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August/September 2009
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Ruby's Imagine, by Kim Antieau,
Houghton Mifflin, 2008, $16.  

The Map of Moments, by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon,
Bantam, 2009, $12.

I HAVEN'T seen a lot of books set in New Orleans, post-Katrina. I'm sure they're out there, but these are the first two I've run across and they couldn't be more different from one another.

Kim Antieau's one of those authors who always surprises me. She can write books to rival Tom Robbins (such as her quirky Coyote Cowgirl), or tackle the issue of anorexia in a sweet, sometimes humorous manner that at the same time never backs away from the seriousness of the subject matter (that would be her Mercy, Unbound). Here she takes on the challenge of writing from the viewpoint of a Cajun/black girl in her late teens who has a decidedly quirky view of the world.

I'll warn you straightaway that Antieau uses some interesting grammar, made up words, and other "verbal" tics to inhabit the first person voice of her protagonist Ruby. It might seem a little odd, even childlike, at first, but before too long that voice and its inflections will be as familiar to you as your own. By the end of the book, you'll keep hearing it—a friendly companion to take with you long after the story is done that will give you new insights into the world around you.

Or maybe not. But it certainly did so for me.

It's difficult to say—especially at the start of the book—whether Ruby is a little simple-minded, or really sees more of the world than the rest of us do. She talks to butterflies (one warns her of Katrina's approach) and trees and pretty much everything around her, and in turn, hears their voices. She also has great insight into people, but this insight reads their essence and she can still be surprised by what they do or say, and their motivations.

As in the hard truths dealt with in Mercy, Unbound, Antieau doesn't shy away from the reality of Katrina's impact on the city. The book starts a day or so before the storm, then follows the disintegration of…well, pretty much everything. The terror and destruction isn't sugar-coated, but ultimately, this is still a positive novel even when the journey through its pages can be harrowing at times.

It's a book I know I'll reread—something I do with many of her novels.

The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon is a much darker affair.

It's part of their The Hidden Cities series, which I have to admit, I thought was a Young Adult series after reading the first book, Mind the Gap. But it turns out that was simply a book with a young protagonist. The new novel has adult characters and the only connective thread I can see so far is that each book deals with the secret heart of one of the world's major cities. (Mind the Gap explored London.)

This time out we meet history professor Max Corbett as he returns to New Orleans for the funeral of Gabrielle—the woman he loved and lost before the coming of Katrina. He meets a scruffy old man named Ray after the graveside service who promises to tell him things about Gabrielle. Because he doesn't want to go back to his hotel room, and because there are many things he still doesn't understand about his relationship with Gabrielle (such as why she betrayed him), he goes to a bar with the old man.

A few whiskeys later, Max finds himself drinking a potion the old man produces from the pocket of his jacket, and accepting a map that will lead him on a journey of important moments in the history of the city. Each new moment will appear on the map when he's finished experiencing the previous one.

This isn't something he'd normally do, or even believe is real, but Ray promises that when Max gets to the end of the journey he will have the chance to save Gabrielle. And so begins Max's nightmare journey through the devastated city.

The authors don't pull any punches—not in their descriptions of a city in ruins, nor in the often horrific moments that Max observes. And the deeper Max travels through the city's past, the more dangerous his journey becomes.

I like a lot of things about this book, not the least of which is the connective thread between it and Mind the Gap that you figure out by the end. But you don't need to have read the other book to appreciate The Map of Moments. The two books have entirely different casts and moods, even though they do end up having a thematic tie.

*     *     *

Church of the Old Mermaids, by Kim Antieau,
Ruby Rose's Fairy Tale Emporium, 2009, $15.  

Speaking of Kim Antieau, she has a new adult novel out as well. This one's set in Tucson, Arizona, and plays with the idea that all this cactus country was once an ocean floor. You can find fossils of the fish and other creatures that once lived in its waters. They're embedded in the rock. But what if there were also mermaids back then? And what if instead of dying off, they exchanged tails for legs and adjusted to a new lifestyle in the desert?

This is a magical book but it's very much set in present-day Tucson. Our protagonist is Myla Alvarez, who makes her living as a caretaker, looking after the empty houses of the snowbirds (people who are only in Tucson for a portion of the year, living in other parts of the country when the dry heat of summer bakes the Sonoran countryside). Since the houses stand empty for much of the year, Myla uses them to house illegal immigrants found in the desert, giving them a place to recover from their traumas before moving on to their new lives.

