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Literary Terms: High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Frame (Portal) Stories

Long ago, in a different world, I was a German major (among other things) at University. One of my most memorable seminars was one focused on my favorite genre, fantasy. While there are those who argue that this is “merely” a genre, the incorporation of themes, structure, and leitmotifs in these stories has made them rich to study. From the perspective of my class, this stretched back to the German Romantics in the late 1700s with their freighted search for the Blaue Blume. In fact, my seminar was offered by the German department at my university, by the same professor who taught us about Sturm und Drang and literary Romanticism (long since retired). As rooted in academia as this seminar was, though, some of the things I learned have come up in the context of my writing life, and some of my author friends have requested that I cudgel my brain to share the snippets of what I remember having learned in the early 90s.

According to my professor, there are two main classes of fantasy: low fantasy, wherein the world of the story is recognizable to its readers, and high fantasy, wherein the world is completely made up and operates on its own rules/laws, and likely has its own languages, flora and fauna, and magical tropes including (but not limited to) spells, potions, etc. Because of its familiar world setting, magical realism is related to low fantasy, but follows a slightly different set of rules and conventions. Any of these can take advantage of the frame/portal story convention to make the bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The primary text of our class was Michael Ende’s Die Unendliche Geschichte (known to Americans as The Neverending Story). This is a classic frame story with a young boy who lives in a world we recognize being sucked into a high fantasy world through the portal of a magical book. There were a couple structural elements that made the story unique: printing the frame story in one color of ink and the fantasy in another, as well as starting each succeeding chapter with a word that began with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet.

Another text we addressed was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude. This one is considered a seminal introduction to magical realism, with the action taking place in a fictional (but reality-based, almost everyman style of) South American town over the course of a century. The language is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact, and incorporates ghosts and mystical experiences with as much believability as the buildings and courtyards in which those occurrences are recounted as everyday happenings.

From the primary divide of whether we can recognize the world in which the story is set (i.e. whether a story would fall into the low fantasy or high fantasy classification), a multitude of sub-genres have sprung. Interestingly, in refreshing my memory for this post, I’ve discovered that the same course taught by a different teacher or in a different language might very well use different terms. A few useful references that provide some insight into these differences are:

  1. It’s All Fantasy (fantasy genre guide)
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature
  3. Fantasy – Definition, History, Characteristics and Meaning
  4. Gizmodo’s list of 10 fantasy terms
  5. TV Tropes main fantasy entry

Given the nature of myths and legends, fantasy has long been a useful framework for humans to put themselves in an unfamiliar space to explore universal themes from a different perspective. Together with Science Fiction, it forms the Speculative Fiction genre world, which is where my author brain is happiest playing. In fact, I consider one of the themes of my published stories to be “there is magic in our world, have we but the eyes to see it.” From this perspective, while it’s useful to consider genres and tropes, I find I have the most fun exploring how those can be bent into new versions of themselves–though I don’t foresee myself spending too much time in entirely made-up places. In the meantime, I’m laughing at my ability to retain such snippets for so long, even when they have no real bearing on an author’s ability to produce a good, engaging story.

Book Review: Leaving Berlin

Leaving BerlinI got a chance at the pre-release ARC of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon as part of my membership at NetGalley. It intrigued me as a throwback to my time living in Berlin–and under Communist “secret informer” eyes even before that–, as well as a complete change of pace from my usual fare of scifi, fantasy, and romance novels. It was everything a political thriller should be: gripping, with small details that made the final reveal make sense.

