Sneak Peek: On the Lips of Children by Mark Matthews

Mark Matthews is a SSV reviewer whose new novel, On the Lips of Children, has received numerous reviews on Amazon with a 4.5 average rating. It was nominated by one blogger as the Best Small Press Horror Novel of 2013. SSV is happy to give our readers a chance to read the prologue of the novel.

~~~

Meet Macon. Tattoo artist. Athlete. Family man.

He’s planning to run a marathon, but the event becomes something terrible.

During a warm-up run, Macon falls prey to a bizarre man and his wife who dwell in an underground drug-smuggling tunnel. They raise their twin children in a way Macon couldn’t imagine: skinning unexpecting victims for food and money.

And Macon, and his family, are next.

~~~

Between 2008 and 2012, US authorities discovered at least seventy-five drug smuggling tunnels along the length of the 1,950-mile border between Tijuana and Southern California.

This is the story of one of them.

Prologue

Particles of cave dust stirred in the air. Lupita felt them hit her nostrils, damp bits of subterranean soot going through her nose and then in and out of her lungs. The darkness was thick and impenetrable by sight, but movements of others were felt, and one of the hostages had just shifted. The tourists hadn’t tried to flee or she would have felt a small sandstorm in the dust. Even their breath made shadow particles move. They were still tied up and could only inchworm across the floor. They were done begging for help now; only small whimpers remained.

Dante had stabbed one who wouldn’t stop his begging and be quite. The high-pitched words of the captive screeched, and she could still hear them echoing forever in this cave. Now he was quiet and may have bled out. He could even be dead.

Hours went by, or days, or maybe months since the whole place had gone dark. The tunnel was shut down, caved in on the Tijuana side, and her husband was off to look for the way through. That was days ago—or hours. It was unclear. It had been long enough that the flashlight batteries were
dead.

“It goes to da USA, all da way. I know it; smuggled meth through here before. Smuggled people before. My brother went through before I did. And you and me, we’re going to go soon. Just got to hit one good lick.”

If they ever had a chance of getting anything for the hostages, it was over. One captive had proved promising after some cell phone calls. A family from the U.S. was to meet them at the duty-free shop. That was supposed to have happened already. She imagined them waiting there; maybe still looking, maybe gone, maybe they changed their minds and really thought the police might help.

The other ones were unclaimed, but stripped of all that they had and tied up tight.

Now she was buried alive with them in this dark tomb. This wasn’t one of those big tunnels, built like an elevator shaft with electricity; this was a pit, dug with barely a shovel, started but never completed, and now caved in, maybe on purpose.

All she knew was the flesh by her side, her babies, T and Q. Q, her little boy, hadn’t fed in a while and T, her girl, tried to suck at her breast, which had gone dry long ago. Q was starving and wasting away. Sometimes he shook, sometimes he gasped for air, but mostly he lay unconscious or asleep. She felt both of them disintegrating and eaten by the dark. Her and the bones of her two children lying side by side would be all that remained. They would never be found, but that might beat a life with Dante.

Their tongues were dry, her milk was gone, and the last bit of water in the plastic jug had evaporated. She wondered if her monthly bleeding would arrive to help her measure the time. She urinated often at first, had even lost count, but this had stopped, and there was little bowel to pass. Her fingers clamored over the flesh of her children, always feeling their skin, comforting every piece, holding them against her flesh, cradling them together. They may have been better off had their eyes never opened.

The cave was crude, but the room they were in had been given the most attention and made into a small chamber. There was space for belongings, a little table set up, and some crates of supplies. But it was now swimming in the dark pool of ink surrounding them and the voices of the hostages.

“Please, please, lady. Just let us go now. Please, let us out. We can all go together and get out of here.”

“I have children…”

“I’ll forget I saw you…”

“You don’t have to do this…”

They whimpered about wanting a Bible, made angry threats, and swore they could get money if they were just let go. They had that chance and failed. Then they cried and screamed for help from someone who would never come. They cried, and this made her babies scared and cry even harder.

After the light had gone away, Dante spent hours blaming her and then started stabbing the hostages. He was angry that his life was crumbling. It was the same way he had stabbed her and made these two children, the way he had ripped a knife through her old life when he took her from her garbage-picking family.

