Weekly Read: Off to Be the Wizard

Off to Be the Wizard is a funny book. Very funny in some spots. It’s humor and general breeziness make it a quick read, but its charm can only carry it so far.

Martin is a computer geek. One night he discovers (on just about the very first page of the book – it works better than I expected) a text file, plays around with it, and discovers that chestnut sci-fi trope: that our world is really just a computer simulation, with parameters that can be endlessly modified. In short order he’s essentially practicing magic by summoning sums of money from thin air, teleporting, and travelling through time. It’s the first of those that gets him in trouble (damned Treasury agents) and cause him to flee not just to another place, but another time – medieval England.

At this point, I expected the story to turn into something like Doomsday Book, but with jokes, where Martin has to use his wits and “wizardry” to survive. Instead, Martin falls into a community of similar time travelers and spends most of the book interacting only with them. Aside from a few mentions here and there, the same story could have been told in the Old West, feudal Japan, or the prehistoric African plains. It’s a huge wasted opportunity and hints one of my main problems with the book.

That is, things are much too easy for Martin and his friends. Not only are they not subject to the vagaries of medieval life (aside from a wonderful running joke about stew), there isn’t even any real conflict happening until, about 3/4 of the way through the book, the author realizes there has to be. The resulting ending, with a big bad that comes out of nowhere and has a temporary menace that the rest of the book doesn’t justify, is too quick and perfunctory to mean much.

What that leaves is a bunch of Martin, mostly in the company of his older (and more interesting) mentor Phillip, learning how all the wizarding works. This provides some good chances for comedy, but the need to build up Martin’s need to pass “the trials” is undercut by there not actually being any. Aside from one run in with bullies, at no point does anything that might hint at a book-defining conflict pop up.

Along the way, anything that might complicate the wizards’ fairly easy life (typical time travel issues like changing the past/future, the ability to power computers in medieval England, etc.) get hand waved away. On the one hand, I like that – it’s a funny book, not a deeply thought out treatise on the potential hazards and difficulties of time travel. But still, having everything work out so easily almost renders the time travel pointless. No surprise, then, that Martin is never seriously pulled by a desire to return to his own time (to be fair, he’s never given a reason to be pulled).

That also keeps Martin from really interacting with the world he’s time travelled himself into. This is a particularly glaring missed opportunity because it really emphasizes the absence of women from the book. Martin’s mother gets a mention or two and there’s a crazy old woman with goat problems, but otherwise the only woman around is Gwen. She goes from a complete blank of a character (main defining feature – all the wizards want to do her) to,  magically, a big player when the plot finally cranks up. There’s no ground work laid for this and it comes completely out of the blue (deus ex vagina, perhaps?).

There are other women who have found the file and travelled back to this time, but they’ve all headed off to Atlantis, conveniently off screen (to be fair, the second book in the series goes there, so I’ve read). But that doesn’t explain why, in the day to day of living, Martin and his pals are able to avoid any contact with the opposite sex. It’s the kind of blind spot you’d expect in some of the foundational fantasy literature the book gently satirizes, but not something written in the second decade of the 21st Century.

That all sounds harsh, and maybe it is. But, like I said, being funny can take a book a long way and Off to Be the Wizard is funny. And in Philip, the wizard from a slightly older time who finds himself out of step with the more currently pop culturally savvy wizards (he knows not of The Simpsons, for instance), it has a really interesting, greatly drawn characters. Except for one thing – when, late in the book, he’s able to crank Genesis on his car stereo (yes, in medieval England – you’ll have to read the book), it’s completely out of character that it’s something from the poppy Phil Collins era (“That’s All,” to be specific – there’s a hilarious discussion of the video). I mean, come on! Surely “Watcher of the Skies” or the end of “Supper’s Ready” would have been more appropriate!

As I was saying – a fun book, a quick read with lots of laughs. However, its flaws stand out enough that I’m not interested in heading further into the series.

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Hear Those Tiny Auto Horns

Sometimes a headline skips across your screen and you just have to see if the article really lives up to it. Take this one, from CNet a few weeks ago:

Moths take tiny cars out for a spin

You have my attention.

Turns out, scientists have gotten silkmoths to drive tiny cars in search of mates using pheromones:

The methodology taps into how moths sense the world around them: the sensitive scent receptors on their antennae. The researchers placed a target scented with female silkworm moth pheromones, then observed the tethered male moths driving the car toward that target.