The writing itself evoked Kafka and that hunted, haunted perspective of someone who has made a choice not to trust anyone. The politics of the U.S. Commie Scare drive the inciting incident, but the story has all the feeling of the titular location. The streets mentioned, the Brandenburger Tor, these were all places I’ve been, and the story felt every bit as surreal as a fantasy, being thrown back to when the walls still showed strafing–even as late as my last visit in the late 90s. But this story was also set in a time when the initial post-war fervor for ideology was at its height:

Alex looked at their bright, attentive faces, Brecht’s cynicism as out of place here as it had been in California, and for the first time felt the hope that warmed the room. Shabby suits and no stockings, but they had survived, waited in hiding or miraculously escaped, for this new chance, the idea the Nazis hadn’t managed to kill.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this story, even with its early, disjointed jumps, captures the underlying reality that pushes questionable decisions. I know there’s a file somewhere in Berlin that documents the years I lived there with my family; my father has seen and read the redacted version. Knowing who the confidential informants were–who were also our friends–makes for another surreal echo for me in this story. As well as the classic German class distinctions and need for philosophical underpinnings and rationalizations. I don’t know how much of that will convey to someone who doesn’t have the personal experiences I do, but I suspect those echos will be as gripping and uncomfortable even for those without my perspective.

For that reason, I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes a “quiet” historical thriller, driven, in the end, just by the love of a father for his son–an echo across generations. It takes some getting used to the literary devices in the early chapters, but the action doesn’t let you go, either, so it’s likely a book for those who read a mystery once for the reveal, and then ten more times for the nuances that got you there. Even more, I strongly recommend this to anyone who thinks they know Communist history in its monolithic path. The details matter, as well as the personal lives and motivations that push forward such a stark ideology, and this story plays that out as clearly as any I’ve read on the subject.

Book Review: Born Confused

Born ConfusedI got this title through my membership at NetGalley because I was intrigued by the cross-cultural perspective of a second-generation South Asian young woman facing the summer before her senior year. I hoped the immersion in the Indian-American point of view would take me past the very young voice the author imbued in her protagonist, Dimple. It took a few chapters for me to really get into the story given Dimple’s profound lack of self-confidence, her level of self-absorption, and her undiagnosed eating disorder.

It’s evident from the beginning that even Dimple isn’t entirely sure of her perspective:

I didn’t have to struggle for spy status. Fortunately I have this gift for invisibility, which comes in handy when you’re trying to take sneaky peeks at other people’s lives, and which is odd, considering I’m one of only two Indians in the whole school.

Her best friend is deeply troubled from family drama, so the story ends up being about the perverse attempt at exchanging self-hood between the two girls. The patter of the writing style carries a heavy English-as-a-second-language Indian flavor with compound nouns, verbs, and adjectives used liberally in the narrative.

All of these elements combined to make my first impression of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s work lean toward indifference. However, as the narrative unfolds, and Dimple has to learn both about herself and reveal the things she’s kept hidden even from her closest friend, she grows into a surprisingly strong young woman. By the end of the book I was entranced by who she’d become and what she’d learned not only of herself, but also her heritage.

The main issue for me, when reading YA novels, is how callow the protagonists are. In stories where that unformed self is not challenged I’m left frustrated; in this story, Dimple has to come to terms with both her own and her friend’s self-destructive tendencies, as well as learn to understand and accept her family’s love. It ended up being a profound exploration of how to balance different cultural influences in a single individual, and left me satisfied that Dimple could grow into a more interesting adult having faced all the things she started out wishing she could ignore.

For anyone who’s interested in a story with a strong South Asian flavor or one that addresses a different aspect of being a third-culture kid, this one has worthwhile nuggets to recommend itself.

Book Review: Lovers and Beloveds

Lovers & Beloveds: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom (Book 1)As you may remember, one of my goals this round was to post more book reviews… since that was, ostensibly why I started this blog. As I faced the final countdown to the end of my MBA capstone project, all the backlog of my frustration with being kept from my beloved fictional worlds boiled over into a few days of binge reading… when I really should have been focused on other things. Nonetheless: I’m officially done with the MBA, AND I now have time to write about what I’ve read. In this case, a high fantasy novel written by MeiLin Miranda–the woman who’s helped Blurb Doctor some of my own work. Since I discovered she set the first in her series perma-free, and she never requested a review, the fact that I have worked with her may or may not make you think I’m biased about what I’ve read–by way of disclaimer, anyway. In my case, it gave me much greater patience with the first few chapters of the book, when I found it disconcertingly easy to put the book down.

