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Kathryn Reiss
Harcourt Books, 264 pages

Kathryn Reiss
Kathryn Ress received a B.A. in English and German from Duke University in 1980 and a M.F.A. in English and Creative Writing from University of Michigan in 1988. As a Fulbright-Hayes Scholar, she attended Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitšt, Bonn Germany in 1981. She has been teaching at Mills College since 1989.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Paint by Magic

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ian Nichols

On of Kathryn Reiss' main abilities is to combine a fascinating mystery with the issues of personality and relationships which are so important to young adults. She does so with sensitivity and insight, and with no trace of condescension. At the same time, her handling of the mystery elements makes her novels intensely readable, and divorces them from the tedious teen tales which feature dysfunctional families and disasters.

In Paperquake, the mystery begins when Violet Jackstone, the non-identical sibling in a set of triplets, begins to dream of things which she has never experienced, but which seem real to her. Dreams of ordinary domestic pastimes, such as needlepoint, are intermingled with dreams of terrible tragedy, of flames and earthquake. The earthquake dreams, she thinks, might be explained by the series of small tremors which San Francisco, where she lives, is experiencing. But how to explain the domestic dreams?

The situation becomes even more mysterious when she helps her sisters and parents to clean up an old shop they have bought. Hidden in the walls and under the counter she finds letters and a diary which seem to be about her, only her as someone who lived nearly a hundred years before, just prior the great earthquake of 1906. The "V" who lived then bears an uncanny resemblance to her, as she would have been if she had not had heart surgery as a child to repair a cardiac condition. Gradually, through a series of clues and false leads, she works out the mystery, just in time to prevent tragedy.

While the mystery contains enough suspense to hold any reader's attention, it is seamlessly integrated with the story of Violet's development through the period of this crisis. Protected and somewhat cosseted because of her early heart condition, she hates being excluded, and feels babied. At school she's a year behind, because she had to miss time when she was sick, and at home she's treated with kid gloves. The effect of this is to make her fearful, particularly of earthquakes, representing those dangers over which no-one can have any control. Her two identical sisters dress alike and have the same interests, and Violet wants to be just like them, but can't be. Even when she attempts to dye her dark hair to match their blonde she is unsuccessful, and only succeeds in adding purple highlights to it.

As the forebodings of tragedy become stronger, Violet gradually confronts her own fears, and takes control not only of them, but of the situation. She driven by the urgency of her fears, she begins to direct her sisters and friends into helping her discover more and more of what happened to the girl "V" in 1906. As she does so, she develops the strength be herself, and to accept herself for what she is; different from her sisters.

One of the strongest points of the story is that it is not a grim exploration of self-discovery. While Violet has problems, and the situation her dreams warn her of is disastrous, this is a story of triumph, not tragedy. More, Paperquake is a story that contains a great deal of humour and, perhaps more importantly, good humour. People try to understand each other, and help each other, and the model of the urban community we see in the street outside the shop, with their neighbourliness and good feeling, is one which sends a positive message about such communities to the intended audience of teenagers. It's a shame there are so few book which send such messages.

Copyright © 2003 Ian Nichols

Ian Nichols is studying for his Masters degree at the University of Western Australia, and is fortunate enough to be studying in the area he most enjoys; Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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