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April 2002
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
Columns
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Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
Film
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
 
Science
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
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

SWIM THE MOON - Paul Brandon
Tor Books, 2001; 380pp; $25.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-87794-3

After the death of his wife, Richard Brennan exiled himself from his native Scotland to live in Australia. There he remained for six years until, at the beginning of Swim the Moon, the funeral of his father finally brings him back. He doesn't mean to stay but old ghosts have him set up house in his father's lonely cottage in the north of Scotland. The cottage is near the sea where Brennan lost his wife, where his father went strange, and where Brennan meets a mysterious woman named Ailish.

From that point on, the novel takes Brennan into dangerous territory. For the more he pursues the mystery of this woman, singing on the beach in all kinds of weather, disappearing and reappearing in a heartbeat, the closer he comes to the dark history of his own family. And the more he seems set to repeat the past mistakes of his father.

This is a wonderful novel. It deals with some traditional motifs, to be certain, but it's what Brandon does with them that makes the book sing. And that musical reference is a good touchstone word.

Brandon's character plays the fiddle. Brandon himself is a successful Celtic guitarist in Australia where he lives. You can tell that he knows his music, not simply from the way music arises so naturally in the text, but also in the ebb and flow of his prose. A good writer almost scores how the story will unfold, always staying in control of its rhythms and pace. Brandon knows this and it shows.

But it's also obvious that he pays attention to everything. His writing is filled with a deep sense of place and character, and subtle insights into why people do the things that they do. When he writes of the coast, a storm, a music session, or an intimate conversation, you can smell the salt, feel the rain, hear the fiddles, and be aware of every nuance of body movement and dialogue.

And then there's the magic--wild, unpredictable, heart-grabbing magic that will make you weep and make you smile.

With just one book, Brandon has become one of my favorite new authors. He has a voice that captured me from the first page and he never betrayed that trust in the time it took me to reach the last one.

*     *     *

The Song of Taliesin: Tales from King Arthur's Bard by John Matthews
Quest Books, 2001; 234pp; $19.95
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-8356-0802-6

Because I once used the mythological/historical figure of Taliesin as a character in one of my books (Moonheart), I often got, and still get, letters from readers asking where they can find out more about him. I used to direct them to the usual sources: The Mabinogion and Robert Graves's The White Goddess, the two books in which I started my own research journeys. But now with the publication of John Matthew's The Song of Taliesin, I've got one book to which I can point them.

Matthews has a done a tremendous job of collecting the various histories, myths, and poetry associated with Taliesin, shaping them into a single narrative that helps make sense of the various, sometimes contradictory, often fragmentary, source material surrounding the bard, but loses none of the mystery and power of his verses and story.

It helps that Matthews has the tongue of a poet himself. The lovely pencil illustrations by Stuart Littlejohn scattered throughout the text don't hurt either. I also liked the framing device of having the story told by a fictitious scribe (done to avoid the need for footnotes) and particularly enjoyed the opening chapter which briefly provides this scribe's own history.

For those still hungry to know more, the book provides a comprehensive bibliography that will take the reader into further material relating to the bard, Wales, Arthurian Matter, and beyond.

I should probably add, in the spirit of helpfulness for those interested in this sort of reference material, that this year Quest Books also published another book by Matthews: The Quest for the Green Man, a hardcover, profusely illustrated study of the nature spirit with informative, engaging text, and an even more comprehensive bibliography.

Both books are highly recommended.

*     *     *

THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON - Harlan Ellison
Morpheus International, 2001; 1249pp; $34.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-883398-47-9

I doubt that any reader of this magazine needs me to tell them that Harlan Ellison is one of the masters of short fiction. Sure, he's written the odd clunker, but when you look at the overall body of his work, those clunkers barely register on a percentage scale. The man is good.

So if you don't own this collection, you really owe it to yourself to get a copy. Behind its striking cover by the Dillons is a wealth of classic stories, authorial reminiscences, and essays, all delivered in Ellison's inimitable style.

But, you say, I already have this book. I bought it back in 1987 when it was published by The Nemo Press.

Well, you did and you didn't. That was a 35 year retrospective. Ellison's now been writing for more than fifty years (god bless him) and the new volume is a 50 year retrospective, with a new introduction and enough additional material to make it a few hundred pages longer.

Simply put, every library needs a copy of this book on its shelves.

*     *     *

GINGER SNAPS
Live/Artisan, 2001; $19.98
DVD; 07696

I'm not going to make a habit of discussing movies here. For one thing, this is a book column. For another, I don't particularly like most films that are marketed as fantasy and horror, so I don't watch them, never mind consider reviewing them.

(I say "marketed," by the way, because I've noticed an interesting phenomenon in film over the past few decades: a huge proportion of movies have fantasy as one of their principle underpinnings--think The Family Man, Liar, Liar, and the like--but that aspect is completely downplayed in the marketing.)

The reason I don't like films marketed as in our genre is that they so rarely get it right. They either play the cast and story for slapstick laughs, or the effects take over from the plotting and character growth, or--in the case of horror--they simply go for the gross-out, or a pornography of violence that simply doesn't interest me.

But I'm making an exception here because, while this is a book column, one of the things I tend to concentrate on--one of the real strengths of genre fiction--is Story, and this film is not just strong on that front, it excels.

The premise is simple. Teenage sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are self-styled Goth outcasts in a nameless and utterly bland suburb. They're more than a little obsessed with death: They have a pact that they will die together; they put together school projects such as a portfolio of photos of their own faked death scenes.

While fifteen, neither has yet hit puberty. The day that Ginger (the older of the two) does is followed by a night walk in the woods where she is bitten by a werewolf. And things go very much downhill from there as the younger sister Brigitte tries to help Ginger escape from the escalating wave of darkness that threatens to reduce her to nothing more than a savage beast.

Now this could easily have gone the way of so many other horror films, but Karen Walton's script (based on an original story by herself and director John Fawcett) is so smart, the dialogue is so sharp, and the actors playing the roles of the sisters deliver such convincing performances that, even at the end of the film when it strays a bit too much into more traditional horror fare, the viewer is drawn into the story and held there until the last bittersweet scene. Even the less-than-satisfying beast design can't take away from the power of the story and how much we come to care for these characters.

I'm trying to think of touchstones, but it's hard. Perhaps a very dark, and certainly more gruesome (by the end), Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Company of Wolves also comes to mind. As do Nomads and Wolfen.

What I do know is that it's only very occasionally that a film like this comes around where they get it so right. Not only does Ginger Snaps (such a great title) do a better job of conveying the mystery and horror of the material than most movies, it also does it better than most books. And since it's a small film, without a big money machine behind it to give it the promotion it deserves, I wanted to at least tell you about it before it gets lost among all the other titles in your local video store.

Next column we'll discuss Jesus the Vampire Slayer. Just kidding, although the film does exist.

*     *     *

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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