Lilo J- Abernathy

Don't Fear the Reaper

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I’m reading a book about a vampire with a blood phobia, which is amusing, as I recently wrote about commitment phobias hereA Quick Bite, by Lynsay Sands, is a ton of fun and there are many additional books in the series—hallelujah! Other favorite authors, including Karen Marie Moning and Lilo J. Abernathy, have also written about fear. So, I've decided the Universe is asking me to look at fear in general and my fear in particular, which may or may not interest you, but which will give you a little insight into the way my brain works (I'm all about the burning bush). There was a time when I was afraid of everything. It was paralyzing. I was raised by a fearful mother, who passed her fear on to me. My mother taught me to be afraid of strangers, which I guess is understandable in New York City.  She also taught me to be afraid of nature, what little there is in NYC (I love nature; provided I’m safety protected from the realities of actual nature—like bugs and dirt and stuff). She taught me to be afraid of men, my body and other people's motives. She taught me to fear rejection. I was taught to fear people in authority, dark corners, what others really thought of me and what they said behind my back. I was taught to fear travel to distant places and trying new foods, styles and experiences. In the beginning, I learned well. As a child, I was so shy and fearful that I wouldn't come out from underneath the dining table when we had guests to dinner. Today, the child I was would have been shipped off for psychological testing and therapy, lots of therapy.  I was not normal (one could argue that this is still true, I know.)

hen, I hit puberty.  ‘Things’ shifted. A lot. I shed the skin of the nervous Nellie I had been and emerged as a more confident teenager. In fact, the transition was sufficiently profound that my academic aptitude scores (who remembers the ERBs?!) changed so radically, the school was convinced there was a mistake and I was retested. Twice. I think the reason behind my percentile jump was that I finally figured out that the only thing I really needed to fear was my mother.

I was definitely still scared of my mom back in those days. I was almost 18 years old before I finally asked the $64,000 question:  “What could she actually do to me?”  When I realized the answer was, "Not much, without risking shame and embarrassment for her," my world tilted on its axis— positively. But I became more confident in my cognitive capabilities, which translated into more general confidence. As I grew more accomplished academically and intellectually, I became less fearful; for me, knowledge and analytical skills translated into power and control, which helped me feel less afraid.

But I was still an insecure wreck when it came to men and romance. Insecurity is just another word for fear. I was afraid men wouldn't like me once they really knew me.  So I hid my authentic self.  I was afraid men wouldn't find me attractive if they saw me without makeup. So I never went without.  I was afraid that if I didn't flaunt my body, no one would want it. I remember one particularly awful episode when I spent an entire night calling around looking for my boyfriend at the time, only to discover he'd spent the night with another woman. When I finally got him on the phone, at 4:00 AM, after his other girlfriend picked up and handed him the phone —"Oh, sure. He's right next to me; let me give him the phone…"— I apologized for bothering him because I was so scared he'd leave me.

I'm happy to report that I'm not that bad anymore. Fear is still my companion - I used Find My Phone last night to locate my husband, who is traveling, because he hadn't texted after dinner and I was afraid he was dead. I know, I know, silly—he thought so too, but my sainted husband is quite used to my paranoia about his safety. But mostly— mostly—I can face my fears and put them to rest. I don't let fear run my life (how I wish I could go back in time and give that no-good, cheating rat bastard a piece of my mind—except I just found out that he died last month, so that won't work).

Today, I can act as if I’m not afraid. I fly. I endure boats. I tell people things they need to hear even if I'm terrified they will shun me as a result. I no longer fear discomfort. I don't love it, but I can tolerate it. Because it turns out that many of the things we fear are mostly just unpleasant, and we like to avoid discomfort. But life is full of unpleasant realities, and facing these unpleasantries (including dirt and bugs in the wilds of my own back yard) is what makes life worth living.

Facing our fears and doing it anyway, whatever ‘it’ is, is the secret sauce of life. It can be letting go of a bad relationship (like the rat bastard), or a bad job, or a friendship that no longer serves. Fear of letting go is a big one, I've found. Almost as big as fear of holding on. 

So I appreciate the opportunity to see how the other half—the paranormal one—lives and deals with fear. I'll continue to enjoy Lissianna Argeneau in A Quick Bite, and wait to see how she overcomes her fear of blood (‘cause I suspect she does). And I'll continue to think about how I can face fear and prevent it from running— or ruining— my life as it did for my poor, misguided, fearful ‘Mommie Dearest’. The good news is, she's not afraid anymore, and neither am I.  I get to enjoy life at the table rather than under it.

A Bridge Too far

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Some months ago I had the privilege of being asked to beta reader the second offering in the Bluebell Kildare series by Lilo J. Abernathy. It was a new experience for me, and one I enjoyed and hope to repeat. At the time, Lilo was primarily seeking comments on the plot progression and character development. One of the questions she asked her beta readers concerned how far she could take the actions of one of her characters before that character became too "unlikable" in the minds of her readers. It was a fascinating question--and an astute one. In contemplating the answer for Lilo, I was reminded about other books where this phenomenon occurred and how the authors handled it.

Another author who grapples explicitly with this question is Bella Forrest. Her series is not my usual fare, and is quite different in many respects from Lilo Abernathy’s series, but some of the central questions are the same. In the Shade of Vampire series, Derek, a 500-year-old vampire, struggles to contain his predatory nature and control his impulses to kill and destroy human lives for the sake of his beloved, Sophia—who is mortal. Another issue for the couple is the need to come to terms not only with his choices in the present day, but also with his past actions—the ones he cannot change, but which make Sophia cringe. Derek has done some horrible things over the course of his life--and he'd actually slept for the vast majority of his existence, so who knows how many more poor choices and dirty deeds he would have executed if he'd been awake for the whole time?

