Category Archives: Fiction

Little Women Legacy: Sounding Off From Puget Sound with K.R. Karr, Featured Author

Pink Umbrella Publishing is doing a blog series on the authors of “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes.” Meet K.R. Karr, another West Coast author with German connections!

In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with K.R. Karr, West Coast writer and academic.

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Contributor K.R. Karr on Puget Sound with the Washington State Ferry in the background. Photo credit: Kristina Berger.


What is your favorite scene from Little Women?

My favorite scene from Little Women is when Jo comes home with her hair cut, having sold it to pay for Marmee’s train ticket after Mr. March is wounded in battle. This scene really demonstrates to me Jo’s inner qualities, as well as her love for her family.

Who are some of your other “imaginary heroes” from literature?

I love this phrase “imaginary heroes” and some of mine include Emily of Deep Valley, Jane Eyre, Cassandra Mortmain of I Capture the Castle, Renee in Colette’s The Vagabond, Lucy Honeychurch and George…

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Little Women Legacy: Getting Bookish with Susan Bailey, Featured Author

Pink Umbrella Books is doing a series of blogs of featuring the authors of the “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes” Anthology. This post features Susan W Bailey of “Louisa Alcott is My Passion.” I learned about the anthology on her blog, and have learned a lot about Louisa from her!

In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with Susan Bailey, author, Louisa May Alcott devotee, and proud New Englander!

Bailey

Contributor Susan Bailey cozies up with The Annotated Little Women in Massachusetts.


What is your favorite scene from Little Women?

My favorite scene is when Beth runs over to thank Mr. Laurence, impulsively puts her arms around his neck and kisses him, and ends up sitting in his lap. I thought that took a lot of guts to do that! I am a typical Yankee (“frozen chosen” as they call us in New England) – quite reserved, especially when it comes to showing physical affection, and I know I would have been far too self-conscious to do what Beth did. She totally forgot herself in the spirit of love and gratitude towards…

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A Tale of Two Editors: the makings of The Little Women Legacy

A fun interview with Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelly, the editors of Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes. As someone who moved to New York and married a German guy in real life, I am naturally Team Friedrich!

Much ado about Little Women

I had to ask: Team Laurence or Team Bhaer? Editors Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelly talk Jo March’s ending, how they’d put the March sisters to work at Pink Umbrella Books (not just work of course – they’d go on holiday too), and surprises for fans in the to-be-released anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy.

Jo March’s ending – Jo with Friedrich Bhaer, Jo with Theodore Laurence, Jo single, or something else?

MERRY: I’m Team Friedrich. Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but Laurie is such a puppy.

MARNAE: I’m a big Bhaer fan because of the equality of minds in that relationship and the opportunities for growth in both characters.

Who of all the March sisters would you go on holiday with, where would you go, and why?

MERRY: I’d take an English holiday with Jo – specifically to hit up the literary landmarks, as we are kindred spirits that way.

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Book Review: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

Night of the Living TrekkiesNight of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this book with low expectations. It was on my kindle, I had finished my previous book, and I was out of wifi range on a boat so I was unable to download anything else. I thought, I’ll give it a chance for a few chapters. And after a few chapters I was hooked.

I would probably be best described as a Trekkie alumna. I loved Star Trek in my teens. I read all the novelizations of the original series, had seen all the episodes several times, went to a convention, owned a real tribble, and for a while could probably have done pretty well in a trivia contest. But that was before the post-“Voyage Home” original cast movies, before “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise,” before “Discovery,” before “!@#$%^&* My Dad Says,” and before the current movie reboot featuring an entirely new set of actors. I am enjoying the reboot well enough, but at this point Star Trek is just another science fictional franchise in a universe crowded with them. I have graduated from that phase of my life, and moved on to the next shiny object.

This book took me back to what I loved about Star Trek. Structured like a good TV episode or one of the better movies, it has all the tropes and character types you have come to expect, and more. It takes place at a hotel called the Botany Bay, and each chapter is named for a different TV episode. I noticed a few clever in-jokes as I read through them, enough to know that there must have been many more embedded in the text that I missed due to having been away for so long. There is little point to summarizing the plot because that would spoil the ride. But I will say that it has one of the best explanations for how zombies are turned and develop that I’ve read in a while. (This may be faint praise, as I’m not a zombie connoisseur.) And Houston, we really have a problem . . .

