Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

I’m returning from my short hiatus on book reviews by reviewing the first book that got me started in writing.

When I first read Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, I was just getting used to being a stay-at-home mom. I had tried being a part-time secretary at our church, but wasn’t doing so well handling it with a squirming baby in my sights all the time. I was tired and a bit lonely now that I didn’t have much daily interactions with adults.

But one thing I did was read a lot, mainly because our library in Roselle was awesome. they had a bunch of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies that I got into, and one had the story Snow, Glass, Apples from Neil Gaiman. It was a riff off the Snow White story, and yet so simple, so elegant. Then I saw that the story came from Neil’s first collection of short stories, and the library had it, so I checked it out.

What sucked me into it right away wasn’t the stories. It was the introduction. I never read an introduction in front of an author’s collection of stories before. What set Neil’s intro apart from any other intro was that he took each story and spent a couple of paragraphs or so telling how he wrote it, where he got the ideas from, what or who inspired him. It offered fascinating insight into how he created each story–sort of like reading linear notes. And what was extra cool was that he actually put a story in the introduction. It was like a bonus buy-one-get-one-free.

I found myself flipping to the introduction a lot as I read through Smoke and Mirrors. When I read the background on Snow, Glass, Apples, on how he had read a story in the bath "I must have read a thousand times before…But that thousand and first reading was the charm, and I started to think about the story, all back to front and wrong way around. It sat in my head for a few weeks and then, on a plane, I begun to write the story in longhand…"

I read that and thought, really? Was that really all it took? Just an idea going around in your head? I had thought this because I had an idea of my own, rattling around, and I had been afraid to write it out because I was sure that the words that would come out wouldn’t match what was in my head. But somehow, reading that paragraph galvanized me to sit down and not so much care what came out, just see what exactly what would come out.  And what came out was Light as Gossamer, the first story I ever sold.

Reading Smoke and Mirrors now, for the second time, through the lens of a writer has been interesting. For one thing, I get now what Neil wrote about in the introduction, even though I’m still far from his level of writing. For one thing, I reading the stories now with a far more critical eye, looking at craft as well as story. And let me tell you, I am still light years away from his expertise. This will be a great book to study if you want to know the craft of the short story…and poetry too–Neil has several poems in here that already given me ideas. I’ve never even heard of a rondel before, but there is one, Reading the Entrails, right before the book starts.

There are stories inside that I deeply enjoyed just as much as the first time. I was delighted to read again We Can Get Them For You Wholesale, a dark comedy about a man who learns that the more people he can get killed, the price for killing them goes down.  Chivalry was another favorite–recently, NPR featured Jane Curtin reading the story on "Selected Shorts"; I highly recommend listening–it is just as funny and sweet as the written form. And Babycakes was just as chilling, perhaps even moreso since I recognized the format as flash fiction.

Then there were stories that became my new favorites. The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories is not SF, not speculative, not anything, yet it is reflective, brooding, and may or may not be true. I read When we went to see the end of the world by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 ¾, over and over again because the language was beautiful, bizarre, and so dark.

I remember reading Murder Mysteries it the first time and thinking, "a story within a story about angels. Cool."  This time, I read it, but Neil’s intro for it kept sticking in my head: "I tried to play fair with the detective part of the story. There are clues everywhere. There’s even one in the title." I wondered, why would he write something like that. So I went back and read it again. Then I read it a third time.  And then my mouth dropped wide open. Holy crap, how the hell did I miss that?

I won’t tell what the story is about, or what I missed. You just have to read it. But let me tell you, Murder Mysteries is now my new favorite in the book.

Mind, not all of the stories clicked with me.  Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar and Bay Wolf are in Clthulu mythos, but if you don’t know the mythos, most of it goes right over your head. I was able to recognize some of that in the stories now, but they still didn’t stick with much. And surprisingly, I found myself less impressed with Snow, Glass, Apples upon reading it again. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the story, and reading it was quite a pleasure, but it resonated with me less than the first time. Maybe it’s because I have since read other fairy tale stories that struck me just as profoundly. Or maybe because Murder Mysteries so blew me away.

