Cometary Tales Blog,On Books Review: Best Intentions, by J Dark

Review: Best Intentions, by J Dark

I love a good crossover novel . . . or in this case, series of novels. An author who can successfully blend the tropes and themes of two kinds of worlds can perform that magical feat of pulling you outside your own world and showing you the things that bind people together, no matter what world they’re inhabiting.

The Glass Bottles series by J. Dark will give you that. Here, J Dark blends the noir detective story with urban fantasy. What makes it work is that the features of both worlds are both given their full due. Don’t think of this as a mashup–it’s more than that, it’s an overlay that draws on compelling elements of each type of story to bring fans of either just what they need. I’ve just finished the first one, Best Intentions, and I think you’ll agree that this is a dark, engaging tale that draws you in … and maybe kicks you a few times in the gut before it lets you go.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll get yours, you demanding film noir fan: the grim, gritty streets of The City, the denizens of the underworld–some better than they seem, some worse, the wiseacre Private Eye with the dingy little office, the mysterious crime that the police can’t handle, the stranger at the door…a stranger who may need her help…or may be about to kill her. Yeah, the PI is a dame, OK, a hot dame, no less, you got a problem with that?

Oh, and you, you urban fantasy addict, you get: a fully-worked out magic system that’s unique in its own way, but that you can pick up on as the story progresses, demons, pentagrams, spells, and rituals. These are all set against a backdrop of a seemingly ordinary city that’s fallen on tough times and normal complications of families, friends, and law versus order. All of these are contained within an ordered universe with an explanation for why-things-are-this-way…an explanation that ties directly to the deepest peril that the hero of the story must face.

While I don’t do spoilers, I will share a tiny content warning–this is not a story for children–got that?–not any more than the Maltese Falcon is a lighthearted romp for the kiddies. And while there are interesting magical–make that magickal–animals that play important roles, this is nothing like a Harry Potter story.

Here’s your setup. No Spoilers.

Fern Fatelli and her sister Fawn work on either side of the private-public law-enforcement line, in the city of Dayning (a fictionalized urban enclave of Halifax, Nova Scotia). Fern’s got her PI business to tend to, with equal parts moxie, magick, and good old-fashioned gumshoe footwork. When she needs a bodyguard, her old buddy–who also happens to be a troll–stands by her. There’s some baaaad stuff going down in the city…there are these strange little bottles that seem to suck something essential right out of a person, but no one knows what they are, where they came from, who is using them … let alone, why.

Our Fern is comfortable in the lower echelons of her city, using her limited magick on the old PI standards–scrounging up evidence on adultery for a disgruntled spouse. But this time, a seemingly typical case lands her in the role of hero, the one who has to solve an enormous puzzle to save her friends, her family, and her world…to save them all from an ancient evil that was set loose long ago, with the very best of intentions.

J Dark has a way with creating twists that will catch you off balance. Just when you think you sort of know what the solution to the mystery is going to be, something comes in out of left field–something that was there, all along, that you weren’t paying attention to–and everything changes again. You’ll enjoy the ride, but it’s like a roller coaster in the dark, so hang on tight.

At this point, there are three Glass Bottles books released, plus a short story, a prequel actually, A Last Good Day, that’s available for a free download at the publisher’s website. The books are on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and several digital-books sites. J Dark has a blog, too, where you can read about writing or try to catch up with a serialized sci-fi work-in-progress.

If, like me, you’re kind of curious about this re-imagining of life in Nova Scotia–or, as it’s been renamed in these books, New Scotland–there’s a trove of imagery on Google’s map images–check out this awesome shot by Mark Lamontagne that captures the blend of old and new echoed in J Dark’s vision.

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Rediscovering Old BooksRediscovering Old Books

I spent my elementary-school years soaking up the very best in English literature.

