Review ~ Vaclav & Lena

Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Cover via Goodreads

Vaclav and Lena, both the children of Russian émigrés, are at the same time from radically different worlds. While Vaclav’s burgeoning love of performing magic is indulged by hard-working parents pursuing the American dream, troubled orphan Lena is caught in a domestic situation no child should suffer through. Taken in as one of her own by Vaclav’s big-hearted mother, Lena might finally be able to blossom; in the naive young magician’s eyes, she is destined to be his “faithful assistant”…but after a horrific discovery, the two are ripped apart without even a goodbye. Years later, they meet again. But will their past once more conspire to keep them apart? (via Goodreads)

While reading this book, I did something I never do. I went on Goodreads and looked at some reviews. I was interested to know what Russian immigrants and their children thought of Vaclav & Lena. To me, it felt like there were a lot of stereotypes being presented. The voice of the book, especially when the narrative was focused on Vaclav, was full of a “was having, am being” dialect that really wore on me. Not surprisingly, the reviews of this book are pretty divided. Mostly, anyone who has emigrated from Russia to the US or is a child of immigrant parents doesn’t care for it. Aside from the stereotypes, the other most common comment was about how long it takes for young children to learn a second language (not long at all) and how many Russian parents only speak Russian in the home as a way of preserving heritage.

So, this isn’t an accurate presentation of the immigrant experience, and I wonder why Tanner, whose experience this isn’t, chose to write it.

Then there is the story. The first third of this book is about our titular characters at age nine. Vaclav is magic-obsessed and has been Lena’s only friend. He believes in two things: that he will be a great magician and that Lena will marry him and be his assistant. His ambitions are somewhat wince-worthy especially since Vaclav seems utterly blind to anything else going on. But then again, he is nine years-old.

The next two sections of the book outline the next eight years of their lives as they are apart, and also Lena’s past before she knew Vaclav and his family. The last section is their meeting again, at age seventeen. Lena has a traumatic past, some of which she cannot remember. On her seventeenth birthday she decides to find her parents and that the only person she feels she can trust to help her is Vaclav. So, she calls him up because he still lives where he’s always lived. (And I kind of wonder why she never called before.) What follows is…a lot of drama. Most of which seems very out of place. I found the ending, how characters ultimately choose to treat Lena, to be somewhat distasteful.

For all of that, I read this book very quickly, almost compulsively. Despite its faults, I wanted to know what was going to happen to Vaclav and Lena, or rather what had happened. The story bears comparison to Eleanor & Park, but less well written and a much less satisfying ending (and if you know how Eleanor & Park ends, you know that’s saying something).

Publisher: The Dial Press
Publication date: May 17th 2011
Genre: Literary/YA
Why did I choose to read this book? *sheepishly* You did notice the part about Vaclav wanting to be a magician, right?

Magic Monday Review ~ Optical Illusions

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I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

This book was provided to me by Dover Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Optical Illusions: An Eye-Popping Extravaganza of Visual Tricks by Gianni A. Sarcone & Marie-Jo Waeber

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An image on a page appears to vibrate, a face gradually disappears, and a puzzling cat makes an appearance in this feast of fascinating optical tricks. Children and adults can discover the fascinating intersection of art, science, and magic in a series of geometric illusions, delusions, distortion effects, and other impossible images.

Designed and drawn by a famous puzzle maker, the book is intended to perplex readers, to excite their sense of wonder, and to encourage them to question the nature of reality. The optical illusions, which combine visual interest with elements of psychology and recreational logic, include many original illusions as well as new adaptations of lesser-known visual tricks. Each of the images is accompanied by a simple commentary that explains how it works. (via NetGalley)

A nice selection of shape, color, and figure illusions with a test/experiment chapter at the end. Of course, people are variable and some illusions don’t work as well as others depending on who you are. I realize this is a book aimed at kids, but I would have liked a little more science in the explanations, or maybe just the explanations closer to the illusions. It will be easier to page back and forth to the “solutions” in a physical book, but it might have been nice to have the explanations illustrated a little more.

