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October/November 2001
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

So one day in Austin, Texas, four members of a writers' group decide they want to play in the same shared world. Being fascinated with mythology and folk tales, they settle on a world where every myth, fairy tale, and legend is literally true, centering their attention on the made-up city of San Cibola, just north of San Francisco. They divide the city in four, each author taking a section, and start to write.

But few authors write for themselves. Most of them want to be read, so these four men (Bill Willingham, Mark Finn, Chris Roberson, and Matthew Sturges) put together a magazine/website called Clockwork Storybook (visit it at www.clockworkstorybook.com), and each publish a story a month on the site. The stories are soon joined with reviews of fantasy-related books, TV shows, and movies, not to mention interviews with the likes of Neil Gaiman, Charles Vess, and Sean Stewart.

A little time passes and the next thing you know these Tick Tock Men have five thousand regular readers every month and now they're publishing books you can hold in your hand without the need of some electronic e-book device.

"The decision to go to paper," Mark Finn tells me when I email him to ask about this collective, "was always the plan. We just assumed that we would be doing standard small press runs at first. The idea was to build an audience using the Internet, and then when things were economically viable for us, publish books that the audience would buy."

But why would readers buy the books when the stories are available for free on the site?

"Because they want to give them to their Luddite friends, or keep them for posterity, or read them when the computer is not on."

Much like Jim Munroe, whom we've discussed in previous installments of this column, the Tick Tock Men have found a way to circumvent the New York publishing behomoths and take their work directly to the people. But it's self-publishing, I hear some of you say, in that tone of voice that places it on a par with cleaning toilets--which come to think of it, is just as a honorable job as any other; someone has to do it. But I digress.

"Our goal," Finn goes on to explain, "was to take the indy record label or creator-owned comic publisher kind of business model and apply it to book publishing. These are our baby steps now, but so far, it's working better than we had anticipated."

But now we come to the crunch. Are the books any good?

*     *     *

GODS NEW AND USED - Mark Finn
Clockwork Storybook; 472pp; $19.95
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-9704841-1-9

Finn's Gods New and Used certainly speaks well of their collective endeavor. It brings together four San Cibola novelets and novellas for an amusing, and at times thoughtful, exploration of the interaction between humans and the "Neighbours," the Tick Tock Men's term for mythical beings. (Normal folks are called "Normans.") There are new gods and old gods, the Wandering Jew and a Cadillac-driving cherub Cupid, roadtrips and Elvis, mayhem and even a bittersweet love story.

My favorite in the collection is "The Secret Life of Lawrence Croft, or Three Days of the Con-Dorks," which Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, etc.) fans will enjoy and could well become as much a classic of the convention experience as has Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun. On one level it's the story of three fanboys and a neophyte collector attending a comic convention, but when you add in the fact that gods are real in this world, the humor level quickly escalates.

The funniest scenes are when the new manager of the hotel (himself an expert in hosting gatherings of the Neighbours) interacts with the con-goers. He thinks the various vampires and costumed folk are for real and calls in the appropriate magical back-up to keep them in line. Add in a scatological god to do Stephen King proud and you have a preposterous, hilarious, and at times, very true take of such conventions.

But happily, Finn doesn't play it all for laughs. There are serious moments here as well, moments that provide real insight into the hearts and minds of his four socially-inept characters. Finn plays fair, showing us their opinionated, unattractive sides, but he does managed to make us care about them--some more than others, mind you.

Gods New and Used is a fine debut and I'm looking forward to Finn's next book.

*     *     *

VOICES OF THUNDER - Chris Roberson
Clockwork Storybook; 322pp; $16.95
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-9704841-0-0

Chris Roberson's Voices of Thunder reads and feels like a mystery novel as it opens and while he's written stories set in San Cibola, he's come back to our world for this one.

It starts with freelance reporter Spencer Finch. While he's trying to track down some dirt on business magnate J. Nathan Pierce, he learns that his grandfather has died and that he has a small inheritance waiting for him. Finch, estranged since his teens from this grandfather who raised him and his brother, is no hurry to pick up the parcels. When he does, he finds himself with a locked wooden box for which there's no key and a box full of old pulp magazines and manuscripts.

Finch's investigation into Pierce's business dealings takes him to New Orleans, Vegas, and back and forth across Texas. Bored in the various motels he's staying in, he begins to read some of the box's stories and we do, too.

This is the place where the book could easily have fallen apart, and to be frank, I thought it would when I read the first of these "reprinted" pulp stories since Roberson captures the required voice right down to the purple prose and implausible plotlines. He tackles take-offs on the Shadow, westerns, pirate stories, old ballads, and even a short Greek play written in the classic style of ancient times. And the more I read these bits, the more impressed I became with Roberson's chameleon ability to take on the various styles, all so different from each other, and each different as well from the somewhat hardboiled voice of the principal narrative.