Sophia, our teenaged heroine, has a particularly well-developed moral compass for a such a young woman. She's in love with Derek, who has been nothing but wonderful to her, but she is fully aware of his darker vampire nature, and she is conflicted about all that he's done and still might do. She wonders if she's fallen for a monster. So do I. 

This is a common theme in much of paranormal fantasy. It's hard to posit a centuries-long lifespan and not include a history of misdeeds and callous choices. Life has not always been as easy as it is in twenty-first century developed countries and the arbiter of moral choices was likely different in the Middle Ages, before running water, electricity, and IPhones.  So, choices that were made when slavery was an accepted aspect of life (like, say, in Jesus' time), take on a different ethical timbre in light of the social mores and accepted practices of the era.

But what about more clearly defined moral choices?  As I'm reading A Shade of Vampire on my Kindle, I'm listening (still!) to J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series on Audible. I'm up to Lover Avenged—Rehvenge's story. Rehvenge is a drug dealing bookie pimp--not to put too fine a point on it. He routinely engages in acts of depravity. How is Ms. Ward going to reconcile that with him getting his HEA? I won't spoil it for you, but you know he does, so it's an interesting question. One thing J. R. Ward does better than anyone, though, is to get into the heads of all her characters so we can identify with the humanity there, and relate to even the most morally challenging characters. Which is how she makes it work. Lilo Abernathy does an excellent job in this arena as well, making potentially unlikable characters—or at least characters who do unlikeable things—relatable.

Another example of this phenomenon is found in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. I had trouble with this one, because the actions of one of the villains Ms. Cole transforms into a romantic hero go over the line, even for me—and I'm inclined to forgive my fantasy characters quite a lot. As the series progresses, it turns out that one of the bad guys is the long-lost love of one of the heroines. As a result of their love, he comes to see the error of his ways, but those ways were horrific. I just couldn't go there, no matter how sorry he was or how much he loved his mate. I couldn't overcome my revulsion at what he'd done. 

But that was the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, if the female protagonist can forgive the tarnished hero, so can I. Mostly because I want to believe that love heals and changes people for the better. I also want to believe that when two people are committed to making it work, it usually does.

In others, the impropriety is a bridge too far, and there is no going back. These are the waters that authors must navigate between their own convictions and attachments to the characters they create and the need to garner empathy for their creations on the part of their readers. It can be tricky. For example, a lot of readers clearly prefer female characters with little or no previous sexual experience as mates for their über alpha males (most of whom have had plenty of willing women). This is a trope that burns my butt, but I'm guessing that these tendencies reflect the majority opinion out there about the relative acceptability of multiple partners for men and women. I've written about how I feel about that here, and once again, Kresley Cole is the exception to that rule.

In the end, the question of how bad is too bad and how far is too far is in the eye of the beholder. Most of the time, most authors get it right for most readers. But there is no such thing as making everyone happy all of the time. So accomplished authors, like Lilo Abernathy, will continue to grapple with these questions while they ply their craft and shape their drafts and work to find a way to walk the line between realistic fantasy and characters who behave in a morally acceptable manner. Tough stuff, for sure.

Saving Blue

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I'm still thinking about Lilo Abernathy's The Light Who Binds. I really love this series and my only complaint is that there aren't more books to read! Bluebell Kildare is an unlikely savior, at least in her own mind, but she has many characteristics that make her a perfect candidate to wield great power responsibly and effectively. She doesn't see herself in this light, but her ability to accomplish what destiny has decreed for her is independent of her own self-image. Which is part of her charm and also one of the reasons why she is the right choice to fulfill the prophesy of delivering the vampires of her world from an agonizing afterlife. Who wants a savior so full of herself she can't she beyond her own fascination with the image in the mirror? No one, that’s for sure. There's nothing more off-putting than a narcissistic hero. Happily, Blue is in no danger of becoming a narcissist. By definition, she could never succumb because her magical Gift, the attribute that sets her apart from human "Norms" who hate her for her abilities, is that she is an Empath. And I've been thinking about what that means, especially as I listen simultaneously to Lover Enshrined, which offers new information about a variety of vampire in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood called Sympaths.  Sympaths feed off the misery of others. Empaths are just miserable at others’ misery. Big difference. I'd rather be saved by an Empath than a Sympath.  An interesting contrast between the two and more food for the green beast who lives in my breast who is torn between intense admiration for these imaginative authors and despair that I will never feel so inspired. But that is fodder for another post.

Back to Blue and her Empath abilities. In the series, Blue is a law enforcement officer who is routinely subject to horrific crime scenes where murder and mayhem have occurred. As an Empath, Blue is able to feel the terror and agony of crime victims as they experience their last moments on earth. I can't even imagine. Nor would I want to. It is horrific and heartbreaking to think that poor Blue must go through what these unfortunates endured to help ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice. But that's kind of the point of the exercise. Blue feels what they feel and that helps her catch the criminals—murderers, arsonists, rapists, etc.

I've often wondered how mental health professionals do what they do--listen to their patients recount terrible experiences in the hopes of exorcizing the demons from their minds. Some level of transference must occur between doctor and patient so that the patient's loss is the doctor's gain—and in this case, finders don't want to be keepers. No one wants that mess. But head doctors do it all the time so they can help and heal. Blue is the same way, and her Empath abilities are part of what make her an excellent investigator and also what ensure her unending compassion. That compassion, in turn, will keep her away—permanently—from any danger of grandiosity or narcissism. 

