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March April 2010
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett,
Orbit, 2010, $19.99.

I DON'T KNOW if the best writers all come from Texas, but that state sure seems to have more than its fair share of the most interesting. Case in point: Robert Jackson Bennett with his debut novel, Mr. Shivers.

Set in the Great Depression, it starts out as a journey through the dustbowl, riding trains and walking dirt roads, with a band of hobos in search of the man who took from each of them the life of one of the persons they cared for most in the world. For the point-of-view character Connelly, it was his young daughter.

The man they're seeking is Mr. Shivers, a scar-faced serial killer whom the hobos talk about in hushed tones:

They said Mr. Shivers had been in every jail in the country…he would sit there waiting for nightfall and when the moon shone through the bars he'd climb up the beams like a man on a staircase.…

They said when bums and all the runaway boys and girls die they get their last chance to ride freight with Mr. Shivers, that he has a train made of night that runs straight to hell and the furnace don't run on coal or wood it runs on you.

Mr. Shivers, the moonlight man, the black rider, Mr. Shivers, the bum's devil. The vagrant's boogey man.

It's wonderful stuff, spooky and increasingly grim as the book continues.

But while much of the book is a fascinating portrait of those hard times and hobo mythology, about two thirds of the way in, it veers into an allegory of the source of all that's wrong with the world today. Or maybe the allegory was there all along and I just didn't pick up on it. Like the best of such novels, it doesn't matter—you can read the story as it is, with great pleasure, or you can find other meanings in the subtext. What I can tell you is that Mr. Shivers is a powerful exploration of what it means to be human—especially in such tough times as the Great Depression—and it leads you to the conclusions you make, rather than being heavy-handed.

Connelly's journey from an ordinary man with a mission to someone he wouldn't have recognized when he first started out is particularly gripping and poignant. There are shades of Lord of the Flies here, and in the end it's hard to tell who's the real bum's devil.

Imaginative and beautifully written, Mr. Shivers is a powerful book that reads as though presented by an author at the peak of his abilities. Which only makes me that much more eager to read what he'll give us next. And wonder who the next Texas hotshot will be.

*     *     *

Pretty Dead by Francesca Lia Block,
HarperTeen, 2009, $16.99.

Back in 1989, Francesca Lia Block introduced us to her character Weetzie Bat, not to mention an individual and quirky sense of storytelling that she has been sharing with us ever since. Set in the appropriately named "Shangri-L.A.," her books are whimsical and edgy, following their own sense of purpose and storytelling. They're the kind of books—or perhaps one might better say, Block's narrative voice—you'll either love or hate.

I've been charmed by her work since that first book and have followed with delight the subsequent volumes of what's come to be known as her "Dangerous Angels" books. They're part street-smart mainstream and part fairy tale, set in an L.A. that seems to owe as much to the punk sensibilities of the 1980s as it does the glamorous days of Hollywood in its 1950s heyday. The characters feel like faerie or angels—bigger than life, but still elusive.

Though they're not really marketed as fantasy, the books have nevertheless staked out their own piece of the turf in an individual manner, so I should have trusted her when I realized her newest was a vampire novel.

But I was nervous because there's a vampire craze going on—there has been since before the Twilight books, but Meyer's series has just fanned the flames of popularity for these creatures of the night. I didn't think that a whimsical, though edgy, take on vampires would be fresh enough to work—since that was what I assumed Block would be doing in this book. I was wrong.

If anything, Pretty Dead is a reverse vampire novel, but really, to explain that statement I'd have to give away far too much of the story. Let me say instead that as individual as Block's take on fantasy has been previously, such is also the case here. Pretty Dead is a breath of fresh air in a crowded graveyard, in part because none of it utilizes the usual tropes we associate with a vampire novel.

It's set in beach houses and nightclubs and fast cars, and for all its brevity, it packs the same punch that her other books do. I'm always a little envious at how Block can say so much with such little wordage.

I'm not a hundred percent sure that the vampire crowd will love this book, but I know that anyone who appreciates a good story will come away satisfied and wanting to read more of her work—if they're not already fans.

Recommended.

*     *     *

Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan & Anina Bennett,
Abrams Image, 2009, $24.95.

Some people have way too much spare time. (I say that with affection, and not a little jealousy, since I misplaced my spare time many years ago and have yet to find it again.) But what else can you say about the couple who have produced this book and its related Web site, http://www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate?

Boilerplate was a Victorian-era robot soldier—a forgotten mechanical marvel whose existence and exploits have been unrecorded until now. Through exhaustive research, Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett have unearthed the material necessary to produce this detailed history of Professor Archibald Campion's creation.

The robot was built in 1893 as a prototype for, as Campion put it, "preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations." Boilerplate fought "alongside such notables as Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia. Campion and his robot also circled the planet with the U.S. Navy, trekked to the South Pole, made silent movies, and hobnobbed with the likes of Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla."

