Review ~ Curiosity

Cover via Goodreads

Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood

Philadelphia, PA, 1835. Rufus, a twelve-year-old chess prodigy, is recruited by a shady showman named Maelzel to secretly operate a mechanical chess player called the Turk. The Turk wows ticket-paying audience members and players, who do not realize that Rufus, the true chess master, is hidden inside the contraption. But Rufus’s job working the automaton must be kept secret, and he fears he may never be able to escape his unscrupulous master. And what has happened to the previous operators of the Turk, who seem to disappear as soon as Maelzel no longer needs them? Creeping suspense, plenty of mystery, and cameos from Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum mark Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
When I’m at the library, I do subject searches just to see what might come up. On this particular occasion, I searched for “mechanical Turk.” The mechanical Turk and automata in general are something I’ve been interested in since reading about Joseffy’s mechanical creations. Anyway, the search lead to my finding Curiosity, a historical fiction about the Turk. I was game…even if it was middle grade fiction.

What Didn’t Work
What didn’t work for me is the usual stuff that doesn’t work for me when I’m reading fiction aimed at young people. There is often a lack of depth to the plot and themes. The clean-slate “Who am I in this world?” questions don’t generally hold my interest.

What Worked
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed Curiosity because it was very well done. There are other plot devices in this story that sometimes go awry, but Blackwood uses them with such a light touch.

Rufus is a chess prodigy.  Sometimes I find the kid genius trope hard to swallow because it ends up being a child with a whole suite of specialized skills. Being really good at one thing at a young age (like chess or a musical instrument) is a lot easier for me to believe than being something like a child assassin, which would involve talent and training in many different areas. Rufus’s skills are pretty limited to chess. At all other things, he’s pretty much just a twelve year-old.

I also didn’t realize when I picked up this book that Edgar Allan Poe would have as large of a part in the narrative. If I had, it might have been the thing to make me leave it on the shelf. After reading a few books involving fictional Poes, I decided that they were not a good idea for me. Poe for me is something of a sacred cow: I’m going to get grumpy when an author’s idea of Poe doesn’t match my idea of Poe. Again, Blackwood surprised me with a really good rendering of a slightly obsessed Poe.

The history? Also solid. Sure, there is some literary license taken, but the Turk is done right and I can see Maelzel being villainous.

Overall
This was another perfect read for the Readathon. Great pacing and setting, decent mystery, believable young character.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: historical fiction

Spring into Horror Wrap-Up and Mini-Reviews

Wrap-Up

Never got into a good reading groove last week. Maybe it was starting out with a DNF, maybe it was trying to push through an anthology, maybe it was starting a new writing project. I don’t know. I bounced from book to book; nothing ever sat particularly well with me. Read 359 pages, about twice as many as I might have read otherwise.

Mini-Reviews

First a mention: I read part of Pandemonium: Further Explorations into the World of Clive Barker. It consisted mostly of interviews with Barker, an author I’ve read a little of and know even less about. The timing of the book puts it after Nightbreed came out. Nightbreed is a movie that everyone wishes was better than it is and Barker alludes to his dissatisfaction.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.Mini-Review: “The Man in the Woods” by Shirley Jackson

A week ago, The New Yorker magazine printed a previously unpublished story by Shirley Jackson. “The Man in the Woods” is unsettling. Jackson always presents a world that is askew of our own. Her stories *could* be, but we hope they aren’t. This story has a fairy tale tinge to it. The action takes place in a house in the woods, and our main character Christopher is  a student who decided to wander rather than study. He is strangely afraid when confronted with books of history shown to him by the inhabitants of the house. That fear of knowledge struck me as the most interesting aspect of the story.

Mini-Review: Abracadanger by Tracey West

While wandering the shelves, both physical and virtual, trying to find a book to amuse me, I ended up doing a horror/magic search at Open Library. Abracadanger caught my attention by being a choose-your-own-adventure, a style of book that I enjoyed in my youth. This one was fun, filled with giant rabbits, mad scientists, and the ghost of Dr. Presto. My only beef with it is that, while obviously written for a fairly young audience, the writing itself could have been better.