But how does it keep her from insanity or despair? For years I worked in the counterterrorism business (I know, that sounds weird—but it is a field of study and work, just like being a lawyer or a plumber). My colleagues and I thought about ways that terrorists do to could hurt or damage our population and our infrastructure and then about ways to thwart their ill intent.  It was important, challenging and engaging work. I was proud of my efforts and our accomplishments. I was good at my job and grateful I could make a difference. But, over time, the contemplation of Armageddon took its toll on my soul and dimmed the light of my own spirit so that others’ spirits could continue to shine. Fighting the transference of evil from those we would oppose to my own aura was an exhausting fight and took a huge amount of effort to resist the urge to give up at the never-ending nature of the battle and the increasingly overwhelming sense of the futility of it all. If we are hell bent on destroying each other and our world, I thought with increasing frequency, we deserve what we get. 

Clearly, it was time to get out. Which I did. More or less. At least I got away from waking halls filled with workaholics who competed with each other to see who could work longer hours and become privy to the most exclusive clubs.  If I never see another pocket protector again it will be too soon. The hardest part of working among those who think about the unthinkable, besides the unrelenting fluorescent lights that is, is the ubiquitous expectation that it's only a matter of when, not if. Soul sucking is what it is. 

So I'm not sure how Blue and all of those like her do it day after day, subjecting themselves to the worst that human nature has to offer our fellow humans. I don't know how doctors do it either, or the Angels who work in hospice care, the heroic men and women who tend the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. I thank God that there are those who can perform such vital functions without losing their minds, although certainly not all escape intact or unscathed. 

To be empathetic is the highest expression of our humanity, putting ourselves in another's shoes and feel what they feel, the good, the bad and the ugly. Empathy gives us the ability to step back from the brink of our own selfish desires and assess how they might affect others. Empty is the "stop" button on the universal remote that controls our behavior. We might think about doing or saying something, but the knowledge that empathy gives us that we would hurt another through our actions gives us the necessary pause to avoid causing pain. Empathy is why we help when we don't have to, and why we care even when something does not impact us directly. 

I love that Blue's gift is Empathy, of the paranormal variety. I love that it makes her a feeling hero, and that her Empathy keeps her forever humble. Because that is the other consequence of empathy—when we can feel what others feel, we cannot get so full of ourselves that we have no room for thoughts of anyone else. This is a good thing, by the way. So while the talented Ms. Abernathy has not finished Blue's story yet, I'm putting my money on the prediction that the vampires will be delivered by a savior who is perfect for the part. 

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

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I'm so excited to tell you about Lilo Abernathy's new offering in the Bluebell Kildare series, The Light Who Binds. You all know how much I loved The Light Who Shines, and how much food for thought that book inspired. Book 2 is no different, with a great mystery and lots of answers to questions raised in the first book (I have a pet peeve when an author makes us wait for multiple books to advance the story arc--and I love it when we get answers that make sense and lead us to want even more, as Lilo's books do--but back to the subject at hand). Today, I'm evolving my thoughts about hope and fear, which I've written about before, complements of the fabulous Fever series by Karen Marie Moning and Lilo Abernathy. According to Ms. Moning, and I agree with her, hope strengthens, fear kills. Hope is a major theme that Lilo Abernathy explores in her novels and The Light Who Binds has further illuminated the subject for me.  What happens when what we fear is hope?  In my last post on this subject, I cited the poet James Richardson who wrote that a pessimist fears hope while an optimist fears fear. What does it mean to fear hope and what the hell should we do about it? 

In The Light Who Binds, there are a lot of opportunities for hope. Blue hopes that Jack will become deconflicted and admit that he has romantic feelings toward her. Jack hopes that Blue will be able to forgive him when she finds out what he's been keeping from her all this time. Daylight Vampires (the good guys) hope that Blue will turn out to be the savior of their race so that they can avoid being damned to the Plane of Fire. Gifted humans (those with magical abilities) hope that Norms (non-magical humans) will stop persecuting them and learn to live in peace. Blue hopes that she will be able to meet everyone else's hopes. There is a lot of hope being bandied about. But no one is particularly happy about it. 

So it seems I'm going to contradict myselffor those of you keeping score in a less than generous mood. If you are more charitably inclined, I'm going to refine my arguments (of course, few of us are allowed to refine or change our minds these days--if we said something or did something--anything--that was recorded for posterity no matter how long ago, we are now forever being held to that position or belief in perpetuity. God forbid our thinking should be allowed to develop without our being accused of being a total hypocrite—(but I think I've strayed fairly far afield again, sorry). Hope strengthens, fear kills, except when fear of hope is justified and letting go of hope--without falling into despair--is sometimes the thing to do.

Are you baffled yet, 'cause I'm making my own head spin. Let's take this one step at a time. I think what I'm saying is that like love, we can sometimes unclench the fist we've wrapped around our hope and let it fly away. If it comes back, it's ours forever. If it doesn't, it never was. For example, Blue loves Jack. But she's gotten her hopes up so many times, only to have them dashed against the cliffs of Jack's ambivalence and unwillingness to commit his feelings one way or the other, that she is afraid to hope that things might change. Such hope is painful and sets up a roller coaster of feelings that could leave anyone feeling weak and nauseated. But rather than falling into despair, Blue charts a different, more effective course (if efficacy is measured in terms of whether she gets what she wants with the least amount of drama and extremes of emotion). Blue decides, or is somehow able, to accept that circumstances are not what she'd prefer in the moment, and she's not going to invest a lot of energy in future expectations that may not be met, but she will be content to let the potential unfold the way it will. This approach is much like I imagine Zen to be (I'm not much of a Zen girl, although I do aspire to a more balanced and even-keeled existence--except when I prefer to pay the price of ridiculous highs with the counterweight of abysmal lows--I'll keep you posted on how that all works out for me; I know you're waiting with baited breath).

