Monthly Archives: May 2015

My Top Ten Literary Heroes

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In the interests of gender equality, I felt that I should write an article featuring my top ten literary heroes, after publishing the blog ‘My Top Ten Literary Heroines’ here. In no particular order, here they are…

1. Rincewind from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchettthelightfantastic
The timid wizard who finds himself in the middle of adventures despite himself. I love his aversion to any form of risk – a confirmed coward myself, I’ve always found the lantern-jawed sort of hero rather offputting. I also hugely envy Rincewind his Luggage, a chest made of sapient pearwood that will swallow any amount of clothing – along with particularly aggressive characters Rincewood regularly encounters on his travels.

thegobetween2. Leo Colston from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
I first read this book as a teenager, cried at the end – and it somehow wormed its way under my skin and never really left me. Leo’s bitter-sweet recollection of a particular summer holiday that altered his life when he was thirteen leaps off the page and deserves to be far better known for more than its marvellous opening sentence.

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3. Peter Pan from the play by J.M. Barrie

I fell hook, line and sinker for the beautiful, cocky little boy when I read the story of the play aged eight. And at intervals in my life, there have been other adorable, cocky little boys full of vinegar and spirit, who light up my existence…

4. Miles Vorkosigan from the series by Lois McMaster Bujoldmemory
Miles is a remarkable creation – chockful of testosterone and driven with a desire to prove himself in a series of wonderful science fiction, space opera adventures. He would be unbearable if he wasn’t also battling the congenital defects that he has to deal with due to an attack on him before he was born. As it is, his foolhardy bravery is awesome and admirable.

5. Lord Peter Wimsey from the series by Dorothy L. Sayersbusman'shoneymoon
Forget about Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot – the detective I’ve always loved is the shell-shocked, younger son of a noble family. He often affects the idiot, while being in possession of a keen intellect and a drive to see justice done. Dorothy Sayers confessed that she was in love with Wimsey – and I can see why.

6. Claudius from I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves
IClaudiusAgain, a series I read as a teenager and fell in love with this complicated, damaged man who manages to survive by sheltering behind his physical disabilities most of his life. Derek Jacobi managed to bring a marvellous incarnation of the character to life in the acclaimed TV series.

7. Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfussthenameofthewind
Rothfuss took the Fantasy genre by the scruff of the neck and gave it a very good shake in The Name of the Wind. I love the character in all his driven complexity and secrecy – and am very much looking forward to reading The Doors of Stone when it comes out.

farfromthemaddingcrowd8. Gabriel Oak from Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
He has always been my ideal male – brave, physically strong, with an inbuilt instinct for doing the right thing and loyal right down his marrow… Bathsheba Everdeen is an idiot for refusing to marry him the first time around and I just hope she pulls herself together and is the wife he deserves.

wolfhall9. Thomas Cromwell from Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Henry VIII’s bullying fixer is so much more in this remarkable portrayal. I love the way Mantel’s writing manages to get right inside the character – a man of extreme contradictions, but fascinating, driven, formidably intelligent and physically energetic… Yep. I’m smitten.

themartian10. Mark Watney from The Martian by Andy Weir
Did I mention that I was an inveterate coward? The one exception is that I’ve always longed to go into Space – indeed, as a little girl I was firmly convinced that I’d end up there. I picked up this book, hoping it would be a story of brave derring-do survival and I wasn’t disappointed. And yes… as a girl I read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and spent hours playing versions of being castaway on a desert island…

Those are my offerings. The near misses include Hagrid from the Harry Potter series – I’ve always loved Hagrid’s sheer stubborn good-heartedness and his bluff inability to keep secrets. If only perfidious Dumbledore had half of Hagrid’s intrinsic integrity… Shakespeare’s Macbeth – yes, I know he turns into a murdering monster. But at the start of the play he’s a brave warrior in love with his wife who wants to do the right thing. For me, he has always epitomised the doomed anti-hero who could have been someone even more extraordinary, if only events and the people closest to him hadn’t stacked up against him. Hiccup from the How To Train Your Dragon series. No, not the magnolia hero of the animated film series – but the skinny, unsure and permanently anxious version Cressida Cowell brings to life in her outstanding humorous adventure series. Cade Silversun from Melanie Rawn’s intriguing and original Glass Thorns series about a magical theatre troupe. In addition to writing their plays, Cade is afflicted with prescient visions – and is one of the most interesting, layered characters in modern fantasy. Matthew Shardlake from C.J. Sansom’s Tudor crime series. A spinal abnormality has prevented Matthew inheriting the family farm, so he travels to London to seek his fortune practising the law and gets embroiled in a number of murder mysteries.

