Remembering Artur Brauner and Dr. Mabuse

This will only be a short post, because I’m still hard at work doing the 2019 July short story challenge. If you want to follow along, bookmark my July short story challenge day by day post.

Meanwhile, I’m also over at Galactic Journey (not to mention fifty-five years in the past) again today, this time with an article about the great bodyhopping supervillain Dr. Mabuse and his remarkable criminal career which stretched from the Weimar Republic into the 1960s and beyond. For more about the evil Doctor, you can also read the article I wrote about him for Thriller UK in the early 2000s (PDF link), which covers Mabuse’s entire filmic career. Though Mabuse’s appearance became sporadic after Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse (The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse) came out in September 1964 (this film will be covered in an upcoming Galactic Journey article). Afterwards, Mabuse was relegated to a retitled Hammer mad scientist movie that had nothing to do with him originally, an unwatchably bad Jess Franco movie, a guest appearance in the Austrian TV show Kottan ermittelt (Kottan investigates), which is still the only Mabuse appearance I have never seen, an earnest but ultimately unsuccessful revival attempt by Claude Chabrol which was entitled Dr. M. for rights’ reasons, a graphic novel and a couple of audio dramas in the 2000s as well as a new movie that was never made.

Though Mabuse still stalks German crime fiction, because he’s such a versatile character who can be plugged into any situation. Plus, he’s basically immortal, so he can cause a lot of harm over the decades. I’ve always wanted to pit the Silencer against Dr. Mabuse or rather a character who is Mabuse in everything but the name, since the character is still under copyright. And in Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath historical mysteries, upon which the TV show Babylon Berlin is based (the books are much better though, with better female characters, who are not all occasional prostitutes, and the research is excellent, compared to some anachronistic howlers in the TV show), Berlin police inspector Gereon Rath tangles with the sinister Johann Marlow, medical doctor turned criminal mastermind, who once again is Mabuse in all but the name. Meanwhile, Gereon Rath’s boss is the legendary head of the Berlin police homicide department Ernst Gennat, the real life model for Mabuse’s most persistent pursuer Kommissar Lohmann. The TV show downplays the Marlow character and also changes his name, probably again due to rights issues. Though I would love to see the team behind Babylon Berlin do a proper Mabuse movie.

And talking of Dr. Mabuse, Artur Brauner, the German film producer who produced the postwar Dr. Mabuse movies and whose company holds the rights to the character, died yesterday aged 100. Artur Brauner survived the Holocaust and later became (West) Germany’s most successful film producer, producing dozens of movies in his long and successful life.

Most obituaries focus on the various movies about the Holocaust that Brauner produced, movies which were very important to him for obvious reasons. And Brauner produced not only the first movie about the Holocaust made in West Germany (and I think one of the first wordwide), Morituri in 1948, but also the Golden Globe winning Hitlerjunge Salomon (Hitler Youth Salomon), which for unknown reasons was retitled Europa, Europa for international release. I have no idea why this was done, because Hitler Youth Salomon is pretty much the perfect title. It both tells you at a glance what the story is about and is also intriguing enough that you want to know more. And it also refers to the infamous Nazi propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex). Meanwhile, Europa, Europa sounds like the title of a documentary about the European Union. But whatever the title, the film is well worth watching.

However, Artur Brauner’s oevre includes so much more than movies about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He was one of the true greats of German postwar cinema, did a lot to restore German cinema to the glory days of the Weimar Republic (including remaking several Weimar era classics) and made dozens of movies in many genres, including a lot of forgettable flicks (he even produced trashy softcore erotica in the 1970s), but also some minor and major classics. I’ve already written about the Dr. Mabuse series above, but Brauner – who always had a nose for trendy topics – also produced some of the Edgar Wallace and Winnetou movies, though the better known ones were made by Horst Wendtland.

Artur Brauner enticed Fritz Lang to return to Germany for his last three movies, the above mentioned 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse as well as the 1959 duology The Tiger of Eshnapur and The Indian Tomb. Both are the sort of “exotic” adventure movies that were popular from the 1920s well into the 1950s and haven’t dated all that well, but at least the 1959 version (there have been two previous adaptations of the novel by Fritz Lang’s ex-wife and Metropolis screenwriter Thea von Harbou in 1921 and 1938) at least questions the habit of white westerners to barge into India with zero knowledge of and respect for the local culture. The Maharadja may be a villain, but the protagonist, German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid), is not a good person (he seduces the Maharadja’s intended bride Seetha, played by Debra Paget) and the movie knows it.

Artur Brauner also produced the best adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s crime novel The Pledge as Es geschah am hellichten Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight) in 1958, which is not just a great thriller, but also the granddaddy of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, the TV show Criminal Minds and the profiling thrillers of today. Gestehen Sie, Dr. Corda (Confess, Dr. Corda) is another great crime thriller produced by Artur Brauner also in 1958.

Furthermore, Artur Brauner produced the only Johannes Mario Simmel adaptation worth watching, the delightful 1961 spy comedy Es muß nicht immer Kaviar sein (It can’t always be caviar) and the sequel Diesmal muß es Kaviar sein (This time it has to be caviar).

Artur Brauner was also very active in the juvenile delinquent subgenre of the 1950s and produced the film that kicked off the genre, Die Halbstarken (Teenage Wolfpack) in 1956. I’m not a huge fan of Die Halbstarken, which is basically a juvenile delinquent sleaze paperback in movie form and terribly sexist besides, but it was a huge success and spawned a host of immitators, many of which were produced by the enterprising Artur Brauner. The most interesting of the many “troubled youth” movies Brauner produced is Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform), a drama set at a girls’ boarding school with hints at lesbian love. Yes, Artur Brauner cast Romy Schneider, the darling of West German postwar cinema, as a teenage lesbian and that in 1958. The romance of course ends tragically – well, it was 1958.

Artur Brauner even produced one of the comparatively few science fiction movies made in Germany post-WWII, Zurück aus dem Weltall (Moon Wolf) in 1959. It’s basically a touching story about a man and his dog, where the dog just happens to be a canine astronaut. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to find.

Finally, let’s give a shout-out to what supposedly was Artur Brauner’s personal favourite of the many films he produced, the 1960 adaptation of Der brave Soldat Schwejk (The Good Soldier Schwejk), starring Heinz Rühmann. It’s a pretty good movie, the rare example of an anti-war movie that’s also funny, and won Brauner an Academy Award nomination, one of several. He eventually won an Academy Award in 1972 for The Garden of the Finzi Continis, which I haven’t seen.

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The 2019 July Short Story Challenge – Day by Day

For starters, Smashwords is currently having its annual summer sale, where you can get plenty of e-books at reduced prices, including several of mine.

In other news, blogging will be light for the next month, because I’m currently doing the July Short Story Challenge again.

What is the July Short Story Challenge, you ask? Well, in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Because I’ve already done the July short story challenge four years in a row now and always found the experience very rewarding, I’m aiming for a repeat this year. At first, I’m only committing to doing this for a week (which is almost half over) and if things are going well, I’ll keep going.

In previous years, I’ve always done a post-mortem post about the July Short Story Challenge in August. I’ll probably be doing one this year as well, but in order to hold myself accountable, I’ll also be doing something else. I will keep a running tally of all stories written to date and update this post accordingly. This tally will be very basic, listing just the date, title, word count, genre, series, if any, and maybe a one or two sentence summary/comment.

If you want to follow along with the challenge, bookmark this post. And if you want to cheer me on, feel free to do so in the comments.

And now, let’s take a look at the stories:

July 1, 2019:  Coffee Shop AU, fantasy, 3576 words

The characters of a cop show suddenly find themselves whisked into a universe, where all those coffee shops from a certain kind of fanfiction are coexisting in the same neighbourhood.

July 2, 2019:  Terminal 2G (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1515 words

The Culinary Assassin will eventually be a collection of short crime stories about an assassin who only kills people restaurants – after first sampling the food. In this one, the culinary assassin finds himself in an airport and has to deal with overpriced airport food as well as the target, all without shooting.

July 3, 2019:  Poffertjes (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1440 words

Another Culinary Assassin tale, wherein the world’s only gourmet hitperson eats Dutch pancakes and kills a real estate developer.

July 4, 2019: Unwanted Rescue, epic fantasy, 1055 words

Sir Clarenbald the Bold comes to slay a dragon and rescue a princess. But the princess doesn’t want to be rescued…

July 5, 2019: Green Thumb (Helen Shepherd Mysteries), crime fiction, 4419 words

Detective Constable Kevin Walker and his girlfriend, Scene of the Crime Officer Charlotte Wong, have a solo adventure and hunt down a flower thief in South London.

July 6, 2019: Patient X-5, science fiction, 1357 words

A robot consults a psychologist.

July 7, 2019: The Day the Mechas Came to Eureka Creek, post-apocalyptic, 2168 words

In an America besieged by giant robots, three kids find an inert mecha in a wheat field. This is one of those post-apocalyptic slice-of-life stories that this challenge frequently seems to yield for me.

July 8, 2019: Stalked, post-apocalyptic, 1428 words

A scavenger is stalked by a giant killer robot through a ruined city. Yup, it’s another robocalypse story and also the third robot story in a row. Hmm, I’m sensing a theme here.

July 9, 2019: The Cryptozoological Invasion, post-apocalyptic, 1080 words

The Loch Ness monster, the Yeti, the Sasquatch, dinosaurs surviving in inaccessible parts of the Amazon and the Congo basin, the Thing from another world and the unspeakable Lovecraftian monsters in the Antarctic – they’re all real and climate change is driving them from their ancient habitats and into contact with humans.

July 10, 2019: The Secret Nightlife of the Lawn Flamingos, horror, 705 words

They’re alive and they’re evil. The title says it all basically.

July 11, 2019: Prison Moon (Raygun Romances), space opera, 6260 words

Ray Cassidy was an officer of the Space Patrol, until he turned against them, when ordered to brutally squash a miners’ strike. Now Ray has been sentenced to life imprisonment on the prison moon of Paradine, from where there is no escape but death. But Juanita Deveron, a young rebel fighter whose life Ray saved, is not willing to let him languish in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Raygun Romances is the proposed title for a series of retro style science fiction adventures – think Planet Stories or Startling Stories in the 1940s and 1950s.

July 12, 2019: The Great Dinosaur Derby, science fiction, 1177 words

Humans manage to clone dinosaurs and decide to hold t-rex races. What could go wrong? The title says it all, really.

July 13, 2019: The Tentacled Terror (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 3148 words

Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha set sail for the lost city of Nhom’zonac, looking for treasure. But they have to get past the Lovecraftian horror guarding the city first.

July 14, 2019: Harlequin (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1181 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson eats an ice cream sundae and kills a gangster who escaped the hangman.

July 15, 2019: The Beast from the Sea of Blood (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 2500 words

Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha search for a pirate treasure, enjoy a seafood boil and fight off a giant crab.

July 16, 2019: Tiki Tack (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1586 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson visits a tiki bar and shoots a mob boss.

July 17, 2019: Crawfish Creole (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1678 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson has dinner in New Orleans and shoots a vulture capitalist.

I’d been planning to write something else today, but because I have to get up early tomorrow morning, I wrote a Culinary Assassin story instead, because those are fairly short and fast to write.

July 18, 2019: Unwanted Hostages, science fiction, 830 words

Aliens kidnap the leaders of the biggest and most important countries on Earth and hold them hostage, until the Earth surrenders. Unfortunately, no one wants the politicians back.

Another very short one, but it’s been a tough week for me.

July 19, 2019: Tribute, fantasy, 2126 words

For the good of the realm, Princess Calyssa is about to be sacrificed to the dragon Gruvrom the Fearsome. But Gruvrom has other ideas.

July 20, 2019: Currywurst (The Culinary Assassin), fantasy, 1287 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson enjoys a currywurst and shoots a violent pimp.

I’d been planning to write something else today, but I didn’t feel well and so I wrote another culinary assassin story instead.

July 21, 2019: The Ghosts of Doodenbos, historical horror, 2682 words

Never go into the woods alone. Ann, a young widow in 16th century Netherlands, has been hearing those words all her life. But when her little son goes missing, Ann has to venture into the woods to confront the ghosts of Doodenbos.

July 22, 2019: The Thing from the Dread Swamp (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 3283 words

Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha rescue a kidnapped girl from the clutches of a swamp monster.

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First Monday Free Fiction: Boardwalk Baby

Welcome to the July edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

Boardwalk Baby by Cora BuhlertThis month’s free story is Boardwalk Baby, a fantasy novelette set on the Jersey Shore that’s perfect for summer.

There are two things about herself that Izzy has always known with absolute certainty: One, that she was adopted and two, that she has an affinity for the sea. For from her earliest memories on, the ocean has always called out to Izzy. But her adoptive parents thwart her attempts to get closer to the sea at every turn.

When Izzy turns eighteen, she goes in search of her past and her birth family. It’s a quest that will take her to the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey, and to a mysterious fur coat that might hold all the answers to Izzy’s questions.

***

Boardwalk Baby

Izzy had always known two things about herself with absolute certainty: One, that she was adopted and two, that she had an affinity for the sea.

She’d learned about the first from a book her parents, her adoptive parents, had always read to her at bedtime when she was little. The book was called The Greatest Gift. It told the story of a big house, drawn in bright, cheerful colours. Women who were too poor or too sick or just had too many children already could put the babies they couldn’t keep into the mailbox of the house. The women, called “birth mothers” in adoption agency jargon, were rendered in washed-out, grey hues, fading from the page as they faded from the lives of their children. The babies, in the other hand, were little bundles of joy with ruddy cheeks and round smiling faces in pink, a yellowish beige and various shades of brown.

Inside the big house, the babies were taken out of the mailbox by roly-poly jolly teddy bears and put into little beds. There was a long row of little beds with babies of all shapes, colours and sizes, cared for by the roly-poly jolly teddy bears and kept behind glass, as if they were dolls in the display windows of Macy’s at Christmas time.

Then a couple came to the house, a couple who were so very sad, because they would love to have children, but couldn’t have any. The jolly teddy bears asked them in and took them to the big room with the long row of little beds behind glass. And the couple walked along the display windows like shoppers walked past Macy’s at Christmas time. Finally, they picked the perfect baby from the many, many babies in the long row of little beds. And then the couple went home with the perfect baby and they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Over the years, Izzy had come to hate that book. Oh, it was all right at first. After all, it was a bedtime story and all kids loved bedtime stories, didn’t they? But when her parents kept reading that stupid book to her again and again — never Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales or Where the Wild Things Are or Pippi Longstocking or Horton Hears a Who! or The Rainbow Fish, but always that same bloody book — Izzy had gradually come to hate it. For who wanted to hear the same stupid bedtime story over and over again every single night? Even if, so her parents had insisted, it was Izzy’s own story.