I will go out on a limb here and speculate that one of the reasons the modern manifestations of the Star Trek franchise seem less special to me now is that they have become darker, grittier, and more morally ambiguous, with visual effects so polished that they have taken on a life and story of their own. The original Star Trek was a rag-tag child of the 1960’s, motivated by the promise that science and technology can be a force for good, and optimism that humankind has the capacity to better itself and transcend its worst impulses. The first movies and the TV series of the 1980s and 1990s were in this mold too. Night of the Living Trekkies draws on this optimistic tradition in a way that is surprisingly touching in the midst of chaos, death and destruction. I don’t know if this book will convert any newbies to Trek fandom who weren’t already here, but it’s great fun for those of us who love the universe and still hope that it has something to teach our cynical age.

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Film Review: Fallen Kingdom, The New Modern Prometheus

This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The classic novel was written as a parlor game in 1816, the year without a summer, by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley).

FrankensteinCover
Wordsworth Classic Edition

The Governing Myth

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HRW Edition

Her story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster casts a long shadow. Its adaptations in popular culture have become what author Jon Turney calls “the governing myth of modern biology“: a cautionary tale of overreaching by a scientist that ends in tragedy and death.

A central tenet of this myth is that the monster, cobbled together from dead body parts and animated by electricity–created by man not God–is against the natural order of life. The story’s horror comes not just from fear of dying at the monster’s hand, but from a more primal sense that the universe itself will not abide this creation or those that created it. In the words of Ian Malcom, “Life finds a way.”

The Myth Updated

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Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street. Image: Jurassic Park wiki

The original Jurassic Park updated this governing myth for the 20th century. Instead of electricity and magnetism, the sexy new science to be harnessed is genetic engineering. And instead of a humanoid monster killing everything its creator loves, we have dinosaurs. But the same hubris, greed, and willful ignorance remain–along with the same sense of wonder and naive good intentions.

In a humanizing scene, John Hammond (played by Santa Claus from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street) explains to Dr. Sattler that he wanted to bring magic to children with Jurassic park, just as he did years ago with a flea circus. But his park is collapsing, melting all around him, along with his ice cream and his dreams.

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Jurassic Park Ice Cream. Image: Popcorn Cowboy

John Hammond, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, gets his comeuppance by the end of the book (although it takes a few movies to finish him off). And, the other craven greedy villains such as Donald Gennaro and Dennis Nedry become dinosaur food quickly and spectacularly. While of course the cute kids, Hammond’s grandchildren, survive.

Leaving the island of the dinosaurs after his misadventures, protagonist and good guy Dr. Alan Grant looks out of the helicopter to see modern pelicans flying as they should. His theory of dinosaur-to-bird evolution has been validated. His skepticism about Jurassic park itself has been vindicated, too, at great cost, and all is back in balance.

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Image: GIPHY

Life found a way to put humans in their place.

Science, not Myth

The original Jurassic Park had unforgettable characters, amazing effects, an awesome music score, and was thematically resonant with Frankenstein, a timeless classic of English literature.

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Image: Jurassic Park wiki

Jurassic Park also, almost unique among modern science fiction movies, contained a testable scientific hypothesis. The story spawned a virtual cottage industry of scientists looking for ancient DNA in amber until the half-life of DNA molecules was calculated several years ago. These results showed definitively that Jurassic-era DNA could not have survived long enough to be reconstructed to clone dinosaurs. Real-life Henry Wu wannabees will have to make do with trying to bring back animals more recently extinct.

The Myth Transformed

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is like Jurassic Park‘s ugly stepsister, a monster cobbled together crooked from all the shiny parts of the original. Its dinosaurs are bigger, badder, and uglier. The heroes are hiding out in remote cabins and ineffective non-profit organizations. The benevolent-ish grandpa, this time named Ben Lockwood, isn’t Santa Claus. He’s an invalid who is being taken advantage of by his underlings.

And the cute grandchild, Maisie? There’s something otherworldly about her too. She lives by herself, except for an elderly governess, in a creaky old mansion above a museum, and looks and talks like English musical child prodigy Alma Deutscher.

Most of the plot of Fallen Kingdom will surprise no one. People stand there, mouths open, until they get lunched by dinosaurs. Greed and hubris are again on display in ever-uglier forms. A plucky child escapes death by dinosaur and makes a fateful decision. The audience will probably cheer when a particularly horrible example of humanity tries to take a trophy from a dinosaur he thinks is asleep and then loses his arm, and his life, in the process.

What is different in Fallen Kingdom is that while the body counts pile up, balance is no longer restored to the movie’s universe. The otherworldly Maisie turns out not to be Ben Lockwood’s granddaughter at all, but a clone of his deceased daughter. The flying creatures Owen sees at the end of Fallen Kingdom aren’t Dr. Grant’s friendly pelicans. They’re pteranodons.

