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August 2000
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

RIDING THE BULLET - Stephen King
Scribner/Philtrum Press, 2000; 217pp; $2.50
E-Book; ISBN: 0-743-20467-0

Well, Stephen King's at it again, stretching the boundaries in a way that few other established authors do. He seems fearless in getting his stories out to his readers in as many different ways as possible: from releasing multiple books in the same year (unthinkable for most major writers) and bringing the serial novel back into the limelight (The Green Mile, 1996), to his last collection only being available in an audio format (Blood and Smoke, 2000) and this e-book-only publication of his latest novella.

"Riding the Bullet" continues in the vein of King's more recent forays into mixing mainstream and the supernatural---as opposed to his over-the-top horror in books like Desperation (1996) or the surrealism to be found in The Dark Tower series. It's the story of Alan Parker, hitchhiking home from college to see his mother who's in the hospital following a stroke. Along the way, one of his rides is with an Angel of Death and nothing will ever be the same for him again.

It's a terrific story, highlighting King's gift for characterization and his sheer narrative drive.

Was it hard to stay engaged, reading it on a small handheld screen as I did?

Not in the least. After downloading it, I meant to only read a few "pages" and ended up devouring the whole story in one setting. I've come to realize---after years of reading books in the form of uncorrected bound and loose galleys, in manuscript (when the publisher hasn't got a galley ready yet), as traditional books, and now as e-books or as ASCII text documents on a handheld device---that in the end, it's the words that matter, not how I read them. I wouldn't want to give up books. There's still something irreplaceable about curling up in a big chair, late at night, with some fat volume on your lap. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't explore other formats.

With "Riding the Bullet," I downloaded it from a place called peanutpress.com <www.peanutpress.com> who provide books for the OS Palm and Windows CE operating systems. You need a copy of their software reader, but it comes free with every purchase. (Incidentally they also have King's last three novels available for both those operating systems.) "Riding the Bullet" is available as well in a number of other electronic formats. See the Scribner's Website <www.simonandschuster.com/> for more details.

Now, naturally King isn't the first to offer up original material in digital form. There are any number of other new as well as reprinted novels and short stories available on the Net as I write this, and more coming every day. A couple of recent favorites worth mentioning are the original story "Red Rock" by Terri Windling <www.endicott-studio.com/forrr.html>, Peter Crowther's "Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told" <www.horrornet.com/crowfrontpage.htm> which originally appeared in Black Cats and Broken Mirrors (1998), and Parke Godwin's most recent short story collection, The Night You Could Hear Forever <www.dreams-unlimited.com>.

The difference between King and Windling, Crowther, Godwin, and the many other fine authors who are experimenting with this form of publication, is that King, being the self-proclaimed Brand Name that he is, already has an enormous readership actively seeking out his work, no matter how it's being offered to them. He's probably one of the few authors who, at this point in his career, could self-publish and hardly lose any sales. For other, less-well known writers, it's still a struggle to let readers know that their work exists on the Net (never mind in the bookstore), and therein lies the problem. How to sift through it all to find the gold among the chaff?

I don't have any easy answer. For now, it's a matter of relying on word-of-mouth. When you find a great story on the Net, tell your friends about it. But the good thing about "Riding the Bullet" (besides it being a fine story in its own right), is that, hopefully, it will raise the general public's awareness of this medium and get them out there seeking more books and stories.

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MIRACLE AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES - Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra, 1999; 328pp; $19.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-553-11111-6

When this book arrived for review, I bemoaned the fact that I wouldn't be able to cover it. You see, it got to me in late December when I'm writing my May column (yes, there's that much of a time-lag). But when I mentioned this to my esteemed editor, he simply said, "If they're good stories, it doesn't matter when you read them." Which is why I seem to be writing about Christmas in August.

Actually, it's early March when I finally get to the book, and while there's snow still on the ground (in Ottawa, some years there's still snow in May), Christmas is long gone except for the bills many of us are still paying. But my editor was right. It doesn't matter because, seasonal or not, these are wonderful stories.

From the sheer old-fashioned delight of the opening story, "Miracle," which explains why Miracle on 34th Street is a better movie than It's A Wonderful Life, in a manner that's reminiscent (but not derivative) of the film, through to three modern wise-persons following a star into the west in the closing piece, "Epiphany," Willis is at top form. Believable characters, moving and/or amusing stories, and that wonderfully patented clean prose that is always the mark of Willis's writing.

It's not all sweetness and light either. For every "Newsletter," an amusing Invasion of the Body Snatchers take on those dreaded Christmas newsletters we all receive, there's a darker tale of just desserts as in what happens to the unpleasant protagonist of "In Coppelius's Toyshop."

The bottom line is, Connie Willis invariably delivers a good story and she does it eight times here. (And yes, there are only eight stories in the book.)

Wait a few months and I'm sure the paperback edition will be available, just in time for you to give out as Christmas presents to the discerning readers on your list. But don't let that stop you from reading it yourself . . . at any time of the year.

*     *     *

ANONYMOUS REX - Erica Garcia
Villard, 2000; 276pp; $23.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-375-50326-9

The private eye novel has long been blended with both sf and fantasy, ranging from Bester's telepathic invesitagor and Asimov's robot detective to Glen Cook's humorous fantasies and numerous vampire detectives, so Eric Garcia's debut featuring a dinosaur disguised as a human PI won't strike most of us in the field as terribly innovative. However this is coming from a mainstream press and the mainstream critics already seem fascinated with "an incredible idea---brilliantly excuted."

How does it fare from our more informed viewpoint?

Let me get the bad part over with first. Garcia postulates that dinosaurs never went extinct. Instead, they went into hiding, living among us, unnoticed because of their life-like latex disguises.

I'm always willing to suspend my disbelief to give an author a chance, but I just couldn't buy the disguise bit. Not when they take off the disguises to free fiercesome jaws, clawed appendages and those enormous tails. There weren't lumps under the smooth lines of that latex? People who interact with them can't tell? Every time the protagonist took off his costume and whipped free his tail, I was jolted out of the book, thinking, "Wait a minute now . . . "

But if you can get past that---think of it in metaphorical terms, I suppose, rather than literal---the novel's a lot of fun.

Vincent Rubio is one of the dinos, a raptor PI in L.A. with a bad herb addiction (basil and the like do for dinos what alcohol does for humans). He has recently has lost his partner, is losing is his business, and is basically about to hit the bottom. But in the tried-and-true style of all those hard-boiled PI novels that have gone before, from Chandler through to Robert Parker, a last case jolts him out of his addiction and into a conspiracy that will affect dinos everywhere.

The prose is good, the concepts (beyond the costumed disguises) well-thought out and fun, and best of all, the dino aspect of the plot is integral to how it all works out, rather than an exotic add-on to give a tired story a bit of a facelift. It all makes for a diverting evening's read.

According to the cover copy, Garcia's already working on a second book featuring Rubio, so it looks to be the start of a series. But if you're thinking of trying it, wait for the paperback. While it's certainly a fun read, it's not so great that you need a hardcover copy on your library shelf.

*     *     *
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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