Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What I'm Reading by Suz deMello (#iamreading #RegencyRomance #YAparanormal)

Scanning the blogs of my fellow OGG-ers makes me feel hopelessly prosaic, even unsophisticated. Lisabet loves Winter's Tale, a book I found memorable for its lyrical prose but completely incomprehensible. I learned what it was about from the movie. Someone (Giselle?) here wrote she is into Canadian literary fiction. If that includes Margaret Atwood, I guess I'm there occasionally, but not often.

Authors are often advised, "read in your genre," especially when we're starting out, in order to familiarize ourselves with the norms of the genre or subgenre. So when I decided to write romance I started to read romance. I chose to write romance fiction not because I loved it but because it hogs the biggest share of the fiction market. 

http://tinyurl.com/ndljd49 

The only romances I had read before were by Georgette Heyer, and Regency romance remains my favorite reading. I don't write it often, however, which is super-stupid--they sell really well. My one Regency novel, Lord Devere's Ward, is one of my consistently bestselling books. And my Regency satire, The Romantical Groom, actually hit #1 in the Amazon "free parody" category.

I agree with the comments of the other OGG bloggers about the uneven nature of genre fiction. It's a very hit-or-miss thing. As I've become more aware of good writing craft, I've become a pickier reader.

I've read most of the books by my critique partner, Diane Farr, a Regency author. She shares my focus on craft so I love her work, which is also clever and funny. But I'm coming to the end of the line on her books (sob, sob). So I was delighted to find that Courtney Milan is also really, really good.

Another subgenre I love is Young Adult paranormal--think Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. Now that I've seen all the Hunger Games movies, I'll probably reread the series--I was happy to have forgotten them (mostly) when I saw the films. Anyone knows that reading the book before seeing the movie made form it is fatal to enjoying the movie. One is always muttering to oneself (and disturbing others movie patrons) "Oh, they really screwed that up," or "Why'd they leave out that part?"

Right now I'm immersed in Julie Kagawa's books about the Iron Fey. 
Most books about the Fey focus on the conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie (or Summer and Winter Courts). The books by Melissa Marr are well-written and typical. Kagawa posits another group of supernatural beings, the Iron Fey, born of our technological advances.


Kagawa's books are both imaginative and well-written, if a bit repetitive. Destroying the threat that the Iron Fey pose to Faerie is the constant theme, and the "hide then fight" plot, when read over and over, gets old. But in the main, I enjoy immersing myself in the world Kagawa skillfully created.

My guess is that I love to read about alternate realities because I read to escape. Both Regency romance and YA paranormal are escapist fiction. 

When I was transiting from practicing as a trial lawyer and into writing, people (editors and agents) tried to push me toward writing legal thrillers. To do so I'd have to read legal thrillers. Step back into the cage when I prefer to escape into another world?

No, thank you.

Monday, February 8, 2016

#amreading. Really. Sort Of.

Sacchi Green

Sometimes I enjoy reading for research almost as much as I enjoy writing. More, in fact, when the writing isn’t going that well.  And occasionally, not often, I can bring myself to read a book with the intention of reviewing it. For a while, when the Erotica Revealed review site was active, I reviewed a book every month, and didn’t have any choice as to which ones.  It got so I kind of welcomed the challenge of assessing stories according to both the tastes of the intended readership (frequently not me) and the level of the writing (not always, shall we say, top notch.) My proudest achievement was asserting once, with absolute sincerity, that if your taste ran to porn treatments of The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this was the book for you.

Right now I happen to be bogged down on both the research and the reviewing fronts. The review was requested by the publisher, who happens to publish some of my work, as well, and is a good friend, so I do want to do it. The book hasn’t actually come out yet, and I haven’t finished reading it—I’m about three-quarters along—so I’m not going to share the title. It’s not something I would have chosen for myself, since alien-invasion/apocalyptic books are not my favorite genre, but it’s definitely very well-written and keeps me reading, and the grimness at the beginning is at this point being tempered by layer upon layer of unexpected complexities, so I have hopes that most of my so-far unanswered questions will be resolved by the end. I just have to stop reading well before bedtime or the tension will exacerbate my tendency toward insomnia.

