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Books To Look For
The Midnight Road, by Tom Piccirilli,
YOU'D think that dying was the worst thing that could happen to you. For Child Protection Services investigator Flynn, that's only the start of his misery.
It begins with an investigation out in the boonies during a big winter storm. As he rescues a young girl and her mentally challenged brother from a large and wealthy estate, he's almost killed by the children's mother. They make their escape, but the mother follows in her car and runs him off the road into a lake. The children get out before the car plunges into the frigid water, but Flynn's not so lucky.
He's twenty-eight minutes in the water, flash frozen, before he's resuscitated. According to the press, he's the Miracle Man, but everything's the same as it was before except that now his life starts to spiral completely out of his control. Someone wants to kill him. The authorities are trying to pin a number of murders on him. Oh, and he's being haunted by the ghost of a dead bulldog named Zero who talks to him in his own voice.
Piccirilli obviously shares my own love for noir. This is a hardboiled mystery, and while it bucks the tradition in any number of good ways, the meat is here: the darkness at the heart of the story, the main character's weary worldview, and the tragic circumstances of his personal history that make him the man he is.
To spice it up, Piccirilli throws in a handful of ghosts, though I will admit that the reality of their presence relies on how the reader comes to the book. If you lean toward fantasy, you'll take them at face value. If your reading runs more to the mainstream, it's possible that these ghosts are only figments of Flynn's imagination.
Piccirilli never comes down with a definite take on what they are, but I didn't mind. I like the uneasy ambiguity—the fact that, though we're rooting for Flynn, he could well be more damaged than he cares to admit. He certainly makes more wrong choices than would someone in full control of his senses.
On the other hand, how many people have died and come back? Who knows what that would do to you?
But no matter what you decide as you read, what can't be denied is that over the years Piccirilli has developed into a powerful voice. He writes with strong, lean prose. He understands the impact that our pasts have upon our present selves. And he cares deeply for his characters, which in turn makes us care for them, too.
This is as good as—no, better than—any number of the big name hardcovers that make the bestseller lists. Do yourself a favor and find out why.
The Servants, by Michael Marshall Smith,
I think of Michael Marshall Smith as the quintessential sf writer (yes, I know he writes thrillers as Michael Marshall, but I'm slow and haven't caught up with those books yet), so I was surprised to find him penning this quiet, tender, and deeply personal story of an eleven-year-old boy's coming of age in a decidedly mainstream setting.
Let me quickly note that when I say "deeply personal," I'm referring to how the story relates to the characters. I have no idea how, or even if, this fits into Smith's own history.
And I also feel I need to add that this is an adult book about an eleven-year-old, not a book aimed at that general age group.
It's winter in Brighton, England, a place where Mark and his parents used to holiday. His mother would shop in the little stores, they'd wander along the boardwalk, they'd have Chinese take-out…all in all, a pleasant break from their lives in London.
Now Mark and his mother have moved to Brighton, along with her new husband, David. Mark resents his stepfather. His mother seems to be sick a lot and David doesn't appear to be doing anything to help except—so far as Mark is concerned—do everything wrong.
Mark takes refuge in trying to master jumps on his skateboard. It's lonely out on the cold beachfront, and he's bruised from head to toe from his falls off the board, but it still seems better than spending any time in the miserable house to which David has brought them, and where Mark's mother seems to get sicker each day.
Then Mark meets the old lady who lives in the basement apartment of the house and he discovers that the past isn't quite so distant as one might assume.
Smith has done a terrific job with this book, perfectly capturing the confused and sometimes belligerent mindset of his young protagonist while still keeping him likable. It helps that the reader clues in long before Mark about what's happening to his mother—it allows us to feel more sympathy for him—but that doesn't make it any happier a situation.
I've been to Brighton in the off-season and Smith has also done a fine job of bringing the cold and damp setting to life—and he always shows it through the eleven-year-old Mark's eyes, which keeps the character (and therefore, the readers) grounded in the story when the fantastical elements begin to be revealed.
They were one of my favorite parts of the book. I've read a lot of fiction dealing with the supernatural, or with fantastical elements, and while I appreciate the curiosity and inventiveness that writers can bring to them, what I'm most interested in, in a story such as this, is how an encounter with them affect and change ordinary people. When the world shifts underfoot, we can't see it the same way anymore, no matter how much we might want to, and Smith does a perfect job of utilizing this to tell Mark's story.
The Servants is an absolute delight of a book—not because it's so cheerful. With its subject matter, that would be a real trick to pull off. No, the delight is in how beautifully Smith handles every aspect of this poignant and mysterious story.
