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December 2005
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

How I Helped the Chicago Cubs (Finally!) Win the World Series, by Harper Scott,
Aardwolf Press, 2005, $24.95.

I REALIZE that baseball is pretty much considered the national sport of the U.S.A. and if I come out and say that I don't really care for it, half of you reading this will worry about the state of my soul while the other half will simply flip to the next section of this magazine with a muttered, "Doesn't like baseball? Why would I want to read that idiot's opinion?"

But sadly, it's true. Watching baseball is about as entertaining for me as watching paint dry. Though I should add that I loved playing the sport as a kid. I was spectacularly bad at it, but I loved it.

Nevertheless, as a spectator sport…well, the only thing that I can think of that would be more boring than watching baseball would be reading about it. So the book in hand had a big strike against it before I ever read the first page. (Notice, however, that I'm not above stealing baseball metaphors.…)

On the other hand, it's a time travel book, and I'm a sucker for that kind of story, so I was still willing to give it a try.

The cover copywriter has done such a fine job of laying out the background, that I'm simply going to quote it:

"The year is 2160. Interstellar flight is common, space stations are as busy as 21st-century airports, and extraterrestrials inhabit Earth. And the Chicago Cubs still haven't won the World Series since 1908. Fed up, two Cubs fans use a time machine to travel back to 1908, recruit (okay, kidnap) two players off the last championship Cubs team, and bring them to the future to help the Cubs finally win another World Series."
Of course, it's more complicated than that. For one thing, it turns out that there are two Earths and the pivotal game the old Cubs players are being brought to play in is the point where the Earths split and began to run in parallel time lines. For another, changing the past—just a little—isn't as easy as one might think. There are always difficulties, and our heroes run into more than their fair share of them.

And then there's always the chance that the change they make won't bring the two Earths back in line anymore, but will in fact screw things up even more.

Harper Scott (who, coincidentally, is also the narrative-voice character of the book) has a light touch with his prose, knows more about the Cubs than any person probably should, and writes screwball, bantering dialogue as though he was channeling the best of the scriptwriters for old movies like His Girl Friday. The sheer enthusiasm of his storytelling propels the reader through this book, regardless of how much they might think they don't care about baseball, or books about baseball.

Or at least it did so with this reader.

*     *     *

Velocity, by Dean Koontz,
Bantam, 2005, $27.

As in the Scott novel discussed above, the cover copywriter for Koontz's new book Velocity has provided a wonderfully succinct entry point into the story. The back cover has a facsimile of a typewritten note that simply reads:

"If you don't take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County.

"If you do take this note to the police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work.

"You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours."

Mind you, that copy writer simply lifted the note from the text of Koontz's book. The note is what bartender Billy Wiles finds on his windshield when he quits work after his shift one evening.

At first he thinks it's just a sick joke. When he shares it with Lanny Olsen, a friend of his on the local police force, Olsen thinks the same. But the next day a blond schoolteacher is found murdered and Wiles gets another note, with another ultimatum. Again, there's a deadline, with an impossible choice to be made.

Whenever I think I have Koontz figured out, he ups and surprises me—which is what I want and expect from an author. In the course of his career as well as in a book.

Here Koontz delivers a lean, mean thriller. A stripped-down exploration of the dark side of the soul, set to a pace that barely allows readers to catch their breaths. Gone, as well, are the witty repartees between characters. In fact, Wiles—while a loner like many of Koontz's protagonists—isn't particularly likable. I won't say this is an entirely bleak book, but it's not a cheerful one, either.

And it certainly changes my expectations of what I'll find in whatever he writes next. It's like the opening of Midnight (1989). The first chapter of that novel introduced Janice Capshaw with all the details and sensibilities that would lead a reader to think she's going to be one of the book's principal characters. Except by the end of the chapter, she was dead.

A mean trick, perhaps—especially since Koontz has that ability to bring a character so vividly to life in a very short time. And what it did was leave me unable to trust Koontz to keep safe other characters I'd come to care about in that and subsequent books—which might very well be the reason he did it.

Velocity explores the dark depths to which we can be pushed, if we're pushed hard enough. It's an uncomfortable feeling, especially when the reader tries to work out what he or she would do if thrust into a similar situation.

And in this weird world in which we're living, that's more likely than we might hope it would be.

Velocity isn't a novel I'm prone to reread, but this first time through, I could barely put it down.

*     *     *

A Girl Like Sugar, Emily Pohl-Weary,
McGilligan Books, 2004, Cdn$24.95.

Now, speaking of cover copywriters, sometimes they do too good a job, promising something that the book simply doesn't deliver. I'm not speaking of the tired old hyperbole that we all see through—"The next Stephen King!" or "In the Tradition of Lord of the Rings!"—so much as the more creative kind, such as what drew me into reading A Girl Like Sugar:

"Like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer directed by John Waters."
I'd have watched that. But since it never happened, I was at least happy to be able to read this. Unfortunately, the cover promise didn't pay off. Pohl-Weary's novel owes more to a teen/young twenty-something Bridget Jones's Diary than anything produced by Joss Whedon. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just not what I was led to expect (though really, I should have known better by this point in my book-reading life).

A Girl Like Sugar brings us into the life of Sugar Jones for an edgy coming-of-age story. The supernatural element is that Sugar has long conversations and sex with the ghost of her dead boyfriend while trying to sort out the mess of her life, but the strength of the book is Pohl-Weary's winning prose and the spunky (if at times world-weary) first person voice of her protagonist.

It's more mainstream than genre, but no less appealing for that, even without the ghost of John Waters's directorial hand to be found.

*     *     *

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