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

Dreams of the Compass Rose - Vera Nazarian
Wildside Press, 2002; $39.95

I love coming upon a novel by an unfamiliar (to me) author that's as good as the one in hand--though to be honest, I had read Nazarian's on-line short story "Rossia Moya" a year or so ago. But Dreams of the Compass Rose has nothing in common with that story in terms of style or subject matter--only in the assurance with which the author tells a story and brings her complex characters to life. And while I remembering liking the story a great deal, I love this book.

Dreams of the Compass Rose is a story-cycle in which we keep coming back to the same characters, except from different viewpoints and different times in their lives. It's set in a land of desert empires that never was, though it could easily be our world--far in the future, or deep in the past. Some of the stories are brutal, some are like dreams. All of them are engaging and resonant, creating a new mythology that feels so right one might be forgiven for thinking that it's the cultural heritage of some forgotten country or people that have been lost to history.

It reminded me of those wonderful, dream-laden story-cycles that Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany were writing around the turn of the last century. Dreams of the Compass Rose has a similar stately lyricism, a compelling and visionary voice that speaks to the heart of the reader.

My reading time is very limited these days, but I know this is a book I will return to again and again.

If your local bookstore can't get it for you, you can order it directly from Wildside Press at P.O. Box 45, Gillette, NJ 07933-0045, or from their website at www.wildsidepress.com.

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Aquamarine - Alice Hoffman
Scholastic Press, 2001; $16.95

It's the end of the summer and the Capri Beach Club, pretty much deserted all summer except for best friends Hailey and Claire, is slated for demolition in a week's time. That's also when Claire, having lived next door to Hailey forever, moves away with her grandparents.

The girls spend their days at the Capri, praying for time to not just slow down, but to stop, because they're not ready for their world to change. But time always moves on and it takes a small miracle to allow the girls to emerge unscathed from the upcoming traumas they must face.

This is a sweet and wise fable, contemporary and timeless. Hoffman breathes full life into her characters, her prose is simple but gorgeous, and she reveals for us here, in this little tale meant for younger readers, the same keen insights into what makes people tick as she does in her adult fiction. In fact, this is a fairy tale for all ages and I recommend it highly.

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Coolhunting, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Fictionwise.com, 2001; $2.33

This reprint from a 1998 issue Science Fiction Age is certainly worth a second look in e-book format.

Steffie Storm-Warning is a nomadic NYC coolhunter in the near future. Coolhunters chase down the next cool thing before it happens, earning their living by their skill at advance-guessing the marketplace. Steffie's one of the best, but she wasn't always a coolhunter. Once she was Stephanie Wyton-Brew of Ann Arbor and she was part of a family that included her older sister KD, trapped in the body of a three-year-old girl through a medical procedure imposed upon her sister by her parents who wanted one of their offspring to be a child forever.

Called back to her family home with the news that KD is dying, Steffie gets caught up in a new moral dilemma and the same unhappy family dynamics that had her run away from home on the night before she graduated from high school.

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking novella and perfectly exemplifies one of the reasons that I enjoy Rusch's writing as much as I do. Her stories often unfold with a breezy, entertaining flow, leading one to expect something fuzzy and warm. Except at its heart, her fiction has a deep emotional edge that, while it might seem at odds with the storytelling style, turns out to be perfectly suited to it, paying off her readers with rich dividends.

*     *     *

The Man Who Grew Young - Daniel Quinn
Context Books, 2001; $19.95

There's a wonderful premise that drives this illustrated story: what if at the end of time, the universe turns around and everything that has already happened, happens again, only in reverse? A person's life would begin when they're taken out of their grave and ends when they return to their mother's womb. Memory would work the same way. You would remember when you died because it was like being born, but the journey to the womb would be a mystery.
It's like that for everyone, except Adam Taylor--the Everyman through whom Daniel Quinn has chosen to tell his story. To quote the cover copy (because it lays it out so succinctly):

"To [Taylor's] own amazement and frustration, he seems to be a man without a mother--and therefore immortal. He makes friends, takes wives, and watches them "grow" into adolescence, childhood, and infancy, leaving him behind, decade after decade, century after century."

Taylor's quest takes him to the beginning of time and Quinn plays fair with the story. By the time you get to the end, it's very obvious, but you can't fault Quinn for that, because how else could the story end? And it's the journey that's so fascinating. Not to mention all the wonderful touches of what it would be like to live backwards. For instance, artists believe that "every painting and every sculpture must absolutely end in the hand of some man or woman and be seen no more." Or the dismantling of Stonehenge.

The whole idea is so interesting that I wonder why it hasn't been used before. (Although maybe it has and I've simply never seen it.) In his introduction, Quinn calls it an impossible novel, one that could only work in this illustrated format, but I have to disagree. Writing it in a traditional style would have added depth to the characterization. Plus, in prose we would get to cast the "movie" and see it unfold in our own heads.

When it comes to illustrated work such as this, a reader's appreciation is very much dependent upon the artist's interpretation. If it doesn't mesh with your vision, it won't work for you.

In this case, Tim Eldred, while certainly a fine artist, has too cartoony a style for my tastes--at least for this particular story. I would have preferred either an artist more rooted in the fine arts, or one with a more experimental style--to fit the boldness of the storyline.

But with that said, I still enjoyed the experience and recommend it to you for the freshness of the premise and for how Quinn plays out all the speculations of such a turned-around manner of living.

*     *     *

Pioneer - Melanie Tem
Wormhole Books, 2001; $12.00
A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned - Edward Bryant
Wormhole Books, 2001; $12.00

Speaking of specialty presses (I was in last issue's column), here's a new one: Wormhole Books which says that it's an on-line bookseller, a writing community, and a specialty press concentrating on high-quality chapbooks. I haven't visited their site (www.wormholebooks.com), so I can't comment on the first two claims, but they've certainly started off their chapbook line with a bang.

The Tem is an original, an sf story centered around an expedition exploring new planets to see if they can sustain human life. But while the science is fine (at least it seems so through these uneducated eyes), it's with her characters that Tem shines. What brought them to join the expedition, how they relate to each other and the new environment--it's a wonderful exercise in exploring what makes us tick, delivered in her usual fine prose.

Bryant's is a reprint, a twisted story of zombies in a small town that originally appeared in Book of the Dead, a prose sequel to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead movies. In the afterword, Bryant tells us that he even appalled himself in writing this piece. It's unquestionably a strong, gruesome story, and it certainly makes its point about the insular communities in small towns and the strength of the human spirit when confronted with impossible adversity. But I don't recommend it to the weak-hearted.

*     *     *

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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