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Shelf Care | Deal With It!

By Alex Doyle

“Last night I played poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.”

–Steven Wright

 

Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Deal with it! Books where characters start with a raw deal, and where the authors probably took that Stephen Wright quote as less of a joke and more of a writing prompt. So with that in mind, this month’s column focuses on books where the Tarot is less of a game, and more of a way of life (or ya know, death).

So if you like:

Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

Gambling with a tinfoil hat on

Books that should be made into a miniseries

You might like

Last Call, by Tim Powers

Overview

Scott Crane comes from a family of card players, and it turns out the games he’s involved in have higher stakes than he could have possibly thought.

Sample passage

“The Hearts suit—that used to be Cups—seems to be allied with Spades, and that’s bad. Hearts is supposed to be about family and domestic stuff, marriage and having children, but now it’s in the service of—of ruin. The King and Queen of Hearts were showing up interchangeably in the same hands as the worst Spades.” He looked at Crane. “Were you playing when the smoke shifted?”

“Yeah.”

“You had the Jack of Hearts and the Joker in your hand, I’ll bet.”

Even though he had decided he believed all this, it made Crane uncomfortable to see evidence for it. “Yeah, I did.”

“Those were your cards even in the old days, I remember—the one-eyed Jack and the Fool.”

Takeaway

I’d put money on that Steven Wright joke being the inspiration for this book. Powers’ writing style is reminiscent of Joe R. Lansdale’s in that it’s very straightforward and just gets on with the plot. The setting, wherein historical figures and real places intertwine with the supernatural and magic is just under the surface, reminded me a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods, but Last Call was published almost a decade before American Gods, and it is definitely its own story.

Where this world deviates from our own is that gamblers in the know can read portents and use a form of tinfoil hat superstition magic to shift the odds for things in their favor. Their abilities are affected by the fact that some of them have roles, assigned or assumed, that align them with the cards in a tarot deck. Bigger players manifest as the cards of the major arcana, so one might be The Fool or The Empress or The Page of Swords, and that (to an extent) defines what they can and cannot do.

Since things get real weird real fast I’ll just say that gambler Scott Crane has a troubled history and is waking up to the fact that years ago he lost way more than he thought in a card game. A fact he’s now becoming wildly aware of as something is trying to collect on him.

As an aside, I’ll add that this was among the best books I’ve read this year, even though it was first published in 1992. I can’t believe nobody has made it into a miniseries yet.

Or if you like:

Westworld

Supernatural Horror

Books with a lot going on

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower

You might like

The Six Gun Tarot, by R.S. Belcher

Overview

Most of the residents of the old western town of Golgotha are running from or to something, and things are about to take a turn for the much, much worse.

Sample passage

“Highfather fell into the routine of the job. He wrote a few brief correspondences: one to the U.S. Marshals over in Virginia City, another to his parents and one to an old friend in Richmond. He cleaned and oiled the collection of rifles, scatterguns and pistols that were caged in iron bars behind his desk. He also made sure the other objects locked in the gun cage—wooden stakes, silver bullets, various Indian and Chinese charms and amulets, a crucifix and several vials of holy water, blessed by the Holy Father himself all the way from Rome—were all in equally good condition.”

Takeaway

This was a supernatural horror western, where the chapters are named after a Tarot card, for reasons that become evident within each chapter. It hosts a pretty big cast. There’s Jim (the Page of Wands), a fifteen year old on the run with a Chinese artifact. There’s Mutt (the Moon), a deputy who’s part wolf. Sheriff Highfather (the Hanged Man) seems to have a knack for not quite dying, and Maude Stapleton (the Queen of Swords) learned some very interesting skills from her two hundred year old grandmother. With this cast comes a lot of backstory, maybe a bit too much backstory, and as a consequence the first half of the book is like watching the dealer put the cards on the table. However when the game finally starts, all of the groundwork that was laid gets put to good use in sorting out how everybody is going to deal with the latest horror that’s come to town, and this town is no stranger to horrors. This book stands well on its own, although Belcher has two more books out that feature the same characters.

Or if you like:

Confidence games

Smart female protagonists

Mysteries

Smartass fortunetellers

You might like

The White Magic Five and Dime (A Tarot Mystery Book 1), by Steve Hockensmith and Lisa Falco

Overview

Alanis McLachlan discovers her murdered con woman mother has left her a fortunetelling store in a small town. Now all she has to do is find the murderer, sort out the inheritance, and handle all of the baggage that comes with it.

Sample passage

“Grim, stiff, stern, humorless—the Emperor is the law, and he is not amused. Do as he says and you will be tolerated. Defy him and you will regret it…or so he’d like you to think. See that barren wasteland behind the throne? That’s the old fart’s kingdom. Follow all his rules and you get to live there. Yippee! Or not.”

– Miss Chance, Infinite Roads to Knowing

The day got off to a good start. I was alive when I woke up.

Usually I’m a jeans and T-shirt woman. If I’m feeling especially fancy (or cold), I might put on a pullover. My footwear runs the gamut from black Chuck Taylors to generic Payless snow boots. (It’s a short gamut.) The last time I bought jewelry, it cost me two prize tickets at Chuck E. Cheese.

This wouldn’t do. Not for Miss Chance.

I went to my mother’s closet.

There she was. All five of her, by my count. There had been dozens over the years, but she’d whittled herself down to this handful now: the Businesswoman, the Cougar, the Frump, the Blank Slate (designed to be so boring, she was invisible), and the Gypsy. Five different wardrobes for five different identities, all ready at a moment’s notice.

Takeaway

So, full disclosure, I picked up this book because it was described as “A Tarot Mystery” and I needed a third book to round out the theme this month’s column after the book I had in mind turned out to be not as good as remembered. OK, barely remembered. And barely good, but that all works out for you readers because The White Magic Five and Dime is definitely worth reading.

Each chapter is introduced with a snarky card reading that foreshadows the events of the chapter, as Alanis draws on her experiences growing up in a family of grifters to sort out what her mom’s final con was. Along the way it’s not entirely clear if the tarot readings are predicting the future, or people are just reading things into them. As it’s a mystery I can’t say too much without spoiling things, but there were some solid plot twists, and it’s great watching Alanis get out of jams, and put other characters into them. The White Magic Five and Dime is a self-contained story, but if you enjoy the characters, there are at least another two books that feature them.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords.

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About Alex Doyle (27 Articles)
Alex Doyle is a father, programmer, smartass and a fan of anything that wastes no time to getting to the point. When he's not trying to be clever on the Internet, or irritating his kids with dad jokes, he can be found looking for the next great story that everyone has to read.

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