“You aren’t as dark as them. You’re half gringo. You learned English good. I can use you. Me and you together.”

She was seventeen then and ready to go with him. She never had a father, just tired men with skin full of dirt looking after her.

Yes, her father was a white TJ day-tripper. He came across the border with twenty-five dollars in search of Tijuana sex. Her mother told her so. She said, “I took twenty US dollars from him. I left him with five dollars, and he left me with you.”

Her father was just like one of these men they had cornered, maybe even one of them. All their captives had US money, and Dante had grand schemes of thousand-dollar licks, but the best they found was one man with a hundred on him. Most had under fifty and nobody who would pay to recover them. Now they were buried in this hole.

Lupita felt the fleshy heat on her palm start to get clammy and cold. Her child’s muscles seemed to be fading. A rub on the back, a fast rub as if to move her heart, did nothing. One started crying; the other was fading. Baby Q was going, slipping; his heart pumped so hard she was sure it would shoot light out of his eyes, light up this hell. Light it up! Going, her baby was going, and something had to be done.

She thought about smashing in her baby’s skulls and giving them a quick death, then finding a way to destroy herself, but their last thought would be that mommy killed them. This thought would stay with them into heaven. The orphanage told her all about heaven.

One baby was slipping, but the other baby’s tears echoed and crashed off the cave walls and sliced into her ears. Rocking back and forth didn’t soothe them. Hushing noises and melodies did nothing. Yes, both were still breathing but starving. Their tiny legs kicked, and it felt like holding the tiny little frogs she had caught as a child at the pond. Lupita closed her eyes and let an imaginary light shoot through her head. She saw a vision of her baby dying.

There was nothing left to give them. The only food was beef jerky. She chewed on a stick and mashed it up as much as she could, placing pieces in their mouths. Their tongues moved; she could tell they wanted to eat it. They needed it inside of them, but they just gagged, cried, and spit it out.

She tried foraging for food, rummaging through the old supplies, and then feeling her way with her hands blindly in front of her, inch by inch. Nothing was found that could be put in their stomachs, just some loose stones, more rope, empty water jugs, and one of Dante’s favorite weapons of choice: an X-Acto knife. She then blindly tried to return to her babies and had to follow the crying. She had lost them briefly in the dark.

Every instant in the darkness became the moment just before Dante returned, but the moment never happened. Her nails were worn down from the scratch marks she left on the plank of wood above the hatch, but did little damage. She smashed rocks against the wood until her shoulder ached. Her screams were heard by nobody but her children. Nobody was there, and nobody was coming.

These hostages were her only adult company; they were all she had.

“My father was someone like you, someone just like you,” she said, speaking to one who was tied up securely, yet still struggled off and on to break free. His breathing was heavy and labored, and his skin was sweaty with fear. He had soiled his shorts, and the stench surrounded him.

“Why don’t you have sex with women on your side? Why do you come here? Are you my father? Did you do this and leave me with my mother? She left me too, left me to the orphanage nuns, and then to the smell of garbage that is still in my nose… Are you him?”

She grabbed the man’s calf, felt the thick muscle, and thought of a turkey drum stick. He tried to jerk away, but before he could move her knife shredded his pant leg and delved into his flesh, twisting and turning. She felt an incredible life-force in him flinch. A shriek came from underneath his gag, but she was surprised and thought it would be more. His fight was gone, but the blood was coming. She could feel it trickle onto her fingers, let it cup into her hands, and then placed a drop on her child’s tongue.

Baby Q’s tongue took moments to notice anything, but soon the tiny mouth of the babe began to suck on her finger. She pulled the finger out of his mouth, dipped it back into the pool of blood puddling in her other hand, and then tapped it back on the child’s tongue. Q’s tongue lapped,
became wet, and then he swallowed, coughed twice, and somehow found enough energy to cry. Then he cooed.

She wouldn’t let them die; she couldn’t. All that had been done at birth to keep them healthy and alive, and now they were near death before their eyes had barely seen the light of day. In each of them was a promise that part of her would go on living, instead of feeling like she did, just grey meat
that had died long ago.

