Two Nonfiction Mini Reviews

Unmentionable Cover via Goodreads

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

Have you ever wished you could live in an earlier, more romantic era?

Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there’s arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn’t question.) (via Goodreads)

So, there’s this movie called Kate & Leopold. It came out in 2001, starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman. In it, Jackman’s gentlemanly, but smart Leopold falls through a time hole linking 1876 and 2001 and falls in love with Ryan’s successful, but lonely ad exec Kate. All in all, it’s one of those generally smart, funny rom coms that populated the 90s, but died out in the 2000s. It has a great supporting cast (Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford) and a soundtrack song by Sting. I would utterly adore this movie (did I mention Hugh Jackman in a rom com?)…except for the ending. Spoiler for an 18 year old movie: Kate goes back to 1876 with Leopold to stay. She obviously hadn’t read Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable.

I love reading newspapers from the late Victorian era and I’ve been interested in the manners/health books of the era, but haven’t had the time to get into them. Oneill has done that work for me. Unmentionable goes into all the distinctly un-romantic aspects of being a woman (and really a white, upper-class woman) in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The snarky tone is mostly funny, especially paired with illustrations and advertisement from the period. My one nag is that I wish dates were used a little more.

Original Publishing info: Little, Brown and Company, 2016
My Copy: OverDrive Read, Tempe Public Library
Genre: history, pop culture

Cover via Goodreads

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic, and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins

In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practiced and popularized by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organized thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief. Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. (via Goodreads)

The Spectacle of Illusion was published to coincide with Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in London. (The exhibit is open until Sept. 15th, so if you’re in London and interested, you’re lucky and should go.) The book delves into how from the 18th century through the present we have approached the paranormal (a relatively recent term) from the point of view of science. The problem, though, is that science hasn’t always been good at dealing with human deception. Enter those masters of deception: the magicians. Of special note are the debunkers, like Maskelyne and Houdini, and the modern discipline of experimental psychology which investigates how our brain experiences non-normal experiences like magic tricks and “paranormal” events.

A Goodreads reviewer referred to this book as “specialist” and it occurs to me that I might have read so much on the above subjects that I don’t know what that means anymore. I think Thomkins provides a good introduction to these subjects without going too deep. This book didn’t break new ground in my knowledge base, but I highly enjoyed it.  The strength of The Spectacle of Illusion is the hundreds of pictures and illustrations found throughout. It’s a beautiful book, more on the coffee table book end of the spectrum than dry academic text.

Original Publishing info: Distributed Art Publishers (DAP), 2019
My Copy: Hardback purchased from Amazon
Genre: history, psychology, magic

Review ~ The Violent Century

This book was provided to me by Tachyon Publications via NetGalley for review consideration.

The Violent Century cover

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

A bold experiment has mutated a small fraction of humanity. Nations race to harness the gifted, putting them to increasingly dark ends. At the dawn of global war, flashy American superheroes square off against sinister Germans and dissolute Russians. Increasingly depraved scientists conduct despicable research in the name of victory

British agents Fogg and Oblivion, recalled to the Retirement Bureau, have kept a treacherous secret for over forty years. But all heroes must choose when to join the fray, and to whom their allegiance is owed—even for just one perfect summer’s day. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’ve been a fan of Lavie Tidhar’s writings, especially his Century Station stories. The Violent Century is not one of those…

What Worked
There is a small, poignant human story at the heart of this tale of superheroes and superhero-sized espionage. Unfortunately…

What Didn’t Work
The story was buried under a layer of style and structure that kept the characters at a distance.

Instead of quotation marks, dialog is sometimes set off with em dashes and is sometimes subsumed into the surrounding paragraph. The result made all the characters seem flat, like I was overhearing this story through a bad telephone connection or watching it through a screen door. I was too removed to care about the characters.

The narrative is jumbled through places and times. This could work, giving it a woven together feel, but sometimes the time digressions didn’t lead very far. Chapters felt like prologues and vignettes; it was only in the longer chapters that I ever got into a good rhythm with Fogg and Oblivion.