I liked that voice best of all: sardonic, with the touch of a wiseacre. Here he sums up Norse mythology:

"The gods, or the 'Aesir' as Royce called them, seemed pretty much regular folks. They had kids, held jobs, got feeble and eventually died. In between, though, came the magic swords and the flying chariots and the horses with eight legs. Other than that, old Asgard sounded like your average everyday trailer park, with silver shields everywhere instead of aluminum siding."
Near the end of the book Finch discovers that all these stories he's been reading connect to the piece he's writing on the business magnate Pierce and the book gets both weird and moves into high gear. The final, big revelation didn't completely work for me, probably because I'm the sort of person who usually enjoys the puzzles and mysteries far more than the explanation. But I certainly enjoyed the trip to get there.

Like Finn, Roberson is another author to watch.

*     *     *

BENEATH THE SKIN AND OTHER STORIES - Matthew Sturges
Clockwork Storybook; 310pp; $16.95
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-9704841-7

The third of the Tick Tock Men under discussion here is Matthew Sturges and he weighs in with Beneath the Skin and Other Stories.

The opening piece, from which the collection gets its name, is a retelling of the old selchie legend, moved here to the afore-mentioned shared world city of San Cibola on the west coast of California. It's a traditional sort of a tale, told in a straightforward manner, which suits both the turn-of-the-century sections as well as the modern parts of the story. It has interesting characters, a strong story, and some terrific imagery (I loved the ghost bridge that rises on nights of the full moon), but it's not so different from what many other writers might have done with the same material.

The same can't be said of the next two pieces, one of which takes us to a fascinating and bizarre version of hell, the other into the mind of schizophrenic--or is she really seeing ghosts and hearing voices?--the one story darker than the next. "In Theory" follows, utilizing some of the characters we met back in Mark Finn's collection, and continues the spiral into darkness with a wonderfully challenging take on the whole idea of serial killers.

Except for the last two short pieces in the collection, which struck me as somewhat one-note and marginal--especially in contrast to the material preceding them--these are gripping, well-executed stories, full of sharp ideas, interesting characters, and satisfyingly twisty plots.

Obviously the Clockwork Storybook collective is doing something for these writers, since all three of these previously unpublished members are producing quality work. Or perhaps it's simply a matter of like attracting like. But whatever it is, it's certainly working and I'm going to be interested to see where all three of them go from here.

*     *     *

DOWN THE MYSTERLY RIVER - Bill Willingham
Clockwork Storybook; 230pp; $14.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-9704841-3-5

Finally, we have Bill Willingham, the granddaddy of the group, at least in terms of his published credits. Willingham has written the scripts for a number of popular comic book series including The Elementals, Ironwood, and a favorite of mine, Coventry, as well as one shots such as Merv Pumpkinhead, Agent of Dream and too many others to mention.

This is the first prose book of his I've read and considering how outlandish and strange some of his comic book work has been, I was surprised to find Down the Mysterly River to be a sweet, sensitive adventure story with an ending I can only hint at, but it's something that I don't doubt will warm the hearts of most long-time readers.

On the surface it reminded me a little of Mary Brown's work (such as Pigs Don't Fly) with its mix of humans and anthropomorphic animals--yes, there are talking animals here. Our heroes are a bear, a badger, and a cranky old tom cat who have all awakened in a mysterious forest along with a human Boy Scout named Max the Wolf, the latter arriving

in a mysterious Heroes Wood for animals because of his nickname. None of them are quite sure how they ended up in this place, although they're under the impression that they died in their own worlds and this is now some sort of afterlife.

That being the case, it's not a very pleasant world, for the quartet are being mercilessly hunted by a group called the Blue Cutters and their hounds. The hunters get their name from their blue swords with which they cut away the parts of a being's personality that they don't find acceptable, leaving the ensuing entity so different from who they once were as to be unrecognizable.

But there are sanctuaries in this forest and the main story here is how our four heroes attempt to reach the closest one, using their wits, their strengths, and by learning to trust and depend on one another.

There's a YA feel about this book, but that's not a negative insofar as I'm concerned. I was charmed and delighted throughout, as I'm sure many adult readers will be. But this is also a wonderful book to pass on to the young reader in your life since it's one of those gems that will awaken in them that sense of wonder that still draw older readers to this field.