The research area of my reading is, of course, by choice. I have no one to blame but myself for taking a probably misguided notion to attempt a story for a gay male erotica anthology. That in itself wouldn’t be a big deal—I’ve only written gay male erotica once before, but that one has been fairly successful. The problem is that this anthology’s theme requires research into the gay world of Victorian/Edwardian England, and my own concept for it also requires research into ancient Greece, particularly as revealed by the figures on ancient Greek pottery.

Both of these historical areas should be fun to research, and in fact I’ve already done quite a bit on the pottery element, when I was hoping to write a story for a different anthology but didn’t get around to it in time. Typical of me. Sooner or later I’m sure I’ll use it; maybe sooner. Maybe not.  Anyway, I ferreted out a book in the local library that seems like just the thing to fill me in on gay male life in ancient Greece, about which I may have inaccurate preconceptions, and I’m trying to read it now. A little at a time, every night, until I fall asleep over it. A bit of an antidote to insomnia. Just the thing after I’ve been reading the alien invasion book mentioned above. The Greeks and Greek Love: a Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World by James Davidson consists of seven hundred and eighty-nine indexed, footnoted pages, within which, I’m convinced, can be found all the information I need to be sure no one can challenge whatever I turn out to say about the subject in the course of my short story (which is actually about Victorian England.) It’s really an excellent book, densely detailed, scholarly but not impenetrable, or at least it wouldn’t be if I didn’t try to read it just before bedtime. Nice illustrations, too, many of them involving pottery.

Obviously, research into gay male life in Victorian England would be more to the point. I thought it was a stroke of luck when a writer I respect, who is in fact the editor of the anthology I’m aiming for, posted a review on Facebook of a book published in 1883 titled The Sins of the Cities of the Plain; or, The Recollections of a Mary-Ann, with Short Essays on Sodomy and Tribadism. (Turns out to be precious little Tribadism, but that's neither here nor there.) The tone of his review was on the apologetic side; the book clearly fell into the category of guilty pleasures, with prose of a decidedly purple hue that he would ordinarily despise, but he could forgive all that because of such energy and enthusiasm! So of course I grabbed a Kindle version from Amazon, and read it at once. Well, remember what I said way upstream about the tastes of the intended readership? If I were reviewing this book and wanted to put a plausibly positive spin on my review, I’d say that if you’re looking for a gay alternative to Fanny Hill, this is it. I was very much younger and less world-weary when I read Fanny Hill, but even then the titillation factor wore thin through so much repetition even on a first reading.  Possibly repetition works better for male readers of erotica than for females—I’m sure Fanny Hill was aimed at male readers, and pretty darned sure the author was male—but it’s also likely that I’ve become curmudgeonly in my old age, and have no business critiquing erotica or even calling anything I write or edit erotica. But I will if I want to.

So there you have it. I’m reading, but not exactly for pleasure, and wishing I were writing, but not exactly convinced that I’m aiming in the right direction just now. In this state of ambivalence, I’m incline to take the avoidance route, and just close with a short excerpt from my currently (and perhaps permanently) only gay male story, “The Bridge,” published in Best Fantastic Erotica from Circlet Press and soon to be reprinted in His Seed from Lethe Press. The story is set in England during WWI, and this is the part where my central character muses bitterly on the freedom warriors in ancient Greece had to be open about being lovers.
__________

… In his darkest moments Bernard wondered why had he not been taken, along with all those other thousands. Along with Neal. Why, for him, the special hell of survival, while those he had been forced to lead into hopeless battle died around him?

Two years ago—an eternity—when they were young, Neal had sprawled before the fire in their rooms at Cambridge and read to him of how the ancient Greeks sent paired lovers into battle. Each would be spurred to heroism by the presence of the other, they believed, and would scorn to seem cowardly in the beloved's eyes. Bernard had returned a gruff remark—"So vanity made the world go round even then!" or some such studied cynicism—to hide the surge of tenderness quickening into passion that he felt as he watched the firelight play across Neal's slender face and form. Not that Neal didn't know, by then, every pulse of Bernard's body and mind, and how to rouse them.