For a preteen horse-mad bookworm that meant: Enid Blyton, Hilda Boden, Josephine Pullein-Thompson, her sister Christine Pullein-Thompson, and Many More. I didn’t notice at the time, but now it’s obvious:  all my early writing models were women. My very first book purchase was a pony book by Hilda Boden, who took up writing stories to help support her family. I kept that book–Joanna’s Special Pony–for years, and reread it many times, imagining the windswept Scottish coast populated with wild (but tameable) ponies and admiring the resourceful, determined heroine of the tale.

I’d nearly forgotten Lilian Buchanan’s illustrations–until I saw them again, and recognized them.

From that day onward, every smidge of my allowance (well, sparing a few pennies for sweets) went for the next installment of the Famous Five or Malory Towers or any number of pony books.

All of those books stayed behind in Yorkshire when my mother had to pack us all up for the move to the States. My British childhood was over, and military moving allowances are based on weight, so . . . my pony books, boarding-school novels, and mysteries went to the thrift store for some other child to collect.

“I thought you were done with baby dolls, you still have the Barbies,” my mother argued.

“Not all of them,” I countered. “I promised that one, the littlest one, that I wouldn’t ever ever give her away.”

But it was too late. 

I think maybe I broke my mom’s heart a little bit. Well, a little bit more. Motherhood involves a lot of heartache. Well, Baby Doll may have been lost to me forever, but I’m sure she had at least one more little girl make her similar promises.

The only good thing about the move was that all my friends had to study up for the Eleven-Plus, which would determine whether they’d go to a nice boarding/academic secondary school (like Malory Towers), get stuck in a dead-end “modern school” with no college track, or take up a trade and actually be able to earn a living. Me, I got to spend a couple of weeks coasting through the end of what Americans called “fifth grade” sitting in a classroom with children who–it seemed to me–hardly read at all, before being unleashed to a long, long American summer vacation. Luckily, my grandparents’ house was packed with books–mostly Reader’s Digest collections, but also a classic edition of One Thousand and One Nights and my dad’s stash of science fiction magazines.

Over the years, those old-style children’s books have been supplanted in the market by more literary-style books for children, others with science-fiction or fantasy roots, and thankfully many with more diverse casts of characters. A few have received a dusting-off over the years . . . there’s even a 2020 BBC-TV adaptation of Malory Towers that puts the storyline in a historical-fiction context while also envisioning a more diverse enrollment and faculty at the school.

Now, it’s my turn to have a house packed with books, and it’s an eclectic collection–not even taking into account all the books that aren’t technically mine, but my husband’s.  No matter–I put them on the shelf and dust them (occasionally), so they’re mine in that sense. I’ve launched a little Instagram project to share a few of those books, on a regular basis–mostly the out-of-print ones, the ones I inherited from my Dad (a fellow SF fan), and ones that may be old but that still speak to current issues.  The hard part is figuring out how to photograph them–top bookish instagrammers have such lovely still-life setups for their book posts. I’ll do my best to at least not to give people eyestrain.

None of that means I’ve stopped gathering-in books. Just in time for my birthday, my very first Quarantine Birthday, I retrieved a book long-lost in the move from England, my first book purchase, my favorite book from that day until the day it vanished to the thrift store with my dolls. 

The dolls are gone, my mother long forgiven, but the books never have left my mind. Just this month, I made a birthday present for myself of a copy of Joanna’s Special Pony, dusted off from some other collector’s shelf–one in better condition than the one I left behind, PLUS a copy of the sequel. That was a book I never got my hands on, because it was only in hardcover and my allowance was two shillings sixpence, exactly the price of a paperback (my, what a coincidence–almost as if my parents wanted me to buy books).

If you like Instagram, the series is here. I’ll try to remember to link to those postings from the Facebook page as well.

