Not what I expected: the Secret Books of Paradys

sbp1 (1)

Click here for Amazon link

I wasn’t really expecting this. It’s basically a work of historical fiction, except set in a fictional medieval city. And here and there are magical realist elements.

But I’m glad I’m reading this mammoth cycle. Because the entire point of the first book, “The Book of the Damned,” is to¬†not be what you expect. The novellas are about characters who change genders, change callings, change their entire existences constantly. They wander casually around the line between life and death, they scream for someone to hear them, a person who inevitably turns and walks away.

It’s hard to say who is which character, by the end of each novella. They all seem to have blurred, gender-swapping and transforming left and right. The first person narrators are often deceived by their own eyes, a fact revealed long after the deception takes place. The people are strange, dark, monstrous, and sometimes wonderfully kind.

Destruction and creation feed off one another, as each ending leads to a new beginning.

So why is it “the book of the damned?” Is it because each story ends with the death of the protagonist (real or implied)? Is it because all the people in the stories are quite terrible, and are therefore damned to hell?

Maybe its because to be a transformer, to be a shapeshifter and gender-swapper, is to be damned. To be always cast out from the normal, always other, always irrevocably different. The curse of the madman is to see the world no one else can, and the damning nature of the shapeshifter is to see the cracks in the world, in personalities and personas. Maybe that’s why it’s the book of the damned.


Getting Back on the Book Wagon

images (18)We’ve all had our bookish dry spells. Nothing works for us, we can’t stick with it for more than a few dozen pages. There’s always something else to do, some urgent or semi-urgent task that we might as well get done now.

The stack of just-barely-started books grows until its blocking the light on your bedside table. Stacks of to-be-read books start to teeter on the point of collapse.

And then it stops. You look at the page mark, and find you’re over a hundred pages in, and you haven’t felt the urge to clean the bathroom sink once.

Back to the books, and all the better for the time away.

It’s not a travel book. It’s not a memoir. It’s a love story.

9781840240566The key to many books is to understand what they are. And “Yadav,” by Jill Lowe, is a love story.

It’s about a woman whose life has been a glorified train wreck, coming to a country where everything is different. Sometimes we come to understand ourselves better through travel, but sometimes we come to make ourselves anew. Lowe did a bit of both.

This book isn’t about India: It’s about an Indian man. Yadav, a man whom Lowe loves in spite of his flaws.

Lowe’s clearsightedness is what makes this book different: she does not skimp on the bad along with the good. The wonderful food is followed by attacks of dysentery in fields. People come in shades of good and bad.

It’s a twilight years love story.

The. Best. Audiobook. Ever


Click here for Amazon link

I’m not a big one for listening to books. I like some nice turning pages, a musty smell, paper cuts. But when driving long distances, needs must, so I got hold of the audiobook of World War Z.

It’s amazing. It’s better than reading the book. It’s better than reading most books published today.

The concept of the novel is to take on the idea of a zombie plague as an actual experience, and to look at the various way we individually, as a nation, and as a species, would react to an actual zombie apocalypse. The result is uncannily realistic, as Brooks effortlessly switches voices and characters, running around the world and creating a chorus of magnificent voices.

And with the audiobook, that chorus comes to life.  Actors voice each individual character. The accents are real, the stories sound even more real.

It’s magic. It’s fiction that reads like the most exciting history book ever. It’s frightening in it’s intensity, and it’s drama, and it’s realism.

Going on a trip? Buy a book at a landmark


It’s a cold, rainy afternoon in Hannibal, Missouri. Why am I here? The only reason anyone would ever go to Hannibal: it’s Mark Twain’s hometown.

So, I’ve got a thirty minute stopover, and I don’t want to be outside ’cause it’s freezing. What do I do? I spend a week’s income (I’m very poor) on Mark Twain books.

That’s what I do at every birthplace, every archaeological site, every everything I go to: buy a book.

There’s a lot of good reasons to do this.

1) There are books you can only get at the site, expert works and such

2) the money you spend on the outrageously overpriced books goes to support the site, which probably needs the money, and you can feel better about dodging the “voluntary donation” box

3) ‘Cause when you buy a book about boyhood on the street Mark Twain was a boy on, it’s not like buying it somewhere else. It’s special. It’s cool. It’s unique. And everyone should do it.

Before She Met Me: Playing With Shakespeare


Click here for Amazon link

A man is in a loving relationship. He drives himself mad over imagined jealousies, and ends up committing a murder-suicide.

That’s the basic plot of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and of Julian Barnes’s novel “Before She Met Me.”

The fact is, if writer’s didn’t rip off Shakespeare, pretty much most of literary history would have gone unwritten. So the question isn’t “did Barnes rip off Shakespeare,” but “did Barnes rip off Shakespeare well?” And he did.


Back in the day, if you were going to imagine infidelity you’d only be able to do so in your own mind. It was all up to the imagination. It needed at least someone to spur it on.

How would that story play out today? You’d have to factor in the rise of pyschology, easily available porn, new attitudes to masturbation, film, movies, television commercials, publishing schedules: a multitude of things, the rise of the visual feeding off itself, morphing and changing jealousy into something intense, something insane.

Madness may be madness, leading inevitably down the road to violence and destruction. But over time, it has changed. Madness of today is a new monster, a beast utterly changed from Shakespeare’s time, but still ultimately recognizable. It’s a strange, beautiful, and uniquely modern project to play with Shakespeare this way, and Barnes does it brilliantly.

Oh Dear Author, I Remember Why I Love You

images (20)

Click here for Amazon link

There are very few authors out there who are universally good. EVeryone writes a bad book now and then. Early stuff usually sucks. Some things are best forgotten.

So it takes a really, really talented writer to be good all the time.

This isn’t about one of those writers.

This is about a writer who is good most of the time, but falls flat the rest of the time. Connie Willis.

She writes these big, long amazing books. But go back to her earliest stuff, and she’s pretty unimpressive.

So I made my way through her recent stuff, but then when I made my way through the backlog, I got discourage. I abandoned a book or two. I left unread novels gathering dust on my shelf.

So when I opened up her collection of short stories last night, “Impossible Things,” my expectations were low. I certainly didn’t expect to howl with laughter and shout at characters in the story “Even the Queen.” Apparently Willis got tired of being berated for not writing about “women’s issues” enough, so she wrote about the most womanly issue of all: the curse.

It was great. I remember why I love her now. If anyone needs me, I’ll be buried under a pile of doorstopper time travel books!