Thursday, July 13, 2017

The real heart of “Beauty and the Beast”

©Disney
I’ve always loved “Beauty and the Beast.”

It was an obvious choice for my favorite Disney movie growing up, since I had brown hair and a serious reading habit. I, too, was the girl with the “dreamy far off look” and “my nose stuck in a book,” and if I ever starred in a musical there would absolutely have to be a song where everyone talked about how weird they thought I was. I was also insanely curious, and just like Belle would have immediately investigated the creepy, shut-up part of the house I had been forbidden from going anywhere near.

I identified with the Beast just a much. No, I wasn’t extremely tall and furry, but I was angry and brooding and almost completely lacking in social skills. It was hard to see him as a monster when I could sympathize so completely with him, and it wasn’t like Belle needed the defense – when he roared at her, she yelled right back at him. And he was so eager to learn how to be a nicer person, even though he stumbled sometimes.

The only part of the movie that really tripped me up was the end. As much as I loved the Beast, I had zero interested in the human he turned into at the very end. I didn’t see anything that connected him with the guy I loved – he had a pretty face, and a soft voice, and he was never onscreen long enough for us to see any sign of the anger and awkwardness that had been so much a part of the Beast. Even though he’d been working hard to become a better person, things like that don’t just disappear the moment you get a makeover.

A lot of people see the transformation as the entire point of “Beauty and the Beast.” For them, the moral of the story is that love “fixed” the Beast, making him the metaphorical handsome prince instead of the supposedly scary monster. In its more dangerous aspect, it’s the idea that a good woman is enough to “save” a man (“Fifty Shades of Grey” is really just “Beauty and the Beast” in its most annoying form).

For me, however, I wish the transformation never happened. Or if it did, that the movie made it clear we were getting the same angry, awkward man in a slightly different body. The change that mattered had already happened, the slow transformation of an isolated man into someone who cares enough about others to put their needs before his own. That was the man Belle had already fallen in love with, the man that the weird, awkward dreamer inside her had recognized and responded to. She had been just as alone as he was, surrounded by people who couldn’t see past how different she was.

They were both beasts, in their own way, just like they were both beautiful where it mattered. What they looked like didn’t matter – the fact that they had found each other at all was the real happy ending.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Return to the "How To Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis" universe

I was at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. this past weekend and this just sort of happened. I don't now if this counts as a story, but I consider it canon. Spoilers for "How To Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (In Three Easy Steps)" and warnings for fluff.

Interlude: It Happened One Thursday Afternoon (Allegedly)

This was ridiculous.

Thea stood inside the first gallery of the International Spy Museum, staring at the information boards inviting visitors to test their spy skills and regretting every single life choice she'd made to get to this point. She'd come to Washington D.C. for a cyber security conference, sent by the company owners to make themselves feel better after the hacking scare earlier in the year. Yes, all of the information at the conference was so blazingly obvious she was sure her 13-year-old niece could have taught half the sessions, but it was technically what she was being paid to do at the moment. If she refused to do that, she should at least be doing something she'd be willing to admit to her co-workers.

But... well, there were several things she couldn't exactly admit to her co-workers, weren't there?

Like the way she had, possibly, been recruited into an independent spy agency she still wasn't entirely sure even existed. There was still a small chance she had hallucinated the entire thing, particularly the meeting almost a month ago with the supposed head of the agency (and the call from Max, who she refused to think about), since she hadn't heard from any of them since.

She could technically call them, since she'd been given a special phone designed to do just that, but she didn't really care about proving whether or not they were real. The only person she really cared about hearing from was Max, and with him there was too much of a risk of calling him at the wrong time. She could give away a hiding place, interrupt a deal he was trying to make, anything.

So she was here, trying to... what? Understand? Research? Embarrass herself?

Deciding it was definitely the latter, Thea turned around so she could fight her way back to the museum's entrance. If they wouldn't let her out there, she'd have them direct her to the nearest emergency exit. It wouldn't get her ticket money back, but that was a small price to pay for

"So soon? You haven't even gotten to the fun parts yet."

