I think this is probably the best thing I’ve read from Mur Lafferty, and I’m a fan of her work, anyway. Who knew that a book about a book editor putting together a travel guide for New York City could be interesting?
Well, I mean . . . it’s a travel guide for, you know, monsters. Except they don’t like that term. It’s kind of insulting. They prefer ‘coterie.’ And they are anything from dragons to fae to vampires to demons, and everything in between.
Where do dragons sleep when they visit New York City? Where should zombies eat? And what about visiting incubi and succubi? All these are answered in the book.
But, of course, the book wasn’t just ‘Zoë sits at her desk compiling a book about New York City,’ because that actually would be pretty boring. She works with a couple of vampires, an incubus, a succubus, a death goddess, a water sprite, three zombies, a dragon, and a construct (think Frankenstein’s monster). And there are no sexual harassment laws or health insurance. Still, it’s a good enough job.
But then there’s a zombie uprising because someone is poisoning their food supply, and the Public Works Department (the coterie police force) are suddenly having to battle all kinds of problems. Something big is about to go down in New York City. And to top it off, it looks like someone (other than / in addition to several of her coworkers) is out to get Zoë.
Being a book editor is dangerous business when you’re food to a good number of your coworkers.
Highly recommended. As much as I hate to use this phrase, “It’s a fast-paced tour-de-force that will have you on the edge of your seat.” :)
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I encountered another one of those things that made me take a moment to step back and say, “Wait a second. That doesn’t make any sense.”
If you don’t recall, I talked about one such thing in an earlier post.
This one is much shorter, and came from both an old pulp story I was listening to on a podcast and some old movies I’ve seen. This is one of those, “Did people ever really talk like this?” things.
The scene: Two people are talking. One of them (BOB) is a crook or dishonest in some way. The audience either knows or suspects this. The other (ALICE) is an “investigator” or another crook. Alice is trying to convince Bob to go along with something, whether it’s telling the truth (if Alice is an investigator) or another con (if Alice is a crook).
Alice makes her case.
Bob (reluctantly) agrees to go along with whatever scheme Alice has presented, starts to walk away, then turns and says, his voice dripping with suspicion, “Say . . . this isn’t some kind of trick, is it?” (Sometimes, it’s “trap” instead of “trick.”)
Alice responds, “Of course not,” and possibly follows up with, “Would I do that to you?”
Of course, whether Alice is an investigator or a crook, there is a better than even chance that it is some sort of trick. And the audience is fully aware of it because the audience is very smart.
I mean, seriously, what would make Bob ask Alice that? It’s a nonsense question with no chance of any answer other than “no.” Whether that “no” is a lie or true depends entirely on Alice’s character.
So why ask it?
I finally thought of a reason for film. In print, the reader is able to get into the mind of the character, but the POV character is almost certainly not going to be Bob, but Alice.
I think maybe having Bob ask that question is a lazy attempt by the writers to give the readers / viewers a peek into Bob’s internal monologue that we couldn’t otherwise see. To let us know that Bob isn’t a total stooge. He knows there’s a chance he’s getting himself into more trouble, but the only way for the lazy writer to let us know this is to have him just come out and ask. For him to willingly go along with whatever scheme it is without question would be to show he’s kind of stupid.
That’s all I can think of, anyway. The other alternative — that he’s asking it because he’s an astute observer of people and can tell when they’re lying and is asking it to force Alice’s inevitable reaction to let him know with certainty what her intentions are — isn’t something I think the pulp writers or screenwriters did, unless Bob was the POV character, in which case he’s asking it for devious reasons.
What do you think?
- Can you imagine the story if Alice stopped, blinked, and then slumped and said, “Yeah, Bob, it was. But you caught me.”
There’s this meme going around where people are encouraged to list the ten books that changed their life.
Well, a friend of mine (Terra LeMay) decided to change it to “ten pieces of fiction” because short stories, novelettes, novellas, flash, drabbles, etc. can also be transformative.
My problem is, I simply can’t limit it to ten. On my list of novels, alone, it comes to thirteen. With five more short stories.
So I decided to just toss out the rules and do it my own way. So here is the quasi-meme, “Ten or More Pieces of Fiction That Changed My Life.” With the life-changingness interpreted rather liberally. And in no certain order.
- It by Stephen King (1987)
This was the first book I literally stayed up all night to read (18 straight hours) because I literally could not put the thing down. Literally. It was super-glued to my hand. (OK, not literally.)
