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studyincharlotteOh, my. Holmes and Watson are being framed for murder. But it’s not elementary, my dears, but high school. In Brittany Cavallaro’s clever A Study in Charlotte (HarperCollins, digital galley), Charlotte Holmes, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the famous Sherlock Holmes, and Jamie Watson, the great-great-great grandson of John Watson, end up at the same New England prep school. Their initial run-in doesn’t portend a happy partnership, however.

Brilliant Charlotte, tutored in deductive skills since childhood, has been helping Scotland Yard since she was 10. Rumor has it that some unfortunate incident has landed her at Sherringford, where she keeps mostly to herself, plays the violin, conducts experiments in her own lab and has a bit of a drug habit. Narrator Jamie, a rugby player and aspiring writer, is nevertheless intrigued by Charlotte’s prickly persona. When a student they both disliked is killed a la speckled band — as in one of their ancestors’ most famous cases — Charlotte enlists Jamie’s help to solve the crime before the police put them in jail. But the wily killer isn’t finished yet, and an attack on another student again points to Holmes and Watson. Is there a member of the Moriarty crime family lurking nearby?

Cavallaro knows the Arthur Canon Doyle canon, and everything about this first novel — plot, pace, writing — is witty and assured. Charlotte and Jamie both have issues with their respective families, roommates and teachers, and they are credible teens with just the right amount of ambition, angst and attitude. A Study in Charlotte is the first in a trilogy, so expect to see more Holmes and Watson adventures before too long. Meanwhile, the publisher has put up a classy promotional trailer on YouTube. You can check it out here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjIJFW8Uetw

 

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A modern-day Medusa with anger-control issues. A snarky vampire worried about his 800-year-old looks. Blades of grass growing like sharp knives in a suburban backyard.

These were just three of the fantastic images generated by participants in a recent writing workshop on magical realism sponsored by MAD About Words and moderated by current Kerouac House writer-in-residence Alicia Shandra Holmes. A dozen of us gathered on a Saturday morning at the cozy Kerouac House in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood. We spent the first hour talking about magical realism,  which is often defined as fiction incorporating elements of the fantastic in an otherwise realistic narrative and is generally associated with Central and South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But as Alicia pointed out with several pages of short examples, magical realism or “non-realistic” writing can include elements of the classic fairy tale, fantasy, mythology, miracles, the grotesque, ghosts, surrealism and so on. It is the imagination unleashed by Toni Morrison in Beloved, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Margaret Atwood in her futuristic novels and myth series, Alice Hoffman in her contemporary novels, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt and Rick Bass in their short stories.

We then were unleashed for the next hour to write whatever we wanted. The last hour was spent reading and discussing our various offerings. We left exhilarated and promised to continue our conversation on-line at the the MAD About Words website.

Since then, I’ve read several books that cross the boundaries between fantasy and reality.  Ice Land by Betsy Tobin draws on Icelandic legend and Norse mythology to tell the story of Freya, the goddess of love, her search for an enchanted golden necklace, and two star-crossed lovers whose families are tearing them apart. It’s 1000 A.D., Mount Hekla is threatening to erupt and Christianity is spreading across Iceland. If you like Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon), you’ll enjoy Toibin’s tale.

I had high hopes for Ali Shaw’s first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet, a contemporary fable set on a snowy archipelago where the mundane meets the magical — albino animals, strange miniature cow-like creatures akin to dragonflies, and a mysterious ailment that slowly turns some people to glass. Ida is the young woman who was infected while on vacation and now returns looking for a cure; Midas is the island loner who is initially reluctant to help her. Shaw’s writing is often appropriately lyrical and dream-like, and the imagery often striking, but this story is a sad one, weighted by woe to the point of dreariness. Curious to see what he does next.

Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners collects her playful short stories where magic is matter-of-fact. The titles give you an idea of what has been called “kitchen sink magical realism” — “Catskin,” “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” “The Faery Handbag.” In the latter, an entire village moves into a woman’s purse. Really. Magic for Beginners is a bit misleading overall title — it’s one of the stories — because newcomers to this kind of writing may well be puzzled, even put-off. But if you like weird, it’s wonderful.

Open Book: I received a galley of Ice Land (Plume) from the publisher last summer; I checked out The Girl with Glass Feet (Henry Holt) from the library; I bought my copy of Magic for Beginners (Harcourt).

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