I was also surprised that there were no full-page illusions. If you’re going to make my eyes go buggy, go big!

Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: Jun 18 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, puzzles
Why did I choose to read this book? Optical Illusions are fun!

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What Am I Reading?

Wicked Wildfire Readathon continues until Thursday. In the queue for this week:

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – Meant to have this read by, um, today. Other shiny books got in the way.
  • On the magic side of things, Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena by William E. Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo
  • Back to Steven Milhauser this week for Deal Me in with his story “Rain”

So, what are you reading? Any magic to share?

Deal Me In, Week 29 ~ “Every Mystery Unexplained”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Every Mystery Unexplained” by Lisa Mason

Card picked: Five of Spades

From: Tales of the Impossible, edited by David Copperfield and Janet Berliner

Review:

Magician “Professor” Flint ends each performance by endeavoring to contact the Spirits of the Dead. An illusion only, of course. Surely, the audience knows that the white handkerchief dancing around the stage is the work of Flint’s assistants, not spirits. His sword fight with an apparition is only a matter of a well-placed pane of glass and proper lighting. No one can really contact the dead. Unfortunately, when lovely Zena Troubetzskoy offers the down-on-their-luck magic act a fat payment for a seance, Flint and his son, Daniel, can’t say no. But, there is more to Zena and the man she wishes to contact, the man she left in the mountains, than meets the eye.

This is the type of story I was hoping for from these anthologies: a blend of fiction and magic history. The setting is 1895 San Francisco . Professor Flint and his act have been trekking westward through cow-towns, rail-road towns, and mining towns, complete with horses, wagons, and misfortunes. Quite similar to Howard Thurston’s tour of, as Mason puts it, the far West. The story is a nice juxtaposition between the magic ethos and spiritualism ethos and the Victorian era and the Old West. Mason knows her magic history (the title is from a Harry Kellar quote) and she knows San Francisco. I kind of saw where the plot was going, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

About the Author:

I’d never heard of Lisa Mason before this story. Her writing seems to include time-travel and cyberpunk stories set in San Francisco past, present, and future. She bibliography doesn’t extend past 2000 according to Wikipedia, but much of her back-catalog is available via Amazon and the like.

Is This Your Card?

I don’t have a card trick for the Five of Spades, but the story makes mention of the blue room illusion. This is a modern staging, I believe constructed for this TV special by Jim Steinmeyer.

Review ~ Nevermore

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Cover via Goodreads

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini team up to search for a literary-minded killer…

It is 1923 and a beautiful young woman has just been found outside a tenement, bones crushed, head ripped from her shoulders. A few stories above, her squalid apartment has been ransacked, and twenty-dollar gold pieces litter the floor. The window frame is smashed. She seems to have been hurled from the building by a beast of impossible strength, and the only witness claims to have seen a long-armed ape fleeing the scene. The police are baffled, but one reporter recognizes the author of the bloody crime: the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe.

A psychopath is haunting New York City, imitating the murders that made Poe’s stories so famous. To Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the killing spree is of purely academic interest. But when Poe’s ghost appears in Doyle’s hotel room, the writer and the magician begin to suspect that the murders may hold a clue to understanding death itself. (via Goodreads)

Not only does this book have Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, but also literary personality Damon Runyon!

I am alternately intrigued by and dubious of fictional works that involve historical people. Obviously, there are certain celebrities that intrigue writers. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of them. This is the third book I’ve read in the past year with Doyle as a character and the second with Houdini (in the other case, it was a Houdini/Sherlock Holmes). For that matter, it’s the second with Poe as well, though the specter of the author plays a fairly minor part here. The Conan Doyle and Houdini team-up is particularly enticing. They knew each other, first as friends and later as semi-adversaries as their philosophies about spiritualism diverged.

