Aenya Newsletter 5/31/2017

Greetings Aenya fans! First, let me apologize for my long absence. For the past few months, I have been working diligently at completing the final, final (hopefully) edit of Ages of Aenya, with the help of my brilliant and insightful editor, Ava Coibion. Honestly, I won’t be changing another word unless a publisher insists upon it.

Overall, Ava’s enthusiasm has greatly stirred my long dormant feelings for the story and its characters, to see the adventures of Xandr and Thelana with fresh, new eyes. More importantly, she has helped me realize that the book is really up to par, that it deserves its place on every bookstore shelf.

After going through all 170,000 words, Ava forwarded Ages of Aenya to a well-known fantasy author (as in, his books frequent Barnes & Nobles top shelves). While I cannot yet divulge his name, here is what she wrote,

 

The novel is titled “Ages of Aenya” and includes elements of time travel, utopian societies vs. warring ones, mythical creatures and history, good against greed, civilizations gone awry, prophecy … Two of the main characters come from a now-extinct woodland society where they lived harmoniously and innocently and now the couple has to face all kinds of peril. They grow together as a couple though their relationship gets challenged in some unique ways. Nature and science figure in to the text really nicely … the book, overall, is really well balanced. Much like your Alice series, this book has the emotional range that a lot of fantasy/sci-fi does not. I edit a lot of stuff, and this book really had me hooked.

 

Ava and I are hoping for his help, because in the publishing world, the name of the game is knowing the right people. At the very least, he can shoot me a blurb to slap on the back cover.

Either way, I am more confident than ever that the Aenya series can find an audience, and that’s what the book business is all about. It’s not about satisfying every reader, but a sizable number who will find what I do enjoyable. I am sure many will think it garbage, but just visit Amazon’s comment section and you’ll find people who think Harry Potter is utter trash, and Song of Ice and Fire is boring, or that The Lord of the Rings is poorly written. It’s not the haters that matter, but the lovers that make sales, and the job of the successful writer is to find those lovers.

Should Ava’s author friend choose not to endorse me, you (dear reader) will still be seeing Ages of Aenya in your hands, hopefully before the end of this year, as I will be continuing my original plan to self-publish. I am only holding off on it at Ava’s request, who feels the book is sure to win over agents. But if I do end up going the original route, I feel far better about it, as the online world has changed significantly since 2004. Thanks to the web, entertainment media is becoming more and more independent. YouTube stars make as much, if not more money than people on TV, with production quality that is often superior. Kickstarter offers a flood of new, independent board games, which are more fun to play than anything at Toys-R-Us or at hobby stores (Cards Against Humanity, anyone)? And the three biggest console giants, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, have all embraced independent gaming. It all points to the death of the old age stigma, that if something doesn’t come from a big name company, it must be worthless.

On the fictional front, going over the novel has helped me realize the potential for an Ages of Aenya sequel. This is something I have been sitting on since 2006, because I could not be certain anyone would ever get their hands on the first in the series. I was also reluctant, because of the excessive nudity in the book. I wasn’t sure the world was ready for all-nude heroes, and in retrospect, I feel that Xandr and Thelana, in 2004, may have been too ahead of their time. The world looks quite different now. Today we have shows like Naked & Afraid and Naked Dating; and HBO’s Westworld features so much casual nudity, an Ages of Aenya mini-series seems well within the realm of possibility. Even celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian and Orlando Bloom can post full-frontal selfies on social media without scandal.

Perhaps more importantly, naturism is slowly growing synonymous with feminism. Emma Watson vehemently defended her feminist cred after posing for a magazine where part of her boob is showing, stating, “What do my boobs have to do with feminism?” and Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman, argued in favor of the first cinematic female superhero’s choice of thigh-revealing attire.

emma-watson-tim-walker-march-2017-ss09_59566016-800x800

OK, maybe I dwell too much on what my heroes are wearing. Either way, Ava didn’t find Thelana offensive at all, and that’s encouraging, as the Ilmar, in true naturist fashion, choose to forgo clothing for the entirety of the novel. The working title is, The Naked Gods, and will feature heavily revised scenes from both The Skyclad Warriors and The City of the Drowned.

Thelana 2016 by Lipatov

Thelana: Your Time Has Come

Finally, I have not forgotten my other big project, The Children of Aenya, or Lilliea’s and Rose’ Adventures through the Hub of All Worlds. It’s going to be a fun adventure story for a wider age group, something both my kids and long time readers can enjoy. Of course, I cannot devote the next two years to writing without exploring the themes I feel most passionate about. In this case, I will be exploring the sense of wonder that comes with childhood, how that shapes and motivates our lives. I will also be dwelling on belief, imagination and fact, and the interplay between them. Or in other words, between magic and science, and how they differ with regards to our perceptions. I think this may be of particular significance given our current political climate, as the very idea of truth seems to be under attack. Sounds like heady stuff, I know, but there’ll be no shortage of crazy monsters, jaw-dropping locales, and of course, characters you will want to call your friends.

 

Trump is a fictional character

donald-trump-election-caricatures-5824634f342d9__700“The Editor-in-Chief will see you now, Mr. Hovah.”

Jay straightened in his chair and got to his feet. He could feel the surge of excitement, tingling his extremities, energizing his limbs. Finally!

The receptionist with the short brown hair and spectacles ushered him through the hall to the editor’s office. In gold leaf lettering, a glass panel read, Jorge Orwell. RealWorld Publishing. It was mid-afternoon, and Jay could see the sun poking through the blinds, striping the back wall with shadows. Jorge was unexpectedly good-looking for a man in his fifties, with a fashion sense straight out of Mad Men. Jay expected a halo of cigarette smoke and a glass of scotch, but there was only his manuscript. The sight of his writing, in the hands of the editor-in-chief, made him feel like he was tightrope walking across the grand canyon.

“Mr. Hovah. Please sit down.”

Jay didn’t feel like sitting, but did so anyway. “Thank you for me seeing me.”

“Yes, well,” he answered, looking over the manuscript once more, to be certain. “Mr. Jay Hovah. Can I call you Jay?”

“Sure.”

“We like your book.”

Jay felt like a trapdoor had dropped from under him. Everything he had planned to say—every prepared answer for every imaginable question—flew from his mind. “Really?”

“This is certainly the kind of work we like to publish here at RealWorld. Tom Clancy. John Grisham. Political stuff. Big sellers. Your book reminds me a lot of the Manchurian Candidate. Have you read that?”

“No sir, I haven’t.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. We didn’t publish it.” He chuckled softly to himself. “But we do have some issues to work out.”

A sick feeling came over him. He expected something like this would happen, that they would want to mess with his work, his baby, what he’d sweated over for ten years. But Jay could only sit and smile, like an idiot waiting for his girlfriend to say ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal.

“Don’t get me wrong, we love the concept. This Trump character, really great stuff, really interesting.”