Rewind ~ The Rope Trick

Rewind2

The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander

Cover via Goodreads

Lidi is a brilliant magician, able to perform all manner of astonishing illusions. But one trick eludes her, the greatest in the world: the rope trick. And only one person can teach it to her: the legendary magician Ferramondo. On her quest to find him, she joins up with Daniella, an orphan with true prophetic powers; a handsome outlaw with a price on his head; and a circus owner with a troupe of dancing pigs. But when Daniella is kidnapped by men who want to use her gift for their own ends, Lidi must abandon her quest and summon all of her resources and magic-working to save herself. (via Goodreads)

Original review of The Rope Trick, newly imported from my LJ to The Writerly Reader (12/29/2007):

I nabbed this book via PaperbackSwap. I was interested in what Lloyd Alexander could do with a female protagonist after reading pieces of his more “boy-oriented” Pyrdain and Westmark series. What I got was a hardback in near perfect condition and really lovely tale. There are maybe one too many narrative coincidences, maybe one too many tales told by one character about other characters, but I forgive that, as I often do with this kind of book. None of the characters are particularly detailed, but our protagonist, Lidi, is determined and a little stubborn, and there’s enough romance that, well, *I* would have liked it as 10 year old.

Double Review ~ The Houdini Box & Now You See It

The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick

Cover via Goodreads

Victor is forever trying to escape from locked trunks, walk through walls, and perform any number of Houdini’s astonishing magic tricks…without success. Then — amazingly — he actually meets his idol, and begs Houdini to explain himself. A mysterious locked box is the magician’s only answer, and Victor is left to wonder: Does the box contain the secrets to the most famous magic tricks ever performed? (via Goodreads)

Brian Selznick made me cry over my least favorite magician.*

This is the first Brian Selznick book I’ve read. I’ve been strongly encouraged to read Hugo and I will. I will! I swear! I came across The Houdini Box at Open Library and figured I’d give it a no-risk try.

It’s a lovely little book. It’s for kids, but there’s a little something for adults in it as well as a grown up Victor remembers to enjoy the things he did as a child. The illustrations are evocative and humorous. There is obvious love for the subject matter, everything is tinged with just a little bit of fantasy. Maybe I’ll buy this for one of my nephews for Christmas sometime, if they take any inclination toward magic.

* (How can Houdini be my least favorite magician? Strangely, I’ve never been much of a fan. I appreciate his talent, as an escape artist and more so as a self publicist, but there might be two reasons for my…dislike is too strong a word. “Least favorite” is probably too strong too. Let me put it this way: If I were making a list of my top twenty magicians, Houdini would be #20, but he’d never get knocked out of the twentieth spot.

First, I don’t care much for magic that is trumped up as being dangerous. I know that, generally, it’s not. If a magician says, “I’m going to do this very dangerous trick; I could die during it.” The focus is not on the trick, it’s the potential fatality. If a magician let’s me sketch in the amount of danger he or she may be in, just the facts, I’ll probably believe myself more.

Second, I recently realized that I have this awkwardness about Houdini. It comes from, I think, the fact that the initial photos that I saw of Harry Houdini, probably from a fairly general book on magic history written for 8-year-olds, are of him undressed and in chains. I’m not a prude, but it didn’t seem that, as a kid, I should be taking interest in an undressed man in chains! Deep seated, totally irrational; I like Houdini more now that I’ve gotten that out of the way.)

Genre: KitLit
Why did I choose to read this book? It was short, it was free, I hadn’t read any Brian Selznick.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Craft Lessons: Take a little license sometimes, when it makes the story better.
Format: Online browser-based scan.
Procurement: Open Library

Now You See It . . . by Richard Matheson

Cover via Goodreads

Maximillian Delacorte was once the world’s greatest stage magician. Now a recluse, suffering from a mysterious disease, he lures his family and associates to his lonely estate for an afternoon of magic, madness, and revenge. Bodies appear and disappear without warning, severed heads speak words of hate, and nothing is ever quite what it appears. As grisly tricks lead to ever more surprising twists, not even the Great Delacorte can tell where illusion ends—and murder begins. (via Goodreads)

Hadn’t realized that this was an Open Library book too. Obviously, I’m availing myself of the service.

I’ve been looking around for other magician novel and I was surprised to find that Richard Matheson had written one. Further, I was intrigued by his concept of a magician’s mystery house–a home, literally, tricked out with secret passages, hidden rooms, and other setups for illusions. I realized that, from my Scooby Doo watching days onward, I’ve unabashedly loved this kind of thing.