The Greeks, Bernard thought grimly, had never dreamed what war would become. Mortar shells and poison gas take no notice of heroism. And, while a Spartan or Athenian might have been compelled to order his lover to advance into sure death, there would have been no dishonor in showing his love. No long months of denial, until, at the last, when Bernard had held Neal's broken body in his arms, the face his lips had touched so tenderly was cold and still.
__________

Doesn’t sound much like erotica, I know, but a measure of healing does come through sex in the story, with the help of the Green Man figure from Celtic mythology. More to the point with regard to my current research, I’m pretty sure a student at Cambridge in the early 20th century might have read what is said here about the Greek paired lovers in battle, but I’m not at all sure that the information was accurate, and that’s something I hope to determine from reading The Greeks and Greek Love in all its extensively researched splendor. So I guess I’d better get back to it. After all, it’s nearly bedtime.


   

 

   

Friday, February 5, 2016

What I'm Intermittently Reading

For someone who wishes to make writing his career, I admit I don’t allow as much time for reading as I should. The nature of working in creative fields is, of course, a tad random. Added to that, the fact most of my cover art clients and author friends are either Aussie night owls or North American folks means a lot of my busiest times are in the last three hours of the Australian day. Consequently, in order not to wake my wife, I tend not to read in bed any more.
I’m in the middle of several books at the moment. One of them is “A City Called Smoke” by Justin Woolley. It’s an Australian post-apocalyptic story, featuring zombie-like creatures, and is book two of the series (book one is “A Town Called Dust”). I’m enjoying the story, but not super-engaged with it. There are some stylistic elements which, to me, seem to be flaws. An overabundance of superfluous thats, for example, of the “that was the thing that she said” variety. It’s also rich with tell, rather than show. Given the genre mix of the story it’s probably not as much of a problem as it would be in, say, romance, but to paraphrase what Giselle said in her blog, the internal editor tends to pop up and tap its pedantic (and metaphorical) foot.
Having said that, I’m enjoying the pacing and the setup, as well as the very Australian references within the story. Though most places aren’t named as we currently name them, it’s clear when the author is referring to Uluru or Alice Springs, for example. It’s also cool that the semi-organised military force is called The Diggers.
There is political and religious intrigue as well, with church and state battling for ultimate control of the uncontrollable. I’m not political enough in real life to truly know, but my feeling is the author is drawing analogies with current conditions to help inform this element within the series.
It’s also interesting to note that within the greater ensemble of characters, the two leads are arguably unexpected. A sixteen-year-old girl of noble birth (or whatever passes for noble birth in the post-apocalyptic world) who essentially volunteered for military service, and a sixteen-year-old boy who seems to me is a high-functioning autistic character (possibly Asperger’s, though no mention of his condition has been made, only descriptions of it).
The other book I’m reading through (plodding through really) is “Written On The Body” by Jeanette Winterson. I’m actually a tad ashamed to admit my plodding pace since it’s not anything to do with the book at all. I find Winterson’s prose engaging and invigorating. This book was, indeed, part of what inspired me to re-work my old story into the recently released “The Last Three Days”. I’d been planning it for ages, but the sumptuous and sensual use of language within “Written On The Body” was the element which kick-started me.*
Part of my enjoyment of this book comes from the ambiguity. It’s written in first person, but unless I missed a few salient points (which is, indeed, highly possible), the gender of our narrator has not been expressly revealed. During this first 75 pages I’ve been certain several times, only to change my mind a matter of pages later. As a side point to that, the narrator reveals many of his/her own flaws and tendencies, and those of the women he/she is involved with. Yet most or all descriptions of physical encounters revolve around descriptions of the partners, of the tactile and emotional experience our narrator gains from those women. Smatterings of how wonderful it all feels to our narrator, but no mention of his or her pulsing genitalia.
To me, this one-sidedness is integral to the character. I sense he/she has a great reluctance to be truly open, and the style of writing essentially becomes a framework to support the character.
I have a great many books still waiting for me to read them, also. Some are kind of high-falutin’, like Paolo Coelho’s “Eleven Minutes”, and an anthology of five John Steinbeck books (two of which I’ve already read many years ago). I also have an e-reader bursting to the brim with stories. I fear that by the time I die, there will be more unread books in my various libraries than read ones. But hey, as long as people are still writing, all is good in the world.


