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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The World that Slid Downhill, a Sneak Pre-View

Cover art by Kathryn Reeser
The World that Slid Downhill is a novelette that I wrote a few years ago.  It is a little difficult to classify.  It has been called an adult fairy tale, post-modernist, metaphorical, even magical realism.  I'm not sure which of those is the most accurate.  What I do know is that it is a delightful, child-like story that takes a turn--a down-turn--into the surreal.

As the story begins, Harry is a child, with a normal, flat back yard.  He knows this to be true.  It is a fact in his life.  The yard is as "flat as a nickel."  As he grows to manhood and has children of his own, the yard begins to slope, ever so slightly.  As he matures into middle-age, the slope of his yard drops ever deeper.

There are eight chapters in this novelette, and in this pre-view, I'd like to offer a chapter from the middle of the story.  The story is already available at Amazon, for Kindle.  However, Saint James Infirmary Books will make it available for free the last weekend of June: the 28th, 29th, and the 30th.  If you'd rather spend the $1.99 for the eBook now, I wouldn't want to argue with you.  Special thanks to Kathryn Reeser for the fantastically re-imagined cover art.   

Enjoy the preview!

The World that Slid Downhill
by Jason Phillip Reeser
an excerpt

Chapter Four

  On the day Marta turned sixteen, Harry and his wife threw her a great birthday party.  Everyone was invited: the Grandparent’s came up from Florida, other relatives came from many other states, Marta’s friends came from school, and all of their neighbors came as well.  Like Harry’s father loved to say, there were more people than you could shake a stick at.
  Cars filled the driveway.  Cars filled the front yard.  Cars filled the street.  The front of Harry’s house looked like a used car lot.
  Inside the house, party guests filled the living room, they filled the dining room, and they filled the kitchen too.  More guests were arriving all the time.  The house couldn’t hold them all.
  But Harry had been prepared for this.  He had cut the grass in the back yard the day before, and had borrowed twenty-three fold-up chairs from the church.  Each chair was now sitting in the back yard, set in little half circles so that party guests could sit together and chit-chat.
  “Grab a plate of food and find a seat outside!”  Harry had to yell to be heard in the crowded, noisy kitchen.  He had to shout it two more times before the guests paid attention.
  Uncle Leo, an old friend of Harry’s parents, who wasn’t really an uncle at all, was the first to take a full plate outside.  It was piled high with a big scoop of potato salad, a slippery looking Sloppy Joe, two deviled eggs, candied yams, and a large helping of Shipwreck salad.   He had to carry it with two hands.
  “Need some help?” Harry leaned out the door, watching as Uncle Leo stumbled a little on the last of the back steps.
  “No, no.  I’m fine,” Uncle Leo whispered in a raspy voice.  Even though he was eighty-six years old, Uncle Leo was fiercely independent.
  Harry kept an eye on the old man, just to make sure he really was fine.  Slowly, Uncle Leo tip-toed through the grass, heading toward the first group of chairs.  This took a long time, as he paused after every third step to regain his balance.
  Two more people headed out the back door.  They were friends of Marta’s, and Harry did not know their names.  He was never very good at remembering the names of his children’s friends.
  The young people, a boy and girl, hurried past Uncle Leo and picked out chairs, turning at the same time, and dropping down onto them.  They did this in unison, as if they had practiced together before the party.  Harry watched as both of the young people’s eyes widened with alarm.  Still in unison, they both began to look up.
  It took Harry a few moments to realize they were not lifting their heads, as if they wanted to look at the passing clouds.  They were, in fact, both being lifted up.  At least, the fronts of their chairs were lifting up.  The girl held tightly to her plate, trying not to spill her food.  The boy, aware that he was actually tipping backwards, threw out his arms to attempt to stop his backwards motion.  As he did this, he launched his plate like a discus thrower from the Olympics.  The thick paper plate flew surprisingly well, evenly spreading potato chips, pork-n-beans, and hot dogs in every direction.
  The kids toppled over, landing on their backs.  They were still in the chairs, although the chairs’ legs were now reaching out sideways in the same way an old grandmother reaches out for hugs.
  The girl, Harry still couldn’t think of her name, had held fast to her plate all the way to the ground.  From where he was standing, it looked as if most of the food had landed on her face and most of her hair.  The boy was laughing.  The girl was not.
