Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
July 2011

Title: Rejiggering the Thingamajig
Author: Eric James Stone
EAN: 0979534992

I absolutely loved reading this book. For me, Rejiggering the Thingamajig wasn't just a collection of brilliant stories by an author so funny and clever it makes me angry sometimes, it was a trip down memory lane. I've been a fan of Eric James Stone's since Day One, literally. As you'll discover in his afterword to "Betrayer of Trees," I sat across from Eric during Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp when he presented his first draft of this story . . . and okay, I did threaten to slap his characters. But what everyone likes to forget is that I began my critique with, "This was about magic and trees, so you had me at hello." And then came the infamous "But . . ."

However, ladies and gentlemen, please let the record show that Eric James Stone had me at hello.

Even if you've never read Eric's work before (and shame on you! What rock have you been living under?) he'll have you too, as soon as you read down the Table of Contents. From the titular "Rejiggering the Thingamajig" to the Nebula Award-winning (and Hugo nominated) "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made," you know everything you need to know about this collection: Eric James Stone is a wordsmith with a giant brain, a sharp wit, and a fantastic sense of humor.

While Eric is proficient in both science fiction and fantasy, this anthology skews toward the former, with only a handful of the latter peppered throughout. Of the twenty-five stories, seven have appeared in Analog and six have made their debut in our very own InterGalactic Medicine Show.

I was looking forward to this collection, but I'm not usually one to pick up a book of science fiction short stories and blow through them in a couple of days. Fantasy is easier - as I mentioned before: a little trees, a little magic, and you're on your way. A science fiction world has a much steeper learning curve. The reader needs to know when the story is set, on what planet, with what technology and what aliens. The premise needs to be believable without being boring, and probable without being preposterous. It needs to be smart, but not overburdened with technobabble. It needs to have a message, even if that message is only, "Gotcha!"

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Above all, a good SF story needs to have characters interesting and sympathetic enough for us to care about them. Eric James Stone not only delivers all of that, and a bag of chips, and a dinosaur to eat them with, but he also does it with such ease that you can finish one story and immediately start another, without needing to put the book down and step away to collect yourself and switch gears. These stories are fun, people. Smiling and laugh-out-loud fun. When was the last time you had fun reading a book?

I hold Stan Schmidt in even higher esteem for having written the introduction to Eric's collection, in which he agrees with me 100%. "These stories will take you to all kinds of places," Stan says, "but they're all fun and they'll all make you think."

Those writers in the crowd will also appreciate the afterwords, in which Eric briefly recounts how the story came into being, and sometimes its windy path to publication. In these few paragraphs Eric becomes a real person, just another writer who's had to work his way to the top. He was definitely not handed a Nebula on a silver platter, but in my estimation, he definitely deserved it.

If you want my favorites in this collection, I'll say "The Robot Sorcerer" for its heart, "Buy You a Mockingbird" for its consequences, and "American Banshee" simply because I hadn't read it before, which meant it made me chuckle the most. And "Betrayer of Trees," of course. Because when Alethea Kontis threatens to slap your characters, it means the story is going to win awards.

Have I gushed enough about this collection yet? If you don't have it, go get it. And when you're done, go to Eric's site and check out his serialized Crichton-esque novel Unforgettable, which is one of my favorite books of all time. Be sure to tell him I sent you. Just don't threaten him in any way. That's my job.

Title: The Kitchen Daughter
Author: Jael McHenry
EAN: 9781439191699

I found The Kitchen Daughter by chance, on a shelf in the bookstore. I was scanning the fiction section as opposed to the sci-fi & fantasy corner, since I was in the mood for something a little more mainstream, a little more . . . magical realism. I honestly had no idea what was out there, but this book, face out, caught my eye after only about thirty seconds of looking. I had just ordered a book for a man's wife that morning called The Kitchen House, and the coincidence of the title made me pick this one up. When I read the inside dust jacket, I knew it was exactly the book for me.

The best way to describe Jael McHenry's debut novel is that it's a cross between Sarah Addison Allen's subtle magic fiction and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The main character, Ginny Selvaggio, is in her mid-twenties and has Asperger's Syndrome, and her parents have just died while on vacation. The book begins with Ginny and her sister Amanda coming back to the house after the funeral. It is written from Ginny's point of view, so the sentences are mostly short and to the point, with the occasional passionate detail. And those details are not the usual observations, which makes for a lovely read. As a reader, I get tired of having rooms and clothing and facial expressions pointed out to me. So I get giddy when I read a sentence like this about the mourns at the house: "They're touching everything in the house, pale fingers like nocturnal worms swarming over picture frames and doorknobs and furniture, and if they get to me they'll crawl and cluster all over my skin."

Ginny is typical in that she has a difficult time dealing with social situations, and she finds her solace in food. Like the author herself (who writes a popular food blog), Ginny is a foodie who indulges in every aspect of cooking, marveling at how something as basic as an onion can shift from savory to sweet within its own nature by simply reacting to heat. When this bit of imagery doesn't help her after the funeral, she retreats to the kitchen, where she finds her Nonna's recipe for Ribollita (an Italian bread soup) and begins to make it. As the magical smell of the soup fills the kitchen, so does the ghost of Nonna herself.

Nonna has come with a warning for Ginny, but she is interrupted in the middle of her message, and Ginny is forced to dwell on what Nonna could possibly have meant by "Do no let her . . ." Through experimentation, Ginny discovers that Nonna is not the only ghost she can summon with recipes, and as each of them appear, more and more of the story comes together. The mystery unfolds slowly - if perhaps a little too slowly for my taste - but don't worry. It comes to a logical ending. I can't stand those authors who leave you hanging in the end by a little handwavium and a lot of philosophy. (I'm looking at you, Stephen King and Christopher Nolan.)

My only other issue with The Kitchen Daughter is that it got a little heavy-handed when it comes to explaining the details of Asperger's to its audience. I was fine seeing the world through Ginny's eyes. For me, that first-hand account explained far more to me than a mostly throwaway scene when Ginny is forced by her sister to see a psychiatrist. But the author redeemed herself to me in the end, and it's her first novel, so I'll let her off the hook.

The Kitchen Daughter is a quick, effortless read from a unique point of view that includes a little magic, a little mystery, and a certain beauty in unexpected places. There are also several recipe cards that start chapters, each in the handwriting of the character from the story. I have not had time to try any of them, yet, but I am tempted to copy down a few and see what sorts of ghosts I can summon.

Read more by Alethea Kontis


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