*What’s also embarrassing is the fact I’m only up to page 75 of the book, yet my own story has been out for close to two months, which tells you how infrequently I’m reading.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

I'm a Book Snob (or What I'm Not Reading)

by Giselle Renarde

A book snob is not a popular thing to be when you write genre fiction.

In fact, there are a lot of things you're not supposed to admit when you're a genre fiction writer. I write erotica but I don't read it. (Don't tell people stuff like that!) I've never read a romance novel. (Don't!) A lot of genre fiction, even the bestselling stuff, is surprisingly poorly written. (Don't say it!)

At the start of my career, I used to wonder why established authors would say inflammatory things. Didn't they care about their reputations?

Ten years into my writing life, I kinda get it. You get tired of saying all the right things. It's boring.

So here I am, saying all the wrong things.

I love literary fiction. I just finished All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and it knocked my socks off. Her writing style is is so unique, and the way she approaches difficult subject matter is spellbinding. This book is written with divinely humorous compassion, but the writing isn't lofty. It's not even particularly pretty. But this is a book that had me laughing and crying simultaneously. I am so in awe of Miriam Toews. I am so in awe of her work.

My girlfriend bought me another book while I was reading All My Puny Sorrows.

We were at my local library, looking at the shelf of books they were selling off, and she spotted a thriller she'd read and enjoyed. It was a #1 bestselling book by a #1 bestselling author. So she bought it for me, and we were both excited to share something. We really don't read the same books. She likes Nora Roberts, Stephen King. I'm into Canadian litfic. We both like autobiographies, but she goes for celebrities and I go for random queer people.

I started the thriller Sweet had enjoyed so much, and from the first page it sparked my editor brain.

That's never a good sign.

I had trouble paying attention to the story because I was too focused on awkward sentence structure and crappy word choices. It reminded me of the first revision I submitted on my first ebook. My editor (bless her heart--my book was certainly a challenge!) told me I needed to vary my sentence structure. There was too much. "She did this. She did that. She did some other thing." So I tried to mix it up like "Doing this, she did that" and what a disaster!

I could feel my editor cursing me under her breath as she wrote, "Pushing down her skirt, she pulled up her top? How can she be pulling up her top and pushing down her skirt simultaneously?" 

That's how I felt reading this bestselling thriller. I couldn't look beyond the messy language use to focus on the story.

There were things I appreciated about it. Chapters were short, which made me feel like a fast reader (which I'm not), and each chapter ended in some moment of "Gasp! What's going to happen next?" I always wanted to know right away, so I'd flip the page and read the start of the next chapter, then get swamped down by my editor brain evaluating the language.

I gave up after 54 pages. Maybe I'll go back, but probably not.  It reminded me of the kind of action/adventury crime show I might put on TV and half watch and half enjoy, but when I sit down to read words, the words themselves matter. The order of those words matters.

Now, I don't want anyone thinking I'm saying thrillers are universally BAD or that my taste in fiction is superior to anyone else's. Everybody's got different tastes. And that's great because it leaves room for authors to find a niche. There is a reader for every writer.

I read literary fiction because I like it. It appeals to me. There are terrible litfic books, just like there are terrible books in every genre. Did I ever blog about The Postmistress? Because that book was awful (not that I finished it). But lots of people liked it, so there you go: tastes differ.

So are there good books and bad books? Or are there just books we like and books we don't like?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Back to the basics


I’ve been studying Buddhism off and on since I was 18.  None of these ideas are new.  But now I feel like I understand it for the first time.   