So Blue is neither hopeful nor fearful. And she’s not in despair. She's taking it as it comes. I think I know what that feels like, maybe. I have a brother. He's my only sibling. We were extremely close growing up. We have been estranged for the past twenty years, and had a complete break two years ago when my mother died. For twenty years, I hoped that we could repair our relationship. But every time I reached out to him, it ended badly, with my heart a little more broken by him than it was before. But I refused to let go of my hope that things would improve. I was terrified by that hope; however, because like Pavlov's dog, I had become conditioned to believe that any hope associated with my brother would inevitably lead to excruciating pain shortly thereafter. I'd gotten burned so often I was a hot mess (to paraphrase one of Lilo’s particularly awesome sentences).

How does this story end?  I think I've finally gotten to where Blue hangs out; I accept that the situation is what it is. I have no expectations that the relationship with my brother will improve. On the other hand, if I were convinced that something had fundamentally changed, I could be persuaded to open the door to hope once again and invite it to come in and take a load off.

The lesson here, I think, is that if we can divorce hope from expectation, then we can hold onto hope--which strengthens--and let go of fear--which kills. When we get to the place where we fear that which strengthens us, we need to look at the nature of our hope and question whether it has morphed into expectation, which is just a short hop from making demands. In my experience, demands are rarely met with joyful compliance on the other end. I try to avoid making demands, as success is usually specious, engendering resentment and resistance that inevitably come back to make us regret the whole endeavor.

Have I come full circle?  Can I still say hope strengthens and fear kills?  And can I also say that maybe hope isn't such a schizophrenic bitch, but that expectation masquerading as hope is?  Does this formula work for you?  Do I need to contemplate this subject some more? Perhaps I'll have to wait for the next books in the Fever and Bluebell Kildare series to say for sure. In the meantime, I'll hope to avoid false hope and to embrace its more authentic expression. I'll eschew fear in all its forms to the best of my ability and have faith that I'll be able to recognize all these variations when I encounter them. I’ll choose the audacity of hope and remember that courage is fear that has said its prayers. 

The Politics of Prejudice

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I'm enjoying a new author, Jennifer Ashley, and the first book of her Shifters Unbound series, Pride Mates. It's light and airy, mostly, and the perfect antidote to the marvelous but depressingly heavy Robin Hobb trilogy I just finished. But even when an author colors inside the lines of the paranormal fantasy genre, as Ms. Ashley does (and this is not at all a criticism, I read these books with a certain expectation of knowing what to expect), there is a depth to the best of the genre that transcends the stereotypes of strong, independent women, hot alpha males, hotter sex, and inevitable HEAs. In this case, Ms. Ashley writes about beautiful people, who happen also to change into feline and lupine alter egos (or alter bodies, really), and the decidedly not beautiful consequences of prejudice that attend their ability to transform. Ms. Ashley is not the first to explore the ugly underbelly of human hatred and the small mindedness of judgment before the fact attendant to the “other” in our society. Charlaine Harris explores the consequences of racial discrimination against the newly revealed vampires living among humans and what happens when vampires "come out of the coffin."  The inimitable Laurell Hamilton writes movingly about the prejudice experienced by those unfortunates who have been stricken with lycanthropy (the disease that causes a human to shift into a beast), and who now have no option but to let their animal natures out to play, and maybe to kill. Patricia Briggs expounds on the systematic internment of the Fae into mandatory reservations and the consequences of that decision by the federal government against an element of the population. Lilo Abernathy investigates, as a central theme of her Bluebell Kildare series, the civil unrest that occurs as a result of the antipathy between "norms," or non-magical humans, and their Gifted counterparts.

In each of these cases, the author explores the universal human need to identify a group, "them," for the sole purpose of more clearly defining "us." What a shame and a waste. But we humans do it again and again. That which is not "us" is, by definition, "them." Those who are "them" are, by extension and necessity, evil or, at a minimum, worse than "us." They are who we use to make us look and feel better about ourselves.

Are we hard-wired to hate? It seems so. Hatred of the other, which I've written about before, gives us unity, camaraderie, and a sense of shared purpose. It makes us feel like we belong—but it is a perversion of fellowship and community, not an authentic expression of fellowship. This phenomenon of human existence also serves to help some of us feel superior to others. We do this in a bizarre and seemingly nonsensical way (as if prejudice could ever have any basis in logic or reality, which makes makes sense in a twisted way, if you know what I mean).

In all of these distasteful scenarios, and quite explicitly in the world of Shifters Unbound, the non-human, supernatural beings are considered less than human. These are not beings with full rights because they are not considered full persons. They, like American slaves, along with Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in Nazi Germany before them, are fractional people, so that more than one is needed to make a whole. What a concept. Personally, I have trouble wrapping my mind around it, which is a good thing and I won't expend too much effort trying. It's not clear to me how someone or more than one someone, can look at a living, breathing entity in front of them who has two eyes, ears, arms and legs just like they do, whose faces form smiles and frowns and whose voices speak truth and beauty just like theirs do, and see them as less than human.

As you know, I love the world of paranormal fiction because it allows authors to explore ideas and philosophies in an exaggerated way to make their points. In Jennifer Ashley's world, shifters are herded into ghettos called Shiftertowns in different cities. These are analogous to internment and refugee camps or Native American reservations. After all, we need to keep them contained and accountable. If they are all forced to live in one place, we'll know where to find them, won't we? And then we’ll be able to control them, and isn't that what this little exercise in fear and prejudice is all about?  This way of thinking is very warped, but seems to be prevalent, nonetheless. In Pride Mates, not only are shifters forced to live in Shiftertowns, they are also forced to wear magical collars that supposedly keep their beasts in check. Talk about taking control to the next level. 