Overall
I don’t mind doing a little work when I read, especially when the subject matter is something that has been done, like superheroes. But reading The Violent Century was arduous. I kept hoping Tidhar would let the readers into the story, but that never happened.

Original Publishing info: Tachyon Publications, July 23, 2019
My Copy: Kindle and ePub ARCs, NetGalley
Genre: science fiction

The Black Cat, No. 10, July 1896

Welcome to the July 1896 issue of The Black Cat and the Black Cat Project!

This issue of The Black Cat features five writers new to magazine—unless there are some pseudonyms among the bunch. We’d have to go back to issue 6, in March, to find the previous issue of “newbie” writers.

Stories

“On the Last Trail” by H. W. Phillips & Rupert Hughes

The local marshal of Rapid City, a frontier town, forbids the possession of guns within town limits (due to the high death rate). This does not go over well—many of the town’s citizens become paranoid about being unarmed when someone *with* a gun comes to town. Bolande is that man. He’s friends with the Marshal, but that doesn’t make any difference. When Bolande refuses to give up his weapon, the Marshal calls him out. They duel, each shooting and mortally wounding the other. But before they die they agree that they’re still friends.

The story ends with “They were Americans… Of such were the builders of the West.” And I really can’t decide if this story is satirical or not.

While H. W. Phillips is noted in a 1908 issue of The New England Magazine as a writer magazine readers are familiar with, I couldn’t find any other credits. Rupert Hughes was a novelist and early filmmaker.

“A Message from Where?” by L. Francis Bishop

A locked trunk in the attic, a gravestone with his name on it, and lovers kept apart by the Civil War. This story was my favorite of the month due to its gloomy Southern Gothic nature. Mostly, it’s just a tale of a young boy discovering the truth of his history, of learning that the people around him all had lives before he was born.

“The Man with the Box” by George W. Tripp

“The Man with the Box” is science fiction-ish story. The box in question, when calibrated and pointed at someone, will make the target believe he is drinking a chosen beverage rather than a mundane one. For example, if the target were to choose Guinness ale from the dial on the box and then point and fire the box at himself, he’d taste Guinness when drinking a glass of water. But there is also a weird “snake” setting on the box… Shenanigans ensue. I also found this story interesting for its use of kodak and kodakist (in lower case form), presumably to denote the fad of photography and those annoyingly obsessed with it.

The only George W. Tripp I was able to locate with Google died as a high priest in the Church of Latter-day Saints. Same guy? Seems odd, but possible.

“What the Moon Saw” by Isabelle Meredith

This is the second sort-of creepy story in this month’s edition. Ned French has bet a large amount of money that Albert Turn will not at midnight pound a nail into the coffin of a recently buried man. The narrator of this story comes upon them as Turner is about to be lowered into the opened grave (dug up by servants), nails in hand. Not surprisingly, things don’t go well.

“In Miss Polly’s Pew” by Ellen Frizzell Wycoff

Jack Harrold returns after many years to the small town that was his childhood home. Many things have changed, and many things haven’t. He finds the initials he carved into a tree when he was a teenager: “J. H. + M. R.” It takes him a while(!) but he finally remembers who M. R. is—a.k.a. Polly—and how much he loved her(!). As luck would have it, Polly still lives in town and is single. And Jack’s still single too!

Ellen Frizzell Wycoff has a few other short story credits and may even show up again in the Black Cat.

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Want to read for yourself?
Here’s the link to Issue No. 10, July 1896

Or find out
More about the Black Cat Project

Review ~ Magic is Dead

Cover via Goodreads

Magic Is Dead: My Journey into the World’s Most Secretive Society of Magicians by Ian Frisch

Magic Is Dead is Ian Frisch’s head-first dive into a hidden world full of extraordinary characters and highly guarded secrets. It is a story of imagination, deception, and art that spotlights today’s most brilliant young magicians—a mysterious club known as the52, who are revolutionizing an ancient art form under the mantra Magic Is Dead.