These days I’ve been trying to cut through some of my personal confusion by getting back to the most basic elements of my life and my mojo, which is mysticism and writing craft.
I’ve discovered the audiobooks and ebooks of Pema Chodron.  Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the teaching lineage of Trungpa Rinpoche.   Because of my cultish past history I have issues with male spiritual authoritarian figures.  I don’t trust them.  I find them harder to listen to the more sure they are of what they have to say.  But women are different somehow.  My heart and mind are still open to them.   American born and bred, Pema Chodron, besides being the wise and funny and cuddly grandmother we never had, is an exceptional explainer of basic Buddhism to the western mind.  

When I was a young man I thought I had to search for God, as if God were something that could be found.  Since then I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.  It’s as though now my actual search is not for God, but rather for my own humanity.  Mysticism fundamentally denies the duality of a creator and a creation.  The premise of mysticism is that there is no creator or creation, but only pure universal unmanifested consciousness manifesting itself in forms of energy, including ourselves.  Enlightenment in the way that Pema Chodron is presenting it, addresses that other duality that we never hear about, which is the duality within ourselves that sets up a defensive barrier between the world of consciousness manifesting and our experience of consciousness interacting with it.  

Enlightenment is being defined in Pema Chodron’s books and lectures as the expression of a fully opened heart and mind, experiencing the reality of our life just as it is, and the reality of our character just as it is.  It’s not about trying to change your life, or make yourself happy and never sad. It is about changing your stance towards reality itself.  It’s elegantly simple and yet completely bottomless in attainment.  In this way of looking at spirituality, the quest is, incrementally over time through mediation and the cultivation of compassion, to let down all your defenses and experience happiness and suffering head on without grasping onto one and avoiding the other.  Not to be divine – but to be at last fully and bravely human.  This takes a great deal of courage.


The other book I am rediscovering these days is the ultimate book on story craft, the formidably huge volume “The Making of a Story” by Alice Laplante.  This four pounder is the most comprehensive and detailed book that I know for the beginner and experienced writer on all aspects of the craft of writing fiction, and especially short fiction.  It’s my personal Bible.
What I find these female authors have in common for me is that they represent the “ineffable”.   Ineffable means something you can’t put into words.  Like say –what is the color blue?  Or what is God?  Or what is a good story?  The feeling of being fully present right where you are, the root of enlightened compassion, and being in “the zone” where the conscious and unconscious come together in a creative act such as writing represent experiences of depth and soul that can’t be put into words, only experienced just as they are.  They come from the same place in our souls.


As I grow old, I grow old, wearing the tops of my trousers rolled and dare to eat a peach even though the Mermaids won’t sing to me – like forget it, little buddy -  I find that what fascinates me are those things which can never be consummated.  Enlightenment and story craft are these mountains that can be climbed without ever reaching the summit.  The boundless adventure is knowing that the summit will always be out of your reach.   

Yet you climb.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What I'm Reading

The fun of a "What I'm Reading" topic is that we get glimpses into other people's interests and reading habits.  The downer is that I get exposed as a nerd.

So, let's get the nerd stuff out first!  I'm currently reading four books, the first of which is an epic fantasy novel that a friend has written -- I'm one of his beta readers.  It's really good.  :)

But perhaps the bigger nerd sign hanging over me is the fact that I'm such a Star Trek nerd that I read the books!  Book two that I'm reading this month is Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions by David Mack.  Even a casual Star Trek fan might remember the episode in the original series where Kirk travelled to a parallel universe and Spock had a beard... right?  Anyway, that parallel universe -- the mirror universe -- has been a fascination of Trek fans for decades, so this is one of a handful of books that explore that universe.

Now, let's move away from the nerdy and toward the sexy.  :)

I've currently got two gay erotica novels on the go.

The first is Two Bottoms in the Ninth by Zavo.

Here's the blurb:

Rich with historical detail, this novel charts the erotic story of two men with a passion for baseball—and each other. 

Suspicion starts to mount when someone begins fixing the games, and the question ultimately becomes: what game are they playing with each other? Get ready as the game that often mixes sex and scandal goes into extra innings and there is no telling who will come out on top.

