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October/November 2003
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
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Chris Moriarty
 
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Coyote Cowgirl, by Kim Antieau
Forge Books, 2003, $24.95.

LET ME GET my bias out of the way first: I got to read this book in manuscript form before it had found a publisher, and I loved it so much that I spent the next couple of years trying to find a home for it. There was nothing wrong with the book—it just didn't fit neatly into any category, which meant that a publisher would have to take a chance that it would find an audience.

Every editor who saw it loved it as much as I do, but didn't know what to do with it, until at last, Forge Books has stepped up with this handsome edition and I can finally buy multiple copies to hand around to all and sundry in my own circle of friends.

(And just for the record, no, I don't stand to benefit from its publication, except for the joy of finally seeing it in print.)

So what's it about? Allow me to quote from some publicity material that does a much more succinct job than I could of describing it: "While chasing stolen family treasures, Jeanne Les Flambeaux—of the famous Flambeaux chefs and restaurateurs of the Southwest—stumbles across a closet full of family skeletons—not to mention Crane, a talking crystal skull who may hold the key to the biggest secrets of all: why Jeanne won't eat, can't cook, and doesn't belong anywhere. Then Jeanne stops at La Magia restaurant in the little town of Sosegado, Arizona, and soon everyone comes to taste her food—and the truth."

What a plot summary doesn't begin to do is describe the sheer joy of Antieau's prose, which manages to be light-hearted, serious, lyrical, and down-to-earth all at the same time. The characters—especially Jeanne—are a joy, as well; larger than life, but at the same time, as familiar as our own family and friends.

Rereading the book, I can well understand the confusion many editors had in trying to categorize it. Is it a thriller? (There's a serial killer on the loose in its pages.) A comedy? (There are some very funny moments.) A mystical romance? (You'll find elements of both.) A fantasy? (I mean, a talking skull.…) A road book? (And what a journey Jeanne and Crane take!) A culinary delight? (You'll find recipes in here, and you'll probably get hungry as you're reading.) A coming-of-age novel, an exploration of the human condition?

I could go on, but let me simply say Coyote Cowgirl is all of these and more. It's a sexy, serious, and very fun romp of a book, and one of my all-time favorites—a novel that I've reread many times already, and will certainly be reading again. Do yourself a favor and give it a try.

*     *     *

The Blind Mirror, by Christopher Pike
Tor Books, 2003, $24.95.

Christopher Pike's latest novel starts off with an intriguing premise, one that becomes more absorbing the further one gets into the story.When The Blind Mirror opens, aspiring book-cover artist David Lennon is still recovering from the sudden end of his relationship with a woman named Sienna two months before. They were together for half a year, and it's not until she unceremoniously dumps him—one night around midnight, on a secluded California beach—that Lennon realizes how little he really knew about her.

Still hurting, Lennon has just arrived in from New York, where he's gotten his first book cover commission. Driving home from the airport, he makes a detour back to the beach where Sienna broke up with him, only to find the decomposing body of a dead woman who was ritually killed.

Not long into the local police's investigation, the FBI is brought in and Lennon finds himself arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Lennon doesn't understand. The dead woman is blonde, Sienna was a brunette. And he's been receiving phone calls from Sienna since he got back, so she has to be alive.

The trouble is, he can't prove it, and forensic evidence says the dead woman is Sienna. Messages left on his answering machine by Sienna mysteriously disappear. The local sheriff is sympathetic, but convinced of his guilt. The FBI agent doesn't think Lennon's guilty, but he appears to have an agenda of his own which doesn't include helping Lennon. And to make matters still worse, Lennon isn't entirely clear himself what exactly happened on that last night he spent with Sienna.

The more Lennon investigates, the more complicated and weird things get. And then, when the case begins to show ties to a pair of suicides that occurred ten years previously, events really begin to spin out of control.

Pike has a flair for this kind of thriller. His prose is smooth, his pacing brisk. And I particularly liked the ambiguity of whether or not Lennon's problems have a supernatural origin. Pike also has some fun occasionally cutting to sections of the book for which Lennon has been commissioned to provide the cover art, and ties its story neatly into the main narrative.

But I have to admit that by the time everything started to come together, the plot connections were beginning to stretch my credulity. And this is a bleak book, especially as you get to the end. But that's just my take. Your own experience could well be different, especially if you like a good mystery to puzzle out, and don't mind it taking you to some very dark places along the way.

*     *     *

The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 1: The Field Guide, by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black
Simon &Schuster, 2003, $9.95.
The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 2: The Seeing Stone, by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black
Simon & Schuster, 2003, $9.95.

In the wake of Harry Potter's continuing popularity, it seems that every publisher is starting up a YA line. Simon & Schuster's main entry is the five-book series The Spiderwick Chronicles, a charming story of three children who, when their mother moves them into their weird aunt's old falling-down Victorian house, stumble into the world of Fairy.

DiTerlizzi and Black get equal billing on the cover and title page. I'm guessing that they plotted the story together, then DiTerlizzi provided the wonderful illustrations while Black was responsible for the prose.