However, the payoff was more than worth it. I kept wondering to myself if this book could be classified as New Adult, since it deals primarily with the stickiness of the coming of age of the heir to the throne of Tremont. Prince Temmin is rightly described by one of his father’s advisers as “callow” early on, which, I suspect, was part of my difficulty in connecting with the first part of the tale. He’s naive to the point of stupidity as the story starts, and even though his arc is satisfying in the end, it’s difficult for me to feel much sympathy for one who is stubbornly caught in the victim-of-circumstance mode, while at the same time not questioning the society that has forced him into that mold.

As an example, it’s his flirty sister at his coming-of-age ball who points out:

“Tem, look around,” she whispered as he offered her a proud arm and they proceeded through the genuflecting crowd. “Notice anything?”

“What am I supposed to be noticing?” he whispered back.

“The young men! Look at them. They’re all trimming their beards to look like you–moustaches and sideburns and no chin whiskers!”

He wonders a few times that his older sister, widely regarded as the most intelligent of the siblings, is not herself a candidate for the throne, and comments that she would be better suited to the job. The interesting thing about the way all this is layered in is the unthinking sexism and unconscious power structure it illustrates as backdrop to the greater and deeper theme of empowerment versus disempowerment.

That motif was what hooked me–and disproved the “young” element of the story. The book evolves into full-fledged eroticism of all stripes and a frank and honest look at all the different reasons people can and do have sex. Playing on some of the real-world “debate” about homosexuality, the conversation about why men would choose to be with men or women with women was a useful counterpoint on the one hand, but a strange perspective that sex with the same sex could still leave you virginal.

The other thread, the almost-immortal Teacher who uses a magical book to instruct the heir on the hidden history of his kingdom–and in particular, the story of one of its previous queens–was a unique use of the frame story technique, that (for me) had the subtext of illustrating how powerful well-written stories are in their formation of our intellectual and emotional selves.

Finally, the cast of characters is compelling–and large. The book closes by bringing back to the fore a minor character from the early chapters, and seems to presage another personage facing similar trials to Temmin’s. However, in this case, it also left me vaguely frustrated that the story would end with her rather than the protagonist. I do give the author the leeway of kicking off a series of books in this volume, but wasn’t pleased to feel left at loose ends.

Overall, I would recommend this to those who enjoy high fantasy that focuses on political machinations and coming-of-age tales–but from a very adult (really, almost erotica) perspective. The couple of weaknesses I saw were more than compensated for by the compelling world-building, intriguing magic, and complex individuals relating to what it means to be an adult making one’s way through a layered world. I will be reading Son in Sorrow when I get the chance, which is perhaps the strongest indication of how much I enjoyed my foray into the Greater Kingdom.

Cover Reveal: Hallow’s Eve Triptych

Hallow's Eve Triptych by Tonya CannariatoLast night I got the gift of my latest cover, so today… I’m sharing the love with everyone else!


I’m in the final rounds of editing and tweaking this set of three short stories, and have tentatively decided release day is 11/27. Mark your calendars!


Together, the collection is me pushing my own boundaries about what is spooky, as well as playing with some religious/spiritual themes. Without further ado, then, here’s the blurb:

Explore the mysterious intersection of a day-in-the-life and the reality just the other side of the thinning veils in these three thematically linked tales. In “Last Supper,” discover the true wedge that drove Lana’s family to dissolve. In “Through A Mirror, Darkly,” watch as a family legacy explodes into Richard’s medical world. In “Root of All Evil,” learn how Leslie finds herself with a little help from the other side. In the end, it isn’t horrifying if the characters can learn to expand their souls.