And, while the shifters (or any disenfranchised population) is corralled into ghettos and forced to wear symbols of their status, their captors (those would be the humans) like to practice deprivation. In Pride Mates, shifters aren't allowed access to cable TV or high-speed internet (controlling access to information, presumably), and they are not allowed to hold any job where they might come into physical contact with human (gee—not even as manicurists?).  This deprivation is partly preventive, because it ensures that the dominated population can never become too rich or too powerful, but it’s also punative—a punishment for being less thanas if those who are denigrated in this way have any choice in the matter. And while deprivation might serve to keep the population down, physically and psychologically, it is also, as we’ve seen time and again, a recipe for fomenting discontent and rebellion. Stupid is as stupid does.  Again, I’m talking about the humans in this scenario.

Because, of course, all of this says a great deal more about “us” than it does about “them.”  Anyone who would subjugate a population just because it’s different or because they can doesn’t actually deserve to be called human, at least in my book. People who enslave, or imprison or degrade others to prop themselves up are the beasts, the savages, the ones unworthy of the status of personhood.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live or to do as they want—as long as what they want doesn’t involve putting and keeping others down. So, along with my light and airy read, my paranormal fantasy also provokes deep and meaningful thoughts.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Two Faces of Hope

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Like the three faces of Eve (for all you old movie buffs), hope is a schizophrenic bitch. On the one hand, as Karen Marie Moning will attest, hope strengthens (and fear kills, as I've written about here). On the other, hope can be the tie that binds, and cuts, and hurts more than any other pain possibly could, as Lilo Abernathy tells us in her Bluebell Kildare series. And, as I am endlessly curious about such things, how can the same feeling elicit such divergent responses from us?  Under which conditions does hope strengthen? When does it hurt?

I thought the answer in this instance, like so many others, might lie in truth. True hope gives us strength. Strength to go on, to endure, to persevere. False hope, by contrast, is a harbinger of death; it creates unrealistic expectations that, when disappointed, crush us under the weight of being dropped from a high place. Upon further reflection, though, I don't think I'm right, and it took JR Ward to show me the error of my ways.

I'm reading Book 13 in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. And boy, oh boy, are these books good. And rich, and complex and real as words on a page (or screen) can possibly be. I could probably write blogs for months based on inspiration from this series alone. And I likely will. In fact, while I'm reading The Shadows, I'm listening to Book 1, Dark Lover, on Audible in the car and while I'm in my kitchen (hey, I need something fun to distract me from the drudgery that is cooking and preparing food!). So it's a double dose of BDB goodness for me. Yippee. But back to why Ms. Ward is relevant to this post. In the most recent book, one of the male characters, Trez, is in love with Selena. Selena is sick, dying from a rare and terrible disease. She and Trez have only a little time together, and they want to make it count. He is determined to give her whatever he can. And he concludes that the most important and valuable gift he can give her is hope. Right up until the last minute, he can act like they have forever. Even if they don’t.

So even if it may be false, it appears that hope is productive, not destructive. This basically shreds the truth and fiction theory of hope. And in fact, one cannot know if hope is well-founded or misplaced until one is looking in the rearview mirror on the situation in question. I remember clearly when my husband and I were going through fertility treatments, desperately trying to get pregnant. The hope of success was the only thing that kept me going during the roller coaster ride of emotions the process generated. It was so hard. And I clung to the hope that I had, but, as time and procedures and drug therapy continued, my hope became a threadbare thing, with weak spots in imminent danger of ripping entirely. Until one day, when an urgent situation on Thanksgiving Day caused me to see a new doctor who happened to be on call. He spent two hours with me. And he told me I would be successful. Straight up, “you will get pregnant,” he said. And renewed hope bloomed in my heart. It was the most amazing experience. It felt like I had been thrown a lifeline. I held on. I had renewed motivation. Just when I needed it the most, hope strengthened. And he was right. I was ready to give up. The gift of hope made all the difference. And it was well-founded, but I didn’t know that till I had two bouncing baby boys in my stroller.

In other situations, hope can be a cancer that eats away at our good sense. Like for Blue, with Jack Tanner in Lilo Abernathy's series. Blue fights the hope she feels that Jack will eventually soften toward her and acknowledge their mutual feelings. She has experienced the yo-yo of his emotions for so long, she eschews hope as a portent of crushing disappointment and unfulfilled expectations.  Nothing hurts more than when you hope beyond hope it will happen, or you will get it and it doesn't and you don't. It's better to abandon hope, all ye who enter such situations. 

So, clearly the distinction isn't truth. Or maybe it is, because hope is true until it isn't. And sometimes hope is something we force ourselves to sacrifice because having it hurts more than letting go. So, if we give up before the miracle happens and consciously uncouple from the hope in our hearts, was the hope false in its failure, or did we merely create a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure when we let go prematurely?  Makes my head spin. Maybe hope strengthens until it doesn’t, when the scales finally tip, and the camel’s back finally breaks, at which point success would be pyrrhic anyway.

I don't know. It is said that where there is life there is hope. And sometimes that is both a blessing and a curse. Maybe it is a function of perspective. A pessimist fears her hope, while an optimist fears her fear, according to the poet James Richardson. Maybe hope isn’t a schizophrenic bitch, but I am.  I hope not.   

The Kindness of Strangers

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In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois declares that she’s always depended on the kindness of strangers.  This is a line my mother enjoyed repeating, and, therefore, it’s a line I’ve pondered over time.  I’m not really sure what Blanche meant, or maybe I am.  But I think I understand what my mother meant. And for the record, I don’t agree.  Shocked, you are, I’m sure.  But it’s an interesting concept, actually, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. And I’m going to digress in the next few paragraphs (more shock, I know), but I promise I’m going to get back to this concept toward the end.