So that’s a roundup of my top literary heroes to date. Who are yours? I’d love to hear who are your favourites and why…

POEM – Sunspots

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The remarkable pictures of the sun looked as if she was writhing in agonised grief. So I wondered what could make the sun so sad – and this is what I came up with…

Besieged and surrounded,
the Sun lashes back at the snarling
blackness hounding her every move.
She aims her daughters – brave fountains of
eye-biting brightness – into the frigid
abyss. Such futile defiance…

Howling through the old coldness of deep space,
fragile sunspots weaken and chill, crumpling into
dimming frills of light, finally wisping into
invisibility
as the blanketing blackness silently sneers.

Meanwhile, hidden behind a blue veil
millions of miles away…
droop
headed
hellebores,
pale primroses,
nodding daffodils,
celandines and coltsfoot,
blazing dandelions and
auriculas, buttercups, spears of golden rod, yarrow, californian poppies
birds’-foot trefoil, cowslips, corn marigold, st john’s wort, yellow rattle –
along with hundreds more sunspots – burst onto the ground,
eye-brimming and bright.

Please…
someone
tell the Sun.

Picture from Wikipedia.com

Picture from Wikipedia.com

Review of Window Wall – Book 4 of the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn

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One of the best series I’ve read over the last couple of years is this one – see my review of the first book Glass Thorns here. Will this next slice about the magical theatre company sustain the very high standard Rawn has set so far? windowwallFor nearly two years, Cade has been rejecting his Elsewhens, the Fae gift that grants him prescient glimpses of possible futures, by simply refusing to experience them. But the strain is driving a wedge between him and his theatre troupe, Touchstone, and making him erratic on stage and off. It takes his best friend Mieka to force Cade into accepting the visions again, but when he does, he witnesses a terrible attack, though he cannot see who is responsible. Cade knows the future he sees can be changed, and when he finally discovers the truth behind the attack, he takes the knowledge to the only man in the Kingdom who can prevent it: his deadly enemy.

Once more, Rawn provides an engrossing, grown-up adventure. I love the fact that Cade and Mieka are now no longer the young, driven newbies desperate to prove themselves. Although being established stars provides its own challenges… Rawn gets right inside the skins of her two spiky, complicated characters and if you are looking for a simple escapist tale where everything is cut and dried, then this isn’t it. Unlike many Fantasy stories, Rawn’s world and characters are every bit as nuanced and tricky as our own. While it appears that gnomes, elves, dwarves and humans all get on well, there are strains showing in Albeyn society. Magic is treated with suspicion and prejudice in surrounding states – but with a religious faction gaining favour in the highest echelons of society, there are increasingly those who are turning their back on those who use magic for entertainment, or work, or anything at all… And while trimming elves’ ears at birth is supposedly a thing of the past, it may well be a practice that will be coming back.

Meanwhile Touchstone is poised to become the best theatrical troupe in the country, though that isn’t the end of their problems. As Cade is wrestling with his own magical talents, Touchstone still have issues of their own to sort out – domestic life collides with the demands of touring; the pressure of constantly providing new, exciting plays; betrayal by someone theythought they could trust…

So there is no trace of this series running out of steam – if anything it just goes on getting better. Though whatever you do, don’t pick up Window Wall first. You need to go back to the start to get a real flavour of this original, outstanding series and it would be a crime to do anything else. 10/10

Gee, Emily: The Sentinel Mage (Cursed Kingdoms I) (2011)