The stories are a slight departure from my normal focus on the paranormal, but the shift was a lot of fun for me to explore. I hope you enjoy them too. (And for those of you who want such a reminder, I’ve posted Hallow’s Eve Triptych to Goodreads, so you can add it to your to-read list.)


What Do You Look for in a Review?

Based on an invitation I received via GoodReads, I decided to join a Blog Hop describing what it is I look for in a review–and what it is I try to include in my own reviews–even though this represents a bonus post for this week. 😉


If you read the results from the poll that inspired the hop, you’ll see most of what I like to see in reviews: Cover, blurb, additional description, link to purchase, etc. The thing I like to see in addition: a bit of an excerpt that gives me some of the voice of the author and introduces me to how the characters interact.

I avoid spoilers like the plague (though I’m typically the goof who reads the end of the book before I read the book as part of my enticement to buy the book outright–when I have that option in a book store). I’ve added books to my to-read pile based on enthusiastic, thoughtful reviews, and I really like playing book match-maker: Addressing a particular friend who has enjoyed something I’ve enjoyed and sharing books from my library with them to add to our shared vocabulary of fictional characters.

So while my reviews have some “liked this, didn’t like this” elements to them, I’m leery about putting a specific star rating on a review because my goal is to address the people who would like this kind of book based on other kinds of books that fall within the same broad spectrum. I know my taste doesn’t match everyone else’s, so my goal is not to impose what appeals to me so much as draw parallels and vet new books as being worth the purchase price (as opposed to a library trip).

I also know everyone has limited time for reviews, so I try to keep things short–unless the particular quote from a given book runs long. 😉

I don’t like writing negative reviews; someone put time and effort into generating this collection of words. But I’m getting to the point where I have less and less patience for the massive plot holes and indifferent editing that I’ve seen in some books (including from Big 6 publishers). So where it’s merited, I’ve started tagging books “incompetent” for those failures in preparation. I’ve finished the book (otherwise I wouldn’t review it at all), and some readers might be able to overlook those persistent problems, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the book for purchase without that level of extreme disclaimer.

Plot Bunnies and Story Prompts

Plot BunniesI received my edited manuscript this morning in the wee hours. I have a lot of work to do. As my editor said: “You’ve fallen into some bad habits…” Ominous words for an impending deadline.

The good news is, she likes the plot, the characters, and the ending, so the rest is just editing my laziness (otherwise known as speed-writing at the tail end of NaNoWriMo last year, trying to cram the remainder of the story into the short deadline). So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about all the other stories I could be writing. Because anything could be more fun than the hard work of revising my own logorrhea. (And, what better excuse to share a picture of some baby bunnies we rescued from our back yard a few years back…)

Kidding aside, I figured I’d share some of the plot bunnies that occurred to me today (or recently), while I was procrastinating facing both blogging and editing duties:

  • A conflict of tastebuds: A new romance, soured by the need for different definitions of home cooking
  • Hidden magic: Two long-time friends, one of whom develops magical abilities she has to hide
  • An assistant, trapped by a magical house after her boss dies and a high-tech mausoleum springs into being
  • A young woman who must learn to control “her” elements, or be consumed by them
  • A 16th-century monk looks up from prayer and discovers he’s in a 20th-century airport terminal
  • Not to mention the decent start I have on book 2 of the Red Slaves series…

And, if those aren’t your cup of tea (I’ve written a few hundred words on four out of those five plot thoughts), there are actually plot generators online:

If you feel like voting on my next non-Red Slaves story idea, let me know in the comments, otherwise… I’m off to slay the editing demon this week.

Book Excerpt: Zombie Candy

This week’s posts come to you courtesy Novel Publicity, where author Frederick Lee Brooke is getting a little help promoting his latest effort–while I take a little bit of a breather and try to catch up with my Camp NaNoWriMo commitment.



