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August 2003
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
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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 Song of Arthur, by John Matthews,
Quest Books, 2002, $19.95.

JOHN Matthews's latest could be considered a companion volume to his earlier book, The Song of Taliesin (2001). Like that book, The Song of Arthur is narrated by a monk, albeit a different one from the Taliesin book, with some seven centuries separating the two. Where "the little monk" of the first book lived in the time of the stories he told, Brother Joscelyn "discovers" the manuscripts of the stories and verses to be found here and is supposed to have collected them together for this volume.

The use of the monks as narrators doesn't distract from the stories. Rather, they allow Matthews to provide explanation to some of the obscure references without interrupting the flow of the stories. And the little snippets of their own history that Matthews shares are interesting enough to add more than simply some color.

The stories themselves will surprise readers with only a cursory knowledge of Arthur and his knights. They are based on much earlier versions that eventually grew to become what we know as the Arthurian Matter. Most of them come from Welsh sources, some only existing in fragments.

What Matthews has done, as he did so well in the Taliesin book, is recast the stories so that we feel we are privy to the storytelling of some ancient bard, except in a language that is more contemporary. But while the language is modern, Matthews retains the poetry of these stories, and more importantly, the Celtic mysteries underlying them.

Beyond the entertainment value of the stories themselves, Matthews provides an extensive section of notes at the end of the book, citing the sources for the material, and steering the reader to later, literary retellings. Interior illustrations are once again brought beautifully to the page by Stuart Littlejohn (which strikes me as a Robin Hoodish sort of name and appropriate to an illustrator of British folklore).

Both these books are highly recommended to anyone with an interest, not only in Arthurian Matter, but in the Western Mystery tradition that lies at the heart of it.

*     *     *

Dark Angel: The Eyes Only Dossier, by D. A. Stern,
Del Rey, 2003, $14.95.

I didn't expect to read this book, never mind review it. It's not that I have anything against the now-cancelled television series. It had a lot of great ideas and some real sf speculation, plus I appreciated that the main character made her living as a bicycle messenger, lived in a squat, and cared more for her family of choice than the "big issues" of the day, only getting involved in those big issues when they threatened one of her family members.

But watching the odd episode of the show's one thing. Reading a novelization or (what I thought this was) an episode guide, is something else entirely—aimed more at those who can't get enough of what was on the screen. (And I don't mean that negatively. I've long since realized that people should read what they enjoy, not what I or anyone else thinks they should be reading.)

Still, I did my usual thing, as I do with every book that arrives in my post office box, and cracked it open to the first page and read a bit. And that's when I discovered that The Eyes Only Dossier is more akin to the work of Nick Bantock (he of Griffin & Sabine fame) in the way the story is told entirely through extraneous material, rather than in traditional prose.

The book consists of four stories, actually—four cases under analysis by Logan Cale, the investigative reporter on the show who goes by the nom de plume of "Eyes Only." While there are comments by Cale throughout, the main body of material is the research he's unearthed about each story: email correspondences, phone and trial transcripts, articles from newspapers and magazines, and such. The material is presented in such a way that it tells a linear story, but the real fascination comes from poring through the material. Author Stern has done a meticulous job, especially considering that he had to write all this "research" in the first place.

I should warn you, however, that the book isn't self-contained. Some familiarity with the television show is required because The Eyes Only Dossier doesn't give much backstory. It simply plunges right in, expecting you to know the history of the near-future world in which it's set.

*     *     *

The Bookstore Mouse, by Peggy Christian,
Harcourt, 2002, $5.95.

This is a story for any lover of books and words—so long as the idea of its being told from the viewpoint of a somewhat anthropomorphized mouse doesn't strike you as too twee.

Cervantes is the mouse who, while trying to escape the bookstore's cat, finds himself reading a book about a scribe. Siegfried (the scribe) decides to save a town from a mysterious danger, and Cervantes ends up falling into the story with him. Now, I realize that this has been done before, but there are some lovely twists and turns in this take, and it's completely charming from start to finish.

For one thing, while Cervantes is really in the book, he's really reading it as well, which will give you delightful passages such as the one where Cervantes and the scribe are nervous about entering a cave where a dragon is:

"So I left Siegfried crouching beneath the entrance of the cave and jumped ahead in the story, trying to find the description of the dragon."

The Bookstore Mouse is full of wordplay and wit, and while there are messages to be found in its pages, Peggy Christian doesn't beat us over the head with them. And she's certainly crafted a story that will please the adult reader. In fact, I wonder at its designation of being for "ages 8 to 12," since there are a lot of Big Words to be found here—or at least I had to go and look up a lot of them myself.

This Harcourt edition is a reprint of the original 1995 one and retains Gary Lippincott's wonderful pen and ink illustrations.

*     *     *

They Have Not Seen the Stars: The Collected Poetry of Ray Bradbury,
Stealth Press, 2002, $29.95.

It was with some trepidation that I approached this book. Ray Bradbury is unquestionably one of the big voices in North American Literature, renowned for his short stories and novels. But Bradbury as poet?

For some reason, I didn't see it. While Bradbury can certainly evoke a wonderfully lyric sense of mystery and wonder in his stories, he does it in prose that is plain-spoken—and I mean that as a compliment. Plain, simple prose is deceptively difficult to get down on paper and Bradbury is a master at it. But that doesn't necessarily translate into good poetry.

So I had the fear that this would prove to be a vanity project, and I won't deny that some of what I found in the collection's pages wasn't to my taste. For the most part, the poems that didn't work for me were the ones with strict meter and rhymes, such as (for all its admirable sentiment) "Satchmo Saved!" or "Touch Your Solitude to Mine." Or some of the sentimental entries, or just plain silly ones like "Groon."

But overall this is a strong collection, full of stories and reminiscences, thoughtful observations and fascinating speculations, told in robust, unpretentious verse that often soars. You have only to dip in and try a few selections—such as the title poem, or "That Son of Richard III" and "Boys Are Always Running Somewhere"—to see what I mean.

If your local bookstore can't get you a copy, it can be ordered directly from www.stealthpress.com.

*     *     *

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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