Years later, Izzy had learned that her parents had been given the book by the adoption agency to take home and read to their perfect child to accustom the child to the idea that he or she was adopted. She’d also learned that there were different versions of the book, featuring different coloured parents and babies.

The book was one of the reasons why Izzy hated the adoption agency. Because they honestly thought that such a stupid, silly picture book was all the explanation an adopted kid would ever need or want.

***

Izzy had learned about her affinity for the sea when she was four and her parents took her on a holiday to the Jersey Shore. She already knew she was adopted by then or at least she’d already had that stupid book read to her every single night.

It was the first real holiday Izzy had with her parents or at least the first she could remember with any clarity. She remembered the tacky little beachside motel with its tacky neon sign. She remembered the endless white beach and how the sand had squished between her little baby toes.

But most of all, she remembered the sea. She remembered the colours, all blues and greens, crowned with tufts of white foam. She remembered the smell, all salty and briny. And she remembered the sounds, the waves crashing onto the beach, the cries of the seagulls, the sound of the north-easterly winds blowing in from the sea and rattling the walls of the little clapboard motel.

Every night, when her parents were asleep, Izzy had stood by the window of their room in the little clapboard motel, listening to the roaring of the waves and watching the moon rise over the sea. And as she stood by the window, the sea seemed to call out to her like the song that the sirens of old had once sung to entrap unwary sailors.

Actually getting to the sea was a lot harder than Izzy would have thought. For even though the little motel stood directly by the sea, her parents still wouldn’t take her there. The sea was unsafe, they said. And Izzy’s parents were all about safety.

So they took her to the pool of the motel every day. The pool was a perfect turquoise rectangle, the water was perfectly smooth and the chlorine made Izzy’s eyes sting and her nose itch.

It wasn’t that the pool was bad. On the contrary, Izzy had lots of fun paddling around in the motel pool all day, trying to ditch the stupid water wings her parents had foisted on her (more safety concerns). But compared to the ocean that was roaring just beyond the clapboard walls of the little motel, the pool might just as well have been the bathtub at home.

But then, when the holiday was almost over, Izzy got her chance to swim in the ocean after all. She’d been walking along the beach, the long white beach, with Mom and Dad, securely held between them, Dad on her left side and Mom on her right. And all the while, the waves were crashing onto the beach, so close and yet so far away.

In the end, it was a seagull that came to her aid. A seagull that shat right on Mom’s head with an aim as true as any sniper’s, messing up Mom’s perfectly permed curls (blonde rather than auburn like Izzy’s). Mom screamed and Dad frantically tried to wipe off the seagull shit. For a few moments, they were both so occupied with themselves that they let go off Izzy’s hand in the process.

That was her chance. And Izzy grabbed it. She took off, as fast as her little pudgy baby legs would carry her, and ran towards the sea.

A wave crashed against her, nearly knocking her off her feet. But Izzy stood firm. She enjoyed the prickling of the fresh seawater on her skin, the sensation of the sand washing away beneath her feet, the feeling of the sea spray on her face and the salt in her hair. She laughed and whooped with joy, as happy as never before in her short life.

That moment of utter perfection lasted for a second at most, then the wave rolled back and the water withdrew. For a moment, Izzy was stunned. Then she ran after the retreating wave, right into the ocean. And then the water came back, higher than before, bubbling right up to her face and tickling in her nose. And it was bliss, pure bliss.

Her parents later claimed that she almost drowned that day. They said that Izzy tore herself loose (no mention of the seagull, of course, cause getting shat upon by a seagull was too embarrassing), ran into the water and almost drowned, would’ve drowned, if a lifeguard hadn’t pulled her out, all pale and blue.

But that was not how Izzy remembered it. In her memories, the water buoyed her up, until she was shooting through the waves, swimming like she’d been born to it. And the water she’d inhaled didn’t harm her at all. On the contrary, it was like oxygen to her lungs, like fresh sea air, salty and delicious.

Of course, no one believed Izzy’s version of the story. She’d been only four, after all, so it was no surprise that she was misremembering a traumatic event, the therapist to whom Mom and Dad dragged her said. And then he said something about how Izzy was transforming a traumatic event into a positive experience in her mind and how it was a coping mechanism. He also said a lot of other things, but Izzy didn’t listen. That therapist was an idiot anyway.

***

Nonetheless, that was the last Izzy got to see of the ocean or indeed of any body of water deeper than a bath tub for several years. Because her parents said that Izzy couldn’t be trusted around water. She wasn’t sensible like them, not concerned about safety like them. She was wild and strange and other.

But even though she saw little of water and even less of the sea, Izzy nonetheless developed a taste for all things maritime. For starters, she developed a liking for fish and seafood and not just for fish fingers either, those bland breaded slabs of tasteless mediocrity. No, Izzy liked any sort of seafood, shrimps, clams, scallops, crabmeat, tuna, salmon, smoked and raw, sushi, even the dreaded anchovies. The saltier and fishier and weirder it tasted to her parents’ palates, the better it tasted to Izzy.

When she was twelve, a Vietnamese-American classmate introduced her to fish sauce. Izzy was in heaven. For here was the taste of the entire ocean, distilled into one little bottle. So she begged and asked and cajoled her Mom if they could buy some fish sauce for themselves.

Mom and Dad were unadventurous about eating. They inevitably bought the same brands, same foods and ordered the same dishes as they always had. And they were equally disturbed and bemused by Izzy’s insistence on trying new things all the time.

So of course, Mom didn’t want to buy fish sauce. After all, she’d never had it before and didn’t know what it was. And besides fish sauce — said with a curled lip — sounded kind of disgusting, didn’t it? For of course, Izzy’s parents didn’t like fish, unless it was breaded and fried within an inch of its life.

But eventually Izzy prevailed and Mom gave in and bought a bottle of fish sauce. And it was oh so wonderful. Izzy drizzled the stuff on everything, using fish sauce the way other kids used ketchup. Because fish sauce made everything taste better, made everything taste of the sea.

Sometimes at night, Izzy would get up, sneak into the kitchen, open the fridge, drizzle some fish sauce onto a teaspoon and put it into her mouth. And as she savoured the salty, briny liquid dissolving on her tongue, she suddenly felt as if she was four years old again, swimming in the ocean for the very first time.

But then one day, as she opened the fridge, the bottle, the familiar bottle with the red cap, was gone. Izzy looked everywhere and checked if she had accidentally misplaced it, but the bottle was nowhere to be found.

“Mom, where’s the fish sauce?” she asked.

“What?”

“The fish sauce, Mom. Where is it?”

“Oh that,” Mom said, while she was making a sandwich of fluffy snow-white bread for Dad, “I threw it out.”

“Why?”

Mom patted her on the head in that annoyingly patronising way of hers. “It had gone off, dear.”

“It tasted fine.”

“It smelled like rancid fish,” Mom said, “That means it’s gone bad. Besides…” She swirled around, floral dress flying. “…none of us actually liked the stuff.”

“I did,” Izzy said, sniffling, “I liked it. It tasted like the sea.”

Mom crooked her head and gave her a thoughtful glance. “We should really get you checked out for iodine deficiency some time. This salt and seafood obsession of yours can’t be normal.”

The test results were negative, of course. Izzy didn’t have any thyroid problems and wasn’t suffering from iodine deficiency. Though growing teenagers occasionally needed more iodine than normal, the doctor said. Or maybe the seafood cravings were due to an iron or B12 deficiency. Both were possible. So Izzy was poked and prodded and finally prescribed supplement pills. She even took them, if only to keep Mom and Dad happy.

But the pills didn’t help. For Izzy wasn’t craving iodine or iron or vitamin B12. She was craving the sea.

***

At around the same time that Izzy discovered the fish sauce, she was also finally allowed to swim again. It was Mr. Borosov, her middle school sports teacher, who did it.

“I don’t care if the girl has phobias, because she almost drowned when she was little,” he said to her parents in his buzzing Russian accent, “Phobias are there to be overcome. And the girl must learn how to swim. Then she will never almost drown again.”

So Izzy was finally allowed to formally learn swimming. And she took to it like a fish took to water.

“Are you sure you have a phobia, girl?” Mr. Borosov asked, frowning at the stop watch in his hand.

Izzy shook her head, enjoying the way droplets of water flew from her wet curls. “My parents are the ones with the phobia, not me.”

Mr. Borosov promptly declared Izzy a natural at swimming and his glowing praise — a rare thing for Mr. Borosov, who never praised anybody, if he didn’t have to — persuaded Izzy’s parents that she was responsible and grown up now and wasn’t going to drown anytime soon.

So Izzy was finally allowed to swim. After a while, she was even allowed to swim without supervision, once her parents were convinced that she was really, really not going to drown.

In high school, Izzy even made the swim team. This time around, her parents barely objected. After all, extracurricular activities and sports would look good on her college application.

Once again the swim coach, Mr. Whitelaw, declared Izzy a natural. “You swim like a seal,” he said in his high nasal voice.

Izzy took part in competitions on the local and state level and even won a few. Her parents were proud of her for once and even displayed the trophies and medals she won.

But as much as Izzy enjoyed swimming, she was only too aware that the chlorinated pools were only a pale substitute for the real thing, the sea. Cause nothing could ever compare to swimming in the sea.

Alas, seaside trips were still out, because Mom decided that sea air made her asthma act up. And so the closest Izzy ever got to swimming in the sea again was the saltwater lagoon at a stupid water park.

But through it all, she never forgot the sea, never forgot the way it had called to her in that long ago summer by the Jersey Shore.

***

In high school, Izzy also finally met someone else who was adopted. Her name was Amy and she was something of a sensation in the ordered suburban world of Herbert Hoover High School. Because Amy was not just adopted, she also had two dads. And though most of the kids at school knew about Heather and her two mommies, a girl with two dads was something new.

Izzy and Amy quickly became friends. They were both on the swim team, after all, not to mention both adopted. Though they never talked about that, until that one night Izzy was staying at Amy’s and her dads’ for a sleepover.

“Does it ever bother you?” Izzy asked that night, while she and Amy were eating a pizza, “Being adopted, I mean?”

Amy considered for a long moment. “A bit,” she finally admitted, “I mean, Dad and Pa are great, but…”

“You’d like to know where you come from, who your birth parents are,” Izzy completed. She took a bite of pizza, savouring the briny taste of anchovies and capers.

Amy nodded emphatically. “I’d like to know what they look like and if I look like them, just a little bit.”

She bit into her own pizza slice, mushroom and pepperoni and no anchovies.

“I mean, it’s easier for you, cause you look like your parents, at least sort of…”

Izzy shook her head. “Not really.”

“But Pa, Dad and I must be the only family in America where everybody is of a different race,” Amy said, “And that’s just weird. Even weirder than having two dads.”

“Did your dads also read you that stupid book The Greatest Gift?” Izzy wanted to know.

Amy shook her head. “I guess they didn’t have a same sex version.”

“Do you know anything about your birth family?” Izzy asked, munching on her pizza, “Anything at all?”

“I know that I was born in the Sichuan province in China…” Amy said, her voice dreamy and far away, “…and that I was found by the gate of an orphanage in a small village at the foot of the Hengduan Mountains. Pa and Dad said that when I finish high school, they’ll take me there to see it all for myself.”

“I know nothing about my birth family and where I was born,” Izzy said, surprised at her own sadness, “Only that I’m from the seaside.”

“Did your parents tell you that?” Amy wanted to know.

Izzy shook her head. “I just know.”

***

Ever since that night she’d spent at Amy’s, Izzy became obsessed with the idea of learning more about her parents, her true parents.

“Mom, Dad…” she blurted out one night at the dinner table, while they were having cheesy chicken casserole, “…what do you know about my parents, my birth parents I mean?”

Mom and Dad exchanged a significant glance.

“Why are you asking, dear?” Mom said, very carefully, “You were never interested in any of that before.”

“Well, I am interested now. I want to know where I come from.”

Her parents exchanged another glance.

“The agency told us this day might come…” Dad said, while Mom reached for his hand.

“Amy’s dads told her that she’s from Sichuan in China, from the something or other mountains. And after graduation, they’re going to take her there for a visit.” Izzy shoved a spoon full of cheesy chicken casserole into her mouth. “So what about me? Where am I from? And can we go visit?”

Mom and Dad exchanged yet another glance.

“We don’t know, dear,” Dad said.

“You don’t know if we can visit? But if Amy and her dads can go to China, then surely we can visit wherever I’m from.”

“No, we don’t know where you’re from,” Mom corrected.

“You don’t know?” Tears and snot were rising in her throat. Izzy did the best to fight them down. “The agency didn’t tell you?”

Dad shook his head.

“But they must know something.” Izzy brought her hand down hard on the table, setting the crockery ashudder. “I mean, it’s not as if they really collect babies in mailboxes like in that stupid book. So why didn’t they tell you?”

Mom reached out and took Izzy’s hand, patting it like one would a puppy dog.

“We didn’t want to know,” she said, “We wanted you to be our baby, not somebody else’s.”

“But that’s what I am,” Izzy said, “I’m somebody else’s child as well as yours. And I want to know where I come from, who I really am.”

Mom squeezed her hand. “You’re our baby…” she said, “…and that’s all that matters.”

Izzy shook her head. “No, it’s not.” She pulled back. “It’s not that I don’t love you.” Izzy jumped to her feet. “But I still want to know where I come from. I want to know why I’m a good swimmer, while you’re not. Why I like fish, when you don’t. Why I’ve always felt drawn to the sea.”

Izzy brought down her foot, even though she knew it made her look like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “I just want to know.”

“We understand, dear,” Dad said, though Izzy could tell from the look in his eyes that he didn’t, not really, “But we really don’t know.”

“What about the agency then?” Izzy found that all the yelling had made her throat dry and took a gulp of cola. “Surely they must know something. And they must tell me.”

“You’ll be able to access your records…” Mom began.

“…when you turn eighteen,” Dad completed.

Eighteen. That was more than two years away.

“Why then? Why not now?”

“It’s the law, dear,” Mom said, “The law says that adopted children can access their records when they turn eighteen.”

“But surely you could ask to see the files,” Izzy said, “The agency might not show them to me, but they’ll show them to you.”

“I don’t know if they will, dear,” Dad said, “After all, there are privacy issues…”

“But what if it was an emergency — like — if I was ill or something and needed blood or bone marrow or a kidney or something from a biological relative. Surely then they’d open the records.”

“But you’re not ill, dear,” Mom said.

“No, but it means there are ways around all this privacy bullshit.”

“Language, dear, language,” Mom said.