God Save the Queen, by Mike Carey & John Bolton,
Usually when practitioners in the comic medium take a stab at the fantasy field, they gravitate to Howardesque barbarians, or very simplified takes on Tolkienesque epic fantasy (with lots of swordplay and magic being cast around). While there's nothing particularly wrong with that, it's still refreshing to find a graphic novel that takes its cue from something a bit more contemporary. But while God Save the Queen certainly owes a tip of the hat to the edgy takes on fairy by prose authors such as Holly Black, in the end, it delivers its own variation, with a fresh voice.
Linda is one of those surly, rebelling-for-the-sake-of-rebelling characters that you just want to shake some sense into (though, of course, we never would in our current PC landscape). She treats everyone around her with a cavalier disregard for their well-being—both emotional and physical. So it's no surprise that she ends up leaving a London dance club with an amoral group of partiers who just happen to be fairies.
I'm not going to tell you why they befriend her, but when she learns what they are, she also learns that she's half fairy herself and caught smack dab in the middle of a power struggle in the fairy court. The book's title doesn't refer to the Queen of England, but rather to the queen of that court—a rather miserable excuse for a sentient being.
(I've noticed these days that fairy queens seem to have taken the place of wicked stepparents as this sort of story is updated for a contemporary audience. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a backlash against the young and the beautiful who reign from the covers of the weekly glossy "news" magazines and supermarket tabloids. But I digress.…)
The title also wakes—for those old enough to remember—a resonance with the punk movement—though it calls up the hedonistic end of it as championed by the Sex Pistols, rather than the more socially and politically aware side which took its anthems from groups like the Clash.
Mike Carey (you might know him from his run on Hellblazer, or his current work on the terrific series Crossing Midnight) has turned in a powerful story. His fairies are the kind that explain why country folk used to do everything they could to avoid their attention—they're capricious, dark, self-centered, and dangerous beings. His characters aren't what you find in most fantasy books, either. But while not always likable, and often driven by baser designs than one might expect from heroes, they're still fascinating.
Do they come through in the end and do the right thing? I'll let you find out for yourselves.
John Bolton's a wonderful artist. What he lacks in storytelling flow (the almost cinematic movement from panel to panel in which some artists excel), he more than makes up for in the veracity and painterly merit of his individual panels. He's equally at ease depicting beautiful characters and the grotesque—which is lucky, since Carey gives him a good workout with both.
Ironside, by Holly Black,
And speaking of Holly Black, in her new novel she returns to the characters of Tithe and (to a lesser degree) Valiant.
I'm not going to lie to you. Yes, you can read this book on its own and it will be a highly enjoyable experience. But familiarity with the other two books, in particular Tithe, will definitely make it a richer experience.
Ironside. It's what faerie call New York City and the vast sprawl of cityscape that surrounds it. And it's where Kaye lives—the pixie we met in Tithe who was switched at birth with a human girl and grew up thinking she was human until encounters with the courts of faerie showed her the truth.
Like Linda in God Save the Queen, Kaye has a bit of a mouth on her, but the difference is, she cares about her friends and family. She may make a terrible mess of their lives, but it's not because she wants to. It's only because when she tries to do the right thing, she often doesn't have all the necessary information at hand to make a sensible decision, and so makes things worse.
Ironside involves more warring courts of faerie—something that, even in a contemporary setting, is starting to get old these days—but I'll forgive Black for that this one last time because she has a vigorous writing style, great dialogue, and a cast of genuinely likable characters that you can't abandon once you've started reading a book of hers.
And for those of you who have followed these characters through the earlier pair of books, there's a satisfying sense of closure for those who survive the troubles that arise for them in the course of this story.
Neptune Noir, edited by Rob Thomas,
This is my long column of the year, so I think there's space for something from a little further afield. It has nothing to do with our genre except for the fact that many of the readers of SF and fantasy are drawn to the television series discussed in the essays collected here.
But I will be brief.
If you've been Jonesing for something to replace your Buffy the Vampire Slayer fixation, then you should be tuning in to Veronica Mars on Tuesday nights. No, there aren't any vampires or demons, and Mars isn't the Chosen One to fight them, but it's smartly written, with great dialogue, a likable cast, and season arcs that give a satisfying closure (with just a little tease to get you back the next year). The third season's just ending as I write this, but the first two are readily available on DVD.
Don't be put off by the idea of a high school student moonlighting as a private eye. Remember, you bought into a high school student fighting vampires, and like Buffy, this show is so much more than what it appears to be from a quick glance. And while I highly doubt it was deliberately done, I see parallels between the two shows' characters:
Wallace is Xander, Mac is Willow, Weevil is Spike, Veronica's dad is Giles, Logan is Angel. And Veronica is Buffy, of course.
