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March 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

THIS BODY, by Laurel Doud
Little Brown, 1998; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-316-19675-4

This Body opens with its protagonist's death.  Katherine Ashley, a middle-aged mother of two, dies in her sleep only to wake up in the body of a twenty-two-year-old alcoholic woman with the implausible name of Thisby Flute Bennet.  Doud handles the transition brilliantly, from Katherine's shock and disbelief concerning her predicament, through her gradual acceptance and attempts to make some sense out of what appears to be a second chance at life.

She discovers it's been a year since she (as Katherine) died, and of course she's desperate to know what's happened to her children and husband, then dismayed to discover that he's remarried and life's pretty much carrying on fine without her.  The need to contact her old family is strong, but more pressing is the need to make some sense out of Thisby's life, since it's now hers. 

Thisby, she finds, was one confused young woman.  A photographer, a rebel, an alcoholic, she was unhappy in a life that included a scary boyfriend named Hooker and a strange family that likes to quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat and appears to have based their family dynamics on A Midsummer Night's Dream

Katherine has always been one to take charge of her own life, and those around her.  But when she tries to do the same in Thisby's life, she ends up being betrayed by the addictions of her new body and the trace memories of its old inhabitant---not to mention the negative light in which everyone views her.  How she deals with all of this makes for a riveting and engrossing character study that offers no easy answers but a great deal of real, and very human, insight into who we are and why we are the way we are.

The concept is an old one, but Doud does a terrific job of making it fresh again.

*     *     *
253, by Geoff Ryman
St. Martin's Griffin, September 1998; $14.95
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-312-18295-3

I don't quite know where to begin with this book.  It's either an elaborate, rather lengthy joke, a piece of serious modern fiction offering insights into the human condition and contemporary social mores, or some odd combination of the two.  A joke that turned serious.  A piece of serious fiction that discovered its author has his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Consider this.  On a London subway travelling between Embankment Station and Elephant & Castle, there are two-hundred-and-fifty-two passengers, plus driver, making up the number which gives the book its title.  Ryman proceeds to give each of them a page wherein we learn what they look like, who they are, and what they are thinking. 

Each page runs two-hundred-and-fifty-three words, not including titles and footnotes.  The material--particularly the characters' thoughts--runs from boring through mildly interesting to quite fascinating, which would pretty much be the breakdown in a real crowd of people this size.  As the author tells us at the beginning of the book, "253 is designed to appeal to the Nosey Parker in all of us.  How often have you sat in a restaurant, theatre, or bus and wondered who the people around you are?  This novel will give you the illusion that you can know."

And this Ryman proceeds to allow us, resulting in my impressions mentioned above, and frankly it becomes increasingly fascinating, and even poignant, when we reach the final entry, and elderly Anne Frank who thinks she's on a train to Auschwitz.  But throughout, in the introductory matter, in the footnotes, in the very way the book is set up, Ryman also takes a jokey tone which appears to be both at odds with the rest of the book, and not.

I should probably add, at this point, that 253 is basically a website in text form (check out the real thing at Ryman.WorksLtd@btinternet.com), which doesn't explain matters all that much, except for how the book is set up.

Is it a novel?  Doubtful.  Certainly not in the traditional sense.  Is it worth reading?  Definitely.  Is it the fiction of the future?  I hope not.  As a one-off, it's entertaining, and even thought-provoking, but it took me a long time to read, simply because I kept setting it aside after every half-dozen or so entries to read something with a more coherent narrative.  Call me old-fashioned, but I doubt I'd try another.

*     *     *
THE AVRAM DAVIDSON TREASURY,
edited by Robert Silverberg & Grania Davis Tor Books, October 1998; $26.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-86729

I think we've discussed this before in these pages, but it bears repeating: we're in grave danger of losing our sense of history.  And part of the reason is, due to much of it being out of print, the work of the old masters of the field isn't always available to new readers.  What's sad is that these newer readers not only lose the context of important works and authors, but they also miss out on some terrific stories.  Not quaint, old-fashioned stories, but powerful, moving ones that will stand the test of time far better than a great deal of contemporary work that is appearing in print for the first time.

Avram Davidson was a giant in the field of fantasy.  Perhaps not in sales, but certainly in the quality of his work and how he was viewed by his peers.  This new collection will give you a taste of both, reprinting some of his best work, introduced by other luminaries in the field such as Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Thomas Disch, William Gibson, Gregory Benford, and the like.

The real reason an author like Davidson isn't as widely read as he should be is that he was primarily a writer of short stories, a less than popular format for the general reader perhaps, but not so for those of you reading this magazine.  If his work is unfamiliar to you, do yourself a favour and give this book a try.  Long time Davidson readers will enjoy reacquainting themselves with the old favorites collected here, and will also appreciate the insightful tributes introducing each story.

*     *     *
THE SILENT STRENGTH OF STONES, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Eos, 1995, 1998; 244pp; $5.99
Mass market; ISBN 0-380-77760-6

I didn't realize until I sat down to write this review that The Silent Strength of Stones is a reprint, but since age has nothing to do with a book's quality, and you might have missed this as I did, I thought it was worth mentioning.

For those of you new to Hoffman's work, she writes quirky fantasies that brim with warmth and charm.  Here she tackles a coming of age story, deftly taking on the voice of Nick Verrou, a young man living in a rural resort town who watches people as a way of dealing with his loneliness.  When this year's summer people include a family of witches and a shapechanger, Nick discovers the price of getting involved with others, rather than simply watching them from the sidelines.

The Silent Strength of Stones isn't a big story--the world isn't imperiled, thousands of lives don't hang in the balance--but it's just the right size for what it is: an enchanting glimpse into a summer that changes the life of one young man.  Hoffman also has a great take on nature magics and spirits.  While I can't talk to them as her characters can, I've felt those presences in wild places, and what she's done feels right.

*     *     *
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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