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May 2005
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Speaking in Tongues, by Neil Gaiman,
Dreamhaven Books, 2004, 75min CD, $15.95.

Shoggoth's Old Peculiar, by Neil Gaiman,
Dreamhaven Books, 2004, $12.

IT'S HARD keeping up with Neil Gaiman's output. Oh, the major releases from the New York publishers are no problem. They're released with all sorts of fanfare and reviews and you'd be hard pressed not to be aware of them. I'm talking about work that appears in more out-of-the-way venues, such as the pair of lovely items under discussion today.

Both feature previously published material, so the Gaiman completist will probably already have them—although not in these lovely editions, and in the case of the CD, not told in the author's voice. I say "told" because the three stories and two poems on the CD don't feel like they're being read to us. They're delivered in the best oral storytelling, as though we're sitting in a pub, or by a hearth, while the teller leans a little closer to relate the curious goings-on in his tale.

It's too bad that all authors don't have the gift of delivering their material in the exact voice one imagines they should have when reading their books. And it really is a gift. Because the voice is so close to the printed page—we don't need visuals to engage our imaginations for either. But the wrong voice throws everything off.

It's worse than the wrong visual, such as, say, the plump, bespeckled author reading first-person narratives of some barbarian warrior's adventure. In that case you can just close your eyes and if the voice is right, it still works.

But just as every vocalist can't be a world class singer, every writer can't deliver an audio version of their writing. I can think of only a handful, and Gaiman's right up there with the best of them.

It probably helps that the "character" in two of the stories ("The Price" and "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch") is Gaiman himself. Author, husband, father. He mixes the details of his real life (living in his old house outside of Minneapolis, going to London for a business meeting) with the implausible (devils and strange carnivals that take place in abandoned subway stations) so convincingly that the listener is almost prepared to take it all at face value.

It also helps that Gaiman's narrative voice on paper rings very closely to his speaking voice, carrying in it similar resonances of earnestness, irony and wit.

If you've never had the opportunity to hear him speak, this collection, and others available from the same publisher, are highly recommended to you.

I'm not quite as enamored of the incidental music that comes between the stories. It's not so much that it's bad, as that it takes me out of the frame of mind that the storytelling has put me into. I am quite taken, however, with Michael Zulli's art on the cover and inlay. Readers of Gaiman's Sandman series will recognize the name. Those who don't know his work already will undoubtedly go looking for more of his art after seeing the delicate watercolor and pencil examples presented here.

Voice plays an important part in the chapbook also under discussion here. A young Texan embarks on a walking tour of the British coast during the off-season and runs into some of the inhabitants of the original Innsmouth, a pair of charming miscreants who don't have much good to say about H. P. Lovecraft. But the gibes aren't mean-spirited.

Here it's not the main point-of-view narrator's voice that's so charming, as that of those two Innsmouth residents he meets in a pub called The Book of Dead Names. I found myself hearing the actors from the Goon Show, or even a touch of Monty Python, while reading their dialogue, so I wasn't surprised when Gaiman reveals in the afterward that they were in fact based on the British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Shoggoth's Old Peculiar is very funny—laugh out loud funny, in places—but it's to Gaiman's credit that it's not a complete farce. Somehow he manages to instill a touch of creepy dread to leaven all the humor.

The chapbook features wonderful old pulp magazine-styled art from the pen of Jouni Koponen, and some of the proceeds from the sale of each copy are bound for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. So not only are you getting a wonderful package; by buying a copy, you're also contributing to a worthy cause.

*     *     *

Hawkes Harbor, by S. E. Hinton,
Tor, 2004, $21.95.

I find it curious, the ingrained fallacies that play out as truths in the publishing field—even when the evidence is so strongly against them. Things like, short story collections don't sell. (Tell that to the above-mentioned Gaiman, or Harlan Ellison, just for starters.) Don't mix genres in the same book, like serious suspense and humor. (So that's why Dean Koontz's books never make the best seller lists.) Or the idea that an author proficient in one genre, or writing for a certain age group, won't be capable of successfully switching from one to another.

Of course, the publishing field is rife with authors who put lie to that last statement, everyone from Elmore Leonard (westerns and contemporary mysteries) to Jane Yolen (adult, YA and children's fiction). But I still saw a recent review of S. E. Hinton's new book (she was the author of YA classics such as The Outsiders and Rumble Fish) in which the reviewer wondered at great length why Hinton would think she could write an adult novel.

