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Books To Look For
The Midnight Mayor, by Kate Griffin,
I'M DONE complaining about series books—mostly because eighty percent of the books that show up in my post office box now are either part of a series, or they're prequels and sequels. If I don't read them, what am I going to review? Books—especially genre books—don't appear to come as standalone titles anymore. So I'm fighting a losing battle, and finding it very hard to review titles that don't have brothers and sisters or cousins sitting somewhere nearby on the bookshelf.
My problem with series books isn't without reason, though to be fair, a good book is a good book, regardless of where it fits into a writer's body of work. What I don't like are the series books in which you have to be following along from the first book or you can't understand the story. Or the ones that conveniently end with a cliffhanger so that you'll have to pick up the next one to see what happens.
Let me just say to the writers of such books that if you can't give your readers a satisfying story in one volume, you should be looking for another job, because you're not doing this one properly. I don't care who you are. No story you write is so big and so important that it needs multiple volumes in which to be told.
That doesn't mean there can't be an overall arc connecting the books—a bigger story of which each volume is a self-contained part. Or that there can't be character growth so that when certain things happen in one volume, they're reflected in the characters' lives in subsequent ones. However, each book should stand on its own. A reader should be able to pick up any title in a series and enjoy it. Having missed earlier volumes, they might not get the full resonance, but they should be able to follow the story readily and be given a satisfying conclusion.
Of course it doesn't matter what I say. The books are going to continue to come out as they do and if I'm going to keep doing this column, I'll have to read a selection of them. But I'm no longer going to avoid reading a book as I've done in the past, just because I missed the earlier titles in the series.
If I really like it, I might go back and read older titles, but I won't feel obliged to do so. Nor will I feel obliged to read subsequent ones.
All of which brings us to Kate Griffin's The Midnight Mayor. I was some thirty or so pages in before I realized that it's the second book in a series, the first being A Madness of Angels. I didn't have the time or energy—or frankly the interest—to track the first book down. As I mentioned above, I didn't see why I should have to read 500 pages of some previous book just to be able to read the one I had in hand.
I could have set it aside, but this is when I realized what I've been talking about above: if I'm going to continue reviewing genre books—and have a wide array of titles from which to choose—I just have to bite the bullet and see how I make out coming late to the party.
In this case the most confusing element was how the narrator's designation kept switching from "I" to "we." But Griffin doled out the information in a timely fashion and soon I understood that said narrator, Matthew Swift, had died in the previous book, only to be resurrected by something called the electric blue angels. Now Swift and the angels share his body, and share the telling of this story.
The plot is fairly simple. Something has destroyed the wards that protect the city of London from magical attack (the Tower ravens have been slain, the London wall is defiled with graffiti, the London Stone has been destroyed). The same unknown entity has killed the Midnight Mayor of the city, the one who oversees the magical side of London—the night side. But before the Mayor dies, he chooses Swift to replace him, and this is where Swift's troubles really begin.
I love a lot of things about this book. There's the vigor of the prose. Even when Swift/the angels fall into a stream-of-consciousness style of discourse, the narration has meat and vitality, and it sings. Griffin's updating of magic is simply brilliant and I doubt you'll ever consider things like graffiti and street signs and street sweeping trucks the same way again. And while there are more quirky ideas and characters in each chapter than you'll find in most books, Griffin keeps a firm hand on them and ties them all together into a satisfying conclusion. There were times when I didn't know what was going on, but that was part of my enjoyment of the book, because I had to tie it all up into some kind of coherence in my own mind,
Do you need to read the first book? I didn't. But if I were to come across it, I probably would. But not to understand more about the characters and setting of The Midnight Mayor. Rather, it's because Griffin has a unique voice, and she knows how to tell a story.
Blockade Billy, by Stephen King,
I don't know much about baseball. Or at least I don't follow it. I played ball as a kid, but mostly I enjoyed taking turns hitting fly balls out in a field with friends, or the Zen quality of simply throwing a ball back and forth. Actual organized games like those the Little League put together didn't interest me, and I was even less interested in watching pro teams play.
So I might be considered the wrong audience for this book. At the very least, King, if he were to read this, might wonder why the heck I'm reviewing it.
But the thing about a good writer is that they can make any subject interesting, and that's certainly the case in the novella "Blockade Billy." What I liked most was the voice of the narrator, an old man in a nursing home who, when he was a young man, was involved with the sport at a professional level. Not as a player, but as a third base coach.
I'm not sure what a third base coach actually does, but like many of the insider elements of the story, it didn't matter. I understood the people, and that's more important.
I won't tell you much about the plot, because "Blockade Billy" hinges around one pivotal piece of information, and King's slow build-up is the way for you to discover it, rather than my inadvertently giving it away while trying to dance around the plot elements.
