“Good advice is always certain to be ignored, but that’s no reason not to give it.”
Idlewood Manor is about to be torn down.
In a rare show of generosity, its cantankerous caretaker Mr. Llewellyn opens the manor doors to ten groups from different walks of life. At face value, it’s just a weekend romp, a chance to experience the discomforts and delights of a bygone era. But each group has its own secret. One group is constantly looking under chairs and peeping through keyholes. A man wanders around the grounds with a stick that looks suspiciously like a metal detector. A young couple flees each time the other guests approach them.
Anna, Charlie, and Emily begin investigating the mystery of Idlewood Manor independently. Gradually, Anna’s fearless exploration, Charlie’s gift for codes, and Emily’s eye for detail coalesce into a clearer picture of what’s been happening at Idlewood, and the kids come together to solve the mystery of the manor.
I loved the quick-stroke character sketches that come out naturally through the narrative:
“Mr. Llewellyn struck Emily as the kind of man who liked children fine, but only after they’d celebrated their eighteenth birthday.”
“‘It will be fun,’ his mother said. ‘Anna’s probably already out there.’ Charlie doubted it. Hitting a ball around the lawn with a mallet didn’t seem wild enough for Anna.”
The kids sounded like kids I knew, and the suspicious characters like mix-breeds born of Encyclopedia Brown and Agatha Christie. The prose felt so confident that I googled “explorer Virginia Maines,” only to realize she’s a fictional rather than historic personage. And despite my best intentions, Allison had me ciphering out codes by the end of the novel, and not because the narrative requires it.
My favorite part was the underlying theme: Not all treasures are found deep inside a musty vault.
We interrupt this regularly scheduled lunch with a public service announcement: My short story SUNBURN has been accepted for publication! It’s in the House of Zolo’s Journal of Speculative Literature, Volume 3, available on Amazon. Digital copies (Kindle) are free for the next 24 hours (November 16, 2021).
SUNBURN also won the Marburg Award in Germany in 2019. This version is even better.
In a post-apocalyptic, environmentally compromised world, young Jacob and the remnants of humanity live underground, only leaving their caves and habitats at night to gather precious resources from nearby cities.
Since being above ground after daybreak is deadly, the underground habitats have developed strict morning curfews to ensure the safety of dwindling resources. But Jacob has secretly been spending some of his “salvage night” working in an old bio-crystal lab in the nearest city, trying to develop a plant-crystal hybrid that will reverse atmospheric effects that make surface dwelling untenable.
On the verge of a break-through, Jacob stays late one morning, and his improvised lab catches fire. With his own life on the line, and the fate of humanity in the balance, Jacob jumps in his car for one final drive.
Announcing the publication of my first German novel translation, “Die Ringe on Ector”, which is out today!!! If you speak German and enjoy Fantasy stories with clever (anti) heroes, lots of action and some dark magic sprinkled on top, check out this series. (If you don’t speak German but want to do me a favor, download anyway 😏 and share with all your German-speaking friends. (If you have a Kindle Unlimited account, you can even read it for free.)
For a behind-the-scenes look working with a translator, check out this video from Life, the Universe, and Everything, February 2021.
“I like this book so I think I’m going to write a review on it.” –Benjamin K. Hewett
Danny Day lives every day twice.
By sixth grade, he’s a pro at it. He spends the first playing video games, scoping out important details, and doing things most of us will only daydream about, knowing his day will reset at 2:22 am and he’ll have to start all over.
For Danny, this is a good thing. His second day—the sticky day—usually goes off like a speed run. He gets perfect grades, stops his toddling twin sisters from decorating their bedroom walls with sharpies, and tricks his classmates into thinking he can read minds.
But Danny’s life is far from perfect. When his family moves from Texas to Idaho, Danny has to be the new kid at school twice as much as any normal kid. If he gets hurt on a sticky day, he hurts twice as long. Even worse, Danny starting to think he’s been doing it all wrong. Then he meets Zak, the kind, athletic sixth-grader who lives each day without regrets, and who convinces Danny that he can too. Danny eventually shares his secret with his new friend and swears him to secrecy and the two boys enlist Freddie, the girl-next-door, in bringing the bullies of Snake River Middle School to justice.
In reading the story, it is clear that Danny isn’t the only one reliving junior high. Author Mike Thayer’s portrayal of middle school feels almost photographic, but it serves up the sweet taste of sixth-grade wish-fulfillment right along with the poignant memory of mistakes made. In addition to painting his adolescents well, Thayer gets the adults right, with unique perspectives and personalities for each, without bogging down the book in elaborate backstories.
I especially like Danny’s mom. Even though he’s living every day twice, she still manages to surprise him sometimes, and those moments are some of the funniest.
In short, The Double Life of Danny Day is for middle-grade readers, current junior high attendees, and all the rest of us who survived junior high intact, more-or-less. It’s about finding balance, even when we think we have it all. In the end it’s not Danny’s singular power that makes him great, but what he spends that precious extra time on.
Is it a true story?
“No. But it could be true, and that’s all that matters.”
When I was twelve, I signed up for Boy Scout Camp. As explained to me by my older brother, it was the great summer adventure: water sports, merit badges, and exciting new foods.
