“Cooley’s Panther” and “Stalking Evan”, by Jody Wallace

31 Jan
Cover for Stalking Evan. The same white men and woman from the previous cover, faces touching, her eyes looking out to the reader. There's a black panther walking on the top of the title.

I want to highlight these two short-short stories as an example of how to establish intriguing worldbuilding in a very tight word count.

Genre romance readers, please note that while there’s a strong romance thread in both of these, there’s no HEA per se.

Cover for Cooley's Panther; white man and woman looking at each other with hungry expressions on the foreground; the background is a garden gate in the night, with a tree next to the stone wall. There's a black panther walking on top of the title.

These two short stories (“Cooley’s Panther is just 17 pages long, and “Stalking Evan” clocks in at barely over 140 pages) are the beginning of the Felidae series, establishing a world where big cat shifters, probably panthers/black leopards, exist, hiding in plain sight (aka, suburbia in the U.S.A).

Here, the blurb for “Cooley’s Panter”:

Miss Nicola Johansen, otherwise known as Cooley, relies on the predictability of her suburban subdivision to keep her feeling safe. When she spies a black panther slinking along her back fence in the wee hours of the morning, her comfortable life is shaken like a maraca. Repeated calls to the cops result in an investigation, and a finger of blame gets pointed at the mysterious man who lives down the street. Like the fact his yard is a disgrace wasn’t enough reason to suspect that man of nefarious dealings–the animal pens behind his house are the clincher.

But what happens when Cooley finds out her mysterious neighbor isn’t quite the scofflaw she assumed? What happens when she finds out he’s absolutely…magnetic?

And for “Stalking Evan”:

Nicola Johansen, Cooley to her friends, lived a discreet, solitary life in the suburbs until she found out her new neighbor, Evan Sabello, was a shape shifter too. After accidentally getting him arrested, Cooley decides to apologize by extending the hand of friendship…with homemade apple pie in it. Not only is he the first shifter she’s ever met, but he’s sexy as heck. They’re practically made for each other, right? They have a special connection not even Mr. Surly Britches can deny.

Problem is, Evan’s past has made him so skittish, pie and promises won’t convince him Cooley’s intentions are harmless. He’s heard it all before–poor, lonely pantheress just wants companionship. Unfortunately, the first time he heard it, he ended up locked in the basement of an evil creature who tried to control him. Now that another pantheress has targeted him, he’s not going to make that mistake again.

He might give Cooley her pie tin back, but he’s not about to give her his trust. No matter how appealing she is. No matter how different she seems. No matter how much he, too, longs for an ally to help him figure out what it means to be a panther in a world full of humans who can never understand.

I gotta say, I am a very sad reader right now; the series is not likely to be finished (unless these start selling like nobody’s business 1), because the writing voice is fantastic and the characterization just top notch.

The protagonists are Nicola “Cooley” Johansen, church-going white suburbanite par excellence, and her new-ish neighbor, scruffy curmudgeon Evan Sabello. Cooley works hard at fitting in, at knowing everyone worth knowing, from the HOA’s Board to the city and county cops, just enough to have some pull, not enough to have anyone taking a hard second look. Evan just wants everyone to leave him the hell alone, thank you very much.

So, when Cooley calls the cops on Evan, I was ready to scream many very foul curses 2, but Ms Wallace manages to make it fit in with the world building–and yes, Cooley learns that she needs to not call the cops on people, so there’s that.

By the time I got to the last line of “Cooley’s Panther” (17 pages, DAMMIT), I needed more so bad, I could taste it. Fortunately, I already had “Stalking Evan” waiting, so I just opened and got on with it.

Here we find out more about both characters’ backstories, the very intriguing worldbuilding premise established in the first story is further explored, and the world itself expanded, both geographically and in complexity. A couple more characters are introduced, an entire freaking political power structure is hinted at, and then…it ends.

I loved the writing. I was completely sucked in–I was supposed to work, and instead, I read both stories through in one sitting.

Through the characterization, I was sold on a white woman basically being the white Parking Permit Patty of the neighborhood, not due to entitlement but as a strategy for self-protection that actually made sense in the context of the worldbuilding.

Reading these left me wanting more, which is always excellent when there’s more to be had, or when one knows that more is coming down the road, which, again, is not the case here.

But also, the endings for both the incredibly short prequel , and the longer novella, are quite abrupt. This works well for “Cooley’s Panther”, as a very short yet self contained narrative 3.

“Stalking Evan”, on the other hand, leaves us with the impression that now Cooley and Evan are a team, even a couple, but the situation is fluid, their feelings for each other mostly unexpressed, and the plot that brought them together is left hanging, open, nothing resolved. Which is very frustrating to this reader. A report card would read, more or less:

  • Characterization: excellent.
  • Worldbuilding: very intriguing!
  • Humor: so much laughing.
  • Relationship development: interruptus.
  • Suspense plot: interruptus.
  • Special mention: the cats. Ms Wallace totally gets cats.

“Cooley’s Panther” gets a 9.50 out of 10, with a note that there is no HEA or even a HFN here.

“Stalking Evan” gets 8.25 out of 10, with its HFN and unresolved everything else.

As I remain wanting more, once I have made more of a dent in the TBR Cordilleras of Doom, I will be reading more by Ms Wallace.

* * * *

1 This is one of those “chicken or egg” situations, I think: as a reader, it would be a lot easier to hand-sell a longer book including both of these shorts and the resolution of the romance between Cooley and Evan, as a first title in a series, via recommendations and word of mouth to everyone in reach of my voice/blog/twitter/amazon reviews. As an author, it seems not be cost effective to continue writing in the world as it exists right now.

2 In the United States, cops called to a neighbor’s house can and do kill. Cops kill your neighbors of color when you call about noise or strangers loitering. Cops kill people when performing wellness checks. Cops kill when called to defuse mental health crises. Cops kill unprovoked, all the fucking time. Do not call the cops. Cops kill.

3 I have to say it: it is also the perfect length and form for a prologue in a full-length story, even a category-length one.

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