Ian brings us with him as he not only gets to know this fascinating world, but also becomes an integral part of it. We meet the52’s founding members—Laura London, Daniel Madison, and Chris Ramsay—and explore their personal demons, professional aspirations, and what drew them to their craft. We join them at private gatherings of the most extraordinary magicians working today, follow them to magic conventions in Las Vegas and England, and discover some of the best tricks of the trade. We also encounter David Blaine; hang out with Penn Jillette; meet Dynamo, the U.K.’s most famous magician; and go behind the scenes of a Netflix magic show. Magic Is Dead is also a chronicle of magic’s rich history and how it has changed in the internet age, as the young guns embrace social media and move away from the old-school take on the craft.

As he tells the story of the52, and his role as its most unlikely member, Ian reveals his own connection with trickery and deceit and how he first learned the elements that make magic work from his poker-playing mother. He recalls their adventures in card rooms and casinos after his father’s sudden death, and shares a touching moment that he had, as a working journalist, with his childhood idol Shaquille O’Neal.

“Magic—the romanticism of the inexplicable, the awe and admiration of the unexpected—is an underlying force in how we view the world and its myriad possibilities,” Ian writes. As his journey continues, Ian not only becomes a performer and creator of magic—even fooling the late Anthony Bourdain during a chance encounter—he also cements a new brotherhood, and begins to understand his relationship with his father, fifteen years after his death. Written with psychological acuity and a keen eye for detail, Magic Is Dead is an engrossing tale full of wonder and surprise. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that interested in this book. It was marketed *very* heavily to me on Amazon, which was a little off-putting, due to my purchase history of other magic books. The Amazon recommendation algorithm, combined with the publisher’s marketing push, didn’t really notice that magic history is more my thing. Plus, secrets in magic are sort of bullshit. The aura of secrecy is more important than actual secrecy. So, a super secret society of magicians really isn’t a selling point for me. But, it was available through the library, so I figured, “Okay, fine.”

What Worked
Actually, I’m glad I read it. I learned a lot about how the new generation of magicians are using social media. I knew that YouTube has been changing the way that younger magicians are learning magic. Instead of in-person pilgrimages to meet old masters, many performers are learning techniques from peers via online videos. And of course there is the argument that amateur learning from amateur doesn’t lead to excellence, but that’s not the entire story of what’s been going on in magic in the last decade. YouTube and Instagram are being used more as advertisement for products that these young magicians are creating. Instead of playing vaudeville circuits or being booked as a night club act, series of single trick videos have established these magicians’ brands.

With the title Magic is Dead, I expected a level of irreverence toward the older generations. That really isn’t the case. Performers like Chris Ramsay and Daniel Madison do respect where magic has come from even as they deviate from it. Frisch provides an occasional primer on magic history in the course of the narrative. For me, it wasn’t anything I didn’t know.

What Didn’t Work
Frisch is a journalist and his writing is pretty bare bones. He’s better at telling smaller stories than weaving them into a something longer. I also generally find memoirs by young people to be suspect. No matter how many improbable things might have happened in their relatively short lives, I feel like a good memoir should have a bigger scope. I expected there to be more of a twist or, in faux magic parlance, a turn to his inclusion in the52, but really this is Frisch’s story of finding a hobby, maybe a profession, maybe an art that has led him to some current truths.

But the one thing I really didn’t care for in Magic is Dead (and in Nate Staniforth’s Here Is Real Magic, which I read last year) is the air of self-importance that seems to surround many of the younger magicians. Frisch had been part of the magic scene for two years when he starts working on a trick with the intent to be impactful, not just to innovate, perform and market a trick.  Actually, if you’ll allow me my old curmudgeon hat for a moment, I think this is an aspect that many young people suffer from. Everything must be Special and Important. While most people might what to achieve something of that level, it’s very odd to me and a little distasteful to come out and state, “I’m going to be important in this field.”

Overall
As I said, I did find value in reading Magic is Dead. If you like modern magic, this is a decent read. Frisch does know his stuff. Below is the magic trick he created. I know I recently saw it performed by a different magician, but that’s Frisch’s intent. I also think this is a very talented lot; magic will and already has been impacted by the members of the52.

