Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
Title: Rejiggering the Thingamajig
Author: Eric James Stone
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
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
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