Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

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

Title: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Author: Ransom Riggs
EAN: 1594744769

"I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door." -Jacob Portman

I almost feel bad writing a review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, because part of the mystique is coming across the cover of this book, with its vintage black and white picture of a solemn young girl wearing a tiara and levitating about six inches off the ground. Such photographs are integral to the telling of this story, as they are both what inspired author Ransom Riggs to tell this tale, and sixteen year old Jacob Portman to go chasing his destiny.

The book opens with Jacob reminiscing about his Grandfather - a WWII Polish refugee who escaped to a boarding school on a remote island in Wales. Grandpa Portman's tales of this school were all rather tall. He spoke of twins so strong they could lift boulders, an invisible boy, and a boy with a swarm of bees living inside him. He also told Jacob about the monsters he ran from. His family thought Grandpa's ravings were about Nazis and his frequent disappearances were another woman, but they were wrong. The monsters were real. Miss Peregrine was real too, and Jacob finds himself compelled to seek her out.

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I won't lie - the unusual pictures and notes and drawings scattered throughout the book are the gimmick that draws you in, like the splashy, colorful advertisement of a Traveling Sideshow. But this book, even without the pictures, is exceptionally well written (and the inclusion of the photos is not as contrived as you might imagine). The prose is clean, crisp, and paced in a way that keeps you moving along so quickly you don't realize the chapters are flying by. You just can't wait to get to the next picture.

How many times has an author described to you a sketch drawn in the sand, or an inscription scrawled in a book, and you wish you could see it? Here, that illustration is handed to you on the very next page. However, I hesitate to call Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children an illustrated novel. Perhaps we should agree to refer to it as a "book with benefits." It is the epitome of the classic "show, don't tell" tenet of writing.

I was swept up by this story, intrigued by the photographs, and inspired by the author's brilliance. I envied Jacob Portman his adventure, and feel myself lucky to have tagged along. I'm not sure if Quirk plans to publish more books in this world or format, but I would be very happy to buy them. I'd love to see more of Mr. Riggs' collection of eclectic photos, and what magic he might discover in them. I'm half inclined to go to a flea market myself this weekend and dig through someone's old sepia-toned castoffs with an eye to finding my own story.

I'll be wary of monsters. I promise.

Title: There Is No Wheel
Author: James Maxey
(e-book)

James Maxey is one of those writers that is so good at what he does, it actually makes me mad. I shouldn't like his characters. They are sometimes reprehensible, creepy, horrible, or all three . . . and yet, like a train wreck, I can't look away. I am so fascinated by their idiosyncrasies that I have to find out where they might go, what they might do, and the depths to which they might sink. James is one of those writers who can sum a person up in a few sentences and be dead on accurate. His words cut to the bone and leave his characters bare, body and soul.

James has written a few novels - Nobody Gets the Girl and the Bitterwood trilogy - all of which I've read. But his forte is truly in the short form. He's brilliant. Fantastically, maddeningly brilliant. And I hate him for it every single time. The story I hate him for the most is "Silent As Dust," his opening salvo for this collection. It's still my favorite story of his - you might have had the chance to read it here at IGMS (one of the smartest acquisitions Edmund has ever made), but I had the privilege of coming upon it in a pile of anonymous stories for the annual Codex Writers Halloween Contest. I remember poring over the pages, mesmerized, unable to tear my eyes away until the very last line - at which point I threw the manuscript across the room. I knew James had written that story. For a fan as big as me, his style's easy to recognize. Grr.

I enjoyed having the opportunity to read "Silent As Dust" again here in the collection, but I refrained from tossing my Nook the same way I'd thrown the manuscript. Shame, too, because I really wanted to. "Dust" was followed by other Maxey classics, such as "To the East, a Bright Star," that starts with the shark in the kitchen. "Last Flight of the Blue Bee," and "Where the Worm Dieth Not" are stories in which Maxey revisits his love of old school comic books - a world in which he is very much a master.