Original Publishing info: HarperCollins, 2019
My Copy: Kindle ebook, Greater Phoenix Digital Library
Genre: memoir

Sunday Salon, 7/14/19

Sunday Salon
Missed last week. Sometimes things just get out of hand…

Read & Reading

Since my last update, I finished Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin, which I reviewed on Thursday Saturday, and Magic is Dead by Ian Frisch, which I will review on this coming Thursday (maybe). I read Fevre Dream for the Book Junkies Trial, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to do too much more with that challenge. I have three library books and two ARC/review copies that I want/need to get to in the near future. (Plus I still haven’t finished my reread of PHYSIC.) I was considering “catching up” during the 24 in 48 readathon this coming weekend, but Eric and I have been called upon to do some unexpected cat-sitting, so I don’t know how things will go exactly.

This coming week  I’ll be reading:

The Violent Century Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar and Scripting Hitchcock by Walter Raubicheck & Walter Srebnick along with The Count Monte Cristo and short stories.

Deal Me In: Last Sunday I picked a two—a wild card—and picked a reread “Django” by Harlan Ellison from Shatterday. Each of the stories in Shatterday includes an introduction/origin story written by Ellison. He wrote “Django” while sitting in a bookstore window as a publicity stunt. He was utterly unsure whether the story was good, even after it had been accepted for publication. And that’s a sort of comforting thing for a writer—to know that even your heroes have moments of uncertainty. My DMI story for this week was fairly unremarkable.

DealMeIn
Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

Movie of the Week

Man, what a beautiful movie. Into the Spiderverse is sort of tertiary to the main Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’m glad of that. Honestly, I’m kind of tired of the long baroque, epic 22 movie story. (I still haven’t seen Endgame.) If you delve into super-hero comics, you quickly realize there are many iterations of characters and their stories. In fact, the only Spider-man comics I’ve read have been Brian Michael Bendis’ Miles Morales books, rather than the Peter Parker version.  Into the Spiderverse revels in the concept of multiple Spider-men, um, Spider-people and their worlds. The animation is incredible, though I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater. I think I would have been over-whelmed by the amount of stuff going on.

What Else is Going On?

Been playing quite a bit of EverQuest 2. The server Eric and I play on unlocked the Desert of Flames expansion, so we’ve been adventuring there. This is my main character Ressa Cheep overlooking one oasis of the Twin Tears.


The Sunday Salon is a linkup hosted by Deb @ Readerbuzz

Review ~ Fevre Dream

Cover via Goodreads

Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

When struggling riverboat captain Abner Marsh receives an offer of partnership from a wealthy aristocrat, he suspects something’s amiss. But when he meets the hauntingly pale, steely-eyed Joshua York, he is certain. For York doesn’t care that the icy winter of 1857 has wiped out all but one of Marsh’s dilapidated fleet. Nor does he care that he won’t earn back his investment in a decade. York has his own reasons for wanting to traverse the powerful Mississippi. And they are to be none of Marsh’s concern—no matter how bizarre, arbitrary, or capricious his actions may prove.

Marsh meant to turn down York’s offer. It was too full of secrets that spelled danger. But the promise of both gold and a grand new boat that could make history crushed his resolve—coupled with the terrible force of York’s mesmerizing gaze. Not until the maiden voyage of his new sidewheeler Fevre Dream would Marsh realize he had joined a mission both more sinister, and perhaps more noble, than his most fantastic nightmare…and mankind’s most impossible dream.

Here is the spellbinding tale of a vampire’s quest to unite his race with humanity, of a garrulous riverman’s dream of immortality, and of the undying legends of the steamboat era and a majestic, ancient river. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I had heard several times that George R. R. Martin’s vampire novel was quite good. The back cover blurb of my edition is a quote by Harlan Ellison.

In 1990 or so, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire showed up on my mom’s bookshelf via the Science Fiction Book of the Month Club. I have a feeling that it was a “forgot to turn it down” book because my mom didn’t (until then) read horror. We both read it and we both went a bit nuts for it and vampires. We read all of Anne Rice’s books, Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula books (and of course Dracula), just about everything Chelsea Quinn Yarbro wrote, Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt the Night, John Steakley’s Vampire$, and so many others. But George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream was no where to be found at our mall’s Walden Books or our public library.