She sliced the captive’s leg a bit more with the knife. His screams echoed, but he was too tied up to struggle. The others fought against the cutting when it was their turn. Dante could tie anyone up securely; he could trap anyone, and now it was easy to draw blood. Cut the flesh, wait for the warm spurt of blood, make a nice pool in her hand, and then dip a finger
into the thick fluid before placing it on her baby’s tongue.

Just a bit more until Dante comes back. She would survive this; she would see to it that her children were fed and cared for. And they would live… because it was working. Three hours later, after more feedings, she felt Q pass urine. And then T.

During her days of garbage picking, they had eaten worse: meat with flies on it, animals captured in wreckage, dogs that had died, soup made from bones with maggots.

She found she could feed alongside her children. Q and T needed their mother, and she would eat and nourish with the same meat and blood, just as they had. They clawed at her with their new energy, and she had some to give back.

They sat and waited for Dante’s return. Her baby’s life depended on him; all of their lives depended on him. Her whole life revolved around if this man was strong enough and cared enough to come back. She waited. They waited. He’d left them, found a way out and left them… or just forgot about them. She would have felt it if he was coming back. His orange booted feet, the scent of his breath, the glare of his eyes, all of it would have been picked up by her senses in advance. The metal edges of the knife became an extension of her hand.

Her babies started to move. Tiny limbs started to reach and stretch, heads turned side to side, and they cooed when fed regularly. Only three of the five bodies in the chamber were still alive, all three of them making noises behind their gags, but none of them mattered. She picked the ones
who moaned the most, the ones closest to dying, and drained them carefully so as not to push them over the edge. Small cuts bled them, but kept them alive.

Bloody fluid started to cover her precious children. She couldn’t see it, but could feel it thick and spread all over. Her shirt was sticky with it, and Q and T had it on their chest, their hands, and their lips. She tried to keep them clean, but was unable. Nobody was to see them again, she knew, and
these moments were her last with them. People like her don’t get to be with their children forever, but their bodies can rest here and remain.

These children, these bits of flesh pulled out of her, now as bloody as the day they were born, were being kept alive by the blood of these TJ men, who didn’t deserve the organs inside that kept them alive day after day.

So she pulled tiny bits of flesh off of the TJ day-trippers, chunks she could sliver off and chew herself, like the beef jerky before, but mashing and mashing and mashing until it was almost as smooth and liquid as the blood.

Bowels came and went, sleeping patterns become regular, playtime was moving their fingers together, playing Itsy Bitsy Spider, letting the twins feel the flesh of each other, telling them stories, pulling them as tight together as they had been inside her womb.

And the darkness in the air seemed to be lifting.

Then the noise came.

And soon after… the light.

-=/-\=-

You can find more information about the author, Mark Matthews, and his work on his website.

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Wonder Woman, Vol. 3: Iron ~ Brain Azzarello

  • Title: Wonder Woman, Vol. 3: Iron
  • Author: Brian Azzarello
  • Artists:  Cliff Chiang, Tony Atkins, Dan Green, Amilcar Pinna
  • Series: Wonder Woman Vol. IV #3
  • Genre: Graphic novel
  • Format: Digital
  • Source: Review Copy
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Description:  In these stories from issues #0 and #13-18, a terrible betrayal forces Wonder Woman to make a deal with the gods who want her dead, and her “family” grows larger than she could have imagined. Will the mysterious Orion help Wonder Woman rescue Zola’s baby from the clutches of Hermes, or does he have darker intentions?


Review:  When I was but a young girl, I absolutely loved the Wonder Woman television series. I wanted to be Diana, Amazon Princess, a.k.a Wonder Woman. At the very least, I wanted my parents to change my name to Diana. Of course, they refused and as a result people fail to recognize my greatness, but that is a story for another day.

Fast forward to present day dorkorific DarthVal (ok, I added the Darth, but you must admit that it has a certain ring to it). In the past few months I have discovered that I enjoy graphic novels, further solidifying my place in dorkdom.