Thea froze at the familiar voice. Taking a deep breath, she turned around to see Max grinning at her. He was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a sports team she'd never heard of, cargo shorts, sneakers, and one of the baseball caps she'd seen in souvenir stalls around town. He looked indistinguishable from the throngs of tourists surrounding them, completely different from the arrogant attorney she'd assumed him to be when they first met.

Her first thought was how much she'd missed him. Her second thought, thankfully, was considerably more practical. "Have" Realizing what she was about to say, she stopped and leaned in close enough that she could lower her voice. "Have you been tracking me?"

"No more than Homeland Security does," he said under his breath. "We just... borrow their system sometimes to keep an eye on assets, enemies and people we want to make sure stay protected."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Which category am I in?"

His grin returned, milder but no less genuine-looking than the last one had been. If she never saw his fake smile again, it would be too soon. "I would never make the mistake of calling you an asset."

She could feel her own expression ease. "It's good to know you're smarter than I initially gave you credit for." When he made an amused sound, her lips curved upward. "So, any chance you're going to try and convince me you're in the middle of a mission?"

"I don't know if you noticed, seeing as how it was the entire room was devoted to it, but the museum assigns everyone missions and cover identities when they get here." He offered her a hand to shake. "Hello, my name is Greta."

An actual chuckle slipped out at that. "You make a very convincing Greta."

He beamed at her like she'd just given him a Christmas present, his body relaxing so subtly she hadn't known he was tense until he wasn't. "I had a really boring visit to the FBI Building this morning, and in a couple of hours I've got to jump on a plane to Istanbul. But until then, I'm all yours."

The visit to the FBI Building was no doubt some kind of meeting or debrief, and she knew she didn't want to imagine the kinds of dangerous things he would be doing in Istanbul. But he'd stolen a few hours, just for her, and it felt like she'd been given a gift.

Something inside her softened dangerously. "I won't call you Greta, even while we're here, but you can pick whatever other name you want." He refused to tell her his real name, or even his handle, and so she'd started calling him Max because she'd refused to use his alias in private conversation. He seemed to like it, but she could admit now that it hadn't exactly been fair of her.

There was something very close to fondness in his eyes as they started walking to the next exhibit. "To you, I'm always Max."

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Unsurprisingly, he talked the entire time. His knowledge of spy-related movies and TV shows was almost encyclopedic, and his knowledge of famous real-life spy stories was almost as extensive. He gave her more detailed backstories than they could ever hope to fit on the museum's little signs, coming across far more like a spy nerd than he did a spy. They also had several fascinating discussions about various pieces of old-school spy technology, all couched in discussions Max swore were completely theoretical. She didn't know if she entirely believed him, but as lies went it was both minor and necessary.

His obvious love for the entire profession, however, wasn't a lie at all. It lit his voice every time he talked about some spy's moment of heroism or ingenuity, or oohed and aahed over a particularly cool spy toy. He looked like a little kid talking about what he dreamed of being when he grew up.

The more nuanced insights came far more rarely, particularly because he tended to skim over anything that put a serious look on his face. The CIA made him prone to a bitter-edged sarcasm, at least when it was talked about as an entity and not individual agents, and the FBI left him shaking his head. What either meant, she didn't know - sales people left her prone to sarcasm, but her only connection to them was that they annoyed her.

There was one surprising moment, however. Near the beginning of the exhibits about the history of spying, there was a quote from Sun Tzu's "The History of War": "A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."

The idea threw her. She thought about the empty-headed charm Max had used when they'd first met, the same that had left her questioning his intelligence, and imagined him putting it on the same way he did his suits. It must work, more often than it didn't, or he wouldn't have defaulted to it so easily.
What did it do to you, to have to hide your intelligence all the time? She'd had to fight tooth and nail to see hers acknowledged, and she couldn't imagine being forced to deny she even had it.

She turned to Max, who shot her a wry look. "Don't tell me you hadn't figured it out by now."