Please enjoy this excerpt from Zombie Candy, a genre-bending mystery by Frederick Lee Brooke. Then read on to learn how you can win huge prizes as part of this blog tour, including $550 in Amazon gift cards, a Kindle Fire, and 5 autographed copies of the book.


They sit at long tables under grape arbors. Heavy bunches of grapes hang from the vines. An eight-piece dance band in white tuxes and black bow ties plays tunes from every decade. Heavy silver dessert forks and coffee spoons rest untouched on the linen tablecloth. She can’t eat another bite. All the glasses, at least, she has used: white wine, red wine, water.

A light breeze comes up. It feels heavenly on her face. With nightfall, the heat has gone out of the air. The heat must be trapped in these old stone walls — the walls of the farmhouse, the walls surrounding the vineyard. The aroma of fresh herbs floats from a nearby garden, rosemary, and mint, she thinks as she watches people dancing. The bride, her beautiful white dress with the daring silk bodice; the groom’s parents, a man with close-cropped gray hair and a red rose in his lapel, and his wife in a shimmering blue dress that looks specially made by an Italian designer.

She keeps one eye on the young man in the navy suit with the green silk tie. He looks like something Michelangelo might have sculpted, then breathed life into. This young man knows everyone here, and has danced every dance for the last hour. But he’s dancing with both older and younger women, probably cousins, friends, the mothers of cousins and friends. She has no idea who he is.

She feels outclassed in her red silk dress from Bloomingdale’s. She had worn the same dress at a wedding in June in Chicago. No one here has ever seen it. If there are any more weddings this fall, she will just have to go shopping in Siena or even Florence, that’s all there is to it.

“May I have this dance?”

Like a vision, Michelangelo man stands beside her. Has somebody cast a magic spell here? How did he sneak up on her like that? She didn’t even notice the song had ended. Or that another one had started.

“I’m not much of a dancer.”

“We’ll see.” He tugs her hand.

“Really, you don’t have to.” He obviously feels a duty to make sure every woman in the place gets at least one dance.

“Of course I don’t have to. I’ve danced with all the women I was obligated to dance with. Now I want to dance with you.”

She doesn’t need more arm-twisting than this. He leads her to the dance floor. The band is playing a quiet song from the 1940s, she thinks, something familiar. Grape arbors surround the dance floor and fill the air with sweet perfume. He turns and puts one hand around her waist. “My name is Giancarlo,” he says, switching to Italian.

“Candace,” she says. “I’ve been here for three weeks. I can’t believe I’m at this beautiful wedding.”

“Your Italian is marvelous.”

Your lips are marvelous, she thinks. Your curly hair, the color of black coffee, and your handsome chiseled face are marvelous too. But you can’t say such things to a man you’ve never met before. Not in Tuscany. At least not before the end of the first dance. He glides around the floor, leading her with slight shifts in his weight, slight pressure with his hands. Her feet know where to go, just as her mouth knows how to form the words.

“We don’t have weddings like this in Chicago. The food … the music … the grapes.”

“My uncle’s house is nice,” Giancarlo agrees. “But I am sorry for Lucia. She has married a playboy. I do not think they will be happy.”

“They certainly look happy.”

Giancarlo makes a face. “I should not talk about the details. I know him. I’ve known him all my life, and he will never change. I tried to talk to my cousin, but she is in love and blind. What can we do?”

Giancarlo’s smile, Candace realizes, has a hypnotizing effect. Thank God a fast dance is starting, the Bee Gees. He makes no attempt to bring her back to the table, merely releases his hold on her waist.

“You are a beautiful dancer,” he says when the Bee Gees song ends. The band takes a break. Everyone is leaving the dance floor. Her heart sinks. Somehow she has managed to cling to him for two dances, something no woman before her had managed. Now he will bring her back to her table, his duty done. He will go back to his people.

“Thank you for the lovely dances.”