As I continue to look back over the past year, I’ve been thinking about the books I’ve read.  I’ve read some amazing books by well-established authors who I love, love, love, and about whom I’ve written extensively.  And I’ve also read some memorable books by new authors who are less well known. There are four books (or series) in this latter category in particular that I want to talk about: The Light Who Shines, by Lilo Abernathy; Jade, by Rose Montague; The Sanctum Trilogy (The Girl and The Boy, so far), by Madhuri Blaylock; and The Unelmoija series by Elle Boca (including The Dreamshifter and The Mindshifter, which are the two of the four that I have read so far).  All of these books have at least one common theme, despite many differences in the specifics of plot, characterization and world building.

The theme at hand is decency and generosity.  Each of the main characters in each of these books/series confronts adversity and reversals with open hearts, minds and hands.  And the openness of their beings is an important element in defining who they are.  I’ve written about this aspect of these works specifically twice here and here  and more obliquely elsewhere here; here; here; and here .  But now I want to say more about these books and their authors.

I have always assumed that individuals write what they know, on one level or another.  Thus, I believe that Thea Harrison and Nalini Singh know a thing or two about how to have successful relationships between strong-willed individuals. I’ve assumed that Laurell Hamilton understands, in a visceral and meaningful way, what family is, or should be, and what it means to find meaning in the minutiae of life. And I think Charlaine Harris, Jeaniene Frost, and Faith Hunter appreciate the soft underbelly of strong women, that which makes them human, even when they aren’t.  Perhaps I’m wrong about these amazing authors, but I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Over the course of the past nine months, since I began writing this blog, I’ve gotten to know Lilo, Rose, Madhuri and Elle a little bit through social media.  Sounds a little shallow, I know, and I might have thought that myself prior to my recent experiences, but it’s not. When I began my very tentative foray into Twitter, last summer, I made a commitment to putting out one tweet a day. No sooner than I’d started my very basic and bland one tweet a day with my brand new Twitter account (@truthinfantasy), I was discovered by Lilo, who added me to some sort of retweet list, and, boom, my Twitter life was launched in earnest. Shortly thereafter, Rose found me and promoted me to her followers, followed in short order by Madhuri and Elle, who also added me to their inner Twitter circles, retweeting me and favoriting my tweets and blogs, and in doing so, ensuring my success in the Twitterverse.

And the truth is, this was all about what these amazing authors write about:  paying it forward, turning the other cheek, offering the hand of friendship with no expectation of compensation.  These women are just like the characters and themes they write about, and this is why, based on my highly unscientific sampling of four, I am sure I am right about the other others I have read and loved.

I don’t think it’s possible to write books this good and talk the talk so authentically without walking the walk in one’s personal life.  I mean, after all, does it make sense to you that someone like Lilo, Rose, Elle and Madhuri would write about being compassionate in the face of hate, giving in the face of stinginess, and tolerance in the face of close-mindedness if these authors didn’t reflect these higher characteristics of the human condition in their own lives?  Even if these characters and characteristics are aspirational rather than descriptive, I applaud their intentions. I can only hope mine are as pure.

So, back to the kindness of strangers (I promised, didn’t I??)  For Blanche and my mother, the kindness of strangers meant in relying on the intimacy of the one night stand over the intimacy of a long term relationship. It meant the freedom to say and do things you would not otherwise do because there were no consequences of having to face the other person at another time. The kindness of strangers, for Blanche and my mom, was the ability to be all in--for a very finite period of time with no fear of repercussions later because there was no later. There was no disappointment because there were no expectations. There was no betrayal because there was absolutely no context. There was no tuning out because it cost so little to tune in temporarily. So, that is certainly one way to look at it—and then look what happened to Blanche.  Not so pretty (my mom, too, but that is the subject of another post).

But then contrast that with what I mean by the kindness of strangers.  I mean the ability to be generous because it elevates us.  The ability to be open and real because it feeds our souls.  And if we get something back, that’s the icing on the cake. But we don’t need the icing, because we’ve filled up on the spongy, vanilla goodness (I like vanilla better than chocolate, remember?  Here.  My faith in humanity has been validated again by the knowledge that these authors really are like the characters they write about.  And how awesome, amazing and lovely is that?

So, the kindness of strangers is a real thing, not another irony in a sad and pathetic life.  Depending on how you look at it, of course.  And I’m a half full kind of gal, dontcha know? Thank you Lilo, Rose, Elle, and Madhuri.  Write more, please, so I can continue to grow and learn through your work.  And thank you for reaching out the hand of friendship to someone you don’t even know—just because that’s the kind of women you are. Thanks for helping to make 2014 a banner year for me, and I look forward to even better things in 2015. Life is good. 

Paying It Forward

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So, I'm still thinking about Lilo Abernathy's awesome series opener, The Light Who Shines. The characters and plot have stayed with me and I find myself wondering what mysteries will be revealed in the next book. Today, I'm specifically thinking about the character of Jack Tanner, a Daylight Vampire who loves and protects the main protagonist, Blue, who is the Light Who Shines, even though we don't really know what that means yet. One of the fascinating aspects of Jack's character is his philanthropic activities. This is a man who puts his time and money toward many worthy charities and is clearly one of the good guys. And when Blue asks him about his charitable tendencies, he explains that he is paying it forward against the inevitable time when he, like all Vampires, will succumb to bloodlust and kill someone.

