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Books To Look For
A Sigh for Life's Completion, by Sara Kuhns, Infinity Publishing, 2009 $19.95.
Sometimes, that's exactly the case. Sometimes the book in question is awkward, the prose is clumsy, the plot is convoluted or non-existent. But sometimes a book simply doesn't fit into how the publisher perceives the marketplace. In their eyes, it's unpublishable, but that doesn't mean it's a bad book. If it's ever going to reach readers, the writer has to publish it and promote it himself.
This is where reviewers, bloggers, and word-of-mouth are such a boon. The latter is probably the most honest measure of a book's worth since it's beyond anybody's control. People either talk up and pass around a book they love, or they don't. No amount of persuasion can make someone do that.
But when people do read a book they love, they want to pass it on. They want everybody to read it. It's a natural inclination, and it's what stops a good self-published book from vanishing into oblivion. The trick for authors of these books is how to let the world know that their work exists.
The smart writer does her research. She finds bloggers and columnists who review books with a similar sensibility to hers and gets her books into their hands. She networks and makes sure as many people as possible are aware of her book, from making YouTube video ads to maintaining her own blog to attract like-minded individuals who could potentially become readers of her books as well as her blog.
The music field has been in a comparable way for a few years now, with small independent artists producing their own recordings, selling the material themselves, and setting up their own tours. It's a lot of work, but many of them are able to make a living doing what they love, without compromise.
There's no reason that writers can't do the same. But they do have to make the effort.
Case in point: That's how a copy of Sara Kuhns's novel arrived in my inbox. She did the research and thought that this column would be a good fit for her book.
But before we discuss her novel, a brief aside: Although it's hardly a recent practice, I've noticed this trend more often than I'd like of late, and every time I do I just have to scratch my head. A reviewer begins their review saying something like, "I hate werewolf books," then proceeds to review a werewolf book and trashes it. Doing so is hardly productive—for either the writer or readers. It would be better if such reviewers stuck to material that they might at least potentially appreciate. Or if you're going to begin a review like that, let it only be because you go on to explain why this particular werewolf book upended your expectations and drew you in.
I mention this because I'm going to begin this review by saying that while I don't hate them, I've certainly grown leery of vampire stories. I won't go on and on about the whys and wherefores except to say that more and more of them are being published every month and with a few notable exceptions, a certain sameness has settled in, particularly when it comes to the "good" vampire. At least it has for this reader.
So as I started A Sigh for Life's Completion, my heart sank a little because I could tell within a few pages that it was going to be another of those books. But reading on, I realized that it wasn't really a vampire story—or at least not any sort of a traditional one. In fact, it isn't so much about vampires as it is a meditation on what it means to be human. It might be described as a utopian novel, if the utopia being explored can be the microcosm of a family of choice.
Or we could also call it a love story, since love is what sets everything in motion.
Paul Christian appears to be a mortal man, but he and his family are much more. Yet while they have amazing abilities, the cost of maintaining their lives is that they must take the lives of others to survive. They require human blood, and feed on those who make innocents their own prey.
Lauren owns and runs Lolly's Tavern. She's damaged goods, having grown up in the tavern and the apartment above it, but her life seems empty after the death of her father. She finds it hard to relate to anyone on a personal level, and the clientele in the tavern has been steadily declining because it's not the same easygoing place it was when her father was alive.
When Paul and Lauren meet, everything changes. Not only for them, but also for everyone around them.
Now I have no way to tell if the big publishing firms turned this down before Kuhns brought it out as an Infinity Publishing book, but if they did, I wouldn't be surprised. Kuhns has some stylistic quirks that I enjoyed a lot, but they don't lend themselves to highly commercial fiction. There's a plot, and moments of tension and action, but Kuhns takes her time getting to them. She's just as happy writing about the characters hanging out (the way we might with our friends) and relating their philosophical conversations with one another.
In a sense, for all its fantastical elements, A Sigh for Life's Completion has the pace of real life, where things don't necessarily happen in an orderly fashion. But unlike most of our lives, the stories of these characters are told in lovely, readable prose. And for all the sprawl of the larger plot of the book, the characters are entrancing and kept this reader fascinated, concerned, and interested from start to finish.
I can't say it will be a book for everyone—especially not in this present day, when everything is supposed to be reduced to soundbites, and we want to know everything now. But if you're a patient reader, and you don't come looking for graphic depictions of violence, you'll be well rewarded.
Angel of Vengeance, by Trevor O. Munson, Titan Books, 2011, $9.95.
Speaking of vampires, if I'm wary of them in books, I'm ten times more wary when they appear on TV or in film. But a few years ago I was pleasantly surprised by a TV show called Moonlight, which featured a vampire private eye and had the added bonus of casting a number of the actors from Veronica Mars, a show I wish were still on the air.