On the Care and Feeding of Participial PhrasesOn the Care and Feeding of Participial Phrases

In some critique circles, shooting down misplaced modifiers has become a sporting activity. It’s fun, because they’re easy to spot and can be really funny. “The robber drove the getaway car in a batman costume” should make you smile at the image of a car cosplaying as The Batman. It’s logical that a modifier works best when it’s placed as close as possible to the thing it’s describing. For example, the descriptor “in a batman costume” should be next to “robber” and not “car.”

Unfortunately, a valuable writing tool—the participial phrase—is taking collateral damage.

An image of a 19th-century postcard showing three people "flying" with stiff airplane-like wings justting from ther sides, as they shoot at ducks in the sky.
An 1899 postcard by Jean-Marc Côté
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A participial phrase is a specialized modifier that conveys movement or change, often incorporating visual imagery and other details, while performing the duties of an adjective. This tool has its own grammar and punctuation rules. Like any modifier, it can be misplaced, but the writer has flexibility in its placement, supported by the unsung hero of grammar: the comma.

To be sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with participles. A participle is what you get when you take a verb and use it as an adjective: drowned trees, running water, flying pigs, grown woman, billowing clouds. Look for the past- and present-tense endings.

A simple participle works just like an ordinary adjective and is placed exactly as you would expect. For example, “drowned trees” could be a more dramatic way to say “dead trees.” It’s not unique to English, but repurposing words is relatively common in our language. Apparently, we English-speakers are determined to keep turning one part of speech into another, as if we haven’t got enough words already. Verbing nouns is one of my pet peeves.

(Yes, I know. You saw what I did there.)

A participial phrase is both

  • a phrase with a participle in it, and
  • a phrase acting as an adjective, intended to describe the subject of a sentence.

For example, “acting as an adjective” is a participial phrase. So is, “intended to describe the subject of a sentence.”

To get a participial phrase, you build upon the participle:

Trees … drowned in the flood from the broken dam

Water … running over rocks and rills

Pigs … flying like eagles

Woman … grown wise in the ways of the world

Clouds … billowing like windblown sheets of satin (note the participle within this participial phrase)

Brilliant clouds sail high over the plains towards distant mountaints

Participles and participial phrases add flavor and texture to our sentences, and because they come from verbs, they help create a feeling of action. Questions arise when we go to put our nicely-constructed phrase into its sentence, because … where do we put the darned thing? You have three choices:

Leading: Billowing like windblown sheets of satin, the clouds sailed over the plains of Endor.

Subject-adjacent: The clouds, billowing like windblown sheets of satin, sailed over the plains of Endor.

Trailing: The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor, billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Photo Credit: Jonathan C. Wheeler, CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Note: these are my own terms. Reliable texts will say “at the beginning/in the middle/at the end.” yawn. Also, do not rail at me about the forests of Endor. This one is about the plains. Where, possibly, it rains. Like in Spain.)

Now … wait for it … here it comes:

If (and only if) you fail to properly punctuate a participial phrase, it becomes a misplaced modifier.

Technically, it’s a mispunctuated modifier, but to the reader, it’s confusing, and that’s why we care about misplaced modifiers. It occurs most often when the participial phrase is trailing. The separating comma before the phrase signals the reader that what follows describes the subject, in our example: clouds. Without the comma, you get:

The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Here, the reader is cast adrift and must grab for the nearest noun. While it may be possible that the plains of Endor billow, without other information, the reader will snicker, backtrack, guess what you mean, and move on, now somewhat annoyed by your absent comma.

Participial phrases bow to the humble comma or risk being misunderstood. For leading ones, you need a comma to close off the modifying phrase and move into the sentence proper. For subject-adjacent placement, commas—or their absence—are used intentionally to create subtle distinctions in meaning, distinguishing between essential description and nonessential elaboration.

A participial phrase placed next to the subject but without commas makes that descriptor an essential one. Consider:

The clouds billowing like windblown sheets of satin sailed over the plains of Endor.

