Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: Saving Shakespeare's Endings

The Mercutio Problem, by Carol Anne Douglas (Hermione Books)

I picked up The Mercutio Problem unaware that it was a sequel to Merlin’s Shakespeare. One of the challenges of writing a stand-alone book within a series, or linked to other series, is the balance between giving the new reader all the necessary background, developing the characters well enough, and yet not boring readers who are already familiar with the cast and setting. Sometimes I can’t tell if a book is a sequel or a stand-alone with a rich and brilliantly handled back story. In this case, it became obvious almost immediately, although to her credit, the author gave me all the information I needed to understand and enjoy the present story.

So the back story from the first book is that Merlin (from the legends of King Arthur) enlists the help of Beth Owens, high school theater student, to convince William Shakespeare to write a play about King Arthur. In the course of this adventure, she meets many characters from Shakespeare’s plays, including flirtatious, charismatic Mercutio (from Romeo and Juliet) and the ultimate villain, Richard III.

At the beginning of the present book, Mercutio is dead, slain not by Tybalt but by Richard. Here comes Merlin again, only this time the problem is that Richard wants to change the ending of Shakespeare’s plays (especially his own) and is going about enlisting various other characters and the ghost of Christopher Marlowe in order to pressure Shakespeare. Not only that, but Merlin offers an added inducement to Beth, that she will take the form of Mercutio within Shakespeare’s plays and if she dies in that form, he will live again. Got all that?

Then comes the fun part, visiting the plays and interacting with the characters, many of whom wander into other plays, too. The dialog is often brilliant, reflecting not only Shakespearean language but the particularities of the specific character (for example, Julius Caesar always talks about himself in the third person and rambles on about honor and fate). Bottom has gone missing, so Midsummerland is perpetually rainy (and Bottomless). Lady MacBeth, who knows a thing or two about tyranny and regret, plays a pivotal role in organizing the resistance against Richard, and King Lear, consumed with guilt, goes rampaging through the other plays to slay anyone who wants to keep the plays as they were originally written.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

9/11: A Personal Grief

I first posted this back in 2015. It seems to be as valid now as then, although I have made significant progress in my recovery from PTSD since then.

At this time of year, I often feel out of step with the rest of the country. Like just about everyone else I know who's old enough to remember the events of 9/11, I have a vivid memory of how I learned about them. I was driving my younger daughter to high school and we were listening to the news on the car radio. We heard the announcer cry, "The second Tower is down!" and the rest of the story tumbled out. The way the events unfolded reminded me poignantly of John F. Kennedy's assassination. I was in high school in 1963, just about the same age my daughter was on 9/11. Listening to the news broadcast with her, I experienced a parallel of my own youthful experience. Once again, the world became to be a dangerous and unpredictable place, but for me it was not the first time. I too responded with a feeling that the world has changed forever, but I also had the memory of having walked through this before -- and not just the Presidential assassination.

For me, Septembers will never be solely about 9/11. In this month in 1986, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a neighbor kid on drugs. It was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but only part of a larger tragedy, for his own family had suffered the murder of his older brother by a serial killer some years before. My body knows when the anniversary is approaching, even when my thoughts are distracted. The shift in the quality of the light at summer's end reaches deep into my nervous system. The scar tissue on my heart aches. The ghosts of things that once held the power to drive me crazy stir in the darkness. My sleep becomes fragile, even though I no longer have nightmares. It's a hard time, an intensely personal time.

One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn't fungible; you can't compare or exchange one person's experience with another's or say, This one's pain is two-thirds the intensity of that one's. Grief is grief; loss is loss. There's no benefit to anyone in comparisons. And no one else can do the hard emotional work of healing for us.

Around me and in the media, I see public displays of remembrance and more often than not, I feel reluctant to share mine. For one thing, I've lived with my story for over three decades and I've had extensive trauma therapy, but the person I tell it to is hearing it for the first time. "My god," they say, "how did you live through that?" At most times of the year, it's a gift to be able to sit with them, give them time to catch up, and to share a little of what I've learned about healing. But not this season. I need to have a time just for my own grief, a time that is just for my mother.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Murder Mystery Set in a Magical High School

Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey (Tor)

In short: now I know why readers have been raving about Sarah Gailey.

In long: this tale begins as a murder mystery set in an exclusive, 
private high school for the magically gifted. The first-person narrator is a private detective who’s wearied of digging into cases of infidelity and embezzlement, and both excited and intimidated by her first murder investigation. So much is not all that astonishingly new territory. But this is where the story gets complex. Ivy is an unreliable narrator, whose unerring sense of the truth shines through her layers of self-deception, guilt, and inadequacy. To make matters worse, Ivy’s brilliant, charismatic, and magically talented sister teaches at the school and was romantically involved with the murder victim.

The unfolding of the mystery parallels Ivy’s exploration of her own past, her relationship to her sister, and who she herself might have been “in another life,” if she and her sister had been close, if she had been magical, if she had gone to a good school, if she were attractive and confident, and so forth. The line between Ivy’s wishful imagination and the possibility that she is in the process of unlocking hidden potential is ambivalent, as it should be, making Ivy a complex and utterly sympathetic character. This subtlety arises from superb narrative skill and deep insight into the human psyche, all within the framework of a fascinating familiar-but-new magical world, all the agonies of revisiting high school, and a murder mystery full of twists and surprises.

Strongly recommended.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to praise it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Monday, September 2, 2019

New on Curious Fictions: Totem Night (Free Short Story)

This week's treat for you is a free short story in Curious Fictions. While you're there, I hope you'll subscribe or check out my other posted work.

When the young wizard journeys into the mountains to find her totem spirit, she little dreams of the twisted fate that would exchange her own soul with that of the winged unicorn.

Totem Night
The night was darker than she expected. Darker and colder. Frostmist haloed the stars. As she pulled her sheepswool ruach’ tight around her shoulders, Xiera wished, not for the first time, that she’d paid as much attention to her weaving as to her wizardry.
She had traveled, alone and unarmed, from Choa’tlexa at the edge of the Harvest Plains and into the barren mountains of Hua’tha’s Curse. At the fifth setting of Choa’tl’s Eye, she came across the circle of fallen stones. When she touched one, a spark crackled, stinging her hand. Her fingertips came away, covered in acrid dust. She sat cross-legged in the center of the circle and composed herself.
It will come, she reminded herself. My totem will come to me. Everything so far had been exactly as her teachers foretold, the journey to Hua’tha’s Curse, the moonless night, this place of power.
Moments crept by, bleeding into one another. The earth shivered, so light a ripple that she might not have noticed if she hadn’t been sitting so still. It was the third tremor that hour, each one raising it own false hope.
A speck of silver winked along the western ridge. Heartbeats followed one another. The mote of light elongated into a circle, quickly followed by the second moonlet.
 “The Kiss of the Twins,” a man’s voice spoke from the night, velvet-smooth. Darkness masked his face, as coppery as her own. She’d never known a life without him, from her earliest memories of following, playing and fighting with him and his brothers, sleeping on the mounded carpets of the children’s tent, curled together like puppies.
Only later, as her wizardry stirred and her body changed, so did Xiera’s feelings for him, and his for her. She wept when the elders sent her to Choa’tlexa with its towers, stepped pyramidal temples and markets, as priests, traders, artisans and wizards bustled along the narrow stone streets. She wept again when Tl’al followed her three years later. His beauty burned as sharp as the sun, as did the answering fire within her. That was the last time she had wept, for wizardry kills tears.