I had never seen the story-telling technique he used in this book where each alternate chapter was set in either the present or twenty-seven years in the past, when all the characters were children. And the chapters were from alternating POVs as well. I learned a lot about that type of story-telling from this book.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (1950)
I don’t list all seven of The Chronicles of Narnia or count all of them as a unit because it was reading that first one that made me want to live in a fictional world and have the story never, ever end. It was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.
As an aside, I still want to live in Narnia.
- 1984 by George Orwell (1950)
I was well into my adult years when I first read this, even though I was already very into dystopias. I was blown away by it. My mother got to gleefully say her “I told you so”s because she kept trying to get me to read it as a teenager, but it was Old™ and therefore Not Worth My Time™
Irony Alert: take a look at the publication dates on most of these books. I’m just sayin’. :)
Winston is a very good unreliable narrator, too, which adds a nice touch.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Pretty much the same thing. I read it way later in life than I should have, but it’s one of those books I re-read periodically because it’s just so wonderful.
It makes the list because of how well it holds up for something written so long ago.
- The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
This was the very first “adult” book I read. I was in the sixth grade (age 12) and the book had just come out earlier that year. A friend in my class had read it and made it sound deliciously frightening. Up until this time, all the “horror” books I had read purported to be True™ or Based on Actual Events™. (I was heavily into ghost stories and aliens and Bigfoot and the like.)
I got it from the Eutaw Library because I was pretty sure there was no way my mother would let me buy it if she knew what it was about. Shhh! Don’t tell her. :)
I still get chills when I think about the scene where the topiary animals are chasing Danny Torrence.
- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)
What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? It got me interested in epic fantasy, fat books with a lot of pages, and conlangs (constructed languages and alphabets). (I guess those things have been said, but I repeated them anyway. Because I’m a rebel!)
- The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear by Oliver Butterworth (1960)
This one requires a bit of explanation. I read it in either fifth or sixth grade as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program. We would read books from her carefully selected classroom library and then take an oral test on it to prove we’d actually read it. We’d get points based on our knowledge and the reading level of the book. We had to read a certain number of points for each six-week period of the school year.
While I was reading this book, I was relentlessly harassed by the other boys in the class for reading a girl’s book. But it was good, and I didn’t care, and I finished it and enjoyed it, and got my points. I guess it taught me that just because a book is aimed at a target audience doesn’t mean others won’t or can’t enjoy it, too.
- Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)
I read a selection of a story I had just started writing in my newly joined critique group. Someone told me that my story and the style I wrote in reminded them of The Dresden Files‘ author Jim Butcher. I’d never heard of him or the series, so I picked up the first book and started reading. It introduced me to the entire genre which I’m now hopelessly in love with: urban fantasy.
And also, I want to be him when I grow up. That there’s already a him and that he’s younger than me are irrelevant.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1973)
Another book written “for” girls but which I enjoyed immensely. Introduced me to tesseracts and was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.
- The Old Powder Line by Richard Parker (1974)
Also read as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program, I think it was the first book I had read where time travel was a major component of the story, and it dealt with sticky issues like what happens if you go back in time to before you were born.
- Dixie North by Herbert Burton (1976)
This one also requires a bit of background. My mother used to be the director of several things (over time) in the Hale County, Alabama education system. Sometimes, this led to her getting book samples. Sometimes, she brought these home to me. Sometimes, I actually read them. This may have been the first piece of fiction I read entirely voluntarily for pleasure. Plus, it was written by an author from Alabama. Who knew that famous writer-type-people could be from Alabama? It’s also one of the books actually aimed at boys, which is probably why I read it in fifth grade, just after it was published.
- Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1975)
To this day, this remains one of the pieces of fiction that my mind goes back to, randomly, from time to time. Such a wonderful story set in an imaginative world. Science fiction, probably mostly for girls, but we come back to that whole ‘audience’ thing.
One of the three books that lit the spark of writing in me.
- The Demu Trilogy by F. M. Busby (1984)
Once more, this requires just a small amount of background. I used to make lists of books for Christmas and birthdays that my parents would distribute to people who wanted to get me something I’d actually use. But this one time, my mother just happened to be walking through a book store, saw this book cover with a cool spaceship and alien worlds on the cover and thought, “I’ll bet Gary would like that,” so she got it. I was in college by this point. I read it . . . and it blew my mind. I’ve read it over and over. It’s just so wonderful. It’s an omnibus collection of three novels and two(?) novellas that ‘fill in the gaps’ between the novels. The ideas presented in this book are just . . . my head just . . . I have no words.
