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Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Theatre Review: The Book Club Play at Horizon Theatre

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See The Book Club Play at Horizon Theatre

8703078440_dda1453400_zThis is a short review, largely because I want to urge you to catch this show, and since it closes soon, I don’t want to slow you down more than necessary. Well, better late than never, right? The Book Club Play isn’t as edgy or innovative as much of the work Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points/Inman Park is known for. It is, however, an absolute, laugh-out-loud delight that deserves to be seen. But hurry, you only have a couple of weeks.

One of my heroes, C. S. Lewis, once wrote that “we read to know we’re not alone.” I also think we read to find out a little about who we are. We feel compelled to share, and to explore more deeply, because the secrets we discover are secrets about ourselves and how we relate to one another, and to an increasingly complex world. But when we scratch the surface of secrets, especially in the company of others, it’s not always going to be a comfortable experience. Ann, played wonderfully by Wendy Melkonian, has a perfect life … career, catalog-perfect home, handsome husband, and tightly-knit book club. When the delicate mix of the latter is stirred both by the presence of a stranger and by becoming the subject of a documentary film, intimate discussions lead to sit-com level pandemonium.

Yes, the play is sweet, even cloying. The outcomes are neat and fairly predictable. But the cast (which also includes Bryan Brendle, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, Danielle Deadwyler, and Dan Triandiflou) is so terrific, and the laughs are frequent and loud. More, the questions raised are interesting and worthy of exploration. More, the characters are genuine, and I was delighted to spend an evening with them. Real belly laughs have been rare this season (The Internship, I’m looking at you). The Book Club Play provides them in spades … with more than a little intelligence and heart thrown in for good measure.

Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this. But get moving; it ends June 23, alas.

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part One: Iconic Locations

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When asked to picture Narnia, you probably think of something rather like this, don’t you?

If asked to close one’s eyes and picture Narnia, I am willing to bet that just about everyone will picture a snow-covered wood surrounding a clearing where a lamppost sheds a soft, golden light … just beyond a wardrobe door. Something about that image, that specific location, is iconic. It’s a strong, concrete, visual image. It’s something we almost can’t help responding to, almost like it, that one place, was a character in a story. When we revisit, years later, it’s like meeting an old friend.

As many of you know, some partners and I are starting a new publishing venture, ePic Adventures, Inc. We’ll be doing print books, sure, but our emphasis is on eBooks. Magical eBooks. Think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

In short, ePic Books present a platform that stretches the idea of what an eBook can be. The original idea was to focus on a narrow selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, paranormal romance, and young adult. Our investors and advisors talked me out of that. So we’re focusing on fantasy, at least for the first year or two, and expanding once we’ve built our brand.

Quick, what’s this? Once answer: it’s utterly iconic.

That still doesn’t narrow things down a whole lot. So we have developed a sort of checklist of things we’re looking for. Some of them have to do with the medium … books we we purchase (yes, we’ll be paying advances and royalties) have to have elements that fit the technology we’re developing. That’s obvious enough.

And, of course, we’re looking for the usual: strong characters, excellent writing, surprises, unique ideas, well-structured stories. all that stuff. I would have mentioned that first, since ultimately those are most important. But they are kind of obvious, and most publishers, even small ones, have literally hundreds of manuscripts that meet those criteria on their desks at any one time.

Beyond that, we took a heuristic look at story, trying to identify elements that the truly successful works in the genre, regardless of medium, share in common. That’s not to say that we’re trying to be formulaic. Far from it. But certain elements are at the heart of successful stories, especially in the fantasy genre. There are things many share in common. Those are the elements we’ll be looking for next year.

The first? Iconic locations. Think of some of the most beloved and successful fantasy works. Almost without exception, they feature absolutely forgettable locations: places that everyone who has ever experienced the work can describe in a minute. Think of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory or the cantina in Star Wars. In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is almost as much a star as Harry himself, and it stands out in a series that is absolutely packed with iconic locations.