I was disappointed in my first female super hero experience (World’s Finest featuring Huntress and Powergirl), so I approached Wonder Woman with trepidation. After all, I did not want to tarnish those childhood memories. Plus, as an adult, I was not sure how I would feel about the portrayal of a super-hot chick running about fighting bad guys in her Underoos. I received an ARC for Wonder Woman Vol. 3, took a breath, and decided to just jump in and see what happened.

It is official. I STILL want to be Diana, last Princess of the Amazons. Wonder Woman is kick ass enough to flaunt what she’s got and still chastise anyone who dares to objectify her. She is sexy and intelligent, fierce yet fair and her compassion offsets her strength. Kudos to author, Brian Azzarello, for creating such rich characters. Beyond his vibrant heroine, the other characters were wonderfully crafted. In particular, I loved Orion. He was such a jerk, but at times, quite the charming jerk. I also found Hera to be a delightfully shallow she-bitch.

The story itself is told well. I particularly like how the graphic novel started with its back story introduction of young Diana, complete with retro looking artwork. As for the current thread, who knew Wonder Woman had such a messed up family??? (Probably everyone who is not newbie like me.) Jerry Springer’s guests have nothing on this bunch.

Finally, the artwork was FANTASTIC! Both the modern story and the flash back introduction were striking, providing the perfect visual experience to compliment a wonderfully written narrative.

So, I am now seated on the bus, on my way to take up my place in camp Wonder Woman. I just need to make a couple stops along the way pick up volumes one and two.

*Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was provided to me for review by the publisher through the Net Galley program.

 

Where Should You Publish Your Book? by Erin Elizabeth Long

April 15, 2013

Lots of information ahead. But first, a cartoon!

Barnes & Noble recently rebranded its self-publishing portal, changing the name from “PubIt!” (which, because I am immature, always pronounced “pube-it”) to “NOOK Press.” (Sidebar: Is “NOOK” actually an acronym? If not, why it is in all caps?) David Gaughran speculated that the move is part of a larger plan to sell off the Barnes & Noble brand while maintaining the lucrative NOOK brand. Even if that’s not the case, I think the rebranding was a smart move. They added an online editing tool that looks pretty neat, although perhaps not as beautiful or shiny as Apple’s iBooks Author. What’s less exciting, however, is that you can no longer update or correct an eBook on NOOK Press without losing your reviews, ratings, and sales rank.

There are a dizzying number of platforms and distributors for your indie book. Here’s my  take on some of the major players. Please note that the following constitutes my opinion, based on my personal experience and/or research that I’ve done online. Platforms which I have personally used are marked with an asterisk.

Wattpad*

  • No royalties paid; all books are free
  • Ability to connect with an active community of readers
  • Post works-in-progress or serialize your book
  • Bottom Line: Best for getting initial feedback on a WIP, or to gain fans by posting selected content for free

Amazon KDP*

  • 70% royalties 65% royalties on $2.99-9.99 books, 30% on books priced under or over that limit
  • KDP select program allows for promotion and Prime member borrowing, but it requires exclusivity for at least three months.
  • Largest market share of eBooks
  • Books are sold in Amazon’s proprietary .mobi format (won’t work on NOOK, but an app is available for iPad)
  • Amazon seems dedicated to promoting its self-published authors, often features success stories on home page
  • You cannot set the price as “free” unless you use a promotional day through KDP select
  • Bottom Line: You should publish with KDP. Whether you decide to use Amazon exclusively depends on how well you do in other markets, but you don’t want to miss out on the lion’s share of readers who shop via Kindle.

NOOK Press*

  • 65% royalties on $2.99-9.99 books, 40% on books priced under or over that limit
  • 2nd-largest market share of eBooks
  • Online writing tool (write your book directly in the browser)
  • Ability to invite beta readers (collaborators) to read and comment on an unpublished work
  • Inability to edit a title after it has been published without losing reviews, ratings, or rankings
  • Platform is, at the time of this post, rather buggy, but when it does work, it’s easier than the old PubIt! site.
  • Bottom Line: Unless you go all-in with Amazon, you should definitely consider publishing directly with NOOK Press…just make sure that the manuscript you upload won’t need any changes.