More human than most humans, Boilerplate's secret history is finally revealed through this stunning collection of vintage photographs and art, and the accompanying text. To see is to believe, and the evidence given us here appears to be irrefutable. But how did this technological breakthrough fall into obscurity?

In his foreword to the book, Sean G. David has a theory: "Ironically, the robot's fame in years past was part of the problem. Many researchers have been led astray by apocryphal tales of the automaton, and there's confusion about whether Boilerplate existed at all. As a result, historians are reluctant to include the robot in official texts."

It doesn't help that the robot disappeared in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918 while on a mission to rescue the Lost Battalion. But we have all this photographic evidence, and there is the statue of the robot with Teddy Roosevelt that stands in a park across the street from the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Oregon, a photo of which appears in the book, though visitors to Portland can go and see it for themselves.

This is an utterly enchanting book, a view of history that just happens to include a robot in every photograph and painting, of which there are hundreds. My favorite image shows up on the cover as well as inside in a two-page spread: Boilerplate festooned with bandoliers in a grainy sepia group shot with General Pancho Villa and his staff.

Or maybe Guinan & Bennett made it all up with all that copious spare time they must have had. Maybe they Photoshopped all these brilliant and clever images with such seamless and painstaking detail, and then wrote up the accompanying history with equally meticulous care.

Regardless, this is a vastly entertaining book with which I've already had hours of pleasure.

*     *     *

A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories by Thersa Matsuura,
Counterpoint, 2009, $14.95.

The back cover blurb begins: "In Japan, the line that divides myth from reality is not merely blurred, it is nonexistent. Superstitions, legends, and folk myths are passed down through generations and pervade daily living." I repeat it here because those words pretty much sum up the overall atmosphere of the stories collected here. They take place now, but it's a now in which the everyday and the marvelous blur.

I don't know as much about Japan as probably I should, but it strikes me as a place where opposites often combine to form a unified whole. My grandmother was Japanese and she certainly personified that. In her home, exquisite art and elements of tacky pop culture had equal weight. She was a devout and practicing Buddhist—meditating daily and maintaining her shrines—yet firmly rooted in the physical world and appreciating its pleasures.

The stories in A Robe of Feathers are like that, too. They blend dichotomic elements, or shape uneasy alliances, in order to illuminate a greater whole. Even when the nature of the material appears explicit—ghosts and small gods and demons—the conclusions can be…well, less than conclusive. But they are always illuminating.

Sometimes these juxtapositions are literal, as in the story of the country widower, put into a modern retirement home by his loving children, who must come to terms with the twin mysteries of high tech gadgetry and the no-tech spiritworld.

Or the boy in the title story who builds a decorated bicycle to win the heart of a Manga-loving girl, his endeavors carrying the echoes of an old folktale.

Or the middle-aged agoraphobic woman who feels that her thoughts can be heard whenever she steps out into the modern world and finds herself seeking comfort in her own past.

It's all fascinating material—very fresh to Western ears in both subject material and characterization—and comes to us wrapped in some of the most gorgeous prose I've read in a while. The stories are eerie, at times disturbing, occasionally sweet natured, but always compelling.

A Robe of Feathers is a truly unique collection that suits no easy categorization except that of excellence.

*     *     *

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham,
Vertigo, 2009, $22.99.

Bill Willingham is currently Vertigo's golden boy. His Fables comic (in which the characters of fairy tales and folktales live alongside us, but hidden) is the company's highest-selling title, which translates into its being Vertigo's most popular. Fables has spun off a number of one-shot specials, as well as two other series: Jack of Fables (the further adventures of a womanizing, self-absorbed trickster) and the more recent Cinderella (in which it turns out she's the world's best spy).

I don't have an opinion on Cinderella yet, but Fables is beginning to wear out its welcome for me. The problem with it is the same as with so much secondary world high fantasy from the past couple of decades: it's not fantasy. There's no sense of wonder. They're just war stories. And that's what's been happening with Fables. There are still touches of fantasy, but for the past three or four story arcs, it's been just one battle or war after the other, and it's becoming repetitive.

So it doesn't surprise me that it's popular. That kind of thing is what most people who read fantasy want. The quirkier, and often more interesting books—which are usually the ones with an actual sense of wonder—don't have the sweep, violence, and action that appears to have become the primary requirement for the genre.

As for Jack of Fables, I've just never liked it. It's played for laughs, but I don't find it funny. I don't like the voice.

And that's part of the problem with Willingham's most recent Fables offering, the prose novel Peter & Max. I don't like the voice in it, either.

It's written in third-person omnipresent which, for this reader, does two things: it keeps me from fully engaging with the characters and it makes me feel as though the writer is breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to me.

This can work if you like the author's voice. Neil Gaiman's a good example of that. I enjoy his conversational tone, but more importantly, I get the sense that he has real affection for his characters.

Willingham doesn't. Or if he does, he's not conveying it to me.

