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Books To Look For
Makers, by Cory Doctorow,
SO IT'S THE year…well, I'm not sure when Makers is set. The near future. Post the dot.com boom. Kodak and Duracell have merged and Landon Kettlewell, the new CEO of Kodacell, decides the future is micro-investing in high-tech communal mini-startups.
Enter Perry and Lester, cutting-edge inventors of such useful things as massed Elmo dolls that drive cars, or robots that make toast. But Kettlewell sees something in them and soon the pair are the heart of a nationwide movement of "New Work," which is like the Depression-era's "New Deal," only updated for the contemporary, digital age. Their work-plan changes everything and creates a viable source of income and creativity for thousands of unemployed.
Documenting all of this is Andrea Fleeks, a journalist turned blogger.
There's a large cast of characters, but these four—along with a disgruntled Disney executive who becomes their nemesis—provide the main entry points through which we view this brave new world. We follow their successes and failures, and along the way are offered glimpses of more ideas and themes than one might normally expect to find in a half dozen other books.
Reading this novel reminded me a little of first reading Neuromancer—they're both the kind of book that feels immediate and unique when it first appears. Doctorow is a writer with a singular voice and ability, producing novels that will be admired and imitated, but no one will ever quite be able to capture the magic of the original.
There's a lot of story here—just over 400 pages—but because of Doctorow's skill as a writer, it's completely accessible without ever losing the dense layers of all that inventive detail. Makers is smart and funny and tragic, beautifully written and as individual as the museum-like "rides" that Perry and Lester create in an abandoned Florida Wal-Mart to commemorate the rise and fall of the New Work movement.
And now here's the interesting thing. If you want to try the book—reading it on your computer or iPod or ebook reader—you can download it and all of Doctorow's books for free at: http://craphound.com/makers/download/.
While you're there, take the time to read his excellent essay on Creative Commons and copyright laws. I don't know if Creative Commons is the future, but it sure makes a lot of sense, and more power to Doctorow for pulling it off and making such a success of being a writer.
When you read the essay, you'll get a kind of "of course" feeling (much as you will when reading the events postulated in Makers) but you have to remember that Doctorow was an unknown writer when he started this: giving his books away free online in hopes that doing so would translate into physical sales. It's something a name writer might try with her twentieth book because what does she have to lose? But Doctorow gambled it all, right from the beginning of his career, and happily for him, and for those of us who get to read his books, it paid off.
So you have no excuse not to read Makers. Quite frankly, I think it's one of the best books of 2009. Possibly my favorite.
Under the Dome, by Stephen King,
I was going to start this review along the lines of how Under the Dome is the kind of book King does best (you know, the big, multiple viewpoint, sweeping epic), but when he's on, he's just as good with the tightly focused story that only features one or two characters. The key is when he's on, and he's on more often than not.
Let me say instead that Under the Dome features the kind of goofy concept that King also does so well. In this case, it's like someone dropped a 20,000 foot tall glass jar over the New England town of Chester's Mill—nothing can get in and nothing gets out. A little air comes through. People can talk through it, though that can be dangerous since if you're wearing a pacemaker, or carrying a cell phone, close proximity to the barrier will make it explode.
In the wrong hands, the reader would be closing the book after a few pages, and I suppose there are some readers who will do so anyway. But most people who pick up a King novel are willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to get on the roller coaster and go for a ride.
Those who do will get a big fat dose of vintage King: a loose net of subplots around the principle conceit, with none of them boring; and a fascinating cast of likable and despicable characters, including the whole range in between.
It's often been said that the secret of King's genius is how he takes ordinary people just like you and me, gives them an encounter with something paranormal and/or inexplicable, then shows how they react, how the experience changes them. Some descend into the basest of creatures, others rise to heroic heights, but that study of their character is what makes a book like Under the Dome so fascinating.
I didn't really buy into the reveal toward the end of the book. I'm not saying King didn't play fair—he threw in lots of clues earlier in the story. It just didn't resonate for me. But the actions of the characters throughout certainly did.
And what's interesting is that much of the tragedy they undergo is not directly caused by their bizarre situation. Instead, it comes from human frailty and selfishness, and in at least a couple of cases, sociopathy and outright delusion.
I can still recommend the book, even with that ending, because you might well buy it.
Under the Dome has the length of classics like The Stand. If it doesn't have the same mythic scope, that's only because, for all its length, King is telling a smaller story here. Or perhaps I should say, smaller ones. But that doesn't make them any less important.
A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub,
I've heard readers say from time to time that Peter Straub's novels are difficult to read. He's too literate, some say. The stories aren't immediate enough. I don't agree and his newest novel is as good an example as to why I don't.
A Dark Matter explores the past through the eyes of the present. We enter the story now, but it really began in the 1960s when the middle-aged protagonists were in high school and college. Back then they fell under the spell of a charismatic campus guru who convinced his young followers to take part in a secret ritual in a field that was supposed to change the world.