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Image: Jurassic World Universe

In their race to save and weaponize the most clever and aggressive dinosaurs, the humans of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom abandon another of their creations, the gentle plant-eating brachiosaurus. This is the same species that first evoked awe and wonder in the original Jurassic Park. The scene where a brachiosaurus calls to the retreating human ship as it awaits its own death on the island has become an audience tear-jerker. “That scene represents the ending of a dream that started 25 years ago,” says director J.A. Bayona.

I think this scene represents a new reading of the Frankenstein myth for modern scientists. Frankenstein’s creation does not start out cruel and murderous. He only becomes that way when he is abandoned by his creator. Hank van den Belt, a Dutch professor of philosophy, writes in Science magazine that Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he did not assume responsibility for his own creature and failed to give him the care he needed. Owen’s conscience is similarly pricked when he realizes how he may have failed to give Blue the care she needed.

Modern audiences for Frankenstein sometimes confuse the name of the scientist with the name of the monster. This confusion mirrors the increasingly monstrous behavior of the scientist. Dr. MG Bishop of King’s College Hospital in London is quoted in the same issue of Science:

Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact, but shed no tears for Frankenstein. Those who think, in ignorance of the book, that his is the name of the Monster are in reality more correct than not.

SadBrachiosaurus
A sad brachiosaurus awaits its death on Isla Nublar as the last rescue boat leaves

In Fallen Kingdom, life as we know it no longer finds a way back. Instead, the worst impulses of human nature have found a way to transform nature itself.

This review also appears in slightly edited form on Movie Babble

 

Book Review: Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this book 5 stars, and for audacity and imagination, I do. But I also found much of the text slow, repetitive, and curiously unemotional, and it lost a star for those aspects.

The animating idea of this novel is that in a time not too far from our own present day, evolution has begun to go backwards. Creatures are devolving from more complex to less complex forms, the very laws of the universe may be reversing themselves, the expanding universe has reached its apex and is now contracting back into singularity. What would this look like in the slow motion way that biological creatures experience time?

Such a big idea is almost impossible to bring down to our mundane level, but Erdrich almost pulls it off through the eyes and ears of Cedar Songmaker, nee Mary (Potts), a single mother newly converted to Catholicism, pregnant with a baby due on December 25th. Cedar addresses her story to her unborn child, whom she loves abstractly and believes to be normal, unlike the majority of babies born to women in the devolving universe.

Unfortunately for the reader, Cedar is the least interesting character in the novel. For the first third of the book I found her annoyingly passive and uncurious about what was happening to her world. Her trip to find her birth parents that comprises this part is interesting mostly because we get to meet Sweetie, her birth mother; Eddy, Sweetie’s husband; and Little Mary, their daughter. They are Ojibwe who live in northern Minnesota on a reservation, run a Superpumper gas station, and are setting up a shrine to a local Saint. The reader can theoretically understand and empathize with Cedar’s desire to find out more about her own origins as the world collapses around her, but her first reaction is one of muted disappointment about small things. She mopes around in her house, says nice things about her adoptive parents, avoids her baby’s father’s phone calls, reads pregnancy literature, and works on a Catholic newsletter that she is writing. This section of the novel felt like a clumsy and unnecessary expository lump, especially since I have been pregnant myself, and when I was, I read carefully the pamphlets about fetal development from my OB/Gyn’s office, which some of these chapters sounded like.

Things really get going, though, when Cedar is captured by the pregnancy police and put in a “hospital,” ostensibly for her and her baby’s protection in the New World Order, in which most pregnant women and their babies don’t survive. Again, she is surrounded by characters more interesting than she is: her fellow pregnant prisoners Agnes and Tia, the nurses who either torture them or bravely risk everything to help them escape, and her adoptive mother Sera who is highly placed in a resistance movement and actually manages to spearhead a successful escape for both Cedar and Tia.

This part makes the whole book worth reading. Events pull the reader along in suspense, and then the action almost stops for a painfully true conversation between Cedar and Sera, encapsulating mother/daughter tensions and bonds. Then Erdrich shows how effortlessly beautiful her prose can be, with a harrowing and horrifying account of Tia’s labor and stillbirth closely followed by Cedar’s wild joy and confidence in her own body’s wondrous abilities to bring forth life.

As the book barreled towards its conclusion and then petered out, I wondered if the author just couldn’t figure out how to end it properly. A dramatic climax comes about when Cedar discovers something surprising and dismaying about her own parentage, but this revelation neither propels the main plot nor illuminates the themes of devolution and collapse. And then when Cedar was captured again just before giving birth, I felt mostly tired and numb. Unlike most pregnant women in this book, she and her baby survive the birth process. Then Cedar’s voice, never particularly strong, fades into near nothingness and the book ends without our finding out what happens to her baby.