In fact, I am at a loss to think of a truly successful fantasy that has endured the test of time that doesn’t include at least one absolutely iconic location. The Wizard of Oz? Think of that first color shot Munchkin Land, or the Emerald City, or even the Yellow Brick Road. Field of Dreams? The baseball field in the cornfield. The Name of the Wind? The University, of course, and its library in particular. A Song of Ice and Fire? I think the Wall is likely the best example.

If you’ve read the works of Charles de Lint, think of his Tamson House or his city of Newford. Speaking of cities, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be an exception, although you can argue (convincingly, I think) that the snow-covered London is as much a part of the story as Scrooge and the ghosts.

Now, picture scenes from the best of the Disney animated films. They are rife with iconic locations, from the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the castle, the pub, and the lonely tower in Tangled. Picture Pleasure Island or the Fairies’ House from Sleeping Beauty. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of those films, those places are locked away somewhere in the attics of your brain. They are beautifully realized.

Professor Tolkien’s Bag End, one of the most iconic fantasy locations of all.

Or maybe the most perfect example of all: Bag End in Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Tolkien even begins with a description if Bag End in The Hobbit … it is described in loving detail long before we learn one single fact about the main character (aside from the fact that he lives there, which now that I mention it does tell the reader rather a lot about Bilbo Baggins) or the story. We know about that hole in the ground long before we learn of wizards, dwarves, or dragons.

Of course, Professor Tolkien’s works are full of iconic locations, and many of them are places you long to visit. LothLorien. Rivendell. The Lonely Mountain. Beorn’s House. The Prancing Pony in Bree. Minas Tirith. Mirkwood. Gollum’s cave.

Gormenghast. Amber. The Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse. Dune. Treasure Island. 221 B Baker Street (although as with Mr Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle’s London might be a better example). The Hundred Acre Wood. Ray Bradbury’s Greentown or Mars. Barsoom. Callahan’s. Neverland. Prydain. The Commonwealth (yes, the whole damn thing) from Silverlock. The Batcave. The starship Enterprise. Even the secret junkyard headquarters in the Three Investigators books.

Mentioning the Three Investigators may be a cheat, since they are mystery rather than fantasy, but looking back at my love of reading, I honestly think it begins with my longing to visit that secret headquarters (through Tunnel Two, naturally) or Charlie’s chocolate factory, that amazing creation of Mr. Wonka and Mr. Dahl. The place was a part of the appeal. If you’re lost in a story, isn’t one of the reasons that some part of you wishes, deeply in the heart, to visit those places you’re falling in love with?

I won’t say that is rule is universally true. But again, I am at a loss to think of an exception. I’m sure one will occur to me the instant I hit “publish,” but it’ll be the exception that proves the rule. I am also not saying it’s the only element that makes these stories work, or even that it’s the most important one. (We have a whole list of key elements that I’ll be talking about on this blog over the next few weeks.)

So what makes an image iconic? Four things, I think.

First, an iconic location is utterly unforgettable. Once seen, it lingers.

Two, it’s distinctive. If you’ve experienced the story, you should be able to name the location at a glance or describe it in a sentence or three. It must be utterly unmistakable. There’s no confusing Bag End or the Emerald City. Both were described perfectly, and later realized brilliantly on screen. Ideally, one should be able to sketch it (although you’d need a green crayon for the Emerald City).

Third, it’s an integral part of the story. After all, where would the Arthurian legends be without Camelot? One of the reasons the ending of The Lord of the Rings (the real one, not the awful movie ending) works so well is because we’ve come to share the characters’ love of the Shire.

What makes a location iconic? A good map never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, an iconic location inspires emotional response independent of the audience’s response to the character or story. Iconic locations evoke strong emotions … usually wistful longing (who doesn’t want to visit Bag End or the Beaver’s Dam for Tea?) or dread. The Death Star and Orthanc are both unforgettable and utterly unmistakable, but really, who wants to hang out there?

By the way, my friend Angela Still has pointed out that iconic locations are also a key part of gothic literature, too. I think more than a few of these key elements are also important in other genres, too. I should also point out that iconic locations are very close to, but not quite the same as, the next criteria on the list: iconic images. But I’ll talk about that next week.