“So, what’s wrong with it?” Jay managed.

“Nothing too hard to fix, really. We see this a lot with first-time authors. You’re trying to write too many books at once.”

“I don’t—I don’t understand.”

Jorge leaned in his chair, picked up the ring-binder containing Jay’s life work, and dropped it again. “Let me get straight to it. You’re writing a book about a terrible president. Great. But, this Trump character, in one chapter you have him groping women, grabbing them by their, um, private areas, without consent. He’s very crude. Sexist. Reminds me of that book about President Clinton. Have you read that?”

“Not really. No.”

“Well, anyway, the Clinton book sold millions.”

“Are you saying it isn’t original?”

“Nobody in the business cares about what’s original. Have you counted the vampire novels lately?” He waved the idea away. “No, the problem is you’ve given your antagonist too many flaws.”

“Are you saying Trump’s unrealistic?”

“I am saying it beggars credibility. You can have a novel about a sexist president who assaults women, or a racist president who is supported by the KKK and puts white supremacists in his cabinet, or you can have a president in the pocket of the coal industry who cuts environmental regulations . . .”

“I still don’t see—”

Jorge touched his fingers together, and took in a deep breath. “Is there anything good about Trump?”

Jay found that an odd question. He paused for a moment to think, answering finally, “Not really. No.”

“Can’t you see how that’s a problem? You’ve made Trump a narcissist who only talks about himself. A billionaire who cheats his workers and is continually filing for bankruptcy, but is somehow still a billionaire. He has no personality. No charisma. He’s also an idiot. Who’s going to vote for the guy?”

Jay started to feel small, and embarrassed. Whatever elation he had felt coming into the publishing house was turning into despair. Still, he tried to defend what he had spent a decade writing. “Racists. A lot of racists voted for him.”

“But how many racists are there in America? And what about women? Half the country are women. That’s half the vote right there.”

“Oh, well, a lot of women voted for him too, I guess.”

Jorge sighed. “OK. Look at the Clinton book. That president was good looking, charming, spoke eloquently and—here’s the important part—his affair with Monica didn’t happen until after he became president.”

“So what you’re saying is, people shouldn’t find out how bad Trump is until after the election?”

“Well, you could at least leave out some of the details. And give him some good qualities. Make him attractive. Or a clever speaker. A fat guy in his sixties with a bad comb over becomes president? And he tweets insults at celebrities late at night? No way that’s happening in the real world.”

“He’s seventy, actually, and I did leave out the stuff about Russia.”

“Right. That’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about. You’ve written a book about a sexist, racist, idiot, who is secretly working with Russia to subvert the government, and who, somehow, is elected president. Is there anything you’ve left out? Maybe you could make him mean to puppies. Or a cannibal.”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“Mr. Hovah, I was joking.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“All I am saying is, pick a plot and stick with it. This Trump character, he’s not believable. He’s a a comic book villain, a two-dimensional caricature, every American’s worst fears rolled into one. A believable hero has flaws, things that make them relatable, and for a villain to be believable, you’ve got to do the opposite. Nobody can be all bad.”

“Trump is all bad,” Jay said quietly.

“That’s not good writing.”

“So, does that mean you’re not going to publish my book?”

“Here’s what I am going to do, Mr Hovah. I’ll have some of my interns get in touch with you, after they write up some suggestions, and you can decide whether you want to implement the changes. Sound fair?”

Jay felt a mixture of hope and despair churning in his stomach. Did he really want to cut so much out of his book? Choosing between plot threads was like picking which limbs he’d like to keep. “Thank you, Mr. Orwell. I’ll definitely consider it.” Finding the strength to stand, he started for the door.

“Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Hovah. About the name. Trump. Really?”

Jay felt a tinge of irritation. What was it now?

“Was Victor Von Doom taken? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound rude. But, well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word trump as to invent a false accusation or excuse. I looked it up just before you came in. It’s a clever play on words, I’ll grant you, but we don’t do that here. At RealWorld, we’re looking for credible, not clever. Consider changing it.” 

 

It Can Happen Here 2: “The Plot Against America”

md8057491406TRUMP SUPPORTER: “What’s that you’re reading?”

ME: “Oh, it’s a book about Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency.”

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “I remember that.”

ME: “What?”

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “I learned about that in school.”

ME: “Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly a plane over the Atlantic, from New York to Paris.”

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “Right. And then he became president.”

ME: <<rolls eyes>>

It should not surprise me that Trump people don’t know their history. If they did, they would never have voted for a fascist. In our universe, of course, Lindbergh never ran for office, and Roosevelt went on to win an unprecedented third term in office, wherein he lead the United States into World War II. It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of the past, to imagine a government full of wise, determined men like Roosevelt, who, with little opposition from the American people, bravely charge into Europe to save the day. History is murky, however, and the history of politics even murkier. While it may seem a no-brainer that America should have joined the war effort, in the 1940’s, there was considerable contention over the matter. Republicans, namely, felt the need to “put America first,” and not get involved. Sure, Hitler may have been massacring Syrians Jews by the millions, but that wasn’t America’s problem. We had our own economic depression to worry about. But thanks to the charismatic leadership and foresight of FDR, the isolationist America First-crowd lost the argument, and the world as we know it is free from the grip of fascism (at least so far). What Roosevelt understood, even back in 1940, was that the world’s problems eventually become our problems. It isn’t only unethical to ignore the plight of nations, but downright dangerous to our security.

 

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At least Lindbergh was a looker! And he could fly a plane!

 

This is the crux of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, wherein Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in his third run for president, leaving America deaf to the genocide across the Atlantic. In both reality and in the novel, Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. The result of his presidency was to delay America’s insurgency in World War II, as Lindbergh and Hitler agree to a treaty of non-engagement, leaving the Nazi blitzkrieg to steamroll over Europe and into Russia with only Great Britain to contest them. Aside from the odious politic of non-intervention, what I found most timely and disturbing is how accurately the book mirrors current events. If I did not know better, I could accuse Roth of blatantly ripping the plot of his book from today’s headlines. Here’s just a few of the similarities between Lindbergh’s and Trump’s presidencies:

 

  1. Before his election, Lindbergh is demonized for his racist comments.
  2. As a non-politician, Lindbergh becomes the surprise Republican nominee, winning against great odds and considerable controversy.
  3. Lindbergh is said to speak off the cuff, without prepared notes, telling it “like it is.”
  4. Lindbergh runs his campaign his own way, frustrating Republican leaders.
  5. Lindberg runs on a platform of putting “America First.”
  6. Lindbergh loses in the polls, but wins the presidency anyway, to the shock and consternation of many, against a popular career politician and Democrat.
  7. After Lindbergh is sworn in as president, he tones down much of his racist rhetoric.
  8. Lindbergh is said to admire a foreign power (Hitler) and is accused of having secret ties with Germany.
  9. Lindbergh is repeatedly accused of being a fascist.
  10. Lindbergh’s followers belong to white supremacist groups. They commit acts of violence against Jews, destroying businesses and synagogues.
  11. Lindbergh stifles the free press. Those in the media who speak against him lose their jobs.

