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Books To Look For
Dark Horse Books, 2004, $12.95.
COINCIDENTALLY, no sooner had I turned in last month's column (in which I was extolling the virtues of Michael Zulli's art and urging you to seek it out where you could), than I received a copy of Creatures of the Night, a new collection of two Gaiman stories illustrated in graphic format by Zulli. And what a fine job he's done of them.
You won't find any slick superheroes dashing through a big city or outer space here. Instead, the settings are rural, one contemporary, one a few centuries in the past. The art has a real painterly quality—if I may use that term for something rendered in pencil, ink, and what appear to be watercolors. What I mean is that Zulli has gone for an emotive approach. He doesn't forgo proper anatomy and perspective or anything like that, but one can see the ink marks and watercolor washes in each panel, and they add a richness to the texture of the art, rather than distracting from it.
The two stories he illustrates also appeared on Speaking in Tongues, the CD discussed last column. If I hadn't heard those stories in their full "prose" versions already, I would probably have felt happier about Gaiman's adaptation of them to this graphic format. But I did, and as they appear in Creatures of the Night, they have only the charm of Zulli's art going for them. Because of my familiarity with the full versions, Gaiman's captions here read more like an outline.
Ah, but the art is gorgeous. Look at it while you listen to the stories on the CD.
Hanging Out with the Dream King, by Joseph McCabe,
And speaking of Gaiman, I have here in hand another book related to him.
Hanging Out with the Dream King is for Gaiman enthusiasts only. It's a collection of interviews with his various collaborators, and while you rarely find such a diverse group of talented artists and writers brought together between the covers of one book (the aforementioned Zulli shares space with everyone from Charles Vess to Mike Dringenberg, Terry Pratchett to Gene Wolfe, Tori Amos to Alice Cooper), the sharp focus on their collaborations with Gaiman starts to feel a little claustrophobic after a while.
I was reminded of that "Parrot News" Monty Python sketch in which every news item was presented in its relevance to parrots. (You know, along the lines of: "A terrible car crash in East London this morning; no parrots were injured.")
The author certainly explores elements of each interviewee's personal strengths, and it becomes obvious that Gaiman is a delight to work with, and is someone who challenges his collaborators to stretch their creative wings. But the focus on these collaborations—twenty-seven in all, running for almost three hundred pages—gets tiresome. I kept wishing that McCabe would give us a little more on the individuals he was interviewing, but of course that's not the point of this book.
As it stands, anyone with an abiding love for Gaiman's fiction—be it in a prose or comic book format—will find Hanging Out with the Dream King a real treasure trove of information and trivia. But I doubt the book will win either Gaiman, or his collaborators, any new fans.
Life Expectancy, by Dean Koontz,
It was a bumper year for Dean Koontz readers, with four new books published, two of them full-length novels.
The most recent novel, Life Expectancy, has Koontz doing what he does best: telling a harrowing, highly suspenseful story featuring quick-witted protagonists who face the world with a positive attitude and exchange rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of old films such as His Girl Friday. Oh, and the books usually have one major plot element—ranging from slightly to far outside of the norm—that can't be explained.
In the case of Life Expectancy, it's a prophecy made by Jimmy Tock's grandfather on his death bed. Before dying at the exact moment that Jimmy was born, in the same hospital, his grandfather comes out of a stroke-induced coma long enough to predict not only the exact details of Jimmy's birth (time born, weight, sex, a particular birth defect, etc.), but also provides the dates of five terrible days to come in his grandson's life.
Considering the accuracy of the first part of his predictions, Jimmy and his family take the rest seriously and face the approach of the first crucial day with as much planning and care as they can muster, but to no avail. The events of that day prove to be more surprising and terrible than any of them could have imagined. Over the years, each subsequent dangerous day builds on the trials of the ones before, taking the reader on a roller coaster ride full of startling twists and turns, and sometimes into such strange places that the track doesn't even seem to exist anymore.
Life Expectancy is both a dark and a joyous book, a novel that, once you start, you won't be able to put down until you're done.
