A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) on YouTube. It’s not a quarantine thing; I just like it. If you’ve never seen MST3K, it’s a T.V. show from the 90s that features a man sent up to space by villains who torture him by making him watch terrible old movies. The man and his robot friends keep their sanity by riffing and cracking jokes at the cheesiness on screen. (MST3K was revised briefly by Netflix; modern episodes can be seen there.)
The movies are well and truly awful. You really cannot watch them without the jokes; even then, they can be hard to get through. And yet this, ironically, makes it perfect viewing for when I’m doing something else, like typing or cooking or playing Candy Crush on my phone. Typically, I watch the same episodes over and over, until I have all the jokes memorized and can practically recite the bad movies word for word.
Sometime around the 20th viewing of an episode, I start to become oddly sympathetic to the bad movie. Once you get through the tedium, the confusion, the bad acting, the ugly visuals, and the lack of budget, there’s usually… something. An idea that went terribly wrong. What was it trying to be? What potential did it have? And why did it fail so miserably?
One of many problems I’ve noticed with these bad old movies--the one that’s been on my mind lately--is that these movies don’t seem to understand whose story it is, possibly due to sexism or racism. The main character has to be a white male lead, even when, as I examine the plot and character arcs, I realize that it is not that person’s story.
This an excerpt from a fantasy/ romance/ historical fiction I've been working on during quarantine. In an alternate version of America, where magic is commonplace, a witch and wizard have adventures as they travel the country in pursuit of magic and gradually fall in love. Right now, I call this story Hazel and Saul, after my main characters, but the title is subject to change. This is a second draft, which means it's pretty early on in the writing process. I haven't added a lot of details and description, and the prose is rough. This scene takes early in the story, when the title characters first meet.
Hazel Meets Saul
Pennsylvania, October 1870
He was worse than a peddler. The wizard stood at the gate of her aunt’s house, banging on the door for a good ten minutes. Hazel could tell he was a wizard by the gaudy purple cloak he wore, popular among only the lowest rung of that profession. Hazel had made the mistake of peeking out through the window to see what was making the noise. Unfortunately, he’d seen her, and his rapping had only grown more furious.
“Miss Blackwood! Miss Blackwood!” he cried.
Hazel pressed her hands to the side of her head. She had a terrible headache and his pounding on the gate only made it worse. She’d been sick these last three days and wanted nothing more than to curl up and rest. But here was this annoying creature, disturbing her peace.
“Miss Blackwood! A word, please! Just a word!”
Hazel sighed. From his voice he sounded rather young. Young and full of energy and shamelessly relentless. She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him, so she put on her cloak and bonnet and hobbled out. It was cold and chilly, and the wind on her face made her shiver, despite the warmth of her cloak. She walked down the path through the front yard until she reached the gate.
“Ah, Miss Blackwood!” The wizard sounded relieved. “Thank you for your indulgence. I crave but a moment of our time. You are Miss Blackwood, are you not?”
“I am, but--”
“My name,” he said with a flouncy and exaggerated bow, “is Solomon Felix Zephyrus, an apprentice wizard of distinction, and I have a proposal for--”
He stopped and blinked. He leaned forward and stared at her face, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You’re young,” he said, with some dismay.
Writing, when you think about it, is an unglamorous and solitary act. You spend several hours in one place, by yourself, stuck inside your own head, confronting your own emotions. So if you think that quarantine is ideally suited for a writer… it is. Now that we’re about two months in, I feel comfortable sharing what I’ve been up to as COVID-19 rages on.
Phase 1: Stress and Anxiety
Somewhere in the middle of March, the world as we knew it shut down. It was on a Thursday, when Tom Hanks tested positive for the Coronavirus, Disneyland shut down, and the stock market plunged. At that point, I realized something very serious was going on. That weekend, I went to Panera to eat a bagel and journal about my anxieties. It would be the last time I sat down at a restaurant for many months to come.
My life was already in upheaval. I had moved into a new apartment at the end of February, with my friend Rita. She suffers from chronic pain and a host of other conditions, none of which were helped when she fell down the stairs and got a concussion 4 days after I moved in. With her being incapacitated, it fell to me to take care of her new Belgian sheep dog, Atlas. I had barely gotten the apartment equipped and was beginning to contemplate looking for a job, when quarantine hit.