 

Did I mention the book was written in 2004? Which begs the question: Is Philip Roth a time traveler? Or does he simply understand that people are predictable in their hatreds and prejudices, and that such happenings (albeit with eerie specificity) are simply inevitable?

While political in theme, The Plot Against America is far from a political treatise. Roth does not seek to find or give answers here. Instead, he examines fascist America from an intimate perspective, the story unfolding through the eyes of a young Philip Roth in a kind of pseudo-autobiography, wherein the author imagines the childhood he might have had—had Lindbergh won the presidency in 1940. This unique approach helped lend credibility to Roth’s reimagining of the past, and I do not doubt that anyone reading this book, ignorant to history, might take it for one. Roth conjures real world people, places and events, tweaking them just enough to service the story.

It doesn’t happen right away, of course. But ever so gradually, the rights ensconced by the Constitution are eroded away. And as always, it is the minorities, the immigrants, the others who are made to fear, and ultimately, to suffer. What I found particularly poignant was the way in which the author portrays America. Through the lens of his Jewish heritage, he paints two contrasting pictures. We are a nation of promise, where differing ethnicities, races, and religions find acceptance and equality. The other, more sinister portrait, is the hidden face of America, with its undercurrent of prejudice waiting to burst at the emergence of a demagogue—someone to push into the fore the undying resolve that the only true American is white and Christian.

I had planned to review this book in the usual way, critiquing for style and content, and if you are questioning whether you should pick up this book, I will only say that Roth’s style can be off-putting, at first. He leans toward page-long run-ons and has a tendency to trail into wild tangents. But when I consider the importance and, dare I say, necessity of this book, especially now, these seem like minor quibbles. The Plot Against America is a warning against fascism and the politics of hate. I found myself reading ahead just to see how everything was going to turn out, as if it was a book of prophecy, with a chance to quell my fear of the next four years.

How tenuous is our democracy, really? Can the Founding Fathers’ checks and balances endure the onslaught of a tyrant bent on dismantling them? A man who runs on a platform of discrimination? Who challenges the right of the courts? Who demonizes the Free Press? Who puts America first at the expense of the world?

 

kkk-america-first

This has happened before.

 

Without giving too much away, I found Roth, ultimately, to be an optimist, and his love for America all the more genuine in that it stems from his Jewish roots. Only here, in this country, could his people have found a respite from the hatred that has dogged them for millennia. America is defined by its inclusiveness. It is a promise, and owing to this promise, people have chosen to live here from all over the globe. But that promise has never come without challenges. In The Plot Against America, it is Lindbergh against the Jews. Today, in the story that is our lives, Trump is the villain, and Muslims and Mexicans the protagonists. But what kind of a story are we living in? A tragedy? A triumph? A cautionary tale? Only the ending can tell us, can give answer to the question—will the promise of America endure?

2016 is Over (Finally) Year in Review

As of this writing, most of humanity is still alive. But there’s still time. So far, we’ve lost Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds (her mother), George Michael, Watership Down author Richard Adams, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dad. Proving we are all living in a computer simulation, or as I prefer to think of it, in some author’s imagination, George Michael dies on Christmas Day, and is known for the song, “Last Christmas.” Fisher played Princess Leia, a character whose mother, Padme Amidala, dies of a broken heart, then Fisher’s actual mother, Debbie Reynolds, goes and dies of a broken heart. If that’s not proof enough, our government is hijacked by a KKK-approved fascist propped up by a Russian dictator (yes, I went there, fuck you) closely imitating Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. At this point, we’ll be seeing Game of Thrones-style dragons in 2017.

But there’s also been a lot of good this year. I finished The Princess of Aenya, found a fantastic editor for my first Aenya book, and a new artist for the cover of said book. So, if Trump doesn’t trigger the Apocalypse, we should be seeing Ages of Aenya on sale sometime next year. Or, if he does, maybe the adventures of the Ilmar will provide comfort to those hunkering down in their bomb shelters without electricity. With electricity, well … who the hell wants to read when there’s PS4?

As for The Writer’s Disease, I feel this blog has begun to run its course. Most of what I have wanted to say, about writing, fiction, naturism, religion—has been said. I could go on, of course, into the never ending minutia of literary analysis, review another million authors, continue to share my radical views on naturism. But the thing is, I’ve never wanted to be a blogger. To run a successful blog, you have to focus on something. Video game blogs, movie blogs, naturist blogs, all see more traffic than mine. When I wrote Why Don’t We Live in a Perfect (Nude) World, it was shared 4,500 times on Facebook. I was invited to write for a naturist related magazine and a newspaper. My reaction? I quit writing about naturism.

All that has ever really mattered to me is storytelling. I’d rather be the late-great but lesser known Richard Adams than a YouTube star with a million followers. I’d rather pull the heartstrings of a single reader in earnest than lure thousands with some click-bait bullshit. And to that end, blogging is a dead-end. My time is better spent in fiction. Alas, writing is a lonely endeavor, and I must learn to embrace solitude.

This doesn’t mean I am quitting altogether. Every now and then, a topic will come along to compel me onto my soapbox. The free will debate is a recent example. But you won’t be seeing weekly updates when there are adventures to be told. Without doubt, you will also be receiving updates on The Children of Aenya.

Now, without further ado, here are my favorites from 2016:

 

The Fantasy Writer’s Dictionary: Too often, when you’re reading a book like Game of Thrones, you come across a word like wain or postern that simply doesn’t register. To give an impression of historicity, fantasy authors lean on archaic nouns and verbs, many excised from the OED. So I made this resource. Best part is, it’s a living post, to be updated as terms I don’t know cross my eyeballs.

The Nomad: A Love Story DLC: Dynotus wanders twenty years in the desert in search of his abducted fiancee. This is one of my earliest novels, from when I was in high school, a romance adventure set in a mythological world. Download it here for free in PDF.

The Destructive Power of Ego: If you want to succeed in writing and in life, it’s best to set ego aside. I discuss my struggles with self, with regards to my own person and those I have worked with.

The Princess of Aenya: This year saw the completion of my latest work. Here I offer the prologue and sample chapters.

The Aenya Bestiary: Updated to include the avian race, with new artwork!

DMT and D&D: I talk about drugs, tabletop role playing games, and the power of the human mind. What more do you need to know?

The Death of Truth: We seem to be living in a post-truth world. A gross number of people are no longer concerned with what is actually, demonstrably true, choosing, instead, to accept comforting delusions. This is a scary thing.

What is Free Will?: I challenge Sam Harris’ notion that free will is an illusion, and all such a philosophy implies.