So what do you think? Are iconic locations a part of what you respond to? If you are a creator, how important are iconic locations to your story? I’d really love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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Ten Places to Get Amazing Pizza in Atlanta

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If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say they just can’t find good pizza in Atlanta, I could buy a lot of slices, all with extra cheese. Frankly, the comment never ceases to astonish me. That is, until I remember that it’s usually uttered by carpetbagging Yankee new-comers who likely haven’t found their way past the mall Pizza Huts yet. For better or worse, Atlanta hides its hole-in-the-wall gems well.

And so, offered as a public service, here are ten places (with two extra honorable mentions) to get amazing pizza right here amongst the maze of Peachtree Streets. By the way, these are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of quality or preference.

For the record, I am skipping some of the more popular chain type places, like Mellow Mushroom and Fellini’s, despite the fact that I am fond of both. But the simple fact is, you’ve probably already tried them, or at least know about them. And to be frank, yummy as they are, they simply didn’t make the top ten list.

1.) Antico Pizza Napoletana

This was the place that redefined what pizza can be for me. I made that comment to a friend of mine who is both a Yankee and of first or second-generation Italian descent, and she admitted that it had redefined it for her, too. You order at the counter, and then you hope for the best since seating is extremely limited. There are bench seats that surround long tables that you share with others, making you feel (rather delightfully) as though you’ve been invited into someone’s kitchen, where you can see these giant imported Italian ovens (which heat to more than 1000 degrees), bags of imported flour and cans of exotic imported extra virgin olive oil, fragrant fresh herbs, and stuff like that. It’s homey, warm, and wonderful.

I think I would have fallen in love with the place even if the pizza was only passable. Happily, it’s a lot better than that. It’s transcendent. The word Antico means ancient, and the techniques and recipes the master bakers employ here have stood the test of time for a reason. They are amazing. It’s a little hard to find (the west side, behind Georgia Tech in that nebulous area between downtown and midtown, is more maze-like than any other part of the city, and that’s saying a lot), but it’s worth it. I promise.

2.) Athens Pizza House

When searching for pizza, generally what you’re looking for is a pie baked by a Yankee with a last name that ends in a vowel. There are exceptions to that, albeit not many, and Athens is chief among them.

A few years ago, my wife offered to take me to any restaurant in the city for my birthday. She assumed I’d pick one of the pricier steak houses, like Bones, Rathbuns, or Parker’s on Ponce. I picked Athens, because, frankly, when the Athens craving is upon you, nothing else will do. Nothing.

The pizza is Greek style, meaning the crust is a little breadier, softer, and very so slightly sweeter than New York or Italian styles. It’s always astonishingly fresh, which matters more than I’d realized. It’s probably the best crust you can find in Atlanta, and it hold up will under a pile of ingredients without getting soggy, which is good, because Athens is generous with the toppings. The sauce is tangy, slightly salty, had has a hint of premium olive oil in it. It’s impossible to describe and impossible to forget. It’s comfort food at it’s most comforting, and if I had to pick a last meal, this might be it. (unless I could think of something that, like, takes several years to cook. Anyway.)

Some of my friends swear by the other Greek dishes, especially the Lemon Chicken Soup, and they may will be right for all I know. I’ve been ordering the same thing for years: a small pizza with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and feta cheese, just the way the Lord and Mrs. Papadopoulos intended. Be sure to try it the feta.

3.) Avellino’s

Remember what I was saying about pizza baked by a Yankee with a last name that ends in a vowel? Maybe more than any other spot in the city, or the known universe, Avellino’s proves this rule. The recipes here come from New York, where Avellino family has been baking for generations. In fact, the family claims that the pizza here is better than what they can make up north, because they have access to better and fresher ingredients.

The pizza is some of the very best I’ve had anywhere. Everything tastes fresh, wonderfully spicy, and, for lack of a better word, hand-made. It ranks a solid A, but it gets a boost to A+ for atmosphere. It’s small, homey, charming, and friendly. It practically defines the term “neighborhood spot.” The staff is great, the crowd of regulars is welcoming, and the overall experience keeps me coming back again and again. Well, that and the fact that it’s walking distance from my house. But seriously, I’d drive to the ‘burbs for this.