What Worked
Martin does a good job putting a spin on vampire mythology and presenting a vampire who is trying to have a choice in his destiny without being utterly emo about it. Abner Marsh is our outsider-looking-in on this culture/species. He’s crusty and jaded and doesn’t ask too many questions, at least at first. It is his inevitable curiosity that causes him to ultimately care about Julian as well as Fevre Dream.

I really enjoyed the setting. Setting is one of those factors that can make or break a book for me. Reading this in 2019 means I’m experiencing it in the shadow of Interview of the Vampire with its wisteria-clad New Orleans. Fevre Dream is set somewhat in New Orleans, but more up and down the Mississippi River and especially on the riverboat itself. There is also a lot of talk about food. Abner March likes to eat. I can relate and I not-surprisingly appreciated all the food details.

I read part of this book in mass market paperback, but listened to most of it in audio book form. It was read Ron Donachie, who I wasn’t very familiar with, but has been in everything. He does a great job.

What Didn’t Work
There were a couple of really talky parts. I don’t believe that showing is always better than telling, but oof. Past the mid-point of the novel there is section where a good deal of time goes by. Between what Abner did during this time period and his subsequent catch-up with Joshua, there is a very large passage of summing up. I get that it’s necessary, but it’s kind of dry.

While I didn’t have a problem with this, readers might want to be aware that race is a bit of an issue and these are the 1850s. The N-word is used quite liberally, as certain characters would use it. Also, if you have any qualms about child-endangerment, one of the most graphic scenes includes a baby. I don’t dink Martin for this, but I understand that it’s a delicate point for many readers.

Overall
It had been a while since I’d read any vampire fiction. I’m glad Fevre Dream lived up to its reputation, and I should probably loan my mom the book.

Original Publishing info: Poseidon Press, 1982
My Copy: Mass market paperback (Pocket Books 1983), Book Mooch & Audio (Penguin Random House Audio 2012), Greater Phoenix Digital Library
Genre: horror

Sunday Salon, 6/30/19

Sunday Salon

Read & Reading

I was overcome by readathon insanity on Friday and signed up for the Book Junkie Trials. Yeah, this happens occasionally. So, I’ve pretty much doubled the number of books I was going to read in July. We’ll see how it goes. This week in addition to daily The Count of Monte Cristo and short stories, I’ll be reading Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin for the Book Junkie Trials and rereading PHYSIC by Eric Nabity.

Fevre Dream PHYSIC

Deal Me In: After a shuffle of the remaining half of my cards (almost), I pulled K which was assigned to “Don’t Look Behind You” by Fredric Brown. The narrator of the story begins by addressing the reader and telling the story which explains why he’s going to have to kill the reader. There is plenty of unbalanced in this story to make reading it a slightly uneasy experience. “But wherever you’re reading it, I’m near you, watching and waiting for you to finish. You can count on that.”

DealMeIn
Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

Movie of the Week

The only movie I watched this week was The Bourne Legacy. I made note on Twitter not long ago that by the metric of films I’ve rewatched many times and still find enjoyable, for me, this is one of the best movies of the 2010s. I think it got a bad rap for not being “Bourne” enough, but the plot was a nice sci-fi-ish expansion of that universe and I have a soft spot for both Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz.

What Else is Going On?

Writing: I’ve been going back and forth on what I want to work on and what I am motivated to work on. Considering I have a sale scheduled in early August for the first One Ahead book, I am going to polish up the second story and give it a cover. So, maybe by the beginning of August I’ll publish One Ahead: The Case of the Horrid Haunting. I believe I have a fairly solid, clean final draft.

A cool thing that happened last Monday: Literary Flits reviewed the anthology I edited of David P. Abbott’s Open Court articles. In a weird way, this easier for me to be happy about than if it had been about my own fiction.


The Sunday Salon is a linkup hosted by Deb @ Readerbuzz