It was that more than anything else what set Izzy off. Because as she saw her parents sitting there at their perfect Early American dinner table, the perfect cheesy chicken casserole growing cold between them, upset about bad words, because what would the neighbours think, Izzy suddenly realised that she had nothing in common with them and never would. Her parents had wanted the perfect child to complete their perfect lives. Instead they got Izzy who was anything but perfect.

“Don’t interrupt me and don’t lecture me about bad language,” she yelled, so loud that she was sure the Wanamakers next door could hear her. She imagined the horrified looks on their faces and the mental image was very satisfying indeed.

“I’ll fucking talk like a I want to talk. And don’t think I don’t know why you’re suddenly so fucking concerned about how I talk. It’s because you’re derailing. Because you don’t want to talk about what really matters.”

Izzy looked from Mom to Dad and back again, taking in the expression of pure shock on their faces, and found it good. Because it meant they were listening. And maybe, just maybe they’d even get so upset that they’d send her back to the agency. Then they’d have to show her the files.

“You don’t want me to know where I come from. You don’t want me to know who my parents, my real parents are.”

“But we’re your real parents,” Mom said, her voice choked with tears.

“And you’ll always be,” Izzy said, her resolve faltering, “But I still want to see those files.”

“And you can…” Dad said in his stern head-of-the-house voice, that he’d last employed when he had forbidden Izzy to go swimming in the neighbourhood pool back in sixth grade, “…when you’re eighteen.”

“And why not now? Why won’t you help me?”

“Because it wouldn’t be good for you, dear,” Mom said, her voice almost pleading, “The agency said so…”

“Oh, the agency said so. The same agency who thought it was a good idea to read that stupid book about roly-poly teddy bears and babies in mailboxes and display windows to me every night? What the fuck do they know?”

“You don’t know what sort of people your birth parents are,” Dad said.

“You’re right. I don’t. And whose fault is that?”

“They might be drug addicts, mentally ill, in prison even,” Mom said, “You’d only be disappointed.”

“Do you think I don’t know that? I’m not stupid. I know that the people who give up their children for adoption usually aren’t prime parent material. But I still want to know.”

“When you’re eighteen,” Dad said, dialling up his stern voice another notch, “And now apologise to your mother or you can go to bed without dinner.”

“Fine,” Izzy said, “Cause I fucking hate cheesy chicken casserole anyway.”

***

Two years went by, but Mom and Dad remained adamant. Izzy could access her adoption files when she turned eighteen, but not one day before.

Secretly, her parents hoped that she’d forget, that once she turned eighteen and graduated, she just wouldn’t care anymore. But Izzy never forgot. And with every week, every month that passed, the desire to know where she came from became stronger.

She won more medals and competitions with the swim team and even got a scholarship to a good college. And Mom and Dad were proud, of course they were, because Izzy was finally playing the perfect daughter they’d always wanted.

But in private, she made plans. Plans about how she’d head for the adoption agency immediately after graduation, how she’d request her files and then visit the place she came from, the place where she’d been born.

Her best friend Amy was making plans, too, plans about going to China with her dads. She kept showing photos of Sichuan and the Hengduan Mountains to Izzy, chattering about how beautiful everything looked and how excited she was that she would finally get to see it all for herself.

Of course, Izzy also shared her own plan about paying a visit to the Child of Hope Adoption Agency in Trenton, New Jersey, with Amy, but it wasn’t quite the same. And wasn’t it typical that Amy got to be from someplace cool like the Hengduan Mountains in Sichuan, China, while all Izzy got was Trenton in fucking New Jersey?

That summer, Izzy got her first kiss, courtesy of a boy named Daniel who was bound for Duke, as he kept telling everybody who’d listen. She graduated with honours, smiled for photos with Mom and Dad and then, at the graduation after-party, she went skinny-dipping in the lake. Most of the other kids quickly left, shivering, because the water was so cold. But not Izzy. She enjoyed the coolness and even went diving down into the murky depths of the lake, where the skeletons of old shopping carts rusted away. It wasn’t the sea, but it was close.

In the early hours of the very next morning, when her hair was still slightly damp from the nightly swim in the lake, Izzy mounted the bus to Trenton. Mom and Dad were there to hug her and wave her good-bye and ask her, if she was really, really sure. Mom even cried a little, but none of that could dissuade Izzy. She was finally going to find out where she came from.

***

The offices of the Child of Hope Adoption Agency were located in a restored Victorian brownstone. The place looked friendly and light and not at all like the big house with the roly-poly teddy bears and babies kept behind glass from that stupid children’s book. They did have a mailbox, but it was way to small to put a baby in.

An almost pathologically cheery receptionist greeted her. “Hi! How can we help you today?”

“My name is Isabel Hunter,” Izzy said, “I’m here to view my files.”

“Of course, Ms. Hunter. If you’d like to proceed to the waiting room. One of our case workers will be right with you.”

The waiting room was full of hopeful couples who all eyed Izzy like a pride of hungry lions would eye a gazelle.

“Relax,” Izzy said, when their hungry stares became too much for her, “I’ve got nothing to sell. I’m the merchandise. Or rather I was, eighteen years ago.”

In a corner, there was a bookshelf, full of different editions of The Greatest Gift, featuring couples and babies in different combinations of genders and races. Izzy flipped through a few of them out of idle curiosity. They didn’t have one with two dads or two moms, she noticed. Apparently, progressiveness still had its limits here at Child of Hope.

Eventually, Izzy was called into the office of the case worker, a briskly efficient woman named Mrs. Pickwick. She was middle-aged, made-up within an inch of her life and dressed in a pink suit that clashed horribly with her fire-red dye job.

“Ms. Hunter,” she began, scrutinising Izzy over the rim of her gold-rimmed glasses, “I understand you’re here to view your files.”

Izzy nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” Because Mrs. Pickwick was simply the sort of woman you called ma’am.

“You do realise, Ms. Hunter, that you might be in for a disappointment. Whatever perfect family you might have envisioned for yourself, that’s not what you’re likely to find.”

Izzy nodded. After all, she already had the perfect family and that hadn’t worked out too well. “That’s okay. I understand.”

“Women who give up their babies for adoption rarely live in happy circumstances,” Mrs. Pickwick said, “Putting up a child for adoption is a hard choice, but it’s often the best one. That’s why our service is so important to parents, birth mothers and of course our children of hope…”

“There’s no need for the sales pitch,” Izzy interrupted, “I was one of your children of hope, remember?”

Mrs. Pickwick blinked. Apparently she wasn’t used to being interrupted in the middle of her sales pitch.

“I just wanted to make sure that you’ve thought about this, that you are aware of the consequences,” she said.

“Believe me, I’ve thought about this for two years,” Izzy said, “So yes, I am sure.”

“All right then.” Mrs. Pickwick opened a file on her desk, flipped through the contents and frowned. “Oh. This is… unusual.”

“Is that my file?” Izzy wanted to know, so bouncy with anticipation that she could barely keep in her seat, “What does it say?”

“Yes, this is your file, but…” Mrs. Pickwick shot Izzy a look that was full of pity. “…I’m pretty sure this is not what you want to hear.”

“Why? Is my mother… my birth mother…” she corrected herself, “…dead? Is she in prison?”

“Like I said, this isn’t what you want to hear…” Mrs. Pickwick began.

“I want to hear it,” Izzy insisted and it took all her self-control not to reach across the desk and snatch the file out of Mrs. Pickwick’s hands, “Whatever it is, I can take it.”

After all, how bad could it be? Drugs, probably. Maybe prison? A life-threatening inheritable disease? Death? Incest?

“Please, Mrs. Pickwick. I’ve waited for this moment for years. I just want to know where I come from.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hunter,” Mrs. Pickwick stammered, “But we do not have any information about your birth mother.”

“Nothing?” Without noticing, Izzy rose from the visitor chair and leant over the desk, trying to catch just a glimpse of the file. “But you’ve got to know something. I mean, it’s not as if people really dump off babies in the mailbox here.”

Mrs. Pickwick looked up from the file. She’d put on her compassionate face, Izzy noticed, the face she probably wore when meeting with potential clients.

“You’re a foundling, Ms. Hunter,” she said.

“A… what?” Izzy exclaimed. So far she’d only seen the word in the context of those regency romances Mom sometimes read, where foundlings regularly turned out to be wealthy heiresses and marry even wealthier dukes.

“You were abandoned on the boardwalk in Ocean City, where a patrolman found you,” Mrs. Pickwick said, the compassion in her voice dialled up to eleven, “The police failed to locate your mother and no one ever came forwards, so you were eventually put up for adoption. There’s an article from the Ocean City Sentinel in the file.”

Mrs. Pickwick handed Izzy a newspaper clipping, yellowed with age. The article was dated July 17, 1996, the day after Izzy’s birthday.

A newborn baby girl, only a few hours old, the article said, was found on a bench on the boardwalk, right across from the fudge and salt water taffy shop, in the early hours of the morning. The baby girl was found wrapped in a fur coat and perfectly healthy. The police was urgently seeking witnesses.

There was a photo of the fur coat, too, though it was so blurry that Izzy could barely make it out. Or maybe that was just the tears — stupid, silly tears, salty like the sea — rising in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hunter,” Mrs. Pickwick said, “I did try to warn you.”

***

Izzy took the next bus to Ocean City. What else could she do? Ocean City was where the trail led, so Ocean City was where she’d go.

She’d talk to the police there, she decided. Maybe they could help her. Maybe they knew more than what was in that yellowing newspaper article.

On the bus, she got a text from Amy, who was at LAX with her dads, waiting to board the plane that would take them to Beijing.

“How r things on ur end?” Amy wrote.

“Heading for Ocean City, NJ,” Izzy wrote back, “BTW I was right. I am from the sea.”

Well, not from the sea exactly. From the boardwalk. Still, Izzy figured that was close enough.

Ocean City, so the map app on her phone told her, was not far from Avalon, the town where Izzy and her parents had spent that fateful holiday by the Jersey Shore, back when she was four. Coincidence? Or had her parents known something after all?

The bus stopped at Ocean City Tenth Street Station. Izzy hopped off and went on the boardwalk. It was only logical — after all, that was where she’d been found, opposite a fudge and salt water taffy store.

Alas, it turned out that the boardwalk was more than two miles long and had several shops selling fudge and salt water taffy. Izzy stopped at every single one of them — even though she’d figured out she didn’t care about salt water taffy at all after the first — to ask about a baby abandoned opposite their shop eighteen years before. Alas, the sales clerks were mostly teens her own age or younger, for whom eighteen years ago might just as well have been during the Pleistocene.

But apart from the surfeit of salt water taffy shops with unhelpful sales clerks, Izzy really enjoyed the boardwalk. She loved the way her feet echoed on the wooden planks. She loved the sounds, the jingles of the amusement arcades, the shouts of the barkers, the clatter of the mini-golf courses, the music spilling out of shops and cafés, the hydraulic rattling of the thrill rides on Wonderland Pier, the cries of the seagulls and above all the roaring of the sea. She loved the smells, fries and fish and caramel and candy all intermingling in the salty sea air. She loved feeling of the sun on her skin, the wind in her hair, the sea spray on her face.

It was as if part of her had always known this place, even though she’d never been here before. It felt like coming home and in a way that’s what it was. Coming home.

The shops and stalls and cafés along the boardwalk offered all sorts of maritime delicacies and Izzy tried them all. She had fried fish and crabcakes and clam chowder and fried shrimp and spicy Dungeness crab and a whole bucket full of steamed mussels. All the salty, briny riches of the ocean were finally hers to eat and no Mom and Dad were there to stop her.

In the end, she bought herself an ice cream cone for dessert and set down on one of the benches along the boardwalk — so many benches — to look out across the sea. She watched the waves crashing onto the beach, watched the little children chasing the ocean under the watchful eyes of their parents. And as she watched, she felt the sea calling out to her, calling her to step into its wet embrace.

She’d go swimming, Izzy decided, right here in the ocean. What was worst that could happen? She wasn’t going to drown this time. After all, she was the North Eastern regional junior swimming champion. She had a medal that said so.

But first things first. And so Izzy reluctantly turned her back on the ocean and went in search of the local police station.

***

Ocean City police department was headquartered in a squarish brick building just off the boardwalk that looked solid and reassuring.

Izzy told the desk sergeant who she was and what she wanted and was told to sit down in the waiting area among tourists who’d been robbed by pickpockets and a crying couple who had lost their wayward toddler on the boardwalk. A police woman quickly appeared to take the crying couple away, then the tourists were called in one by one, until there was just Izzy, perched on an aged plastic chair and waiting.

She checked her watch and wondered about Amy, who had to be somewhere high above the Pacific at this very moment. She decided to send Amy another text, though she knew that Amy wouldn’t be able to access her messages, let alone answer for several hours yet.

“I’m a foundling, too, just like u,” she texted, “Gonna talk to police, find out more.”

Finally, Izzy was called in to see Lieutenant Kennedy, a man in his forties with kind eyes and faded reddish hair.

He squinted at Izzy and smiled.

“So you’re the boardwalk baby,” he said and held out his hand, “I was the one who found you, you know? I’ve always wondered what became of you.”

He bade Izzy to sit down and even offered her coffee, strong and dark and solid just like the whole police station.

“I was still a patrolman back then,” he said, “I had the early bird shift, patrolling the boardwalk and chasing away the bums and the drunks and the homeless before the tourists came. I didn’t find many of those — they’d learned to avoid me.”

He took a sip of his own coffee, lost in reminiscence.

“Then, on the bench right across from Pete’s Fudge and Salt Water Taffy…”

Izzy quickly scribbled the name down, so she wouldn’t forget.

“…I saw something grey and furry. At first I thought it was a dog – we’d been having problems with feral dogs for a while. But as I approached, I heard a quiet mewling and so I thought, ‘It’s a cat. A very big cat.’ But once I reached the bench, I saw that it was a little baby, entirely naked and wrapped only in a fur coat. And that’s how I found you.”

“What happened then?” Izzy wanted to know.

“I picked you up and took you to Shore Memorial. You were such a sweet little thing back then, so tiny. And those big dark eyes…”

He looked directly at Izzy. “You’ve still got them, those big sad dark eyes, you know? Anyway, the doctors said you were perfectly healthy, so child protection services got involved and found a foster family for you. I lost sight of you then, though I heard you were eventually adopted.”

Izzy nodded. “That’s right.” She paused. “Did I have a name? Or did you just call me ‘Jane Doe’ or something?”

“Eloisa,” Lieutenant Kennedy said with a smile, “We named you Eloisa after a dancer who was performing at the Music Pier back then. She could make the most amazing contortions…”

“Eloisa,” Izzy repeated, savouring every syllable. Eloisa. It sounded wild, exotic, adventurous. Like the name of a pirate queen. She’d use it as her middle name, Izzy decided, just like Amy sometimes referred to herself as Amy Mei Lin Chadwick.

