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Books To Look For
Strange Angels, by Lili St. Crow,
I DON'T know much about the TV show Ghost Whisperer beyond the fact that it stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as a woman who can talk to ghosts. I keep meaning to watch an episode but I never seem to get around to it, so when this book arrived for review, I thought I'd meet the character in a prose format instead. I especially liked the idea that—from the back cover description of the character being a teenager—this appeared to be a prequel to the series.
The more I read, the more I felt I should be watching the show, because the book's terrific. It has exactly the kind of characters and story I like to read, which made me think that the show is probably good, too. But somewhere along the line—as I came to realize the character's abilities didn't really match up with what I thought they were supposed to be on the TV show—I took a closer look at the outside of the book.
Maybe you've already guessed it: there's no connection whatsoever between the two. And if I'd looked more carefully at the book before I started it I would have realized that "Ghost Whisperer" should have been plastered all over the cover. In my defense, the cover model has a bit of a similar look to Hewitt's.
But while Strange Angels isn't based on a TV series, it sure would make a good one.
We know right from the start that Dru Anderson doesn't live an ordinary life. She's heading off to school where she suffers the usual discomforts of being the new kid in school, but she doesn't care. She's more concerned about the safety of her dad, because he's out hunting monsters.
The pair of them travels from town to town getting rid of various vampires, ghosts, werewolves and the occasional reanimated corpse. This time they're in the Midwest, in the middle of winter, settled in town long enough to rent a house and for Dru to go to school.
On the day when the book opens, her father's not there when Dru gets home from school. He doesn't come home at all that night. And then, when he finally does come home, he's not himself anymore.
We've seen variations on traveling monster hunters before, going back as far as the Van Helsings in Stoker's Dracula. But Strange Angels feels fresh because this time it's the kid with whom we're concerned, the one left standing after her monster-hunting father is gone and the monsters are still coming, but now they're coming for her.
St. Crow does a terrific job with the material. Dru's a likable, believable teenager: capable but not perfect; a bit sulky, but so would any kid be if they were thrust into her life. The plot's fast-paced and inventive. And there are all sorts of nice touches, like the boy Graves who squats in a shopping mall, or the way Dru finally deals with a bullying teacher.
Spiral Hunt, by Margaret Ronald,
I like the little blurb on the back of this book: "Some people have the Sight. Genevieve Scelan has the Scent."
Because, unlike the many characters we've run across in prose and film who can see into the otherworld, Scelan has a heightened sense of smell. You could say she smells into the otherworld. She can find anything, sifting through the overwhelming barrage of scents in Boston to hone in on the one thing she's looking for.
It's a handy talent for the business she's set up, finding lost things for hire. She can track almost anything, from an object gone astray to a missing person. It's not a terrifically successful business, however, and she has to pay the rent as a bike messenger. But she's happy enough and gets by until a phone call from an ex-lover makes a mess of everything.
Ronald plays with the supernatural as though it's a variation of the Irish hard men who ran mobs at the turn of the last century in places like Boston and New York City. The Irish mob had nothing like the Mafia's code of honor (which truth to tell, many believe to be a fiction, the blame for which we can lay at the feet of Mario Puzo). They had connections in many levels of city and state government and were rarely convicted for murder because they'd chop up the bodies into tiny pieces and scatter them (usually in the ocean) so that those pieces would never be found. No body meant no crime had been committed for which they could be convicted.
The Bright Brotherhood in Spiral Hunt are like the Irish mob, only secret, their dangerousness cranked up about ten-fold. You don't want to get on their radar.
Genevieve Scelan, known as the Hound (for obvious reasons: that magical sense of smell), has kept a low profile for years, staying hidden from the Bright Brotherhood since childhood. But all that changes when she sets out to help her friend. Soon, not only is she in danger, but so are her closest friends.
Ronald has done a terrific job with the Celtic mystical matter here, blending folklore with things she's made up so that it all feels whole and complete. Strong characterization combines with a plot that's fast-paced and keeps the reader guessing, and what else do you need for an entertaining summer's read?
This is one of the better books I've read based on Celtic matter and a lot of that has to do with how Ronald has tapped into the dark streak that runs as an undercurrent through much Irish folklore.
Curse of the Were-Woman, by Jason M. Burns & Christopher Provencher,
This satiric take on the whole business of werewolves has a lot going for it, even if the protagonist is unlikable. But then, he's supposed to be.