It didn't change the world, but it did change them. One of them vanishes forever, one is brutally murdered. The remainder carry a secret burden that affects them for the rest of their lives. One goes blind. One ends up in an asylum, only able to communicate with sentences from books read. One goes to jail.
But one of these kids from this group who all hung out together wasn't taken in by the guru.
Years later, Lee Harwell is a successful writer and he doesn't often think of what changed the lives of his friends. At least he doesn't until a chance, unconnected encounter in a coffee shop gets him to thinking again of the guru, and that night in the field.
He didn't go with them, and no one ever told him what happened—not even his present-day wife who was one of the group. But now after all these years, and with his wife's blessing, he follows the compulsion to track down the various participants and hear their stories. When he has spoken to all of them, his wife tells him, she will finally talk to him about her part.
The past is always there as we go through our lives, making us who we are. But what we went through is rarely as high on the scale of strangeness as what Harwell's friends endured.
Straub does a wonderful job juggling the two time periods and the voices of the characters at different ages. Their stories are told in deceptively simple prose that builds in a slow burn to the conclusion.
Literate? Yes, but is it such a bad thing to have an author who knows how to use language to its best advantage?
Not immediate enough? Sorry, but Straub takes us deep into his characters, so that even the ones we don't necessarily like, we can at least understand. And the story is told in such an engaging manner that you just have to keep turning the page.
If you've ever been one of those readers with reservations about trying Straub's books, A Dark Matter is an excellent entry point. And the great thing is, once you fall in love with his writing, there's a whole library shelf of his earlier works that you can catch up with.
Powers: Secret Histories, compiled & edited by John Berlyne,
I made a joke in the last installment of this column about how authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett must have had too much spare time on their hands because of the meticulous detail in their book Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel. I could make the same joke about John Berlyne and his incredibly detailed bibliography of Tim Powers's work. But the truth is, while it might seem obsessive to track down and chronicle all this material, in the end Berlyne is exactly the sort of person who's needed if we're to hold a treasure such as Powers: Secret Histories in our hands.
This is what all bibliographies should be. Not dry lists of titles and dates that go on for pages, but the same information presented in a lively fashion with anecdotes, commentaries, and profusely illustrated with photos, book covers, and art by the author, all preserved on good, glossy paper stock to show off the illustrated material in its best light.
Berlyne's introduction is fun, especially when he details how he first became acquainted with Powers's books and his subsequent long search for copies of the Laser editions of the first two. It adds a human face to the proceedings. But really, it's the amazing hoard of Powers material that makes the book such a success.
Not only does it have everything you might expect from a profusely illustrated bibliography, but more than half the book is the equivalent of a DVD's bonus features: notes, outlines, poetry, even a generous portion of an unpublished 1974 novel, To Serve in Hell. Add to this contributions by Dean Koontz, James P. Blaylock, John Bierer, China Miéville, and Karen Joy Fowler, and you have a wealth of material that will keep you reading for weeks.
And it looks so good: from the clever cover where Powers's face morphs into a drawing of Byron, through the overall design of the book.
There's also a three-book slipcased edition featuring a facsimile of the entire original handwritten manuscript for The Anubis Gates and an incomplete early attempt at a novel, The Waters Deep, Deep, Deep.
Check with PS Publishing as to its availability (http://store.pspublishing.co.uk).
Thresholds, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman,
This is an incredibly sweet book, and before you start rolling your eyes, listen up. There's nothing's wrong with sweetness. And I don't mean Thresholds is all saccharin and unicorns dancing in rainbows. I just mean there's an underlying goodness to the characters and story.
The book's aimed at younger readers—middle grade rather than older teens—but it's been a while since the publication of a new Hoffman novel, so I couldn't resist.
Maya Andersen and her family have just moved to a new town. Maya hates having to move, but at least she finds the people living in the apartment building next door interesting. They wear clothes that are a little different from the norm, speak an unfamiliar language, and keep to themselves. They try to keep Maya at bay, too, but circumstances arise that push her smack into the middle of their extended families, and she discovers the new neighbors aren't just a little different, but literally out of this world.
The characters are quirky and quickly defined, and the plot is relatively simple, though no less interesting for that. But more importantly, the book offers up a huge sense of wonder: fantastical beings, a magical and strange house, and the Threholds of the book's title that lead...pretty much everywhere.
If I'd discovered Thresholds when I was ten or eleven, Hoffman would have immediately become my favorite author. I know it's not for most adult readers—it reads a bit younger than I'd normally choose—but if you have any young friends or family in your life, I urge you to pick this up for them. You might well be starting them on the road to a life-long love of reading in general, and fantasy in particular.
