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March 2004
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Being Dead, by Vivian Vande Velde,
Magic Carpet Books, 2003, $6.95.

CONSIDERING how Western society normally avoids any dialogue concerning death, last wills and testaments, terminal illnesses—really, anything involved with dying—it's a little surprising how much the subject has pervaded the entertainment industry in recent times. We have TV shows like Six Feet Under and the brilliant Dead Like Me, bestsellers such as The Lovely Bones, and any number of other similarly themed packages that are all popular with large portions of the general public.

The YA field isn't much different. In a recent package of YA books, half of them were about ghosts and the spirit existing after death, such as Gary Soto's latest novel, The Afterlife, and the book in hand by Vivian Vande Velde.

Personally, I think it's a healthy thing, and have always admired other societies that deal openly with the subject—such as some Buddhist sects, or Mexican Catholicism with its Day of the Dead celebrations.

Until we cross over ourselves, we're never really going to know what comes next, but thinking and reading and writing about it can certainly help us prepare for what's to come. And it doesn't hurt to offer some genuine respect to those who have gone before us.

Vande Velde explores a number of different takes on the subject in the stories collected in Being Dead. The killer story, worth the price of admission on its own, is up first. I don't want to tell you too much about the premise behind "Drop by Drop," but it delivers a real punch when you understand what the haunting is all about.

The other stories are mostly as good, though there are a couple of slighter exercises, primarily the short-short fare such as "Dancing with Marjorie's Ghost" or "The Ghost." The prose remains strong throughout, but Vande Velde does better with the longer pieces where we have the chance to get to know the characters better. And the book sports a wonderful opening in the last story that should be a prerequisite example for all writing classes: "Until the part where I died, my day had been going pretty well." How can you not want to read on after that?

I've said this a number of times, but I'm going to say it again, because there are still many readers who steer clear of what's marketed as YA fiction: much of the time, the only difference between YA and adult fiction is the age of the protagonists. And these days, YA fiction is often edgier.

*     *     *

The Parrot Trainer, by Swain Wolfe,
St. Martin's Press, 2003, $24.95.

I love a slow news day. It means that there hasn't been some huge disaster and newspaper editors have to put things on their front pages such as what I found this morning (as I write this in Mid-October): an archeological discovery that adds compelling weight to the theory that the first human migrations to the Americas happened some forty centuries earlier than most textbooks teach.

The article was something I'd be interested in reading anyway, but I enjoyed the synchronicity of it appearing just as I was finishing Swain Wolfe's new novel in which one of the plot points is the discovery of a frozen body in a glacial cave overlooking the ocean in Alaska, the existence of which, when presented to the archeological world, would make an even bigger impact than the dietary discoveries made in the real-world Vancouver Island cave reported in my morning's newspaper.

Archeology plays a large role in The Parrot Trainer, where some of the main characters are pulled from either side of the legal fence that divides the field. We have Dr. Lucy Perelli, too busy drumming up grant money to go on digs anymore, and her mentor/lover Dr. Phillip Sachs, desperate for another big find to boost his waning celebrity. Opposite to them is Jack Miller, a former pot thief and art dealer. Between them lies Miller's discovery of the aforementioned glacial grave.

Helping to flesh out the subplots is a trio making a documentary film: the director, Anita, her cameraman, Billy, and the film's subject, a philosophical decon-structionist named Henri.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Like the Vande Velde story mentioned above, The Parrot Trainer has an opening sentence that makes you need to read more: "Jack happened to look up from the bottom of Lacuna Canyon at the moment the red car flew off the east rim."

The car crashes, but doesn't burst into flames as in those innumerable film and TV versions of similar events. The driver is killed by the impact and by the time Jack arrives on the scene there's little he can do but walk around the wreckage collecting the journal pages that have scattered about the car. They're written in German, but they show rare Mimbres Indian bowl art designs that Jack doesn't recognize, and he's an expert. There's also a map.

The map leads Jack to a previously unknown Mimbres site where he finds the bowls depicted in the journals. He also finds a skeleton walled up in a cave and an unbroken burial bowl with a design of a masked woman holding a parrot. What's unusual about this bowl is that the Mimbres tradition was to break a hole in the bottom of the bowl to set the dead person's spirit free. The bottom of this bowl is unbroken.

I'm getting long-winded here and haven't begun to enumerate all the delights and marvels to be found in Wolfe's latest novel. So let me just say that Jack brings the bowl home and by doing so finds himself haunted by a thousand-year-old spirit that needs to be set free. What complicates matters is that before Jack can really deal with all of this, he gets pulled into the problems surrounding the glacial grave I mentioned earlier, and then there's those filmmakers with their documentary, getting in everybody's way.

Wolfe obviously knows the worlds of archeology, documentary filmmaking (he was a filmmaker before he turned to writing books), and philosophy. Through the dialogue of the characters, he makes all three professions an engaging delight, rather than the dry topics they might appear to be from an outsider's point of view. He also knows the landscapes and histories of the Southwest, and certainly has the gift of conveying his interest and joy in them in such a manner that they become enthusiasms for the reader as well.

I've written about Wolfe's books in previous columns, always favorably, and The Parrot Trainer meets all the expectations I had going into it. The prose is rich and expressive, while the interactions of the characters are compelling throughout, especially those between Jack and his ghost, between Jack and Lucy…well, between Jack and pretty much anybody, as he's a wonderfully developed and likable character.

There are, as well, so many charming touches throughout: the bear stories and those of Coatimundi as trickster, the pack of young sisters that lives in a trailer near Jack, the life-size mudmen that Jack and the girls build by the creek, Henri (from the documentary film) and his delight with words, the Indian-Chicano biker gang with their Anasazi-styled tattoos.…

This has been a good year for books, but The Parrot Trainer is certainly one of my favorites so far. It's a treat to read, and also to see because of the small teasing chapter-headings depicting designs from Mimbres bowl art. And the extensive bibliography at the back will certainly have me tracking down further reading on the subjects brought up in the book.

If you'd like to learn a bit more of what started Wolfe on the journey to write this latest novel of his, there's a good, informative essay at: http://www.swainwolfe.com/parrot_trainer.htm.

*     *     *

The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 3: Lucinda's Secret, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black,
Simon & Schuster, 2003, $9.95.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this book except to urge you to pick up the series. This third outing is as refreshing and fun as the first two—perhaps a little more so, since the prose seems more assured this time out and the characters better defined. (Although the latter could simply be this reader's growing familiarity with them after three books.)

Unlike the Vande Velde title, this series is for younger readers, or those who are still young at heart. The pen and ink artwork is charming throughout, and if you liked the first two books, the story won't disappoint you at all.

*     *     *

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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