“I guess your parents didn’t keep the name,” Lieutenant Kennedy said.

Izzy shook her head. “They called me Isabel, after Mom’s mom.”

“That’s a nice and sensible name,” Lieutenant Kennedy said kindly, “Probably better than Eloisa.”

That, Izzy thought, was a matter of opinion. She leant forwards. “Do you know anything about my birth parents? Anything at all?”

Lieutenant Kennedy shook his head. “We investigated and searched for witnesses, but without success. And back in the 1990s, we didn’t have CCTV cameras on the boardwalk, so no luck there either.”

He paused and looked straight at Izzy with his kindly eyes.

“During the season, the town is full of vacationers, daytrippers and other transients. People who are here one day and gone the next. We always suspected that your mother must’ve been one of them. For a while we hoped she’d come forward herself, but she never did.” He shook his head. “Sorry, kid.”

“And there was nothing else?” Izzy probed, “No note, no piece of paper, no toy, no locket, no clue at all?”

Lieutenant Kennedy shook his head. “Just the fur coat,” he said, “I always found that weird, a fur coat in July. I guess your mother wanted you to be warm.”

“Did you ever try to trace the coat?”

“We did, but again it was to no avail. The coat didn’t have a label for starters. It was of good quality, handmade, but likely not in the US. We had a lot of Russians back then, so maybe that’s where the coat and you came from.”

“What happened to the coat?” Izzy wanted to know.

“Still in evidence, as far as I know.” Lieutenant Kennedy shrugged. “I haven’t thought of it in years.”

“Could… could I see it?”

“Well, it’s theoretically against the rules, but… — Oh, what the heck? It’s not as if we have much of a chance of solving this case anyway after eighteen years. Just wait her and I’ll be right back.”

So Izzy waited and studied the family photos on Lieutenant Kennedy’s desk, while she was at it. She saw another perfect family. Mom, Dad and two boys, smiling for the camera, happy as clams.

After a few minutes, Lieutenant Kennedy returned, bearing a cardboard box with a case number and the word “open” scrawled on the side, just like in the cop shows on TV. He opened the box and withdrew a slightly battered folder.

“Here,” he said and pushed the folder towards Izzy, “There’s a photo of you in here as you looked, when I found you.”

The photo was affixed to the folder with a paperclip that had gone rusty in the past eighteen years. It was an old-fashioned Polaroid, similar to the ones Izzy had seen of herself as a toddler under the family Christmas tree. The baby in the photo was staring in the camera with huge, dark eyes. She looked frightened and who wouldn’t be, in a foreign place surrounded by strangers? Izzy tried to recognise herself in the photo, but she couldn’t. It was just a faded Polaroid of a terrified baby that could’ve been anyone.

Izzy pushed the folder back to Lieutenant Kennedy. “Could I see the coat now?”

Lieutenant Kennedy handed her the open box. And there it was, the coat. It was a silvery grey, beautiful and luxurious. Izzy let her hand run over the soft fur and received a little jolt. She longed to put the coat on, to let it enfold her in its soft embrace like it had on that fateful night eighteen years ago.

“Do you know what fur it is?” she asked, still stroking the coat.

“My first guess was silver fox,” Lieutenant Kennedy said, “But the forensics people said it’s seal. This is also why we suspected that it’s either old or foreign, because seal fur hasn’t been politically correct since the eighties at least.”

The urge to put on the coat became ever stronger. Izzy wanted to grab it, put it on and run, run for the boardwalk and the sea beyond. It took all of her willpower to resist. After all, Lieutenant Kennedy had been so nice to her and Izzy really didn’t want to get him into trouble.

“Could… could I have the coat, please?” she asked, “After all, it’s the only thing I have of my mother.”

Lieutenant Kennedy gave her a long look. “I could really get in trouble for this…” he said, “…but why the heck not? We’re likely not going to solve this case after all these years, the statute of limitation has probably long since run out and things get lost in storage all the time. Besides, you are the legal owner of the coat.” He winked at her. “Just don’t tell anybody, okay.”

“I won’t,” Izzy promised.

Lieutenant Kennedy went to fetch another cardboard box, identical to the first except for the case number on the side, and transferred the coat from one box to the other, carefully folding it up.

“Here you are,” he said and handed her the box.

Izzy spontaneously hugged him. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Thank you for everything.”

***

Izzy returned to the boardwalk, the box under her arm. People gave her curious looks, but she ignored them.

She found Pete’s Fudge and Salt Water Taffy and sat down on a bench right across from the shop. She still had no way of knowing whether this was really the right bench, but it was pretty likely.

Carefully, she put down the box next to her and checked her mobile, but there was still no message from Amy. Still in the air, probably.

“Sitting on bench where I was found as a baby,” she texted, “Got my mom’s fur coat.”

She opened the box just a little bit and let her fingers trail across the soft, silvery fur. And once again, she received a tiny electrical jolt.

Behind her, the sun was setting and Izzy realised with a pang of sadness that it was probably too late to go swimming now. She should get up and find herself a motel for the night, like she’d promised Mom and Dad she would.

And talking of Mom and Dad, she should really call them like she promised she would. But the moment was so perfect that Izzy just stayed on her bench, looking out across the churning ocean.

A wind was blowing in from the sea, and though the day had been warm, it carried a bit of chill. Gooseflesh prickled on her bare arms. She’d put on the coat, Izzy decided, and to hell with what people thought. After all, it was her birthright.

The coat wrapped around her like a second skin, soft and warm and perfect. And though people promenading along the boardwalk gave her strange looks, Izzy neither noticed nor cared. Because her eyes, big and dark as on the day she’d been found on this very bench, were focussed on the sea and the sea alone.

The ocean was calling out to her again, singing a siren song only Izzy could hear. It was just like that perfect summer’s day on the beach back when she was four and the sea had called to her, called for her to come home. But the lure was much stronger now.

Without really noticing, Izzy rose to her feet. Just in front of her, a staircase led from the boardwalk down to the beach. Izzy walked down those stairs, steadily descending towards the beach and the sea beyond. Her mobile beeped, announcing a message, but Izzy ignored it.

She paused briefly to take off her trainers, then she stepped onto the beach, enjoying the way the sand crunched between her toes.

“Hey, chica, what’s with the coat?” a boy called out, but Izzy didn’t even hear him. All her senses were focussed on the sea.

She walked steadily towards the ocean as if drawn by an invisible magnet. Soon the saltwater swept across her bare feet, while the sea foam soaked the hem of her coat. And still Izzy walked on, further and further into the sea. Her mobile beeped once more and gave up the ghost.

The water was already up to her waist, when she heard someone shouting behind her, “Hey, you there in the fur coat. Come back!”

Izzy turned around and saw a lifeguard jumping up and down on the beach, gesticulating with his lifebuoy. Izzy smiled. Either lifeguards had gotten a lot slower in the past fourteen years or Izzy no longer looked as if she was in immediate danger of drowning.

“It’s okay,” she called back to the lifeguard, “I can swim.”

“You’re going to drown, you stupid bitch”, the lifeguard yelled, “The coat will soak itself full of water and drag you down.”

Izzy shook her head. “No, it won’t.” She smiled. “It’s okay, really.”

She threw herself forward into the waves. And like the lifeguard had said, the fur soaked up the water and became heavier and heavier, dragging her down. The wet coat fused itself to her body until Izzy couldn’t have taken it off, even if she’d wanted to.

But she didn’t drown. Instead, she swam, shooting through the water as if she was born to it. And the water she swallowed didn’t harm her. Instead, she found she could breathe it, breathe it as easily as air.

Behind her, the lifeguard jumped into the water with a curse and set off after her, but Izzy easily outswam him. Because she was faster and more agile than any mere human could be.

Part of her was vaguely aware that they’d say she’d drowned herself, overcome with grief at not finding her birth family. Mom and Dad and Amy and all her friends at school would be devastated. But they’d all be wrong. For Izzy wasn’t overcome with grief. She was happy, as happy as she’d ever been.

She swam until the Jersey Shore had been reduced to a band of lights on the horizon. And still Izzy swam on, headed for the shoals off the coast. In the distance, she heard the barks and cries of her own kind, her true family.

Izzy smiled, as her fur covered body plunged once more beneath the waves. After eighteen years, she’d finally come home.

The End

***

I hope you enjoyed this story.  Check back next month, when a new edition of First Monday Free Fiction will be posted.

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Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month for June 2019

Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month
It’s that time of the month again, time for “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some May books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Once again, we have new releases covering the whole broad spectrum of speculative fiction. This month, we have epic fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal mystery, science fiction romance, space opera, military science fiction, YA science fiction, science fantasy, dystopian fiction, LitRPG, horror, time travel, first contact, witches, ghosts, mermaids, aliens, space pirates, renegades, stowaways, crime-busting witches, crime-busting ghosts, time-travelling tax collectors, the fae mafia, ancient evils and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a group blog run by Jessica Rydill and myself, which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things speculative fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Hero Code by Lindsay BurokerHero Code by Lindsay Buroker:

Casmir Dabrowski is finally heading back to his home world, determined to gain an audience with the queen and convince her to tell him the secret of his genes. But the terrorists who have been sending robot assassins after him are still there—and still want him dead.

As soon as he lands, the trouble starts. His best friend is whisked off by Royal Intelligence, his new ally walks him into a trap, and he learns the queen isn’t in the city.

But the king is.

Casmir finds himself face to face with the man who has the power to wave a hand and have him and everyone he loves tortured, imprisoned, or even slain. King Jager isn’t pleased with the role Casmir played in keeping Fleet warships from claiming an ancient technology for the Kingdom.

If Casmir can’t convince Jager that he’s worth keeping around, he could lose everything and everyone he cares about.

Renegade Descent by J.N. ChaneyRenegade’s Descent by J.N. Chaney:

The Celestial War has arrived.

Captain Hughes and his team of rebels have created a shaky alliance with the same government that sought to end them, but even that might not be enough.

In order to combat the Celestial threat, Jace will need to convince the Sarkonian Emperor to not only join his cause but lend him the resources he needs to overpower the enemy.

The battle for tomorrow will take more than any single empire can manage.

Each side will have to learn to work together if they ever hope to overcome their shared enemy, but allies are not easily made from enemies, and not everyone will be as eager to stand side-by-side.

With allies like the Union and the Sarkonians, who needs enemies?

Maximum Experience by Misty DaisMaximum Experience by Misty Dais:

A gap year gone wrong,

A spaceship of comatose adults,

A mysterious stowaway on board,

Can the surviving teens work together long enough to survive?

Can a teen from the Sidewalks save them all?

The United Corporations Youth Space Corps Gap Year Program!

For a nothing girl from the Sidewalks a gap year with the United Corporations Youth Space Corps seemed a way to escape her destiny of poverty, or at least delay it. Her plan had been to get some Maximum Experience credentials for her resume and her social media account. Instead of the breezy year of selfies and mundane work experience, she finds herself on a spaceship hijacked by a stowaway and trying to find a cure for the adult crew members that have been stricken by a comatose virus. It could be a good experience for her resume….. but only if she survives

Moonstruck by Dannika DarkMoonstruck by Dannika Dark:

Transporting goods is part of the job, but when Keystone accepts the daunting task of moving precious cargo, the team splits up. Raven has orders to follow, but Christian’s seductive ways draw out her violent soul. Their journey is dangerous, their enemies ruthless, and one misstep could prove fatal.

When one team member mysteriously vanishes, the rest must choose between cutting their losses in the face of chaos or seeing it through to the bitter end. Will Keystone have the fortitude to complete the mission, or will they fall like dominoes?

United they stand, divided they fall.

Heist Online by Victor DeckardHeist Online by Victor Deckard:

Heist Online is an action-packed virtual reality video game about cops and criminals.

If you want to play on the wrong side of the law, you can participate in a variety of heists. You can rob banks, jewelry stores, armored cash vehicles, etc. If you prefer to play as a cop, however, your task is to stop robbers.

Striker plays as a heister. When he and his teammates have been returning from a successful robbery, another team of heisters has attacked them and taken their money away.

Striker then finds out that he and his friends aren’t the only players whom the mysterious gang has robbed. Some of the victims want to get even with them. Still, nobody has achieved any success in tracking them down yet. No one knows who they are, why they rob other heisters, or where to find them.

A few days later, when Striker escapes with stolen money after another successful robbery, he happens to run into the mysterious gang again. They try to rob him, but he manages to repel the attack and ward the players off.

Later on, Striker finds out that the members of the mysterious gang have trashed his home out of revenge. After that, he gets determined to hunt them down. He has a score to settle.

Stephanie's Challenge by M.K. EidemStephanie’s Challenge by M.K. Eidem:

Stephanie Michelakakis worked and sacrificed for her position as a Lieutenant in the Coalition. She was on track to become the first woman ever accepted into a Royal Guard, specifically King Jotham’s Royal Guard. Then a life-altering injury shattered her dreams. Now she must figure out how to move on with her life. Nicholas Deffand was the youngest male ever named as the Captain of King Jotham’s Royal Guard. He served and protected his King to the exclusion of everything else. But now he’s found a woman who not only understood what his job entailed but his dedication to it as well.These two dedicated people never expected to find love. Will they be strong enough to make it work or will their relationship be another sacrifice they must make?

Edge of Magic by Jayne FaithEdge of Magic by Jayne Faith:

A stolen sword, the Fae mafia, and an old crush are about to crash Tara Knightley’s orderly life…

Between paying off a debt to a Fae mob boss, working as a professional thief, and keeping up with her busy three-generation household, Tara Knightley barely has time to eat and sleep. She’s used to the juggling act, but sometimes it feels like she’ll never really have a life of her own. Then she learns of a bounty for a mysterious magical skull. The reward would mean freedom her powerful, manipulative boss.

She must get her hands on that skull.

But just as Tara is ready to go after the prize, her childhood best friend and crush, wolf shifter Judah McMahon, shows up asking for help. It’s been a decade since the falling out that ended their friendship, and Tara knows she shouldn’t get involved. But Judah’s life is threatened, so Tara gives in. The deeper she gets, the more her orderly existence unravels. She’s going to have to choose: her family, Judah, or her freedom.

Absolution by Rachel FordAbsolution by Rachel Ford:

New wars and old conflicts. An empire reborn from blood and ash.

Nikia Idan led an uprising that liberated the Tribari people. Brek Trigan saved his colony from starvation. Captain Drake Elgin protected the citizens of Central from loyalist forces. The worst was supposed to be behind them.