How does a moth drive a car with no hands? With an air-supported trackball, much like a mouse trackball. As the moth crawls around on the ball toward the scented target, optical sensors track the ball’s movement and translate that into steering, moving the car in the same direction.

The end game is a better understanding of the ability of insects to detect scents. That could, in theory, lead to a future where the bomb-sniffing dog or cadaver dog is replaced by a drone or robot guided by insect senses.

But the real question that needs immediate follow up is this – when these moths are out cruising for chicks, are they cranking side one of Led Zeppelin IV?

Weekly Read: A Darker Shade of Magic

According to Wikipedia there are over a dozen places (worth of note) across the globe called “London,” from Ontario to West Virginia to California to Kiribati, not to mention the big one in England. In spite of whatever differences those places have, they all share the fact that they are part of our world and bound by the laws of physics.

The Londons of A Darker Shade of Magic, not so much. They’re all in the same place as London, England, but all they really share in common is the name. Grey London (which is ours, I’m pretty sure) is dreary and dull, when it comes to magic. By contrast, magic thrives in Red London and is an important part of life there. It’s more of a power struggle in brutal White London. What magic did to Black London is, well, pretty awful.

A Darker Shade of Magic is the story of Kell, one of the few people with the ability to move back and forth between the various Londons. He serves as a courier, technically working for the king in Red London, but taking messages both ways. He also has a side gig, smuggling small objections from one London to the other. It’s in that capacity that he gets into trouble (isn’t that always the case?) and, in the process, threatens the safety of Red London and all those he cares about. Along the way he acquires a sidekick in Lilah, a pickpocket from Grey London with big dreams (she wants to be a pirate) and, we’re lead to believe, a bit of a secret when it comes to magic.

There are other characters, too, wonderfully drawn and (in some cases) downright frightening. Their interaction is the best thing about A Darker Shade of Magic, whether it’s slowly growing admiration of Lilah’s abilities by Kell, the attempts of Kell’s semi-brother Rhy to hit on her, or the way the king and queen of White London completely control a room (and a kingdom). It helps that the book takes the time to build these worlds up (the first third is, essentially, a travelogue as Kell moves from one London to the other) so that the characters seem like natural expressions of those places.

In fact, the scene setting is more interesting than the real plot, when it finally gets to it. Part of the issue is that there are dual threats that seem like they might be linked, but we never really find out if they are. They create a lot of havoc for our heroes, but it’s unclear to just what end. One thing I will note, however, is that while this is the first book of a series, it does tell a complete story, while managing to leave enough dangling to make you want to read more.

Where things go wonky is where magic plays a key role in the plot. That’s because the magic of A Darker Shade of Magic tends to morph to fit the needs of the plot. We’re initially told that what makes Kell (and his White London counterpart, Holland) special is that they alone can travel between the Londons, an increasingly rare skill. But by the end of the book Lilah and others are doing it, too, with no particularly good explanation. Also, at a critical moment near the climax of the book, game winning magic essentially becomes a Peter Pan “wish hard and it works” exercise. It’s kind of disappointing that for a story where magic is talked about so much and plays such a key role in things that it’s nature, scope, and impact doesn’t seem well thought out.

As big of a hole as that sounds for a book with the word “magic” in the title, it’s really not. The end destination may not live up to the hype, the journey is well worth it. As I said, this book tells a complete story and I could walk away from the series, satisfied, if a little disappointed. I’m not. Which should tell you something.

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Where the Magic Happens

Recently one of the writers forums I’m on had people sharing pictures of their writing setups. It’s always interesting to see where everybody works, so I thought I’d share with the wider world.

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As you can see, my writing station also doubles as noise making station. Essentially, my wife and I each have a room for our creative toys (she has a loom!), so all my stuff lives together.

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Note the books in the background, overwhelming their once well organized shelves (books are an essential part of any writer’s toolkit). As for the noise makers on the left there, that’s a Korg M50 workstation on the bottom (with fuzz box and Korg Kaosilator perched on top), with an Alesis Micron virtual analog synth on top. Both of those (and all the other hardware) runs into the Zoom R16 mixer/recorder there in the angle.

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The PC there is where the writing happens and where the noises get collected and shaped into something interesting (hopefully). Yes, wine is sometimes involved – why do you ask? These noisemakers are, on top, a Nord Lead 2X virtual analog synth (in rack form), a Novation Bass Station II virtual analog synth, and a Moog Minitaur analog synth. On bottom is a M-Audio MIDI controller that I use for the Nord and the software synths on the PC. I use the Novation to control the Minitaur these days.