 

 

Aenya News Update: 11/29/16

A few months ago, I put out a request for artists for the upcoming 2017 edition of Ages of Aenya. After a bit of vetting, by which we produced the Avian and Horde (below), I settled on the talented Zhengyi Yu.

I chose Zhengyi for his painterly style, which better suits a novel, I feel, than the more cartoony styles of my other, albeit equally talented artists. Mr. Yu also impressed me with his landscapes. When I see a book with some impossible, otherworldly terrain, it draws me in, igniting my imagination, and I hope to capture readers in the same way. More importantly, Zhengyi has been wonderful to work with, being attentive to my needs and more than willing to brainstorm and make changes. If you’re looking for a talented illustrator, look no further! Also, be sure to check out his awesome gallery at Zhengyi Yu

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Thelana overlooking Hedonia

Here we find Thelana overlooking Hedonia. The massive pyramid temple of Sargonus eclipses the background. Depicting our heroine in her natural state, without triggering any censors, was a challenge. I wanted her in a normal looking pose, not too sexy or bashful, and without any comically placed leaves in the way. And she had to be dynamic, to show her power and fearlessness. She’s naked in a city of thousands and yet she does not feel vulnerable! That being said, Zhengyi and I are working on an alternate cover, with Thelana draped in her trademark jade cloak (hey, she gets cold sometimes). That way, you can read about the Ilmar on the subway without getting any weird looks!

OK, you may be thinking, all this is fine and good, but when can I read it? Glad you asked! As the old adage says, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and while I don’t believe this to be 100% true, story remains the most important thing, seconded only by the quality of the writing. Without those things in place, you can’t hope to sell a million copies, unless of course you’re writing bondage porn.

I’ve spent more than a decade building this world, its history and geography; fleshing out its races and its characters. Nine years alone I spent editing, as I ran a restaurant and helped my wife raise our two kids, but even the best of us need another set of eyes. If I could give myself amnesia, I could do it all myself. But it’s impossible to judge yourself objectively, to judge any story really in a non-biased way. Nobody can. But finding an editor you can trust isn’t easy. An author’s story is their baby. Giving it up, I am forced to wonder, will the editor tear it up for the sake of tearing it up? Will they maintain my voice? Avoid their own biases? This is a legitimate concern for me, as I’ve had professors try to “correct” my work in the most inane ways. One of my teachers actually suggested that the nun in my short story, Anna and the Devil, masturbate. After all, Satan can’t touch you so long as you abstain from carnal thoughts. His PHd, not surprisingly, was in religious studies.

Then I met Ava Coibion. Ava offered me a free sample edit, of my prologue, and we talked over the phone about our favorite writers, literary styles, and the best way to edit without encroaching on the author’s art. I found her to be intelligent and sensitive. And also, she had this to say,

 

Nick,

There are a thousand praises I could sing here, and with your permission, I’d love to at least give my friend Frank Beddor a sample of your novel to review, or perhaps put you in touch directly with him. But for now, here is the edit for Book One. I was determined to complete the work before Thanksgiving, in hope that you might have a little down time to review my suggested changes. In truth, I devoted this last week and a half solely to the completion of the edit, not because we are on a deadline, as I know you aren’t concerned with a timeline on this, but because I simply couldn’t stop! The prose is intelligent, poetic but often nicely spare/concise, and full of emotion. A true pleasure, and even if you don’t take me on for Books 2 and 3, I will read forward on my own because I simply must know what happens next . . .

Let me know what you think of my comments. I do think the final chapter could be split up into 2 or even 3 separate chapters.

All best,

Ava

 

I know I know, mere flattery. And I might be thinking the same thing, if it weren’t for the fact that, all of my beta readers have given me a similar response. Still, it’s great to get this from a professional, who no doubt has to trudge through literary swamps of poor storytelling.

So now, dear reader, you may be itching to get your hands on this bad boy. Well, the next step is working with Ava through the 170+k words, about 500 pages, until every “T” is crossed and “i” is dotted. Then I get to slap Zhengyi’s contribution over top of it, and last but not least, skedaddle on to the printers.

Ages of Aenya should be available sometime in 2017. In the meantime, my wife will be querying my latest effort, The Princess of Aenya, and I will be dutifully pursuing The Children of Aenya, the third book in the Aenya series, partly based on the Dungeons & Dragons campaign I have been playing with my friends and family these past two years. If you’d like to learn more about The Children of Aenya, and the game we are playing, feel free to join us on Facebook at The Hub of All Worlds.

 

 

 

It Could Happen Here: A Review of The Man in the High Castle

I’ve already been a victim of hate speech. This wasn’t your normal troll variety flaming. This guy got eerily personal, digging deep into my life to attack my lifestyle, my beliefs, my career, and most disturbingly, the person I chose to marry. Sadly, he concluded I should leave the country. People like him have never understood what America is and what it stands for. But to understand America, you have to look no further than its founding document, The Declaration of Independence:

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

 

You won’t find “white Protestant Christian” mentioned anywhere in our founding document, but you will see it in Jefferson Davis’ traitorous Articles of the Confederacy. Our constitution specifically states that ALL MEN are created equal, and that they have a right to Life, Liberty, and Happiness. This is what it means to be an American. This is our founding ideal. If these ideals are threatened or abolished, if people of color or those of differing religions are cowed by an institution of fear, then the U.S.A. ceases to be. We won’t need to leave America because America will have left us. Honestly, it amazes me how these trumps claim to be patriots. These same folk insisted our first black president must be a Muslim terrorist dictator, born in Kenya. They want to kick us out to make America what it isn’t. To them I say, Go back to Germany!

In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines the allies losing to the axis powers during World War II. In this sobering alternate history, America is no more. The land is still there, as are its people, but its founding principles have been abolished. Nazism is law and the ideals of aryan superiority. Jews are forced to change their names, to better hide their identities, and blacks, Indians and handicapped people veer close to extinction, and it’s all due to the ramblings of a paranoid, narcissistic strongman.

Now I didn’t plan to be sitting here writing this review as this nightmarish scenario edges closer to reality. But life can have a sense of irony. In all honesty, I picked up The Man in the High Castle because of the Amazon show, and because Philip K. Dick is among the greats of the Sci-Fi genre. His novels adapted to screen include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Bladerunner), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall), Super Toys Last All Summer Long (A.I.), and The Minority Report. Bad titles aside, Dick is known for his mind-bending concepts, deeply couched in philosophy. In Bladerunner and A.I., he challenges our notions of consciousness and sentience, and our ethical intuitions with regards to synthetic life. In The Minority Report, he imagines a totalitarian world where a prescient police force can stop and punish a crime before it happens. Stop and frisk? But The Man in the High Castle deals not with some far flung future, but post-America circa the 1960s.

It isn’t difficult to imagine this happening, and it can be argued that, by the slightest tweak of events, our world might appear totally alien to us. Consider what would have happened had the German scientists behind the V2 rocket made the atomic bomb? A single nuke, dropped on New York City, and we might all be shouting, “Sieg Heil!”