Myla also collects found objects while walking the dry washes. On Saturdays she takes them to a part of Fourth Avenue where for a few blocks, a crowd of restaurants, shops, and boutiques jostle each other along the pavement. She sets up a table in front of Antigone Books, lays her wares out on the table, and waits for her customers. They are never long in coming.

This is where the mermaids come in because, in Myla's eyes, every object has a connection to a story about one of the mermaids, and she tells that story before she makes her sale. Myla's customers are more interested in the stories than the objects, often staying to listen to the stories that other people get, but each of the stories seem to have a particular resonance to the purchaser of the found object they're buying.

In Myla's stories, the mermaids are novices, living their remaining years in the desert. Their residence is known as the Church of the Old Mermaids, and that's what Myla's customers also call her little table, set up as it is only on Saturdays. The stories Myla tells are funny and dramatic, earthy and spiritual—often combining a mix of some or all of these elements—and are delightful in their own right.

But there's the larger story here as well: how Myla came to Tucson, and all of her secrets, because she doesn't just hold the secret histories of the mermaids and the illegals she helps. She carries secrets of her own. The trouble is that the past—as it inevitably does, for all that we can try to stick it away in a box—comes rising up and makes a mess of Myla's present-day life.

This is a wonderful, inspiring book. I mentioned above that Antieau's one of the few writers I reread and I've already read this book twice with plans to reread it yet again in a few weeks. Such treasures are few and far between and Antieau deserves a much wider audience than she has at the moment.

*     *     *

Dean Koontz's Frankenstein: Prodigal Son, by Chuck Dixon & Brett Booth,
Del Rey, 2009, $22.95.  

New Orleans also features in this illustrated story based on a novel by Koontz and Kevin J. Anderson. But this is a New Orleans with no history of Katrina in its pages. I suppose the original novel was set pre-hurricane and an adaptation needs to stay true to its source.

I'm supposing because, for some reason, I never got around to reading the prose version of the Frankenstein books. I'm not exactly sure why. But I decided to make up for that lack when this edition crossed my desk.

I admit I didn't have high hopes going in. The story features that slick comic book art that's become popular over the past few years—everything and everybody seems tall and angular and very modern. But the fascinating take on the Frankenstein legend that Koontz and Anderson have come up with, combined with Nixon's gift for dialogue and pacing, soon had me forget anything but the story, and the art no longer felt like an issue.

Koontz provides an introduction to the book as well as a new story in illustrated form.

*     *     *

The Land at the End of the Working Day, by Peter Crowther,
Humdrumming Ltd., 2008, $50.  

Now before anyone sends in a letter taking me to task, let me set the record straight. I know what I'm about to say are generalities. But it's an impression I've gotten over the years, and this is an opinion column (though where facts arise, I do try to get them right).

Anyway.…

It strikes me that British fantasy and sf often have a different tone than the same material produced in North America. I don't want to say it's more literate (after all North America is home to Samuel Delany and Lucius Shepard), or that NA writing is more immediate (the Brits have writers such as James Herbert). But I detect a difference, and that difference is what makes this collection of four stories by Peter Crowther particularly good.

Writers often want to set their stories in that field on the other side of the fence where, to them, the grass seems greener. Which is how we get North Americans writing cozy mysteries and Regencies, and British writers putting their pens to hardboiled stories set in New York or L.A. Because of their love and enthusiasm for their distant subject matter, these writers can often bring an intensity to their stories that the local writers can't always match.

One of the best examples I can think of are Stephen Gallagher's hardboiled novels. I'll put them up beside any similar books by a North American writer and they're as good, often better, than most.

Crowther is another of those British authors with a love affair for Americana. There's nothing new about his setting of a bar in which the patrons tell each other stories, but Crowther doesn't pretend there is. He knows that we know he's working within a tradition, and The Land At the End of the Working Day bar fits admirably into that tradition while pushing the envelope.

Because the patrons (and bar owner) are not unaffected by the stories. There are not only curious and strange things and characters in the stories; they visit the bar as well.