And here are the short stories.
- “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Colliers, May 6, 1950)
- “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury (The Saturday Evening Post, September 23, 1950 as “The World the Children Made”)
- “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March, 1954)
- “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (Astounding Magazine, 1954)
- “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1949, as “The Naming of Names”)
Each of those stories was mind-blowing to me. I read most of them while I was in middle school. They were in my Literature textbook (I believe), and like most kids that age, I read the entire book before school started.
What? You mean most people didn’t do that? What was wrong with them?
Anyway, the stories all stuck with me for years after I read them. I didn’t remember their names or the authors, but was able to find them later by asking a lot of questions online and running across them in anthologies and the like. Now, I’d just Google ‘em, but at the time, there was no Google! I know! How did we live?
Anyway, I hope that didn’t bore you too much. If nothing else, it gave me a nice distraction from a frustrating day of debugging code that should work but refuses to. Because it’s clearly sentient and hates me.
A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)
Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)
I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.
The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.
He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?
As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.
Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.
But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.
Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.
If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.
Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.
A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.
“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”
It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.
Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.
“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.
“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”
“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.
Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”
It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.
And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.
And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.
But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.
What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.
It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3
Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?
But I digress. :)
I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.
- More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
- Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
- In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.
In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.
<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language': what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>
So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.
Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.
‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.
And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.
Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.
My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.
Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”
I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.
A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.
It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.
Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
|“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.|
Did he receive you well?
|“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.|
[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I’m pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you’d see in dialogue in a novel.]
Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.
Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.
So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.
And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)
- The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
- I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)
The premise: We have a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and then sends out an email spam exhorting people to email it to ten friends, and they mail it out, and they mail it out . . . and if one of those friends of friends of friends happens to be one of his friends, he won’t kill the victim. If he doesn’t get the spam back, the local police receive a package: the victim’s lower jawbone, boiled and polished.
Now, on top of this, throw in a main character whose wife is taken by this killer, but the police never receive a jawbone. Neither, however, is she released, so of course, they police suspect him. And throw in a man who confessed to the murders, but who can’t be the killer, because he’s never left his hometown. And throw in another man who confesses, and ends up serving time for the crimes. And two seemingly unrelated murders. And family secrets. And betrayals. And a twisted cast of characters, any or all of whom are probably capable of being this Vacation Killer.
The pace is good, the characters are believable, and the situations are believable.
I can’t say too much else without massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that because I enjoyed each new revelation too much to deprive others of that same sense of discovery. :)
I will say, however, that I did not figure out who the killer was until it was revealed in the text. But I wasn’t at all surprised.
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Are you tired of sexy, hot vampires who gaze at women for, like, a milisecond before said women rip their clothes off to throw themselves at him? Are you tired of werewolves who basically do the same thing, only hairier and more bestially?
Then this book is for you. Meet Earl the vampire and Duke the werewolf. Earl and Duke are basically good-ol’ boys who, through bad luck, became undead. They’re aren’t hot. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t even particularly nice or smart. But they have a knack for solving people’s supernatural problems, and that’s what gets them into trouble when they pull into Gil’s All Night Diner for a bite to eat (for Duke).
This was a fun read. There were a few things that annoyed me about it at first, such as the main characters’ propensity for using one another’s names more often than people in real life do. Luckily, that didn’t last long.
The pace is good, with a few curve balls thrown in. Both the vampire and the werewolf lore in this book is not what you’d expect if you’re into the more traditional mythology, but it’s consistent and explained well, and makes this Martinez’ own mythos.
It was a satisfying, fun, quick read, and I look forward to reading more by Martinez.
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Note: The summary below is for less than the first hundred pages of a 300-page book. I don’t consider them spoilers, but if you’re a stickler, don’t read beyond this.
