May 7th, 2012


Magicians vs. Aliens

Sometimes you read a book SO GOOD you want to tell everyone you know to read it because it is just too amazing to miss out on.

I've just read two.

There are some books that are such a chore to get through they make you question why you even like reading in the first place. And then there are those books that remind why you love reading.

Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold, is such a book.

A sensationalistic, attention-getting summary of this book might read, "A stage magician is accused of murdering President Warren G. Harding!" And this is true and accurate, but the book is not some long and involved murder mystery with a stage magician frantically trying to clear his name. No, it is the highly fictionalized story of the life of Charles Carter, a.k.a. Carter the Great, a contemporary of Houdini (who makes an appearance, as do several other historical figures). Carter has an interesting and wondrous life (more wondrous than, say, Oscar Wao's), the kind of life I would prefer not to spoil any details about, and, as a bonus, we also get a complementary protagonist (or antagonist?) in Jack Griffin, the Secret Service agent chasing after him.

From the very first page, I felt that I was in the hands of a master storyteller, and that feeling never left; in fact, it only increased. I was positively giddy reading this book, often having audible reactions before something was about to be revealed. Glen David Gold spins a fantastic yarn that swept me into the story, transporting me back to San Francisco in the Roaring Twenties, and I didn't want to leave. I was reminded of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but, thankfully, this book does not have third-act issues; in fact, the third act is an exciting nail-biter. Like The Prestige, the book is structured like a magic trick itself, and Gold frequently uses misdirection as deftly as any stage magician.

I also loved the look into the world of stage magic; Gold makes reading about a magic show as exciting as actually watching one. In addition, I found it fascinating to read about the construction of all the mechanical illusions, as well as the musings on what audiences want from a magic show, what sort of emotional reactions do particular tricks elicit. Some of Carter's tricks seem impossible, but I was happy to leave some of the magic as, well, magic, since it was such a joy to imagine.

Carter Beats the Devil is an astounding achievement, a literary novel that's completely engrossing and immensely entertaining. This is the best book I've read since The Shadow of the Wind in September 2010. I've read great books since then, but nothing of this caliber. And I think the two books do share a few similarities that illuminate my tastes. I like sprawling narratives with evocative details of time and place, filled with Dickensian coincidences and narrative ironies, with different characters' plotlines intersecting.

I love this book. Read it.

I have no actual basis for this remark, but The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex, has to be one of the best children's books in the last five years.

The premise is one we've seen so many times before: Gratuity "Tip" Tucci, a half-black, half-Italian eleven-year-old girl, writes a school essay—to be placed into a time capsule—about what the recent alien invasion meant to her, specifically her going on a road trip with her cat, Pig, and an alien named J.Lo to find her mother.

Oh, is that actually like nothing you've ever read or even possibly would have imagined? Yeah, that's what I thought.

This book is amazing and Gratuity is basically the greatest. Her narrative voice is sarcastic, naive, endearing, clever, and mildly profane, pardon her language. She's such a wonderful character, and I fell in love with her from the sentence, "The United States was this big country where everybody wore funny T-shirts and ate too much." She's telling a story to the people of the future, a device that lends itself to lots of self-aware narration humor, not to mention the depth it adds to the worldbuilding, as Gratuity imagines what the world must be a hundred years from now and what they must think of her world as it is.

J.Lo is an absolutely adorable alien and another wonderful character, desperate for Gratuity to like him, only wanting to be helpful and accepted since he is not really in with his fellow Boov. Through him, we get to see our culture as an "alien" culture. His English is not perfect, but he tries! He tries SO HARD! What, you don't love him? Do not to be ridicumulous.

Tip and J.Lo are the heart of the book, as is their evolving friendship, but Rex also throws in fun alien mayhem and, more importantly, heaps of social commentary. Although Tip doesn't make the connection herself, the Boov occupation of America is exactly what the colonials did to the Native Americans. And Tip and J.Lo find that civilization post-invasion is...less than optimal. On top of all that, Tip is mixed-race, and it's never a Thing; in fact, it's really only ever brought up when she has to roll her eyes at people who don't seem to grasp the concept. I loved that all of this was in a children's book.

Here's the thing about this book, though: YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THE AUDIOBOOK. But, wait, YOU HAVE TO READ THE ACTUAL BOOK. Erm. SERIOUSLY DO THEM BOTH. The audiobook is essential because Bahni Turpin's J.Lo performance is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. She brings him to life so gloriously, I don't think I would have loved the character half as much without hearing the voice she gives him; it's like a cross between E.T. and Johnny 5. Her Gratuity is great as well. I was dying laughing in my car a lot. But the physical book is essential because there are comics, not to mention illustrations (Rex started out as an illustrator).

Did you read that comic I just linked? Because if that doesn't get you to read this book, I don't even know. It's creative, inventive, original, hilarious, heartwarming, surprising, lovable, entertaining, and just plain awesome.
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