Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
July 2013

Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Mulholland Books

I have a thing for time travel stories, especially stories that mix in elements from diverse genres. I loved Connie Willis' Blackout/All Clear, which combined time travel with blitz of London in World War II. I loved Jack McDevitt's Time Traveler's Never Die, which combined time travel and ancient Greece. Lauren Beukes's latest novel, The Shining Girls, mashes up time travel, murder mystery, serial-killer, and even baseball, for a terrific story that keeps the pages turning and the reader breathless to the very end.

Harper Curtis is a serial killer linked in some way to a house that seems to show him his victims scattered over time. Like most serial killers, Curtis has a pattern. He finds his victims mostly in Chicago, when they are young girls, gives them something, a toy or other trinket, and returns to kill them years later (from their perspective), taking away what he gave them and replacing it with something from his other victims. This baffles the police, and for good reason, for Curtis, thanks to his special house, can travel through time and his victims are scattered from 1929 through 1993.

Kirby Mazrachi receives one of these gifts from Curtis as a little girl, a toy pony. Years later, on a lakeside path, she is attacked by Curtis and left for dead, but manages to survive the attack and when she has physically recovered, she begins to hunt her attacker, something the police have not been able to do. As an intern, she teams up with a former crime reporter-turned-sports-writer, who once reported on her own attack. Kirby begins to trace back the attacks and soon finds herself hunting for a killer that doesn't seem to exist.

While the serial-killer-as-time-traveler is not a unique trope in the genres of the fantastic (Robert Block and Harlan Ellison have both tread this ground with their stories "A Toy For Juliette" and "Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World," respectively) Beukes still manages to bring originality to her tale. Part of this is due to the setting of the story, centering on Chicago, but jumping around in time from prohibition, to post-World War II, and right up into the Chicago newspaper scene of the early 1990s. The chaos of time in the story seems to act as a reflection of the chaos of a madman's mind.

In The Shining Girls, Beukes has written an excellent story, graphic in places, but necessarily so for the reader to feel the full impact of the tale. As a time travel story, it has all of the complexity of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and Robert Silverberg's Up the Line. And I can't help but love any story that weaves baseball into the plot with cleverness and relevance.

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow

In baseball, the tie goes to the runner. Neil Gaiman's first novel since Anasi Boys is not, strictly speaking, science fiction. Then again, it is not, strictly speaking, fantasy. Or horror. It contains elements of all of these genres in various doses, and what binds them together is an amazing story. For me, story trumps all, and the story that Gaiman tells in The Ocean at the End of the Lane made it worthy of including in what is ordinarily a column that reviews strictly science fiction.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story within a story. It is the story of the narrator, who I can't recall being named throughout the entire book, returning to a place of his youth, a house at the end of a lane, and specifically, a pond behind that house. There he meets a familiar face, and as he takes a seat by the pond, he recalls the days when he was just a boy, and a South African miner came to stay with his family - a point from which the story within the story takes shape.

After the death of this miner, the narrator (now a boy of about seven) befriends a girl, Lettie Hempstock, who lives in a house at the end of the lane. The Hempstock girl is part of a family that is very different from the family in which the narrator grew up, in more ways than one. And when, while traveling through the woods together, the boy is accidentally infected with a seemingly magical being, Lettie Hempstock becomes a kind of protector to him.

The story follows the boy through the trials of his age, which include a sadistic housekeeper by the name of Ursula Monkton. The boy, Lettie Hempstock, and Ursula Monkton form a kind of perfect triangle of character, the boy innocent, Monkton fiendishly malevolent, and Hempstock somewhere in between (although not at all evil like Monkton). All of these characters come to a head in a gripping faceoff between Lettie and Monkton with the boy as a kind of innocent bystander swept into a nightmare.

But what really makes the story soar is Gaiman's understated style of storytelling. The story is told from an older man's point of view, but one who seems to be remembering the details of what happened for the first time in the forty-plus years since. It is told with the wisdom of age and the respect for the youth the boy once was. There is a delicate, quietness to the writing that I have not seen often. Stephen King has achieved this understated style in books like From a Buick 8. Gaiman reaches for it here, and it adds a unique dimension to the storytelling. You can feel a muted sadness as the story progresses that verges on heartbreaking. To my mind, it is nothing short of remarkable. When a story can move a reader in this way, is it not a story to be missed. Don't miss this one.

Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin

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