One more thing: the beer is is terrific (it would have to be, since it shares space with beer heaven, Ale Yeah) and the deserts are to die for. I haven’t sampled the wine yet, but my wife is pleased. The list is small but solid and eclectic.

4.) Bambinelli’s

Of all the glorious pizza spots on this list, Bambinelli’s might be the one I’ve loved the longest. It opened in the early 1980s, and happened to be located right smack between my old high school and the mall where I worked at the B. Dalton Bookseller. I was there the day they opened and, although I don’t get to this charming little family-owned place as much as I used to, Bonnie Bambinelli still greets me by name.

Picture a cozy New York neighborhood spot in little Italy. Not one of the newer, trendier places. Think of a smaller, warmer, more comfortable corner that a single family has run for generations. Pull that image off the shelf of clichés in your brain, transport it to the Northlake area, and you’ve got Bambinelli’s. They’re only missing the red and white checkered table cloths.

Bambinell’s was the first authentic New York style pizza I ever tried, and although I’ve new visited New York itself dozens of times since, it’s still the standard by which I judge. It’s the A+. And it’s scores that A+ on all four of the main criteria: crust (crisp and favorable), sauce (tangy and ever so slightly sweet, with fresh herbs), cheese, and toppings. While I generally prefer the thin, the Sicilian style is also excellent, with that wonderful fresh-baked bread aroma. The other Italian dishes are first rate, especially the ones with cream sauce. But the pizza is what keeps bringing me back, decade after decade. Oh, and the garlic rolls? To die for. Seriously.

5.) Bella’s Pizzeria

If you were to describe Bella’s as Bambinelli’s west, you would not be far wrong. They’re not exactly sharing recipes, mind, each is unique, but there’s a certain neighborhood charm and cozy goodness that makes one remind me fondly of the other. Like Bambinelli’s, it’s family owned. That makes a difference. In fact, nostalgia aside, I’m hard pressed to think of something I’d say about Bambinell’s that I wouldn’t say about Bella’s, except that Bella’s won’t have that basket of hot garlic rolls on your table before you order, at least not at lunch. Bambinelli’s has an edge in taste, too, but it’s close. You’ve got to drive over to Bambinelli’s on the northeast side for that. But the slices are solid, with good crust and tangy sauce, and they’re always hot. A warning: I haven’t been there in a few years, but I assume it’s just as good as always. By the way, I was torn on whether to put Bella’s or the New York Pizza Exchange (see the honorable mentions, below) in this spot. It was a hard decision and might have gone either way.

6.) Cappozi’s

Cappozi’s is one of the most versatile spots in all of Atlanta. I’ve been there for special occasions (an amazing Valentine’s dinner with my wife), family gatherings, and when I just want to grab a seat at the bar for a fast slice. It’s causally elegant, romantic, warm, and welcoming. Every time I visit, I leave knowing I’ll be back … and soon.

The slices are foldable (my Yankee friends assure me that this is a crucial test) and tasty, with home-made sauce that’s the star of the show (although they have the best pepperoni in town). Everything tastes fresh, and the high-quality of the ingredients is evident from bite one. You’re best to stick with the traditional, the pepperoni (seriously, the best in town) and the sausage. Stuff like that. I’ve ordered extra cheese a few times, but it’s not really because it needs it.

This list is about pizza and I don’t want to drift too far off topic, but I have to mention the rest of the Italian menu. It’s fantastic, creative, and always delicious. There’s even a chef who creates daily specials, and the wine list is exceptional. The staff is terrific. This is another place that gets a boost from solid A to A+ for ambience and welcome.

7.) Edgewood Pizza

Edgewood Pizza in Atlanta’s historic Old Forth Ward neighborhood pretty much defines the concept of urban “no frills.” As near as Google and I can tell, they don’t even have a Web site — I had to link to the Facebook page. There aren’t many tables (a problem if you want to go at night—the neighborhood hipsters will have already grabbed them) and parking is limited. Although to be fair, neither of those are an issue at lunch.