Readers of this column might remember me raving about Black's debut novel Tithe, an edgy, punk take on the world of Fairy colliding with ours. She did it so well, I was wondering how she'd handle a gentler tale, but I shouldn't have worried. Her youthful characters move through the story with that splendid awkward grace of children. You might recognize some of your own childhoods in how Jared, Mallory, and Simon deal with a broken home, troubles at school, bickering siblings, and a worried mother.

With that in mind, just try imagining how you'd also have dealt with packs of kidnapping goblins, trolls, and the like. I don't know how well we'd cope. But the Grace children certainly do.

Black proves to have a gift of writing young characters that are true to life while also creating an inventive, magical world with which they can interact, a world both dark and whimsical. And I especially like that she didn't feel it necessary to take the almost mean-spirited, tongue-in-cheek mocking tone that can be found in the works of some other recent claimants to the high position Rowling holds in the hearts of her readers.

These books have a modern sensibility, but while reading them I was reminded of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books (although The Spiderwick Chronicles are much better written) which I loved as a kid. Or perhaps a better comparison would be to Arthur Ransome's work—adding in fairies, of course.

And then there are DiTerlizzi's engaging illustrations. They're mostly black-and-white line drawings that perfectly capture the characters' youthfulness and the necessary mix of real world and Fairy.

These are such wonderful little books that I don't even mind the fact that by the time all five have been published, my wallet will have been set back almost fifty dollars. I just wish that they'd all come out in one volume. Not so much for the savings, but because I really want to know what happens next!

*     *     *

Orbiter, by Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran
Vertigo/DC, 2003. $24.95.

Probably the one genre that almost always gets short shrift when it comes to the graphic novel format is sf. Pretty much any time a comic book's described as sf, you can be sure that it's going to be a space adventure like Star Wars, featuring weird, bug-eyed aliens and whatever other stereotypes the creators can stuff into its pages. Thoughtful, speculative stories? Those are few and far between.

But occasionally they get it right, and that's the case here with Ellis and Doran's Orbiter. It's set in the near future, ten years after the mysterious disappearance of the space shuttle Venture closes down the manned space flights program at NASA. But then that shuttle reappears, landing in the shanty town that's grown up around the Kennedy Space Center.

It's an impossible situation to start with that just gets stranger as a team of specialists is brought in to study the shuttle and the one catatonic crew member who returned with it. Because the more they uncover, the deeper the puzzles get. The Venture has new engines and instrumentation. It's covered with what appears to be skin. It has Martian sand in its landing gears. And when the pilot is finally able to speak, his explanation sounds like deep-space dementia.

The mystery of what happened to the shuttle and its crew is a novel, to quote the jacket copy, "about why we go to space…and what's waiting for us out there."

And when that mystery is resolved, it's a pure delight. But what I really appreciate about this book is how everything is solidly based on logic. The building blocks of story grow out of what we presently know about physics, mechanics, and space.

In other words, real sf.

Orbiter is easily one of the more thoughtful sf stories I've read in some time, in any format.

*     *     *

The Face, by Dean Koontz, Bantam Books
2003, $26.95.

It was a treat to have this arrive in my P.O. Box—a new Koontz novel just six months after the last one. He's beginning to give Stephen King a run for his money in terms of how many books he has out in a year.

But what makes this new novel more of a treat is how different it is from his work of late. Koontz has developed a wonderful tone with his thrillers in the past few years, injecting them with a generous dose of humor while never letting up on the tension that a good thriller requires. In The Face he takes a much more serious tone, which, in turn, helps up the level of anxiety that his readers feel for his characters.

This time out we're rooting for Ethan Truman, an ex-cop who now provides security for one of the top box-office actors in Hollywood, Channing Manheim, "the Face of the new millennium." Truman is still mourning his deceased wife Hannah, who died five years earlier. When the book opens, he's puzzling over a series of mysterious threatening objects and notes that have arrived at Manheim's L.A. mansion. Truman doesn't particularly like Manheim, but that doesn't mean he won't do everything in his power to protect his employer.

We're also sympathetic to Manheim's son Fric, a skinny ten-year-old asthmatic who bears no resemblance to his screen idol father, or to his supermodel mother, neither of whom spend any time with him. While he's fascinated by the public and screen image of what he calls his "Ghost Dad," his own social interactions are with his father's staff and the odd bimbo girlfriend Manheim brings by the mansion.

The last main point-of-view character is the anarchist Corky Laputa, who is responsible for the mysterious threats that Truman has intercepted. Except his target, unbeknownst to Truman, isn't Manheim, but Manheim's son Fric.

Also on stage are Truman's ex-partner in the LAPD, Hazard Yancy, and Truman's childhood friend, Dunny Whistler, an ex-gangster friend who died in the midst of trying to make good for his life of crime, but still seems to manage to get around just fine.

Truman begins to have bizarre hallucinations of his own death, Fric gets a series of strange phone calls that warn more than threaten, Laputa is about to launch his attack, and the lives of all five characters are soon closing in on an inevitable collision with one another. The pay-off is full of tension—and also full of surprises.