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Review of Witch Week – Book 3 of The Worlds of Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones

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After reading Mars Evacuees, Frankie asked for ‘another of your awesome books, Granny,’ so I had to oblige with something special after a request like that. And came up with this…

Here is a world where witchcraft is utterly forbidden, yet where magic still seems to break out like measles – all over the place! When a note, written in ordinary blue ballpoint, appears between two of the homework books Mr Crossley is marking, he is very upset.
It says: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH
Anyone could have written it, but the most awful thing is, the note might be true for Larwood House is a school for witch orphans. And the last thing Mr Crossley needs is a visit from the Divisional Inquisitor…

witchweekThe story is mostly told through the viewpoint of four miserable pupils in Class 2Y – Charles Morgan, Nan Pilgrim, Brian Wentworth and Nirupam Singh. Right from the beginning, there is a strong sense of tension running through the narrative – for witches are strictly forbidden and the fate of anyone using magic is to be interrogated, tortured and then burnt. This being Wynne Jones, we don’t just have a strong sense of fear and tension running throughout the story – there are also moments of farce and laugh-aloud humour.

One of the things I love most about these books is that Wynne Jones doesn’t underestimate how much children understand. There is a whole lot within the story that is implied, rather than spelt out. Mr Wentworth’s fractured relationship with his son, Brian; Charles’ constant black fury and Nan’s desperate yearning to be good at something – even if it is riding around the bathroom on a frisky broomstick tired of being cooped up in the groundsman’s shed.

Although there are shafts of humour, life at Larwood House is no Mallory Towers. The children are divided into cliques, or mercilessly picked upon if they stand out – like Nan and Brian. While the class leaders, Simon and Theresa, spend most of their time mocking their less fortunate peers.

Frankie strongly connected with poor Nan Pilgrim, who takes comfort in being descended from the infamous Dulcinea Wilkes, but to be honest, none of the children are particularly pleasant, apart from Estelle. And this is one of the reasons why Wynne Jones is such a clever writer – their surly/victimised attitudes didn’t stop both of us really caring what happens to them,or poor harrowed Mr Wentworth.

And before the end, Wynne Jones throws in a fair dollop of chaotic chicanery into the mix that had the pair of us spluttering with laughter as I was reading. Another gem of a book that continues to inspire Frankie to go on battling through her severe dyslexia to become an independent reader. Another book that has given us yet another tranche of shared golden memories. If you have a youngster in your life old enough for the earlier Harry Potter tales, but perhaps not quite ready for the bleakness of the later books – track down the Chrestomanci series. They deserve to be far better known…
9/10

FICTION FRIDAY – Extract from Running Out of Space – Book 1 of The Sunblinded trilogy