Being pretty much a “one-set,” this novel would have made a great William Castle film. It has all the over-the-top ghoulishness and back-stabbing reversals of something like The House on Haunted Hill. Unfortunately, I found the ending really weak. It’s a rather short novel, and it felt like Matheson was under a page count crunch. I wish there had been another fifty pages and a proper ending.

Genre: Mystery
Why did I choose to read this book? Intrigued by a Matheson magician mystery.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Craft Lessons: Don’t rush your endings.
Format: Online browser-based scan.
Procurement: Open Library

Book #21

Odd and the Frost Giants by by Neil Gaiman (Goodreads Author), Mark Buckingham (Illustrator)

A kid’s book, but a fun read. I found it witty enough and a nice nod to Norse mythology in its tone. From what I know about Norse mythology, which admittedly isn’t much currently.

I do know one thing: Loki *always* steals the show.

Not sure if the Kindle version (read via the Cloud app) did justice to the illustrations.

Gaiman’s next five books were announced last week and an Odd sequel was among them. It’s nice to know there’s some enchanting children’s fiction in existence and in the works. Now, if I could just find more adult versions…

Format: Kindle Cloud
Procurement: Greater Phoenix Digital Library

Book #15

Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate by Lesley M. M. Blume, David Foote (Illustrator)

This was an impulse check-out. I saw it while I was browsing for fairy tales and said, “Why not?” Children’s books can be clever and entertaining. I’m still kicking myself for never reading any Roald Dahl or Lloyd Alexander as a kid. Unfortunately, this book annoyed and disappointed me.

Modern Fairies, etc. has two components. Warnings and information on fairies in the modern world, specifically the fairies of New York City, and didactic tales featuring children that know no better than to deal with the fae. The annoying part was the nature myth aspect of most of this book. Too many times the warnings or tales passed off fairies, etc. as the reason for natural occurrences. Now, even if I put aside my skepticism (this is of course a work of fiction), I still don’t know why so many of the tales involve nature after spending effort on trying to be set in current day NYC. This book is not what it claims to be, really. Or, at least, not what I thought it could be–a light kid’s book about truly urban fairies. That was disappointing.

The warnings weren’t too bad. In fact, occasionally Blume’s writing is really lovely. The tales were pretty unremarkable. They weren’t quite witty or ridiculous  enough. In structure, it felt like a handful of short stories with some filler in between, with the filler being the better ingredient. I will give the book props for not presenting these fae as sparkly Disney tinker-bells. They’re generally untrustworthy and often ugly.

Format: Kindle Cloud Reader
Procurement: Greater Phoenix Digital Library

Books #11 & #12

I ended up perusing the Greater Phoenix Digital Library on Wednesday and checked out a few books. (What, I was supposed to keep to a list?) Since the data drive on this computer is horked up and, therefore, Adobe Digital Editions is more arduous than normal, I read these books on Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader app on my PC. I still don’t know what Amazon has against page numbers, but otherwise the formatting was good.

The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

After The Two Sams, I was still in the mood for ghost stories. The Woman in Black ended up being much different than I expected. For some reason, I was expecting it to be more romantic. It is, in fact, a straight-up old-fashioned ghost story. And if it was the first ghost story I had ever read, I’d have a higher opinion of it. It is derivative and meant to be so. Hill opts for the gothic novel contrivance of a framing narrator/story, though I’m not sure it’s particularly necessary. The storytelling is methodical and detailed. Maybe even a little slow. Don’t get me wrong; I like these sorts of novels. I wrote one, in fact! It wasn’t the perfect read on the heels of Hirshberg’s more visceral style, but it wasn’t a hardship to read either.

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this one either. I had seen the trailer for the movie and heard Mark Kermode reviewing it, but otherwise, I didn’t know too much about the book itself. I was under the impression the it was a kids book along the lines of The Name of this Book is a Secret. While I haven’t read that book, I’m sure it’s not as dark or bawdy (or salty, if you will) as The Pirates! It does seem to have a similar brand of absurd silliness. I don’t mind absurd or silly, but there has to be a dollop of clever as well. The Pirates! didn’t have enough clever in my opinion. Or, I just might be a grump…