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October/November 1998
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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Kathi Maio
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Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

I find it hard to believe, but this is already the fiftieth installment of this column since I took it over from Scott Card a few years ago. When I look back at the manuscript pages of all those columns, I see it's thick enough to make up a novel, albeit a shorter one than I normally write.

Still, I mention this only in passing. Since I'm not much of a one for celebrating milestones and the like, it's going to be business as usual for this half-centennial column---but business as usual includes some fine recent publications. First up:

IRRATIONAL FEARS, by William Browning Spencer
White Wolf, 1998; $19.99
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56504-915-2

Long-time readers of this column will remember my waxing enthusiastic over Spencer's last novel, Zod Wallop, a few years ago (F&SF, January 1996). What delighted me so much about that book, is repeated in this new one: Spencer offers us something entirely original, a novel both serious and funny, beautifully written, a delight and a wonder, a true gift.

Heady praise? Well, yes. But I'll stand by it for these two books. Like the best of Jonathan Carroll's work, Spencer gives us a fresh worldview, taking the elements that make a good fantasy novel to places no one else has thought to go. In Zod Wallop it was a children's book author discovering that the invented story in his book was spilling over into his real life and coming true---not the most original conceit, I'll admit, but oh, what Spencer does with it. In Irrational Fears, we learn that alcoholism might well be an ancient alien curse, the hallucinations drunks see being actual glimpses of other-dimensional demons.

Our viewpoint character for the new novel is Jack Lowry, an ex-college professor whose acquaintance we make in a detox unit. Lowry has been there before, and probably will be there again. But this time he volunteers for an experimental course of addiction therapy, in part because of his infatuation with another inmate, Kerry Bracket. But things quickly go from bad to worse as Lowry and his fellow inmates come under attack by a cult known as The Clear.

It would take far too much space to explain all the ins and outs of the diverse plot lines and how they affect the various characters. But, as he did in Zod Wallop, Spencer manages to be both serious and hilarious, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat, then making them fall off for laughing.

Now addiction is a serious matter, but if you've become a little tired of the ever-growing library of earnest---and often far too chipper---fictional accounts of how all it takes is a plucky will and strength of character to overcome one's chemical or alcoholic dependencies, this might be the book for you. Spencer doesn't mock the disease, nor the suffering it can bring into our lives. He even presents a somewhat coherent history of Alcoholics Anonymous. But he's also willing to pursue the more ludicrous elements of some recovery and self-help programs, and he's not afraid to add a few real Lovecraftian monsters to the stew.

Avoid only if black humor upsets you.




HARVEST TALES & MIDNIGHT REVELS, edited by Michael Mayhew
Bald Mountain Books, 1998; 240pp; $23.95/$14.95
Casebound; ISBN 0-9661664-2-6
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-9661664-3-4

It's Halloween, and you feel you should do something to commemorate the day, but you're too old to go trick-or-treating, and getting all decked out in a costume just doesn't give you the buzz it once did. So what do you do? Well, you could try getting together with a group of friends and have everyone bring along an original story or poem to read over the course of the evening. The only rule would be that the story would have to relate, in some way, to Halloween.

Sounds too complicated? That it wouldn't work?

I suppose it depends on your friends.

When Michael Mayhew decided to throw his first Halloween story party in 1985, he had no idea the tradition would go for as long as it has. The first party was popular, but what was really surprising was how good the stories got over the years. And they are good, as readers will discover from this compilation culled from some eighty stories written over a period of ten years. Some are serious, some humorous. Some are poignant, or sexy, or---these are Halloween stories, after all---downright creepy.

The authors aren't---or weren't at the time---professional fiction writers. But they were a creative group: graphic artists, screenwriters, filmmakers, editors, actors, musicians, and the like. I don't know what the overall quality of the stories was, but the ones collected here are all readable, and some are truly outstanding, which is more than you can say for most anthologies these days.

Want to give it a try yourself? Editor Mayhew includes a very useful, and sensible, guide to throwing your own party in the collection's afterward. By the time you read this, it will probably be too late to put that advice into use this year. So for now, enjoy the material Mayhew has collected for us, and start planning your own for next year.

If your local bookshop can't get it for you, write to: Bald Mountain Books, P.O. Box 8420, Van Nuys, CA 91409.




IN THE RIFT: GLENRAVEN II, by Marion Zimmer Bradley & Holly Lisle
Baen, 1998; 276pp; $21.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-671-87870-0

Bradley and Lisle's latest collaboration is a guilty pleasure, such as those Michelle West used to write about in a column for this same magazine a few years ago. In the Rift is a fairly straightforward story of a woman from our world who gets mixed up with otherworldly nastiness, resulting in the usual banding together of a rag-tag group of adventurers who have to g off and save the day. What's fun about this particular version of the story is that, for the most part, the action takes place in our world.

It starts when Kate Beacham finds a Fodors-styled guide book to some place named Glenraven. She's never heard of the place, never seen the book before. But when she opens it up, the words, "Get out of the house, quick," appear on the page. The next thing she knows, she's out on her front porch with a shotgun, defending her house from a flying creature that looks like a cross between a dragon and a shark.

Beacham's already had a hard day. She lives in a small town where she's being persecuted for being Wicca. Earlier that same evening, she was assaulted by masked bigots, then when she did get home, it was to find her beloved horse dead on her driveway with a note next to it, reading "YoU'Re nExt." Now she's got this otherworldly thing flying at her.