Here the phrase is “essential” because it’s telling us that only those clouds that are billowing (yes, like satin) sail over the plains. Perhaps other clouds lie high in the stratosphere, unaffected by the winds below. If we put the commas back in, then we know the descriptor is colorful but nonessential. That is, we understand that all the clouds are sailing, though we pause in the middle of the sentence to enjoy the charming detail of their movement and sheen.

Placement at the beginning versus the end of a sentence allows us to create a sense of sequence, the order in which the storyteller wants the reader to experience each element. With the leading version of our Endorian sentence, the author wants you to take in the image of the shape and movement and texture of the clouds first, then imagine them sailing over the plains. It’s like when a child runs up to you with a remote-control toy and says “Look! Godzilla is driving this robot car! Isn’t it cool? Now watch what it can do!”

In contrast, with a trailing placement, the author nudges you to first realize that the clouds are sailing over the plains—maybe it’s important, because a party of adventurers must cross the stormy plain—and then lets you enjoy the clouds’ beauty. In our child’s-play example, first you are startled by a remote-control car zipping across the playground, and then a child is calling out “Wow! Cool! A robot car with Godzilla driving it!”

And now, don’t you want a robot car?

Me, too!

Were the plains of Endor too much? Let’s review, using a simpler situation. Imagine a romance in which a young woman has just learned her true love is about to sail away on a ship, and she’s hurried to the docks. She spots him boarding a vessel, but it’s way down on the pier. She has to run. She wants him to see her, but he’s too far away.

Here’s a mispunctuated participial phrase: Mun-Su ran down the dock waving to her departing lover.

We know the dock isn’t saying farewell to its lover, we know it’s Mun-Su, but as readers we don’t like to have to stop and think about it. Add the comma demanded by a trailing participial phrase, and all becomes clear as we yank out our hankies: Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Of course, you could stick the participial phrase at the front: Waving to her departing lover, Mun-Su ran down the dock. Grammatically, this is correct, but we’ve defined a situation in which Mun-Su needs to get a move on first; her running is the critical action, because the lover won’t see her waving until she gets closer.

Further, what if you want to make the situation more complex? This is an important beat in the story. Surely, you want to share the character’s innermost feelings, her physical sensations at that moment: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Those unaware of the functionality of the participial phrase will point and cry, “You must place the phrase next to the subject.” Oh, my, but then you get: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su, waving to her departing lover, ran down the dock.

Poor Mun-Su is awkwardly waving, in a nonessential way, as she runs down the dock. Sadly, I’m not seeing a happily-ever-after now. Pass me the tissues.

I do hope you have enjoyed this little missive from the Grammar Police. We protect and serve … the text.

Further reading:

Clean examples and a bonus round on dangling modifiers from Grammar Monster: https://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/participle_phrases.htm

Purdue University’s online writing lab explicating plenty of complexities in participles and their phrases: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/mechanics/gerunds_participles_and_infinitives/participles.html

Don’t worry, Ha Mun-Su does get her happy ending eventually, and Won Jin-Ah won an award for her portrayal, too! https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7521898/

On Aisle 42, Universe Components: One Will Make You SmallerOn Aisle 42, Universe Components: One Will Make You Smaller

 

Or

A Top-Down Search for the Strange Charm of Putting Up With Those Quarks at Bottom of the Universe

For part two of our universe-construction project, while the helium models dry, it’s time to delve into the depths of the sub-sub-atomic universe.

Consider those carefully-constructed model atoms.   Each contains protons, neutrons, and electrons.

As it turns out, with electrons, there are (so far as physics can determine at present) no smaller particles needed to build an electron.  Electrons are part of a group of  six elementary particles called leptons.  Some of these leptons–the neutrinos–were predicted to not even have any mass, but experiments have shown that while they are incredibly low-mass, neutrinos do have some mass.  Interestingly, these experiments leading to even more new developments in fundamental physics and the Standard Model theory.  Still, electrons are by far the most numerous leptons (at least in our corner of the multiverse.)

