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January 2002
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Novellas are such awkward beasts. Too short to be a novel, too long to be a story, they inhabit the gray borderland between the two, their only company, their non-quite so disenfranchised cousin, the novelet. Novellas are a hard sell in commercial terms, taking up too much space in anthologies and magazines, yet (at least in the eyes of many publishers) unable to be published on their own unless they have some other selling point attached to them, which usually means a Big Name author. But for a writer, novellas can often be the perfect length. Some stories simply come to us at that length and the good author will go ahead and write it anyway, following their muse, if not the market. Because there are benefits to be found.

You're not as confined as you are with a short story; you're allowed asides and to lay a larger banquet of character and story; and you don't need to pad the story to plump it up into a sellable novel either. Novellas can be the perfect length for readers, too, allowing them a better sample of an author's ability to carry a longer story, without having to invest in a full, often very fat, novel. Or trilogy. Or series. They can be easily read in an evening, or an afternoon, and there's something to be said for reading a story (often with many of the complexities and much of the scope of a novel) all in one sitting--a luxury most of us can't afford with novels.

But as I touched on above, they're awkward beasts to find homes for.

Enter, yet again, the small presses.

I know in this column I tend to espouse the small or specialty press houses with more enthusiasm than some might feel they deserve. And I certainly don't feel that there shouldn't be larger publishing houses. The larger houses get the job done: the big books, the popular books, the Kings and Koontzes, and they publish them in quantities that make sure everyone has a chance to acquire one.

But there are niche markets that simply aren't viable for a larger publishing house to attempt to address: Out-of-print classics by authors no longer quite so much in favor with the general reading public. Short story collections by midlist authors who couldn't hope to sell thousands of copies of what are often excellent books, but can certainly sell a thousand or so. A writer's older, less-polished work. Books that are experimental in subject matter or approach. Books of awkward lengths, or profusely illustrated, or . . . well the list goes on.

Frankly, and especially in fantasy and sf, I consider the smaller presses to be almost the life-blood of our field. They keep our history alive and point a way to the future. Sometimes they simply publish fine books that, for one reason or another, wouldn't find a home otherwise. And sometimes, when the press (usually a one- or two/three-man operation) or its editor have vision, they actually generate work we wouldn't see otherwise.

As is the case with Peter Crowther's ongoing novella series with PS Publishing. Crowther actively commissions these novellas--no doubt awaking great excitement in the authors approached. Not only can they finally write that story of awkward length, but somebody actually wants to go to contract on it.

Previous books in the series have included work by Graham Joyce, Michael Marshall Smith, Paul J. McAuley, and other worthy authors. Today we're going to discuss . . .

*     *     *

A Writer's Life - Eric Brown
PS Publishing, 2001; 78pp; $40.00, $18.00 pb
Hardcover; ISBN 1-902880-21-8
Pb: ISBN 1-902880-20-X

Eric Brown is a new writer for me, a popular sf writer who turns here to an almost old-fashioned style of storytelling as he introduces us to a midlist writer who becomes entranced with the forgotten work of an older author who vanished under mysterious circumstances. I'm not sure why stories about authors are so popular, or if they even are. One might consider it laziness on the author's part--after all, there's no research involved. Or perhaps it's them following the hoary axiom of "write what you know," and this is what they know. What I know is that I enjoy them, probably for the same reason that, in a magazine, I'll turn first to the interview with an author, an artist, a musician. I'm fascinated by the creative process, whether it's a true account of how the creator goes about his or her job, or a fictionalized account. I'm not looking for how-to tips, though even such writing can be illuminating (particularly when it's discussing a medium in which I have no experience). I'm simply intrigued by how anyone manages to snare the ephemeral impulses dancing about in their heads and give it some sort of physical form.

Brown explores this, along the way creating a dialogue in regards to the finished work--how something that so appeals to one, can leave another cold. He also tells a rousing good story, with a mystery that didn't let this reader down, introduces us to characters we can care about, and brings his English countryside setting to affectionate life with just the right amount of telling detail. The voice of his protagonist always ring true, as do the snippets of quoted work, reviews, and such that he uses as chapter epigraphs.

In short, I was greatly taken with the book, Brown's writing, and the presentation of both, bound behind the simple yet evocative cover photograph/collage by Julian Flynn that graces the book jacket. My only complaint with the book is that the introduction by Paul Di Filippo, excellent while it is, should have been an afterword as I felt it gave away a bit too much of the story. But that's a small point, and if you haven't read the book yet yourself, you've now been forewarned and can hold off looking at it until you've read the story first.

Also released at the same time was Nearly People a Dystopian novel by Conrad Williams with an introduction by Michael Marshall Smith and a cover by Wieslaw Walkuski.

These hardcovers are limited and signed by the contributors, but there are also less expensive trade paperbacks available. If your local bookstore can't find them for you, you can get ordering information directly from Crowther at crowth1@attglobal.net.

*     *     *

T2: Infiltrator - S. M. Stirling
HarperCollins, 2001; 389pp; $25.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-380-97791-5

S. M. Stirling's continuation of the story James Cameron has been telling in his Terminator films picks up right at the end of the second movie and carries on from there, full steam ahead. Everything we need for a strong sequel is here. Sterling keeps the action moving, stays true to the characters and their past histories, asks the right questions (and answers them as well), and adds more than a few of his own twists to keep everything fresh and readers on their toes.

One of the best of those twists is how he has the Connors meet up with a retired anti-terrorist agent who just happens to be the human blueprint for the Terminators that Skynet will create in the future. Franchise novels aren't necessarily Deep Think books, but they can be fun, especially if you're a fan of the original source material. I'm being hazy on the details of this novel because if you didn't care for the movies, the book won't change your mind. If you did enjoy them, I think you'll be happy with where Stirling has taken the story and will enjoy the surprises.

Stirling's own books are always entertaining and this excursion of his into franchise-land proves he's just as capable of delivering the goods when playing with somebody else's toys.

*     *     *

Doghouse Roses - Steve Earle
Houghton Mifflin, 2001; 207pp; $22.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-618-04026-9

With this collection, musician Steve Earle proves to be as gripping and evocative a storyteller in prose as he is when he's writing songs. While some of the material is obviously drawn from Earle's own eventful life (the addictions and self-destruction running rampant in the title story, the life of a songwriter in Nashville in "Billy the Kid," the exploration of a state-sanctioned execution in "The Witness"), he also delves into less familiar waters.

"Jaguar Hunter" is a fable of magical realism set against the trade in drugs and illegal aliens along the Mexican/American border. "The Reunion" is set in Ho Chi Minh City and begins with two Vietnam vets from opposite sides of the conflict at odds once more in present time. There are stories set in Paris, in the Appalachians, in Everytown U.S.A., and elsewhere. And unlike what one finds in much contemporary fiction, the voices of the characters here are individual; their lives have meat and depth.

One of the more intriguing pieces for a longtime lover of Earle's music as I am, is the prose version of the song "Taneytown" from his CD El Corazón, adding a new layer of understanding to what was already a remarkable story.

To be honest, I was a little wary approaching this book at first. Too many pros in one field fall flat on their faces when they start to dabble in another. But Earle has the talent to pull it off. He's obviously as committed to his prose as he is to his songwriting, and the result is a book that any lover of good storytelling will appreciate.

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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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