When a loyalist fleet appears in Tribari airspace, the tenuous alliance between military and parliament is strained to the point of breaking. Meanwhile, a rogue governor’s quest for independence will put the empire’s promise of freedom to the test.

The decisions of these few will change the fate of many.

Mob Bosses and Tax Losses by Rachel FordMob Bosses and Tax Losses by Rachel Ford:

A decades old case. A charismatic gumshoe. A sinister don.

Alfred Favero, Senior Analyst with the IRS, shouldn’t have muddled the timeline. But curiosity got the better of him.

There was killing and a cat involved too*, but he’d rather not talk about that. Suffice it to say, a mafia prince is dead, and Alfred is on the run through time with a wrongly accused detective.

To unmask the men framing his new friend, he’ll tangle with New York City’s most sinister criminals. It’ll take all of his knowledge, and investigations across multiple timelines, to get to the bottom of it – before he finds himself sleeping with the fishes.

* No pets are harmed in this book. The cat definitely does not die

Godswar by Chris FoxGodswar by Chris Fox:

Nefarius comes and gods tremble

Nefarius has risen. She is implacable. Unstoppable. God after god is fallen and consumed, and each time the terrible dragon-goddess grows stronger.

Nebiat has stolen the Spellship, depriving Voria of its strength when she needs it most. But Nebiat’s schemes have never been tested by someone like Talifax, and she will finally discover she’s not as clever as she believes.

One possibility of victory remains. Aran, Nara, and Kazon discover their true purpose, left by the elder god Xal when he planned for his own demise. With this contingency they have one chance to oppose Nefarius. One chance to stop the goddess that will devour everything.

If they fail darkness wins, and our universe will be extinguished. Succeeding carries its own price, one Aran must choose for others to live.

The Dirty Coven by Lily Harper HartThe Dirty Coven by Lily Harper Hart:

Hannah Hickok is at a crossroads in her life. She’s single, out of a job, and living in an apartment she absolutely hates in a suburb of Detroit. All that changes when she receives a registered letter and finds out she’s inherited a performance town.Casper Creek is located in Kentucky, on top of a small mountain, and is fashioned after notorious towns from the old west. Workers dress up, man the saloon, and put on a variety of performances several times a day. A city girl, Hannah is out of her element. She’s determined to give it a shot, though.Cooper Wyatt is head of security at Casper Creek and the last thing he wants to do is break in a new owner … especially one who has no idea about the paranormal world she’s about to be immersed in. You see, Casper Creek is home to a variety of individuals, including two covens of witches who enjoy doing battle.Hannah is barely in town when a body drops and a mystery unfolds. The workers at Casper Creek have more on their minds than performances. Unfortunately for them, Hannah is about to find out their big secret. Even worse, she’s about to find out she comes from a long line of witches … and magic is in her genes.Casper Creek is full of colorful people. They’re all going to have to come together if they want to fight pure evil. Will they manage it in time? It’s almost high noon and the magic fight is about to begin.

The Resurrectionists by Michael Patrick HicksThe Resurrectionists by Michael Patrick Hicks:

Having won his emancipation after fighting on the side of the colonies during the American Revolution, Salem Hawley is a free man. Only a handful of years after the end of British rule, Hawley finds himself drawn into a new war unlike anything he has ever seen.

New York City is on the cusp of a new revolution as the science of medicine advances, but procuring bodies for study is still illegal. Bands of resurrectionists are stealing corpses from New York cemeteries, and women of the night are disappearing from the streets, only to meet grisly ends elsewhere.

After a friend’s family is robbed from their graves, Hawley is compelled to fight back against the wave of exhumations plaguing the Black cemetery. Little does he know, the theft of bodies is key to far darker arts being performed by the resurrectionists. If successful, the work of these occultists could spell the end of the fledgling American Experiment… and the world itself.

The Resurrectionists, the first book in the Salem Hawley series, is a novella of historical cosmic horror from the author of Broken Shells and Mass Hysteria.

Transformation Protocol by David M. KellyTransformation Protocol by David M. Kelly:

Change can be deadly!

With his life crumbling around him, Joe Ballen is close to going out in a blaze, fueled by cheap alcohol and self-hatred. But when something “out there” starts destroying spaceships and stations, the only JumpShip available to investigate is the Shokasta—locked away by Joe in an attempt to get justice for his family.

But when an old friend offers him the chance to return to space in the hunt for a missing ship, it proves more complicated than either of them imagined. With all sides of the political spectrum looking to grab a piece of the newly explored star systems, Joe soon realizes that some people will go to any lengths to get what they want, and are willing to sacrifice anyone in the process.

And when Joe’s past catches up with him in a way he couldn’t have seen coming, he must battle enemies new and old as well as his own inner demons.

Bad Vibe by David MayoBad Vibe by David Mayo:

Something unusual and unique occurs in the mid-forties in the U.S and serves as the seed of change that will transpire eighty years later.

Clayton Atwood is an uncommitted academic pinball, bouncing between college curricula that strike his fancy, unconcerned with scholastic advancement or degrees. Orphaned by his parent’s death early on, he lives with his eccentric uncle. Looking forward a carefree trip to Europe, his plans are interrupted by an innocuous note taped to his front door. It changes the course of his future.

In an unassuming building adjacent to Rice University in Houston, Clay learns that all he knew of his past is wrong and that he is now the center of an astounding scientific project that will help all mankind, but place one peaceful alien civilization in jeopardy, and attract genocidal hatred and retribution from another. In the mix is a ruthless assassin looking to wipe Clay off the face of the earth. It all comes to a brutal and violent conclusion at a secret Nevada military base.

Can earth’s cultures withstand the societal impact that free energy would bring?

Can Clay come to grips with his changing self?

Idimmu by David MayoIdimmu: An Ancient Evil by David Mayo:

Since ancient Sumer it has been imprisoned. It was never meant to escape.

Former Vatican archivist Gwendolyn Myers knew of the legend, but she never expected to discover the truth. The elderly scholar’s curiosity proved fateful.
Gwendolyn’s niece, Anjanette, works as a nurse in Houston where she notices strange similarities in horrifically injured ER arrivals. After Anjanette and her boyfriend, Macon move into her aunt’s house, the horrors follow them home and begin spreading throughout the neighborhood and beyond.

Why does Macon suddenly develop an overriding interest in true-mirrors and psychomanteums that he can’t quite explain?

Can the analytical mind of a police detective deal with the paranormal claims of Anjanette’s small group of friends?

Can Anjanette accept the amazing truth of her birthright?

There is something of indescribable evil starving for blood and terror. A seemingly unstoppable evil has been unleashed that a small group, led by Anjanette, must desperately try to confront.

The Vestal's Steward by Alix NicholsThe Vestal’s Steward by Alix Nichols:

He guards her life, but she’d better guard her heart.

War is coming. Insurrection brews. But royal prioress Aynu Eckme keeps out of politics. To her, only the temple counts.

Aynu is relieved with her recent hire of Rhori Tidryn, a former prizefighter. He’s humble, competent, tough. Just the man to ensure her safety in such troubled times!

It matters not that he stirs something peculiar in her. Something improper and beautiful…

An insurgent by night, Rhori loves his new job as Prioress Eckme’s steward. Even the worst part—drinking a foul goo every week to suppress his baser needs.

Rhori would do anything for the prioress.

When he takes the vow of devotion, he’s prepared to serve her for the rest of his life. He’d die for her without blinking an eyelid. It would be easy, given how much he worships her already.

The problem is, he worships her in all the wrong ways.

The Rule of Yonder by M.A. NillesThe Rule of Yonder by M.A. Nilles:

Despite their narrow escape from the Issan, Zaer’s starship, the Da’Nelgur, was severely damaged. Vel and Shen have tried to fix the hyperdrive, and Nya is sound asleep. Their only chance to repair the ship to continue their journey to Ethal is a crime-syndicate-run remote city in interstellar space.

Yonder Station is not a place where anyone with sense wants to stay long, but it has its advantages. A home to salvagers, dealers, hustlers, and assassins, it is also a valuable trading post for the fringe of the galaxy, especially for information. The latest news is the Da’Nelgur’s involvement with the Issan and the mysterious portals.

When Zaer is taken by one of the crimelords seeking what she knows about the portals, it’s up to Nik and Nya to rescue her. But that same crimelord wants them too. To rescue Zaer, they’ll need to avoid being captured while tracking where she might have been taken. What they discover could get them killed, or it could gain them powerful new allies. What could go wrong?

Shadows of the Overlord by Kevin PotterShadow of the Overlord by Kevin Potter:

A heroine no one knows they need. A reluctant warrior with a dark secret. A crumbling kingdom on the brink of war.

Taliesimon has always dreamed of being the first female Dragoon warrior, but the commander and his lackeys will do anything to ensure she fails.

An itinerant sell-sword, William’s life is nothing like he imagined. His two greatest enemies are the bottle, which he takes no pains to avoid, and his past, which he avoids at all costs.

When the king mysteriously disappears, the kingdom teeters on the verge of collapse. If neither he nor his estranged son, the prince, can be found, the kingdom will fall into the hands of a brilliant mastermind working from the shadows.

As an unknown threat rises, a violent raid brings William and Taliesimon together in an uneasy alliance with tremendous potential for disaster.

With enemies on all sides, can they put their differences aside in time to save humanity from a brutal war unlike anything the world has ever seen?

The Undead Uproar by Amanda M. LeeThe Undead Uproar by Amanda M. Lee:

Charlie Rhodes is living the high life … at least for her. She lucked into a new apartment, her boyfriend Jack is attentive and sweet, and she’s about to head to the Big Easy to hunt for zombies.Yes, a multitude of dreams are about to come true.Charlie has never been to New Orleans and she’s in awe of everything she sees. Jack is determined to make sure she has a good time, which means authentic food, music and haunted tours. He’s happy just to be with her as she investigates the city.The one sore spot of the trip is the talk of zombies. Jack doesn’t believe they exist. Charlie and their boss think it’s possible. Oh, yeah, and dead bodies are rising all over town and no one can explain why.Charlie is at a crossroads in her life. She has magic at her disposal and the people in New Orleans might be the only ones with answers as to why she is the way she is. The question is: Who to trust?The closer Charlie and Jack get, the more she realizes she has to tell him the truth. She’s running out of time, though. She needs to protect the people she cares about most and solve an unthinkable crime. She has no idea how to do it.New Orleans is a magical city and Charlie is a magical girl. She can’t hide forever, though. The truth will come out with at least one person … she just has to survive long enough to explain her side of things in the aftermath.That’s not a given in a world where the dead are rising … and trying to kill everybody they come in contact with.

Wicked on the Beach by Lotta SmithWicked on the Beach: June Bride and Mermaid’s Fury by Lotta Smith:

Beach wedding and a murder… Throw in an angry mermaid threatening to destroy the wedding!

There’s trouble in Paradise, and the Rowling family is on the case.

The island wedding of Mandy’s BFF Fiona and famous exorcist Brian Powers becomes the backdrop for a murder investigation when the body of a notorious loan shark is found in the dunes. But how did a man drown so far from the water?

An angry mermaid threatens to wreak havoc if the killer isn’t caught, but with no spirits to question, does Mandy stand a ghost of a chance to solve the case?

Sword of Mars by Glynn StewartSword of Mars by Glynn Stewart:

A defector with a dangerous lead
A chance to speak for the silent
A perilous quest into enemy stars

When the star system of Legatus was preparing to secede from the Protectorate of the Mage-King of Mars, it was the secret agents of the Legatan Military Intelligence Directorate that laid the groundwork and fought the covert war to make it happen.

Now, as the open conflict draws to a bloody stalemate, LMID has been broken. Their leader is dead, murdered by agents of the Republic they helped birth. Their surviving agents have scattered, following a final protocol that orders them to defect to the Protectorate.

An old friend brings all of this to Damien Montgomery, First Hand of the Mage-King, and begs for his help in unravelling the mystery. The only answers lie where the Hands of Mars should never go: on the worlds of the Republic.

Farling's Wall by Chris TurnerFarling’s Wall by Chris Turner:

A band of adventurers flee from Sloe, the fabled Blue City of the south, as lowly outlaws wanted for stealing a glamorous princess. Their fate—a perilous plod through the Brauvn forest to come to the gates of Farling’s Wall and the realm of the Wickles.

Be wary! not scary, and don’t tarry by the gloom of Farling’s Wall…
—Old limerick

In this rich journey of adventure, villainy, and sophisticated language, heroism prevails and spellcraft brings captivity.

Pirate Bayne by James David VictorPirate Bayne by James David Victor:

If you can’t beat them, join them. Then maybe beat them. Or go down in a blaze of glory.

A space opera in the deep black of space from James David Victor

Bayne and the crew of the Deep Blue have found themselves in the hornet’s nest, so to speak. With nowhere else to go, they are forced into a battle that can have no winners. Can they defeat the enemies on all sides or will the captain go down with his ship, or will he even have a ship. Can Bayne save himself and his crew or are they doomed to a fate none of them ever wanted?

Pirate Bayne is the fourth book in the exciting Deep Black space opera. If you like fast-paced space adventure, rogue pirates, and stories more complex than good vs. evil, you are going to love your visit to the Deep Black.

The Unholy Trinity Series by A.E. WilliamsThe Unholy Trinity Series by A.E. Williams:

The Unholy Trinity Collection

Imperius Wrecks – The first in a series of satirical and humorous looks at one possible future! A nightmare or a dream – you get to decide.
In the far distant future, a nun is tasked with ancient rituals descended from one man’s egotistical grasp for power and immortality. Could this really happen?

Second Coming – Jesus bets His half-brother, Lucifer that the bet God made with him regarding Job can be done, again, and better. The implications are breathtaking! Does the Big J wind up the victor? Or, does the Devil get his due?

Anno Domini – Jesus and Lucifer’s betting is getting out of hand! This time, Jesus bets that the souls of the most outstanding humans ever born can redeem Mankind from original Sin. But, there’s a catch! A Virgin Birth is part of the scheme, but maybe Jesus didn’t think everything through?

Filled with religious references, popular concerns of the day, and a cast of totally fictional characters, this satire puts a spin on current events that will have you spitting coffee all over yourself in shock, from laughing or pure unadulterated rage. You’ll be aghast at the content, the implications and the mirror held up to our world.

Come along as A.E. Williams once more pulls no punches as he slams the One Percent, Religion and Political parties of all stripes!

The Unholy Trinity series of short stories will blow your mind as only A.E. Williams can!