In our candy-based model, we have more than one proton crammed into in a nucleus.  Each of those protons has a positive charge, but we all know that objects with the same charge repel each other.  Why does the nucleus stay together?

In our model, of course, there is all that sticky candy.  But in the real atom, there is also something that, in its own way, makes protons stick together.  These other particles are one type of another class of matter, called mesons.  These strange, essential, particles are stable only inside the nucleus, where (like our sticky marshmallows) they act as a “glue” to hold protons and neutrons close together.

Given that extremely tiny leptons have been observed, as well as tiny mesons inside the nucleus, protons and neutrons may begin to seem too big to be elementary particles.  Sure enough, it turns out that protons and neutrons are also made of smaller particles.  And those mesons, too, are made of those same even-smaller particles.  And, while it took thirty years to search them all out, a total of six more fundamental particles (on top of the six leptons) have been found.  Most of the matter we know about only requires two of those particles–plus the electron–but modern physics predicted six, and sure enough, there are six of them.

Meet the QUARKS.  Their six kinds are: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.  Each kind comes in a matter form and an antimatter form.

Intriguingly, the terminology for “kinds” of quarks is flavors. Other characteristics of quarks and leptons include color, another clue to the pleasure scientists find in these discoveries.   For now, we’ll experiment with the flavors of quarks.  Unlike real quarks, we will use macroscopic objects that also happen to taste sweet.

As usual, if you’re working with youngsters, begin by reassuring everyone that there will be plenty of time to eat their quarks later.  Each person gets one each of the six flavors of candy…quarks. Because the candies will be handled a lot during the first stage, tell them not to open the wrappers yet.   Observe the candies.  One side has the brand name on it, and the other side is plain.  If we put the candy name-side up, we’ll call it a quark, and if it has the plain side up, we’ll call it an antiquark.

Quark vs Antiquark

A meson is formed by pairs of one quark and one antiquark.  Give the group some time to see just how many combinations can be made of such pairs.  (A few special mesons combine two or three such pairs, in quark combinations.)

A Small Set of Mesons

This will take some cooperation–participants will want to get together and different groups will organize their tests differently.  Meanwhile, if you have access to a whiteboard or poster paper, you can sketch out a list of simple mesons shown below.  For smaller (or older) groups, you can also pass out copies of this grid and let everyone check off the combinations as they are discovered.

quark antiquark candy (name) candy (plain)
bottom eta b b pineapple pineapple
Upsilon b b pineapple pineapple
charmed eta c c purple purple
D+ c d purple peppermint
D0 c u purple red
J/Psi c c purple purple
Strange D c s purple green
Charmed B b c purple pineapple
Kaon0 d s peppermint green
B0 d b peppermint pineapple
Phi s s green green
Strange B s b green pineapple
pion u d red peppermint
kaon+ u s red green
B+ u b red pineapple
Charged rho u d red peppermint
Kaon*+ u s red green

What’s important from this exercise is realizing that all of these two-quark combinations can really happen.  Some of the mesons are the ones that help stick nuclei together.  Others are found in outer space, as cosmic rays.  Others are only found when scientists smash other particles together to find out what they are made of.  Recently, the last of the mesons described by this model was detected by an international team of physicists, using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in  Switzerland.  This prompted huge celebrations by physicists and the process inspired a documentary film about the search for the Higgs Boson, Particle Fever.

When I ran this project at BayCon in 2017, one of the young participants scanned the list above and said, “What about the top quark?”  Trust a science-fiction fan to spot an anomaly.  Indeed, none of the known mesons make use of the top quark, which is the most elusive one of all, and in some ways the most peculiar.  The top quark is extremely unstable–even more ephemeral than the strange, charm, and bottom quarks–and it requires a large particle accelerator to observe one. (Fermilab managed it first; now CERN‘s Large Hadron Collider holds the record.)  Even then, once produced, a top quark vanishes in 1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second.  The top quark is also amazingly massive, fueling the deep interest in the nature of mass itself, which many think is one of the functions of the Higgs boson, which itself has only recently been (tentatively) observed.  Scientists at CERN hope to use the relatively massive top quark as a test laboratory to verify their (provisional) Higgs boson observations.