Well, I can answer that. It's because she can, and has, and that reviewer would have seen that if he'd been reading Hawkes Harbor for what it actually is, rather than being so determined to press his own agenda.

One argument he had that particularly annoyed me was how the fact that the book has a positive message proves that it's written for kids, not adults.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Although allow me one more digression. Years ago there seemed to be so many Arthurian books coming out that, even though they'd long been a passion of mine, I got to the point where I simply refused to read any more. Then Parke Godwin's Firelord came out. I only read it because I'd long admired his work, but I did approach it with extreme trepidation. Happily, not only is it a strong and powerful novel in its own right, it also showed me that the most overused material can be made fresh again in the right hands.

These days it's vampires that have me running for cover. We have fat ones and funny ones, detective ones, terribly violent ones (in which the authors lovingly describe each gruesome detail), and pretty much any other kind you can think of. Frankly, they all wear me out. I'll still try the odd vampire novel from time to time, and occasionally they're amusing, or bemusing, but they're rarely fresh or interesting.

Until Hawkes Harbor.

Now what's particularly interesting about Hinton's novel isn't the vampire—or rather, she doesn't dwell on the vampire doing the usual sorts of things. It's about redemption. Of trying to right the wrongs one has done. And set against the horrific figure of the immortal Grenville is the human—although no less troubled—character of Jamie Sommers, a hard luck orphan who had to grow up tough and hard, and a little heartless, to survive.

Sommers arrives in Hawkes Harbor, and, while out fortune-hunting on a deserted hillside, has the bad luck to set Grenville free from his tomb. And so begins a confusing relationship of master and servant as both men seek to regain their humanity.

Hinton jumps around with the timeline in the narrative, writes beautifully, and has fascinating insights both into how we screw up our lives and how we can confront the disarray we make of them and perhaps forge something worthwhile out of how we address our misfortunes.

See, that's what the above-mentioned reviewer didn't like and thought was a message more suited for a YA book: the idea that even if we don't think we can do anything good with our lives, we can at least try.

But you know what? As adults, having had far more years to make a mess of things than teens, that's not such a bad message for us to hear.

*     *     *

The Spirit Catchers, by Kathleen Kudlinski,
Watson-Guptill, 2004, $15.95.

This is a cool idea for a series aimed at YA readers, but if the other books are as well written and interesting as this one, I don't see why adult readers wouldn't enjoy them just as much. Especially those of us with any interest in the arts.

The series is called Art Encounters and is an introduction to the work of famous artists through the medium of historical fiction, giving "literary interpretation to great works of art." In other words, fictional characters interact with the artists in their own times, allowing us a glimpse into their working lives and the passions that drove them to create such lasting works.

Some of the artists to be covered in the series are Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo (I need to find that one), Jan van Eyck, and Paul Gauguin. The book in hand is the first to be published. Set during the Great Depression in New Mexico, it features the mysterious and cantankerous Georgia O'Keeffe.

Our viewpoint character is a young Texan named Parker Ray who, on the loss of his mother and little sister, has spent months walking across America to reach fabled California, where he hopes to find his father who went looking for work before the dust storms hit the home farm. When he reaches Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and makes the mistake of stealing a camera from O'Keeffe, the story begins.

It turns out that stealing a five-dollar camera (which was a huge amount of money at the time) was maybe the best thing he could have done, because O'Keeffe ends up taking him under her wing. But working for her isn't an easy task, and then there are the spirits of the desert who keep intruding on the pragmatic young man's life.

Kudlinski does a fine job with the characters, but she particularly excels in exploring the joys and pains of creating art, and in detailing the landscape. I've been to that part of the Southwest (been to Ghost Ranch, actually) and it all came back to life for me as I was reading The Spirit Catchers. When she was in the desert, researching this book, I'm guessing that Kudlinski felt the spirits that always seem to inhabit such wild places because she certainly knows how to evoke the mystery of a desert night, and the lonely strangeness of wandering the dry arroyos and rugged hills.

I don't know if the other books in the series will contain a fantasy element, but this one could easily have been published in our field.

*     *     *

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