Our Scoutmaster was one of my life role models, a giant of a man with the ability to make any scouting trip memorable and fun, without letting things get out of hand. A few weeks before the camp, he handed me a blank form and asked me which merit badges classes I wanted to take. A few of the choices were easy. I’d always wanted to learn to ride a horse, so I filled one time slot with Horsemanship. Mom did all the Cooking at home, so I didn’t need that one (I’ve since repented), but Leatherwork looked kind of cool, and building your own shelter in the woods for Wilderness Survival sounded awesome.
I had one slot left, and Lifesaving sounded a lot cooler than Emergency Preparedness, so I marked that one down too. One of the other boys warned me it was an aquatic merit badge, but I figured I was in pretty good shape, and I’d already completed the Swimming merit badge.
Towards the end of the week, we were learning escapes. I went into the water with an instructor about three times my size and built of pure muscle. Beefy was supposed to act like a panicked, drowning person, and I was supposed to escape his grip and carefully lead him back to the dock while maintaining a safe distance. It all sounds great in theory, but I was in trouble from the get-go. The moment I hit the water, Beefy latched onto me like a three-hundred pound gorilla and began dragging me down. I took one gasp of air and then all I could see was muddy water. It got colder. I was wrapped up so tight I couldn’t move a muscle.
In that dark place, I wondered if I would just continue sinking forever, if I would ever breathe again, and if maybe Beefy was taking this escape exercise just a bit too seriously. I had a moment of complete and utter fear. It took me a lot longer than it should have to remember the training they’d given us. But eventually I did remember it. I broke Beefy’s grip and dove away from him, creating the safety space required.
In retrospect, I didn’t get out of that predicament on my own. I went in with a theoretical understanding learned from experts and some practical experience in breaking holds. And in retrospect, there was also a safety net. There were lifeguards, if my training, experience, and skill proved insufficient.
We have lifeguards too. We have safety nets.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I interviewed a friend and licensed marriage & family therapist Matt Brown. We talked about my book The Deep End of Life, finding support, and getting out of the deep end. I’ve been going back through the interview footage, making clips of specific topics kids (and adults) might wonder about before seeing therapist for the first time. Some of the questions are more serious than others, but sometimes laughing a little is just as important as asking for help.
The New Year is knocking on the front door. I can see him through the peephole with a handful of “bills past due” in his left hand and a wad of cash in the other. Every time I let him in, he knocks that priceless lamp by the door over or spills grape juice on the carpet.
I hesitate. Old Year is comfortable, relaxing on the couch with some luke-warm hot chocolate, re-reading list of unfinished projects. He’s comfortable in the same sort of way that a known misery trumps the unknown. Or comfortable like oft-worn pair of pants with a hole in the bum, and anyone looking too closely can see your undies.
Hopefully, nobody’s looking too closely.
Old Year hasn’t been all bad, though. For example, I finished writing a book called The Deep End Of Life.
It isn’t about dragons, spaceships, or a lonely thief trying feed his kids. In some ways it is a very ordinary book. It’s about an 11-year-old girl coping with her parents’ divorce. It’s about what sometimes happens to kids when their parents break up. It isn’t an autobiography by any stretch of the imagination, but it is real.
I’ve mentioned this before, but 2016 was a difficult year for me, and it was hard for my kids as well. It was the year their parents got divorced.
Sometime during the fall of 2016, while somewhat innocently browsing for internet video games, my oldest, a boy, came across an un-closed browser tab for “divorce attorneys.” He tried to cover up the screen and click away before the younger siblings saw, but they knew right away something was up.
Not how you want your kids to find out there’s trouble in paradise.
That led to some difficult, but important discussions. As parents, we offered to take them to counseling, and mentioned that it had been helpful for us in bringing healing and understanding. Only the youngest seemed open to the idea, but she—if I remember correctly—marched into the elementary school counselor’s office and demanded a session, without parental assistance.
Around that time, the kids were doing year-round swimming. When I picked them up from practice one day, a coach informed me that the youngest (same kid) had spent “a lot of time” in the bathroom. “I don’t like swim practice,” she said later, and she admitted skipping practice to “do gymnastics” on the locker room benches.
That moment stuck with me—a fourth grader swimming dutifully (mostly) through the winter months, when maybe she had bigger dreams, and it came back to me a few months later.
One evening, the youngest walks into the living room, whips out a piece of college-ruled paper, and accosts the oldest.
“Let’s talk,” she says.
He mumbles something that might, under duress, constitute an agreement.
I grin, because I like listening in on their private conversations, when I can. True, I’m only three feet away, but I’m also washing dishes. Chores (or anyone doing them) are completely invisible to kids. As long as you don’t make any noise or alter your facial expressions when they say outrageous things, they don’t know you’re actually there.
Over the counter I can see the paper she’s holding, and I realize—sadly—that this isn’t going to be one of the juicy ones. The college-ruled notebook paper has “book titles” written at the top. I can’t, for the life of me, recognize any of them.
“Tell me if any of these are good,” she demands of her older brother.