So far, I find the book... well... it's okay.  I was hoping for something a little steamier, something like the non-stop baseball-themed raunch-fest that is Hardball by T. Hitman, which I read a couple years ago and reviewed on my personal blog.

I don't have the book on me right now and can't remember the characters' names... so I guess that tells you how captivated by it I am.  However, what I've come to really enjoy about gay erotica versus M/M erotica is the sheer casualness toward sex.  In general, in gay erotica, if the characters think they want to fuck, they go ahead and fuck.  In general, in M/M erotica, if the characters want to fuck, authors tend to make explicit mention of the usage of a condom, the tenderness of gestures, the intimacy of the moment, and so on.  Sometimes I want a loving and erotic connection, but other times I just want to read about two guys fucking like beasts in the forest.

(Since this novel is set in a "historical" period, AKA pre-HIV, there's no mention of condoms.  In gay erotica, you often won't find mention of condoms or, if you do, it'll be a passing reference and you assume that the characters are being responsible.  In far too many M/M erotica and M/M erotic romance books, I see long-winded dialogue about how using a condom is a sign of respect and love for both partners and they'll use condoms until they both get tested and blah blah blah.  I personally feel that people in real life should use condoms unless they are sure that everyone is of the same status; but I don't need to read a safe-sex lecture in a book I'm reading for pleasure.  Sorry.  That's an ongoing rant of mine.)

Anyway, moving on...

The second erotica novel I'm reading is Bike Cop by Gordon Hoban.

Here's the blurb (which is essentially a two-line excerpt from the book):

"He loved those boots. Though he never admitted it to anyone, those boots were early fuel to his drive to enter the Police Academy."

A while back I discovered that my local LGBT library has a LOT of older erotica, and I've had a blast reading through some of it because those books contain sexual content that you won't find in modern erotica.  At least, not in professionally published modern erotica.  (You might find some of this content in self-published stuff.)

The shelves of the erotica section are filled with dubious consent (which is what this book seems to be so far), non-consent, watersports, scat, heavy BDSM, and leather (which is also what this book is about).  While these older erotica titles sometimes make me squeamish at times (like when I read Punk Chicken), I find them completely entrancing because it's so different compared to the erotica that's published today.

Anyway, back to Bike Cop.  I'm only part-way through, but the main character, a younger guy who just got his first car, is pulled over for speeding and taken into the woods by a cop clad in leather.  They have hot dub-con sex, which sparks the young man's intense fixation on leather (because the cop had shiny leather boots)... leading him to become a leather-clad motorcycle cop.  That's as far as I've read.  I'm expecting a lot of hot leather-themed sex.

So... that's what I'm reading right now!

I used to read quite rapidly, averaging 60-70 books per year.  However, I know that this year will be a lot slower, as I've got a lot less time on my hands due to an overwhelming amount of projects that demand my time.  I'm hoping that I'll be reading something different the next time this topic comes up.  ;)



Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Seduced by My Best Friend’s Dad (co-written with Sandra Claire). He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats. To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.

Monday, February 1, 2016

You Can’t Step Into the Same Book Twice

By Lisabet Sarai

All the members of the Grip could, I’m sure, tell you about books that changed who they are. We all know the power of the word. That’s part of what draws us together. Recently, though, I came to understood the ways in which we also change the books we read.

As birthday gifts, back in November, I gave my brother two of my all-time favorite novels: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and Little, Big by John Crowley. Both date from the early eighties. I’ve been hauling my paperback copies around with me since then, including half-way across the world to Asia. The bindings are brittle; pages are falling out. I was heartened to discover that both are still in print, in new editions.

After I sent them off, I decided I should re-read them, to refresh my memory. My kid brother’s pretty intense. When I sent him The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, he insisted on spending an hour and a half on the phone (long distance, from the U.S.) discussing it. This time I wanted to be prepared.

I believe this was the third time I’d read Winter’s Tale. The last was in the late nineties. It’s a long book (800 pages) and deliciously complexsomething of a commitment. I had vivid recollections of various scenes and characters, but a lot of the details had faded.

