magic

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I was hesitant, at first, to review this book, so perhaps this really won’t be a review. This is a book that appears to have universal adulation (if the internet is to be believed) and I so wanted to like it too. It was witchy, magical, and fantastical, or so it claimed. It did have some of these elements but, sadly, it was truly terrible.

Print

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a bad book; I generally stick to the 50 page rule, but this one really did trick me. The first third is engaging: the plot flowed even with a few bumps and repetitiveness, but the language was compelling and the magic, so to speak, was enough to keep me there (also, after the sad failure of my attempt to watch that horrid SyFy show The Magicians, I was really hoping this book would do the trick to remedy my desire for something enjoyable and magical).

I am baffled by the praise here. Perhaps, the reviewers only read the first third and wisely didn’t finish. The beginning deals with the characters when they’re children and then at some point jumps ahead into adulthood: one is a apocalyptic-type of Silicon Valley engineer that in real life would make me roll my eyes so much they would fall down a sewer drain and the second, Patricia, who had real potential is a “feisty” witch who never is very interesting or magical as an adult….also, there’s something about her being able to understand birds (hence the title, but whatever, really).

The terrible two thirds are twisty and unpleasant. Too much is brought up and it is incredibly opaque. I have no problem with unlikable characters, but I absolutely didn’t care about them. I hoped they quickly perished in whatever future worldwide catastrophe was approaching; at least the book would be over sooner.

I stuck with it because the beginning was promising. It reminded me of the lightness of Neil Gaiman’s writing–as if the reader is in a strange fairy tale of the author’s own making. But All the Birds in the Sky is the biggest con of the publishing schedule for 2016. Avoid at all costs. There are too many books in this world to read. Good grief, was this awful. A huge question I kept wondering was did Charlie Janie Anders even have an editor? Was she just taking four different books she was thinking of and mash them together hoping the reader would be stupid enough to accept this? I have never felt so alone in my opinion (except when I switch over to the 1-3 star ratings on Goodreads).

If I wasn’t borrowing this from the library, I would have certainly chucked it out of a window no lower than the third floor of a building.

 

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold: A Long Cold Winter

This selection is an intriguing one: it comes courtesy of Serial Box, which appears to be a new publisher. With serial entertainment coming back into vogue–podcasts, television, documentaries–it seems a ripe time for traditional fiction publishing to hone in on the action.

witch who came in from the cold

Serial Box only provided an ARC of the first installment of the multi-part series, so I am of course only able to comment on episode one.

I was particularly taken with the premise–1970s Prague at the height of the Cold War and espionage, but to make it a whole new story, the spies are witches and sorcerers. Besides the synopsis, the idea of a serialized story told by a handful of different authors was also intriguing. (Also, for good measure, I’m a fan of Lindsay Smith’s short story Doppel, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago).

For a first installment, the story didn’t do enough to completely draw me in until the latter half. It was a bit muddled and I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again.

Too many characters were introduced and flung around, and the nary bit of witchcraft that the title alludes to is opaque at best. I was also disappointed with the fact that Prague, an excellent setting for such a story, was not really part of the narrative (beyond the fact that it certainly was a place filled with spies and dissidents post-WWII).

However, with all that said, the story did clear up in the final third of this initial episode and moved more clearly at its already breakneck speed. I wondered if it was a hard start out of the gate because it’s a story told by multiple authors who then will have to pass the story off to another. Is it that they stuffed too much in to their introductory bit because they wanted so much introduced to the reader so they would keep reading? I think so. But I think it backfired. I wish the publisher would have provided another episode or two, so I could properly envelop myself in the story and dig deeper into the review, because, even with my critique, I still think it has the capacity to be an entertaining tale.

I would certainly recommend having a gander at the first episode (especially, since Serial Box is offering it on their website for FREE or for your Kindle for 99 cents). I’ve been in a magical mood lately and I was hoping for a bit more from this; although, it might pick up as the series moves along. With the first installment, the story is a general one of spies, and the sprinkling of the fantastic is too limited. If you subscribed to the story through Serial Box’s website or app, there is an audiobook version that accompanies the text. Much to my dismay, however, if you download the free app, there is no immersion reading (meaning you can’t read the text with the audiobook narrating).

Another concern of mine is, since the story had a hard time hooking me, I am feeling less likely to pony up the pretty pennies for the remaining episodes, which are priced at $1.59-$1.99 through their website, including the audio. It is a bit of a bummer for readers who have Kindles, because Serial Box does not have a Kindle app, and the only way to download is to pay Amazon $1.99, minus the audio. I like Serial Box’s premise, but certain logistics still need finessing.

I don’t ever use star ratings, but since this text was a bit more difficult to review and I think I came across harsher than I intended, I hope the star system will help those on the fence.

3/5 stars

The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

“I have never seen a materialization or a manifestation which I cannot fully explain.” 

houdiniIn 1906, world-famous illusionist and stunt artist Harry Houdini published a collection of his essays on frauds, confidence tricksters, psychic charlatans, and other people of flimflammery. The purpose of his book was to enlighten the everyday reader to the various methods and cons that unsavory sorts all over the world commit easily and successfully.

The first half of the book, Houdini concerns himself with stage acts that are either real or bogus, as well as some advice to the youthful performer. He recounts instances where he saw the real deal, whether this was someone like himself who could escape from any pair of handcuffs or genuine sword swallowers who didn’t swap out real swords for fakes.

He then goes on to document various chicanery that readers should be alert to, whether this be currency forgers, scam artists, or pickpockets. Many of these confidence schemes are still relevant (Houdini documents a scam that sounds very similar to those Nigerian phishing emails).

Because the book is over 100 years old, some of the anecdotes and warnings feel dated, but Houdini is not only skilled as a performer but also as a wordsmith. He gives flare to sentences, which never feel technical or cumbersome. While describing a certain type of marine conwoman, Houdini writes,

Pirates in petticoats frequently ply their trade on ocean and lake steamers.

But even while writing about scams and sub-par illusionists, there are instances of performances I’ve never heard of before. At Oktoberfest, Houdini first witnesses frog swallowing, which he deems “very repulsive indeed.” While the entire book was a treat, the most enjoyable moments were in the second half when Houdini recounts specific scams and swindles giving each memorable titles (“The Aristocrat of Thievery,” “Humbugs,” “Fake! Fake! Fake!”). Such shakedowns include wagering on how much molasses can fit in to a stove-pipe hat to robbing a jewelry store by hiding a diamond in a wad of gum. Houdini even takes on himself and explains why he doesn’t fit into the mold of criminal or knave.

The edition I read was a recent release from Melville House, which included an introduction by Teller. You can also look at an original copy that has been digitized from the Harvard College Library. It shows the original illustrations.