Does he become the “Living God” of the title, the messiah that his father hoped for? Has the very idea of a messiah become turned on its head, another exercise in futility? What does that mean for the future of faith?

This book promises a great deal and occasionally delivers. But because of the slow start and this truncated ending it was ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been.

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Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will start by thanking PJ Lazos at Green Life Blue Water, who introduced me to this book, The Hate U Give, a debut novel by Angie Thomas. I might not have read it without her excellent review; I was initially turned off by the word “hate” in the title and by the prospect of YA fiction preachiness. Those concerns were completely unfounded. This novel is a great read: sad, funny, forgiving, and wise. And Starr, the viewpoint character, is a strong and relatable voice.

The novel’s plot comes straight from tragic headlines. Starr is the only eyewitness to her black friend Khalil’s shooting at the hands of a white police officer. She tells the story to the media and eventually testifies before a grand jury. The officer who killed Khalil is not indicted. But those are only the bare bones. The meat of the story is about Starr’s conflicts due to straddling two worlds: the inner city ‘hood where she grew up and still lives, and the wealthy, mostly white, suburb where she goes to private school.

I am not qualified to speak to its authenticity regarding African-American culture, but because of Thomas’ skill at writing vivid characters and dialog, I found most of the book very easy to understand and relate to. I especially appreciated the way the author was able to walk the reader through Starr’s thought processes as she moves from being a terrified, silent teenager to a more mature activist, ready to speak her mind and shine a light on injustice. At first I was a little impatient with her reticence; it seemed self-defeating to me and I wondered where it came from in such an otherwise bold and self-aware character. But then even Starr herself shared the same impatience, and she was a self-aware enough narrator to figure out and explain the effects that fear, conditioning, and loyalty had on her. These insights are not something one can understand merely from reading headlines on the news.

After I finished the book I realized that it contained characters that touched on almost every point of view, and that those choices must have been deliberate. There was a heroin-addicted parent, a clueless and mean white girl, an abusive drug kingpin, an activist female attorney, a set of fiercely protective parents, an upper middle class black family jokingly referred to as the Huxtables, a well-meaning white boyfriend, an Asian friend and ally, and a strict family matriarch. In fact, if you watch the TV show “Black-ish,” you may recognize the broad outlines of many of these characters, or at least their quirks. But at the same time each character had his or her own unique voice that made the novel fresh and original. The author has a wonderful ear for dialogue that never sounds forced or confusing, in spite of the liberal use of slang. Reading this book is like being a part of Starr’s extended family.

I was also initially a bit wary of this book because I was afraid it would be a downer, something to feed despair and hopelessness about the brokenness of our world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Young people like the author and the real communities represented by Starr and her friends can point the way forward and give us all hope for the future.

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Book Review: Druid’s Portal by Cindy Tomamichel

Druid's Portal: The First Journey (Druid's Portal, #1)Druid’s Portal: The First Journey by Cindy Tomamichel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read time travel romance but I have heard that it is a full-fledged genre. I think the main reason it doesn’t generally appeal to me is the thought of having to live, as a woman, in a pre-feminist era. I don’t think any love story would be worth that. But perhaps the better examples of the genre manage to find a way around or through this problem. Druid’s Portal does.

The protagonist, Janet, is a history professor who knows a great deal about Celtic lore and the druids. I found this aspect of the book to be quite interesting and extensively researched. I had tended to think of druids as benign priests of nature, but the author here shows that their legends and lore have a dark side. She also invokes a deity, Bridgette, who takes the souls of humans who use the time-travel portal more than 3 times and for their own gain. Bridgette makes a powerful villain, but I have not been able to find anything about her in a cursory internet search. The closest that I have come is to reading about the Goddess Brigid, who, according to wikipedia is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft. This Brigid too seems like she could be a good, rather than destructive presence.

As the book opens, Janet is grieving the loss of her fiancee, Damon, who was abusive while they were together and who abruptly ended their engagement. She knows she is better off without him, but misses him nonetheless. After a break-in in the museum where she works, Janet finds an artifact that serves as a portal back to Roman times. She doesn’t realize at first that that is what it is, and suffers from what she believes are hallucinations of a Roman soldier in battle. This soldier turns out to be Trajan, eventually her love and partner.