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Indie Crime Fiction of the Month for June 2019

Welcome to the latest edition of “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some May books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Our new releases cover the broad spectrum of crime fiction. We have cozy mysteries, small town mysteries, animal mysteries, culinary mysteries, historical mysteries, jazz age mysteries, hard boiled mysteries, paranormal mysteries, crime thrillers, legal thrillers, police procedurals, nordic noir, private investigators, amateur sleuths, ex-cons, lawyers, missing persons, amnesiacs, heists, both online and offline, revenge, crime scene investigators, reality TV detectives, black widows, crime-busting witches, crime-busting ghosts, crime-busting bakers, zombies, the Russian mafia, the Armenian mafia, murders in small towns and big cities, at the seaside and in country manors, in Kentucky, Tasmania, Southern California and Sweden and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Crime Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Indie Crime Scene, a group blog which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things crime fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Mystery Comes in Waves by Agatha BallMystery Comes in Waves by Agatha Ball:

August has rolled around and summer is definitely heating up. Seaside is hosting a bake off, but after a series of cooking disasters, things just might take a dark (chocolate) turn.

Join all your old Seaside friends for another trip to the island in book three of the Paige Comber Mysteries!

 

 

 

The Death of Jessica Ripley by Andrew BarrettThe Death of Jessica Ripley by Andrew Barrett:

Sometimes you can’t forgive and forget.

Jessica Ripley didn’t kill her ex-husband. But everyone thinks she did. After serving twelve years for his murder, it’s time to get her own back on those who put her inside.

During those twelve years, Jessy’s son, Michael, has turned against her. Whatever mercy Jessy had for her intended victims, has gone.

CSI Eddie Collins is having a hard time watching his father enjoying life. He’s also having it tough in the form of two new recruits to his office. One is off his tree on drugs and the other wants his job.

And then the murders begin.

Can Eddie trust the evidence, or is someone out to get even?

And who did kill Jessy’s ex? To find out, buy The Death of Jessica Ripley

The Secret Sins by Solomon CarterThe Secret Sins by Solomon Carter:

Detective Inspector Hogarth planned to spend the weekend savin his superior’s backside from impending disaster, but Hogarth’s plans have tochange when he is called to a mysterious suicide. Locked alone inside her holiday park caravan, Dina Corbett died from a single gunshot wound to the head. A gun is found close by the dead girl’s hand, but no suicide note is in sight.

Suicide is the obvious conclusion, but nagging doubts soon have Hogarth suspecting murder. Trouble is, there’s no evidence of foul play and every witness has a decent alibi… but DI Hogarth can’t let go of his suspicions… not even when his team start to turn against him…

Dina Corbett had her whole life ahead of her, but those who knew her said she was depressed, moody, maybe even bipolar. Dina and her boyfriend Simon Da Costa abandoned their university courses to embark on a year of hedonism, staying at holiday parks and campsites across the country. Griffin Holiday Park, Canvey Island, turned out to be Dina’s last. At Griffin Park, Hogarth finds a sub-culture of miscreants living under the radar. Each one has a dubious tale and incurs his suspicion. If Dina’s death really was murder, which one of them killed the girl, and why? And how did Dina get access to a gun?

The investigation is complicated by the site of the former holiday park next door – a place which has been turned into accommodation for refugees and others in crisis. A lone foreign refugee watches the whole investigation through the fence. Hogarth doesn’t like being watched. He doesn’t like the crime scene, nor the questions lingering at the back of his mind. But in opting for murder, Hogarth stands alone.

And alone he must deal with DCI Melford. Hogarth’s superior is caught in a spiral of self-destruction and looks ready to cross the point of no return. The risks are everywhere. The pressure is mounting. And in working to save Melford, Hogarth must also remember to save himself.

DI Hogarth must make the right calls… or die trying.

Take On Me by Stacy ClaflinTake One Me by Stacy Claflin:

A traumatized girl wakes in the hospital with no memory of how she got there. Or of anything else. Her only thought is to find the one person she remembers—her Uncle Alex.

When the authorities contact Alex Mercer, he rushes to the hospital. He’s surprised to find it’s his cousin Ayla. Shocked to see the condition she’s in. Stunned to learn her parents are missing.

Alex welcomes her into his home, and the family rallies around her as she tries to recover. But progress is slow, and for every step forward, she backslides. Compounding the problem is the mounting evidence that none of this was an accident. And the answers to the mystery are locked in her fragile mind.

Ayla is scared she’ll never remember. Even more frightened she will—and she won’t like what she recalls. But when she comes face to face with the worst memory of all, she realizes so much more than her history is at stake. And it might be too late to do anything about it.

A Veil Removed by Michelle CoxA Veil Removed by Michelle Cox:

Murder is never far from this sexy couple . . . even during the holidays!

Their honeymoon abruptly ended by the untimely death of Alcott Howard, Clive and Henrietta return to Highbury, where Clive discovers all is not as it should be. Increasingly convinced that his father’s death was not an accident, Clive launches his own investigation, despite his mother’s belief that he has become “mentally disturbed” with grief. Henrietta eventually joins forces with Clive on their first real case, which becomes darker—and deadlier—than they imagined as they get closer to the truth behind Alcott’s troubled affairs.

Meanwhile, Henrietta’s sister, Elsie, begins, at Henrietta’s orchestration, to take classes at a women’s college—an attempt to evade her troubles and prevent any further romantic temptations. When she meets a bookish German custodian at the school, however, he challenges her to think for herself . . . even as she discovers some shocking secrets about his past life.

Heist Online by Victor DeckardHeist Online by Victor Deckard:

Heist Online is an action-packed virtual reality video game about cops and criminals.

If you want to play on the wrong side of the law, you can participate in a variety of heists. You can rob banks, jewelry stores, armored cash vehicles, etc. If you prefer to play as a cop, however, your task is to stop robbers.

Striker plays as a heister. When he and his teammates have been returning from a successful robbery, another team of heisters has attacked them and taken their money away.

Striker then finds out that he and his friends aren’t the only players whom the mysterious gang has robbed. Some of the victims want to get even with them. Still, nobody has achieved any success in tracking them down yet. No one knows who they are, why they rob other heisters, or where to find them.

A few days later, when Striker escapes with stolen money after another successful robbery, he happens to run into the mysterious gang again. They try to rob him, but he manages to repel the attack and ward the players off.

Later on, Striker finds out that the members of the mysterious gang have trashed his home out of revenge. After that, he gets determined to hunt them down. He has a score to settle.

Little Moments by K.J. EmrickLittle Moments by K.J. Emrick:

Mystery, murder, and a penguin… it’s just an ordinary day in the life of Dell Powers!

Dell loves summertime in Tasmania. With its heat and insects and the tourists… especially the tourists… she wouldn’t have it any other way.

But when a prominent politician is murdered right inside his room the Pine Lake Inn is about to be thrust into the limelight once again. And not in a good way.

Who would want to kill the man? And why?

With just two possible suspects who have means, motive, and opportunity, it will be easy to sort it out. Won’t it?

While she’s wrestling with the murder Dell stumbles upon another mystery that needs special expertise.

Will she be able to work it all out in time?

The Crime by John EllsworthThe Crime by John Ellsworth:

Thaddeus Murfee is back in this twisted tale of two trials, mother and daughter, each claiming to have shot father…

He couldn’t keep his hands off his stepdaughter. The question becomes, who shot him? The mother or the stepdaughter? Or maybe it was even the woman he was seeing? Or the husband of the woman he seduced?

Thaddeus defends the mother on murder charges. The case goes to trial. Midway, the trial takes an unexpected turn and it looks as if the real killer has been exposed. Thaddeus isn’t finished with the case, however, and soon he’s back in trial yet again. The police and the District Attorney are certain they now have the killer in a death penalty case.

Of all his cases, this one is Thaddeus’ most memorable and most difficult. Enjoy a front row seat as the courtroom whiz takes on the establishment only to find his entire world turned upside down. It’s back and forth, cat-and-mouse until the unthinkable happens.

Can Thaddeus win-over a jury of twelve tough Westerners who aren’t afraid of handing out the death penalty?

A Life Lost by Diana EzzardA Life Lost by Diane Ezzard:

“Tell Sophie Brown she was right,” were Francesca’s dying words before she was brutally murdered. Sophie worked with Francesca to help bring back her memory, lost as a result of a trauma, too horrific to imagine. Over time, Sophie unravels the secrets of Francesca’s past – her son tragically killed, an armed robbery, illicit affairs.

But who wanted her dead before she remembered everything about her past?

And can Sophie find out what she meant before it is too late?

The Dirty Coven by Lily Harper HartThe Dirty Coven by Lily Harper Hart:

Hannah Hickok is at a crossroads in her life. She’s single, out of a job, and living in an apartment she absolutely hates in a suburb of Detroit. All that changes when she receives a registered letter and finds out she’s inherited a performance town.Casper Creek is located in Kentucky, on top of a small mountain, and is fashioned after notorious towns from the old west. Workers dress up, man the saloon, and put on a variety of performances several times a day. A city girl, Hannah is out of her element. She’s determined to give it a shot, though.Cooper Wyatt is head of security at Casper Creek and the last thing he wants to do is break in a new owner … especially one who has no idea about the paranormal world she’s about to be immersed in. You see, Casper Creek is home to a variety of individuals, including two covens of witches who enjoy doing battle.Hannah is barely in town when a body drops and a mystery unfolds. The workers at Casper Creek have more on their minds than performances. Unfortunately for them, Hannah is about to find out their big secret. Even worse, she’s about to find out she comes from a long line of witches … and magic is in her genes.Casper Creek is full of colorful people. They’re all going to have to come together if they want to fight pure evil. Will they manage it in time? It’s almost high noon and the magic fight is about to begin.

The Undead Uproar by Amanda M. LeeThe Undead Uproar by Amanda M. Lee:

Charlie Rhodes is living the high life … at least for her. She lucked into a new apartment, her boyfriend Jack is attentive and sweet, and she’s about to head to the Big Easy to hunt for zombies.Yes, a multitude of dreams are about to come true.Charlie has never been to New Orleans and she’s in awe of everything she sees. Jack is determined to make sure she has a good time, which means authentic food, music and haunted tours. He’s happy just to be with her as she investigates the city.The one sore spot of the trip is the talk of zombies. Jack doesn’t believe they exist. Charlie and their boss think it’s possible. Oh, yeah, and dead bodies are rising all over town and no one can explain why.Charlie is at a crossroads in her life. She has magic at her disposal and the people in New Orleans might be the only ones with answers as to why she is the way she is. The question is: Who to trust?The closer Charlie and Jack get, the more she realizes she has to tell him the truth. She’s running out of time, though. She needs to protect the people she cares about most and solve an unthinkable crime. She has no idea how to do it.New Orleans is a magical city and Charlie is a magical girl. She can’t hide forever, though. The truth will come out with at least one person … she just has to survive long enough to explain her side of things in the aftermath.That’s not a given in a world where the dead are rising … and trying to kill everybody they come in contact with.

Random Melody by William MichaelsRandom Melody by William Michaels:

Did you ever make a decision, which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but it led to another decision, and another, and now you’re in big trouble, and you don’t know how it started?

Rick Singleton is working hard to become a successful songwriter, but just can’t break through. Along comes Candy Carter, an up and coming pop diva with big money behind her. If Rick can only get Candy to use his songs on her upcoming album, he might just make the leap from obscurity to musical fortune.

One big problem: Rick is in debt to Doc Miles, a tough drug dealer who is looking for legitimate investments to cover his illicit activities. One of Doc’s customers, Dwayne “Outta Here” Coleman, is an edgy hip hop artist who knows his way around the music world. When Doc and Dwayne find out about Candy’s album, they both want a piece of the pie. Before it’s over, people end up dead.

Detective Robert Winter has a knack for solving seemingly random crimes by connecting dots no one else can see, yet even he is tested in unraveling this complex web of power and treachery.

A Detective Robert Winter series standalone story.

Third Time's a Crime by Diana OrgainThird Time’s a Crime by Diana Orgain:

Ex-detective Georgia Thornton returns to reality TV in the third mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of A Second Chance at Murder—

POOL YOUR RESOURCES…

After two hit reality TV shows brought ex-detective Georgia Thornton into America’s living rooms, audiences can’t get enough of her quest for love and justice. Now producers have come up with an all-new show set in a haunted castle in Golden, California. Georgia and nine other contestants will need to solve the mystery of a young woman who disappeared at the castle in 1960.

Except there’s one rather substantial problem waiting for everyone when they arrive: a groundskeeper is found drowned at the bottom of the castle’s empty pool. Now Georgia and the other contestants will need to work together, because there’s a different sort of game afoot—and it’s not one they can afford to lose…

By Reason of Insanity by Rachel SinclairBy Reason of Insanity by Rachel Sinclair:

An unstable beautiful woman is accused of maurdering her wealthy husband.

She claims she didn’t do it.

She is not to be trusted.

Aidan Collins has his very first large case when his client, Marina Vasiliev, a drop-dead gorgeous mental patient, is accused of killing her wealthy husband. Marina insists that she didn’t do it, but Aidan can’t trust her. He knows Marina well, too well.

After all, he met Marina in the mental hospital – he originally obtained her as a client when she was involuntarily committed, and he assisted her with getting out.

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Marina’s view of reality shifts from day to day. Moment to moment. Wracked with paranoia, suicidal behavior and mental instability, Marina also admits that she has losses of time – entire days where she has no idea what happened.

Marina has no memory of what happened the night that her husband died.

Aidan can never be sure if Marina is guilty or not. He makes the decision that the best way to defend her would be to try for the insanity defense. His client is not on board with this decision, and, to make things worse, she begins to imagine him as her lover, which turns his professional relationship with her upside down.

It also puts Aidan into danger, both professionally and personally.

However, once Aidan gets more into the case, he begins to doubt that his decision to try for the insanity defense was a sound one. Clues lead away from Marina’s involvement in her husband’s murder.

Before long, Aidan feels that his reality is shifting as much as his client. One day, he’s convinced that she’s guilty. The next, he’s convinced that somebody else did it.

Aidan can never be sure that he’s doing the right thing in using the insanity defense. An 11th hour witness throws his entire trial strategy into disarray.

Wicked on the Beach by Lotta SmithWicked on the Beach: June Bride and Mermaid’s Fury by Lotta Smith:

Beach wedding and a murder… Throw in an angry mermaid threatening to destroy the wedding!

There’s trouble in Paradise, and the Rowling family is on the case.

The island wedding of Mandy’s BFF Fiona and famous exorcist Brian Powers becomes the backdrop for a murder investigation when the body of a notorious loan shark is found in the dunes. But how did a man drown so far from the water?

An angry mermaid threatens to wreak havoc if the killer isn’t caught, but with no spirits to question, does Mandy stand a ghost of a chance to solve the case?