I had not previously read "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth," and perhaps because of it's newness, it stood out as one of my favorites. Conversely, I had hoped that "Perhaps the Snail" - the closing story - might have grown on me after all these years, but it's still my least favorite of the bunch, and therefore left the ending a little flat for me. Don't let this deter you, though - this collection is still well worth every e-penny.

If I had any criticisms about this anthology, it would be that 1) it was too short, and 2) I wish there had been brief afterwards following each story explaining a little about the genesis of the story, or its path to publication. Both of those are nitpicky and personal bias - James clearly needs to just write more stories.

Which reminds me - I need to make sure I'm signed up for this year's Codex Halloween contest . . .

Title: Cowboys and Aliens
Author: Joan D. Vinge
EAN: 0765368269

Readers tend to fall into two camps: those who prefer reading the book before they see a film, and those who prefer to read the book after. I fall into the latter category (unless it's completely unavoidable, like Harry Potter). I'm not one for sweeping generalizations, but I feel safe saying that 100% of the time, the book contains more information than the movie.

Books can go into a character's head, tell us things that visually just don't translate to the screen. Books are also considerably longer, and therefore will contain scenes that are deleted by necessity (don't you dare start about Tom Bombadil, seriously). The book is a fuller, richer experience.

The argument the book-before-film camp uses is that they don't like having a character or setting already burned into their memory for them - they like to envision it all themselves. I guess I just have a better imagination than those people. I know the book is a different, better world, and I like to save the best for last. Plus, I don't like to spend the movie thinking, "But what about that? And how are they going to address this? And will they have time to do that before the end of the film?" I want to enjoy the film, unbiased.

I enjoyed Cowboys and Aliens in the theatre. I thought at the same time that it was too long and not long enough. It contained the sweeping panoramas, as well as Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, and was a gorgeous homage to the western genre . . . with aliens! And it made sense! Well, sort of. Enough for government work. And popcorn blockbusters.

When I saw the novelization of Cowboys and Aliens, I didn't think twice about picking it up, especially since it was written by Joan D. Vinge! What a treat! I loved her dedication about girls who played cowboys, and her nod to the film producers for allowing her some liberties with the manuscript intrigued me. In a perfect world, this book would fill in all those spaces in the film where I wanted more, going deeper into the characters and finding out what made them tick. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world.

While beautifully written, the novelization of Cowboys and Aliens came across to me as simply a respectfully padded-out version of the film script. I do not fault Joan, however, as I suspect the studios put her on a rather tight leash and did not let her stray from the shot-by-shot, omniscient POV approach to the story. It's a shame, really, because I would have liked to know far more about Ella's character in particular. I think developing her back story would not have altered the perspective of the film at all.

For me, Ella reminded me very much of Sorsha in the movie Willow: she was the main character's love interest, she was integral to the climax of the film, and yet we knew almost nothing about her. But when Wayland Drew did the Willow novelization (and I can't imagine Lucas gave a much longer leash than Favreau), he managed to slip in bits about Sorscha that made her a much stronger and important presence.

I have some ideas about how this might have been done with the Ella character, but I don't want to have a spoiler-ridden column on my hands. Suffice it to say that withholding information works a lot better in films than on paper. If we are seeing through a character's eyes, we should know what they know and who they are and why they are about to do what they're going to do. I think a writer of Joan's caliber could have pulled this off. She did go a bit in depth during the climax of the novel, but it felt like too little, too late. I wanted to care about Ella from page 25, not page 250.

Which brings me back to the infernal machine of Hollywood. They don't like it when authors tell them how to shoot films based on their books . . . perhaps they should stay out of an established author's sandbox when it comes to novelizations.

Wait, I've got it! Hollywood can be the aliens. Authors can be the cowboys. Everybody grab your horse or your airship and . . . GO!

Read more by Alethea Kontis


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