It takes me a minute to catch on, but apparently they’ve done this before, and none of the titles on her list are real. What she’s written is a bunch of test-case titles to see if her big, mature, well-read junior high brother seems interested in any of them. She’s not even particularly motivated to do anything with the information. She just wants to know.
And for an eighth-grader, he’s remarkably patient. “Yeah, that one’s pretty good,” he says, occasionally. Or he just shakes his head when they don’t meet his fancy.
It’s a fun game, initiated by a ten-year-old. Most of them are acceptable middle-grade mock-up titles, but there’s only one I remember now: The Deep End Of Life.
The moment she read it, I was transported from the kitchen, out of the present, away from the months of co-parenting and breadwinning, and aches and worries that parents feel. For a moment, I was there, watching my daughter dancing across that locker room bench, finding her own peace of mind in a world that had just imploded. And I think of that same kid, striding powerfully into the elementary school front office demanding to meet with the school counselor, a trained mental health professional.
The Deep End of Life is a title written by a fourth-grader. There are plenty of people who could come up with a better one. But it stunned me, reminded me of how little of their lives I actually see. It pulled back the curtain for a moment on the drama of childhood, the drama of fourth grade.
I wanted to catch that image and put it in a bottle. Some authors write the book they wish they’d had growing up. I wrote the book I wish my kids had had. It’s okay—and sometimes even fun—to get help when you’re swimming in the deep end.
With the day job in the mix, it took me a few years to finish. It helped that my commute in 2020 has been considerably shorter.
Thanks for that, at least, Old Year.
The New Year knocks again, louder this time. Opening that door will bring all sorts of problems. But it might bring some good things too. I look at Old Year, who is still lounging on the couch, eating smelly leftovers. “Yeah,” I say. “Get off the couch.”
He stands up and stretches, makes his way to the front door. His jeans are faded and a pocket seam has burst. There’s a bit of plaid boxer peeking through. He always lingers at the end.
“Undies are showing again,” I say, to encourage him onward.
He turns to look at me, hand on the doorknob. “Did you finish writing another book?”
“Do some cool things with your kids?”
“Then stop looking at my undies.”
Every year is challenging. This year I’m thankful for friends, family, and a finishing another manuscript.
“The paper is just [the] manuscript. It’s not the story. The story in your head is beautiful. . . You can take a lot of comfort in knowing that all they’re doing is reacting to the manuscript. It’s not [you]. It’s not even [your] story.” –Peter Orullian
Nobody likes to get told that they stink. (Try it sometime. If you get throat-punched, then maybe you get my point.)
And yet, we like improving. We like forward progress. We like being better today than we were yesterday.
And sometimes the thing we need to improve is a thing we don’t want to hear.
I have a friend at pick-up soccer who is always dispensing research-backed wisdom about this: “Don’t tell people what they did bad! It’s scientifically proven to trigger a defense mechanism.”
It’s funny, because he seems oblivious to the immediate walls that go up between him and the people he would educate about the dangers of negative feedback. Nobody seems to care that it’s “research-backed.”
And I’ve thought a lot about this. How do I invite positive change into my life as a writer, father, and friend?
He comes by, eyes wide, head swiveling, brain probably in sensory overload from the hanging air plants, flashing jewelry, and old-school fantasy books. He’s got a white uniform on with a yellow belt.
“Would you like to learn to juggle?” I say. I don’t bother selling him books any more than the ladies in the near-by booths would try foisting on him perfume and knitted cozies. This kid is looking for action!
He nods once, silent and confident. He’s young enough to still have that “I can do anything!” audacity that comes with wearing a karate uniform, and thinks it’s funny when I tell him that the first trick to juggling is learning to drop the ball properly.
Of course he nails it. And the next 5 steps in the juggling process. We get him up to double-throws and catches before karate beckons. It all takes less than 5 minutes, and his form is good.
He’s not the only one. Every kid in the place wants to see me juggle, even without the swords and torches that I’ve stopped bringing because they make the adjacent booths (and the fire marshal) nervous.
A couple more kids are brave enough to give it a shot themselves. I sell some books. I talk with their parents about literary tradition, and what they’re reading now. And I realize again why I like doing shows.
I thought I’d hate shows. The idea of being that guy who lurks at the mall kiosk and preys on unsuspecting passers-by makes my feet itch.
But I’ve realized, that I can do things my way. I can sit back and pass out free smiles. I can eat my sandwich, even with salami. I can teach kids to juggle and grannies to make snowflakes. Or, I can mix things up and teach the grannies to juggle and the kids to snowflake.
I’ve realized I can pretend to sell books as an excuse to talk to people about literature. And if, by chance, someone says they like Tolkien, or Pratchett, or Dragonlance, I can hand them one of my books and say, this one’s for you.
I like the quiet moments too. I like that lull around lunchtime where the morning crowd is drab-dribbling away and the afternoon crowd is still eating barbecue and wiping their fingers. I like talking shop with Laura who drove all the way from San Antonio to sell books and, well, talk shop.
Most of all, I like the people. These conversations wake the inner child and chase away the aches and pains of not being able to run a 5:20 mile anymore.
Thanks to those of you who stopped for conversations, lessons, and/or books. You made my day.