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Books To Look For
Among Others, by Jo Walton,
A FEW columns ago I was talking about how Brian Froud draws his fairies from life. Whatever reservations you might have with that statement—and I've never experienced what he has myself, so I've got a bunch—I think Jo Walton's new novel does a tremendous job of describing what it would be like to experience life as Froud does.
The fairies in Among Others are capricious, manipulative, playful, barely able to communicate, glow as lights as often as take recognizable forms, and they're scarcely there—by which I mean they are very hard to find and see (and they tend to ignore you even when you do find them).
Now, "novel" might not be the best term for this book. It's presented as a series of journal entries by Mor, a precocious fifteen-year-old Welsh girl who has been sent away to boarding school after her twin sister died. Mor has so much presence as a narrator that I wasn't long into the book before I felt she was a real person and I was somehow privy to her innermost thoughts.
I liked the day-to-day descriptions of the routine at the boarding school, and especially the trips that Mor gets to take back home. I loved how everything in her life relates to the books she reads (predominantly fantasy and science fiction), and how she uses the books to make sense of the world around her, because she really doesn't have anyone else.
I suspect many of us can relate to that aspect of the character. We might not have been physically cut off from the familiar the way she is, but many of us still felt like that as teens and used books not only as entertainment, but as learning tools—though I also suspect many of us didn't realize we were doing that until we were much older.
I also liked the pacing of the book, the way Walton plays out the back-story bit by bit until we finally understand it all.
But most of all I loved the sparing use of magic, its resonance when it does appear, the confusion as to if it's real, if any of the fantastical things actually happened. But Mor believes in it. And Brian Froud would most certainly be able to relate to it all. For the rest of us, we get to appreciate it as a story and are lifted by the sense of wonder that rises up from the pages.
This isn't a traditional fantasy, by any means. But it's a smart, heartfelt novel, with a strong, likable narrator, and many touchstones in terms of other books that will resonate for us, depending on how we felt/feel about those books.
It has also jumped right into my short list of favorite books ever, and it's one that I plan to reread more than once.
Faeries: Deluxe Collector's Edition, by Brian Froud & Alan Lee Abrams,
Speaking of Brian Froud, can you believe that it has been thirty-three years since Faeries, his collaboration with artist Alan Lee, first saw print? Their art in that book pretty much defined the visual appearance of Faerie at the time, and I think most fantasy writers and artists in the years since have been directly or indirectly influenced by that book.
Here's a quick recap of what Faeries is, for the two fantasy enthusiasts out there who don't have a copy: think of it as a field guide to the faerie of the British Isles, profusely illustrated in monotone and color, with short descriptive write-ups to explain or expand upon the illustrations. And those illustrations remain just as gorgeous, magical, and detailed today.
One thing I found entertaining when going through this new edition of the book was how I could see The Lord of the Rings film that was still to come already there in many of Lee's drawings (he was one of the art directors for the Jackson films).
So, since most of you probably have a copy of this book on your shelves, do you need another version? That depends. The pluses are that the new edition has a foreword by Jane Yolen, expanded essays by both Froud and Lee, a pocket in the back holding eight "frameable prints" (that's how they're described on the book's sticker), and a pull-out poster.
I think the prints and poster are a smart idea. I can't tell you how many times in the years following its initial publication I saw pages torn from the book hanging in frames on somebody's wall.
And $29.95 is a pretty good price. These days you'd probably pay much more than that just to get one print by either artist.
A delight the first time around, and still as much of a one today.
The Night Bookmobile, by Audrey Niffenegger,
Spoiler alert ahead. If you're planning to read this book, be warned. Normally I don't like to give anything away, but in this case it's necessary to be able to discuss an element of the story that I feel I need to address.
Niffenegger has previously written two prose novels (The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry) and two graphic novels (The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters). I've read one of each and remember enjoying them quite a lot. And that certainly seemed to be the case with this new graphic novel.