"Oh, I had." She watched his face. "I just hadn't thought about how hard it must be."

Max blinked, startled, and there was a moment when he looked almost flustered. "That's... I..." He floundered a bit, then gave up and cleared his throat. "Thank you."

Touched, she squeezed his shoulder before moving on to the next exhibit. "Come on. You can tell me all about Revolutionary War spying."

They hadn't quite made it through WWII, however, when he leaned close. "Sorry," he whispered. "I wish I could stay longer."

She waved the apology aside, ignoring the weight of disappointment in her own chest. At least he hadn't just slipped away again. "All I ask is that you be better at using your phone."

He looked appropriately regretful. "I haven't snagged a case I'd need your help with, yet."

"Then don't call me for work reasons." She gave him a pointed look. " It's considerably safer for you to interrupt me than it is for me to interrupt you. I'm sure even you can find a few safe moments to tell someone hi."

He hesitated, then a small, soft smile crossed his face. "Yes, ma'am."

She didn't watch him slip away, eyes fixed on an exhibit she didn't have the slightest interest in. A few more rooms made it clear that the rest of the museum had lost its appeal as well, and before too long she started weaving through all the exhibits to the exit.

When she made it to the gift shop, however, one of the women behind the counter waved her hand. "Ma'am? Your friend left something for you."

Thea stopped, coming closer. "A note?"

"No." The woman held up a souvenir bag with a smile. "He said you wouldn't buy yourself anything, so he needed to."

Thea opened the bag, finding a t-shirt that said "Top 10 reasons I didn't make it in the CIA." On the other side of the receipt, he'd scrawled a note. "Don't tell the CIA I gave you this. They wouldn't find it as funny as I do."

Feeling a smile sneak across her face, Thea stopped by the bathroom and changed into the t-shirt before she left. It looked ridiculous with her work slacks, she was sure, but she didn't care.

Being ridiculous wasn't such a bad thing, after all.

A Bonus Scene (from before any of the above happened)

At least it's not the CIA.

Max repeated the familiar mantra to himself as he finally escaped the FBI Building, his dark suit making him indistinguishable from the other people flowing in and out of the building. The debrief they'd insisted on had been both endless and repetitive, and he'd seriously considered escaping out the window a few times. But he hadn't even been tempted to punch anyone, so there was that.

Still, all he had planned for the afternoon was an obscenely long plane ride, so it didn't look like his day was going to improve any. The only thing to do was console himself with a late lunch, preferably one that somehow involved cheese fries, and remind himself that things would finally get interesting again once he actually got to Istanbul.

He was a few blocks away, still mulling over his food choices, when he got a call from what appeared to be the hotel his current alias was staying at. Since that hotel didn't actually have this number, however, there was no hesitation in his voice when he answered. "Let me guess - you've somehow managed to reroute me through Des Moines."

"No, but that's a lovely thought for next time I find you suitably vexing." D's voice was warmly amused. "Now, though, you should be thanking me. I got you a present."

He smiled a little. "Does it explode?"

"If you annoy her sufficiently. It's one of her best qualities."

Max went utterly still. There was only one woman, anywhere, who D could possibility be talking about. "Where? How?"

"She's in town for a cybersecurity conference, but it seems she's decided to play hooky for the day. I'll text you the coordinates, but she appears to be sticking to the tourist areas. You may want to change your clothes."

He was already moving again, hurrying to the nearest Metro station. "How long has she been here?" He'd lost consciousness pretty much the moment his head had hit the pillow last night, barely an hour after he'd landed, but he'd been at that meeting with the FBI for hours. He'd wasted so much time. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I could say that you had a job to do, and I knew if I told you this you wouldn't do it," D said archly. "Luckily for you, though, the truth is that I found out 10 minutes ago."

There was a strange sort of relief in that. "I never should have doubted you."

"No, you shouldn't have." She sounded mollified. "You owe me."

