Playing What-If: a review of ‘The Heartless City’

As writers, we all play the ‘what-if’ game. What if . . . someone used standing stones to go back in time in Scotland? What if . . . there were vampires/werewolves/werecats/werewhatevers? What if . . . the world’s greatest art thief got caught and started working for the FBI instead? What if . . .

About a month ago, I walked into my local coffee house and saw a sign on the wall announcing a local author who would be doing a book signing soon. That’s cool – but we’ve frankly got a lot of local authors, most of them self-published. What stopped me in my tracks was the cover:  cover1000-1-678x1024

Yeah. Remind you of anything? Maybe this?

9781416975861

The Infernal Devices trilogy is my favorite Young Adult series ever (so much better than Mortal Instruments – more depth, more character development, more conflict!). So I had to go.

Andrea Berthot lives right here in my home town, and she was gracious and lovely. When I admitted the reason I was curious about the book was due to the cover, she laughed and said she loved it for that reason, too – when they asked her what she wanted for the cover, the only thing she could think of was a boy and the London skyline.

And she plays the ‘what if’ game. For her first novel, The Heartless City, it was a historical and fictional question:  what if Dr. Jekyll was real, and what if his experiments didn’t end where Robert Louis Stevenson said they did?

The Heartless City is the first book of Berthot’s Gold and Gaslight Chronicles series. It’s a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde tale. It starts in 1903, thirteen years after Dr. Jekyll’s experiments went horribly wrong, resulting in the creation of more Hyde-like monsters – and a total quarantine of London. No one out. No one in. The Lord Mayor has taken over as a quasi-king; Parliament has moved to York; food is rationed and no one has news of the outside world.

In this world lives Elliot Morrissey, the son of the Lord Mayor’s personal doctor, and his best friend Cam (the Lord Mayor’s son). Elliot, due to a misbegotten experiment of his own, is an empath – he can feel every emotion of every person around him. Handy, when there are monsters to avoid. Not so handy, when people desperately need to hide certain things.

After going to a ‘dance hall’ for Cam’s birthday, they meet Iris, who is also not what she seems to be. Together, the three will have to figure out if there is any way to cure the Hydes – and who has a vested interest in not curing them.

As a writer, it’s difficult to review books – I always want to offer constructive criticism, as if I’m nothing more than a beta reader and there’s still time to change things! I think it’s more difficult for writers, in fact, than people who are only readers. Those who don’t write really don’t understand the amount of work that goes into writing a novel. The hours you spend on research, putting fingers to keyboard, editing with red pen in hand – those are hours you’ve chosen to subtract from other areas of your life.

So writers have a bit of empathy for fellow writers that often stays our hand when we might otherwise be harsh. Because we can read a scene and even if it doesn’t sound quite right to us, we know that the author probably spent hours and hours and hours in rewrites on it. We also know that agents and editors have to have their say and (I know this is heresy, but . . .) those changes may not always be for the best.

There was a lot to like in The Heartless City – the friendship between Elliot and Cam, the way Berthot handles the overwhelming emotions Elliot feels, and his real conflicts about what to do about it. Philomena sparkles on the page as the comedy relief/bad-ass girl rebelling against her heritage and station in life. Iris – well, truth be told, I’m still unsure what I think of her; sometimes she didn’t feel ‘real’ to me. It’s Cam and Philomena that most resonate on the page – Cam’s desperation to know more of the outside world – to be freed of the hell that London has become – is palpable and I sympathize with it completely. (Truth be told, I found Cam more interesting than Elliot, and I hope that the third book will focus on him.)

The story flows smoothly, though I admit I did lay it down for several days after about chapter 4 – it felt a bit slow to begin – and the Hydes seem to get lost after a time. The main antagonist is believable – a bit two-dimensional, but we all know people like this (cough-Trump!-cough), so that didn’t bother me too much, either. Honestly, part of me prefers a villain I can just hate. 🙂

One of the things I disliked about the book was something that I dislike in a lot of YA – or even a lot of adult books, for that matter – which is what I call “Twilight Romance Syndrome” (TRS, for short). This is when the two main characters fall in luuv instantly, without knowing the slightest bit of information about the other – basically the idea that “he/she is hot, he/she is fascinating/brooding/unavailable, so I MUST fall in love with them NOW!” Thus it was with Elliot and Iris, who were declaring love after only knowing each other for a few days.