Looking at the story of the human race, you come to see repeating patterns and the same foolish mistakes being made again and again. The Roman Republic collapsed due, in part, to xenophobia. Julius Caesar was charged with protecting against northern incursions, acting preemptively and genocidally in the name of Rome. Shortly after his military campaign, he declared himself emperor, but was assassinated, stabbed by sixty senators on the senate floor. The political factions dividing the Republic went to war, and when the dust settled, democracy was no more. A similar thing happened in Germany after the first Great War. Hitler was elected chancellor, owing to his impassioned rhetoric regarding German exceptionalism and a pure Arian race. He was viewed as an outsider and a strong man, someone who spoke his mind and could get things done. He blamed all of the nation’s problems on immigrants, particularly the Jews, but those with disabilities as well. It is impossible to talk about these events and not think of Trump. To a student of history, the parallels are all too clear, too frightening. This is why a book like The Man in the High Castle matters.

Alternate histories show us a startling picture of what could have been, shaking us out of our complacency, helping us to recognize the invaluable lessons of the past, lessons we too quickly forget. Dick offers a startling reminder of a world we fought so hard and sacrificed so much to escape, a world where every man, woman and child are judged not by their character, but by their race and nationality. The picture he paints is often haunting. There is no cooperation in his Nazi world. No NATO. World leaders show courtesy to one another so far as they prepare for the next war. In this hellish setting, the only remaining powers are Japan and Germany, with America divided between them. Nuclear devastation is a forgone conclusion, because the Nazis do not want peace, only to conquer, to prove their superiority. Humanity be damned.

All that being said, it’s unfortunate The Man in the High Castle isn’t a better book. Philip K Dick is a rare genius, but his genius too often gets the better of him. His book diverges into wild philosophical tangents that have little bearing on the plot. While his characters run the gamut from an antiques salesman to a Nazi undercover assassin to a Japanese diplomat, they all lose themselves in thought. Dick has a lot to say about the human condition, the nature of suffering, the psychology of cruelty and the politics of race. It’s far too much to condense, and it’s an admirable literary endeavor. I, for one, look for meaning in every story, but here the story seems to take a back seat to whatever meaning the author is trying to convey. Given the subject matter, it’s a shame he couldn’t have been more focused. He only hints at the axis victory and how it played out, and we learn just as little about the bomb dropped on Washington or the global genocides perpetuated by the Third Reich. Dick does, however, give considerable detail regarding the manufacture and selling of antiques.

As I neared the final pages, I anticipated some great reveal, something akin to Life of Pi. In a meta-fictional twist, The Man in the High Castle involves a fictional account of the allies winning the war. A lot of mystery surrounds this book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and its author, but the payoff just left me confused and wanting more.

I have a need to understand how the very worst of things can happen, and whether they can ever truly happen here in America. So I picked up Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, wherein a Nazi ascends to the White House. Look for that review soon!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

My family and I are big Potter fans. One year, my daughter was Hermione for Halloween, and my wife went as Madam Hooch (she had the hat). We’ve also been to Hogwarts and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, and incorporated our Wizarding World wands into our D&D sessions. Personally, I feel that J.K. Rowling’s epic is without peer, the only fantasy franchise that consistently holds up in terms of storytelling. So, you can see, I wasn’t about to pass up on the “8th installment of the story.” And yet, I was pretty skeptical going into it.

harrypotterfam

It’s Jaime Hyneman, Madam Hooch, Hermione and Baby.

Rowling hasn’t written a Potter book in many years, and I found her last effort, The Deathly Hallows, a bit of a letdown. Clearly, she meant for Hallows to round out the saga. Offering an 8th book felt like a nostalgia trip, or some vain Gilderoy Lockhart-attempt at getting back at the top of everyone’s reading list. Usually, those sorts of things don’t turn out well. Just look at Episode VII, a film fueled entirely by nostalgia, without a crumb of originality or inspiration. If that’s not enough to give one pause, consider the messy situation on the cover. Who, exactly, are John Tiffany and Jack Thorne? Alright, they’re playwrights, but how much of the overall story did they provide? Or did they simply give Rowling help on where to put the margins? More importantly, why is this even a play? I understand JK wanting to do something different, and being a proud Londoner, who wouldn’t care to experiment with theater? But here’s the rub, as Shakespeare put it, screenplays aren’t meant to be read other than by actors.

There is a reason some mediums don’t translate well into others. The Harry Potter books, for instance, make for better reading than watching, even though I greatly enjoyed the films. Still, the directors did what they could to finesse the dense plotting and thickly textured world in every book into roughly 2 1/2 hours running time. They cut whatever plot threads they could, leaving only the essentials, and they used special effects and model-building to bring the world to life. Now, when it comes to turning a screenplay into a novel, you have the opposite problem. Instead of cutting things out, a novelist needs to expand, give us details, to offer—in words—all the costuming and set dressing and stage effects we probably missed not sitting in a theater. When two wizards are having a duel, for instance, we need more than stage direction, we need to feel the action. This is what defines good writing, but screenplays simply aren’t made to provide this, and it’s a damn shame. If JK wanted to have her theatrical cake and eat it too, she needed to put in the effort to write a proper novel. In particular, the whole project is a shame because, unlike Star Wars, this new installment didn’t feel like an unnecessary cash-grab/add on. In fact, Rowling appears to have genuinely found some new inspiration here.

Starting into the Cursed Child, you immediately feel a sense of familiarity with the world and its characters. Despite a sparsity of description, we instantly recognize Harry and Ron and Hermione in the way they talk. We are again treated to some humorous, bumbling-side-kick Ron-moments, and are reminded of Hermione’s no-nonsense, stuffy yet endearing quirks. The Cursed Child also debuts the Potter children, though we are left to guess at the personality of Rose, daughter of Ron and Hermione, and learn almost nothing at all about James or Lily, Harry and Ginny’s kids. The whole story revolves, rather, around Potter’s youngest, Albus Severus Potter, and his best friend, Scorpius, son of Draco Malfoy. While there are flashes, here and there, that remind you of his famous father, Albus is his own person. Scorpius, despite his namesake, is actually quite tame, and not one bit like his dad, Draco.

What interested me most about The Cursed Child was Albus’ having to deal with his father’s legacy, even though, later in the story, his own journey through Hogwarts and the accidental adventures he embarks upon closely mirror those in the first few books. All the while, Harry is forced to deal with his past, as a 40-something father and employee at the Ministry of Magic. Much of the conflict surrounds this father/son dynamic and the miscommunication between them, and after being sorted into Slytherin House, Albus ends up feeling like a failure and a disappointment. Harry tries to steer him clear of the Malfoys, despite Scorpius being his only friend, and is confused when Albus doesn’t view Hogwarts as the magical refuge it was for Harry.

