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Books To Look For
The Mysteries, by Lisa Tuttle,
LISA TUTTLE doesn't have a large body of work under her by-line, but it's still been too long since I sat down and read one of her novels—especially considering how much I enjoyed this one.
It has a great opening, with the protagonist (one Ian Kennedy, an expatriate American living in the UK who specializes in finding missing people) relating the mysterious disappearance of his father when he was a little boy. One moment the father is standing in a farmer's field with the young Kennedy, the next he literally vanishes.
Then he tells us how it's not a true memory, but one he appropriated from a book of mysterious disappearances, although it wasn't until a few years after the alleged incident took place that he realized what he'd done.
That sets the tone of the book as it plays with what we know of the world and the much larger part of it—the mysteries of it—that we don't.
Kennedy is hired by a woman to find her daughter who disappeared in Scotland after an archaeological dig. Common sense says she met up with a man and simply took off with him. But the mother says she wasn't like that, and adding to the riddle is the fact that she left behind all her personal belongings in the B&B where she was staying.
As Kennedy investigates, he soon finds connections to an old case of his—his first case, in fact. Through backstory segments that are intermingled with the main storyline we learn that the girl in this first case was abducted by the fairies. Or at least that's what Kennedy believes. Most of the time. And if he's going to get this new girl back, he has to convince her mother and the girl's boyfriend that this is the case once again.
The prose in the book is wonderful, the characters interesting, and I especially like the way that Tuttle plays with time, doling out what we need to know in both stories only as we need to know it. I also like the fact that there could be mundane reasons for pretty much everything that's going on. That she does such a great job of evoking the Scottish countryside and the city of London is a bonus.
How it all works out, you'll have to discover for yourself. But what I do know is that you'll thoroughly enjoy the company of her characters as you follow their often frustrating, but always interesting, attempts to get something concrete and understandable out of the disappearances of these young women.
Day of the Dead by J.A. Jance,
Kiss of the Bees, by J.A. Jance,
These are the second and third books in an ongoing series that Tucson, Arizona, writer J. A. Jance has been writing, set in her hometown and centering around the Ladd and Walker families. The first book is Hour of the Hunter (Avon, 1991), which I haven't read—mostly because I came to the series with Kiss of the Bees, and the back-story is filled in so well, I didn't feel an inclination to read it. But more on that later.
First I should explain why I'm discussing a pair of what are ostensibly mystery/thriller novels in this column.
I always find it fascinating to see what writers outside of our genre do with folk tales and myth. They often approach it with a much fresher take than genre writers do, simply because…well, they think differently.
I don't necessarily mean in how they construct their plots and characters, because every good writer has an individual approach to the basics of storytelling. It's more that they (or their characters) don't accept the supernatural as a given, so the whole idea of myth impinging upon the "real world" is dealt with in a manner that can be pleasantly foreign to the jaded genre reader.
Sometimes, the supernatural element doesn't even take the stage. It simply exists in tandem, adding resonance to the non-supernatural storyline (Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams is a good example).
In Jance's case, at least with these books, she has taken the mythology of the Tohono O'otham (a Native tribe indigenous to the Tucson area) and woven it into the fabric of this series of contemporary mystery/thrillers. There are echoes of Tony Hillerman, to be sure (the mix of a Southwestern Indian culture with a mystery; policemen as characters), but in her novels, the supernatural actually takes the stage—or at least it does so in the minds of her characters.
Because the thing is, for many people, the supernatural is a natural part of their life, something they accept without questioning. There's no point in anyone from outside their culture explaining how it's impossible—any more than a non-Christian can, or even should, tell a true believer that faith doesn't explain God.
Jance also uses snippets of Tohono O'otham creation myths and learning stories to open chapters, which lends a sense of the otherworld to sections where there would otherwise be no hint of the supernatural.
So there's lots of good stuff going on in these books. And Jance is quite the writer. The prose is matter-of-fact, but it can also sing when appropriate. The characters run the full gamut: some honest and likable, some despicable, some prone to heroics, others to weakness. There's a good background knowledge in law enforcement, Native culture, and the setting of Tucson and the surrounding desert.
Could you see that "but" coming?
These are murder mysteries, so you know there are deaths. And they're thrillers, so you know that likable characters will be imperiled and the clock will be ticking against their survival. Those are both given.
Unfortunately, Jance also has a tendency to overstate her descriptions/plotting when it comes to the peril involving certain characters.
Now it's not that I'm a particularly innocent reader. I read all the early Clive Barker collections when they came out, as well as much of that wave of "splatterpunk" books that appeared in the late '80s/early '90s (though, to be honest, having read them once, I have no interest in revisiting any of that material).
But there's something very disturbing about the unrelenting violence in certain scenes in these two books by Jance.
One can argue that the violence is supposed to be disturbing, and I certainly don't want to tell an author how to write her book, but in this case I believe she would have an even larger audience for her work if she toned down the graphic scenes of young girls being tortured. If she let us know what was going on in less graphic terms…well, we readers have imaginations, and we can fill in the details as needed—or skim over them if it's too much for us. But Jance, like the push-it-to-the-edge horror writers of a couple of decades ago, puts long, truly unpleasant scenes in front of us and there's no escaping them, skim though you might.