I’ve posted about this particular pet peeve of mine before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. Authors, please, do us all a favor:  your characters can fall in love all they want, but for heaven’s sake, let them do it gradually! Make it real. Make it believable.

For some reason, I actually found Cam’s romance with . . . um, someone, must not give too many spoilers! . . . more believable, maybe because I saw it coming a mile away. Or maybe because it was hinted that this romance had developed over the last several weeks or months – again, gradually.

Rant over. Back to the review:

One other thing I think Berthot could have worked on more was her use of language, particularly dialect and accent. Anyone who’s read a lot of Victorian literature knows it’s a very specific style of speaking (and the upper and lower classes had their own ‘dialects,’ even), and since London had been under quarantine since 1890, I would expect much more Victorian-esque speaking. But except for a bit of Cam’s good-natured jests, there wasn’t much of that here. The characters don’t even sound particularly British. If you watch any good British shows like Downton Abbey or Doc Martin, you get a feel for how true Brits speak – the rhythms, the sentence structure, the words. There just wasn’t any of that here, and that’s something true Anglophiles need. (A good example of someone who does this well is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series is set during the Napoleonic Wars.)

But overall, as a debut novel – especially one in the alternate history/paranormal realm – it’s a good first effort. Solid characters, solid plot, solid writing. And in the age-old game of ‘what if,’ it excels.

 

The second book in the series, The Hypnotic City, which follows Philomena’s adventures in New York City, is available.

A link to the Curiosity Quills Press’s homepage for the Gold and Gaslight Chronicles:  https://curiosityquills.com/series/gold-gaslight-chronicles/

 

 

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Is Fiction a Safe Place?

Last week, I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories, Trigger Warning. But there’s a quote in there that struck me the first time I read it, and struck me again when I was writing that blog post. It’s this one:

“I wonder, are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . .”

I had a book like that. Well, to be fair, I saw the movie first, but when I was in high school, I read the book. It was The Picture of Dorian Gray. One night, when I was three or four, it was on television. In those days, there was one television in the house, and whatever was on, was on. Needless to say, it was quite some time before I slept well. At four, I had never considered the Big Ticket Items that Oscar Wilde gets to in this book. Selling your soul. Having a soul that can be sold. The existence of evil. The horrors of getting old.

Death.

If you’re not familiar with this novel, you need to read it. But in a nutshell:  Dorian Gray is a young dilettante – gorgeous, young, vain – who has a portrait done of himself. As he stares at it, he muses, “How sad it is! I shall grow old and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young . . . If only it were the other way! If it were I who were to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that, I would give everything . . . I would give my soul for that!” (Moral of Story #1:  Be careful what you wish for. Because you never know who is listening.)

To be fair, it’s been ages since I read it – when I was older, in high school. But it’s that movie version that has stayed with me, that final scene in which Gray dies and his staff rushes in to find a hideous old fiend dead on the floor . . . while the portrait has mysteriously regained its youth. It. Freaked. Me. Out.  Because it was the first time in my life that I understood mortality. I don’t think any four-year old should have to understand that. At least, not under those circumstances.

And yet. What else have I learned from books? There weren’t many books in the house when I was growing up, so I read the encyclopedia (took me about a year; I think I was four or five?). I would go to the library and just grab books off the shelf. I ran through the usual things like Billy and Blaze and other lovely books that are now out of print, but I always read at least one grade level ahead, usually two – and as I grew older, the gap got wider. So by the time I was in sixth grade, my classmates were reading Sweet Valley Twins and I was reading Dean Koontz. 🙂 Want to talk about disturbing? I was the only sixth grader who knew what a hermaphrodite was (thanks to The Bad Place). But hey. They were interesting and fast-paced and not only did they teach me about the world, they also taught me how to write. No one tells a better story than Koontz. I’m convinced of that. I’m just boycotting him until he gives us that final installment in the Christopher Snow series.

