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July 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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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

THE WILD SWANS, by Peg Kerr
Aspect/Warner, March 1999; 352pp; $13.99
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-446-67366-8

If Terri Windling was still editing her Fairy Tale series (the one she began at Ace in the late eighties and continued at Tor through the early nineties), I don't doubt she would have wanted Peg Kerr's latest volume for it. As it stands, The Wild Swans can readily take its place among the very best contemporary retellings of fairy tales, those that retain the old charm and magic of the original, but use the classic material to illuminate elements of our life in the real world where spoons don't talk, kisses don't free princes from amphibian curses, and three wishes are just that, nothing more.

As you might guess from the title, Kerr has chosen the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the young woman who, to save her eleven brothers from the enchantment of being swans by day, humans by night, takes a vow of silence while she spins coats for them out of nettles. Kerr tells the story much the way it's told in the original, only setting the action in Puritan England, and a small colony in the New World. To be honest, all that saves these sections is Kerr's gorgeous prose, since anyone familiar with the original story always knows what's coming next, never mind the Puritan trappings.

But the fairy tale only takes up every second chapter in the novel. The other half of the novel is set in contemporary New York and follows the story of Elias, a young gay street person who is helped off the street by a musician/author named Sean who eventually becomes Elias' life partner.

While Elias' story has no supernatural elements, it's magical all the same as we follow his coming out and how he begins to make a new life for himself in NYC's gay community. But there's also a chilling undercurrent of menace that slowly permeates these sections of the novel, for it's set at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and depicts all the intolerance, fear, and confusion those days held, from unaffected (and uninformed) people shunning the victims for fear of being infected themselves, to the (also uninformed) members of the gay community refusing to deal with what at that time was known a "gay's cancer."

Not since Michael Bishop's Unicorn Mountain has the disease been dealt with in such an informative and evocative manner and one can only hope that if The Wild Swans should happen to fall into the hands of an intolerant reader, he or she will come away with a better understanding of both the disease and the community it has so ravaged.

But what about those wild swans? Do the storylines ever connect? Well, yes and no. This reader found connections that were subtle and magical, but I won't go into them for fear of spoiling your own joy of discovery.

The year's young still, but I can see this remaining near the top of my list of favorite books for 1999 by the time December 31st rolls around.

* * *
SPINNERS, by Anthony McCarten
Morrow, February 1999; 263pp; $24.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-688-16303-3

New Zealand playwright Anthony McCarten's first novel starts off with one of the more promising opening paragraphs I've read in a while:
"It was some time on Saturday night after work but before closing time down at the pub that Delia Chapman saw a spaceman. Well, that wasn't quite true. She saw ten of them. They stayed for about half an hour. And they took her on their vessel."
From there McCarten goes on to tell a fascinating story of the impact Chapman's experience has on the small New Zealand town where she lives. In short order, a mysterious circle appears in a local farmer's field with a crushed cow in its center and there are three young women, including Chapman, who claim to have been impregnated by the aliens.

The setting--for North American readers especially--is fresh and McCarten brings a lively cast on stage: there are Chapman's fellow workers at the slaughter house; her disturbed father, still trying to come to grips with the suicide of his wife; her netball coach who is also the local policeman and only wants all the fuss to die down; a burned-out tabloid reporter who comes down with an attack of conscience; the mayor's disgraced nephew who has come to reopen the local library; and a number of others of equal interest.

The prose is precise, as one might expect from a playwright, and his story plays both sides of the fence in a truthful fashion: were there really aliens, or is Chapman deluded? My only complaint with the book is that McCarten writes with a certain smirk in his "voice," as though he's amused by the woes of his working-class characters and we should be, too. Which is unfortunate as it would have been a much better book if he could have written of them with some affection, or at least without the smirk.

* * *


In brief: THE BARRENS AND OTHERS, by F. Paul Wilson
Tor, December 1998; 379pp; $24.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-86416-7

Readers of this magazine should be delighted with this collection from Wilson, including as it does some of his best short fiction such as the classic Lovecraftian title story so effectively set in the Pine Barrens area of New Jersey, a killer Repairman Jack story that first appeared a decade ago in Stalkers, the grim cautionary tale "Pelts" (including a previously-unpublished stage adaptation of the same), and many other delightful excursions into the strange, the odd, and the mysterious as seen through the prism of Wilson's talented vision. Highly recommended.

TIME PIECES, by Michael Bishop
Edgewood Press, 1998; 90pp; $12.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-9629066-7-0

Although the majority of verse collected here isn't specifically sf or fantasy, I'm willing to put forth the thought that most poetry is fantastical anyway simply because a good poet shows us the world in ways we never imagined--and isn't that what we expect from our genre's prose as well?

Take Bishop's description of a chance encounter with a fox in "A Meeting": "Something baffling passed between us:/a bartering of heartbeats." Having experienced such meetings while walking in the bush, for me, Bishop caught the feeling perfectly--I simply hadn't articulated it in such a definitive manner.

I wasn't enamoured by everything I read here, but those that did speak to me, hit me hard.

THE REPUBLIC OF DREAMS, by G. Garfield Crimmins
W.W. Norton & Co., 1998; 95pp; $21.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-393-04633-8

Crimmins owes a huge debt to Nick Bantock's pioneering work in such books as the Griffin & Sabine series. Like Bantock, Crimmins tells his story as much through art as prose, with all sorts of material we can pull out of the book: a passport, telegrams, a poetic license, a map, postcards. But while The Republic of Dreams seems less than original because of that, it's also so charming one has to forgive him. And perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh. After all, someone invented the novel at one point and the rest of us have been borrowing that form to tell our own stories ever since.

*     *     *
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