It’s not the most elegant setup, or the most efficient (notice I don’t really have a place to sit), but it works. For me, anyway.

Author Interview – Patricia Hopper Patteson

Joining me this month is West Virginia author Patricia Hopper Patteson, whose new book Corrib Red comes out in March.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

Hi, I am Patricia Hopper Patteson. I am what you might call a tenement rat from Dublin, Ireland. For the first few years of my life I grew up in what is now the trendy part of the city called Temple Bar. Way back, this area of the city was known for its sub-standard tenement flats. At age seven my family moved from the city to the suburbs. I came to Morgantown, West Virginia as a bride back in the 70’s and have been here ever since. I write non-fiction, short fiction and novels.

How does your transatlantic background inform your writing?

Having a transatlantic background (love that term) is like speaking two languages in a way. I behave differently depending on whether I’m here or in Ireland. Living abroad certainly affects how I write and what I write about. Interestingly, I received my undergraduate and graduate degree from [West Virginia University] as a non-traditional student. So my introduction to creative writing came from WVU. My core introduction to story-telling comes from my parents, who made up stories to tell us as young children.

This trilogy at the core is about emigration. About the Irish in earlier centuries who came to the US but never returned home. That’s what the first book is about—returning home. Whatever extra money the Irish had after they emigrated was sent home to help the family survive. Many emigrated out of necessity in a time when travel was difficult and money was scarce, unlike today where we have so many ways to stay connected to family and friends

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

Kilpara is my first novel in a three-part historical nineteenth century family saga series. It takes place in both the US and Ireland and begins in Maryland in 1866 right after the Civil War. The second novel called Corrib Red is due out in March and is the second novel in the series. It takes place almost completely in Ireland and jumps a generation to two sisters who are coming of age and face the dilemma of choices available to them within the period constraints. The third novel in the series starts ten years later and takes place in both Ireland and The US. An illegitimate African-American daughter is central to this story that comes together in Ireland and throws the family off center.

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I’m intrigued by the span of time you plan to cover in your family saga series. Was that always the plan, or did the specific stories you’re telling just work best in those periods?

The first book was initially two stories and everyone that read it said it should be two separate stories. So when I began fleshing out and editing Kilpara I found out I had enough material to make it a complete novel, so the story reads that way.

I love anything to do with the US Civil War and the first novel begins right after the US Civil War (1866). When I was growing up I never heard anything about the Irish in the US Civil War. I was surprised when I first went to Antietam and Gettysburg to learn how many Irish fought in that war. That’s why I chose that period.

I jump a generation for the second novel Corrib Red which takes place mostly in Ireland (1885). This is Parnell’s time, and I’ve always loved what he did for Ireland, and how tragic it was that he died young. Many Irish turned against him when they learned he was involved with a married woman, whom he later married before he died. His history gives great insight into the culture and mind-set of the time.

The third novel (in-progress) takes place about ten years later (1896). This was a time of cultural awareness in Ireland that later influenced history in the early part of twentieth century.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Right now I’m primarily writing historical fiction, but I have other projects started like mystery, romance and young adult. I find historical fiction fascinating. Although the 19th century was a less complicated time, it’s hard to imagine living without the conveniences we have today. People were far more interactive because they had less distractions and outside commitments. Just think, women who could afford servants, spent much of their day changing clothes for different events, breakfast, lunch, walks, visitors, dinner. It seems exhausting by today’s standards especially now when you can just put on a pair of jeans and go. Women were also restricted by societal norms and were treated like property by the men they married.

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Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

The idea for the novel is the easy part. It’s developing a whole concept for a novel that’s the challenge. Once the concept for the beginning, middle and end begin to gel in my mind I start to outline the story.  I generally like to start the first couple of chapters to get a feel for the characters and story at the same time I’m fleshing out the outline. After the first couple of chapters I finish the outline completely so I have a guide. On this third novel I’m trying something new which is telling the story from two POVs and switching from first person to third person. To make this work I’m doing alternating chapters—so it’s a bit of a challenge. I go through many edits of the novel starting with content, then grammar and proofing. After about the third or fourth edit the book starts to take shape. The last thing I do is read the whole novel out loud.

What do you get out of that process that you don’t get from just reading it with a red pen in hand?