But while this show wouldn't exist if Buffy hadn't come along first—walking that perfect tightrope between humor and drama, with a strong young female lead and season-long story arcs that actually come to a conclusion—in the end, Veronica Mars retains its own character and style. It also appeals to folks who didn't like the fantastical elements of Buffy—you know, the ones who didn't get it like we did.
The book in hand was edited by the show's creator, Rob Thomas, and features essays by people with too much time on their hands, but I like it when people write about their enthusiasms. And I particularly enjoyed Thomas's introduction, where he outlines how the show came to be, and his sometimes bemused short intros to each essay.
Don't come to this book if you haven't watched the show. If you have, pick it up only if this sort of minutiae appeals to you. But if it does, you'll have a great time in its pages.
Grease Monkey, by Tim Eldred,
I used to get a real kick out of reading some of the old SF books by Heinlein, Doc Smith, Andre Norton, Clifford D. Simak, and other masters of the genre. I know that they were quite capable of writing serious books, but I remember them for their space adventures and the sheer fun it was to read their books. I miss that sort of story—and no, I'm not waxing nostalgic for my youth. I didn't read SF at that so-called perfect age of fifteen. I was reading mysteries and fantasies then. I stumbled into SF (which I was sure I wouldn't like) in my twenties, through Andre Norton's Huon of the Horn. Or rather, it was while looking for more of her books after reading Huon of the Horn (since that high fantasy book, it turned out, was an anomaly set against the sorts of stories she normally told).
It turns out that I did like SF, though I'll admit to being a little unsure I'd like Tim Eldred's Grease Monkey when I was first handed a copy of it. It's a hardcover collection of single-issue comic books that Eldred has been publishing since the early '90s. I figured, if it was any good, surely I would have heard about it before now? Turns out it was a failing on the part of my local comic shop for not carrying those single issues, because Grease Monkey is serious fun.
It's part Carl Barks (of Donald Duck fame—you know, back when it was good), part Star Trek (says the guy who only knows it from the outside, since I've yet to watch an episode), part manga (without the big eyes), and entirely entertaining.
Robin Plotnik is a junior spacecraft mechanic whose assignment, when he arrives on the homeworld flagship, is as a fighter maintenance assistant to Chief Mechanic Mac Gimbensky—a gorilla who, Plotnik is told, ate his last assistant. Gimbensky is a cantankerous chief, seemingly very capable of having done just that, and naturally Plotnik immediately gets into his bad books.
It's not an auspicious start.
But things aren't always what they seem, and after a few bumps on that first day, the two become friends, maintaining the fighter craft for the all-women Barbarian Squadron while trying to stay ahead of the trials and tribulations any group of beings will run into when they're all confined to a closed "world" such as the flagship.
What makes this such an entertaining book is Eldred's attention to detail. The characters are fully realized, but so is the flagship and the historical background of what put men and gorillas together into space. Much of the book is fun space opera, and following the complications of the various characters' lives, but for all the laughs, there's also a serious thread underlying the fun.
The art—particularly after page 79—is all clean lines, expressive expression, detailed space craft mechanics, and great storytelling.
Grease Monkey is a perfect all-ages story. Kids will enjoy the fun and adventure, while adults will pick up on the inside jokes and satire.
Emshwiller: Infinity x Two, by Luis Ortiz,
Though readers of the pulps might not have realized it, the face of science fiction to which they gravitated in the fifties was greatly influenced by the work of Ed Emshwiller. He produced some 700 covers during that period, and who knows how many interior illustrations. His art was always inventive, wonderfully designed and executed, and though it might seem a little quaint and old-fashioned as we look back on it today, there's no denying the excitement it brought to the newsstands in its time.
Luis Ortiz's previous book was about the life and art of Lee Brown Coye, and this book is just as strong an entry into the history of early science fiction art. From the text, it's obvious Ortiz's research was just as exhaustive for this as it was for that earlier book. He writes with the grace and skill that makes you want to go out and track down Emshwiller's films and the art that isn't reproduced in the book.
But the art that is reproduced here is a terrific collection of old pulp covers and interiors, as well as stills from Emshwiller's films, archival photographs, and early art samples. It also features a sweet introduction by Emshwiller's widow, Carol (a fine fiction writer herself), and a forward by Alex Eisenstein, a collector of Emshwiller's art.
I know the audience for this sort of book is small, but if you have any interest in our field's visual history, this book, or the one on Coye, would be a terrific place to start.
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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