Come Find Me by Casper ValentineCome Find Me by Casper Valentine:

Come find me…

Ever since they were kids playing hide-and-seek, Narcotics Detective Nate Randolph took care of his troubled half-sister. When he discovers her missing one morning, Nate immediately knows something is wrong. As a single mother she’s had her struggles, but Ruby would never run off and leave her baby all alone. Not even before she got clean.

Come find me…

Nate is under no illusions. Each day that passes diminishes the chances of finding his sister alive. But he’s not about to give up. Not when a shred of hope remains to solve her kidnapping. Not when a beautiful colleague offers to help. And definitely not when his sister’s plea echoes day and night in his mind.

Come find me…

When the Narcotics Task Force goes up against the Armenian Mafia, both investigations unexpectedly collide. Explosive revelations that tie past to present push Nate to the edge.

And everything is on the table when a man is desperate.

The Grand Man by Florence WetzelThe Grand Man by Florence Wetzel:

Journalist Juliet Brown is a ScandiGeek, a person who is enamored of all things Scandinavian. An unexpected opportunity sends Juliet to Sweden to interview an American jazz singer, and she is quickly drawn into the vibrant Stockholm music scene.

When one of Juliet’s new friends is murdered, she finds herself embroiled in a real-life Swedish mystery. Journalist Magnus Lindblom offers to help Juliet despite his own struggles, which include hiding the truth about Stieg Larsson’s missing fourth book.

Set in the depths of the cold and dark Swedish winter, amid the weaving cobblestone streets of Stockholm’s Old Town, The Grand Man ultimately solves two contemporary Swedish mysteries: the 1986 assassination of prime minister Olof Palme, and Stieg Larsson’s missing fourth book.

The Russian Heist by Robb WhiteThe Russian Heist by Robb White:

When the plot to steal government money from an airport succeeds, the amateur thieves become expendable to the real criminal among them, a Russian superkiller

A Russian mobster stumbles onto a plot to rob a county airport where millions in small denominations sit shrink-wrapped on pallets waiting for military transport planes to deliver the money to the Middle East. The mastermind of the heist is the “inside man,” a disgruntled armored-car guard named Smith and his slattern of a wife. Even more astounding to Dimitri Byko, a hardened criminal and psychopathic killer, is that other members of this misfit gang include the pair’s son, a juvenile delinquent, and worst of all, Macbride, an obese, alcoholic professor. When this unlikely band of thieves pulls off the robbery, Byko’s regard for his partners in crime is short-lived. But what he is unprepared for is the woman assigned to hunt him down. Special Agent Annie Cheng has wide experience with the ruthless mafiya of Brighton Beach.

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Why you should not dismiss “Münchhausen” out of hand

One of the finalists on this year’s Retro Hugo ballot in the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form category is a German film, namely the 1943 UFA film Münchhausen, at the time one of the most expensive German films ever made. It’s also a very good film and one of the gems of German fantasy cinema, a genre where pickings became slim after 1933.

This post grew out of a comment on Steve J. Wright’s blog (whose Hugo and Retro Hugo reviews you should really read), where Steve expressed that he was unsure whether he should vote for Münchhausen due to its provenance. His is not the only comment along those lines I have seen, so here is a post explaining why you should not dismiss Münchhausen out of hand.

Münchhausen sit firmly at number 1 of my Retro Hugo ballot in its category, because it is the best film on the ballot of those I’ve seen. One of the films, Cabin in the Sky, isn’t easy to find in Germany, because it wasn’t shown here until 1994. The Batman serial also was never shown in Germany, but I was able to find it online. My Mom (Hugo voter) and my Dad (not a Hugo voter) both agree with me regarding Münchhausen BTW and immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a great film.”

However, quite a few Hugo voters have issues with Münchhausen, because it was made in Germany during the Third Reich and they don’t want to vote for “a Nazi film”. This is wrong, because – unlike some of the pretty crass propaganda stuff found elsewhere on the Retro Hugo ballot, particularly in the dramatic presentation and graphic story categories – Münchhausen is not a propaganda film, merely a film that happened to be made during the Third Reich. For while the Nazi propaganda movies are infamous – even though hardly anybody has seen them, because they still cannot be publicly displayed in Germany except for educational purposes* – these propaganda movies (about forty) only make up a small percentage of the total film output of the Nazi era. In fact, it’s a lot more likely to find propaganda in a random Hollywood movie made during WWII than in a random German movie. For the vast majority of the German movies made during the Third Reich were apolitical entertainment: musicals, melodramas, comedies, romances and the like. A lot of them are forgettable, some of them have creepy undertones about the importance of sacrifice and the like and others are timeless classics like Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Punch Bowl), one of the most beloved German movies of all time and still a standby of movie nights at German universities, or Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes War (The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes), a great take on the Holmes and Watson myth and one of the few crime movies made during the Third Reich. Münchhausen clearly belongs in the latter category and it makes me sad that some people dismiss it out of hand because of when and where it was made.

Furthermore, Münchhausen has a higher than usual number of cast and crew members who did not get along too well with the Nazi regime, because UFA people had a certain amount of leverage due to being considered vital for upholding public morale during the war. Star Hans Albers had a Jewish fiancée named Hansi Burg, daughter of his mentor. They pretended to separate and Albers got her to safety in Switzerland, but they remained together for the rest of their lives. Screenwriter Erich Kästner was banned from writing and publishing in Germany (and did not want to emigrate, because he didn’t want to leave his ailing mother behind) and wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym. He even snuck in some subversive lines. Brigitte Horney, who plays Catherine the Great, defied Goebbels’ orders attended the funeral of Joachim Gottschalk, fellow actor and a good friend of Horney’s, who had committed suicide with his family, when his Jewish wife and son were due to be deported. And talking of Catherine the Great, it is notable that a German movie made in the middle of WWII, has several scenes set in Russia and does not portray the Russians negatively in any way. Try to find any Hollywood movie made during WWII which does not portray Germans or Japanese negatively. Hubertus von Meyenrinck, who plays Prince Anton Ulrich, was gay and fairly open about it, even though homosexuality was illegal. He accompanied gay friends to police interviews when they were arrested. And on November 9, 1938, i.e. Reichskristallnacht (though we no longer use the Nazi term and call it Reichsprogromnacht), Hubertus von Meyenrinck strolled along Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, picked up Jewish people caught outside and took them to his home to sit out the rioting. Eduard von Winterstein, who plays Münchhausen’s father, was a veteran actor whose career spanned four different German regimes. In spite of his aristocratic background, he was a closeted Communist and deliberately chose to live in East Germany after WWII. Also seen in a small role is Marie Nejar, stage name Leila Negra, a black German woman who survived the Nazi regime. She is the only cast member still alive (now 89) and I think the only person involved with any of the Retro Hugo finalists who is still alive.

It’s also notable that most of the Münchhausen cast and crew, including director Josef von Baky, had careers that continued unimpeded in postwar Germany. And considering that both the Allies and the postwar West and East German authorities came down harder on artists who were involved with questionable movies than on Nazi doctors, judges, civil servants, military officers, etc… who were actually responsible for the deaths of many people (cause the latter were deemed important for building up the postwar state, while the former were not), this means that most of the people involved with Münchhausen were not Nazis.

There are issues with Münchhausen, i.e. a cringeworthy blackface performance (not uncommon for the time, though problematic now). And Ferdinand Marian, who plays Count Cagliostro, is infamous for playing the lead in the grossly antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süß** (all the trigger warnings apply for that one, so be warned if you want to watch it). And indeed, some of the complaints that the portrayal of Count Cagliostro is antisemitic, even though the historical Count Cagliostro was not Jewish, are due to the fact that Marian played Cagliostro as the same slimy villain as he played Joseph Süß Oppenheimer in Jud Süß (and come to think of it, Ferdinand Marian mostly played villains). As for Ferdinand Marian himself, according to those who knew him, Marian was an apolitical opportunist who played every part he had to play in order to avoid military service. Ferdinand Marian died in 1946 in a car crash that may have been suicide, so we’ll never know his side of the story.

Besides, there are issues with all movies nominated for the 1943 Retro Hugo Awards and many other nominated works as well. And from a purely technical and artistic POV, Münchhausen stands head and shoulders above the competition, largely because it was a big budget extravaganza, while the movie it competes with are mostly low budget B-movies. The special effects such as the famous ride on the cannonball are remarkable for 1943. The screenplay is great, too, because Erich Kästner was a great writer, so great that the UFA heads persuaded Goebbels they needed him in spite of his being banned from publishing. Oh yes, and Münchhausen features what we would now call a lightsabre fight – 44 years before Star Wars came out. And we know that George Lucas is familiar with the cinema of the Third Reich (he copied some of the good bits of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will), so I wouldn’t be surprised if Münchhausen was one of his inspirations.

But why take my word for it? Thankfully, the whole movie is available at YouTube, with English subtitles even. So why don’t you watch it and form your own opinion?

And if you prefer one of the other Retro Hugo finalists in this category, that’s okay. Cause the Hugos are about voting for what you like best. But don’t dismiss Münchhausen just because it is a German film made during the Third Reich. And if you dismiss Münchhausen out of hand, but have no problems with the actual propaganda works on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot such as Der Führer’s Face or the Batman serial or the Wonder Woman comic (and I only no awarded one of those) – well then sorry, but you’re a hypocrite.

*Speaking as someone who took a film class in order to see some of those banned propaganda movies, most of them are terribly inept, some of them are very boring (those Leni Riefenstahl Reichsparteitag movies are a snooze fest and we fast-forwarded through the endless speeches by rank and file Nazis no one had ever heard of) and a few even manage to undermine their own message, which makes me wonder whether that wasn’t intentional, because it’s hard to imagine anybody being so stupid as to deliberately include modernist Bauhaus furniture and have Heinrich George, one of Germany’s best actors, sing “The International” in Hitlerjunge Quex, a movie supposed to extoll the virtues of the Hitler Youth, or to have some very fine actors of the day discussing at length why concentration camps are bad in Ohm Krüger, a movie about the Boer Wars. Yes really, there is a Nazi propaganda film explaining why concentration camps are evil. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

**I really hope that someone will eventually make an accurate adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Jud Süß, because it’s a great novel that tells a fascinating (and true) story and deserves better than to be associated only with an awful movie. Back when I got my copy, the novel was out of print and I had to get a second-hand copy and had to deal with people giving me the side-eye for wanting to buy that book, even though the novel is not antisemitic and was written by a Jewish writer, too.

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Science Fiction is Not Evenly Distributed

I’m over at Galactic Journey and back in 1964 again today, where I review Edmond Hamilton’s science fantasy adventure The Valley of Creation as part of Galactic Journey‘s “Galactoscope” feature along with reviews of Outside the Universe, also by Edmond Hamilton and Escape Across the Cosmos by Gardner Fox, both reviewed by Jason Sacks.

The Valley of Creation, which is an expanded and revised version of a short novel first published in Startling Stories in 1948, offers yet more evidence that the so-called Golden Age of science fiction was more diverse than is generally assumed, because the protagonist Eric Nelson is a member of a multiethnic and multiracial mercenary crew, which includes a black and an Asian man. Okay, so the black character is the main villain, but the Chinese mercenary is portrayed as a thoroughly sympathetic character and that in a genre that was still very much beset by racist Yellow Peril rhetoric. Furthermore, the novel is not just a cracking good science fiction adventure, but it also has a message that may either be interpreted as a plea for animal rights or – in one of those X-Men style analogies our genre loves so much – an analogy for racial equality among humans, which protagonist Eric Nelson considers completely normal by the way.

Yes, here we have the dreaded message fiction, written in 1948 or respectively 1964 by Edmond Hamilton who was very definitely not a social justice warrior. In fact, I have some problems reconciling the Leigh Brackett who wrote “The Citadel of Lost Ships” and whose husband wrote The Valley of Creation in the 1940s with the Leigh Brackett who wrote about evil space hippies and evil space welfare states in the Skaith Trilogy in the 1970s. Did the same rightwing braineating virus that ate Robert A. Heinlein’s brain sometime in the late 1950s also infect Leigh Brackett or what?

In fact, one thing I’ve noticed both reading for the 2019 Hugos and 1944 Retro Hugos and writing reviews for Galactic Journey is that science fiction, like the future, is not evenly distributed. Because there always are older tropes and subgenres existing alongside whichever tropes and subgenres are currently fashionable. For example, Galactic Journey has currently reached the first stirrings of what will eventually become known as the New Wave. But even as early examples of New Wave stories pop up in the various magazines and Michal Moorcock jut took over editing New Worlds, there are also a lot of stories which feel like they date from the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s or even earlier. The Valley of Creation is actually a good example here. It’s a 1960s edition of a 1940s story with a progressive message, but also an example of a “lost world” story, a trope which goes back to the late nineteenth century and was largely extinct by the 1930s. In fact, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, published in 1933, of which The Valley of Creation is highly reminiscent, was the last hurray of the “lost world” subgenre.

You also find the same mishmash of older and newer styles on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. Take, for example, the five Retro Hugo finalists written, either together or separately, by the duo of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Of these five stories, Kuttner’s solo story “The Proud Robot” feels the most like a golden age story. Meanwhile, the collaborations “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” and “Clash by Night” feel more modern. In fact, if you removed some overtly 1940s trappings, “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” would not feel out of place in a contemporary science fiction magazine and “Clash by Night” would easily be at home in Baen Books’ military science fiction line. On the other hand, C.L. Moore’s solo story “Doorway into Time” feels like something that might have appeared in Weird Tales in the 1930s. And while the collaborative novel Earth’s Last Citadel does start out in WWII, before heading into the far future, and treats its two Nazi spy characters with more sympathy than might have been expected at the height of WWII (only one groan-inducing paragraph in 40000 words), the bulk of the novel feels much older and in fact feels reminiscent of the late Victorian scientific romances of the turn of the century. The “waking up in the future” trope, the desolate and dying Earth of the far future, the Eloi-like childlike and decandent far future humans and their Morlock-like antagonists, all this is straight from H.G. Wells, particularly The Time Machine and When the Sleeper Wakes. And yes, Buck Rogers also did the “waking up in the future” thing – and Buck Rogers actually is nominated in the best graphic story categories for the 1944 Retro Hugos – but Buck and his creator Philip Nolan stole the idea from Wells and ran with it.

While the Kuttner/Moore stories run the gamut from “old-fashioned” via “of its time” to “remarkably modern”, the three Fritz Leiber stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot all seem remarkably fresh for stories from the 1940s. This isn’t unexpected for “Thieves’ House”, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novelette on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, because secondary world fantasy is more timeless than science fiction anyway and besides the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were published over a span of almost fifty years and “Thieves’ House” is referenced both in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, the 1969 origin story for the duo, and in “The Mouser Goes Below”, the very last Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story ever published.