When I edit with a pen I hear the story in my mind. However, when I read the novel out loud, I hear each word I speak. I prefer it if I can get someone else to read the story out loud, because then I really hear things more. But that doesn’t always happen. When reading out loud I can hear words that are unnecessary, phases that may be too long, and ramblings that may need to be tightened, scenes that could use some tidying up, and the pacing. I work on all of these things during the editing phases, but reading out loud helps me find anything I may have missed.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I have two favorite characters in the family saga series, although I must say I like all of the characters. The two that are most challenging are Cecil and Aunjel.

Cecil is a 19th century sociopath and very evil. I always love to read about evil characters in novels and look for their redeeming qualities. Cecil doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. He thinks he’s above everyone and everything and takes revenge on anyone who goes against him in a major way.

Aunjel is one of the two main characters in book three of the series and she’s the daughter of Lilah, a light-colored African-American. Lilah has a mutual liaison with Ellis O’Donovan, an aristocrat and major character, in book one. Aunjel is the result of that liaison although Ellis doesn’t know about her until book three. Aunjel also grows up believing her biological father is an African-American. To create Aunjel I wrote a 13,000 word story about Lilah, Aunjel’s mother, and her background, so that I could better understand Aunjel and her challenges in the late 1800s

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

In book three of the series I send David Ligham, a fairly major character in book two, away to West Africa to negotiate a peace treaty with King Prempeh of the Ashanti tribe. This is fictional of course, but there was a lot of conflict going on between the British and the Ashanti tribe around that period. I read three books on the subject to write a few paragraphs.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

There are many things a writer learns along the way that it’s hard to know where to begin. The importance of editing is the one thing that helps establish a writer and gets them recognized. Also, if you find another writer who you trust completely to read your novel, or short fiction, and give you honest feedback, this will help avoid weaknesses in your writing.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

It probably wouldn’t change things all that much. However, I would love to write a novel set around the Grand Canyon, and it would be nice to spend time there to research the area.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

One author I had heard about, but hadn’t read any of his work is Ken Follett. I recently read The Man from St. Petersburg and thoroughly enjoyed the novel. In this novel Follett brings London to life in the early 1900s, and the characters and plot are intriguing.

 What do you think your next project will be?

I’d like to write a historical romance that takes place in present time, and I’d like to write a young adult mystery novel.

How would you write a historical romance that takes place in the present time? That sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Sorry about the contraction of terms. I may have been a bit lazy. It’s really a modern day romance with historical undertones.

For example a situation that takes place in today’s world that is parallel in some way to Abraham Lincoln’s unfortunate assassination. The male protagonist won’t be a president, more likely a congressman or a senator, or even a mayor. He will try to save a small town from being overrun by corrupt business associates. These associates want to move a gambling casino into the town as a front to launder illegal money. The female protagonist would be the conduit between the present and the past. She would discover a dress worn by Mary Todd Lincoln tucked away in her great-aunt’s attic. Every time she puts on the dress (or maybe just touches the dress) Mary Lincoln’s ghost appears to warn about danger. Mary’s ghost will help the female protagonist avert the assassination of the present day male protagonist. This of course pushes the male and female protagonists together.

This the long way to explain what I mean. It’s a story I’d like to write but haven’t figured out the complete concept yet.

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Get Kilpara at Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Learn more about Corrib Red at Cactus Rain Publishing

Is Hate Reading Really a Thing?

I’ve long understood that there’s such a thing as “hate watching,” particularly for TV shows. On the one hand, I get it – it’s a way to keep in the conversation about a popular show, even if you don’t like it. On the other hand, what’s the point? We’re living in the era of peak TV and if you don’t like one series there are bound to be others out there that are more worth spending your time with.

Now I’m wondering if hate reading had become a thing, which makes even less sense.

I came across this recently after I finished up the fourth volume of Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man. The series, about the literal last man on Earth (a pathogen of some kind killed every male – human or otherwise – on the planet) navigating a world run by women, is fairly acclaimed, but not everybody digs it. That’s perfectly OK (all art appreciation is personal, after all). But by the fourth of five volumes, you’d figure the people still reading are pretty much fans.

When I finish reading something I head over to Goodreads and see what other folks think of it. It’s interesting to see where my opinion fits and whether I like or loathe something for the same reason other folks do. In the case of Y, I was drawn to a 3-star review, because I often find “negative” review more interesting that positive ones. Still, I was a bit perplexed by the opening:

After hating deluxe editions 1, 2 and 3, I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but it turned out to be marginally better.

Talk about damning with faint praise. The reviewer concludes that she was “looking forward to” finishing volume five and “not having to read a Brian Vaughn comic again.”

