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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Generation Dead, by Daniel Waters,
Hyperion, 2008, $16.99.

A GOOD IDEA can't carry a book, but it can sure give it a great kick-start. Take the premise behind Daniel Waters's first novel, Generation Dead:

Some teenagers who die aren't staying dead, although they aren't exactly alive, either. The PC term for them is the "living impaired" or "differently biotic," but the kids at Phoebe Kendall's high school call them zombies.

Nobody wants to hang out with them. Nobody even wants to be in the same classes or eat next to them in the cafeteria. And because they're officially dead, there are no laws to protect them from parents who kick them out of their homes, or from the people who want to kill them again—this time for good.

Waters doesn't spend a whole lot of time explaining the phenomenon except for when his characters are speculating about why this is happening. That's a good thing, because intricate explanations often take away the mystery and bog down a good story. Instead, Waters focuses on a few "breathers" and how they interact with the dead kids in their school.

There's Phoebe, the Goth, who's attracted to Tommy Williams, the leader of the dead kids; her best friend Margi who hates them, but feels guilty for how she rejected her own friend Colette when she came back; Phoebe's next door neighbor Adam who's been crushing on her for years and is trying to understand her sudden interest in the dead kids. And then there's the school bully Pete Martinsburg who just wants to hurt the zombies, maybe because when his girlfriend died, she didn't come back.

Mix in a few of the dead kids who have no more of an idea as to why they came back either and you have an intricate tangle of relationships that Waters explores to great effect.

I'm not going to get into what a great metaphor the dead kids are, mostly because you can figure it out for yourself, but also because on some level every teenager feels alienated and messed up. What makes Waters's book so successful is that he explores this element on both personal and societal levels without ever stumbling into a lecturing mode. He simply lets the story do the work and leaves readers to make their own conclusions.

It also helps that he's such a skilled writer with a great handle on dialogue—from the teenspeak of the living characters to the slower cadences of the dead kids. Put it all together with that initial great idea and you've got a novel that puts a deliciously fresh spin on the coming-of-age novel in a high school setting.

Oh, and that ending! Didn't see that coming. Talk about a tough lesson in having to assume responsibility.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

Hands of Flame, by C. E. Murphy,
Luna, 2008, $14.95.

This is the third outing for Murphy's lawyer character Margrit Knight and the Old Races she's discovered inhabiting New York City. If you've been following along in the previous books—which you really should do if you want to appreciate the nuances of the character relationships in this book—you won't find a lot new here in terms of the background. This is one of the problems with a series: the new ideas and fresh characters become very familiar as we go from book to book and it takes a good writer to make a new entry something more than "the same, but different."

I'm happy to report that Murphy pulls it off in Hands of Flame. There are no big surprises like, There's a hidden race of gargoyles that only come to life at night! Or, NYC is riddled with dragons and vampires and djinns (oh my)! But there are lots of little ones that are no less entertaining for their subtlety, and all the big questions and worries you might have had from reading the first couple of books get wrapped up in a satisfying manner.

I especially appreciate the character growth arc that continues from the previous books. Margrit is still the headstrong lawyer who tackles her problems head-on, but with every conciliation she makes with and for the Old Races, she learns more about herself and her capabilities, truly earning the title she gains among them: the Negotiator. It's also gratifying to see how "timeless" characters—such as her gargoyle lover Alban, the dragon Janx, Daisani the vampire, and especially the selkie Cara—learn and change through their relationships with her.

While I doubt this book will win Murphy new readers (for reasons discussed above), it will be completely satisfying to those who been following The Negotiator series to date. And if you haven't been doing so, now that all three books are out, it's time you headed down to your local bookstore or library and picked up the first book to try. It's called Heart of Stone, and you won't be disappointed.

*     *     *

Fantastical Creatures Field Guide, by Aaron Lopresti,
Watson Guptill, 2008, $19.95.

Kudos to Aaron Lopresti for finding a fresh bestiary of fantastical creatures for us to explore. The full title of the book is Fantastical Creatures Field Guide: How to Hunt Them Down and Draw Them Where They Live, but it's not really a how-to book. That section only makes up the last sixteen pages. The bulk of the book takes us from continent to continent on an exploratory journey complete with full color art and sepia ink sketches.

The art is delightful, charming and imaginative. I like Lopresti's ink work the most—the sketches are lively whether the linework is tight or loose—but the watercolor paintings are skillfully rendered and amusing. Both media highlight what I appreciate most about this book: Lopresti's sense of humor and whimsical imagination, and his ability to so successfully compress it down into two dimensions for us to enjoy.

Each of the entries has text accompanying the art that gives us anecdotal and "factual" information about the creatures (as well as hilarious National Enquirer-styled "headlines" of news stories), but it's the creatures themselves that are the real draw. We have everything from the Bayou Boogeyman ("Town begins to doubt that a 'bayou boogeyman' ate local pig farmer's limb") to Pastry Elves ("Succumbing to greatest weakness, gangs of sweets-obsessed pastry elves strike again. Local Parisian proprietors outraged"); from the Island Terrapin ("Toxic waste believed to be behind popular tourist draw") to Cave Harpies ("High interest rates and the Carter Administration are to blame for creature's reclusiveness").

Or my favorite: Saber-toothed Jackrabbits ("As rumor of a possible prairie dog posse continue to spread, saber-toothed jackrabbits begin to worry"), though you'll have to read the hilarious text entry to understand that "headline."

This is a fun book that deserves to be left out on your coffee table for guests to thumb through. I guarantee they'll soon be grinning from ear to ear.

*     *     *

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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