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March 2006
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman,
William Morrow, 2005, $26.95.

I'VE finally figured out what it is that makes me enjoy Neil Gaiman's books as much as I do—and oddly enough, it's something that usually annoys me in the writing of other authors.

Gaiman writes from an omnipresent point of view.

While it seems like we're inside the characters' heads, we're not really. In Gaiman's books we're being told what they're thinking and feeling by this friendly authorial voice, rather than learning about it from the characters' points of view. It doesn't matter how dark the material might be, there's always this half-smile in that narrator's voice of his.

In a lesser writer's hands, this might make you think that he's amused by the characters and their actions, or perhaps by us readers, for involving ourselves as thoroughly as we do in their lives. But with Gaiman, I've come to realize, it's a genuine affection—for both his characters and his readers. No matter how awful the situations are that he puts his characters into, it's still obvious that he cares for them. And as for his readers, if there's a joke involved, it's usually a long and complicated one—more often silly, or simply odd, rather than funny—and he's letting us in on it.

This voice is a part of all of his writing—fiction and nonfiction—and how much you care for his work depends, I suppose, on whether or not you like that voice.

But having figured this out, now I finally understand why some of my friends won't read him after trying a book or two. They don't like that voice. But I like it just fine and it's in particularly good form in this new novel, with its catchy tag-line: "God is dead. Meet the kids."

Mind you, that tag-line is a bit of a fudge, because while there is a dead god, it's not the one you immediately think of when you read that line—or at least the one you would think of if you've been brought up in Western society.

The god in question is the African trickster Anansi, whom we previously met in American Gods, and he dies the way he'd have wanted to: after a night of drinking and dancing and karaoke, collapsing across a beautiful blonde with his face pressed into her cleavage.

This is terribly embarrassing for Fat Charlie Nancy. But then everything about his father has always been embarrassing for Fat Charlie, starting with the nickname his father gave him that he can't seem to shake even years after he lost the weight.

Then he discovers that he has a brother he never knew he had, and that brother proves to be even more troublesome than his trickster father—mostly because he inherited all of their father's magical abilities and amoral tendencies.

Things get even more complicated, of course, but there's really no point in my outlining the plot for you, although there is a plot, and a good one. Gaiman's not a lazy writer; all the good stuff's here: plot, characters, good, sometimes inspired, prose. It's just that one doesn't really read Gaiman for things like plot and characters and prose.

You see, we're back to that voice. That charming voice that allows us to accept the implausible, smile at the funny bits, or shiver when the villains seem to get the upper hand. And in the end, when we lift our gazes from the book, we feel uplifted and more ready to face reality because Gaiman has shown us how to find all the interesting bits in the world around us that otherwise we might simply continue to take for granted.

If you haven't tried his work yet, this might be a good place to start. If you already appreciate what he does…well, enjoy this new novel. It might be the best one yet.

*     *     *

The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King,
Hard Case Crime, 2005, $5.99.

At this point in the proceedings, Stephen King doesn't need reviewers to tout his work. He's a brand name, and interested readers are going to pick up a new book no matter if the reviews are good, bad, or indifferent. Which isn't to say that his readers don't have discerning tastes. They just know what they like and King has proved to be a writer who consistently delivers.

All that said, I think this new novel's worth a mention here, if only to set a matter or two straight.

Hard Case Crime is a fairly new publisher with a mission statement to bring readers "the best in hard-boiled crime fiction, from lost pulp classics to new work by today's most powerful writers, all in handsome and affordable paperback editions." Sort of a Gold Medal line for contemporary times.

I say, kudos to them. And when this title by King was announced I was looking forward to see what he'd do with the genre.

Well, the bad news is that The Colorado Kid isn't hard-boiled, doesn't really have a crime, and the puzzle that forms the narrative thread to pull us from start to finish doesn't ever get resolved.

The good news is that this short book is one of King's best works to date—more Dolores Claiborne or The Green Mile than The Maltese Falcon. It's an in-depth character study and a love letter to the Maine coast, a small story with a big heart that transcends genre. Anyone who thinks King didn't deserve his National Book Award should be forced to read this just to see that he's not all about the scares and gross-outs.

But I'm still curious as to who the woman on the cover of the book is supposed to be.

And I would like to read that hard-boiled crime novel this was supposed to be.

*     *     *

The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson,
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005, $150.

It's expensive (although I've seen it listed for as low as $94.50 at some on-line sites). And it's massive: three large, heavy hardcover books in a slipcase. But the weight comes from the high quality paper that, combined with a gorgeous printing job, make this one of the best reprint collections of newspaper strips I've seen to date.

The Complete Calvin & Hobbes collects everything from the ten short years of the strip's existence, together with a new, meaty forward by Watterson and all the extras bits that showed up in the previous trade paperback collections.

Why do you need it?

Well, you don't. But you do need to read Calvin & Hobbes, whether in this new fancy edition, or in one of the previously published ones. Through the mouthpieces of six-year-old Calvin (a hyperactive, self-absorbed fireball with an overactive imagination) and his best friend Hobbes (a plush toy that only Calvin and the readers see as a "real" tiger), the reclusive Watterson compressed ongoing snapshots of the world at large into a daily newspaper strip that was tender, smart, critical, and always funny.

And so perfectly drawn. Strip after strip is an utter delight, the linework and color (on the Sunday strips) remaining, to this day, among the finest examples of artistic expression in this medium.

No matter what age we are, we can see ourselves, our fancies and our struggles and our foibles, in the actions of these two characters.

And did I mention it was funny?

Everybody needs one or two Calvin & Hobbes collections in their home, but if you have the spare cash, why not splurge on this edition and have them all?

Couldn't be more highly recommended.

*     *     *

How Loathsome, by Tristan Crane & Ted Naiufeh,
NBM Comics Lit, 2005, $13.95.

What people who dismiss comic books and narrative art don't realize is that this form of storytelling isn't all about superheroes running around in their long underwear (or skimpy underwear, when it comes to the women). It hasn't been for a long time.

Flashy comic books are still here, with many of them making the jump to the big screen, but walk into any comic book shop, or the graphic art section of a good bookstore, and you'll find, in amongst the splashy covers of the superhero titles, every kind of story you might imagine—and some you didn't.

Such as How Loathsome, a fascinating exploration of the fluid nature of gender and the underground world of addiction. Tristan Crane's narrative moves from contemporary San Francisco, through fairy tales and folk tales, to paint a complex but illuminating study of flawed but very real and sympathetic characters. Combined with the art of Ted Naiufeh (who would be a shoo-in for a graphic novel version of Holly Black's Valiant), it's a mesmerizing glimpse into a world that will be unfamiliar to many—which makes it all the more important a book.

People fear what they don't understand. Books such as this do much to tear away false impressions and show us that under our behavioral masks and our extremes of taste and expression, we all have more in common than we might otherwise think we do.

Recommended, for adult readers.

*     *     *

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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