What you’re going to get in place of the charm and, uh, seats you might find elsewhere is a darn good, honest slice of pizza served hot and quickly by a friendly staff. Everything tastes fresh and homemade; the crust especially is delicious. When you lost past the counter, you see those machines they use to mix dough. Always a good sign. The herbs in the sauce are terrific. And even if you order the “King Slice,” (other places would call that “two slices”), you’re not going to pay a lot for it. Edgewood Pizza is one of intown Atlanta’s best lunch bargains. It might be the closest thing you’re going to find to a genuine Manhattan pizza slice south of the Sweet Tea Belt.

8.) Nancy’s

In my long-ago youth, one of the very best spots of pizza was the long-vanished Upper Crust. It closed (I think, back in the 1980s), and I’ve missed that three-inch pile of gooey goodness ever since. At the time, I thought Upper Crust was utterly unique. I thought I’d miss that decadent yumminess forever. Then, I found Gino’s East in Chicago, and realized I wasn’t just missing a restaurant, I’d been missing a whole genre: Chicago-style pizza. Happily, Nancy’s Pizza, a chain that originated in Chicago itself, is every bit as good as Upper Crust was, and nearly as good as mighty Gino’s itself. (Although they don’t have that flaming cheese appetizer that I could never pass up at Upper Crust. Seriously, it was cheese and bread, and it was on fire! What’s not to love?)

If you don’t know Chicago-style pizza, it’s not pizza in the traditional Italian/New York style. It’s like the too-delicious to exist love child of pizza and lasagna. You start with a thin and crispy lower crust that that’s deep … like a pie shell. A really deep pie shell. Then, it’s stuffed with enough cheese to fill a bucket, and topped with another crust. The sauce, thick and tomato-y, bubbles on top of that. There’s still plenty of room for toppings. It’s pricy, sure, but then you’re buying a whole cheese shop in every pie. And man, is it amazing.

There are two locations here in Atlanta. One is in Buckhead, where I am told they have lots of table seating and all the amenities. I’ve never been there. The Ponce de Leon location, close to my neighborhood, is carry-out only, and it’s next to impossible to park. (Think of that pie slowly cooling while you circle. Grrr.) But it’s worth all the trouble.

9.) Varasanos

Varasano’s is probably the most upscale place on this list, tucked as it is in the high-rent district between Midtown and Buckhead. Don’t let that fool you. You can still get a good, honest pie here, with a nice, crispy Napoletana-style (not New York style, so set your expectations accordingly!) crust, tangy and favorable sauce (you can taste the fresh tomato and basil), and high-quality ingredients. Varasano’s adds a sourdough base to the crust, something (as far as I know) that’s unique. But eat it quickly, while it’s piping hot. Sure, that’s important everywhere. Especially here, though, because as all that bubbly deliciousness cools, the sour taste becomes more pronounced, and a little less pleasant, It’s still yummy, though. If you take some home (the pies are huge) the left overs will be disappointing, unless there is some arcane secret to reheating that I haven’t cracked yet.

10.) Zucca

Zucca has the rather dubious distinction of being the place I found because it’s the one place where you can usually find a table when all the other Decatur Spots are full. Thank heaven, because otherwise, I might have missed some mighty tasty pizza. It’s one of the best slices in a neighborhood that’s full of them, and while you can’t (alas!) get slices at night, the pies are always piled high with generous toppings and cheese, and the crust has a subtly sweet bready taste that’s terrific.

To be honest, the ambience seems a little out of place for Decatur, known mostly for charming, quaint pubs and casual but upscale dining. Entering the door is like crossing a portal that leads from the Square to a dive in any college town, anywhere in the USA. It can be a little loud, although in a fun rather than oppressive way, and the service can be a little on the slow slide. It’s friendly, though, and the pizza is worth the wait. The sauce is made fresh on-premises every day. That makes a difference. The bar is solid.