On Writing by Stephen King is the best book for learning how to write from a writer’s point of view. But if you want to learn technique and craft in short stories, pick up Smoke and Mirrors. And don’t just read it; study it. See the different styles Neil use to tell a story, not just in short story format, but in poetry. This book is that inspiring.

This book rates five dead angels out of five. I do realize that I have yet to read his second collection Fragile Things. I’m almost hesitant to.  Smoke and Mirrors means a lot to me, so much so I got it signed by Neil Himself. One day, I’m sure I’ll get over my fixation of all things Neil, but in the meantime, I got a sestina to write using my son’s spelling list. And why the heck not?


Maybe I should start watching movies again.

The latest buzz on the net has been the brouhaha over a Pakistani actor who had been turned down for being an Hobbit extra because her skin was too brown. Naturally, Twitter exploded in outrage. The casting director got fired, heads are rolling everywhere, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah. And retaliation has been just as severe, with a facebook group being created to keep the hobbits white. So some nasty stuff is getting slung around, even before the movie has yet to get a single cel filmed.

At first, I was like, "Well, yeah. Hobbits are white. The only dark-skinned folk are the ones down south who got roped into being slaves for Mordor, thank you very much for doing so, Mr. Tolkien." But then a friend of mine was like, "Well, actually, does it even say what their skin tone was?" And I was like, "Well, we know that they’re curly-haired…but…" Then we sort of stared at each other in puzzled silence.

So then I went home and consulted the source: Tolkien. Unfortunately, the only source I had was the Silmarillion, which, while useful to see how Tolkien world-built his world, surprisingly does not contain anything to do with hobbits…or if there was, I didn’t see it. I then went back to the above mentioned article, where at the bottom, it reads:

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien described three races of Hobbits inhabiting the Middle Earth fantasy world which is the setting for the movies, including harfoots, who "were browner of skin" than the others.


I’m going to have to read the Lord of the Rings all over again now, because I don’t remember that when I read it the first time. I should have glommed onto the fact that there were brown-skinned hobbits. Or maybe I did read that, but thought, yeah, but there’s brown-skinned, and then there’s dark-skinned…

Which made me think of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Because, you know, when you think of Tolkien, you always have to think of C.S. Lewis. Both of them being British dudes and all.

I’ve seen the first movie, but not because I wanted to. I saw it because it was something my hubby DVR’d, and it was a Saturday night when I had nothing better to do. I know the other movies have come out since, with the latest being Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but I have no desire to see them.

It’s all because of Jill, you see.

The Silver Chair happens to be my favorite book of the Narnia series. That was because of Jill. She wasn’t part of the Penvensie clan–she was completely outside of the family. And because Lewis never really gave a detailed description of her, she could’ve looked like, well, anyone. So, in my nine-year-old mind, I was convinced Jill was black. Sure, the pictures in the book showed her as white, but pictures could be deceiving. I always went by what was in the text.

Jill was cool.  Jill was bad-ass.She didn’t take no guff from anyone. But she also knew when she was wrong and owed up to it. It was easy to project myself onto Jill, because I could see myself in her (I always hoped that after The Last Battle, she and Eustace hooked up because they made a cute couple together.)

So when I learned that they were going to do movies of the Chronicles of Narnia, it left me…well…dismayed. Because I know that what’s up there on the screen isn’t going to match up with my picture of Jill. I probably would be disappointed even if Jill was white–nothing on the screen could possibly match with what I had in my head.

Or can it?

Maybe, in limiting myself, maybe I am missing some pretty good renditions of my favorite books. I mean, I loved Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia may not be on the same caliber, but I’ve heard from people that it’s really good. And you know, it could be possible, you know, that they might cast Jill of a different race…

So maybe this means I ought to start watching movies again. I mean, now that Disney’s out of the fairy-tale market, that means movies should start getting good now, right?