There seems to be a couple of issues to consider when writing this kind of fiction. One is fidelity to events. Another is the richness of the world. For me, authors can get away with a certain amount of rearranging of events if they don’t interfere with the history of the world. Move the disastrous Atlantic City seance ahead a year and Houdini’s underwater endurance test back three years and it doesn’t bug me too much, especially if the author notes the changes. (But, have a magician sawing a woman into halves before 1920 and I’ll doubt he’s done his research.) The worse sin, in my opinion, is name- and event-dropping in an effort to show historical world-building. Like an incredibly dense chocolate cake, a little goes a long way when meeting celebrities of the day and hearing of their exploits. Mobsters, sports stars, politicians, and other entertainers come and go through Nevermore without really adding anything to the story.

In general, Nevermore suffers from having too many facets. I’m possibly going to go into the realm of spoilers here, consider this a warning. One plot involves Conan Doyle seeing the fairly miserable ghost of Poe. This causes him to question spiritualism, but not overly much. One plot involves Houdini being seduced by a beautiful medium. Priding himself on a certain level of moral standing, this causes him some consternation, but not overly much. The third plot involves the Poe murders. Houdini brags that Conan Doyle will solve them and Damon Runyon writes lurid newspaper articles about them. Unfortunately, even when there is a pattern defined, no one spends much time even attempting to put the pieces together before the last twenty pages of the book. Events come and go like cities on Conan Doyle and Houdini’s respective tours. Even the schism between Houdini and Conan Doyle doesn’t last more than a couple of pages.

There’s also a lot of fake tension. As a reader, I know that nothing will happen to Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle. This doesn’t mean they can’t be involved in peril, but the focus needs to be different. For example, and spoilers again, late in the book Houdini flies a plane from Chicago to New York in a storm. The point of this hasty trip is to beat a time constraint, but it’s written with the emphasis of “Will Houdini be killed in a fiery crash?!” I know Houdini won’t die, but I don’t know whether he’ll make it to NYC in time. That’s where the tension should be focused.

Honestly, the book could have been fine with one less plot thread, and the expendable one would be Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Runyon and Houdini would have made for a much more fun and focused team.

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: October 1st 1994
Genre: Historical fiction.
Why did I choose to read this book? The Houdini/Conan Doyle team-up

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#COYER Fairy Tales with a Twist Reviews

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July 11th – 13th: Fairy Tales with a Twist
Read fairy tale re-tellings and give those childhood favorites a twist!

Supernatural Fairy Tales The Storyteller's Wife Never Ever After: Three Short Stories

Supernatural Fairy Tales by Dorlana Vann

With nods to some classic fairy tales, this collection certainly fit the bill. “Blueberry Eyes” is the easiest to identify as a twisted tale, but as Vann notes in her afterword, all are inspired by classic fairy tales. How do the Emperor’s New Clothes look on a vampire? What happens when an artist finds “His Soul Inspiration” in the old tales and paints his wife as a mermaid? There are a few neat concepts in Supernatural Fairy Tales. My only criticism is that the stories often play with the concept of memory and the narratives end up being a little muddled. My favorite: “The Gift” because I can’t resist the Weird West.

The Storyteller’s Wife by Eugie Foster

“If this was…a real fairy tale, she knew her lines.”

Not a twisted tale, but a tale of faerie and one so very bittersweet. Eugie Foster might be my favorite fairy tale writer. Yes, beating out even Peter S. Beagle.

Never Ever After: Three Short Stories by Ruth Nestvold

It’s hard to get into an already existing fantasy world, which is what it felt like I was doing in “A Serca Tale.” Even the title leaves me a bit short in the info department. I did not finish  “King Orfeigh” because I can’t get my head into a second person POV.  “Happily Ever Awhile” was the best of the trio with the best title of the entire readathon.

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Deal Me In, Week 28 ~ “Lazarus”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Lazarus” by Leonid Andreyev

Card picked: Five of Hearts – a WILD card

From: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Laza841.shtml

Review: A story that Jay read back in March that sounded intriguing.