Horns, by Joe Hill,
Ignatius Perrish wakes up to what might be the worst day of his life. It starts with the horns he discovers growing from his brow, then gets worse when everybody he meets tells him the terrible things they'd like to do (the girl he's living with, the nurse at the clinic he visits to see what's wrong with him, other patients in the clinic) or what they think of him (his parents, brother, his grandmother). None of it's good, but it doesn't get better. Because then he discovers that if he touches their skin he also learns every awful thing they've actually done.
He feels like he's going mad.
But it's not the worst day he's ever had. That day was the morning a year ago when he woke up to be arrested for the brutal murder of his childhood sweetheart. We know he didn't do it, but everybody else believes he did. They think he just got away with it, and treat him accordingly.
Perrish has been away from town for a while and he's not really sure why he came back. Or why he got so drunk the night before he wakes up with horns and went to where his girlfriend was murdered, desecrating the memorial that's been set up for her there. Or why he falls into investigating what actually happened on the night of her death.
But all the while, the horns keep growing longer, he keeps changing, and nothing is what it seems to be.
I didn't think I was going to finish this book. I didn't much care for Perrish when I first met him and every character I met after just seemed worse. But the writing is excellent, and then I hit the flashback section with Perrish and the girlfriend who was later murdered (how they met, Perrish's life as a kid) and I was won over—even by Perrish.
I'm not going to pretend this is a cheerful book. But it is astonishingly good, covering the complete range of human emotion, often in the same character. I was frequently surprised, and while there are many brutal sections, there's also great heart and hope. And I loved the treehouse, of which I'll say no more.
This isn't a book I'll reread. As I've already said, it's extremely well-written, and that's the problem. The characters and situations feel too real and much of the book is such that I don't want to relive it again. Do I regret reading it? Not remotely, but be forewarned going in. You're about to step onto a real emotional roller coaster.
The Future of Fantasy Art, edited by Aly Fell & Duddlebug,
With the title in mind as I flipped through this book, my first thought was, if this is the future of fantasy art, shoot me now. That quick flip through made it seem as though all that was to be found in these pages were bikini-clad women (in fur or chain mail bikinis, of course), dragons, warriors, elves, and the like, many of them cartoony rather than realistically portrayed, and lots and lots of garish color.
Rather than the future, I felt like I was looking into the past—the fairly recent past—or strolling through a convention art show that hadn't been juried.
But flipping is no way to appreciate an art book. So I went back to the start and was immediately chastised by the frontispiece: an imaginative and well-executed landscape over which are flying what look like monkeys riding long, ribbony shrimp-like creatures, and I was charmed by the incongruous subject matter and skill of the rendering. I can't find the name of the artist or the title of the piece, but it's well worth seeing.
As I progressed through the book from that point the art ranged from what I've described in the first paragraph to other paintings as interesting as the frontispiece—in other words, the usual mix you'll get in a collection such as this with so many different artists being represented. Details on the medium and artists' comments accompany each illustration, as well as their contact information.
Given the range of art and the contact info, I have the sense that The Future of Fantasy Art is as much a portfolio for art directors as it is a celebration of the art (along the lines of the Spectrum series) and I can see many of the artists producing book covers in the future. So what if a lot of it doesn't appeal to me? If I've learned anything over the years I've been involved in the publishing field, it's that good, effective book covers are not necessarily synonymous with great art, which itself is subjective to a large degree anyway.
If we consider the proliferation of this sort of art on book covers, current and past, it's not a big stretch to imagine that the style represented here will continue to appear on book covers in the future. And that's not a bad thing, since it does sell books.
King Aroo Vol. 1, by Jack Kent,
I've been reading newspaper strips for years and thought I was pretty familiar with the best of them. Even when they weren't contemporary to me (like Krazy Kat or Little Nemo), I've at least been aware of them. So it was a complete surprise when I got a digital copy of Jack Kent's King Aroo to review, because first, I'd never heard of it before, and second, it's just so darn good.
The stories are set on an island kingdom named Myopia (almost a whole acre big!) with only two humans—the slightly befuddled King Aroo himself and his retinue Yupyop (yes, at different times Yupyop is everything from the Lord High Wizard to the cook, lawyer, gamekeeper…). The rest of the cast is made up of various animals, from dragons and elephants, to kangaroos and fleas.
It's like Pogo without the overt politics, or Calvin and Hobbes with an older style of cartooning. It has the charm of Mutts, the madcap view of the everyday as seen in Krazy Kat, and the feeling of adventure one could find in the original Donald Duck strips. Kent had lovely loose linework, a terrific sense of design, and a whimsical view of the world that never gets tiresome.
From start to finish the strips collected here are an absolute delight.
Completing the package is a short introduction by Sergio Aragones and the first part of a biography by associate editor Bruce Canwell (subsequent parts will appear in later volumes).
Only viewing the book in digital format, it's hard to say what the production values will be like, but other books I've seen from IDW have always been excellent, so I have no doubt this one will be as good.
If you're a fan of newspaper strips, do yourself a favor and get acquainted with (or reacquainted with) this enchanting series.
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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