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December 2003
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Green Angel, by Alice Hoffman
Scholastic Press, 2003, $16.95.

WE ALL know better than to judge a book by its cover, but most of us do it anyway, especially when we're browsing the bookstore and not really sure what we're looking for. That's when the attractive book cover has the advantage over its less-lucky cousins.

Green Angel is one of those lucky books, though to be honest, it being a Hoffman title, I would have picked it up anyway. Nevertheless, as a package, this small book aimed for the YA market is one of the loveliest presentations I've come across in years. The front sports a young woman in a red, sleeveless top and green skirt who appears to be growing out of the ground. She's reading a book from which crows are flying. The back has another young woman, this one wearing boots with nails protruding from them, stockings over tattooed legs, a plaid miniskirt, a black leather jacket, a tattoo of bat's wings at the nape of her neck, short cropped hair.

The front is ethereal, but still earthy. The woman is facing us, though her attention is on the book. On the back, her punky counterpart has her back to us. The one welcomes, the second creates distance.

The art is by Matt Murhain and continues inside with a handful of very simple chapter headings. The design of the interior—simple, graceful, welcoming, with a wonderful quirky copyright page—is by Elizabeth B. Parisi.

I've gone on at length about the looks of Green Angel simply because I find it rare these days for a book to look so good, with obvious loving attention paid to every aspect, right down to the typeface. And happily, the story itself lives up to every pledge the look of the book promises.

It's the story of fifteen-year-old Green, who lives in a rural area with her family outside of a large city. Life is wonderful until her parents and sister go into the city on the same day that a disaster strikes, killing everyone in the city at the time and filling the sky with ashes. The ashy skies last for months and looters soon appear on the scene. Green falls into despair and changes from the young woman on the front cover of the book to the one on the back, both in looks and temperament.

This is a book about grief and dealing with loss, but it's also a book about hope and growth and change. The setting and story are both utterly modern and anywhere timeless. The language is poetic, but still down-to-earth—gorgeous, really. Green Angel is one of those rare cases in which there is not one word too many or too few. I was so enamored with the book that when I got to the end, I immediately turned back to the first page and began to read it again.

Am I offering too many superlatives? Perhaps. Art and story, and how they're delivered, are completely subjective, so it's difficult to say. I just know that if I didn't already love Hoffman's work, this book would do the trick. As it was, I fell in love with her storytelling gifts all over again.

And if I haven't already convinced you to give the book a try, perhaps I can appeal to those of you with a charitable soul. Hoffman donated her advance for the book, and will be donating a portion of the royalties, to The Green Angel Grant at The New York Women's Foundation, which is dedicated to bringing economic security to the low-income women and girls of New York City after 9/11. For more information, go to: http://www.nywf.org/green_angel.html.

So if you do pick up a copy, not only do you get a beautiful book, but you'll also be contributing to a worthy cause.

*     *     *

The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" and Other Nautical Adventures, by William Hope Hodgson
Night Shade Books, 2003, $35.

The good news isn't simply that Hodgson's classic The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" is available in this handsome volume, collected with all of Hodgson's nautical series stories, some of which haven't been available since 1918. No, the good news is that this is only the first of a projected five-volume series collecting all of Hodgson's fiction in matching volumes. Upcoming inclusions will be other Hodgson treasures such as The House on the Borderland and The Night Land—two novels which, surely, rank near the top of any list of the best weird fiction.

But for now we have the book in hand, a hefty volume, edited by Jeremy Lassen, with old-fashioned pen & ink chapter headings by Jason Van Hollander. The stories are somewhat old-fashioned too, weird and creepy, or rousing sea adventures, told in a narrative voice that echoes the age of the author's origin, Victorian England. The ship backgrounds are authentic (Hodgson spent eight years as a seaman, sailing three times around the world about the turn of the century) and the spell he created with his dark stories went on to inspire such luminaries as H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and probably Jack Vance as well, when you compare The Night Land, set at the end of the world in the light of a dying red sun with Vance's own The Dying Earth.

Hodgson died in WWI, a young forty-three. He'd only been writing for eleven years, and after his death, his work soon faded into obscurity.

Editor Lassen strikes me as our generation's H. C. Koenig (a young American fantasy fan who, in the thirties, began a single-handed and successful campaign to get Hodgson's work back in print). For if the subsequent volumes are as good as this first offering, Lassen will have done the fantasy field as enormous a service now, reintroducing readers to Hodgson's wonderful fiction, as Koenig did in his own time when he persuaded August Derleth at Arkham House to publish the seminal collection The House on the Borderland and Other Novels, the book that finally brought Hodgson the popularity his work deserved, thirty years after his death.

This new series from Night Shade Books is an excellent place to find out what the fuss was all about.

*     *     *

The Wolves in the Walls, by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean
HarperCollins, 2003, $16.99.

I'd been looking forward to this book ever since I first heard Gaiman talk about it on a panel at the 2002 World Fantasy Convention. Gaiman, it turns out, is one of those rare writers who can make a work-in-progress sound really fascinating. Usually, listening to that sort of thing makes for more tedium than I care to experience (don't tell me about the book, write it and let me read it on my own!), but Gaiman's brief description of a plucky young girl who realizes that wolves live inside the walls of her parents' house, and who then goes on to drive the family out so that they have to live at the bottom of the garden, promised to deliver a welcome helping of dark whimsy.

I was disappointed, however, when a galley arrived in my P.O. Box and I realized that The Wolves in the Walls wasn't so much like Coraline ( a short novel with illustrations) as The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish (a children's picture book). But the disappointment only lasted as long as it took me to get to the third page where Lucy first hears noises in the walls.

What follows is another splendid foray into the dark and strange mind of Gaiman, who, if nothing else, never delivers a story that takes you where you think it will. The prose here is very simple. There's no age given—probably because the publisher knows that adults will pick up a Gaiman book for themselves as readily as they buy one for their children—but I'd guess it's in the neighborhood of five and up. You might want to vet the story and pictures for possible nightmare inducing, though kids are far more resilient than we adults think they are.

McKean's art won't necessarily be to everyone's taste—it's a bit confrontational, rather than typical picture book pretty—but I love the look of it, and I'm sure children will, too.

*     *     *

I know from the mail and comments I get on this column that a lot of its readers, both young and older, enjoy Francesca Lia Block's books. With that in mind, I'd like to quickly recommend a few titles that you might want to try while waiting for Block's next book to come out: Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn (Simon & Schuster), Empress of the World by Sara Ryan (Speak/Penguin), and Why Girls Are Weird by Pamela Ribon (Downtown Press).

All three are mainstream titles, but they have wonderful characters with individual voices, and their stories and world-views are as quirky in their own way as those of any of Block's characters.

*     *     *

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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