As is usual in his work, Koontz introduces us to some of the most despicable characters we might imagine, while also leaving us with a sense of hope. In addition, this time he shows us how redemption can be earned, even for the worst of us.

And as a nice finishing touch, it's not until the end of the book that we realize the title refers to something other than movie idol Manheim.

*     *     *

Creepy Little Bedtime Stories, by Madame M
Creepy Little Productions, 2001, $18.95.

There will probably always be a market for children's books that lean toward the weird and the eerie. You have only to consider the continuing popularity of Edward Gorey's strange little illustrated books, or take a stroll through the children's section in your local bookstore.

At a recent convention in Phoenix, Arizona, I came across a new entry to the field, two books by Madame M (AKA Christy A. Moeller-Masel): the title being discussed here (which I picked up and read) and a second volume of illustrated poems entitled Eerie Little Bedtime Stories (which I left behind on the table for no reason beyond the fact I simply wanted to try the books, and one seemed enough for that purpose).

The horror factor is mostly gentle, geared toward being read aloud to younger children, who will undoubtedly grin at the weird and wonderful illustrations and demand repeat readings of the verses. But adults will also get a smile or two at these stories of "The Headless Girl" (whose head goes night-clubbing while her body is sleeping), "Wolfman Joe" (wherein we discover the true cause of lycanthropy), the rock star born without hips in "Johnny Is a Rock Star," and the other curious people and creatures to be found in these pages.

Copies of both books can be ordered at www.creepylittlestories.com where you'll also find samples of Madame M's wares.

*     *     *

Marc Bolan: The Bopping Elf, by Catherine Lambert & Michel Laverdière
Beltania/ S.R.I. Canada, 2003 Cdn$21.99.

This odd hybrid of book and music will probably be of more interest to genre readers because of the possibilities it offers for mixed media presentations, than for the predilection Marc Bolan had for elves and fantasy (both of which informed his first five or six albums, before his glam rock career took over and he became—for a time, mostly in the U.K. and Japan—as big as the Beatles).

To be honest, the two-CD set is a bit of a mess.

I quite enjoyed the jaunty rhythms and half-decipherable lyrics of Bolan's early recordings as Tyrannosaurus Rex in the way back when, and continued to do so when he shortened the band name to simply T. Rex. They had an exuberance and innocence—not to mention a happy strangeness—when compared with the other music available at the tail end of the sixties. Which begs the question: Why would anyone do mock-early music consort settings of those same, rather earthy songs, versions that so prettify the songs that they lose all their grit? Catherine Lambert (the singer here) has a lovely, clear voice, but part of what made Bolan's early work so fascinating was the airiness of fairy mixed with the songs' hard-driving, if acoustic, rhythms.

All that is gone in this recording. If this is the music of Fairyland, point me to the nearest rave to clear it from my head.

But if the music leans more toward twee, the two books on the accompanying CD-Rom don't add much grit to the mix either. The Bopping Elf is a "biography" of Bolan, "written" by an elf named Poon of the Hills, and it attempts to retell Bolan's story as though he, too, were an elf, visiting the human world. (Here the author is pretending to be the statue of an elf that used to stand on Bolan's mantelpiece—a statue Bolan claimed inspired his work.) The Gospel According to Marc Bolan is written by Michel Laverdière under his own name, and it's his take on the philosophy to be found in Bolan's work.

Now it's obvious that Laverdière cares about Bolan's work, is sincere in his love for it, and hopes to present it to a larger audience. But this isn't the way to go about it. I'd say these books were only for devotees of Bolan's work, but while I still enjoy those early albums, this project by Laverdière and Lambert only makes me feel embarrassed to admit it.

So if it's so misguided, why discuss this project at all?

Well, first off, Bolan built up a considerable fantasy mythology with his early work: in the songs, of course, but also in stories such as the spoken preamble to "Romany Soup," his book The Warlock of Love, and in the full-length version of his "The Children of Rarn" suite. This material could benefit from a closer study, or at least some exploration by lovers of fantasy. But presented as they are here, the music (watered-down versions of the songs more suited to a classical music audience than one that likes to rock—and Bolan did like to rock) and the books (simply too earnest) will put off more people than they will draw to Bolan's work.

Secondly, this two-disk set shows, by example, how something wonderful could be put together: creative presentations mixing music, prose, and illustrations, all in one neat and tidy package. Don't want to read on your computer? The book files on the CD-Rom disc come in a number of formats and with the freeware that's readily available on the net, it's easy to translate the Word.doc files into formats that can effortlessly be read on a handheld device such as a Palm or an iPaq (check www.peanutpress.com for a simple, free translation program).

Those same handheld computers can also handle images, and MP3s of the music that you could listen to while you read, so you wouldn't need to be locked to your desk computer, or balancing an unwieldy laptop, to get the full visual and audio experience.

Marc Bolan: The Bopping Elf proves that the potential exists for some truly interesting mixed media presentations. All that's needed is some stronger content.

Readers interested in more about Bolan might want to check out the fan site www.tilldawn.net. Copies of this CD-Rom/CD set can be ordered from www.xxi-21.com.

*     *     *

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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