Honorable Mention:

New York Pizza Exchange

As you’ve likely guessed from the name, New York Pizza Exchange is the closest thing you’re likely to find to New York street pie south of Jersey. It might be a little pricier than, say, Edgewood, but there are plenty of seats, an extensive bar, and an extensive non-pizza menu. You’re probably going to want to avoid it after 7 on Friday and Saturday night, when the crowd and live music makes conversation challenging.

The pizza, though, the pizza is down right yummy, made special by the subtle dash of oregano in the red sauce. The garlic sauce on the white pizza is terrific, too. In fact, while the crust and toppings are delicious, the sauce is the star of the show here.

The New York Pizza Exchange is as much a sports bar as a pizza place, a change from my college days, so it’s a good place to catch a game if you happen to be in the neighborhood. In Atlanta, longevity counts. The fact that this place has been around and thriving for more than three decades says something.

Uncle Vito’s

To be honest, I haven’t been to Uncle Vito’s in years. The location I used to know and love when I lived in the wilds of suburbia has long since closed, and the remaining ones just aren’t close to any place I ever go. So I am reviewing from memory, which is probably unfair. I am convinced that one of the reasons transplants can’t find pizza that compares to what they got back home is simply this: Atlanta pizza isn’t competing with any specific New York pizza, it’s competing with memory. Nostalgia always wins. But I remember Uncle Vito’s having generous slices, enough cheese that you never felt the need to order extra, good, foldable crust, and some of the very best Italian sausage I’ve ever tried. Here’s hoping they’re as good as I remember, and that I find myself passing one at lunch time some day soon.

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Book Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

Read The Magician King: A Novel by Lev Grossman

I don’t usually review sequels. That’s not a bias, mind. I have nothing against sequels, especially when they continue a story I enjoyed. There are exceptions, of course. I reviewed the brilliant The Angel’s Game, for example. Although that doesn’t really count; it’s not so much a sequel as a related novel set in the same basic milleu. Besides, it really is a special read. I reviewed Robert V. S. Redick’s The Ruling Sea, the second in a series. I didn’t review the third book, despite the fact that I rather liked it—mostly because readers of the first two were already likely to pick it up, and those who haven’t aren’t going to want to start in the middle. As with most sequels, generally speaking, I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t already said about the first book. (If you haven’t read Redick’s series, it’s worth checking out. It’s a light, fast-paced, fun read with characters that remind me of those created by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. But I digress.)

If you read my review of Lev Grossman’s previous novel, The Magicians, you’ll recall that (spoiler alert!) I liked it a great deal. On the surface, it’s a sort of Narnia/Harry Potter book for adults, with familiar archetypes viewed through the lens of modern literary fiction, with all of the cynical irony you’d expect in the post Bright Lights, Big City era. But it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a powerful and moving novel about what happens when wishes come true, about power, about love, yes, and even about responsibility. It’s also a heck of a fun read, albeit a heartbreaking one at times, one that my love of the source material (Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, etc.) made especially poignant. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and, frankly, it’s darned insightful. I was excited to learn that a sequel was in the works.

I went to hear Mr. Grossman speak when his author tour brought him to Atlanta, and while I found his talk and reading delightful, I didn’t think The Magician King was a book I’d be reviewing. Largely because, when someone asked about a third book, Mr. Grossman joked about writing as many as his agent thought he could sell. Great, I thought. This isn’t a book. It’s an episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I've got to say, the Brits got a much cooler cover than we did here in America. Of course, you can't judge it that way.

While The Magician King assumes familiarity with the first book (although it does a fine job of reminding you of the hight points if it’s been a while since you read it), this is a sequel with it’s own beginning, middle, and very definite end. It’s not a product. It’s a novel. And darned if it’s not an out an out better book.

More, Quentin Coldwater (how great is that name?), the main character, grows and changes in this book. Sure, he’s (at times) the same whiny git he was in The Magicians, and you’ll want to slap him more than once. But there’s something in him that longs for more, and that something makes us long right along with him. If the first book was (at least ostensibly) about Quentin becoming a Magician, learning to harness, if not live up to, the power within, the sequel is about Quentin learning what it means to be a hero.