Now, if this sounds too much like a Lifetime drama, not to worry. The story picks up when the boys come across a Time Turner. Now, I’ve long argued JK switched gears halfway through the series, beginning with The Goblet of Fire, after the books became popular with adult readers. Many of the things in the earlier books, things that would otherwise seem absurd in adult fantasy, like giving a Hermione a device to go back in time just to take two classes at once, had to be explained or retconned away. The How-It-Should-Have-Ended YouTube series makes a great point in one of its videos, when Snape uses a Time Turner to go back decades to murder Voldemort as a child. Rowling seems to have realized her mistake by having all the Time Turners destroyed in book five, but she still failed to explain why they were kept in one place, where they came from, how they were built, or why a Death Eater couldn’t have simply made one of his own. I mean, if a schoolgirl can be given one for her studies, they can’t be all that rare. A lot of YouTube critics are lambasting the writer(s) for revisiting time travel in this latest installment, but if you’re going to take Rowling to task, you can’t give her a free pass for inventing them in the first place. Perhaps the problem was nagging at her (I know it would me) which got her to writing this book, because a good three-quarters of it deals with time travel. Cursed Child goes to great lengths, in fact, showing what havoc a Time Turner would cause, and it’s all great fun.

Now without getting too deeply into spoilers (you can stop reading here), I felt the story climaxed too soon, after Albus and Scorpius screw up the timeline enough to create an alternate reality, one in which things are really, really bad, let’s just say Dolores Umbridge bad. After that, the fourth act falls a bit flat. Story aside, a lot of the dialogue tended to get sappy and melodramatic, a remarkable shift from the subtle pathos contained in her earlier works. Consider the 11-year old boy quietly pining over his dead parents before the Mirror of Erised, to a forty-something father going on like this,

HARRY: I shouldn’t have survived—it was my destiny to die—even Dumbledore thought so—and yet I lived. I beat Voldemort. All these people—all these people—my parents, Fred, the Fallen Fifty—and it’s me that gets to live? How is that? All this damage—and it’s my fault.

—p. 269

Honestly, I wanted to slap this guy in the face. You’re a 40 year old wizard, for Dumbledore’s sake! Act like one! And here is the ultimate disappointment, the same disappointment I have with the series as a whole. The least interesting character, for me, has always been Harry himself, because he never takes the initiative. Things just happen to him and he reacts. This might have been acceptable when he was a child, and still learning, but after heading Dumbledore’s Army and mastering the Patronus Charm, I expected him to become the hero, to earn his name in all these titles, but he never lives up to it. Even as a much older man, Harry is inept, a subpar wizard at best. His constant whiny attitude also left me cold during his exchanges with his son. All the while, I found myself unexpectedly touched by Draco, of all people, who seems to have been transformed in Scrooge-like fashion into a pretty swell guy, who laments, at one point, that all he ever really wanted was a friend. Lastly, I feel Rowling lost much of her inventiveness after her sixth book, as there is nothing new to see here—no equivalent of Quidditch or Durmstrang of Chocolate Covered Frogs—to expand our understanding of her wonderful Wizarding World.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. In fact, I found it quite hard to put down, being well told and engaging, with some clever moments and great characters. However, when placed alongside the others in the series, it falls to the bottom. This is the double-edged sword that is following up a much beloved classic, when, like Star Wars, the bar is set to the sky and expectations go unmet.

 

 

 

Martin Has a Heart: A Review of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Nick Alimonos I am here with my friend and partner in crime, David Pasco, to discuss George R.R. Martin’s new book, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. Now I think it’s safe to say that David and I have a slightly different outlook on Martin. While I don’t technically dislike the Game of Thrones series, or as it was known before the show, A Song of Ice and Fire, I tend to find it a bit long-winded and cynical. David, on the other hand . . . well, I’ll let you answer that.

David PascoI’m a huge fan. I totally got into the TV show before the books, but I enjoyed it so much I read the books literally because I was having such GoT withdrawals that I was willing to take whatever scraps of new information I could get (which turned out to be a feast in and of itself). I’ll admit it’s dark, but that doesn’t bother me much. I think war is dark in general. As far as your criticism that it’s long winded, I will concede to that. Sometimes it’s worse than others, but Martin is rarely succinct.

Nick Alimonos Right. Martin’s world is fascinating in its complexity, and he gets kudos from me for world building, what is probably the biggest and most complete world in the fantasy or any other genre. My two main gripes with him, specifically, are that he doesn’t seem to end things, and so many of his characters are unlikable. I mean, I loved Ned Stark like everyone else, because he was honorable and just. But then Martin cuts his head off, and we’re stuck reading about a lot of less than savory characters. I often thought, if he’d just stick to the Stark kids, John Snow or Robb or Arya (my favorite), I’d like it better. This is why I decided to pick up A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms after giving up halfway through A Storm of Swords. Since the novel takes place 100 years before GoT, I figured we might have an ending. Also, the main character, a knight named Dunk, is genuinely likable. And you follow his adventure throughout. So I was really satisfied with both of those things.

David PascoI think his Song of Ice and Fire novels are meant more in the same vein as movies with two parts than self collected volumes. I suspect when the final novel is written, we’ll have an end. I disagree about the likability of his characters though. I think the Stark kids are all quite likable, as are Tyrion, Brienne of Tarth, Ser Barristan, Jorah Mormont, etc. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but there are even some unlikable characters that you’ll end up rooting for even more than some of the ones I just mentioned. People change, and that’s the most enduring message of hope that one can give, in my opinion. That being said, I agree with your opinion of Dunk. I also like seeing Westeros in a post war period of relative peace, instead of in the middle of a war.

Nick Alimonos For whatever reason, Tyrion comes off better in the TV show. Maybe the actor, Peter Dinklage, brought something to the role. But I suppose if I’d stick it out, I’d learn to like Brienne and some of the others. I guess I just really like the heroes. This book focuses entirely on Dunk, which is short for Duncan, and he is a knight with a true sense of honor. I also liked his squire, Egg. They seem to have a genuine caring relationship, father-son or older brother-younger brother, that really touched me, proving, I guess, that Martin does indeed have a heart!

David PascoI agree with your assessment of Dunk and Egg. I think one thing that really impressed me with this book was seeing the history of two almost mythic characters. In GoT they refer to Egg a lot as the last good king the Seven Kingdoms had (he was father to The Mad King). Dunk, we know, will grow up to be the Lord Commander of Egg’s Kingsguard, and will end up being something of a legend even among Lord Commanders, and a personal hero of sorts to Barristan Selmy (one of my favorite characters) and Jamie Lannister. It’s kind of fun to see someone so larger than life (pardon the pun) losing every joust he enters and thinking of himself as a generally inept individual. It’s quite humanizing.