I learned history. Empathy for humans and animals alike. More so for animals. I learned about ciphers and encryption. Race relations. Ancient Greece and Rome. Ghosts and things that go bump in the night, things that still haunt my writing.

And yes. As Neil Gaiman says in Trigger Warning, these books upset him because “I was not ready for them . . . they troubled me and haunted my nightmares and my daydreams, worried and upset me on several levels, but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray disturbed me on several levels. It haunted my nightmares and my daydreams. It was so far out of my comfort zone as a four-year old, I don’t think I ever found my way back to my comfort zone. I think most of us have that one book, the one that changes us in some fundamental way. I think that’s why people are afraid of books. Because books make you think. They force you to confront new realities, new ways of thought.

They’re bloody dangerous, books.

And they are not safe places.

But would we have it any other way?

I think not.

 

 

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning

51F4L8SwzBL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_“Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.” – Neil Gaiman, the introduction to Trigger Warning.

I recently – and finally! – read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, a collection of short stories (most of which have been published elsewhere, in other anthologies, but never before brought together in one volume).

I’m not normally a short-story person – it tends to bring back too many memories of having “BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN??!!!” crammed down my throat – but Neil read two of the stories aloud when he was in Tulsa, and I adored them. And more to the point, I couldn’t get them out of my head. Especially one, whose title I couldn’t recall, about a genie who encounters what could be his worst nightmare – a woman who doesn’t want a darn thing more than she already has. It was funny and sweet and supernatural and I wanted more.

Like, I think, most collections of anything, there are some pieces here that are stronger than others. Of course, the stories I thought were not quite as good are probably the ones that plenty of others thought were the strongest. In particular, the rather longish “The Sleeper and the Spindle” was a bit, well, longish. You can guess from the title that it’s a reworking of Sleeping Beauty – and while it’s a clever one, it didn’t quite feel right as a short story, and I felt very removed from it.

But. There were others. Several others. Some that stayed with me, haunting my steps, for days and weeks after. Some that have come back to me slowly, as my subconscious processes them and tries to put them into a semblance of context.

But Gaiman, in his introduction, makes zero apology for this. “I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . . but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”

The one truth of all writers is this:  if you want to write well, you need to read a lot. And writers can do far worse than to read Neil Gaiman. His sparseness with words, his ability to choose precisely the ones he wants to achieve the desired effect. The humor (in Tulsa, he read stories aloud, in that lovely British accent that says yes, I am talking about ducks playing poker and of course it is the truth because I am British and I am speaking with The Accent, and my dear, we all know The Accent cannot lie).

The way in which he lays down the bread crumbs, one at a time, so subtly and softly you don’t realize you’ve been led into a trap until it’s too late. As he did in the story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.” Shades of Hitchcock creepy, that one.

Or the way in which he comes from so far out of left field, as in “Adventure Story.” Leaving the narrator just as befuddled and sideswiped as the reader.

Or how he makes the utterly ridiculous seem plausible (The Accent!!!) in “April Tale” –  “You know you’ve been pushing the ducks too hard when they stop trusting you, and my father had been taking the ducks for everything he could since the previous summer.”

But I think my two favorites were “October Tale” (the one about the genie), and “Orange.” Seriously. If you want to study how to write something different, this is the one to read. It is written as the responses to a questionnaire. I mean, seriously. Instead of having to think out a traditional narrative and plot and dialogue and action . . . it’s one person’s incomplete observations, made to what must have been a very incredulous investigator! No need to spell out everything. No filling in all of those pesky blanks – or even most of the blanks. It’s the epitome of trusting the reader. And in Gaiman’s hands, it works, brilliantly. Here’s a very short sample of what I mean:

24.) Yes, it was stupid. But it wasn’t uniquely stupid, if you see what I mean. Which is to say, it was par-for-the-course Nerys stupid.

25.) That she was glowing.

26. A sort of pulsating orange.

27.) When she started to tell us that she was going to be worshiped like a god, as she was in the dawn times.