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Abia got straight to the point after ordering drinks. “If you were to join us, what could you offer the Quixote?”
“I’m training in Procurement,” I offered, grateful all over again to Lnard.
Abia shook his head. “We have an experienced family that ably handles that side for us. What else?”
I opened my mouth and shut it again. I’d been about to mention that I was fertile; but given that I was docking with a non-Iberian, that was no longer relevant. Besides, producing bambinos was way down my piclist, anyhow.
Other than that, I haven’t any talents. Except for annoying mi padre – and a whole bunch of folk are equally gifted in that department.
I shrugged, feeling stupid. “Nada, as it happens. That’s why I wanted to train as an officer.”
Abia didn’t exactly grimace, but his expression prompted Alita to speak up for me, “She works hard, querido. A willing pair of hands is always useful.”
He didn’t look convinced. “Oh, .”
I hunched in my seat, feeling like ship-soiled goods.
“There’s her singing.” Wynn turned to me. “I can’t believe that you haven’t holo’d your stuff. People’d pay for that. Majorly.”
I rolled my eyes, but said nothing as our drinks arrived. Abia was the only one drinking wine, while the rest of us had fruit juice. After taking a large mouthful of the house red, he asked, “Would you agree to produce a holo of your singing?”
“So long as I wasn’t liable for the production costs when you make a loss on such a wet-brained venture.”
Alita shook her head as she and Abia grinned at each other.
Abia turned to Wynn. “And you?”
“There’s my sculptures. They generally fetch a good price.” Wynn took a deep breath before leaning towards me. “Thing is, cooped inside a tin can doesn’t do it for me. I’m a dirtsider. Born and bred.” His grip on my hand tightened. “I can work my passage, or whatever. But don’t know how you space camels keep your heads straight, living like this – and that’s a fact.”
I winced at Wynn’s use of the term ‘space camel’, but Abia’s face cleared.
“Well, that’s a whole lot easier.” He raised his glass, relief pouring off him that we didn’t want to permanently clutter up the Quixote. “Can’t see El Capitán having a problem giving the pair of you a lift. For the right price. So where d’you want to go?”
I gulped half my fruit juice in one huge swallow, wondering if this was some whacked-out dream.
Wynn looked at me pleadingly as he answered, “I was heading to Ceres. Their economy was still functioning, last I heard. That smooth with you?”
I shook my head. “It’s part of Estrella’s regular trade run back to Nuevo Madrid, so the Cap has contacts-”
“Wouldn’t worry about him too much longer, chica.” Alita knocked back her drink.
“He’s got a very long reach.” I looked at Wynn. “We’d be safer elsewhere.”
Alita leaned closer. “It’s smooth, Jez. He won’t be promming around the Bridgedeck much longer.”
What! “You told Capitán Diaz the truth ‘bout Donice, Alita?”
She flushed. “’Course not. He made me swear that I wouldn’t. What d’you take me for?” She lowered her voice, “Didn’t have to. The Cap’s lost the support of the abuelas on Estrella.”
“What’ve they said, then?”
She tossed her hair like it was head-grown. “That’s not how it works. It’s what they haven’t said. They haven’t told us chicas that’ll we’re headed hellwards for stranding poor Donice. They haven’t wordslimed you once – not even with you being DeepSpaced.”
“Doesn’t help that Estrella has a putrid rep with the other ships,” Abia added, tossing this info-nuke at me as if it was the weather. “They reckon your Capitán would flush every one of them away sooner than spit, if it came down to them ‘gainst his beloved Military.”
Yeah well, they’re probably right.

POEM – Desertification

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Being lonely is one of the most desolate experiences of all. Especially when alongside somone who should be looking out for you…

Burning wasteland of parched sand
shivers under the sun-scoured sky.
Eyes bleed useless tears looking
for help – no one ever comes here.

Just when the aching emptiness is
vast enough to swallow dust storms,
an oasis of Love blooms on the horizon…
miraculous pool shaded by lush bushes.

You run towards it, maddened by
the moist promise of tenderness…
It shimmers – a lover’s breath away from
your embrace.
And then blinks out.

desert

Image from wikipedia.com

 

 

Review of Polaris – Book 2 of the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt

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After reading top quality Fantasy books by the likes of Sharon Lee, Tanya Huff and Melanie Rawn, I occasionally wonder why I choose to mainly write science fiction. And then a book like this one pops up – and I know why this genre is my spiritual home…

PolarisThe luxury space yacht Polaris carried an elite group of the wealthy and curious thousands of light years from Earth to witness a spectacular stellar phenomenon. It never returned. The search party sent to investigate found the Polaris empty and adrift in space, the face of its pilot and passengers a mystery. Sixty years later, Alex Benedict is determined to find the truth about Polaris – no matter how far he must travel across the stars, no matter the risk.

I’ve read a couple of McDevitt’s books and thoroughly enjoyed them, see my review of Slow Lightning here. So when I got the opportunity to scoop another offering off the shelves, I didn’t hesitate. Would I enjoy it as much? Oh yes. As ever, McDevitt takes his time to set the scene. There is a fairly long prologue where we are in third person pov, which swings around from passenger to passenger as they witness the death of a star. And even when the first person narrator, Chase Kolpath, takes up the story, you needn’t start bracing yourself for full-on action any time soon. Alex Benedict, Chase’s boss, is primarily a dealt in ancient artefacts and his increasing interest in the disappearance of the Polaris is a gradual affair. In the meantime, we get plenty of slices of Chase’s everyday life and her attitude and approach to her job and her boss.