She manages to kill the monstrous beast, but then finds herself playing host to a quartet of human-like beings from a parallel world who were dragged into our world in the wake of the beast. The only way for them to get back is to capture this wizard, who also happens to have extremely unpleasant plans in mind for our world.

What makes the book work is not simply the fast pace and inventive magical elements, but the characterization, especially of Beacham. We're rooting for her all the way as she takes charge of her squabbling, otherworldly visitors and deals with her own ongoing problems with bigotry. There's real growth in her character, an awareness that all these traumatic events take their toll. But it's not heavy-handed, and it never bogs down the story.

My only real question is, what does the buxom woman on the cover have to do with the book? And, considering how most of the action takes place in the southern States, what's with all the snow? It's too bad Baen couldn't have commissioned a new piece of art to go on the book, one that actually has something to do with the story, instead of using what's obviously a piece of stock art.




THE LOST COAST, by Steven Nightingale
St. Martin's Griffin, 1997; 260pp; $11.95
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-312-15572-7

THE THIRTEENTH DAUGHTER OF THE MOON, by Steven Nightingale
St. Martin's Press, 1997; 250pp; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-16911-6

I wanted to like these books much more than I was able to. They sounded like great fun from the cover blurbs---which gave me a sense of, say, Tom Robbins meets Moll Flanders, or perhaps Giles Goat-Boy, by way of the Wild West---but they didn't quite deliver.

The cast we first meet in The Lost Coast is certainly entertaining: a cowgirl named Cookie and Juha, a shy building contractor who's built along the lines of Paul Bunyon; the artist Renato and his first true love, Ananda, who's now a lawyer; the professor Chiara and her daughter Izzy, who are being pursued by private detectives from out East; and Muscovado, a journalist from Jamaica. They all pair off rather quickly in a bar in Eureka, Nevada, except for Renato who remains thoroughly absorbed with his art until he meets the Twelfth Daughter of the Moon, later in the book.

There's a grand sense of the tall tale pervading the trusty band's adventures as they leave Eureka, heading west for the mythical Lost Coast. Along the way they meet junkyard angels, a woman whose step-son is a lightning bolt, a talking coyote, an endlessly talking peacock, and the like. They also partake of vast quantities of great food and sex, in between philosophical conversations and just plain tomfoolery.

All of which is good fun, and even thought-provoking at times. And Nightingale writes well. The trouble is, he can't plot for the life of him. That's not necessarily the end of the world, because he certainly makes up for the lack of a straightforward storyline with any number of other entertainments. But it does cause a couple of problems.

The first is that, interspersed with what I've discussed above are sections from the points of view of a couple of murderous, body-building, amoral teenagers who appear---at least to this reader---to be present simply to lend some sort of plot/tension to the proceedings with less than happy results. Except for the satiric fun Nightingale pokes at society in general, and gun lovers and the media in particular, it's wasted space and doesn't really match the feel of the rest of the novel.

The second problem is that the subsequent book, The Thirteenth Daughter of the Moon, suffers because it's really no different from the first book---by which I mean, it's simply a continuation of the same. Where it's fresh and funny and engaging in the earlier book, it becomes a little tired the second time around.

Which is a pity, because for all its meandering and wandering about, not to mention enormous digressions, The Lost Coast is a good read. Much of it carries the flavor and tradition of folk tale and the exaggerated yarns that gather around mythic characters such as John Henry, Paul Bunyon, or Johnny Appleseed---ribald trysts and preposterous excursions that are impossible to ignore. But one can't help but wish there was a little more meat to the proceedings, especially by the time we get to the second book.

Try these from the library first before shelling out your hard-earned cash for your own copies.




DISPOSSESSION, by Chaz Brenchley
New English Library, 1997; 378pp; $5.99
Mass Market; ISBN 0-340-65992-0

Chaz Brenchley's name has come up a few times in the past few years---arising during discussions of favorite books with other readers---but I've never had the chance to try him until I finally stumbled across a couple of his books in a local bookshop. Dead of Light and Light Errant are the usual touchstones I've been given, but I decided to try the stand-alone Dispossession. The set up is wonderful:

A lawyer wakes up in a hospital from a three-day coma after a major accident in a vehicle he doesn't remember ever driving, never mind owning, to discover that he's lost three months of his life. During those missing months, he's left the law firm where he was employed to go to work for a major-league criminal he has always disliked, he's left a seven-year-old relationship and married a (to him) complete stranger, and people are trying to kill him. He doesn't know why any of the above have taken/is taking place.

And, oh yes, he also happens to know a fallen angel named Luke.

I love this sort of a book, where the protagonist has no idea who he is (or in this case, why he has undertaken these inexplicable changes in his life), but he has to find out quickly, or he's dead. Shades of Robert Ludlum, or the opening gambit in Roger Zelazny's classic Amber series.

Often in such books, when the mystery finally begins to unravel and sense is brought to the dangerously unexplained, it's a bit of a letdown. But not so here. Brenchley plays fair, ladling out the surprises and explanations with a sure, deft hand. The characters have resonance and depth, and his prose is both literate and eminently suited to a page-turning thriller. And his handling of a fallen angel is dealt with beautifully---Luke is a powerful, alien being, never fully explained, but fully realized.

When I got to the end of Dispossession, I immediately wanted to start another of his books, but alas, they do take some tracking down-especially in the States, I should imagine. But if the above intrigues you, you might try a dealer who handles UK books, or one of the on-line book services, as I will be doing to acquire some of his seven other books. On the basis of this novel--Dispossession is one of those increasingly rare books that remind you just how satisfying fiction can be---I doubt you'll be disappointed.

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