"I absolutely do." He hung up the phone with a grin, shoving it in his pocket before breaking into a full-out run. It made him more obvious than he liked to be, but right now that didn't matter.

He had someone he needed to meet.

Friday, May 19, 2017

"Piper's Song" excerpt

I'd like to introduce you all to the latest obsession/torment of my life - my current novel, "Piper's Song." I've posted an excerpt here before, but that was like four versions ago. This is from the current one, the one that will mostly stick (barring the inevitable new round of edits, of course):

Chapter 3: The Key to a Drama-Free Life

A year later

Either the Kensford City planners had no imagination, or their residents didn’t. This street market was just the same as all the others Jess had ever passed through, with vendors crowding into the square trying to outshout whoever owned the cart or stall next to them. The people had clearly heard it all before, which meant they were more focused on the gossip their neighbors were sharing than they were hearing about a ridiculously overpriced scarf that was “handmade by the elves, as I live and breathe.”

Jess skimmed her fingers along the mound of apples piled high at the produce stall, ear cocked to take in every mutter of the crowd behind her. She’d been sent an official request for her services, this time, brief and polite and nearly vibrating with an urgency that was never actually stated, but there was no way she was going to speak to the mayor armed with so little.

If the rumor mill was any indication, there was a lot the mayor hadn’t said.

“I’ve had to buy bread three times this week! The rats keep eating it!”

“I swear there was no sign of the little beasts even a week ago, but now they’re everywhere. It’s like an invasion.”

“They’ve practically moved into my daughter’s bedroom! We’ve tried putting poison out, but the nasty things won’t go anywhere near it.”

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about this. Nothing at all.”

Next to her, Thomas made an interested sound that Jess was sure had nothing at all to do with the conversations going on around them. He was intent on his mirror, skimming through various news streams like he was hunting something down, and when he got like this not even an explosion was enough to distract him.

 Jess smiled a little at the memory. Only Thomas would list the likely ingredients of a bomb as they were running away from it.

On her other side, the owner of the stall was winding down his debate with a customer over the price of plums – when the other woman left, Jess knew she would be the next target for the sales pitch. Pocketing the apple closest to her fingers, she reached behind her and hooked her fingers on the hem of Thomas’s shirt. Tugging him over to the next stall – cheese, and the fancy kind by the smell of it – she deposited him safely out of the path of foot traffic and continued to feign an interest in shopping while she listened.

By the time three more people had commented on how “sudden” the infestation was, Jess wondered if there really was magic involved. It didn’t sound like something a sorcerer or sorceress would try – it wasn’t flashy enough, and they likely would have delivered a threat of some kind by now – but it could be just the right sort of revenge for a witch. Particularly one who was mad at the city council for some reason, and might be perfectly happy to pass that grudge onto the piper who just happened to wander into town. Even if she and Thomas didn’t end up a target, the witch could just send a new batch of rats right back into town after they’d left. And Jess, more than likely, would be blamed for it.

Jess sighed. She hated it when things got complicated.

Feeling the stall owner’s attention shift their way, she snagged Thomas’s shirt again and led them both over to a quiet corner. He let himself be guided, waiting until they were out of the way of any other potentially open ears before looking up from his mirror. “Ask for double your fee,” he said quietly, reporting on the research he’d just been doing. He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Elections are coming up, and if the current mayor doesn’t take care of the rat problem there’s no chance of him getting to stay in office.”

She leaned against the alley wall next to him, watching the crowd move past the entry into the small alleyway. The rhythm of this was already a familiar thing between them, as easy as she remembered it being between the performers in her foster mother’s theater troupe. Only they’d all worked together for years, the history between them all older than Jess herself, and she and Thomas had barely been doing this for a year. It was worrying, when she let herself think about it.

Mostly, she didn’t let herself.

“So that’s a point on the plus side,” she said instead, letting herself get lost in the rhythm. “On the minus side, there’s a chance someone ticked off a witch or a sorceress. We don’t want to get in the middle of that.”