But what I find so fascinating about the stories collected here is Crowther's voice. The narrative sections are in that (let's call it) literate voice I spoke of above, while the characters speak like American blue-collar working joes. You'd think it might not work, that the reader would feel pulled back and forth and made aware that they're reading a story, but just the opposite is true. The dialogue keeps the stories grounded in their setting, while the narrative sections give us that great experience when we're reading well-written prose.

Wonderful stuff.

Sweetening the pot are introductions to each story by Ian McDonald, Elizabeth Hand, Joe Hill, and Lucius Shepard.

It's a great package, too. I was unfamiliar with Humdrumming Ltd. before seeing this book, but I like what they do. For one thing you get two covers: a dust wrapper with a welcoming liquor glass filled with amber liquid, and then a wrap-around of the Manhattan skyline printed directly on the cover. Inside they could have maybe used a little more space all around the text, but the pages feel like real, old-fashioned book stock and the type is still eminently readable.

With all the talent involved, this is one of those books that not only provide a great reading experience, but you can also take it around at conventions and have the fun of trying to get it signed by everyone involved.

*     *     *

Blue Diablo, by Ann Aguirre,
Roc, 2009, $6.99.  

On the other hand, first-hand experience with one's setting has a lot to say for it as well—the kind of book where the author has lived and breathed the same air as her characters. According to her bio in the back of the book, Ann Aguirre lives in Mexico and is familiar with the whole Tex-Mex border culture, and it shows whenever her characters move through the plot's landscape: Mexico City, up to the border, ending in Laredo, TX.

Her first-person point-of-view character is Corine Solomon, a "handler"—someone who can get pieces of history from handling a physical object. Metal holds the "memory" best, but because she wasn't born to the gift, it literally burns her skin as she's getting information from the object. Needless to say, it isn't a pleasant experience but for a long time she used her "gift" to track down missing people.

As the book opens she's living in hiding in Mexico City, running a small antique/vintage shop and happy in her anonymity. She's hiding because there are a lot of unscrupulous people who'd like to use her services, whether she wants to help them or not. When she's finally tracked down, however, it's by a man named Chance, an old ex-lover who needs her help to find his mother Yi Min-chin who has disappeared in Laredo.

Corine likes his mother. She has better memories of her than she does of Chance, though she's never quite gotten over him either. So she agrees to help and naturally that pulls her into a world of trouble.

This is one of those books that starts out with just one small paranormal element but by the time you get to the end, pretty much everybody is a witch or has some power or other. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but as often happens for me with this sort of a book, I like the non-supernatural elements better.

Corine has a great narrative voice—snappy and full of interesting observations on everything around her. Chance was a bit of a cipher for me, perhaps because I never quite got a take on him except through Corine's point of view, and she can't figure him out either. But the rest of the characters are well-realized—full of life and character (even the British man who's only in the story as a voice on the phone or issuing from a computer speaker). And these characters are all full of secrets, too.

The plot begins as though Blue Diablo is a mystery novel, what with a missing person needing to be found, but by the end of the book the characters have been struggling with sorcerers, demons, and zombies as well as more mundane threats. It's fast-paced and entertaining and undoubtedly the first in a series, so we can look forward to revisiting Corine and her friends in a few months time when the next book comes out.

*     *     *

The Complete Chronicles of Conan, by Robert E. Howard,
Gollancz, 2006, $37.95.  

I don't know why this took so long to come over to our side of the ocean, but I'm glad it's here now: all the original Howard Conan stories in chronological order. In other words, these are all his versions, not the posthumous collaborations that came out in the Seventies, presented not in the order when they were written, but how they fit into the storyline.

It's a big, fat book with a faux leather binding that makes it look like an old, pre-dust-wrapper book. Editor Stephen Jones offers an informative afterword, engagingly written and illustrated with numerous black-and-white reproductions of old magazine covers.

Regular readers of this column will know how much I enjoy Howard's work. He might not be the best writer the world has seen, but his prose is vigorous and his storytelling talent is a match for the best in the field. There have been so many imitations of his work over the years—as well as not necessarily successful adaptations into other media like film and comics—that sometimes I think people forget just how entertaining the original material is.

If you're one of those, here's the place for you to find out. For the rest of us, it's great to have it all collected together in this one handsome volume.

*     *     *

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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