming.

A Memory Not Remembered

I can’t explain it, but I’m often caught by a very specific memory.
It was maybe 10th grade, Springtime, and I clearly recall being in Mr. Sawatsky’s Social Studies class. I think we were studying BC coastal First Nations tribes, like the Haida or the Salish, but I’m sure I wasn’t paying attention. Sitting at my desk at the back of class, likely daydreaming, I can still remember the windows were open; a cool air blowing the smell of the season’s grass and dandelions up into the classroom. I can still see the second-floor view of the school’s football field and the running track surrounding it; the billions of tiny, unnaturally tinted rocks forming an orange oval in middle of a sea of green.
I know for certain something was on my mind at that moment, in that class. I was thinking of something and I’m sure it didn’t have to do with the Haida. I had to be dwelling on SOMETHING, or else why would this memory keep resurfacing? But I don’t know what it was; all I know is where I was and when. Was it a happy moment? A sad one? Just childhood melancholy? No idea.
Yet, this highly vivid moment keeps coming back to me at the oddest of times, when so many thousands of other moments never do.
I guess it’s kind of a weird thing to have a lucid memory about something that’s mostly nothing, but for some reason this moment keeps returning. I keep thinking one day I’m going to know why I’m remembering this moment.

Words Don’t Come Easily

So, the thing is, nothing lasts forever. Well, most things don’t, anyway.
Friends will leave you, love can fade, dreams can die, and stars will burn out. But the written word is something that’s difficult to erase.
One year ago, I signed a publishing contract with a small, unproven, indie press based out of Kentucky. My book went through a unique – and fun – editing process, and was finally published on March 30, 2017. Exciting! But there’s always a risk in signing with an independent publisher, and the reality of it all hit around mid-June when the whole operation dissolved; the owner’s apparent love for the written word was not as big as other things in his life. Which is fair. It sucks, but it’s fair.
For myself and the group of talented writers who had signed on with the now-defunct company, the whole thing left us feeling stranded, as though all our work was for naught. Having a few long weeks to dwell on it, however, we’ve realized the truth: Endever Publishing Studios was just ONE route to take in getting our work out into the world. There are so many more options out there for us. Best of all, we’ve happy-accidentally (is that a word? it should be) formed a terrific little writers’ group; one that’s spread across three countries and two different continents. Whatever direction our individual works decide to take, I’m certain there will always be a piece of each of us within it all.
And the most important thing to remember, is that although the words within my first published work are no longer definitively out there, they do still exist. And for anyone who has – or still might – read them, they continue to be a part of you too.
Yes, I realize the irony in having titled the book “This Never Happened”, but it did happen. It still might happen again. And it will continue to find new ways to happen. All the while, the words remain, pure and unharmed.
Words don’t come easily, but they do persist.
-RTM-