Thomas’s brow furrowed, and he immediately bent back down to his mirror. His fingers flew over the mirror’s surface, various lists and maps flashing by in the smooth glass, and after a moment he shook his head. “There’s been no sign of any kind of trouble like that, and you know how the magic community likes to keep tabs on each other. Besides, the nearest sorcerer or sorceress is 200 miles away, and the nearest witch....” He let the words trail off as he double-checked something. “...left a year ago to take care of her sister after a house fell on her. She’s changed her address on the mailing list and everything.”

“Did you finally let them sign you up?” He’d let himself slip the week before and not-quite-complained about the pressure he was getting from some of the witches on the message boards he posted on regularly. He’d protested, saying he wasn’t even a witch, but apparently the actual witches hadn’t been bothered by that little detail.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

NO MORE E-book problem on Amazon

Update: The problem has been resolved, and the titles should be popping back up throughout the day. Yay!

It seems as though the Amazon Kindle versions of my three full-length novels have currently vanished into thin air, but worry not - it's an issue between the publisher and the site that's caused the problem, and therefore most definitely not a permanent state of affairs. If you can't wait to buy the books, they're still available as print copies on all sites and as e-books on both the iBooks store and Kobo, which has an Android app.

My iBooks links

My Kobo links

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Guest Post: Why zombies are the perfect modern monster

I featured F.J.R. Titchenell on the post when her "Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know Of)" came out, and since it's being re-released on April 4 with a new publisher and a snazzy new cover I thought I'd have her drop by again to share her thoughts on why zombies are still so gosh darn popular.

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Why Zombies Are the Perfect Modern Monster
by F.J.R. Titchenell

I’m a huge fan of zombie fiction – as you can probably tell by the fact that I wrote a book called Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) – but when asked questions like this one, about why exactly zombies are so popular, I find that my answers tend to get a bit misanthropic.

Why are we so enthralled by the concept of an apocalyptic plague of hungry, infectious walking corpses?

Since the idea has passed through the hands of so many different writers, it’s been spun a million different ways and used to express lots of different things, from anti-materialism to self-exploration to downright futility. In general though, zombie stories that come anywhere close to the standard format of brainless, unsaveable zombies, plucky survivors, and nonexistent infrastructure, all speak to one particular human fear.

The fear of being lost in the crowd.

I don’t just mean literally being lost in a packed space full of hostile strangers, but the fear of our own insignificance on a planet full of people crying out to be acknowledged.

Imagining ourselves against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse allows us to feel instantly special and separate from an endless crowd of extras by virtue of simply being alive. We and our tiny cast of fellow survivor characters are thinking, feeling, real people who matter; the bodies packing the streets outside aren’t.

Pretty sick, right?

But we all do it. We all fantasize about not having to share, not having to wait our turn, about taking whatever strikes our fancy because there’s no one to tell us it’s not ours, about carving our way through the people in line ahead of us with a chainsaw, because they weren’t real anyway, not the way we are.

Is this a specifically modern desire? I’m sure it’s always existed, but it also makes sense that it could have been intensified by a rising world population, and by improved communication technology making it more obvious to each of us how far from alone we are – and by the same token, how dubious our sense of uniqueness. And while we’re still a very long way off from achieving true universal equality, it is thankfully far less socially acceptable to elevate oneself by openly dehumanizing a particular group of fellow humans than it was, say, a hundred years ago. Maybe fictional zombies have risen as a convenient psychological surrogate for that particular destructive human habit.

I don’t know if all this would make me call zombies the perfect modern monster, but it certainly makes them a great modern guilty pleasure.

So is that all typical zombies fiction is? A safe, controlled outlet for the worst of our remaining lizard-brain instincts?

That’s certainly a large part of it, but I like to think not.

Zombies can also set the stage to explore the best parts of how people respond to a crisis. A lot of zombie fiction tends to focus disproportionately on humanity at its worst, assuming that the majority of people who survive the apocalypse would immediately take the excuse to unveil themselves as the biggest psychos they could possibly be, but my favorite moments are when we get to see how desperate and exceptional circumstances can instead bring out people’s compassion, initiative, and ingenuity.

