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September 2007
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
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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

Portable Childhoods, by Ellen Klages,
Tachyon, 2007, $14.95.

THOUGH her first novel was marketed to young readers, and many of the protagonists of her short fiction are children, Ellen Klages is really writing for adults. I love how she explains the reason for that in a recent interview in Locus. She writes about childhood because:

"I keep trying to recapture that feeling of going someplace new and not knowing what you're going to find. It's childhood—not necessarily my childhood, or anybody else's, but a sense of wonder that most people lose by the time they are adults and that for some fortunate reason I seem to have kept."
Elsewhere she likens this sense of going into the past—how everything is new when you're a child—as akin to science fiction. Traveling is particularly an adventure for a child—or at least it was when she was growing up, before the homogenization of North American culture. Everywhere you went was different and she strives to evoke "the way that, because it wasn't near home, it was alien—not scary-alien, just other."

And this sense of place as though seen for the first time is one of her greatest strengths as a writer. Her stories evoke all the senses, giving us such rich descriptions that, by the time the story is done, her settings are as familiar to us as our own backyards. It doesn't matter if the story takes place in the New Mexican desert during the Forties (as in "The Green Glass Sea," which later grew into her novel of the same title), San Francisco in the unenlightened days of the Fifties ("Time Gypsy"), or the Carnegie Library sometime in the near future ("In the House of the Seven Librarians").

But setting is only a piece of the story. Klages also has the true storyteller's gift of character and plot. You believe in her people from the first moment they appear on the page, and you can't guess where the story is going. Well, you can guess, but she invariably takes us someplace we didn't think we'd end up.

In her afterword she tells us, "And so I write about fear and wonder, and discovering who you are and where you belong," and you know what? That's really what we look for in any good story—not to mention our own lives—and she does it so well.

Klages got a late start at the writing game and her output still isn't prodigious. The one novel and stories available under her by-line favor quality over quantity. They are extraordinarily imaginative and exhilarating, with a deep underlying sense of heart.

If many of the stories in Portable Childhoods aren't already considered classics in the field, they should be. So far, I haven't been disappointed in anything she's written.

*     *     *

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Joss Whedon & Georges Jeanty,
Dark Horse Comics, 2007, $2.99 an issue.

There's an interesting thing happening in comics lately.

Now I know that there's been a long tradition of adapting TV shows and movies into ongoing comic book series: retelling stories already seen on the screen, filling in between episodes, providing prequels, or continuing the adventures of the various characters after the film or series has ended.

For instance, Fox Atomic Comics/HarperCollins recently published a trade paperback 28 Days After: The Aftermath which takes readers from the end of the 2003 film and leads them neatly into the upcoming sequel, 28 Weeks Later.

But that book, while written by Steve Niles of 30 Days of Night fame who certainly knows how to tell a story, is still someone else's vision. What's interesting is that now some original creators are turning to the comic book medium to bring us the untold stories of their characters.

So one of the executive producers of the CW show Supernatural is writing a prequel to that show in a six-issue series.

And Joss Whedon is bringing us "season eight" of his popular Buffy the Vampire Series in comic book form.

Regular readers might remember my disappointment with Nancy Holder's take on what happened after the end of the seventh season in her novel Queen of the Slayers (2006). I had a number of problems with the execution of the story, but my biggest problem with it was that it just didn't feel right.

This does.

Instead of starting with the characters staring at the giant hole in the ground that had once been the town of Sunnydale, California, Whedon jumps ahead to when they're already established in their post-season seven lives. I've only seen the first two issues as I write this column, and I don't want to offer up spoilers, so let me just say that Whedon gives us what he does best: great dialogue, surprising turns of events that make perfect sense once they happen, and fun. Big fun.

Reading these two books reminds me of the joy I felt during the first few seasons of the series with its (at the time) innovative mix of drama, humor, action, and yes, monsters. And interestingly, here, just as in the series, the worst of the monsters can be human.

This series isn't Whedon's first foray into comics—not even his first foray into the Buffy universe in comic book form. That was Slayer, a futuristic look at his iconic creation that—to the delight of diehard fans—played back into some pivotal elements of the final season of the TV series. He's also been scripting a very successful run on The Astonishing X-Men and has recently taken over Runaways on a monthly basis.

But this is the story that his fans have wanted to see: Whedon's vision of what would have happened next with Buffy and Co. Given the scope of the story as it has unfolded so far, and how much it would have cost to put this on the screen, I doubt we'd have seen on TV what Whedon's able to do here even if there had been an eighth season of Buffy broadcast.

It's worth picking up on a monthly basis, but most comic book companies are good about collecting storylines of a few issues in trade paperback format, and Dark Horse is no exception. Check your local comic book shop for details. Or even a regular book store that carries trade paperback collections.

*     *     *

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem,
Doubleday, 2007, $24.95.

I remember not long after George R. R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag (with its subtitle "A Stereophonic Long-Playing Novel") was published in 1983, that someone—an agent or an editor, I can't remember which—very earnestly assured me that novels with a musical background—particularly those with a rock'n'roll background—didn't sell.

Well, The Armageddon Rag wasn't a huge bestseller, but it did well, and it certainly gained a dedicated following. As have any number of other books with a similar sensibility.

I know that I like them. Maybe it's because I've been a music junkie since the age of twelve. I can't imagine life without music, so why should books ignore it? And unlike a rock'n'roll movie where this terrific band has to show their actual chops for the story to be believable (the prose equivalent would be a book about a great poet; you'd have to provide the real deal in whatever poetry you put in your character's mouth), we can't hear the fictional band. So long as authors do their job well, we'll believe in the musicians.

Of course an author actually has to know something about music to pull that off, but Jonathan Lethem has that covered. I don't know if he's ever played in a band, but his nonfiction writing about music has authenticity. His piece on Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone comes immediately to mind. It's the kind of writing that makes you want to get up and put an album on. That's what the fictional book needs to do, although unfortunately, there's no album to turn to as our enthusiasm for the material rises.

All of this is to say that Lethem's done a terrific job in his new novel, describing the social workings and music of a young L.A. band that's trying to get off the ground.

As usual, I don't like to give too much away, but I think I can safely tell you that this isn't the usual rags-to-riches (and occasionally back-to-rags) tale that is often the case with this sort of a story. Instead, the music, and the scene around it, is a backdrop to a fascinating cast of characters—interacting, loving, messing up…in other words, carrying on the way any group dynamic does.

Sure, I wanted to hear the music. But I could imagine it well enough (that's what a reader's imagination is for, after all). And I was absolutely captivated with pretty much everything in this book—the good bits, as well as the bits where you wanted to just shake the characters. It's sexy and funny, and brimming with drama.

And satire that isn't really mean-spirited but certainly spot-on. Like the Complaint Line, where bassist Lucinda works. People can call up to…well, just complain about whatever they want. (It's a kind of askew art installation, though the callers don't know that.) Or the masturbation boutique where drummer Denise works. (I don't think I need to explain that.) Or the band's first gig where they've been hired to play almost inaudibly while the dance floor is filled with people who are dancing, each listening to their own personal music device. (Another "art" project, though this one doesn't quite come off as planned.)

Lethem slips in and out of our field, but the commonality all his books hold is that they're inventive, addictive, and very good.

*     *     *

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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