Moonlight wasn't high concept. A quick summary of the overall season arc wouldn't read that much differently from any of a large number of paranormal fantasy novels currently on the stands:
Mick St. John—the private investigator—was turned into a vampire on his wedding night by his bride, Coraline, who was killed not long after. Since then he's survived by trying to do good and not kill innocents. As the series opens, he is attracted to an Internet reporter named Beth Turner but attempts to keep his distance for a couple of reasons: He knows any relationship with her is doomed because of what he is. Plus, complicating matters, twenty-two years previously, when Turner was a young girl, Mick rescued her from a kidnapper, something she vaguely remembers.
Things get complicated, St. John and Turner get closer, Coraline returns to wreck havoc and... well, you get the idea.
What made the series work were the crisp plots, excellent dialogue, the chemistry between the leads, and the fun—for Veronica Mars fans—of seeing some familiar faces in new roles.
Because of all this, I was intrigued to run across Angel of Vengeance, since it was touted as the inspiration for the television series: a novel written before filming began, but unpublished until now, a couple of years after Moonlight has gone off the air. The author also happened to be one of the show's co-creators and co-executive producers.
Angel of Vengeance is a much darker take on the story that eventually made its way onto the small screen. The Beth storyline is gone and the noir aspect is amped up. St. John gets his guilt-free blood by shooting it like a heroin addict. In fact, its effect on him is much the same as a drug—he gets a bad jones when he needs a fix and shooting up is much like a high.
The story is set in an earlier time than the TV series and plays on its noir trappings by having the case St. John is working on take him to his old haunts when he was still a human trumpet player. Many of these places are still doing their best to hang onto the fading glamor of the old Hollywood, back in a time when they were the places in which to be seen.
Fans of Charlie Huston's books should enjoy this novel. So might fans of Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler, if they don't mind a little supernatural with their hardboiled. It's not quite as in your face with violence as the Huston books—and there's a bit more hope for some of the characters—but from the very start, it sets and then maintains a strong dark mood throughout that many will find appealing.
And while I don't know if Munson is thinking of going back to this character, I'd be happy if he did. I'd be especially intrigued if he introduced this darker version of St. John to the Beth Turner from the TV series and saw where the story went.
Angel Omnibus, by Joss Whedon, Christopher Golden, and Brett Matthews, Dark Horse, 2011 $24.99.
Still on the subject of vampires, another popular television series was Angel, a spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that ran from 1999 to 2004.
Angel was one of the earlier—or at least most popular—variations on the good vampire, or as they called it on the show, a "vampire with a soul." Once known as the monstrous Angelus who would do anything despicable if it might amuse him, the character regained his soul by means of a Gypsy curse and he's spent the decades since trying to make up for all the evil he has done.
The character of Angel was the drawing card to the series, but a lot of the show's appeal also had to do with the supporting cast—many of the performers appeared in Buffy, where they originated their Angel roles. Given the fan interest in both shows, it's not surprising that they branched out into other media, both while the shows were running, as well as after they went off the air. Books. Action figures. Collectible cards.
Dark Horse's new Angel Omnibus is pretty much what the title says. It collects all of the Dark Horse comics to date in one volume. The stories are set during the first and second season, so long-time fans get to revisit with characters who died or otherwise left the series.
The stories are good, capturing the feel of the show and the voices of the characters. The art ranges from effective to somewhat cartoony, but mostly works. I'm reviewing this book from a digital galley, so I can only assume that it will feature Dark Horse's usual high production values.
Bottom line, I'm not sure it's a good entry point into the world of Angel, but having all the material collected in one volume will be a treasure trove for those who are already fans of the TV series and jonesing for some more.
I might also add that the Eighth Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has come to an end and all the issues of the monthly comic are now available from Dark Horse in eight trade paperbacks. I've talked about this comic book series in an earlier installment of the column so let me just say that this is creator Whedon's version of what an eighth season would have been if the show hadn't gone off the air. And if they'd had an enormous budget. But happily, all you need for a comic book is pen and ink and some color.
It gets a little convoluted at times, but it's easily the best spin-off from either of the two shows, probably because Whedon had a hands-on involvement from start to finish, writing many of the issues himself.
The Year's Best Science Fiction: 28th Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, Griffin, 2011, $21.99.
Has Gardner Dozois really been editing The Year's Best Science Fiction for twenty-eight years now? It's a testament to his editorial acumen that the series is still running when so many others have fallen by the wayside (such as its much-missed—by this reader, at any rate—companion The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror).