“Come, let’s get some fresh air. I’ll show you around,” Giancarlo says. And the really amazing thing is he doesn’t let go of her hand.

As part of this special promotional extravaganza sponsored by Novel Publicity, the price of the Zombie Candy eBook edition is just 99 cents this week. What’s more, by purchasing this fantastic book at an incredibly low price, you can enter to win many awesome prizes. The prizes include $550 in Amazon gift cards, a Kindle Fire, and 5 autographed copies of the book.

All the info you need to win one of these amazing prizes is RIGHT HERE. Remember, winning is as easy as clicking a button or leaving a blog comment–easy to enter; easy to win!

To win the prizes:

  1. Purchase your copy of Zombie Candy for just 99 cents
  2. Enter the Rafflecopter contest on Novel Publicity
  3. Visit today’s featured social media event

About the book: Weaving elements of mystery, horror, and romance in a hilarious romp that starts in Chicago and ends in a quaint medieval town in sun-drenched Tuscany, Zombie Candy is a genre-hopping knee-slapper of a novel. Get it on Amazon.

About the author: Frederick Lee Brooke has worked as an English teacher, language school manager, and small business owner and has traveled extensively in Tuscany, the setting of part of Zombie Candy. Visit Fred on his website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads accounts.

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Review: The Trouble with Tuck

The Trouble with TuckI rang in the new year with a quick trip to visit family in Virginia, where I have a niece in the third grade. My brother honored me by giving her my name as her middle name and making me her godmother, so I try to pay close attention to what she’s up to–despite the distance that separates us. So while I was at their house and found her notebook with this book casually placed on top of it (and her brother informed me that it was for a class assignment in that funny way older siblings have), I thought I’d browse through it a bit while the house was quiet in the afternoon.

I did not expect to be sucked into the story in such a way that I found it impossible to put the book down. Author Theodore Taylor wrote The Trouble with Tuck in 1981 after having heard of a real-life tale of how a young girl in California dealt with her dog’s Progressive Retinal Atrophy. It’s set in the mid-50s and feels rooted in that time. From the product description:

Helen adored her beautiful golden Labrador from the first moment he was placed in her arms, a squirming fat sausage of creamy yellow fur. As her best friend, Friar Tuck waited daily for Helen to come home from school and play. He guarded her through the long, scary hours of the dark night. Twice he even saved her life.

Now it’s Helen’s turn. No one can say exactly when Tuck began to go blind. Probably the light began to fail for him long before the alarming day when he raced after some cats and crashed through the screen door, apparently never seeing it. But from that day on, Tuck’s trouble–and how to cope with it–becomes the focus of Helen’s life. Together they fight the chain that holds him and threatens to break his spirit, until Helen comes up with a solution so new, so daring, there’s no way it can fail.

The story moved me to tears–twice. Even reading the last three chapters aloud to my nephew was challenging, as Helen’s stubbornness warred with Tuck’s.

While this really is a story about the depth of relationship available between humans and their pets, the interesting subtext is how that relationship helps the human side of the equation grow as an individual. Helen isn’t even aware of her parents’ reasoning in giving her the puppy as a gift, but comments by her brothers, and, in the final chapters, her own self-evaluation, clarify her evolution in self-confidence.

I could deeply empathize with Helen’s drive to keep Tuck alive and appreciated the creativity she brought to bear in pursuing that end. On top of which, two days later I got to help my niece write up her first book report and talk with her seriously about the merits of the book she had just finished reading (while laughing internally at the irony that I write these essays for fun, while she faced the daunting task of stringing sentences into paragraphs in a logical way for the first time). For all these reasons, I’m happy to recommend this book to any animal lover–and certainly to any parent or care-giver who wants to enthrall their charge with a moving story about how life with even a disabled pet can enrich the life of the person who is dedicated to their care.