There’s quite a lot to like about this book. The author, Stuart Jaffe, was unknown to me before I attended a small science fiction/fantasy con in Chattanooga, TN, in June of 2013. My friends and I met the author, spent some time with him, liked him, and I ended up buying two of his books because they sounded interesting. This is the first I have read. Note: The other author, Cameron Francis, is a magician, and all of the card “tricks” in the book are his. Jaffe and Cameron do a good job of showing card tricks without the use of cards. :)
The main character, Duncan Rose, starts out not very likable. He learned all about magic — especially card-handling techniques — from his great-grandfather, Pappy. But instead of using his skills to make an honest living as a stage magician, he cheats at cards. This backfires on him one night, and his partner in crime, Pancake, who also knows a little about cheating at cards, cheats the wrong people and nothing Duncan does to try to defuse the situation helps. Minor spoiler: Pancake ends up losing his hand to the Russian mob, and the men are told they have to come up with $20,000 before morning or worse things are going to befall them. [White-on-white text; highlight to read spoiler.]
Desperate, Duncan turns to his estranged family and gets no help. They’re all tired of his dishonest lifestyle. As a last-ditch effort, he goes to the one person he can trust: Pappy.
Who turns him down.
In despair, Duncan decides that he is going to have to do the unthinkable: steal from Pappy. Pappy has kept a mysterious, elaborately decorated door closed in his apartment for years, warning Duncan again and again never to open it. But suddenly, whatever might be behind that door sounds like the solution to Duncan’s problems. He opens the door and steps through.
And winds up outside a house in a small city in Pennsylvania. In 1934. He’s wearing different clothes and finds less than five dollars in his pockets. He tries to convince himself it’s all an elaborate illusion set up by Pappy, but quickly realizes that it’s real. For whatever reason, the door is magic — the real thing — and he really is in 1934. His goal: to get back to 2013 and fix things.
He immediately falls back on his one real skill and finds a card game he can cheat at. He discovers he’s not the only one pulling the same scam. He and the other magician, Vincent, team up and cheat some mobsters out of $100, which is a large sum of money in 1934.
Unfortunately, their boss figures it out and comes for Duncan. And makes him a deal: Duncan is to get himself into the local magic club (of which Vincent is the head honcho) and find out their secrets and relay everything he discovers to the mob boss “or else.”
He soon discovers that everyone is after the same thing: a mysterious Vanishing Door act performed by a magician near the turn of the century. An act during which several people actually disappeared. Lucy has drawn a picture of the door, and it looks strangely familiar: a lot like the door in Pappy’s apartment.
Vincent wants the door because he wants the secret of the trick. Duncan wants it because he believes it to be his ticket home to 2013. The mob boss wants it for the power he believes it will give him.
To complicate things, Duncan finds himself head over heels in love with Vincent’s sister, Lucy, and is torn between leaving her in 1934 or bringing her with him back to 2013.
I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that the resolution was refreshing to me. Time travel stories generally have a number of problems, but Jaffe manages to thread that particular needle nicely, and finds a solution that didn’t make me groan and roll my eyes.
The tension is kept high as Duncan must satisfy the mob boss while simultaneously gain the trust of Vincent and the other magicians in the magic club and not betray his growing love for Lucy, and hers for him. The pacing is fast, and you will be kept turning the pages not only to find out how — or whether — Duncan manages to find a solution to all of his problems, but how the love story between Lucy and Duncan turns out.
I enjoyed watching Duncan grow from a likable character to one that finds true love and tries to do the right thing.
The characters are believable, the time travel is nicely handled (although never explained, which I’m fine with), and the resolution is satisfying. Although I did (eventually) see the end coming, it has a certain elegance that I wasn’t expecting from the trope used. (Is that mysterious enough?)
I would recommend the book to those who enjoy magic, time travel, “period pieces,” mysteries, and love stories. It has aspects of all of them, and yet isn’t purely any of them.
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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a book by Holly Lisle on my Kindle. She was talking about how she would occasionally have to delete many, many words from her novels because she went down a wrong path while writing. As much as 60,000 words, I believe she said.
Wow. That’s a lot of words to scrap.
Welcome to my psyche, ladies and gentlemen! Don’t mind the occasional flashes or thunderous explosions. It’s not a thunderstorm — those are ideas going off. And those cobwebs over in that corner . . . well, I wouldn’t get too close to that. Just in case.
Rereading and abandoning are opposite ends of the spectrum. A book you reread — especially multiple times — is one that is much like comfort food. Perhaps it reminds you of a state of mind you were in when you first read it, or helps escape from a mood you’re currently in because it did in the past. For whatever reason, there are books we come back to again and again.