I can't imagine anyone who loves sf not finding something to like in this collection. Frankly, they'll find a lot of somethings. It's got stories by big guns like Joe Halderman, Michael Swanwick, Pat Cadigan, and Cory Doctorow, but also excellent material by newer writers. The stories come from sources as diverse as Asimov's, a variety of anthologies, Interzone, Tor.com, and our own The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
A strong element of the anthology is Dozois's summation of the year and the "Honorable Mentions" section at the end of the book, both of which give the reader all sorts of leads to other interesting material. But it's the stories that really stand out: The Year's Best Science Fiction is a big, fat collection of, if not the best sf of the year (because let's face it, we all have our own ideas of what's best), then certainly 600+ pages of some genuinely terrific reading.
Writing the Paranormal Novel, by Steven Harper, Writer's Digest Books, 2011, $17.99.
This book was a pleasant surprise. Not the subject matter: Considering the continuing interest in paranormal fantasy, I would have expected there to be something like this much sooner.
No, the surprise is how good it is: how the scope of what it covers will be of interest not only to would-be writers of this sub-genre, but writers in general. And it will also give readers of paranormal fantasy a deeper understanding of the elements that come together to make up the books they're reading. That might sound academic or boring; the truth is, it's anything but.
It helps that Steven Harper has a very engaging prose style. I'm often surprised by how stilted or awkward the prose can be in some how-to-write books. You'd think a person teaching the use of words to tell stories would actually have mastered the ability themselves before setting out to instruct others, but that's not always the case. Harper doesn't have that problem. He writes in an easy-going, conversational style that feels like you're sitting down with a knowledgeable friend.
He covers all the things you'd expect: building characters and plots, story arcs or the lack thereof in a series, narrative flow. But he really shines where he deconstructs what makes a good fantasy book work, then shows how to put it all together again in a way that will keep readers turning pages without losing the depth and resonance that makes a book great, rather than just okay.
Because let's face it. The reason a reader picks up a paranormal fantasy is because they want a fresh new take on something they already like. Harper's insights into magical systems and archetypes give the writer some excellent advice in how to set it all up—information that could also benefit established writers.
(As an amusing side note, the good vampire I mentioned above and in a couple of other reviews has its own designation here, complete with a spot-on description. If you're curious, look up "The Tragic Vampire.")
One of the things I liked best about this book is that Harper doesn't lay down the law. He doesn't try to tell his readers that this is the way to do it and all other methods suck. Instead he offers different takes on what might work, which is a good thing, because writers are individuals, and what works for one won't necessarily work for someone else.
The final chapter does an excellent job of exploring the do's and don'ts of submitting, promoting, and all the other things that come to play once your novel is actually finished.
I've gone on for a while about Writing the Paranormal Novel for a reason, and that's because I have no doubt that its clarity and scope will be helpful and informative for a lot of people. It won't write your book for you, but it will certainly help you write a better one.
Darkness Rising Book 1: The Gathering, by Kelley Armstrong, HarperCollins, 2011, $17.99.
There's a lot to recommend in Kelley Armstrong's new novel.
For one there's the setting. It takes place in an isolated medical research town (population: 200) right smack dab in the middle of a national park on Vancouver Island. I really enjoyed the tight focus that a small community gave the book and how it and the surrounding forest in the park are like characters themselves.
As for the actual cast, first-person narrator Maya has a lovely, youthful, and engaging voice, with a good sense of humor and a sharp eye for detail. Her friends and family, especially the other kids at her school, all have their own distinct personalities. On the down side, they're also all a bit of a kind (by which I mean, we've seen their types before) but Armstrong brings them to life so that while they feel a little familiar, you don't get the sense you're retreading the same ground as in other books.
There are certainly lots of mysteries, from the opening scene where Maya's best friend Serena drowns in the nearby lake—a bizarre as well as sad event since she was the head of the swim team—to how mountain lions keep coming out of the forest to hang around Maya's house (her dad is the park warden, so they live right in the forest). Add to that the question of what exactly is the medical research being done, and the appearance of Rafe, the new boy in town with a secret, and we have lots to keep our interest.
Now, I said a few columns back that I wasn't going to complain about series books anymore, but that only holds true so long as the book I'm reviewing has a start, middle, and ending.
The Gathering isn't a novel. It's the first third of a big novel being published in three parts. And that's the disappointment I have with this book. Much is introduced, but there's no payoff—not even with the supernatural element. I don't want to give away what it is, but any reader who's been around for a little while will know what's up by about the third chapter, if not sooner. For the author to remain coy about it after 360-some pages just seems weird.
And of course everything is left hanging at the end.
So, it's a failure as a novel, but an excellent first third of one. That said, I doubt I'll tune back in for the next installment, knowing that nothing will be resolved in that book either.
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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