Patrick Dalton is a successful businessman, at his physical peak, with a promotion expected soon. He's also an obsessive womanizer, dating, and usually bedding, a different woman every night.
So all's going well—at least so far as he's concerned—until the night he dumps the wrong woman and she puts a curse on him: every night when the sun goes down he changes into a woman. As the witch he's made the misfortune of upsetting puts it: "The curse will only reverse itself when you truly respect and understand women. Until then, when the sky grows dark, you grow breasts."
The story switches back and forth between Dalton as a man during the day and a woman at night, living separate lives that are both complicated by the existence of the other. Some of the situations are a bit stereotypical, but this is a satire, meant to be painted in broad strokes, and it works well in that context. I do have to admit, however, that I'm not entirely sure about the Hollywood-styled ending.
Artist Christopher Provencher has a cartoony style that's well suited to the type of story Burns is telling here.
I usually don't read books with unlikable protagonists. I don't care to spend time with that kind of person in real life, so why would I want to spend my reading time with them? But this illustrated format is a shorter read than a novel, and it was just long enough to have some meat to the story but not have me spend too much time in Dalton's company.
The Dresden Files: Storm Front Vol. 1, The Gathering Storm, by Mark Powers & Ardian Syaf,
One of the best things about Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series (beyond the fun conceit of there being a wizard with his own P.I.-type business working in a version of contemporary Chicago) is that Butcher gets the whole idea of how to use magic: it takes effort to use, and there's a price for every use. I'm surprised at how many writers don't seem to understand that.
The other thing is that Butcher doesn't forget about the sense of wonder that magic should bring. Magical beings and the use of spells are not common, everyday occurrences, so their appearance in a story should have some impact beyond simply moving the plot ahead.
I also like how the character of Harry Dresden is a take-off on the traditional, down-and-out hard-boiled detective, except he's dealing with magical problems—sometimes brought to him by clients, and sometimes they arise through his being an advisor on things supernatural for the Chicago Police Department. The mundane aspects of his life give the magical elements an added zing.
It's been a while since I read the prose version of Storm Front, so I can't tell you exactly how closely Mark Powers's adaptation to comic book format sticks to the original story. But it certainly seems to strike all the right chords of my memory.
It opens with the Chicago police calling Dresden in to help with a particularly gruesome double murder. At the same time he's working a missing person case. Naturally, in the best P.I. tradition, the two cases end up colliding, and of course there are nasty people trying to keep him from investigating, but other than that, the book's a far cry from the usual mystery novel.
For one thing, his "snitch" is a faery. For another, one of the people he has to interview in the course of his investigation is a vampire. And then there's the talking skull he keeps in an alchemist's lab in his basement.
The comic adaptation doesn't cover the whole novel—it will continue in further volumes—but this particular book ends at a good spot for us to catch our breath. There's also a prose introduction by Jim Butcher, plus a prequel chapter featuring a younger Dresden adapted from Butcher's short story "Restoration."
Adrian Syaf's art is very much in the tradition of contemporary comic art: a little slick, dramatic where it needs to be, with a good narrative flow.
If you've already read all the books, and watched the TV series (available on DVD in case you missed it when it aired), here's a new format to enjoy until the next book is published. And if you don't have any familiarity with the character, this is as good a place as any to see what he's all about.
The Enchantment Emporium, by Tanya Huff,
Urban fantasy as a genre might seem like a fresh new thing, but it's actually been around for some time now. By "urban fantasy" I mean the sort of book that has a contemporary, usually urban, setting, and owes as much of a tip of the hat to the mystery and romance genres as it does fantasy. The protagonist (or their love interest) has some supernatural origin (they're a vampire, werewolf, witch, gargoyle, etc.). Sometimes their existence is hidden from society; sometimes they've "come out" and are quite established when the story starts. The books are invariably sexy and fast-paced, and the protagonist usually has a distinctive narrative voice, a messed-up love life, and is tougher than her opponents assume she is. (Oh yes, the protagonist is usually a woman.)
An author who's been doing this long before urban fantasy was ever considered a viable sub-genre is Tanya Huff. Her Blood books, pairing a female private eye with a vampire who's a romance novelist, first saw print in the early 1990s and went on to become a TV series under the name Blood Ties. Her Keeper's Chronicles features a witch who runs a bed & breakfast, with a side job of keeping the fabric of the universe intact. The Smoke and Shadows series is a spin-off from the Blood series, set in the world of syndicated television.