She is a confident, outgoing woman who thoroughly enjoys her adventurous life – most of the time. I find her an engaging protagonist who manages to be involved in all the main events without coming across as an adrenaline junkie. It was also a refreshing change that there is no romantic relationship between Alex and Chase, so we don’t have to wade through any burning looks or longings in amongst the sleuthing. This adventure is where Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone meets Sherlock Holmes… McDevitt gives us plenty of routine, everyday details about Alex and Chase, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds, given that it’s set in the far future – and yet as the narrator is the junior partner and Alex tends to be the one who comes up with the brilliant insights, there is more than a touch of Sherlock thrown into the mix.

For a while in the middle, I began to wonder if the story would ever truly take off as they visited yet another character on the edge of this mystery about vanished passengers. As they were all celebrities in a variety of fields, Chase and Alex had plenty of dead ends to run down and red herrings to lay to rest. But I needn’t have worried – once they became close enough to the solution for the perpetrators to feel threatened, and they are suddenly under attack, the whole atmosphere changes and becomes charged with tension. I stayed up far later than I should to discover what happens next.

A slow-burn mystery like this has to have a really solid, satisfactory ending – and McDevitt absolutely achieves this. I didn’t see the denouement coming and yet it made perfect sense – I even backtracked, looking for the relevant clues that I’d originally missed, which for me is always the sign of a cracking conclusion.

And the icing on the cake, is that entwined in the mystery is a major moral question that we will be shortly having to face in reality – not in such an extreme way, but nevertheless we should be considering how we tackle such an issue, given that Earth’s population is growing at an increasing rate. Which is why I particularly love science fiction – the very best story encapsulates pure escapism, alongside a highly pertinent ongoing social issue that our increasing technological capabilities will sharpen into a moral or social dilemma. Great stuff!
8/10

Review of The Future Falls – Book 3 of The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff

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My TBR pile has reached ridiculous proportions – and I’m trying to get on top of it. Really. But there are a handful of books that immediately jump the queue as soon as I can get my hands on them – and this quirky, unusual series is one of them. I knew I was reading something special several pages into the first book, The Enchantment Emporium – see my review here. And as far as I’m concerned, it just keeps getting better. I love the Gale family and their twisty machinations… thefuturefalls

When Charlotte Gale’s aunt warns their magical family of an approaching asteroid, they scramble to keep humanity from going the way of the dinosaurs. Although between Charlie’s complicated relationship with sorcerer Jack, her cousin Allie’s hormones, the Courts having way too much fun at the end of days, and Jack’s sudden desire to sacrifice himself for the good of the many, Charlie’s fairly certain that the asteroid is the least of her problems. This could have so easily been an adrenaline junkie’s dream with constant action-packed pages of chases… scary magical confrontations ending in blood and gore – and it would have still been an engrossing read. But the cool, ironic tone of the blurb nicely echoes the emotional tenor of the books.

Big hefty stuff goes on within the Gale family – stuff that would probably very much interest social services if they got to hear of it, as sex is a very useful conduit for accessing magical power within family members. However, while Ritual and the aunts’ enthusiastic sexual tastes are regularly alluded to, Huff relies on our imaginations to join the dots. So when a planet-killing asteroid is revealed far too late for NASA to do anything about it and the Gale family get to hear of it, the life and death struggles to find some kind of solution that doesn’t include wiping out the majority of humanity (that the Gale family will survive is a given, now they can take avoiding action) is handled with a low-key intensity that nevertheless had me reading far into the night to discover what would happen next.