As I said above, I'm not going to tell a writer how to write her book. I'm sure those scenes are present for us to see just how despicable her antagonists are. But while I know many people I'd like to recommend this series to, I won't do so because I know they'll truly find those sections too upsetting. And that's a shame, because there is so much spirit and heart in the rest of the material—not to mention a genuine respect for the Tohono O'otham culture, coupled with the ability to convey its mysteries and resonance in a considerate and meaningful manner.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest,
Say what we might about not judging a book by its cover, we're still attracted to certain titles by the art the publisher uses to lure us inside the books they publish. That was definitely the case for me with Priest's debut novel. How could I not be intrigued by the three empty dresses cavorting about on a lawn with a dark forest in the background and a blackbird flying overhead?
I had to know. What inhabits these dresses?
Ghosts, it turns out. And our first-person protagonist Eden Moore sees them as readily as you or I do people on the street. That only becomes problematic when the mystery behind these ghosts also hides the reason that her cousin keeps trying to kill her. Ineptly, mind you, but there are still casualties.
The deeper Moore explores her past and its connection to the ghosts, the more trouble she gets into.
This novel is a perfect example of what I'm always trying to tell new writers: Anyplace can be interesting, just as any kinds of characters can capture a reader's imagination. The only trick is that you have to imbue the people and setting with the same love and interest you feel for them. If you can't do that, if you don't care enough, then why would you expect your readers to?
It's also not such a bad idea to set your story in your hometown. Sure, it might be familiar to you, but for everybody who doesn't live there, it can be wonderfully exotic and fresh. I'd much rather read a book set in Chattanooga, Tennessee, or some such place, than yet another story in New York or Los Angeles.
Of course you also have to be a decent writer to make it work, and Priest kills as a stylist. Debut novel? You could have fooled me. Four and Twenty Blackbirds feels like it was written by an author with the assurance and experience of already having many books under her belt. It simply oozes a contemporary Southern Gothic charm, by which I mean that while it's definitely set in the present, its roots are firmly entangled in the past.
The narrator's voice is pitch-perfect, the cast wonderfully eccentric and realized, the plot suitably puzzling and steeped in mystery, and that setting. I could feel the humidity while I was reading the book. Hear the mosquitoes. Smell the damp forests. Share the same eerie frisson of the narrator as she explores the old abandoned sanitarium in the woods.
In other words, the book has everything going for it and you should definitely pick up a copy to see for yourself.
Urban Shaman, by C. E. Murphy,
J.A. Jance's books, mentioned above, are cross-genre, only marketed as straight mysteries. But that doesn't have to be the case. Urban Shaman is a book that mixes Celtic folklore and Native shamanism with a police procedural, and yet, the publisher has no trouble marketing the book for exactly what it is. They don't have to hide it behind an inappropriate high fantasy cover, or be otherwise coy in presenting it.
And instead of being surprised at the audacity of the author, we can just get on with enjoying the story.
Joanne Walker is a mechanic for the Seattle police department. Coming back on the plane from visiting her dying mother in Ireland, she sees a woman being attacked by a man and a pack of dogs as the plane flies in low for its landing. Not knowing why she feels compelled to do so—because surely, she'd be too late to rescue the woman—she immediately gets a cab and tries to find the place she saw from the air.
The next thing you know, this half-Irish, half-Cherokee woman is involved with banshees, the Wild Hunt, and coyote tricksters, and everything she ever thought she knew about the world is turned upon its head.
Murphy has a likable prose style, presents us with an engaging cast of characters, and has a good sense of how to blend humor and action with a healthy dollop of mysticism and folklore. It's not a Big Think book, but its freewheeling, breezy style is the perfect way to spend a couple of hours away from mundane reality.
If you don't find this book entertaining, you're probably asleep.
The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele,
It's the near future, a world where people don't interact physically with one another anymore. Instead they use "surrogates"—man-made humanoids that seem as real as a living person. The real human stays at home and experiences what the surrogate does. And of course, you can have any appearance you want: young, good-looking, male or female. So a fat construction worker's surrogate can be a beautiful young woman. In a marriage, the husband and wife might never really see each other in the flesh—only getting together through their surrogates, which never change, never age, never get sick, never die because they aren't alive in the first place.
But all of this is only background to the plot in which surrogates are being shut down—their circuits fried as though they've been hit by lightning. Our point of view into this world is one of two police detectives investigating the case. The prime suspect is an ideological throwback, a "prophet" living in a junkyard outside the city proper to whom the idea of the surrogates is an abomination.
It's all a metaphor for the way people hide behind on-line identities, I'm guessing, and by taking it to this next step on the computer-based evolutionary scale, the series raises any number of fascinating questions.