What the hell? I mean, I can see reading the first book in an acclaimed series, not being all that impressed, but deciding that you should give the second book a try to see if it gets better. It’s like buying an album by a band that’s new to you and deciding, even though you don’t like it much, to get another just to make sure you’re not missing anything (I speak from experience – I have a habit of buying the wrong album when I try a new band). But that’s a far stretch from “hating” something. If you hated the first one, and certainly the second one, why waste your time with any others?

I suppose Brian K. Vaughn is coming to her home and holding a gun to her while she reads his comic (maybe he uses a service – give me referral, Brian!)? Otherwise I can’t figure how anyone anywhere is ever “forced” to read a book they don’t want to read. That’s something you can only force yourself to do, for whatever strange reason you might want to subject yourself to displeasure.

Far be it from me to discourage reading for any reason, even if it’s just to get a good hate on. All I’m saying is that life is too damned short to read bad books, watch bad movies, or listen to bad music. If you read a book and hate it, I can guarantee that there are countless books you could read next that aren’t that book’s sequel. Take a chance on a new author, a new series. What’s the worst that can happen?

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Attributed to James Joyce. He was onto something.

Weekly Read: The Liberation

It’s a good rule of thumb, although not an iron clad law, that the second part of a trilogy is never as good as the first part (Godfather Part Two, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Endless Hills are exceptions to the rule, of course). It’s hard to match the excitement of discovery you get from the first installment’s introduction of the characters and the world their moving around in. In addition, the second part is usually a bridge between the introduction and the climax. It’s a natural area for a bit of a letdown. The real issue is, how does the final installment stack up?

When I reviewed the first two parts of Ian Tregillis’s The Alchemy Wars last year, I noted that they followed the pattern. The Mechanical introduced us to a really cool world, a handful of interesting characters, and some big overarching questions about such minor things as free will and the nature of sentience. The Rising didn’t quite live up to that promise, focusing on some rousing action and pushing some of the more philosophical stuff to the side. Also, there was a whole section in the middle of the book that didn’t really seem to matter that much.

Well, remember what I said about middles and all that? Tregillis finishes up the trilogy with The Liberation, a rousing conclusion that, if anything, comes along just a little too quickly.

At the beginning of The Liberation, the Dutch Empire that has essentially conquered the world with its magically powered “clakkers” (clockwork people) has, to be kind, been put on its back foot. It’s not giving things away to say that The Liberation is about an oppressed people in revolt. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t present a simple good-guys-throw-off-their-yokes narrative. There are factions amongst the clakkers, deep philosophical divisions of the type that you’d find in most human uprisings. After spending most of The Rising in North America, the primary focus of The Liberation is the European mainland, particularly The Hague.

Having said that, there’s a key part of the story that plays out in North America (around the non-clakker enclave of New France). The stories in the New World and Old World play out in parallel, until, about two-thirds of the way in, we learn that one preceded the other. It’s a neat trick on Tregillis’s part, some temporal sleight of hand that allows the two stories to develop well on their own before the reader needs to know how they’re related.

It’s a bit of a shame, then, that when the end comes it comes very quickly. Not out of nowhere – the pieces are all moved into place quite well – but it doesn’t quite seem up to the task. I’m hesitant to complain because Tregillis has given us an ending, one that – just like the real world – wraps up most loose ends, but allows some questions to linger that will have to be answered in the future. It’s a fitting cap to an inventive and immersive read.

As far as I know, Tregillis doesn’t have any future plans for this universe. I hope I’m wrong, because I’d be really interested to see what’s happening in a generation or two.

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Over 70 Authors! 99-Cent Books! You Can’t Miss This!

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To kick off the new year, I’ve joined with over 70 other writers of speculative fiction – fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. – to spread the word about our 99-cent books.

For me that means The Water Road, of course, so if you haven’t checked it out yet this is the time. Be sure to look over the other offerings, too, because there’s bound to be something in there for just about everyone. The promo runs through January 14. See all the participating books here.

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The Simple Power of “What If?”

Every work of fiction, or damned near every one, can been seen as an answer to a “what if?” question. What if a family has to uproot their entire existence because of climate change? What if most of a small town’s children are killed in a tragic accident? What if a young attorney’s cushy law firm is a front for the mob? On and on it goes.

The power of “what if?” is given particularly free reign in speculative fiction, since the question doesn’t have to conform itself to the real world. Stepping outside reality to ask the question can still lead to powerful insights into the real world, however.