Cemetery Dance Publications originally published "Blockade Billy" as a standalone story. Here, it's paired with "Morality," a short story that first appeared in Esquire. Again, I don't want to give too much away, so let me simply say that "Morality" is one of those cases where King eschews the graphic—or even the gross—and delivers a story all the more disturbing.
It's about choices. Choices being offered, and the inevitable result whether one accepts the offer or doesn't.
The stories are very different, but they're both excellent so long as you like King in character-development mode, as opposed to sturm und drang.
What Once Were Miracles Are Now Children's Toys, by Ira Nayman,
Ira Nayman, the author of one of my favorite books of 2008 (Alternative Reality Ain't What It Used to Be) is back with a new collection of futuristic news stories from alternate realities. Now, the stories are all made up, but regardless, they still have the same appeal as that of weird news stories you can find in current media. That's because Nayman uses the tools of science fiction to hypothesize reasonably from his initial, sometimes absurd, news item, and—this is key—he presents the story with conviction.
Take the title story in which we have researchers recreating mammoth DNA with ninety-two percent accuracy, then using what they've mapped to fertilize ordinary elephant's eggs. They create perfect mammoths, except for one problem: they're not much bigger than a house cat. So the company switches gears and markets them as pets, which goes well except while the tiny cute mammoths have none of the stature of their ancestors, they do have all of the instincts. The creatures are skittish and tend to use their long tusks to gore anything that moves in their vicinity.
There are dozens of these. They start with science fictional tropes, then carry through to the inevitable end of the story—usually with hilarious results. But the "reporting" is played straight, which is probably why it works as well as it does.
Not for everybody, I suppose—humor's a pretty subjective thing—but I get a real kick out of these books.
Jack: Secret Circles, by F. Paul Wilson,
I have to admit that I've gotten a little worn out from all the books featuring Repairman Jack as an adult, as well as the convoluted "Secret History of the World" that Wilson has developed over a few dozen books and even more short stories. (But if you're curious about a time line, there's one to be found at the back of this book.)
Jack as a teenager is more interesting because firstly, there isn't all the baggage of so many of the previous stories, and secondly, it's just fun watching how a mostly normal boy evolves into the secretive and capable adult who lives off the grid the way Repairman Jack does.
This time out, Jack and his best friend Weezie are still trying to make sense of the mysterious pyramid they discovered in the Jersey Pine Barrens. They also haven't given up cracking the secret of the globe-spanning Ancient Septimus Fraternal Order, which has a lodge in their hometown—and a connection to the pyramid that the pair have yet to figure out.
But of more immediate concern is the disappearance of five-year-old Cody Bockman, the sightings of a mysterious shadowy creature that might be the Jersey Devil, and a more mundane, but no less awful, case of domestic abuse that Jack is determined to end.
Young Jack's first foray into "repairing" the latter problem gives us insight into how the older Jack came to acquire his planning skills, but it also presents Jack with a lesson in interpersonal relationships that he hadn't considered.
But it's not all dark and dramatic. There's a conclusion of slam-bam action and we also get to see Jack's first interest in girls his age other than Weezie. So far the series is a winner.
Hush, Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick,
Hush, Hush starts well: pretty stunning cover (an angel with broken wings falling in a cloud of feathers) and a fascinating snippet of prologue set in 1565 (more fallen angels, oaths of fealty, lots of promise of drama and intrigue). But after those few pages we switch to a high school in present-day Maine and all the interesting elements seem to vanish, replaced instead with the first person voice of the teenage narrator (Nora) and her introduction to her new lab partner, bad boy Patch.
From this point on the book seems long on mood (mystery, the possibility of danger that never quite manifests) and short on actual narrative substance until we near the end.
It's certainly well written otherwise. I liked the dialogue, and I liked Nora's narrative voice, her asides and descriptions. I just wished more were happening, that Nora as a character was a bit more consistent, and that Patch wasn't quite so predictable a "good" bad boy.
When the promise of the prologue finally makes itself felt, everything gels and the narrative picks up. At the end of the book, I couldn't decide if Fitzpatrick was simply setting up a slow burn of a story to introduce what promises to be a series, or if she's a very talented writer who's got all the bits and pieces down but still needs some more practice in terms of driving an overall narrative arc at novel length.
But if I was a little underwhelmed by the story itself, I was quite taken with the fresh appeal of Fitzpatrick's prose and the whole concept of her fallen angels. Enough so that I'll try the next book, with the hope that she'll delve as deeply into her mythology as she does the emotional states of her young protagonists.
Instructions, by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess,
Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess have been working together for quite some time now. They're given us a couple outstanding issues of The Sandman comic, the delightful Stardust, and most recently Blueberry Girl, which is about as charming a picture book as one might hope to find.
Instructions is different from all of the above, though closest to Blueberry Girl. The original poem has been around for a while, appearing in various Gaiman collections. Standing on its own without the benefit of accompanying art, it remains one of those pure gems of verse, especially to those of us who appreciate fairy and folk tales.
"Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before…" is how it opens, and from there this little book runs through a whole series of instructions on how to survive, and even prosper from, a sojourn in the fairy realms. The narrative voice takes us into the dark wood and back out again, and I've no doubt that if you follow the instructions—if only in a dream—you will have a closer understanding of wonder, and a deeper appreciation for both its simple nature and the inexplicable vastness which it can encompass.
Adding art to such a perfect little poem was a chancy thing—unless your choice of artist happened to be Charles Vess. He's one of only a small handful of artists who have mastered the lessons of the children's book illustrators from the turn of the last century, and then not been afraid to put his or her own respectful spin on the medium. Vess's sense of design, his linework and color washes, are exquisite, but the real genius was making the central figure either a foxy cat, or perhaps a catlike fox. Walking upright with a bushy tail and dressed in adventurer's clothes, the figure is both Everyman (or woman) as well as the mysterious fey character that peoples so many stories from the fairy tale and folk traditions.
Instructions would make a terrific introduction to the world of fairy tales for a young reader—the child who might then grow into the older sort of a reader who still retains enough of a sense of wonder to also appreciate the book's delights.
Oh, and an aside: it wasn't until I was writing this review that I realized it's written in second person point-of-view, an affectation for which I normally don't care. I never even noticed, and going back to look at the poem again, it still doesn't trouble me. Nicely done, Mr. Gaiman.
On the Odd Hours by Eric Liberge, NBM/ComicsLit, 2010, $14.95.
Comics, like TV, have long been a serial medium. I suppose there's something to be said for an audience's familiarity with the characters—it certainly makes the "shock" episodes, such as a character's death, more poignant. At least it would, if they didn't keep bringing the characters back after they've "died."
I've read comics and watched TV all my life, but I think my values in terms of story come more from prose fiction—at least from how stories were presented in my formative years with a beginning, middle, and end. (And now I'm coming perilously close to starting to talk about how when I was young we had to walk ten miles to school every morning, or to quote Monty Python, how we had to get up half an hour before we went to bed, eat cold gravel for breakfast, and pay the mill owner for the right to go to work. But I digress.)
So maybe that's why when it comes to comics, I find that often it's the standalone issues, miniseries, and graphic novels that have the most impact. Take the book in hand, On the Odd Hours.
It's part of a series of graphic novels commissioned by the Musée du Louvre in which prominent artists create a story that relates to the museum. Previously published books were Glacial Period by Nicholas De Crecy and Museum Vaults by Marc-Antoine Mathieu, both of them providing very different takes on the Paris landmark. In his book, Eric Liberge take us on a fantastical journey.
There are definitely shades of the Night at the Museum movies in On the Odd Hours, but Liberge doesn't play it for laughs. He doesn't even play it for whimsy (although there is something charming about the protagonist explaining that he should have the job of night watchman because the Mona Lisa winked at him). Instead, the book is a more surrealistic view of the concept, which is apropos, perhaps, considering that the most important center of the movement was Paris.
Briefly, On the Odd Hours supposes that there's been a long history in the Louvre (and possibly other museums, as well) of night watchmen who, though deaf and mute, can still "hear" the works of art under their protection during the odd hours of the night (one A.M., three A.M., five A.M., etc.). Through their empathy and certain rituals they are able to help the art release its pent-up emotions. Left unattended, the artworks can become mobile and create havoc, not only in the museum, but outside of it as well, should they escape.
We discover all of this through the point of view of a newly hired watchman, Bastien, a young, punkish deaf mute with a chip on his shoulder. He's possibly not the best successor for the current night watchman, but he's the best candidate so far and, with the death of the man teaching Bastien the job, the only one.
Unfortunately, his belligerence has already put Bastien at odds with the museum officials, and they lock him out. To prove his worth for the job, Bastien decides to break in and show what will happen if he isn't given the job.
Liberge has done a terrific job here. I like how he shows the signing for the deaf dialogue of the characters, the inventiveness of his plotting, and the beauty of his art. But he hasn't been well served by his publishers. While the dialogue and panel captions feel a little flat (due no doubt to them having been translated), at least the facial expressions and body language of the characters show some nuance. But the worst part is the size of the book. It only measures six by nine inches, which makes the art feel too small for the panoramic scenes, and downright claustrophobic for the more intimate ones. It also makes the dialogue and captions difficult to read since with the shrinking of the pages the typeface becomes very tiny indeed. Or maybe I just need new glasses.
To Liberge's credit, he overcomes these limitations with the sheer force of his storytelling and art. But I'd really like to see the full-size publication as I assume it originally appeared in France, where their graphic novels are usually magazine-sized.
Just to bring us back to what I was discussing at the beginning of this column, I did a quick count of the books discussed in this installment. Of the seven titles, five are part of a series. Not quite eighty percent, but it's still a significant amount.
But as I said, I'm going to do my best not to complain about it anymore.
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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