However, I was surprised by how fresh the two novels Gather, Darkness and Conjure Wife still feel. Gather, Darkness does use the popular golden age trope of “science passed off as religion to dupe the masses”, which shows up in many stories of the 1940s, including the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. But Gather, Darkness is a unique take on the trope, a religion satire where the witches/Satanists are the good guys. Conjure Wife, meanwhile, is an early example of what we know call urban fantasy. It’s not the only one from that era – contemporary fantasy was very much a thing during the 1930s and 1940s and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories from Weird Tales as well as much of what John W. Campbell published in Unknown was proto urban fantasy. But while the Jules de Grandin stories often feel very Victorian, Conjure Wife is a lot more modern. The edition I own has a very 1980s horror cover. Other editions of Conjure Wife feature a classic “woman in nightgown running away from sinister mansion” gothic romance cover, a sixtiestastic psychedelic cover and, for the most recent edition, a Chris McGrath urban fantasy cover. And the novel can be all this and more. John O’Neill has an article about the many different covers of Conjure Wife at Black Gate and how they show both changing tastes in genres and cover design as well as how the view of women evolved over the past 76 years.

It is a well known fact that science fiction and to a lesser degree fantasy both build on what has come before, that authors mix and match, reuse and adapt the tropes and ideas of older SFF. And so, older and newer styles and subgenres exist alongside each other, printed in the same magazines and sitting on the same bookshelves. This is also why the demands from certain quarters that science fiction return to some mythical golden age which never existed and ditch all newer ideas are misguided, just as the complaints from a completely different quarters about overly “nostalgic” science fiction, which does not contain enough new ideas, are misguided as well. Because our genre has always looked into the past as well as the present and the future. And occasionally, you get a novel like Conjure Wife, which manages to transcend the time it was written in and seamlessly fit into multiple subgenres or genre fashions.

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The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance

At File 770, Mike Glyer linked to this list of the “top ten space opera books of all time”, as chosen by the visitors of a site called Discover Sci-Fi.

The list is rather idiosyncratic, to say the least, and the longlist is just as idiosyncratic. The heavy presence of indie authors who are little known outside the Amazon/Kindle Unlimited eco-system can be explained by the fact that Discover Sci-Fi is a promo site for indie science fiction. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine someone conducting a poll for the best all-time space opera in 2019 and failing to include the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie or the Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee or Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels or Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon or the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor or the Xuya Universe stories by Aliette de Bodard, etc…

So of course, there is plenty of quibbling with this top ten list in the comments at File 770, including people pointing out that Dune is not really a space opera at all, but planetary romance.

This led to a debate about the differences between space opera and planetary romance, including this comment by Paul Weimer, which I’ll quote below in its entirety:

RE: Space Opera.

I saw JJ’s comment above about Space Opera and wonder just how much space is required to make a Space Opera a Space Opera, as opposed to being something more akin to Planetary Romance. We do get intrigue and the like on a variety of planets, we get a Crossing, and off-planet concerns. But Dune (as opposed to its sequels) is much more bound and Dune itself is tied to the planet Arrakis in a way that, say, a chunk of the Vorkosigan verse is not. Or Harrington. Or The Expanse.

Velocity Weapon (which I reviewed today and also have podcasted with the author about) takes place on a planet, but also a space ship, and has scenes on a different alien planet. But those planets feel much less “place” than Arrakis does for Dune

Paul is correct, for while the boundaries between space opera and planetary romance are fluid, in planetary romance the focus is on one world, even if there are others in the background, and the geography and ecology of the planet in question play a much bigger role in the plot than for space opera. Meanwhile, how to get to the planet in question doesn’t particularly matter to planetary romance, but usually matters a whole lot to space opera. Not that there aren’t a lot of edge cases. Dune is one, because it’s essentially a planetary romance set in a space opera universe. Provenance by Ann Leckie is usually classified as space opera and is definitely set in a space opera universe, but much of the book takes place on a single planet, which not only has its own unique culture, but also ancient alien artefacts/ruins which is a classic planetary romance trope. And while the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold is unambiguously space opera (as well as half a dozen other genres), individual books veer towards planetary romance and the first third or so of Shards of Honor is pretty much pure planetary romance with Cordelia and Aral marooned and evading the hostile environment of the planet that will eventually be known as Sergyar.

Nor are these edge cases a new phenomenon, for while Leigh Brackett is known as the “queen of space opera”, much of what she wrote is actually planetary romance. Meanwhile, Planet Stories, the pulp magazine which published many of Leigh Brackett’s stories in the 1940s and 1950s, is a wild hodgepodge of planetary romance and space opera. So in short, space opera and planetary romance were sister subgenres from the start.

However, while space opera is still going strong and is actually having a moment in the cultural limelight right now, planetary romance has much faded since its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. There are several works that might be classified as planetary romance on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, either outright (Perelandra) or edge cases (“The Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett, “Symbiotica” by Eric Frank Russell, “Clash by Night” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore). Meanwhile, there is only one story on the 2019 Hugo ballot that seems to start out as planetary romance, but turns into a completely different subgenre about a quarter in.

The question now is why did planetary romance decline, while space opera remained as popular a subgenre (with periods of waxing and waning) as ever? Part of the reason may be that, as I wrote in this post about the golden age, a lot of planetary romance was set in a version of the solar system that doesn’t exist, where Mars is a desert world full of haunted ruins, Venus is a fog-shrouded swamp and jungle world and pretty much every other place in the solar system is not just habitable, but has its own native life. Space probes pretty much eliminated these settings except for deliberately retro projects like the Old Mars and Old Venus anthologies of a few years back (which are of course pure planetary romance). But then, the inhabited Mars and Venus stories were largely gone by the 1950s, while planetary romance moved further afield into wholly imaginary worlds.

For while planetary romance was having its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, it was still going strong well into the 1970s and 1980s. Dune, the example that inspired this post, dates from 1965 and still has sequels, now written by Frank Herbert’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson, coming out. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle started out in the 1960s and continued up until the turn of the millennium. Andre Norton’s Witch World and Forerunner series started in the 1960s and also continued into the 21st century. Ditto for the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, which continued – later co-written by Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd – until 2012. The Gor books by John Norman (hey, I never said that planetary romance was necessarily good) also started in the 1960s and continue to this day, though the heyday of the series was in the 1960s through 1980s. The Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss dates from the early 1980s. Ditto for the Majipoor books by Robert Silverberg, a series which still had books and stories coming out well into the new millennium. C.J. Cherryh is still writing as well and a lot of her books are planetary romance.

Of course, those authors are either gone by now or getting on in years, so maybe the fading of planetary romance is simply the result of a generational shift in science fiction. However, there are still books being written and published which would have been called planetary romance once upon a time. Two of the most noted science fiction releases of 2019, The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, are planetary romance. Planetfall by Emma Newman is another planetary romance, though several of the sequels are not. One could even make a case for the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, which is after all one of the most highly acclaimed SFF series of all time, as planetary romance. So planetary romance is still around and successful, winning awards and accolades. It’s just no longer called that.

When I started reading SFF in the 1980s, the term “planetary romance” was still commonly used for planet-bound science fiction with a strong sense of place. I don’t know where or when I first encountered the term. I acquired a lot of SFF knowledge via osmosis, because the critical and non-fiction books about the genre were usually too expensive for me to buy, so I read them in any bookstore that was kind enough to let me and retained as much information as I could. In fact, I strongly suspect I first came across the term “planetary romance” in the venerable Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which I used to browse in the comfortable leather chairs of Donner Boeken in Rotterdam in their awesome flagship store designed by what has to be time lords. At any rate, I already knew by the late 1980s that Star Wars, Star Trek, Captain Future, Dominic Flandry and the Foundation series were space opera, while the Pern books, Dune, the Skaith trilogy or the Barsoom and Amtor novels were planetary romance.

However, the term “planetary romance” seems to have fallen out of favour sometime in the past twenty years. I’m not sure why this happened, especially since it’s a really useful term to describe a certain type of SFF story. Maybe it’s because the “romance” in “planetary romance” – though it’s “romance” in the older sense of “adventure story” rather than in the newer sense of “love story with an optimistic ending” – puts off people or causes them to assume that it’s a romance subgenre.

In recent years, I increasingly see the term “sword and planet” used instead of “planetary romance”. Now “sword and planet” isn’t a new term, but dates to the 1960s just like its analogues “sword and sorcery” and “sword and sandal”. But until fairly recently, sword and planet was much less frequently used than planetary romance. But if you look at the Wikipedia entries for “planetary romance” and “sword and planet”, you’ll find that the latter is much longer and more detailed than the former. Now I actually like the term “sword and planet”. But while it is certainly a subgenre of planetary romance, there are plenty of planetary romances that are not sword and planet stories, e.g. Dune or Helliconia or the Hainish Cycle or C.J. Cherryh’s works are not.

In additional problem is that while “space opera” has its own BISAC category and is a separate subgenre category at most online booksellers, “planetary romance” or “sword and planet” doesn’t have their own category (but Cyberpunk, which would be easy to subsume under “dytopian fiction, has its own category). As a result, a lot of planetary romance ends up classified as space opera, because that is often the closest possible category. The rather nebulous “action and adventure science fiction” category would fit as well and indeed, I’d be very happy if “action and adventure science fiction” were renamed/reclassified as “planetary romance”.

And if more and more newer readers and writers see books which would once have been called planetary romance called space opera instead, they’ll eventually start referring to e.g. Dune or the Barsoom books as space opera. What is more, particularly self-published SFF authors often don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about the history of the science fiction genre and have never encountered older subgenre terms that don’t have their own category in the Kindle store. And so, books which actually are planetary romance or science fantasy (all of those dragon and mages in space books that were popular approx. a year ago) are instead classified as space opera, while space opera becomes conflated with military science fiction. Indeed, I have seen indie SFF authors insist that e.g. Becky Chambers books are not space opera, because they have no space battles and comparatively little action.

Of course, genre terms and definitions are always in flux, but I’d hate to see the good old planetary romance gradually vanish altogether, because it is a useful term to describe a certain type of story. And since we don’t have a better term, sticking with planetary romance seems like the best bet.

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Cora is time-travelling to 1964 to revisit the Edgar Wallace movies

My latest post is up over at the Hugo nominated fanzine Galactic Journey. This time, I talk about the West German Edgar Wallace movies of the 1960s, a subject about which I’ve written in these pages before.

Of course, it’s 1964 at Galactic Journey. Edgar Wallace movies are still in black and white only (well, the black and white ones are usually better than the colour films) and the latest one to hit German cinemas was the otherwise unremarkable Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss (The Curse of the Hidden Vault). Meanwhile, Der Hexer/The Ringer won’t even premiere until August. So of course, I’m writing from the POV of someone watching the movies at the height of both their popularity and quality.

So head over to Galactic Journey and check it out.

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First Monday Free Fiction: Lovers’ Lane

Welcome to the June edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

Lovers' LaneThis month’s story Lovers’ Lane is part of my The Day the Saucers Came… series:

June 9th, 1956, known all over the world as “the day the saucers came”. Now, for the first time in print, read these sensational eyewitness accounts from people who were there and lived to tell the tale. Prepare to be shocked and horrified, as you read what it was truly like – on the day the saucers came…

Today, we present you the thrilling tale of Betty Miller, then sixteen years old, who drove out to Lovers’ Lane with her highschool sweetheart Cody Barrett on…

…the Day the Saucers Came.

 

Lovers’ Lane

June 9th, 1956. It was the night I drove out to Lovers’ Lane, the night my life changed forever.

Looking back, I really should have known better than to drive out to Lovers’ Lane with Cody Barrett. After all, everybody knew what happened at Lovers’ Lane, what the boys and the girls who went there did.

Not that I really knew what went on at Lovers’ Lane — no, I was far too naïve and innocent. But I knew that what the boys and girls did there was bad and sinful. Good girls like me, girls who wanted to go to college and marry a good husband one day, didn’t go to Lovers’ Lane and they didn’t do that sort of thing. Only sluts and hussies did. Not that I really knew what sluts and hussies were either. But like every good girl, I knew a slut when I saw one.

But I was young, barely sixteen years old, and so very much in love with Cody Barrett. Cody and me, that was true love — the kind that lasts forever. Or so I thought.

That night, Cody and I had gone to the sock hop in the gym of Herbert Hoover High School. I was wearing my very best dress — white polka dot organdy with a petticoat and a wide belt of shiny red vinyl. I wore bobby socks and saddle shoes polished to a high gloss, my hair was in a ponytail and I looked pretty, as pretty as I’d never looked either before or since in my life.

I danced with Cody all night long. During a break, we sneaked outside to catch some air and Cody used that opportunity to give me his high school ring. I was sporting it on my finger, wrapped with a rubber band to make it fit, and showed it to everybody who wanted to see it and many who didn’t. For this ring, this ugly thing of gilded pot metal and rhinestone that didn’t even fit properly, was the symbol of our love, the sign that made it official. Cody and I were going steady. We were in love. And come graduation, we’d get engaged and eventually married.

And so, when Cody asked me if I wanted to drive out with him to Lovers’ Lane that night, I said, “Yes, I do.”

For even though the girls who drove out to Lovers’ Lane with their boyfriends were all sluts and hussies, that didn’t apply to me. After all, Cody and I were in love. We were as good as engaged and one day, we would get married. And if you were engaged or as good as, then there was nothing wrong with driving out to Lovers’ Lane. Nothing at all.

Cody had an old powder blue Chevrolet. We both got in, he in his baby blue tuxedo with matching cummerbund and me in my best polka dot dress. The skirt was so wide that it got caught in the door of Cody’s Chevy, soiling the delicate fabric with grease. I was really angry about that, too. Because back then, I still thought that soiling my best dress on the door of Cody Barrett’s Chevrolet was the absolutely worst thing that could happen to me that night.

“Don’t worry yourself,” Cody said after examining the soiled hem of my best polka dot dress, “The grease will wash out. After all, your folks have got one of them new washing machines, don’t they?”

I nodded, because my Mom did have a washing machine, a true miracle of technology that was supposed to clean even the worst stains.

And then we drove out to Lovers’ Lane. All the way, Cody had the radio on. There was a baseball game on and — more importantly — music. That sweet hot rock ‘n roll music that my parents wouldn’t let me listen to, let alone dance to, because good girls didn’t do that sort of thing. But then, good girls didn’t drive out to Lovers’ Lane with Cody Barrett either. And if I was about to do the one, then I could do the other just as well.

***

This story was available for free on this blog for one month only, but you can still read it in Lovers’ Lane. And if you click on the First Monday Free Fiction tag, you can read this month’s free story.

Check back next month, when there will be a new story available.

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