Apple iBooks Author

  • 70% royalties for all price points
  • Gorgeous Mac-only app for creating books (including full-color templates)
  • Projects in the .ibooks format created with the app can only be sold in the iBookstore (as opposed to selling them directly from your own site)
  • Bottom Line: A good choice only if you’re a die-hard Mac devotee and plan to sell exclusively on iTunes, or if you want to create a graphics-heavy, interactive project instead of a text-based eBook

Smashwords*

  • 74% royalties through Smashwords’ store, 60/30/10 split for author/retailer/Smashwords for all other sales
  • Distributes to Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Page Foundry, as well as their own online store
  • Allows you to set price as free
  • Allows creation of coupon codes for promotions
  • “Meatgrinder” crunches your eBook file into a variety of popular formats
  • Offers no peripheral services like formatting, editing, or cover design, but does maintain a message board for freelancers
  • Bottom Line: If your goal is to distribute to as many potential readers as possible, then Smashwords is worthwhile. The convenience of managing one dashboard instead of eight is worth 10%, in my opinion. 

Lulu

  • ebook and Print-on-Demand services available
  • Encourages authors to buy expensive (and uneccesary) publishing packages
  • Distributes only to B&N, iBookstore, and their own online store
  • Bottom Line: To be avoided. Distribution channels are limited and customer service is allegedly a nightmare. 

Vook

  • Royalties from Amazon at 43.2%, Barnes & Noble at 50%, and iBookstore at 70%
  • Ability to incorporate multimedia into eBooks
  • They supply copy editing, cover design, and book layout for an upfront fee which varies from book to book.
  • Distributes to iBookstore, Amazon, and B&N
  • Bottom Line: I’m not sure what Vook does that you (or a good freelancer) can’t do for yourself. When they first started out, they charged a flat monthly fee (about $10) and paid out 100% of net royalties. They’ve changed their pricing model–and perhaps even business model–a couple of times since then. 

Bookbaby

  • Distributes to all the major retailers (Amazon, B&N, iBookstore) plus a number of minor stores not covered by Smashwords
  • Author must provide their own files in the proper formats; extra fee for conversion from Word or PDF
  • Charges an upfront fee ($99 per book + $19.99 a year), but the author keeps 100% of net royalties
  • Offers add-on services such as cover design and also print runs
  • ISBNs cost $19; usually free on other platforms
  • Bottom Line: If you’re comfortable doing your own conversion work, and if you believe that you’ll be selling enough copies to break even (at $2.99, that’s about 400 copies per book, per year), then this may be a good choice.

Kobo Writinglife*

  • Really nice, clean interface
  • Uploading a book requires more effort–had to convert the Word file to an HTML file to get it to work
  • Has a very small market share compared to Amazon and B&N
  • Bottom Line: Although it is very elegantly designed, Kobo simply doesn’t move enough eBooks to make managing a separate dashboard worth it.

My Distribution Plan

I’ve experimented with both direct distribution and third-part distributors, and from my experience, managing more than three or four dashboards isn’t worth the effort. I’m willing to pay a distributor a small fee to streamline the process–especially since it makes getting paid and filing taxes much simpler. I’ve tried KDP Select in the past, but I didn’t make very good use of it. (Pro Tip: Since Amazon Prime members only get to borrow one book per month, they aren’t going to waste it on a $.99 short story. Live and learn.) Using what I’ve learned, here’s how I plan to distribute my books in the future:

  1. Upload my shiny new book to KDP and enroll it in KDP Select for three months. Make strategic use of my free promotion days to increase visibility and get reviews.
  2. At the same time, use Amazon Createspace (a print-on-demand company) to offer a trade paperback. KDP Select only restricts eBook distribution, not print.
  3. After three months, step down from KDP Select. Expand channels by distributing directly to NOOK Press and using Smashwords to distribute to minor retailers.
  4. Monitor sales. If I find that I’m selling more than 400 copies of each title through Smashwords channels, I may consider switching to a flat-fee, 100% royalty model such as Bookbaby.

This plan will work best for novels and short story anthologies. For individual stories, which I price at $.99, I intend to skip steps one & two and go directly to three.

So, how do you distribute your books? Leave a comment below.

-=/-\=-

You can find more information about the author and the original post on Erin Elizabeth Long’s website.

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