I’m used to my life being a mess. I was not used to the world being a mess along side me. The anxieties built and built within me. For a writer, this can be a good thing. The higher my emotions, the easier it is to write. In this case, though, I was supposed to be focused on completing Company, my novel about a ghost and an imaginary friend, and I couldn’t focus. I journaled a bit, watched a little T.V., and played around with some other story ideas.
This phase lasted for about a week.
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Title: Dark (The Dark Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Paul L Arvidson
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Dun has troubles on his mind. Since his father disappeared, he has become the main provider for his family. Worse still, he's dealing with vivid and terrifying dreams--a sign he bears the gift of foretelling. When the village elders appoint him as head of a quest to find out why their mysterious neighbors, the Machine-folk, have gone missing, Dun assembles a band of allies to accompany him: his cheerful best friend Padg; Tali, an apprentice-alchemist; and Myrch, a man with many useful abilities and secrets. As they confront the different tribes, they begin to suspect that something odd is going on--a darker presence that threatens to throw their whole world into chaos.
I decided to take my own advice and find some free fantasy books on Kindle to read during quarantine. Dark was one of several I downloaded. What caught my interest and kept me reading was that the world felt both unique and believable. Fantasy books often rely on big, flashy elements to get attention: dragons, unicorns, gods, monsters, magic. But I appreciate a story that takes its time to build its own cultures.
Dark started off with a tribe of simple folks who live by fishing, trading, using reeds make baskets. And yet, there are hints of a more complex world. “Found” items have a curiously manufactured feel to them, underground tunnels are actually a complex system of pipes, and a decayed civilization is shown to have wielded great power once. Something happened in the past, but what could it be? That mystery kept me reading.
Dark initially gave me vibes of: Watership Down, which is high praise for me. (Watership Down is one of the foundational books that has inspired my writing.) You have a group of ordinary people with different abilities, led by someone with flashes of prophecy. (I love prophecy.) Occasionally, they come across technology that the audience may be familiar with but is baffling to them. Their journey is simple, but challenging, and members of the group need to use their different abilities. Friendships are forged and deepened.
However, the similarities diverge when it comes to the ending. Watership Down has one of the best endings I have ever read. Dark’s ending, while certainly not the worst, was rather disappointing. The problems began at Chapter 48, because at Chapter 48, Dark underwent a rapid genre shift and became an entirely different book.
VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD
Last weekend, I was feeling anxious and no wonder. Between everything from schools to Disneyland being shut down, the stock market crashing, and grocery stores with whole sections gutted, it felt like the end of the world. I didn't know what to do, so I started re-watching my favorite Star Wars movie. I remembered how much I loved epic fantasy. Earlier, I'd dealt with the stress of moving by getting lost in a fantasy romance book. I was reminded just why I fell in love with fantasy. For me at least, there is something about fantasy that gives me hope when times are tough.
I don't think I'm alone in feeling anxious, and I wanted to do something to help. Since fantasy stories help me cope with stress and since it seems like many people have a lot of free time on their hands, I thought I'd offer the three fantasy books I wrote for free on Amazon. You can download them without leaving the house, kill a day or two reading, and hopefully emerge refreshed. I know in the grand scheme of things it may not be much, but I want to help people feel better during these troubled times.
Click on Picture Below to Get Free Book on Amazon Kindle
Free from Thursday, March 19 to Monday, March 23
My books will be free for five days, from Thursday, March 19 to Monday, March 23, 2020, which is the maximum amount of time that Amazon will allow me. So if you think you might at all be interested in these books, get them quickly. At $0, what do you have to lose. Get one or all three. And if you think anyone else might be interested, please share this link with them.
If reading's not your thing, what does help to ease your anxiety in times of stress? Are there any fantasy books, free or not, you recommend reading? Let me know in the comments. And please, take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Stay safe.