Nick Alimonos  Yes, this is why I wanted to get your take on the book, because it really feeds into the GoT lore, and a has a lot to offer the hardcore fans. I did find myself wondering who Dunk and Egg were related to. I am happy to know Egg (or Aegon) grows up to be a good king. Again, I think Martin is showing his soft side, in that Egg turns out the way he does despite his Targaryen background. I imagine hanging out with a decent human being (Dunk) did the trick.

David PascoWell, to be fair to the Targaryen dynasty, they’re not all evil. There are a lot of great Targaryens. Unfortunately, madness runs in the lineage, most likely from all the inbreeding. Viserys and the Mad King both suffer from this, as does Aerion. He will eventually become king, and die because he drank wildfire believing it would transform him into a dragon. That being said, I think Egg’s father was well aware of the lack of prospect in his other sons, and had Egg squire with Duncan for exactly that reason. To his credit, it seemed to work great, and their friendship literally continues until the day the two perish, together I might add. Egg even names his first born son and heir after Dunk. Another interesting side note is that Brienne of Tarth is almost certainly a descendant of Duncan the Tall. Aside from having his size and strength, there is an old shield in the armory of Tarth bearing Dunk’s coat of arms, which Brienne used to visit often when she was a girl and would imagine being a knight. Jamie even asks Brienne once if she is “thick as a castle wall” when he is trying to apologize to her.

Nick Alimonos See, I think you liked it more because of your knowledge of the world. But even if you know nothing about Westeros, you can enjoy the adventure that it is. In fact, the book consists of three mini-stories, each of which have a satisfying conclusion, which gives me confidence that Martin can wrap all this (his saga) up.

David PascoI agree. I love things that can be read on multiple levels. If you have no idea who Martin is, and you look up this book, there are three great stories about two genuinely likable characters, and the rich world they live in. If you’re a somewhat rabid GoT fan, you’ll get that, but also hints into the rich tapestry of the history of Westeros. I think life is an awful lot like that, which is why I enjoy it when fiction follows suit.

Nick Alimonos Now, sometimes I feel Martin tends to pigeonhole himself. He isn’t the most inventive or imaginative writer. His world resembles mostly medieval Northern Europe (and yes, I remember some of his Oriental excursions, like Qarth). That being said, he really owns that time period. His description of knight life (pun unintended) and jousting is just unparalleled. It’s both thrilling and, from my studies of history, very accurate.

David PascoI think there are very few truly original ideas. Martin keeps me guessing, and he’s a compelling writer, so I’ll keep coming back for more. I think I’m going to hit the library up for The World of Ice and Fire next, which is basically a Westeros history book. That level of interest says a lot about the compelling world he has created.

Nick Alimonos This is true, regarding original ideas. I have written a lot about cliches, and how a cliche is only that to those who are familiar with it. If you read a lot about zombies, you might get sick of it, and start to view it as an overused cliche. For many, I am sure, Martin is quite original. While he tends to dabble in many tried and true literary devices, he often does new things with them, and expands on them in ways we’ve never seen before. That being said, do you have any complaints, about this book specifically?

David PascoVery minor ones. I wish there was slightly more character development. Dunk and Egg are almost the same people by the end of the book as they are in the beginning, you know what I mean? Also, while I loved the illustrations more than I ever expected to, the way they drew Egg bothered me. They made him much too effeminate in my opinion, and almost like a pixie. It takes away from the overall mood. What about you?

Nick Alimonos I loved the artwork. It made me insanely jealous. And I know how incredibly expensive that can get. It seems almost as if Martin wanted to make up for the “clip-art” covers from his earlier books. But in all reality, I suspect the publishers wanted a spin-off to GoT and figured they couldn’t charge $30 for a 150 page novel. The artwork, which is showcased on almost every other page, greatly extends its length. And given the popularity of the franchise, there’s no way a publisher was going to lose out on that investment. I really like the way Egg was drawn, like a very young, frail kid, who needed protection from this very strong, very big guy. It provided a nice contrast between them. I agree there wasn’t much of a character arc, but that didn’t bother me. Not every story needs one. It felt like Martin was going for a pulp-fiction, serial adventure feel, something along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and you know how I am a big fan of that stuff.

David PascoIt definitely has a more pulp fiction vibe. As you know, my favorite author writes a lot of pulp fiction type stuff, but even in that, there seems to be more character development. Overall, though, these are VERY minor complaints.

Nick Alimonos Do you have a favorite scene or part in the book?

David PascoThe Trial of the Seven. Baelor Breakspear was so likable, and I loved seeing everyone band together for Dunk. It was such an inspirational scene, even if it ended poorly, and it gave Dunk an almost Spiderman like quality afterwards. What about you?

Nick Alimonos That was great stuff. There was even a bit of humor in it. I loved the part where the guy with the apple sigil (of House Fossoway) sides with Dunk in the joust against his Fossaway uncle, and just paints his apples green instead of red, to differentiate himself. Also, in classic Martin fashion, one of the knight’s brain falls out after he removes his helmet! He’d been killed in the joust and didn’t even know it!

David PascoI really love the level of import Martin puts on a family’s coat-of-arms. He manages to convey so much through that.

Nick Alimonos I agree. Although I kept getting confused as to who was who. Even in this, much shorter and simpler book, I needed a chart just to keep track of everyone.

David PascoI agree with you there. It takes some doing, especially in the third story. I think Martin can be quite confusing in that regard.

Nick Alimonos I guess it gives it more of a real world feel, because, just like in life, we don’t fully comprehend everything going on around us.

David PascoTrue. I think the end result is worth the investment of energy, too.

Nick Alimonos OK, so, I rate books on a scale of one to four. How do you want to call it?

David PascoI’d give it four stars easily. None of the problems I have are anywhere near bad enough to make it three or even three and a half stars. You?

Nick Alimonos So, four stars being the highest possible rating you could rate a book, you’d give it a four?

David PascoTo be fair, I think a four star rating system makes for a limited variance in grading. If you scaled it up, it might be lower, but so would many books. You know what I mean?

Nick Alimonos I give room for half stars. Want to give it a half star less?

David PascoI think I’m going to stick with four. My problems with the book were so minor, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What more can you ask for?

Nick Alimonos Yeah, I tend to be a tougher critic. I give it a solid three.

David Pasco What were your problems with it?

Nick Alimonos I didn’t have any, really. I like to judge things more on the positives and focus less on the negatives. So, while the story didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, there is a lot it could have done that it didn’t. For instance, I wasn’t really moved emotionally, nor did it make me think too much. Not that every book needs to do those things.

David Pasco I can see your point. Aside from the trial I described, I didn’t feel much either.

Nick Alimonos Well, I think that pretty much wraps things up! Thanks for talking to me today!

David Pasco Thanks for suggesting I read this book.

 

 

The Giver

Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel was awarded the John Newberry Medal for outstanding children’s literature, though I found it too uneventful and dark for my 11 year old daughter, even after we agreed to add it to our summer family reading list.