I found this idea of paying it forward against future bad behavior to be fascinating. It reminded me a bit of the Leon Uris Classic, QB7, in which a pillar of the community is accused of Nazi war crimes. In that book (and excellent movie), no one can believe that this upstanding gentleman whose life is filled with good deeds could possibly be the monster portrayed in the trial. But in the end (spoiler alert!), it comes out beyond a shadow of a doubt that the man is, in fact, guilty of heinous crimes against humanity. And that his subsequent lifetime of altruism was undertaken in an effort to make up for his past sins.

I find this whole concept of balance in judgment to be arresting, as it were. Is it truly possible to make amends that negate a terrible act? Either ahead of time like Jack Tanner (I love that name, by the way), or after the fact, like the guy in QB7?  I think, as imperfect humans, we really need to believe it is possible. Our whole justice system is based on the notion of paying our debts to society when we transgress and behave in an antisocial manner. And if the debt is deemed too big, at least in some places, we kill people here in America to "make up" for wrongs they have committed. Apparently the whole "eye for an eye" thing is an enduring value for many people. Personally, I think such a philosophy has the potential to leave the whole world blind.  Just sayin'.

I much prefer the Jack Tanner approach. He's determined to do as much good as possible before his inevitable fall from grace. If we went with the retributive justice approach (an eye for an eye), Jack (and all the Daylight Vampires in Lilo Abernathy's world) would be put down like rabid dogs against the time when they would take human life. In such a world, the inevitability of their committing murder would guarantee them a preemptive execution at the hands of a terrified populace. Such action would preclude any good these Vampires might accomplish in the world before their descent to bestiality and mindless bloodlust. Would that be a fair trade?  What would the people who have benefitted from Jack's largesse and generosity think about this? Would they consider it a just exchange?

Ms. Abernathy doesn't explore these questions, and, of course it wouldn't advance her complex and interesting plot at all to do so. But we can certainly think about the implications of the issues she has raised.  For me, I need to believe that the good we do can outweigh the bad. I also believe that the bad weighs more than the good, so we need to make sure our good deeds seriously outnumber the bad ones, just like Jack does.

I find this concept important to remember when doling out praise and criticism and when balancing my gratitude against my complaints. The negative is heavier than the positive, so it's important to make sure it all balances out by doing more good than bad, being more grateful than dissasatisfied, and offering more accolades than corrections. As the saying goes, one "Oh, shit" trumps a hundred attaboys. Sad, but true.

So we need to take our cue from Jack Tanner and keep trudging the road of good deeds and positive thinking and acting against the inevitable time in the future (or perhaps as compensation for less-than-stellar past performances) when we don't hit the mark of right action. Which happens. Sometimes more than others.  

Doing the right thing is always the right thing. Especially in light of the fact that no one always does the right thing. Which makes doing the right thing the right thing to do to balance out the times when we stray and do the wrong thing.  Because you know it’s going to happen.  Today, tomorrow, or the next, we will fall, because that is what humans do.  It’s our nature.  Hopefully, we won’t kill anyone.  But there are lots of ways to transgress, and most of us will explore a wide variety of those activities.

So, let’s all pay it forward and perform as many good deeds and random acts of kindness as we can.  Let’s tip the scales in our favor, and enjoy the pleasure of doing well by doing good. Just like Jack. 

Living in the Now

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I have always had a strong aversion to books written in the present tense. In fact, I have been known to completely avoid books I would otherwise love to read because the author chose a first or third person present tense POV. And I remember being royally pissed off upon discovering that a book I was really looking forward to reading was off the list because of what I've always thought of as an annoying pretentiousness on the part of the author. Once again, however, I've had to reexamine the stories I tell myself to preserve my own self-righteousness. This is one of those occasions. First came the Hunger Games trilogy, which I felt compelled to read so that I could join the conversation about this cultural phenom. Now it's Lilo J. Abernathy's The Light Who Shines that has grabbed my attention and won't let go. And as I felt the compulsion to keep reading the book, despite its grammatical gaffe (at least in my view), I started to think about why this literary device bothered me so much.  As they say, when we are distressed or annoyed or angry with someone or something, we need to look to ourselves for the causes and solutions to the problem.  I seriously hate when “they” are right. It makes me seriously distressed, annoyed and angry.  On the other hand, I’m guessing no one really cares about that, so onward and upward. Hoo-ha!  

OK—back to the subject at hand, after my little departure from my usual laser-like focus.  Well, maybe that is a teensy exaggeration. Maybe my focus is more like a defective laser. So, the question on the table is, why is it so hard to live in the present? I'm not sure, truth be told, although I've thought about it a lot.

Apparently, there are more compelling things to do besides live in the moment, and I’ve written about this phenomenon before. Instead of living in the moment, I can sit at a red light and wish it were green, thinking about how much faster I would get there if it were. I can read catalogues and fantasize about what a particular dress would look like if I wore it out to dinner, or how a new couch would look in my living room. I can even remove myself one more step from the reality of the present moment and think about what that dress would look like on me if I lost ten pounds or about how that new couch would look in my new house.

What do all of these examples have in common?  They imagine a reality that doesn't exist--and in this projected reality, my imagined life is better in some ways than my actual life. It may be as seemingly benign as wishing the traffic light were a different color. But it's not. And I don't weigh ten pounds less, at least in this moment, and I live in my present house, not some future fantasy version. At least right now.  Which is all we have, really. Right now.  The present tense. Just like Lilo Abernathy.  Damn.

Because that seems to be the rub, right?  I spend precious time projecting into an imagined future in which everything is arranged exactly as I think I want it to be. At which point, I tell myself, I will be content to live in that moment, because then it will be perfect and I won't have to project any more. Right?

There is an alternative, and very popular, method for escaping the present tense that is actually reflected in most novels--we can superimpose an idealized past onto our present moment. So instead of thinking about an alternative future, I can sit at that red light and think about how it was green last week when I drove through it, and wasn't that so much better than this stinking present moment. Or I can remember when I was ten pounds lighter and sigh with regret that the best days are behind me.

