Squawk of the Were-Chicken, by Richard J. Kendrick (40:00)

IOD score cardToday we see that when your opening image is of an egg harvester invention launching errant eggs at the inventor’s mother, readers tend to stick around to see what could possibly happen next.

What I gleaned about the story: Diedre is a troublesome tinkerer of a child whose amazing inventions usually go wrong. After today’s invention splatters her momma with a half-dozen eggs, her parents grouse about getting her apprenticed before she can do more damage. They send her off to visit her friend Mhari and pick up more eggs, thus introducing us to the precocious child’s precocious friends.

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Kudo #1: Slow-mo opening

Analysis: Squawk starts with an “oops,” a single moment, frozen in time, at the very instant when our young heroine has realized just how bad a turn things have taken. An egg is now tracing a parabolic arc straight toward her momma’s chest, there’s nothing she can do about it, and there are several more in the chamber to follow.

The opening nine paragraphs take the reader from “egg frozen in midair” to “egg hitting Momma square in the chest.” Such an abundance of detail could easily have clunked its way into WTF territory. But sometimes it’s not the length of the journey, but what you see along the way. In this case, the nine paragraphs take the reader on a tour of Diedre’s mind. And let me tell you, that mind is a hell of a place. We learn that she’s a prodigious tinkerer and troublemaker, clever enough to decide in a split-second that she ought to make a rigorous scientific study of “Oops Moments” and just as quickly ponder the difficulty of setting up such Oops Moments intentionally.

One digression also tells the reader a bit about Diedre’s strange friend Fyfe. She’s noticed that Fyfe talks about a lot of things that she finds difficult to follow: “The thinky bits on that kid were definitely at right angles to normal.” Given that Diedre herself is portrayed as off-the-charts intelligent, that’s saying something. The story is making a promise to the reader: it only gets sillier from here.

The slow, discursive build toward a full picture of the situation, coupled with the self-conscious use of time dilation, reminds me a bit of the opening credits to the movie Deadpool. The camera works its way over the time-frozen scene, with Juice Newton’s Angel of the Morning playing, bringing different details into view. And my internal monologue goes, “Okay, what’s going on? Seriously, what’s going on? I’m glued to this until I understand what’s going on.” Each new detail answers a question in the observer’s mind, or raises a new one, or forces them to rethink the overall picture in light of some new detail. Done well, the technique keeps the reader thoroughly engrossed in the process of figuring out what they’re being shown, in a way that’s satisfying rather than frustrating.

WTF #1: What kind of story is this?

Analysis: I noticed a pattern as I was reading along, and while no individual instance was quite enough to trigger a WTF flag, the aggregate effect left me a little concerned about where Squawk is headed.

The problem is, the setting (and by extent, the genre) is hard to pin down, which sometimes makes it difficult to interpret the glib, cheeky tone of the book. It’s clear from the opening that Diedre lives on a farm, and there’s a place for ingenious tinkery in her world (that place NOT being the family chicken coop). Magic is mentioned, but in a way that leaves it unclear whether magic is a real thing.

Its place in space and time is also tricky to figure out. The narrative mentions baseball, dinosaurs, “rush-hour,” and (in a bit that should have pushed my estimate forward a century, but may not have because I’m beginning to suspect that Fyfe is a time traveler) the Arthur C Clarke dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

You see similar allusions in Terry Pratchett’s writing, where they really shine. In his Discworld books, you see frequent, self-conscious allegories to things familiar to our world: rock-and-roll, computers, the Internet, the L.A. movie industry, etc., even though it’s all taking place on Discworld, which takes place on the back of four elephants, which take place on the back of a giant space turtle.

But in Squawk, the intent is less clear. In the back of my head, several possibilities are playing tug-of-war:

1) it’s a purely made-up fantasy world, and references to dinosaurs and baseball are unforced errors.

2) It’s an alternate history, taking place in what seems to be the rural US or UK, sometime in the mid-1800s, and the fact that the kids know about things like Clarke-technomagery is 2a) an error, or 2b) part of the book’s glib, none-too-serious tone.

3) Fyfe really is a time traveler, and the most modern elements are somehow related to him.

Hopefully, this resolves later on in the book, and I’m already forgiving it because Squawk keeps making me laugh. But I think a little bit of ambiguity resolution would go a long way here.


Kudo #2: The part that killed me

Analysis: Diedre tries to improve Fyfe’s social skills…

“I’m not trying to be a jerk. It’s just that, you know how everyone you know always sort of, kind of stands there in silence with their mouth open and a confused look on their face all the time?”


“Only, you see, most of the time, everyone you know isn’t all confused and silent, and maybe if you didn’t say certain things—”

I am slain. This is the end of me. Farewell readers, it’s been a good run. [Jeff: I need a ruling. If I die laughing at the 32-minute mark, does that disqualify the book as a survivor?] [Jefferson’s Ruling: Any book that kills its readers—even if the weapon is comedy—probably ought to have a warning label of some kind. So if you don’t make it to 40 minutes, we pretty much have to stop the clock. Call it a public service.]

In summary, while I keep saying I’m a sucker for comedy, Squawk of the Werechicken really was an easy book to fall for. It’s very funny, with a trio of charming, precocious pre-teen protagonists, and a wry, thoroughly tongue-in-cheek tone. If you like humorous writing, buy Squawk of the Werechicken. If you like your kids, share it with them.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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