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September 2004
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Bumper Crop, by Joe R. Lansdale,
Golden Gryphon, 2004, $24.95.

DARK, tender, gruesome, evocative, funny—sometimes all in the same story: It's hard to pin down Lansdale's fiction. And yet, though he might be writing about a drive-in theater pulled into another dimension, zombies in the Old West, a coming-of-age story set in Depression-era East Texas, or a blind man trying to mow a lawn with a weed-eater, there's one thing that pulls all these disparate stories together.

Lansdale's voice.

Which isn't to say that the stories sound the same. The characters in these stories are individual and Lansdale gives them their own narrative expression. But if you've ever heard the man read at a convention—or holding forth in the halls at an after-hours party—you'll hear Lansdale's Texan drawl when you read his fiction and realize that no one else can tell a story quite the same way.

The best way to get an idea of his range as a writer is to pick up a collection such as Bumper Crop, a companion to his High Cotton (Golden Gryphon, 2000). Here you'll meet the old fellow living in a dump with his unusual pet, the failed writer who discovers the ugly truth behind becoming a best-selling author, and the fat man with the deadly tattoo. You'll find out about black cowboys, houses that appear overnight, and a man who got a job as a dog for a fire department.

But odd or strange or funny though the situations might be, what you'll take away is the sense of having spent some time in the company of real people, no matter how curious their situations. Lansdale has a real storyteller's gift, the kind that can make a tall tale or a serious character study equally evocative.

Both volumes feature an author's overall introduction as well as short informative—sometimes hilarious—introductions to each story.

And while his recent novels aren't genre fiction—except in the way that Lansdale is his own genre—you might want to try him at a longer length as well. His Hap and Leonard series is outrageous and brilliant, but if you hesitate at coming in on a long-running series, I'd recommend you try his most recent stand-alone novel, Sunrise and Sawdust (Knopf, 2004).

No one does Depression-era East Texas as well as Lansdale and it shows on every page of this novel. You can almost taste the dust as you turn the pages.

*     *     *

The Autumn Castle, by Kim Wilkins,
Gollancz, 2004, £10.99.

It's autumn in Berlin. Immanuel Z, color-blind and part-faery, is creating his life's work: a sculpture made from the bones of faeries he has hunted down and killed. He lives in a refurbished building called Hotel Mandy-Z which houses an art gallery, his apartment, and a secret room that holds the vat in which he boils the flesh from his faery bones. He also provides studio and living space for four visiting artists, recipients of a twelve-month residency.

Christine Starlight lives in Hotel Mandy-Z with her artist boyfriend Jude Honeychurch, one of this year's recipients. Christine has her own claim to fame: She is the daughter of a famous musical couple who died ten years ago in a horrible car accident in which she was the only survivor. But she was also witness to an older, less well-known tragedy: the disappearance of her best friend who was mysteriously abducted from her bedroom one night when Christine and her friend were both seven.

Christine has a bad back, a legacy of the crash that killed her parents. When she accidentally bumps her trouble spot, the pain makes her black out, and she wakes…elsewhere. There she meets her old childhood friend, now known as Mayfridh, and Mayfridh's counselor, who can appear as a wolf, a crow, a fox, or a bear.

Elsewhere turns out to be faeryland, and Mayfridh is its queen. Christine is able to cross over because our world and faeryland are very close to each other this particular autumn, and all those years ago, she and Mayfridh pricked their thumbs, exchanging blood in a childhood bond that now proves more potent than they might have expected as children.

Christine finds relief from her constant, debilitating back pain in faeryland. Mayfridh is fascinated by our world, which she hasn't seen since she was seven. She's also fascinated by Christine's boyfriend Jude. And neither of them is aware of the danger that Immanuel Z poses, not only to Mayfridh, but to the whole of faeryland.

Naturally, their lives all collide, creating a wonderful blend of marvels and danger, joy and unhappiness.

Reading Kim Wilkins is like meeting an old friend you never knew you had, and what a delightful and talented friend she turns out to be. From its opening pages, The Autumn Castle draws the reader into a world of welcome magics and dark imaginings—our world, but a version of it that includes the whisper of fairy tale resonances, adding mystery and depth to common experience.

It's an enthralling read that, when I was done, left me wanting to track down anything else I could find by her immediately.

*     *     *

Abadazad, by J. M. DeMatteis, Mike Ploog, and Nick Bell,
Crossgen, 2004, $2.95 per issue.

This is worth mentioning to any of you readers with a fondness for the The Wizard of Oz and other series of its ilk. The concept's not terribly original, but the execution is enchanting.

Basically, it's about a well-loved children's series called Little Martha in Abadazad, and two children who love it: nine-year-old Kate and her little brother Matt. Matt's the one who really adores it, so Kate reads the books to him on a regular basis. It's the way they bond.

On an outing to a street fair, where Kate is responsible for her brother, Matt disappears on a ride and is never seen again.

We cut to five years later, where Kate is a surly, unhappy teen. She meets her next-door neighbor, an old black woman who claims to have been the inspiration for perky and blonde Martha, heroine of the Abadazad books. She says the adventures described in the book were real. She has an orb that can take you there if your heart is pure and you know the magic words.…

Well, you can see where this is going, right? But the series works because of the creator's inventiveness, the attention to real world detail and problems (divorce, guilt, family dysfunction), and how they slightly subvert everything in the magical land. The author of the Abadazad books didn't simply whitewash his heroine, he also made a lot of dangerous things rather charming, and Kate has to deal with the real thing when she ends up in the world of the books.

The story's told in a combination of traditional comic panels, prose, and what we would think of as book illustration. As I write this, there have been two issues so far, both charming and entertaining. Kid-friendly, certainly—a rarity in the comics field today—but with enough meat and sly asides and bits of humor that adults will enjoy it as well.

Crossgen, like many of the comic book companies today, regularly collects four or five issues into trade paperbacks, so if you're interested in the series, you don't have to go rummaging around in bins in your local comic book store. Just wait for the trade editions to come out, which are also available in regular book stores.

Lots of comic book series, like televisions shows, start out with great potential and then rapidly run out of steam. Abadazad is so promising from these first two issues that I certainly hope that won't be the case with it.

*     *     *

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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