Now I don't mean that it's a bad book. Willingham is a skilled stylist and there isn't any clunky prose here.

Peter & Max is the "true" story of the Pied Piper who, it turns out, is utterly evil and the older brother of Peter who is also a piper, but a good one (yes, he's the Peter Piper who ended up with Little Bo Beep, who's also in the story). The enmity between the two is bitter and longstanding. The reason given for it is Max's jealousy of his younger brother, which seemed a bit vague considering the depth of Max's hatred, but if you accept that, everything moves along just fine.

As you might expect if you have any familiarity with Willingham's other work, Peter & Max is inventive and clever, both in its use of fairy tale motifs and the plot itself. The story moves between Peter and Max, between the past and present, with a broad scope that never loses its focus. Oh, and while a familiarity with the Fables comic will certainly add a resonance to certain sections, you don't have to have been following it to appreciate the story being told here.

The art is by comic book artist Steve Leialoha. It's pen & ink, in black & white, all of it good, though the large pieces have a very comic book feel. The spot art, however, and especially that in the chapter headings, is delightful and very reminiscent of children's book illustration from the turn of the last century.

I think many people will love this book. I'm just not one of them.

*     *     *

The Good Neighbors Book Two: Kith by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh,
Graphix, 2009, $16.99.

And speaking of comics, the second volume in Holly Black's story for Graphix is now out. As I mentioned in the review of the first volume, this graphic story has the same kind of setting as Black's YA novels—dark faeries interacting with counterculture teens—with the new medium giving it all a fresh spin.

Volume Two picks up where the first ended with the faerie world intruding more and more into our world until…well, it's vague echoes of Sarah Beth Durst's Into the Wild books, but I'm still intrigued with where it will go since Black writes such edgy faerie, and Durst was writing about fairy tale characters in general.

Black's really got her comic book pacing down now, and her plotting and dialogue have always been terrific.

Ted Naifeh's still not my favorite comic artist—mostly because there isn't a smooth storytelling flow from panel-to-panel—but I'm liking his work more with each book, and he certainly comes up with some great perspectives.

*     *     *

The Unknown by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer,
Boom! Studios, 2009, $24.99.

And still speaking of comics, one of the most intriguing series on the stands at the moment has come out with its first collection, bringing together issues one through four.

Catherine Allingham is considered to be the smartest person alive and the world's most famous—and successful—private investigator. Given six months to live because of a brain tumor, she decides to tackle the biggest mystery of all: what happens to us when we die?

The Unknown doesn't fit any one genre—it's equal parts private eye mystery, dark fantasy, sf, and character study—but it's a terrific, continent-hopping story that had me eagerly awaiting each new issue as it hit the stands when it was first coming out. You don't have to do so, since the first arc is collected here for you, but after you've finished it, I don't doubt that you'll be eagerly awaiting each issue of the second arc as I do.

Waid's a thoughtful and inventive writer, with a good eye for detail, and he knows how to script an action scene when it's needed. Oosterveer provides moody art with an excellent cinematic flow and plenty of idiosyncratic touches that give the characters and settings a look that's all their own.

This isn't my favorite comic—I'm still a sucker for Echo and Buffy Season Eight—but it's right up there near the top of my list.

*     *     *

Forever Twilight: Darkness, Darkness by Peter Crowther,
PS Publishing/Drugstore Indian Press, 2009, UK £15.

This is an old-fashioned story written with a contemporary sensibility. Old-fashioned, because there's a slow build, with time taken for us to get to know the characters and setting before the real drama sets in. There's also a mood, an eerie, creeping air to the proceedings that you just don't get in modern stories, certainly not modern horror stories where it's one slash scene, then cut and zip on to the next one.

But it's written in a contemporary style—tight, third person points of view that really allow the reader into the head of the character. And while there's ample description, there's not too much, and a brisk pace keeps the story moving.

The setup is basic. Four people in a remote radio station realize that something has gone wrong in the nearby town. Upon investigation, they discover that everybody has disappeared—apparently right in the middle of whatever they happened to be doing at the time. When they start to come back, they're changed.

I know that doesn't sound too fresh, but Crowther makes it work. The zombie-like returnees are different from anything we've seen before, and the escalating tension will keep you reading right to the end of…well, the book. Not the story as a whole, since this is the first in a series of connected short novels. Or maybe a part of one long novel.

The conclusion offers a good break-off point in terms of the characters we've met thus far. The frustration comes from not knowing what happened to the returnees, of what's going to happen to the surviving characters.

For that we need to turn to book two.

That said, this was still a satisfying read on its own, and a nice change of pace for Crowther in terms of setting. And the packaging is terrific. Go check out the cover online. Whenever I see a scene such as the desolate, small-town Main Street depicted here, I just know I want to read the book.

Sometimes, the story doesn't hold up to the promise of the cover, but not this time.

*     *     *

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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