I have probably reread The Chronicles of Narnia more than any other books. I first read them at age 13, pretty much all in one weekend. I would — to this day — like to go to Narnia. I would leave right now. Anyone got a magic wardrobe? They are my comfort books. Simple characters in a simple world with simple morality. There is nothing too high concept or ambiguous; the fact that most of the books take place during World War II is glossed over. There is right (Aslan, Narnia) and there is wrong (The White Witch, Tashban, pretty much everywhere else). It’s a nice vacation from the real world. (And that’s all I read it for. I purposefully don’t examine it any closer than that.)
The other book I’ve reread the most after Narnia is an omnibus version of F. M. Busby’s The Demu Trilogy. These are just wonderful reads. I find something different each time I read them. Some new insight into a character, some different angle from which to observe human behavior. It distresses me that the books are out of print. I hope they are reprinted someday. My copy is getting a bit worn. I love how, in the books, humanity is portrayed not as a blight on the galaxy or as some Star Trekian ‘noble savages’ who are, alone among all the races in the galaxy, possessed of that oh-so-indomitable human spirit which . . . I have to stop typing now or I’m going to vomit. Anyway, Busby threads a path between the two, and in the end reveals the true standing of man — and other races — in the nature of things, galactically speaking. If you can find a copy and you like hard science fiction, get it.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? When, exactly, does one abandon a book? Why? What are the criteria for giving up?
There was a time when giving up on a book was simply not an option. Once I had a book, once I started to read it, I had to finish it. I still think that way to a large extent, although I’m getting better.
Here are some I’ve abandoned, and why. Most of them with every intent to pick it back up and finish or reread it. Someday.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore (et al). Some of you are thinking right now, “Oh my ever-loving God, what is wrong with this idiot?” Because this is, like, one of the most beloved graphic novels in ever. It supposedly changed the way graphic novels are written. It revolutionized . . . whatever. I have read this up to the same, exact point four times, and then put the book down . . . and it somehow remains closed. That point is where the comic format is abandoned and I come to the first page of prose in tiny letters that fill the entire page like some manifesto. I get about two sentences into that, my eyes glaze, my mind wanders, and I have thoughts like, “You know, the cat needs waxing. I should do that.” I have every intention of finishing it. Everyone I know who has read it looks at me like I’ve grown a second head (I checked; I have not) when I admit that I can’t get through it.
Infected by Scott Sigler. I’ve enjoyed every other book by Scott that I’ve read or heard (he podcasts them). He’s a good writer, and I thoroughly enjoy his work. And, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy this one. But it’s so unbelievably gross and horrific from a physical standpoint (what the character does to himself to escape infection) that I can only read a few pages at a time before disgust makes me have to stop. I stopped reading altogether when I saw what was coming down the line involving the main character’s testicles, and I just can’t bear to even think about what he’s going to do. Gah! Just typing that hurt. Anyway . . . not sure if I’ll ever finish it. Much less the sequel, which I also own.
A Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole. With all due respect to Mike, whose other books that I’ve read I have loved, this one just bored me to tears. I think I got about 50 pages in. None of the characters resonated with me. Their mission (to map the world) didn’t resonate. I still fully intend to read it, because Mike uses it as an example for his writing podcast, but it’ll be forced. Unless I’m in a different state of mind when I re-read it, of course.
Moonseed by Stephen Baxter. I just discovered that this is, in fact, book 3 of a trilogy. No wonder I couldn’t get into it. At any rate, I stopped because the situation looked so bleak for the characters and for Earth that I couldn’t see any way out for them, and . . . just never picked it back up after the depressing spiral into awful that it was taking at the time I stopped. Perhaps if I read books 1 and 2 . . .
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I know, I know. I know this book won All The Awards™. I know it’s awesome and other adjectives of a superlative nature. But . . . I just couldn’t get into it. I found no character I liked. I didn’t buy into the culture. I just didn’t like it. Maybe it was because I was reading it for a book club and not for myself, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate. I hope to reread it some day and see what everyone else found so engaging.
There are several more books on my list. And by ‘my list,’ I really do mean that there is a list. I have a shelf on Goodreads called ‘currently reading but paused’ to store those books. And there are others that are not on that list because I haven’t put them on Goodreads, yet. Dozens. And I intend to finish each and every one of them, if it takes me twenty years.1
What books do you like to reread? Why? What books have you given up on? Why?
- It did actually take me twenty years — or more! — to finish Fire Time by Poul Anderson. I just kept losing interest because it was, for the most part, political, and that bores me to tears. But it was a book, I bought it, and therefore I had to read it.