  “You kids okay?” Harry hollered.  He hurried down the back steps and passed up Uncle Leo to help the two young people out of their upset chairs.
  “Oh, sure,” the boy answered.  “That was great!”
  The girl only glared at the boy, then turned her mashed-potato-smeared face and scowled at Harry.  She did not think there was anything great about falling over in a chair and catching your food with your head.
  “I can’t understand why these chairs tipped over.”  Harry set them back up and scratched his head.
  “Well,” the boy looked at the chairs and then looked at the yard behind them, “they’re sitting on a slope.  I guess we should have noticed that, and been more careful.  Or maybe we should turn them around.”
  Harry mumbled his agreement and he helped the boy turn all of the chairs around so that they were facing down the slope of the back yard.  The girl ran off to clean out her hair and wash her face.
  Uncle Leo had just about reached the chairs.  He was moving a little more quickly now, and Harry offered to hold his plate while he settled into a chair.
  “No, no.  I’m fine,” he whispered again.
  But instead of stopping at the chairs, Uncle Leo took three steps past them, paused, and took three steps more.  After each pause, he kept taking those three unsteady steps.
  “Where’s he going?” asked the boy.
  “I don’t know.”  Harry wanted to follow Uncle Leo but he heard his wife call to him from inside the house.  She said something about moving cars in the driveway.  Trying to ignore her, he watched Uncle Leo and could see that the old man was picking up speed.
  “She said you need to move her car.”  The boy was also watching Uncle Leo.  “It’s in the way of something or someone.”
  “Yeah, I heard her.”  Harry remembered the boy’s name.  “Justin, does it look to you like Uncle Leo is speeding up?”
  “Yep.”  Justin nodded.
  “Would you do me a favor and go stop him before he goes any further?  I don’t know where he’s going, but he shouldn’t go wandering off.”
  “He’s not going anywhere, sir.”  Justin giggled.  “But I think he can’t stop walking.  The gravity’s pulling him down hill.  But you go move that car, sir.  I’ll take care of the old man.”
  Harry had to admit that the boy was right.  The backyard sloped down so much that once Uncle Leo got going, it was too hard for him to stop.  He just kept heading downhill.  Somehow, Harry’s flat back yard had become the top of a real, be-careful-so-you-don’t-roll-down-it hill.
  Harry passed a worried eye over the retreating figure of Uncle Leo, and then went to the front of the house to move the car.  When he came back, Justin was coming back up the hill.  He was a little out of breath.
  “Where’s Uncle Leo?” Harry asked.
  “I couldn’t get him.  He slipped out of my reach, and just kept going.  I lost him in the trees at the bottom of the hill.  He had really picked up speed.”
  It was sad, Harry thought, that Marta’s birthday would be remembered for the day they lost Uncle Leo.  But things like this just happened.  Uncle Leo had led a long, good life, and no one had ever expected him to be around forever.  The older members of the family were always doing something like this.  You could never count on them to stick around.
  But Harry had never expected to lose Uncle Leo down the hill in the back yard.  How could he have?  It had never been a hill when Harry was a child.  But there was no denying it was a hill now.  And it was certainly possible that things like this could happen from here on out.

Use the link below to buy the eBook.  Kindle eBooks can be read on your PC, Smart Phone, iPads, Blackberries, laptops, and of course any Kindle device.  And remember, The World that Slid Downhill will be free on June 28th, 29th and the 30th.  So you can wait for your free copy or show your support for writers by paying a few dollars for a great novelette.  And if you haven't tried one of my other books, be sure to check one or two of them out this summer.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My View of Edward Rutherfurd's Paris: The Novel

Paris: The Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd, is an 805 page historical epic that takes a great deal of time and attention to read.  It is not the length of the book that demands so much.  It is the structure of the book that sets the bar so high.

For those readers unfamiliar with Edward Rutherfurd and his epic novels, I will note a little bit about what makes a Rutherfurd novel unique.  Like a James Michener novel, these books are centered on one geographic location.  However, whereas Michener takes a larger view of a place like Spain (Iberia) or South Africa (The Covenant), Rutherfurd takes a smaller bit of real estate, such as England's New Forest region (The Forest) and England's Salisbury plain (Sarum).  Lately, he has been tackling individual cities: New York, London, and Dublin.  Like Michener, Rutherfurd follows a handful of families across many generations through the ebb and flow of real historical events.  All of this is true of Paris: The Novel.