*     *     *

So, in short, all four of these Tick Tock Men are producing strong, readable fiction. The fact that they're self-published becomes irrelevant in terms of the quality of the work. In terms of production values, they could have used an editor in places, and the books' interior page design isn't always what it could be (larger margins, please--the pages look cramped), but the cover designs are snappy (I especially like the one for Finn's book), and the stories, the words, the reason we buy books and read them, are as good or better as much of what comes from the larger, perhaps more professional publishing houses. And I for one am glad to have had the chance to read them.

I appreciate the self-publishing of these books for the same reason that I'll order, oh, say a Dan Bern CD from his website: it's something I want to experience but it won't necessarily show up in my local stores. We need to change our minds about what the right and wrong ways are for artistic material to reach its audience. And we can start by supporting small endeavors such as these. And since you can sample the material for free on the Internet (just as you can MP3s on many indy musician's websites), you have nothing to lose.

Don't have a computer? Many public libraries, as well as some cafés and book stores, have free Internet connections that you can use.

*     *     *

INFINITY POINTS - Jim Munroe
Lickspittle Ventures, 1995; 78pp; $4.00
Trade paperback; no ISBN

Having mentioned Jim Munroe earlier, I just thought I'd bring to your attention this novella of his. It's an older publication, but he's found some physical copies for sale, plus he's offering it up for a free download on his site at: www.nomediakings.org/ThrInfinity.htm

And while it isn't really the sort of book we normally discuss in this column, the reason I'm bringing it to your attention is that you meet characters in it that later show up in his novel Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask which definitely does fit into this column.Unfortunately, Infinity Points isn't of quite the same high quality as Flyboy. While the novella also delves into the lives of some marginal, twenty-something characters in '90s Toronto, the writing isn't quite as assured as the longer novel and the plot remains rather aimless, jumping from scene to scene as we follow a few days in the life of a copyshop clerk named Mark.

But there's much to like as well, in a collection-of-vignettes sort of sense. One of my favorite bits was Mark's theory that this odd café he and his friends frequent is a testing ground for a drug company that's putting creativity-enhancers in their coffee. If only.

Infinity Points isn't a good introduction to Jim Munroe's quirky work. Think of it more as the bonus section on a DVD where you get the behind the scenes info, deleted scenes, and such. My advice is to use your hard-earned dollars to buy Flyboy and download this from Munroe's website.

*     *     *

PHOENIX FIRE - Tim O'Laughlin
Bodhidharma Publishing, 2001; 343pp; $15.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-615-11165-3

One of the sure signs of many first novels is that an author puts all the great loves and enthusiasms of his life into it. By that token we can guess that Tim O'Laughlin is passionate about music (particularly, acoustic, guitar-driven songs and Celtic tunes), mountain biking, the environment, the Western mystery tradition, soul mates, and reincarnation, since his novel revolves around all of the above with great and detailed enthusiasm.

I don't mean that to sound negative. It's what I like about a good first novel, the kind that the author has put his heart and soul into. It's much like a first album from a songwriter: the tracks chosen to appear on it took a lifetime to experience and write and, for all the occasional stumbling of execution or performance, often something bright and special still shines through.

Such is certainly the case here.

O'Laughlin introduces us to a likeable cast of characters, either coming together or already living in contemporary Northern California, who come to discover that they've been friends and intimates over many previous lifetimes. There's Ryan Stratton, lawyer and musician. Doug Ackerman, another musician and reporter, and his wife Pam. Gayle Draper, Fort Bragg's resident psychic and a shopowner. Larry Robinson, a retired hypnotherapist. And Audrey Peckham, a child therapist and environmental activist.

As they continue to explore the relationships between them, both in the modern world and past lives, they realize that they are approaching a confrontation with the One Without A Soul, an enemy who has defeated them over and over again throughout their previous lives. In this lifetime, he's a business magnate who has taken over a lumbering company and plans to clear cut a section of old world forest.

O'Laughlin does a good job of bringing his characters together and into the conflict, and the conflict itself makes for gripping reading. The same can also be said for those aforementioned enthusiasms that he brings into the book.

However, he also falls prey to a couple shortcomings that plague many first novels. The two prime offenders here are the overwriting and characterization.

Phoenix Fire really needed the hand of a good editor. It's not that the writing is bad--far from it. It's that there's too much of it. Trimming text, tightening scenes, showing instead expositional telling--all would have improved the flow of the book.

And while the characters are well, even lovingly, brought to life, they only wear one of two hats: white or black. There are no gray areas and that, for all the affection we might acquire for them, makes for obvious storytelling.

That said, this is still a fascinating and ambitious novel that I hope you will try. Personally, I always prefer to read a book by an author who reaches for the stars, but doesn't quite succeed, to one who won't even make the attempt.

*     *     *

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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