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When I was back in high school, I had a personal motto: Weirdness is next Godliness. To me, experiencing the strangeness of the universe is what made life worth living. Well, at least in retrospect—who hasn’t had a frightening or disturbing experience whose value proved to be in the telling and not in the actual experience? While thrilling weirdness can be found in one’s back yard, the usual way one comes across it is by the ancient art of travel.

Atlas Obscura (Foer, Thuras, and Morton; Workman Publishing, 2016) is a guide to places offbeat, disturbing, even a bit dangerous, but intriguing and hopefully educational, especially for housebound (or cafébound) westerners chained to their lattés, laptops, and cell phones. It is not meant to be used as a travel guide—nothing about hotels, food, etc.—but as an adjunct to a travel guide—or, if you’re like me, jolly good entertainment. Reading it from front to back is pointless. Just pick up this tome, crack it open to any page, and read about, say, falconry in Abu Dhabi or a sacred crocodile pond in Ghana. If you’re not interested in what you see, keep flipping—I guarantee you’ll come across something that will pique your curiosity within seconds. (Neil Gaiman has not one but two cover quotes on it, so they also do a good job hyping it.)

This not a deeply moving book, but it’s also not a series of too-cute tourist come-ons, nor is it for “green” tourists especially. Some of the places are easy to reach, while others are nearly impossible. Some of the places house gruesome artifacts not recommended for the faint of heart. No doubt you will find many places that evoke the response, “No way in a thousand years I’d go there,” but you’ll still eagerly read the accompanying description and stare at the accompanying illustration or photograph.

Is it a contemporary update of Ripley’s Believe or Not? Yes, but these are all places one can actually travel to, not just fascinating facts or quirky people. I found myself rediscovering my ancient yearning to go to Iceland, for example, even if it is too cold and windy for my taste. Or, I can just imagine going there. The book helps with that.

Atlas Obscura is more than a book—it’s a website as well, http://www.atlasobscura.com. The site is well worth exploring. Like with Word-a-Day, you can sign up for a daily emails for a newsletter, travel ideas, foodie tips, and the like. I’m not sure I want even more stuff coming into my inbox, but it sounds like it might be fun. The website has all the travel-related stuff and more—a recent article, for example, examined all the ways that prehistoric animals have been incorrectly drawn by artists. Perfect bathroom reading material, except I don’t make a habit of sitting on the can with my laptop.

Although, that would be kind of weird.

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Anyone who’s ever been in a fiction critique group will probably run into questions. Some are just garden variety questions, but others poke and prod at the very center of your story—questions that make you want to scream at the idiots asking them because isn’t the answer, you know, obvious? Well no it’s not, and usually for good reasons.

No matter how irritating these questions may be, they usually will reveal themselves to be valuable to the writer. Garden variety types can often be resolved by a few tweaks here and there in the plot, or a bit of dialogue to reveal something the reader can use to realize some aspect of a character’s motives, for example. The other kind, the kind that gnaw at you, are more problematic. It could mean rewriting an entire chapter or more, throwing out thousands of words, some well-crafted and stylish. It could mean that you really don’t understand your main character, after all, so you spend hours contemplating motives and backstories that you thought were set in stone. Or it could mean that your story is actually working rather well.

How’s that?

I’ve noticed that one can divide readers into two basic camps. One camp likes everything tidy, plots to follow definable arcs, characters with relatable motives, an ending that lets the reader let out a sigh because everything has been satisfactorily completed with nothing left unresolved. For these readers plot twists are fine, but only if they make sense; quirky moods are fine, but only if they are integrated into plot and character. The idea of reading a murder mystery that goes unsolved at the end is abhorrent to them.

The other camp—and I’m guessing fewer readers are in this one—aren’t so picky. They don’t mind if a character goes missing with no explanation, or that the main character’s motives aren’t fully revealed. Sometimes a particularly poetic passage triggers something in their emotions that overrides the rest of the story’s flaws. Sometimes an unanswered question is what they find most interesting about the story in the first place.

Consider The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s famously creepy horror movie about birds that attack people for no apparent reason. What starts as a few isolated attacks escalates into larger, more furious ones, not just scaring people but threatening their lives. No explanation is ever given for this behavior, and the key question—Why are the birds doing this?—hangs over the story like a storm cloud.

For some moviegoers, the fact that the question never gets answered is a major disappointment. They might enjoy the buildup, the ratcheting up of suspense, but when the end doesn’t give them that definable “Aha!” moment, they grumble “I don’t get it,” and dismiss the story as incomplete. For other moviegoers, however, the unanswered question is the central element around which everything in the story revolves. They love the fact that it’s up to the viewers to supply their own ideas as to why the birds attack, and it’s fine if one admits that not even having an answer of one’s own makes the story more appealing.

So if the people reading your novel draft act puzzled and don’t understand why or how certain things occur in your story, take heart. It could be that you need to make your characters more believable and your plot better paced. Or it could be that you’ve stumbled onto something that will make your readers eager to read on and try to figure out what it all means.