What always makes Huff's work so engaging is her characters. At the start of every book, the reader feels as though they're getting together with a group of old friends, and The Enchantment Emporium is no exception. Actually, there are a lot of characters at the beginning of this new book, but stick with it. It doesn't take too long to get them all sorted out.
Most of our new friends this time out are part of the extended Gale family. The easiest way to describe them is that they're witches. They can change the world with charms and spells, and they prefer to keep this ability secret and to themselves. But within the family, there are no secrets, something that our protagonist Alysha Gale can find a bit wearying.
Having just lost her job in Toronto, she jumps at the chance of going to Calgary to look into the mysterious disappearance of her grandmother because it will take her far from the scrutiny and endless commentary of the family. But things are complicated in Calgary.
It turns out the junk shop she inherited there—the emporium of the book's title—services Calgary's fey community and comes with a leprechaun assistant who is anything but diminutive. Clues as to Gran's disappearance are nonexistent, but the more pressing concern is the otherworldly trouble that appears to be coming to the city, starting with a flight of dragons who find it amusing to set various buildings on fire. Then there's the matter of a sorcerer, as well as a persistent—and attractive—reporter with a great interest in the Gale family.
By the time Alysha realizes she's in over her head and should probably call in the big guns—the Gale Aunties—it might well be too late.
The Enchanted Emporium is a delight from start to finish—by turns humorous, romantic (when it's not downright lusty), and dramatic. Huff finds a way to blend all the disparate threads into an engaging whole, which is no easy task.
So far, this is easily one of my favorite books of the year.
Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs, by Gregory L. Reece,
Behind the wonderfully garish cover of this non-fiction book is a fascinating exploration of not only Bigfoot, cave people, and brainwaves from outer space (to name a few of the subjects), but also the people who are obsessed with the same.
Reece has done a considerable amount of research, often in the field, and writes with an affectionate and very readable prose style that will offer his book a larger audience than it might otherwise have. You don't have to be a believer to appreciate the characters Reece meets and describes on his quest to find out more about hollow earth theories, sasquatches, Tesla technology, and the like.
If you enjoy some of the eccentrics you're likely to meet in novels by Tim Powers or James Blaylock, then this examination of real-life characters will undoubtedly appeal to you.
Johnny Hiro, by Fred Chao,
My favorite kind of illustrated story is the one in which both the art and writing is done by the same person.
Now I don't mean to belittle collaborations. Most artistic expression is collaborative, especially in the comic book field. You have writers, artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers all working on the same story, and they can produce wonderful results. But the final product doesn't have the same singular vision as something created by one person.
If you need some examples, consider the work of Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise and Echo) and Jeff Smith (Bone and Rasl). I doubt either's work would be nearly as compelling with the input of anyone else (beyond, of course, inspiration and editing).
And now I can add Fred Chao to that list.
Johnny Hiro opens with the titular hero rescuing his girlfriend from the Japanese monster Gozadilla (I guess there were copyright issues with using the more familiar Godzilla), and in the process, saving New York City. He soon learns that rampaging monsters aren't a new thing, but large cities have included the cleanup and cover-up of such attacks in their fiscal budgets so that no one ever has to know.
I liked that. I also like how Hiro and his girlfriend are sworn to silence by Mayor Bloomberg, so they end up getting sued by their landlord for the huge hole that Gozadilla tore in their apartment wall because they can't tell the truth.
The story goes like that—large preposterous big plot wham-bang elements playing against truly wonderful low-key real-life characterizations of Hiro, his girlfriend, and the other regulars we get to meet as we read the book.
(I should add here that Bloomberg isn't the only real person who appears in these pages. Cameos include everyone from Coolio and Gwen Stefani to Judge Judy, all in character and used to great effect).
Chao works in black & white, producing clean lines with a wonderful narrative flow between panels and from page to page. He's equally as adept at exaggerated cartoon facial expressions and outlandish chase scenes as he is with realistically detailed cityscapes, apartment interiors, and the glimpses we get of the restaurant where Hiro works as a busboy.
I'd never heard of Chao before picking up this book in a local shop, but I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for his work in the future.
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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