The first book had nods to all sorts of fantasy classics, and the sequel has them, too, with all sorts of delicious Easter eggs for fans of the genre (from the obvious—a winking reference to mischief managed—to the almost achanely obscure—Free Trader Beowulf). The structure of the main story is drawn primarily from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of my favorite of the Narnia tales, but The Magician King is far more than a mere homage or pastiche.

There’s a parallel story as well, one that shows us what happened to another character, Quentin’s friend Julia, while he was away at the Brakebills college of magic in the first book. Her story is a harsher one than Quentin’s, and in some ways a more interesting one, but it provides a delicious counter melody. What Quentin was essentially given in The Magicians, Julia has to fight for. Hers is a gripping and, at times, even difficult story to read. If you’ve ever wondered about the characters left behind, the unchosen, so to speak—think of Dudley in the Harry Potter stories, or Susan in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle—Julia’s story will fascinate you. Julia is the one who wasn’t granted access to Brakebills, the one to whom magic is denied. But unlike cartoonish Dudley, Julia is a character of mighty intellect and grit. And also, alas, a toxic sadness. A sea of depression that seems sure to drown her. She pays a terrible price, but she gets what she wants. But in Grossman’s books, magic and irony come wrapped together, like a bitter center in a sweet chocolate.

The stories intertwine, and their parallel resolutions, which come with sacrifice (from both), reward (for one), and loss (for the other) are elegant and unexpected—although, in retrospect, inevitable. It’s got an ending that absolutely threw me for a loop, but by Heaven, Grossman earned it. As Quentin learns, the hero isn’t the one who gains the reward; the hero pays the price.

At the end of the story, Quentin is a man who has accomplished his quest and become a hero. But in many ways, both literal and metaphoric, he’s lost everything he holds dear. But oddly, he’s left in a good place, or as close to it as a flawed hero like Quentin might hope. There’s a sort of optimism wrapped in his too-familiar despair, a core of cheerful nihilism. A journey has ended, sure, with victory and heartbreak. But I for one can’t wait to see where the next one takes him. When the next book is released, I’ll be first in line.

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Beer Review: Heavy Seas Great’er Pumpkin Ale

Sip a mighty tasty Heavy Seas Great’er Pumpkin Ale, just in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving!

I can still remember the first time I found a pumpkin ale at my local market. Pumpkin is one of my absolute favorite flavors, especially when combined with all the cinnamony-nutmegy flavors that tend to come along with it. Add ale, another of my favorites, and it sounded like heaven. I can’t even remember who made it — there are usually quite a few pumpkin ales on the shelves and taps at this time of year. I couldn’t wait to get home to try it. The reality, alas, was a disappointment. So was the next pumpkin ale I tried, and the one after that. I never learned my lesson, though. I never gave up. Someone, someday, was going to brew a pumpkin ale that lived up to my expectations.

That persistence finally paid off when I tried Heavy Seas Great’er Pumpkin Ale on tap at my neighborhood Marlay House pub. It’s everything I ever hoped a pumpkin ale would be. It pours a lovely brown amber (almost orange) color with a tan head that doesn’t linger. The aroma, rich cinnamon and spice with caramel sweetness and, of course, pumpkin, is pleasant and evocative — it makes you think of those bright Arthur Rackham illustrations of the Fezziwig’s party in A Christmas Carol, or holiday feasts in a Norman Rockwell painting. There is something quaint and lovely about it, something distinctly autumn, a comfort scent.

The flavor lives up to the aroma. It’s a big, festive ale. The bready, wheaty tastes of the ale balance the sweet pumpkin spice nicely, creating waves of complex flavor. The flavors promised by the scent are all there, along with a very subtle touch of vanilla. More, the ale was seasoned in bourbon oak casks, giving it a boozy wood finish that is unexpected and really quite delicious. In fact, that conditioning is what separates Great’er Pumpkin from the merely Great Pumpkin that Heavy Seas also brews. I haven’t tried that yet, but the oak cask conditioning and the hint of bourbon flavor make this really special, so I’m not sure I want to.

This is one of the very best seasonal brews I’ve tried in ages. It’s a little hard to find, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. If you give it a try, I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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