Imagine, if you will, having an immortal lover who stays alive by vampirically possessing people and by so doing kills his current body, a game of infinite musical bodies. This lover wants to dominate you and use you to breed others like you, forcing you to mate with others as well as himself. You yourself are also immortal, but do it by constantly repairing your own body, a power that also allows you to shape-shift into any creature you choose. Your lover originally bought you as a slave and brought you to the New World, and though he opposes slavery for ordinary people he strives to make you and others like you a slave to his own wishes. What would you do?

This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Seed, the first novel in Olivia Butler’s Patternist saga. As an African American woman, she explored the social and political consequences of slavery—but from an imaginative perspective that melds dark folklore with the biological and psychological sciences. These are not the stereotypical vampire/werewolf stories that are making the rounds these days, but gritty stories of pain, betrayal, love, and hatred, that grow organically out of the fantastical elements she invented.

[slight spoiler ahead]

One sign of a powerful writer is the ability to take a monster and let the reader not only understand how that monster came to be, but to feel empathy for him. So it is with Doro, her perpetually killing male antagonist, who demands obedience and elicits fear from his subjects. Anwanyu, the story’s protagonist, simultaneously resists and relents, loves and hates, this monster. Her greatest power, though, is not biological regeneration so much as it is empathy, and when Doro finally comes to understand this, it is her greatest gift to him. I have not read any of the other books in the series, so I don’t know how long this gift lasts, or how Butler prolonged this epic entanglement over the centuries. But I suspect that both characters will undergo more change, as they illustrate an ironic truth about reality: A conscious identity can only be maintained over time by changing it.

Another element in this story that intrigued me is that both eternal characters not only change identities and bodies, they at times change their genders and sexual orientation. Thus Doro at times possesses a woman, and to accommodate him Anwanyu temporarily changes her body into that of a man so that they could mate. Doro takes this sexual flexibility even farther, though, by breeding couples who are biologically related in order to enhance the psychic powers of their offspring—a kind of incestuous exercise in eugenics. It reminds me of the ancient Greek myths, in which gods have sex with sister goddesses to procreate other gods and goddesses. Yet it also echoes the practices of slave owners, who treated slaves as reproducing chattel in their efforts to breed more slaves with qualities they deemed desireable.

Anwanyu sees all this—she’s old and wise, yet also young and beautiful—yet she loves having children, and mates with others other than Doro, with his blessing—and sometimes at his direction. While she resists breeding with her direct offspring, she comes to realize that, over the years, she has mated with her own progeny removed by many generations. Can you imagine if you had a lover and discovered that lover was one of your ancestors from long ago?

In sum, you can read this novel for many reasons. You may like its wildly imaginative fantasy premise. You may appreciate reading fiction about American slavery from a unique perspective. Or you may connect with complex characters that bend archetypes and force you to see them from different emotional perspectives. However you approach it, I recommend this story heartily, and only wish that Octavia Butler were still alive to talk about it. When she died in 2006, a marvelously talented writer left this world.

Growing up as an army brat in Germany, I had no TV to watch, so I came to rely heavily on comic books for entertainment. First Superman, then Batman and Robin, filled my reading hours and fired my imagination. As I grew older I gravitated more to books, and by the time Marvel Comics hit the scene I considered myself too mature for comic books. Although I had to admit, the graphics were cool. First Conan the Barbarian, then Thor, then The Silver Surfer, and finally Doctor Strange. All featured mind-bending graphics that broke out of the boxy style employed by DC Comics that made Superman in particular look old-fashioned. These were the 60s, baby, and Marvel played to the psychedelic audience.

Doctor Strange wasn’t the main star in the growing Marvel pantheon. Maybe he was too far out and not muscled up enough, or he was too intellectual. Who knows? But he was…strange. And for a teenager whose personal motto at the time was “Wierdliness is next to Godliness,” this character spoke to me. The whole world felt strange to me at times, and I in it, so yeah I liked Doctor Strange! Plus of all the Marvel comics, his stories had the trippiest, mythiest, wildest, most psychedelic arenas for a superhero to play in. I didn’t need drugs—all I had to do to immerse myself in that far-out land was to look at the pictures as Strange dealt with cosmic characters and mindscapes.

When Marvel started churning out all their action blockbusters, I basically yawned. Okay, except for Spiderman. But the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, even Thor…no thanks. Too many heroes, too many explosions, too many fistfights. My taste in movies had also changed. I still caught some interesting sci fi flicks now and then, but I preferred more literary tales, or fantasy with folk elements. Marvel felt more like a factory, and when that happens I tend to shy away.

But when they did Doctor Strange, something inside me felt that old urge, the urge to explore the wild places in the psyche, that sense of wonder and power I’d had as a teenager. Especially when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’d loved in The Imitation Game, had the lead role. So I decided to plunk down my eleven bucks and watch it.