Last week while putting laundry away I stumbled into a Twilight Zone marathon on TV. The episode I landed on, “I Am the Night – Color Me Black”, that takes a preposterously simple “what if?” question and uses it to drill down about the human condition. The opening narration lays it out:

Sheriff Charlie Koch on the morning of an execution. As a matter of fact, it’s seven-thirty in the morning. Logic and natural laws dictate that at this hour there should be daylight. It is a simple rule of physical science that the sun should rise at a certain moment and supersede the darkness. But at this given moment, Sheriff Charlie Koch, a deputy named Pierce, a condemned man named Jagger, and a small, inconsequential village will shortly find out that there are causes and effects that have no precedent. Such is usually the case—in the Twilight Zone.

In typical Twilight Zone fashion the supernatural event isn’t really the important part of the story. It’s how it throws everyone in the episode out of equilibrium and allows the filters of euphemism and manners to slip enough to see peoples’ true selves. Thus, not only do we have the deputy who’s certain (against the evidence) that Jagger is guilty, but we get the realization that Jagger is pretty much a douche, anyway. He may have been wronged, but that doesn’t make him right.

So the darkness lingers, until after the execution when we learn that it’s appearing all over the world, at locations like the Berlin Wall, Budapest, and a street in Dallas (keep in mind, the episode first aired four months after the Kennedy assassination). So, in less than half an hour, a simple question – “what if one morning the sun didn’t rise?” – leads us to, on the micro and macro scale, sober observations on human nature.

That’s the simple power of “what if?” when it comes to storytelling. It’s the prime mover, the thing that gets the ball rolling. It can upend the real world and give us a way to reflect on it all at the same time.

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Now I’m Picturing Lil’ Antrey

I’m not a huge fan of dividing literature into “adult” and “kids,” if we’re being honest. Children develop at different rates and can handle different levels of complexity and subject matter as they grow up. I went through a stage in fifth grade where I read 1984, Anthem, and Brave New World all back to back to back. Pretty heady stuff for an 11-year old, but I was up for the challenge. At the least, I wasn’t harmed by the experience, even if I returned to those books with greater understanding once I was older.

That’s a long way of saying I think this is kind of silly:

’On the Road,’ with its recurring references to sex, drugs and domestic violence, might not seem like an ideal bedtime story for a child. But that’s precisely the point of KinderGuides, a new series of books that aims to make challenging adult literary classics accessible to very young readers.

Along with ‘On the Road,’ KinderGuides recently published picture book versions of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and Truman Capote’s melancholy novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ (It skipped over the awkward question of whether Holly Golightly is a prostitute.) In one of its most ambitious and bizarre efforts, it released a cheerful take on Arthur C. Clarke’s opaque, mind-bending science fiction novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ an allegory about the evolution of human consciousness that many adult readers find impenetrable.

Yes, somebody has come up with a series of defanged literary classics for children. To what end? There’s lots of great children’s and YA literature out there these days. And, as I said above, some kids will be ready for the classics earlier than others. There’s no harm in letting them have at any of the mentioned titles when the time is right.

So what, exactly, is the point? Maybe it’s a way for parents of young children to feel even more pride in their little one? After all, she’s not reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, she’s reading On the Road. Only she isn’t, of course, or at least isn’t really getting the full picture. It’s a bit like the Kevin Kline character in A Fish Called Wanda who brags about reading philosophy but, when called upon it, shows he doesn’t understand a word of it. The kid doesn’t know any better, but at least the parents can feel like they’ve accomplished something.

Otherwise, this appears to be a blatant cash grab, a way to make money of those venal parents. I’m all for filling the demand of the market, but isn’t this, essentially, making money off the works of others? The producers of KinderGuides claim they avoid such issues because they’re “study guides as well as entertainment.” But doesn’t a study guide for something presume you’ve actually read it to begin with? It sounds like weapons grade bullshit to me (the article concedes that “[s]ome copyright experts dispute that logic” – you think?).

Regardless of the legalities, there’s something shady about bowdlerizing someone’s work to sell it to a market the writer never intended it for. On the Road is many things, but it is not a children’s book. Nor is Lady Chatterley’s Lover nor Slaughterhouse Five nor (if I can insert myself here) The Water Road. They were written for different purposes and audiences. That’s OK – even in the 21st Century there’s nothing wrong with telling kids that there are certain things they’re just not ready for yet.

no-children-round

Unless there’s a buck to be made. In which case, all bets are off.