Unlike some of his earlier works, Rutherfurd has chosen to take his stories out of chronological order, skipping back and forth from various time frames.  I felt this was done as a way to increase the suspense over some of the story lines.  I did not mind this, and even felt it might have been a benefit to the book.  It kept the story fresh, and I was happy not to be forced to read the older history before being allowed a peek at the era of the Belle Époque.  I've seen some complaints in other reviews regarding this jumbled ordering of the stories.  I did not mind at all.

I won't get into particulars as far as the families and their story lines are concerned.  Suffice to say, there are a number of families, representing various strata of society: aristocrats, laborers, professionals, and thieves.  Watching the families grow and evolve is part of the charm of an epic like this.  Discovering secrets and their long-reaching consequences is another.  It is a nice reminder to us that what we do today can have extreme consequences on our descendants, both good and bad.  One can also see how some family traits can finally be broken by the younger generations.

Atop Montmartre, the site of much of the action
in Rutherfurd's Paris: The Novel (photo
from RoomWithNoView)
The star of the book, of course, is that grand lady, Paris.  The City of Light.  No matter the subject matter of the time period, whether it be the uprising of the Paris Commune, or the French Revolution, or the golden age of the Sun King, or even the building of the Eiffel Tower, Rutherfurd keeps our eyes focused solely on that most magical of cities.  The reader is taken to the heights of Montmartre, to the bridges over the Seine, and into many famous landmarks that are stacked like chord wood within the boundaries of the city.  He also takes many opportunities to inform us about the history and culture of the city.  Most tour guides tell small stories to back up their recitation of the facts.  Rutherfurd takes the opposite approach, using his characters to back up his story by reciting many facts and anecdotes.  A few times this becomes tedious, seemingly too unreal and staged.  If I had not been such a fan of Paris, I would have found it a bit boring.  However, I love Paris, and I enjoyed all the little tour-guide moments.  No matter that I already knew much of what he was talking about beforehand.

At this point, you would have to guess that I loved the book.  That I couldn't put it down.  It was right up my alley.  It was everything I would want in a book.  And for the most part, you would have guessed right.  Except...

I was initially disappointed with the story lines.  I understand that a book of this size requires a slow approach, and that the author can take his time to build the atmosphere and complex story.  However, it was readily apparent that the book lacked a bit of that Paris pizzazz.  This is a city known for its party atmosphere.  It is exciting.  There is so much that can go on there.  Yet the stories were very low-keyed.  I enjoyed them, I had simply expected something more compelling to read.  A good deal of it turned into a soap opera, just detailing who was sleeping with whom, and who was mad at whom.  I admit that I grew dismayed near the middle of the book.  It seemed as if if Edward Rutherfurd had blown it.  He had the most beautiful and exciting city in the world to play with.  Shouldn't he have come up with something to match its energy and glamour?

Author Edward Rutherfurd
In fact, dialing down the story a notch,  the author allowed himself to build solid characters and situations so that when they all ran together near the last one hundred and fifty pages it finished with a bang.  The last time period he covers is that of the German occupation.  And this is where all the background story pays off.  We see how people with such rich family backgrounds reacted to the pressure-cooker that was Nazi-occupied Paris.  From that point on, the story no longer looked back.  It moved along like an old-fashioned noir thriller.  I was surprised at this turn and greatly enjoyed the change of pace.

Books like this do a great job of reminding us of the history that clings to a geographic location.  It also reminds us of the way sins cling to historical timelines, and how easily our mistakes can effect many generations.  But what it does most for me is reminding me that we are not alone in the place we call home.  So many others have come before us, and so many will come after us.  We have an appointed time while we are here to make a contribution to the small slice of the world in which we live.  When it is over, there is so much more that will continue to happen.  We are often too arrogant a people to understand this.

While I would recommend reading Paris: The Novel, I am well aware that it is not for everyone.  The story is long, and builds slowly.  However, if you commit to the time necessary to read it, you'll find the book ends quite satisfactorily.  You'll have learned much about Paris and the French people.  You also might find that you're curious about New York and London.  I haven't read those yet, but I am adding them to my list.