Either way, I'm absolutely not living in the present moment. Because the moment I am living now is somehow defective. It's not working for me. It's not quite good enough for me to spend my time here. When I'm at work, I'd rather be home. When I'm at home, I'd rather be on vacation. When I'm eating at a certain restaurant, I think about whether it would be better elsewhere.

Clearly, I don't do this all the time. I do spend time in the present moment. I can get caught up in what I'm doing (like right now, as this blog flows out of me like my hand is being chased across the page).  In fact, I seek out experiences and activities that motivate me to be in the moment, and so do many others. It's why roller coasters and extreme sports are so popular. It's why people take mind-altering substances--alcohol and drugs tend to focus the mind, or make us lose so much focus and mental function we can't go anywhere but where we are.

So, we flee from the present when we are perfectly capable of embracing it, and drug ourselves to prevent our escape from reality, which paradoxically serves to ensure our escape from reality. So confusing. We're all pretty screwed up. Or maybe it's just me. I'll speak for myself here and let you do the same.  Am I the only one who likes to time travel? 

So, maybe I will seek out more books written in the present tense to remind me to be where I am, not in my future or in my past. If all such books are as good as Ms. Abernathy's, it will be a joy, not a hardship. 

Something for Nothing

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I just finished the first book in what promises to be an outstanding new series, The Light Who Shines by the fabulously named Lilo J. Abernathy. I read this book because I discovered Lilo on Twitter (along with Rose Montague, whose first book, Jade, was also quite compelling). Both Lilo and Rose were very generous to a just-starting-out blogger and social media neophyte, and I wanted to give their books a chance. I'd done this with a few other new authors, but with less happy results (in other words, the books were not that good, unfortunately). Anyway, I've digressed before I've even begun. The point here is that I loved the book and it has given me significant food for thought and inspired several blog posts. In Lilo's world, there are three types of humans; Normals (like you and me); the Gifted, who have some sort of magical capability (like controlling fire, or seeing souls or auras, or being able to portal from one place to another as if Scotty were beaming them around); and the Vampires, who come in two varieties, Dark Vampires, who are evil, and Daylight Vampires, who have not yet given into bloodlust and become Dark. There are many interesting aspects to this world, and the world building is particularly good in the book, which bodes extremely well for the series. But the part I want to focus on today is the existence of the Gifted.

In this world, the Gifted are largely reviled and persecuted by many of the Norms.  Which is paradoxical at best and suicidal at worst, because the Gifted help protect the Norms from the Dark Vampires, who kill indiscriminately--and for whom normal humans are essentially a Happy Meal--easy, fast and convenient to eat.

But prejudice is rampant in this world, and the Gifted suffer for their gifts. Which made me think about the adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe this to be true and I think that the pursuit of something for nothing and your kicks for free is one of the major scourges of the human condition.

After all, who wouldn't want free swag?  I don't know anyone who wouldn't. Including me. And I also know that plenty of us, maybe all of us "Norms" have done some pretty silly things to game the system and put one over on Fate.  And the examples of our persistent, but futile efforts are legion, in small and large ways.

When we look for "deals" we are looking for a free lunch--when we buy one/get one free, does anyone really believe that the store didn't inflate the price so they could run the sale?  When we read about--or buy--magic weight loss pills or products (vibrating belts, anyone?), aren't we just practicing the triumph of hope over experience?  Of course we are. There is no such thing as a free lunch. 

That awesome prescription that takes your pain away?  It has nasty side effects, including addiciton. The incredible stain remover that is guaranteed to clean red wine off a white dress?  Not so much. Improve your memory while you sleep?  Forget about it. Enhance your sexual stamina even though you are well past your prime?  A sucker's bet.

But we all do it, some of us more than others. We don't want to put in the work. Or, equally likely, we didn't believe Baretta when he warned us not to do the crime if we can't do the time. No free lunch.

What I loved about The Light Who Shines is that Ms. Abernathy gets this reality, and like all my favorite books, there is a lot of truth in fantasy here.  She explores at length the costs of being Gifted in her world and the consequences of those costs. Moreover, Ms. Abernathy also highlights the price of receiving gifts--what it means when the gifts we give engender resentment, fear and rejection. And the concomitant confusion and grief on the part of the giver whose gifts are accepted, but with barely concealed distaste and as much distance as possible.

I've always felt this is a strange phenomenon, but I can also understand its origins. No one likes to feel beholden, or dependent, or both. In fact, the creation of this kind of dependency through ill-advised generosity is more common than one might think. My family is a great example, where my brother ended up hating my mother, who helped him financially for his entire adult life. In the end, she did neither herself nor her son any favors by failing to wean him away from living on more than he could earn. No free lunch, remember?  My mother wanted gratitude and admiration for her handouts and my brother wanted independence and self-sufficiency, but couldn't give up the extra income. The result was misery all around. I always understood that my mother's help came with a hefty price tag, and I was never willing to pay. Thankfully.

This is not to say that I always took the high road. If you've read my bio you know I spent many years as an active bulimic. Which was all about having my cake and eating it too. Literally and figuratively. Didn't work out so well for me. Never does.

So maybe reading about the price of being Gifted and the costs of giving might help all of us to remember that no one is getting something for nothing. No one. We should stop pursuing that particular pipe dream. It might just turn out to be a bomb. Better to accept the downside to every upside and understand that if we accept a gift, we owe the giver, and we should be gracious about that. And grateful. Nothing in life worth having comes easy.  As Ms. Abernathy so ably illuminates, no free lunch.