I like to believe that where there are still humans, there’s still humanity. There’s still love and laughter, even when it has to come in the form of a morbid crutch, and that’s what you’ll find in Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of). There might be a psycho or two for flavor, but mostly it’s about a group of teens who could have gone their separate ways in the everyday world, finding time to riff on each other and keep being teens as that world ends around them, even while they adapt to protect and support each other through it.

Oh, and also plenty of looting, skull smashing, traffic law breaking, and fireworks, because you can’t release the zombies and not feed the lizard brain a little.

Come on, now.

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More about Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of)

The world is Cassie Fremont’s playground. Her face is on the cover of every newspaper. She has no homework, no curfew, and no credit limit, and she spends her days traveling the country with her friends, including a boy who would do the chicken dance with death to make her smile. Life is just about perfect—except that those newspaper headlines are about her bludgeoning her crush to death with a paintball gun, she has to fight ravenous walking corpses every time she steps outside, and one of her friends is still missing, trapped somewhere in the distant, practically impassable wreckage of Manhattan.


Still, Cassie’s an optimist, more prone to hysterical laughter than hysterical tears, and she’d rather fight a corpse than be one. She’ll never leave a friend stranded when she can simply take her road trip to impossible new places, even if getting there means admitting to that boy that she might love him as more than her personal jester. Skillfully blending effective horror with unexpected humor, this diary-style novel is a fast-paced and heartwarming read.

Pre-order it here:

Amazon
Smashwords
iTunes
Barnes and Noble

More about F.J.R. Titchenell

F.J.R. Titchenell is an author of young adult, sci-fi, and horror fiction. She graduated with a B.A in English from California State University, Los Angeles, in 2009 at the age of twenty, is represented by Fran Black of Literary Counsel, and currently lives in San Gabriel, California with her husband and fellow author, Matt Carter, and their pet king snake, Mica.

The "F" is for Fiona, and on the rare occasions when she can be pried away from her keyboard, her kindle, and the pages of her latest favorite book, Fi can usually be found over-analyzing the inner workings of various TV Sci-Fi universes or testing out some intriguing new recipe, usually chocolate-related. You can find more about her at her official homepage, fjrtitchenell.weebly.com.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sales! Sales! Sales!


IPG is doing a sale for print copies of both "Beast Charming" and "Dreamless," with "Beast Charming" available for $9.99 and "Dreamless" available for $11.99 throughout the month of March. If you've been thinking about picking up either, this is probably your best chance. Here's the link (it may look like the books are still the original prices, but the sale prices are listed next to the "Buy this" button. I couldn't find it at first, either).













If you've been looking to pick up a copy of "Two Left Feet" but are a frugally minded soul (like myself), now might be your chance. The book will be on sale for 99 cents now through March 11 at Smashwords, a non-platform or app specific site that has several e-book formats. Just use the code RAE50 at checkout (and/or click on the "Buy With Coupon" link available on the page).


Happy reading!

Monday, February 13, 2017

How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (in Three Easy Steps) question/future plans (a.k.a. my little spy fic)

I wasn't really prepared to trip and fall into spy fiction. I'd never written it, never really even thought about writing it, and then one little plot bunny happened and suddenly I have a whole new universe. Weirder still, it's one I really, really like. Like many people who have commented on the two chapters I have posted (thank you all, they're all so lovely), I've realized over the last few weeks that I really, really want to know what happens next.

So my current plan is to double the current amount of text (I say double, but never in all my life has a piece of fiction kept to the word count I thought it would, so it'll probably go over) get a cover together, and publish it on several different platforms (including Smashwords) as a 99 cent e-book. I will, of course, keep everyone updated here and on my various social media profiles.

And if you guys end up liking that, who knows? Spies (and computer programmers, I suspect) always seem to have more than one adventure under their belt.

Update: It's up now. I've collected all the links it's currently available at here, and will be adding links to new platforms as they go online.