The writer is Robert Venditti, and while this is his first published work, given the quality of the plotting and dialogue, it certainly won't be his last. Artist Brett Weldele is also a relative newcomer, although he has previously done work for Image Comics and Oni Press. His approach to narrative art harkens more to the style of a Bill Sienkiewicz, loose and free in its linework, rather than the slick art favored by so many mainstream comic artists these days.
How it will all look on the page I can't say since I've only had the chance to read the first couple of issues in PDF files. But unless they do something very wrong in the production stage, I'm sure it will be impressive. It certainly looks and reads great on a computer screen.
Issue 1 is slated for a July release, but I've no doubt they'll be collecting all five issues into a trade paperback once the whole series has seen print in regular comic book format.
Sex and the Slayer, by Lorna Jowett,
Finding Serenity, edited by Jane Espenson,
So what is it with the f&sf genre that we take our films and TV shows so seriously? Is there another contemporary field that produces anything close to the number of spin-offs, anecdotal collections, and scholarly studies that we do?
I'm not going to get into an argument about how this sort of material (especially the spin-offs) supposedly dilute the genre. So far as I'm concerned, if you're getting pleasure from reading this sort of thing, then who am I (or who is anyone, for that matter) to tell you that you should be reading something else? And yes, there are people who only read media-related books, but so what? Most of us balance our time with plenty of original material, and good writing will always find a home and an audience.
All that said, sometimes I have to wonder at the sheer volume of some of this material and who's buying it.
Lorna Jowett's Sex and the Slayer is a good example. It's an in-depth collection of essays exploring the gender issues to be found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The prose is strong and relatively uncluttered by pretension, the scope is exhaustive, and there's much to be learned and argued with. But are viewers of the show really drawn to these kinds of books? Or has the show simply become an excuse for scholars to showcase their own particular passions by utilizing a suddenly trendy cultural icon?
I don't mean to pick on Jowett's book specifically. I've seen any number of such books over the past few years, scrutinizing every facet of the show, and I find the ongoing popularity in this sort of essay-writing curious. That said, I have to admit I like the idea of scholars holing up in their studies with DVD collections of the shows, watching them to see what Jowett and the other writers are talking about, formulating their own arguments and counter-arguments, and, just maybe, enjoying the material for its own merit.
Finding Serenity, edited by Jane Espenson (one of the writers for Firefly, the show which is the focus of this book) takes a bit of a more populist approach, with contributions by everyone from Ginjer Buchanan and Lawrence Watt-Evans to our own Michelle Sagara West. Rather than focusing on any one particular aspect of the show, the material ranges from opinion and anecdotal to in-depth criticism, most of it very readable, and all of it of interest to regular viewers of the short-lived series. The upcoming feature film version of the show (probably out by the time you read this) will no doubt create more interest in the book.
But bottom line, these volumes will only really appeal to fans of the shows, or in the case of the Jowett book, also to students of gender studies.
The Ice Queen, by Alice Hoffman,
Regular readers of this column already know of my fondness for Hoffman's writing. Whenever I get a new book by her, everything else gets put aside and I allow myself the pleasure of being swept away for an evening, transported into the lives of her multifaceted characters through her luminous prose.
She has more than twenty books to her credit—many of them ranking among my all-time favorites—and one of the things that constantly surprises me is how she still manages to outdo herself from novel to novel. To be honest, I'm a little in awe of her talent, though happily that doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the books.
An aspect of The Ice Queen approaches that age-old fairy tale question: what if you get what you wish for?
As a young girl, our unnamed protagonist tells her mother, in a fit of petulant anger, "I wish you were dead." The mother is on her way out to see some friends, but she never makes it, dying in a car crash en route to the diner where she was supposed to meet up with them.
Coincidence, of course, but that little eight-year-old girl grows up being very, very careful about what she wishes for in the future. She sees herself as an ice queen, who can feel nothing. Who must do nothing, form no relationships, in case she repeats her terrible misuse of power with other wishes.
Fast forward from New England—where she and her brother Ned were raised by their grandmother and she became a librarian obsessed with books about death—to Florida, where her brother is now a meteorologist and she is struck by lightning. When she recovers, she suffers neurological damage and can no longer see the color red.
Her brother gets her to take part in a study group of lightning strike victims (Orlon County, where she now lives, apparently gets two-thirds of the state's lightning strikes), and that leads her to the mysterious Lazarus Jones, who was dead for forty minutes after his own lightning strike.
There's little in the way of the supernatural in this book—or at least little for which other explanations can't be found—but its atmosphere and all its underpinnings are rife with the dark blood of fairy tales, from "The Snow Queen" to "Bluebeard," with many a way stop in between. Hoffman balances the matter-of-fact first person voice and temperament of her protagonist with events and characters that become increasingly mystical and off-kilter.
The journey takes us through the dark woods that all fairy tales do while also providing us with a bounty of lore surrounding the effects of lightning. The characters interact with a crackle of electricity, and the book's payoffs are subtle and insightful, and while unexpected, not unearned.
The Ice Queen shows us an artist at the top of her game.
Did I mention that Hoffman's pretty much my favorite author writing today? Read this book and you'll see why.
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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