Three-quark particles are called baryons–the most common of these are protons and neutrons.  The next step for our own quark exploration is to find the combination of up and down quarks that yields the proton and the one that forms a neutron.   Each person has 2 peppermint and 2 of one other color to play with. Each group can also pool resources (still keeping those candy wrappers on) to mix and match groups of three using only 2 colors of candy.

To sort out which of these combinations works requires one extra piece of information.  We know that an electron has a charge of -1, a proton has a charge of +1, and a neutron is neutral, with a charge of zero.   Another cool feature of quarks…and one of the hardest things their discoverers had to come to terms with…is that they have fractional charges.  Before quarks, everyone used to think of a charge…equal to the electric charge of an electron…as an indivisible thing.  Just like an atom.  But just as it has turned out that atoms aren’t indivisible, neither is charge.

Up quark’s charge:       +2/3

Down quark’s charge:   -1/3

So, with just a little arithmetic, we can find out which of our combinations makes a proton and which makes a neutron.  Here’s the cheat sheet:

uuu

2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 = 2

Positive…but too much for a proton
ddd

(-1/3) + (-1/3) + (-1/3) = -1

Negative, so it can’t be a proton or a neutron.

Note:  it’s not an electron either–remember, an electron is already an elementary particle.

uud

or udu

or duu

2/3 + 2/3 + (-1/3) = 1

OK!  It’s a proton!
(Just a reminder…the order the quarks are listed in doesn’t matter.)
ddu

or dud

or udd

-1/3 + (-1/3) + 2/3 = 0

Yes!  We have discovered the neutron!

 

Aha, it’s a proton.

Aha, It’s a neutron!

So, the charge calculations show that protons and neutrons are made of two ups plus one down for a proton and two downs plus one up for a neutron.

It’s possible to have participants glue their protons and neutron quark groups together.  A dip on the water cup from the atomic marshmallow project will make a candy piece sticky.  However, these sticky messes will need to sit aside for a while to dry.  If your participants include young children, you might want to skip that possibility, as a glued-up stack of Life-Savers could be a choking hazard.

Speaking of glue, the same BayCon2017 participants also suggested some ideas for incorporating gluons into our model.  To cover the topic of quantum chromodynamics would be a fun challenge, but for the present, those lonely orange LifeSavers we’d set aside as those transient top quarks can be added between the red and white candies in our proton and neutron models to represent the color exchanges among the quarks.

So now we have established that everything in matter is made of tiny (and flavorful) points of dancing energy called quarks and leptons. How can we visualize the true relative sizes of these quarks, protons, nuclei, and atoms?

Poke a pin through a piece of paper and hold it up to the light, then pass it around, so everyone can see how tiny that hole is.   Think of that bright speck as an electron or a quark.  To be at the same scale, our helium nucleus would be about 3 feet across.  A handy meter-stick or yardstick will provide a sense of scale, but for drama, bring out a huge balloon (the 36-inch size).  It won’t be edible, but it will be fun to play with afterwards.  If that big old balloon is the tiny nucleus, then to build a whole helium atom we’d need a marshmallow about seven miles (ten kilometers) across!

So let’s check back on our atom model from the atomic marshmallow project.  It’s mostly nothing, just that airy, fluffy marshmallow.  Remember how thin the “shell” of the electron cloud is, and how surprisingly hard it is to notice the tiny nucleus once the two little protons and neutrons were placed inside.  Even so, in our model, the protons and neutrons are huge compared with the atom.  Imagine how fantastic the resulting candy treat would be–and how many people could enjoy it–if we’d tried to make this marshmallow atom model to scale.

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