[Spoilers ahead. If you want to call them spoilers…]

I can tell you the exact moment in the movie when I said “Yes! I’m in!” to myself and did a little fist pump. It was when Strange had just gotten into his sports car, left the city, and with a smile on his face cranked up his engine—just as—oh, yeah!—Pink Floyd’s song Interstellar Overdrive poured out of the speakers. Just sayin’, I was an early Pink Floyd adopter; after one listen to their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), from which this song was taken, I clutched them to my breast as brothers in weirdness. So when this song came on in the movie I felt an instant bond with Strange, and I knew I was going to like the ride.

(Yes, I know this was right before Strange foolishly ran his car off the road into a horrific accident that ruined his hands. But still. I knew this was just the setup for when he was going to transform his egocentric persona into something much more metaphysical and out there, just like old times.)

So, weirdness followed. And fabulous special effects. And Cumberbatch doing a great job showing the transformation of Strange into a sorcerer battling black magic. And yet he needed more than just a bunch of villains intent on destroying the Earth; he needed someone to push against him and guide him in his transformation. That person, The Ancient One, was a man in the comic books, but here a woman, played by Tilda Swinton. And this was an inspired choice indeed. Swinton’s character is part pixie, part sorcerer, clever and empathic—yet also mysterious, with hints of darkness. And a kickass magic martial artist, adept at using those sparkly spell things as defensive weapons as well as transport devices. Best of all, she looks great doing it—really, Strange never quite looks comfortable in combat, but The Ancient One glories in it. Strange has a girlfriend in his quotidian life as a surgeon, but his soul mate is truly The Ancient One.

So, the movie ended. With more movies to follow in the pipeline, of course. Don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing them, though; with a few exceptions, sequels aren’t my thing. And really, though this flick is entertaining and stimulating, it’s still just an action flick that employs the usual compendium of action flick tropes. But any movie with an ancient Pink Floyd song to kick me into overdrive has value that can’t be measured by tropes alone.


I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

Thoughts on The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls


If you’re a kid and love to feel squeamish about icky bugs, stinky messes, spooky dangerous houses, and evil magic, this first-time novel by Claire Legrand will be right up your creepy alley. Her main character Victoria, a 12-year-old perfectionist with a serious obsessive streak, has to survive a battle of fearful wits with a deranged witch who, unbeknownst to the clueless townsfolk where she lives, has indulged her sick desire to control people and kidnap their children from right under their noses. Along the way she grows close to her outsider friend Lawrence, nicknamed “Skunk” for a premature lock of gray hair atop his head. Appropriately weird cartoonish illustrations heighten the absurdity of it all.

What pulled me into the story is the main character, Victoria. She’s the kind of girl many of us would have hated: getting a B grade is enough to turn her into a pouting maniac, and she can’t help turning her nose up at everyone in her school. But Legrand does a great job of humorously showing her inner emotions and thought processes. Victoria is mirrored by her antagonist, the fearsome Mrs. Cavendish, in a way that feels believable and enhances the depth of her character.

[semi-spoiler in paragraph ahead]

Mrs. Cavendish is completely over the top, a contemporary take on the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’s beautiful yet ugly, compelling yet repulsive, and enslaved by her own warped wants. Where she gets her powers isn’t explained, but like many stories for children (admittedly, children mature enough to handle some pretty gruesome revelations) such explanations hardly matter. She is an eternal archetype, and while Victoria prevails here, the book’s ending leaves open Mrs. Cavendish’s return.

The critical questions I have for novels of this ilk are:

1) How well does the author make the transition from “normal” reality to that of the fantasy?

To her credit, Legrand doesn’t immediately plunge us into the world of the weird. She spends plenty of time establishing Victoria’s character, and setting the stage for the bizarre events to follow by more subtle clues: An icy coldness. Nasty classmates. And then finally, on page 35, she bumps into Mr. Alice (rhymes with “Malice”), the Home’s evil gardener, standing by the front gate of the property. When Mr. Alice says he “knows” Victoria, and that Mrs. Cavendish “makes a point of knowing all the children in the area,” you know you’re in for a scary ride.

2) Does the pace slacken in the middle?

I have to confess that, at times, the pace does slow down after she’s been trapped inside the home; especially when she re-experiences a number of ways the house changes shape a là Harry Potter, the story gets a bit repetitive. By the end, however, I was all in.

3) Does the author manage to put an interesting spin on tropes, such that they feel fresh rather than recycled?

Fantasy novels rely on tropes to set an emotional stage, and this one’s no different. This is the one area where Legrand falls a bit short. She especially overplays the “creepy smile” card, which is closely tied to the “everything’s perfect so shut up” card. Mrs. Cavendish herself is a bit of a stock villainess, and Victoria’s sidekick Lawrence is predictably sidekickish. The Home itself, while not a home to orphans, feels very Dickensian.

Nevertheless, Victoria is refreshingly funny and foible-enhanced enough to override all these concerns. Of course, if you’re a caregiver and your kids are prone to nightmares, you might leave this one on the shelf.