See what I mean? It’s just absolutely brilliant. It does what it’s supposed to do:  it keeps the reader reading, because we keep asking ourselves what the freaking fruitbat?? We get just enough to keep us guessing, to see if we can put the dots together before the end – but of course, this is Neil Gaiman. We don’t. 🙂

So if you’re looking for a good short-story collection to study, love the supernatural and creepy (there are several ghost stories here, too), and a good dash of British humor, you can’t do much better than Trigger Warning.

Just remember:  not everyone makes it out alive.

 

Here’s a review from NPR:

http://www.npr.org/2015/02/04/381641501/neil-gaiman-is-back-to-mess-up-your-dreams-in-trigger-warning

 

Why I Hate Goodreads.com

I was talking with a friend yesterday about the importance of getting to know something before you hate on it. Obviously there are things you can hate without knowing them, like a serial killer. Or an animal abuser. Or a child pornographer. I think we can all agree that we don’t need to sit down to tea with people like this in order to dislike them. (Though as writers, we may find something in that teatime conversation that makes them into a well-rounded antagonist – again, something most of us probably don’t want to do.)

But I hate Goodreads.com.

There. I said it. I realize this is like saying “I don’t think Bradley Cooper is good-looking.” I realize that for a reader and an aspiring author, this is probably a Kiss of Death. So be it.

I’ve tried to get into it. I’ve tried to give it a chance. And to be fair, I did find my new favorite YA series, “Shades of London” by Maureen Johnson, there two weeks ago.

But there are so many things to hate about it. The layout. The font. (News flash:  the rest of the world uses sans-serif fonts for a reason.) The God-awful number of typos on the site (for a site about READING, the number of typos I can find on just one page of Goodreads’ own policies – not reviews, but content that they post, is ludicrous. Get. A. Proofreader. I cannot take a site seriously if it has that many typos.).

But most of it comes down to the PEOPLE on the site – the reviewers.

As far as I can tell, most of the people who leave reviews on Goodreads fall into the following categories:

  • People who spent most of middle school being shoved into lockers or trash cans. Or both.
  • People who turn to Goodreads to torment people because if they didn’t, they’d be well on their way to becoming serial killers.
  • People who SERIOUSLY need to go get lives. Who need to go volunteer in a soup kitchen or a humane society and see what life is really like outside four bedroom walls and the covers of a book.
  • People who are so pathetic that the only way they can feel good about themselves is to bring others down.

Goodreads’ own policies encourage this behavior. In their Review Guidelines, they come right out and say “Goodreads has some of the best book reviews anywhere. Our members are passionate, knowledgeable readers, and their contributions to the site are what make it such a vibrant and fun place.”

Another quote from their Review Guidelines: “Don’t be afraid to say what you think about the book! We welcome your passion, as it helps the millions of other readers on Goodreads learn what a book is really about, and decide whether or not they want to read it. We believe that Goodreads members should see the best, most relevant, thought provoking reviews (positive and negative) when they visit a book page. Our job is to show members those reviews, and not show reviews that we deem to not be appropriate or a high enough level of quality.”

In other words, we here at Goodreads are too lazy to figure out what’s trash and what isn’t, and intend to rely on the community to police themselves. Members *can* flag posts they feel are inappropriate and/or break the rules. But I’m willing to bet that none of these are ever removed.

News flash, reviewers:  A pathetic attempt to make yourself feel better by trashing someone else’s work – or worse, trashing someone else – is just that:  pathetic. It shows that you have zero maturity, zero self-control, and frankly, zero self-confidence. Your attempts to be clever are not clever in the slightest.

Those of us who truly love books and writing are out doing what we love to do, not wasting countless hours trying to convince everyone else that We Are Right and You Are Wrong by writing long, involved, and nasty reviews of books we may OR MAY NOT have read. We hold rational discussions. We recognize – because we’re writers, too – that the book you so zealously and callously demolish in your review is someone’s baby. As such, it deserves respect. That person got off their ass and wrote something, and finished it, and it was good enough to get published (unless it was self-published). That’s more than YOU have ever done, I’m sure of it.

(For clarification, here are links to Goodreads’ guidelines, as well as another page explaining in more detail what is and what might not be allowed. I still find these to be as fuzzy as a Persian cat wearing a mink stole.)

https://www.goodreads.com/review/guidelines

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1499741-important-note-regarding-reviews