The Taking, by Dean Koontz,
Regular readers of this column will know that I often espouse ebooks. Many readers are uncomfortable with what they feel aren't "real books," by which they mean ebooks lack the tactile experience that they see as part of the pleasure of reading. But I maintain that it's the words which are important—it doesn't matter how they come to us—and have friendly arguments with those friends of mine who disagree.
But the point I've probably never made is that I, too, love the tactile experience of reading a physical text. Just because I appreciate the convenience of ebooks doesn't mean I'd ever want to give up physical volumes completely, especially not when they include such lovingly crafted books as the Charnel House edition of The Taking.
I should mention that The Taking is also available in an edition from Bantam at the more reasonable price of $27. But I don't think that the Charnel House edition is overpriced, not when it's produced in a slipcased edition of 300 copies, bound in silk, each page a pleasure to the fingertips. Mind you, I couldn't possibly afford this sort of book myself and was lucky to have a copy given to me. I only mention all of this because it reminded me once again of how beautiful a book can be as a physical object, and to let those of you who are more flush know that gorgeous editions of books by some of your favorite authors are being produced under the general publishing radar. You just need to look out for them.
As for story itself…I gave a quick rundown above of what one can usually find in a Koontz novel. Now by doing so, I didn't mean to imply that he writes to any sort of a formula beyond wanting to entertain (and at times edify) his readers. The mix of humor and suspense at which Koontz excels is not at all an easy thing to pull off—one wrong move and the suspense dissolves into farce—but he seems to do so effortlessly, and the plots never go the way you might expect them to.
That said, The Taking is also a reminder that one should never attempt to pigeonhole an author.
I suppose every writer has an end-of-the-world novel in them (even if it's only that period of fatigue two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the writing when one often seems to hit a creative wall and just wants to type "And they all died. The end."). This is certainly Koontz's.
It begins with torrential downpours throughout the world, drowning deserts and mountainsides alike, then focuses in on a couple living in the small California mountain town of Black Lake. The events in Black Lake unfold like a microcosm of what is affecting the entire world as its inhabitants have to deal with flooding, strange fungal growths, and stranger creatures coming out at them from the darkness caused by a failed electrical grid and the heavy cloud cover that blocks most of the sun.
I realize the above sounds a bit like Koontz has stepped into a Cthulhu Mythos pastiche, but while some elements seem to hint at a Lovecraftian origin, we soon realize that he has given us something that's more along the lines of a traditional Western Armageddon, as can be found in the Book of Revelation, then filtered through the dark glasses of his imagination.
There's not much humor to be found herein. From the mood of shock as the book opens, through the mounting despair as things worsen, this is a dark and fascinating novel. It's not without hope—but hope certainly takes a beating—and it's full of spirit, both the human spirit with its desire to protect and prevail, and a greater spirit that we can't necessarily explain, but informs the lives of so many of us.
I'd rank this right near the top of Koontz's best novels. In fact, I'd rank it as one of the best novels, period.
Life Is Good! Lessons in Joyful Living, by Trixie Koontz,
Turns out Dean Koontz isn't the only writer in his family, as his golden retriever has just had her first book published. I mention it here not only to alert Koontz enthusiasts of its existence ("Dad," Trixie tells us, edited the book), but because it's a grand little picture book that's fun to read. And all royalties from its sale go to Canine Companions for Independence, the national organization that breeds and trains service dogs for adults and children with disabilities.
Trixie, herself, is a retired canine companion.
I had a thought as I was writing the above, that if we were to play the game of assigning animal types to people, then Koontz, as a writer, could be portrayed as a dog: he writes so often of faith, love, and loyalty, as well as espousing a fierce protective spirit to help those who can't safeguard themselves.
All good things. Just like dogs.
Robot Santa, by Dean Koontz,
The last of Koontz's 2004 titles is a collaboration with artist Phil Parks, a sequel to their earlier book Santa's Twin, and continues the misadventures of Santa's brother, Bob. The art is a real treat, bright and vibrant; the story light-hearted and fun and written in doggerel verse (a description which would probably make Trixie smile).
Oh, and just to be clear, by doggerel, I'm going with the first definition you'll find in the dictionary: "comic or burlesque, and usually loose or irregular in measure." Koontz's verses are certainly humorous, but they scan well—especially when read aloud.
Which is what you should do with this book: read it aloud to your favorite child.
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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