Review: The Whole Truth

The Whole TruthAuthor Jim Murdoch contacted me to review the omnibus edition of his two paperbacks, Living with the Truth and Stranger Than Fiction, which he’s released as an eBook, available only via Smashwords. In specific, he was looking for a critique of the story arc across the two books. From that perspective, this is an easy task: They are mirrors of the same life, recalling the biblical passage “through a mirror, darkly” of 1 Corinthians 13, and particularly apt as one is viewed from the living perspective and one the dead. (Ironically, given the several Star Trek references, also sprinkled throughout the books, I suppose it could reference “In a Mirror, Darkly” too.)

From the blurb, then:

Jonathan Payne is a jaded bookseller at the end of a wasted life which has been spent in a dull north England seaside town. He could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He’s both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he has been happy to read about life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. If Death were to knock on his door it wouldn’t trouble him greatly.

The knock comes, only it’s not Death. It’s the truth; literally, the human personification of truth.

Based on this, I was expecting something along the lines of Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality” series, exploring the nature of archetypal expressions in the world. What I got was more like the classic Vivian Mercier review of Samuel Beckett’s  Waiting for Godot, which she described as a play which “has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6.). While this parallel may have been intentional, given Murdoch’s avowed adoration of anything Beckett, the existential blues were not really what I wanted to immerse myself in.

It also plays against that review in that this is not a book you can pick up and finish in one sitting. And it took me until well into it to catch on to the regionalisms Murdoch gives voice to–as well as learning to live with his pedantic style. There were so many nods to other great authors throughout the writing that it almost conveyed as an homage to The Book, without giving his characters the understanding that those books can convey:

No, he had his wall packed full of books (and very impressive it was, too) but that was it. He’d always adored those films where they showed the interiors of libraries with the walls covered in leather-bound volumes, particularly those where you needed to ascend a spiral staircase to reach the next level. Lip-smacking stuff. But there was simply no scope for something as ostentatious as that in here. He hadn’t read everything there. That wasn’t the point. A lot of it was for show and nothing more, so that, when he died, the undertakers would be able to lean on his coffin, enjoy a fag, look up at the wall of books and say, “My, ‘e must ‘ave been a clever bugger,” before carting him off down the back stairs.

From the philosophical perspective, we get let in on all the little (and big) secrets Truth can’t help but divulge; and Truth himself grows to appreciate Jonathan’s crotchety ways by the end of the first book–even encouraging the dour man to enjoy a day off, fishing. But reading about someone who “from all accounts … avoided making any of the important decisions in [his] life” behaves as a consistent misanthrope and feel a vague guilt about it… is not particularly entertaining to me.

The life review in reverse, in the second book, then, takes the questions raised about the nature of Life, The Universe, and Everything (intentional Douglas Adams reference, since his name comes up more than a few times in the course of the story) and drives it to its absurd end. God is sick of his immortal helpers’ inability to keep a Macrouniverse going:

Big G’s fed up having to set off big bangs every few billion years. They’re not cheap for starters. So, before we do this one, we’ve got to try and suss out where we went wrong the last four times. Which means we’ve got to go through every one that’s ever existed with a nit comb to make sure why they screwed up and to try and stop it happening again.

The reader is introduced to a few of the other immortals (the brush with Reality was, paradoxically, particularly distorted), and Jonathan is made to feel the embarrassment of his inadequacies all over again. The whole thing wraps up with an existentially nihilistic view: Yeah… we get another do-over, but it still doesn’t matter. Ironic, given that we’re doing it all for God, in the view of the immortals, who are prodding their little guinea pigs through the maze.

Given my own philosophical inclinations, this was a tough pill to swallow. Having let the story sit (and having taken longer than my normal book-in-a-day digestion), I can see Murdoch is noodling on some interesting themes, but I can’t say my appreciation for his pedantic style or nihilistic conclusion has sat with me any better. This one seems best geared to professorial types who enjoy nitpicking a theme into oblivion, but hasn’t encouraged me to go looking for more of the same from this author.

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