The Giver reminded me of other dystopian books, like A Brave New World1984, and The Hunger Games, but mostly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb heart-wrencher, Never Let Me Go. Unlike The Hunger Games, it starts off slowly and uneventfully. All of the dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and there is quite a bit of exposition, which made me think the writing was amateurish. It is also quite dry, but that simplicity makes it easy to read. In fact, I got through about 120 pages in a day. This is the only aspect that is apt for kids.

At first, Lowry’s community comes across as a kind of utopia, devoid of violence, hunger, or suffering of any kind, though I was immediately struck by something being not-quite-right, which becomes increasingly unnerving the further you get into it. I couldn’t help but feel I’d rather be dropped anywhere else, the maze in the Maze Runner, or even Harrenhal. By the halfway mark, I genuinely hated the world of The Giver, and what at first looked like a flaw in Lowry’s writing, you come to understand is intentional. The people talk unnaturally because they are anything but natural.

While it’s hard to criticize a book that keeps your eyes glued to the page, I often found myself asking why. How does it manage to grip me, when all of the characters, including Jonas, the protagonist, are flat and uninteresting? The setting is unimaginative, even for a dystopian novel, and very little happens. Lowry does, however, tackle some deep philosophical and sociological issues, though what, exactly, she is trying to convey is hard to determine. Much of The Giver deals with issues of individuality and freedom and security, and the interplay between them. Is it better, for instance, to surrender emotions like love, if you could also rid the world of hate? Is it worth giving up choice, where we go to school, who we marry, what we choose to do for a career, if we can end poverty and hunger and war? It’s pretty heady stuff, and a bit too much, I feel, for younger readers, but not quite as impactful as A Brave New World. There are moments when Lowry tugs at the heartstrings, but I was never so moved as I was by Never Let Me Go, which dealt with many of the same subjects, but in a subtler and more poignant way.

Hills? Snow? Colors? Music? Abortion? Check out the podcast below, where my wife and I delve deep into these topics (with spoilers!) in The Giver.

 

The BFG

To get my daughter to take a break from Pokemon Go this summer, my wife insisted she read a total of three books, and not just the comics she loves (Dork Diaries, anything by Raina Telgemeier) but something appropriate to her grade level (she is entering middle school this year). So I suggested on a pact. My daughter, my wife, and I would each pick a novel, a total of three, and share our thoughts about them when we were finished. My wife chose The BFG, because, I think, of the recent trailers for the Steven Spielberg film; I picked The Giver; and my daughter, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (for obvious reasons).

Roald Dahl is best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was a favorite film of mine growing up. I also liked the Tim Burton version, but not as much. He also wrote The BFG, which is, without question, a simple story written for kids. There are only two main characters to speak of, Sophie, a little orphan girl, and a twenty-four foot giant who simply goes by the name of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). Even for children, the story is a bit straightforward, with very few surprises, aside from some unexpected gruesomeness. Everything turns out pretty much as you might expect, though that may not hold true for younger readers. Even so, I found plenty to enjoy in The BFG.

Dahl’s writing is economical and direct, so that the pages just fly by. Never once did I feel it was a chore to get through, and the plot itself consists of enough tension and intrigue to keep readers of all ages engaged. The author also likes to make up words, lots and lots of nonsensical words. Dahl is arguably the undisputed king of onomatopoeia-like wordplay. In many ways, I was reminded of Mary Poppins. Much of what happens in the story is utterly absurd. But in this way, the book possesses a child’s-eye charm, Dahl’s work being less fantasy and more of what I like to call surrealist fiction, more Alice in Wonderland than Harry Potter. Unlike Poppins or Alice, however, which unfold as a series of loosely connected events, The BGF keeps to a single narrative, with a definite beginning, middle and end. There are no trivial, throw-away chapters here. That being said, the ending struck me as something written not by a renown author, but by a kid. I imagine the author sitting with his daughter or granddaughter, asking her how he should complete his novel. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you, as I feel it added to the book’s absurdist charm.

While The BFG isn’t quite on the level of The Never Ending Story or even Charlotte’s Web, I enjoyed it more than Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins, and a lot more than A Wrinkle in Time. With a story like The BFG, a lot depends on age, and I would guess that it is likely to appeal more to children under nine. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a jaded, 40 year old writer. So let’s see what my 11 year old, Jasmine, had to say.


WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

Nick: Jasmine, how did you like The BFG?

Jasmine: I liked it. I like how The BFG bottled dreams and blew them into children’s bedrooms. Also, how he was able to mix dreams together to make new ones.

Nick: Yes, it was a lot of fun reading about those dreams. Dahl seems to have a great mind for the absurd. Which was your favorite?

Jasmine: I liked the dream about the boy who pressed his bellybutton and turned invisible. His parents kept freaking out because they couldn’t see him!

Nick: Yeah, that was a good one. But I have to go with the kid who wrote a book that people literally couldn’t stop reading. Pilots were crashing planes because they were too busy reading it, and surgeons were doing surgery while reading it. Those dreams were a nice addition to the story, but it begs the question as to why The BFG collected them in the first place. The author never really tells you.

Hynde (my wife): I wasn’t crazy about that part either. I was bothered by a lot of the logical inconsistencies. For instance, the giant kidnaps Sophie, because she is the only person (in hundreds of years) to have ever seen him. I guess I found that a bit implausible. Also, according to the story, giants eat people (adults and kids) on a nightly basis, but this goes largely unnoticed by the public.

Nick: I agree with the logical issues, but it didn’t bother me much, I think because I was reading it as something written not only for kids, but by a kid. The questions you raise are ones children typically don’t ask, or don’t care to have answered. Also, since a lot of the book focuses on dreams, I half expected the “it-was-all-just-a-dream” ending. Typically, these are the worst kinds of endings, but in The BGF, it might actually have worked. At any rate, the story had a dream-like quality to it, where things don’t really make sense, especially toward the end. Did any of that bother you, Jasmine?

Jasmine: Not really.

Nick: So, what was everyone’s favorite part?

Jasmine: The dreams!

Hynde: I like how The BFG created a nightmare for the Queen of England, so that she would become aware of the giants who were eating kids. That was clever.

Nick: Yes, that was good stuff, and I’d like to add how surprisingly gruesome the whole “eating of children thing” was. I can’t imagine a publisher today accepting such a premise for a kid’s book. It reminded me a lot of Grimm’s fairytales, where Cinderella’s sisters are cutting off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. As my favorite part, I loved it when they went to look for giant country, and the helicopter pilots realized they had flown “off the atlas.” They were pointing at a blank page, saying, “we must be somewhere here.” That kind of nonsense is something Dahl does really well, and it lets you know not to take the book too seriously (or literally). I also love Dahl’s puns, especially when The BGF tells the Queen how the other (evil) giants had gone to Baghdad to “bag dad”—after they had eaten a father along with his family!

 

Final Score (Out of Four Stars)

Nick: **

Jasmine: ** 1/2

Hynde: * 1/2