I really enjoy Charlie’s character. She is a musician, who channels a lot of her significant magical strength through various soundtracks. As something of a misfit, she has access to the Wild magic, like Aunt Catherine, who left the Enchantment Emporium to Allie in the first book. She is also very attracted to seventeen-year-old Jack, who is attracted back. But family rules preclude any kind of relationship outside of Ritual between them because the age gap is too wide. Given the way sex is used within the Family, it isn’t spelt out exactly why such a rule is written in stone, but I’m sure readers can work out why it’s such a good idea to protect younger family members in this way. Which is when the ironic understatement running through the book becomes really effective. Charlie is all too well aware that thwarted love is a cliché, and her attempts to try and live with the fact that she and Jack won’t ever get a chance to be a couple gain real poignancy and emotional punch because she isn’t sobbing and moping about it. In fact, Huff manages to get a fair amount of wry humour out of the situation, when it becomes common knowledge throughout the Gale family.

And, for me, it is the backdrop of this vividly powerful family that raises this accomplished read from a really enjoyable series to outstanding. The Gale family is run by the aunts, who gain power through their sexual maturation after producing children – preferably girls. For Gale boys and men who are powerful enough to become sorcerers are killed before they can do too much damage. The aunts bake when they get together, and are often squabbling and eccentric. But as with any entity that is extremely powerful and knows it – they are also dangerous. Huff never lets us forget this. It’s a nifty trick to pull off. I love the fact that the Gale family never comes across as too cosy, or let the fact they are run by a matriarchy means they are kinder or softer… Understanding, maybe, but not kind. They can’t afford to be – they are running a family with sufficient power to level the world. And this is another trick Huff has pulled off – the Gales are something beyond human and the more we see about their adventures, the more alien they are.

If you enjoy well-written urban fantasy with a grown-up spin on it, then give this series a go. And yes – jump in at The Future Falls if you must. Huff has ensured you won’t flounder too much if you read these out of order, but I do advise to get the very best out of this series, you start at the first book. As for me, despite having more books to read than I know what to do with – I’m now waiting impatiently for the next slice of Gale goodness… 10/10

FICTION FRIDAY – Extract from Running Out of Space – Book 1 of The Sunblinded trilogy

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I felt cold as I leaned towards Wynn, trying to screen him from the monitors. “You haven’t said anything about what really happened in Basement Level, have you?”
Ricco barged between us, bristling with outraged machismo.
“And what d’you think you’re doing, Rubio?” He spoiled his attitude of pent aggression by tipping a plateful of food down himself, then scraped at his smeared tunic, making the stain a whole lot worse, cursing steadily as he did so.
“You better wash that mouth out before you kiss your Mamá with it!” I snapped, as pieces of paella showered down on me. “Quit staling our air, Ricco.”
Giving up on his uniform, Ricco didn’t even look in my direction, too busy trying to eye-slice Wynn into submission. Who leaned back in his chair with his hands laced behind his head, grinning. I felt a wave of affection for him.
One of our hombres would feel honour-bound to square up to Ricco, by now.
“Step away from my intended, sobra!” Ricco hissed.
What!
“This true?” Wynn turned to me, his face now stone cold.
“’Course it isn’t! What d’you take me for?” my furious voice soared over the polite mutter susurrating around the cargohold. I jumped up and turned on Ricco. “What holo-scam you pulling now, hombre?”
Sudden hush dropped like a blanket around us.
What I should have done was slam my mouth shut. Or just head for the door. Preferably both. What I actually did was shout at the top of my very loud voice, “I’m not your intended! Never have been and never will be, Ricco Solana, and you know it!”
Fully fired up, he also lost any sense of propriety. “Don’t you give me that, you holo-hoaxing deceiver!”
“Deceiver!” I spluttered, “What deceit, you wet-head? Have we ever exchanged any promises? No. Any ring? No. Have we even kissed? No.”
“But you knew,” he howled, his face blotched and furious. “It was understood that we’d marry! We grew up together-”
I wasn’t letting him get away with that fuse-brained reasoning. “Sí, you’re right. So we did. I also grew up with five brothers and a pet rabbit. I’m not marrying them, either!”
“But your padre and me – we have spoken of this. He has given his permission!”
I might’ve known it. Papá! You’re the deceiving holo-hoaxer, here, aren’t you?
I saw Ricco’s contorted face through a red haze as my fury nocked up to giddy recklessness. “Oh, fine. Marry him, then. I don’t want you in that way, and I never have!”