Title: The Guardian: A Dream-Hunter Novel
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon
Genre: Romance, Fantasy
After thousands of years of being tortured in hell, demigod Seth has one chance to escape his misery. His master, the primal god Noir, has captured Solin, god of dreams, who has information about a key that can grant great power or cause great destruction. Seth is put in charge of interrogating the Solin. Little does he know that Solin’s daughter, Lydia, has come to free him. Lydia is an immortal were-jackal with the power to walk into another person’s dreams. But she is no match for Seth, who quickly captures Lydia and offers Solin a trade--the missing key for Lydia’s life. Solin agrees, and Seth keeps Lydia as collateral. But when Seth gets to know Lydia, he finds himself drawn to her. And though Lydia would like nothing more than to hate the man who tortured her father, the more she learns the horrors of Seth’s past, the harder it is to keep her own creeping feelings at bay.
A friend recommended Sherrilyn Kenyon to me a while ago, but I hadn't really gotten around to checking her out. So when I spotted one of her books at the La Habra Library bookstore for the low, low cost of ten cents, I quickly jumped on the chance. I was not disappointed. I finished the book the same day I bought it. The Guardian was that addicting.
The Guardian is a romance book first, a fantasy book second. It has a kind of Beauty and the Beast vibe going, which I really like. If it were a film, it would be a hard R for cursing, sex, and, most prevalent, scenes of violent torture. (More on that later.)
Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy
King Arthur is dead. Ogres roam the land, but the people are accustomed to them. More disturbing is a fog that clouds memories. Axl, an old man who lives a modest life with his wife Beatrice, occasionally has glimmers of people long forgotten: a woman with red hair, a missing child, and his estranged son. When Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to visit their son, they run into a slew of strange traveling companions: a warrior on a solemn quest, a boy marked by evil, and the last remaining knight of King Arthur’s court. As memories are revealed and the secrets of the past are peeled back, Axl and Beatrice learn of a way to restore what was once forgotten--but at a startling cost.
I bought The Buried Giant because its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Remains of the Day. As such, I wanted to wait for the perfect time to read The Buried Giant and slowly savor it. Initially, I was captivated by the simple beauty of the prose and filled with a sense of romance. But lurking under the quests and magic was a startlingly realistic look at the nature of war, hatred, and vengeance. These dark undertones slowly crept up on me and left me shaken and disturbed by the end of the book.
This doesn’t mean that The Buried Giant contains explicit material. It doesn’t. There are no graphic or gory depictions of violence, no sex, and no profanity--nothing that is typically labeled as “shocking.” I think what disturbed me, on a personal level, was the contrast between the high ideals of the characters and the horrific atrocities they were still capable of inflicting. It seemed very… realistic… for a fantasy world.
I had been wanting to see 1917 since the fall of 2019, when a critic compared it to The Lord of the Rings. That was all the sell I needed. I had to wait until after Christmas for it to expand into theatres. But the holidays brought chaos to my personal life, with moving on the one hand and sinus infections on the other. The Oscars came and went, and my life still didn’t calm down. Finally I said, “To hell with it,” and bought a matinee ticket for a Tuesday showing in the middle of February.
1917 is World War I drama done in (seemingly) a single shot. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent across no man’s land to deliver a message. Colonel MacKenzie is leading two battalions into a trap, and Blake’s brother is among those at risk. Although the territory they must cross seems, on paper, to be deserted by the German army, it is fraught with many perils, as they encounter boobytraps, snipers, and challenging terrain.
1917 struck me as a mash-up between an action-adventure video game and a “best of” compilations of the horrors of World War I, with moments of poignant human drama thrown in. This sounds like an insult, but I don’t mean it to be. I liked the movie. However, I was ambivalent about the use of the single shot gimmick.
On the one hand, I marveled at how they managed to make this movie. They couldn’t have just built several miles of trenches, a village, a river, and a patch of woods in a studio somewhere. Could they? Even if they did, can you imagine coordinating all the actors, all the extras, all the stunt doubles, all the props, and all the cameras? If everyone didn’t hit their mark exactly right, the whole thing would fall apart. I left 1917 wanting to watch a documentary about the making of the movie, just to see how it was done.
On the other hand, constantly thinking about how the movie was made distracted me from the story being told. In most movies, I don’t think about where the camera is positioned or what it's doing, but here it was all I could think about. It almost felt like the camera was its own character, like a first-person video game avatar or maybe a documentary crew recording this incident. But the cinematography was so beautiful, so smooth, so perfectly able to capture excitement and emotion, it made it very clear that everything was staged. No matter how realistic the details, the world of 1917 is inherently artificial.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.