When reading classic literature, I always end up having a little war with myself. How “genre” do I want to let my reading be? How much do I want to force a “literary” interpretation? The dichotomy leaves me grumpy because I don’t believe that one of these things is more important than the other, but one might actually be more appropriate.

I have a tin ear when it comes to appropriateness.

Andreyev begins with a description that would cast Lazarus in any zombie movie ever. And if we want to look at Lazarus with modern trope-infused eyes, that’s exactly what he is. He was dead for three days, decomposed for three days, and now he’s alive again. He is an unnatural thing, a breaking of natural laws. Anyone who looks upon Lazarus and has Lazarus look on them knows this and feels the implication. According to Wikipedia, Lovecraft had Andreyev in his library and I’m not surprised. This sort of concept is very much what a genre reader would call Lovecraftian.

The other genre standard that came to mind was Frankenstein. For me, the main theme of Frankenstein is the taking, or rather the shirking, of responsibility by a creator. Andreyev never mentions how the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection occurs, just that is has happened. The responsible party is not at all in evidence. Is this Andreyev taking the story out of context to suit his storytelling whim? Or is he making comment by never mentioning what most readers of this story know? In any case, Lazarus’s family and community forsake him as well. No one is willing to take responsibility for the monster at the edge of town.

(I reread the biblical account of Lazarus. It does seem to be the event that kicks off the earnest plotting against Jesus. Jesus pretty much goes into hiding for a while afterward to avoid immediate persecution.)

The literary side of my brain wonders what Andreyev was going on about with this character and his travels. I could probably make a point about the encroachment of Christianity on the Classical world and, if I knew my Russian history better, how that might parallel some aspect of the Russian revolution. I can also see in it a parallel with original sin. Lazarus possesses knowledge of something which shouldn’t be known. Like Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, he spreads this to others,  and not to their benefit.

Were Death itself passing, it would be faced with no greater fear: for until then the dead alone knew Death, and those alive knew Life only—and there was no bridge between them. But this extraordinary man, although alive, knew Death, and enigmatical, appalling, was his cursed knowledge.

Which does lead back to Lovecraftian notions of forbidden knowledge.

I am curious about the whole “dressed as a bride-less bridegroom” thing. I feel like I’m missing something cultural.

About the Author:

Via Wikipedia

Leonid Nikolaievich Andreyev (21 August [O.S. 9 August] 1871 – September 12, 1919) was a Russian playwright, novelist and short-story writer. He is one of the most talented and prolific representatives of the Silver Age period in Russian history. Andreyev’s style combines elements of realist, naturalist and symbolist schools in literature.

Short Review ~ Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic

Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic

Cover via Goodreads

While Star Trek fans, role-playing game fans, and even comic book fans eventually find each other and develop something like social groups, teenage magicians are, due to the rarity of their particular geek kink, more likely to remain socially retarded than any other group. That isolation and talent for magic allowed Penn & Teller a great deal of time to devote to revenge, mayhem, and making others look foolish. Now they share their techniques, as well as the wisdom one gains from acquiring happiness only after being ostracized and ridiculed, in Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic. A mixture of tricks you can do in hotel rooms, cars, and planes, some ill-advised methods for screwing with the minds of airport security personnel, and a series of memoirs of the unusual people they’ve met on their B-venue journeys around the world, How to Play in Traffic is not only funny (as one would expect from Penn & Teller) but also oddly insightful. (via Goodreads)

Take note of the publication date. Despite what you might think of the TSA, some of the airport tricks are *very* ill-advised. Just sayin’. And as with How to Play with Your Food, there is a certain level of trick exposé in this book. If you are utterly against knowing how illusions are done, this isn’t the book for you.

After all those disclaimers, I’ll say that this is slightly less magic-tricky than How to Play with Your Food. The travel stories are the best aspect of this book. Honestly, I’d love a more straight-on travel book from Penn & Teller, before and after fame. It was also a little easier to tell which sections were written by which author, though I do wonder how the collaborative effort works between these two as writers.

Publisher: Berkley Trade
Publication date: November 1st 1997
Genre: non-fiction