Before I continue, I need to tell you something about this book. Winter’s Tale is an urban fantasy, but not in the sense that term is used now. It’s an epic imagining that centers on New York City. Indeed, the city is as much a character as Peter Lake, the master burglar and mechanic who returns from the dead after a hundred years, or Beverly Penn, the brilliant, beautiful, dying young woman whom he loves, or Pearly Soames, brutal and dandified gang leader who chases Peter Lake for a century, or Athansor, a massive white horse who can fly. The book begins just before the turn of the twentieth century and ends just after the millenium. The city has its roots in the past and its eyes on the future, creating a tension that provides much of the book’s energy.

I’ve never read anything like it. Hence, it’s rather difficult to describe. It chronicles the interlocking lives of its many remarkable characters, but it’s really, I believe, a book about time. Time appears to change everything, yet at some fundamental level is an illusion. Just behind modern New York City, you glimpse the ghosts of New York from earlier eras. If you could only focus your attention, you could make those ghosts solid and bring the past to life.

Winter’s Tale is in no sense erotica, yet it is exquisitely sensual. It does have one love scene, which I’ll quote just to give you a feeling for the wildly poetic language.

She had not counted on affection. It startled her. He kissed her temples, her cheeks and her hair, and stroked her shoulders as tenderly as if she had been a cat. She closed her eyes and cried, much satisfied by the tears as they forced their way past a dark curtain and rolled down her face.

Beverly Penn, who had the courage of someone who is often confronted by that which is gravely important, had not expected that someone else would be that way too. Peter Lake seemed to love her in exactly the way that she loved everything that she knew she would lose. He kissed her, and stroked her, and spoke to her. How surprised she was at what he said. He told her about the city, as if it were a live creature, pale and pink, that had a groin and blood and lips. He told her about spring in Prince Street, about the narrow alleys full of flowers, protected by trees, quiet and dark. He told her about the colors in coats and clothes and on the stage and in all kinds of lights, and that their random movements made them come alive. “Prince Street,” he said, “is alive. The buildings are as ruddy as flesh. I’ve seen them breathe. I swear it.” He surprised even himself.

This might not be the best passage to quote, but it may give you a sense for the rhythm in Helprin’s prose, a bit like verse.

In any caseI found in re-reading that for me, at least, the book hadn’t lost its magic. And yet, it was a different book, because of what I’d experienced since the last reading.

First, since that last reading, I had the opportunity to actually live in New York City for nine months. In other readings I’d taken the geography of the tale as realistic, but now I know it’s an imagined map superimposed on so-called reality. There is no “Printing House Square”, anymore than there is a village hidden in hills upriver called Lake of the Coheeries. At the same time, I’ve now seen first hand the constellations in the vault of Grand Central Station, so eloquently described in the novel. (Peter Lake hides out in a room just above the star-embroidered ceiling.) During my time in the city, I took a train every week day from Grand Central to the suburbs where I was working. No matter how much I was rushing, I always found time to gaze at the stars.

I understand in a much deeper sense now the way past and present entwine in New York. The book may be a fantasy, but it captures this essential reality, the core idea the drives the story forward.

The second change is the specter of 9/11, haunting me and casting its shadow over the novel. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment should you decide to read the book, but let me just say that it ends with a disaster that almost destroys the city. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the chaos and terror that followed the fall of the Twin Towers, the legions of New Yorkers trudging on foot over the bridges, the stench of burning that hung in the air for weeks afterward. 9/11 occurred before my stay in the city, but as it happened, I had a job interview in lower Manhattan less than a month after the attacks. I vividly remember the smell, charred and chemical, stinging your nostrils and making your lungs achelike someone had left a pot on the stove too long, until the BakeLite handle scorched and the metal buckled.

In this last reading, the book darkened. The wonder and beauty have been tempered by the pain of irrecoverable loss. This didn’t spoil the book for me. However, I have a fresh appreciation of the costs of time, and of human folly.