The obstacles to Janet and Trajan getting together are mostly external and circumstantial. First Janet has to believe that he is real and that she can travel back in time. Then she has to actually do so, and find a way to survive in Roman Britain. This is made exponentially easier for her when the soldiers she encounters, Trajan included, think she is a goddess when she appears. Being seen as a goddess exempts Janet from a lot of the indignities that a regular Roman or Celtic woman would have had to endure. No one takes advantage of her while she and Trajan are on the run, and she soon finds a job working in a bath house where the men are friendly and flirtatious, but they still don’t take advantage of her.

She then comes up with a wild plan to help Trajan with his intelligence gathering for the Roman army, and they pose as minstrels visiting nearby towns. This expedition too, like working in the bath house, seems like a fun romp at first, and Janet and Trajan engage in hot, gracefully written, physical relations while they are out being minstrels. Their idyll comes to an abrupt end when they are found out by the enemy, and when Janet’s ex-fiancee Damon starts stalking them.

Trajan is an appealing, if somewhat unrealistic, character. The author sets him up as a simple but honorable man in contrast to Damon’s scheming and conniving persona. Janet and Trajan are able to communicate easily because Janet is fluent in Latin, and she tells Trajan stories about the future, stories that he is surprisingly accepting of. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel come when Janet is thinking about the parallels between her life and Trajan’s, and also about what makes them different. He is in his early-to-mid 30’s, presumably like she is, and she thinks at one point that he only has about 10 good years left if he stays in his own time. He had a wife and baby son years ago when he was young, but they were killed. Janet also tells him about how she and her museum colleagues study skeletons and remains of people from his time. This creeps him out and she feels bad about it. The decision to bring him back with her to her own time is easily made and accepted by both of them.

This is where Damon and Bridgette come in–to keep the lovers apart. Damon’s will to power is reasonably well drawn and believable, but we could have used a bit more backstory. It seems somewhat crazy that he would sacrifice his soul to Bridgette’s “dark creatures” when the payoff is so murky. He hopes to change history, but it is not completely clear what he would change it to and especially why. Janet simply wants a happy life with Trajan in her own time. Her journey could be viewed metaphorically as a wounded woman’s healing from the scars of an abusive relationship, and I especially enjoyed reading the novel from that perspective. (However, the reader should not take this novel as saying that you have to go back to ancient Rome to find a decent man!)

This is the first book in a series and I would gladly read the next ones. But I’m a sucker for happy endings, history, and pretty much anything having to do with pre-Christian England. If time-travel romance is something that appeals to you, through the Druid’s Portal is a good place to go.
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Book Review: Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

Stormwielder  (The Sword of Light #1)Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a promising debut novel. The construction and characterization are not seamless, but it held my attention until the end. I have read another of the author’s books, set in modern times, and overall I liked this one better.

Where I think the author’s writing especially shines is in coming up with plot developments that make sense and move the action forward. The story is fast paced and never gets bogged down. The battle and action scenes are well written and enjoyable but also skimmable if you get tired of that sort of thing after a while, the way I do.

A character whose magic is too strong for him to control so that he unwittingly commits terrible deeds is an intriguing premise. This would have been a good setup for the development of a dark wizard. That Eric doesn’t go that way, but is actually led towards redemption, could be a very powerful character arc. That potential is largely unrealized in this novel. Eric learns to control his magic pretty easily and quickly once he meets up with Alastair, and never looks back.

In general the relationships between Eric and Alastair and Eric and Inken are pleasant to read but I think they could have used more development. If a story is going to start with magic so strong out of control that it burns down an entire village, murdering dozens if not hundreds of people, it is going to have to take more than a week or two and a few lessons for the magicker to learn to control that magic. A more drawn-out and suspenseful learning curve would have also given us more opportunity to learn about the history of the world and the magical system.

This book almost seemed like 2 stories, stuck uncomfortably together. The first deals with Eric, his magic, and the fallout from his destroying Gabriel’s village. It is basically an origin story for Eric. The second is when the real quest begins, to save the world from Archon. I liked both stories but found them a little thin in this format. I hope that in future installments Eric’s past comes back to haunt him and provide some further conflict.
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Mundane Monday: Embassy Suites

I was out with my husband finding some geocaches near a creek in Milpitas for my daily streak (830 days as of this writing), and spotted this building in the distance.

The way the light shines on it through the clouds, the green hills around it, the dome, the river, the mist, all this made me think it might be something special. Maybe some rich Silicon Valley millionaire’s villa, or a folly building like a mini Hearst Castle. A winery? A high school? A museum?

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It turns out it’s an Embassy Suites hotel. I’ve never stayed there, but yeah, it looks nice.

The Mundane Monday Challenge is under new ownership. Check it out at K Ottaway’s Rural Mad as Hell Blog.