The premise is wonderfully quirky and inventive: A young woman named Lexi is walking out late at night in Chicago after an argument with her boyfriend when she comes across a bookmobile playing a Bob Marley song at quite loud volume. But this, she discovers, isn't an ordinary bookmobile where one can go in and borrow books. Instead, it houses all the books that she herself has ever read.
Eventually she learns that every reader has a personal librarian whose job it is to compile a collection of all that their patron has read. Books, yes—finished and unfinished (the latter have blank pages where the reader left off)—but also diaries, magazines, even cereal boxes. Lexi can't borrow any of this material, but she's free to browse as she likes until the dawn ("Hours: Dusk to Dawn") when the bookmobile closes up and drives away.
Although she looks for it on many a night after that, it's years before she finds it again. She decides that she'd like a job as a night bookmobile librarian, but when she's told she can't ("The rules won't allow it"), she goes on to study and eventually become a regular librarian instead.
Still she retains her desire to work in this other mysterious library that sends out bookmobiles only at night. Returning from another visit to the bookmobile, she takes sleeping pills, slits her wrists, and voilá, she is transported to The Library, where she discovers that her own library has been deaccessioned because only living readers can be Readers. But now that she can work here, she's assigned her first reader, and all is well.
Anyone who has spent a good portion of their life with books will be charmed with the idea of The Library. Niffenegger's prose is straightforward, her art simple, but charming throughout. And the idea of The Library and night bookmobiles will probably stick with you for quite some time.
What troubles me about the book was that for Lexi to find happiness, she first had to commit suicide, and that's a terrible message to send out into the world.
I know. It's just a book. But books do more than entertain. Sometimes they serve as teachers (see the review of Walton's book above), sometimes they are friends (ditto), sometimes they even save lives, or at least one's sanity.
I'm not going to jump on a bandwagon like the one that tells us how heavy metal music or video games cause real life violence. But I do feel that this story sends out the wrong message, especially to young readers whose lives are already filled with drama (because that's what it's like when you're young and first learning to deal with your emotions), and to whom—if their lives are awful enough—suicide can seem like a viable option, a way to stop the pain. But maybe—at least how it's depicted in The Night Bookmobile—it's also a way to find something better.
Now I also know that this book is aimed at adults, but let's face it: An illustrated book like this is something any young reader will gravitate to. And some adult readers also live in highly emotional states.
I'm not saying that reading this book will cause anyone to commit suicide. But I'm also pretty sure that it won't stop someone from doing so either.
Sometimes we have to take on difficult subjects in books. For Lexi to get what she wants, she has to pay a terrible price, but in the world of the book, that turns out to not be so terrible at all. Everything works out in a tidy and happy fashion.
Sorry, but I don't like that message.
Would it have been so hard for Lexi to die in an accident, or of old age? The sacrifice she does make happens in such an offhand manner that I doubt it would have made any difference to the overall structure of the story.
As it stands, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone.
Me & Death: An Afterlife Adventure, by Richard Scrimger,
I think it's pretty well a given by now that more and more adults are reading Young Adult books, especially genre titles. I've discussed the reasons for this a few times in the course of this column, so I won't get into them now.
But what about Middle Grade books?
Most of them skew a bit too young for an adult reader, but the occasional one transcends its projected demographic.
Although Richard Scrimger has written for adults (Mystical Rose), he's probably best known for Middle Grade books such as The Nose from Jupiter and Into the Ravine. They're also real boy books, by which I mean they're light on the heightened dramas of romance, concentrating more on boys having adventures and getting into and out of trouble.
In Me & Death, fourteen-year-old Jim is a bully and petty thief who wants to grow up to be a gangster. He's not very likable. In fact the first part of the book is called "Me When I Was a Piece of Crap." When the story opens, he's stealing a piece of fruit. He then goes on to kick a cat and torment a schoolmate, Lloyd. Chasing after Lloyd, Jim gets his foot caught in a streetcar track and he's hit by a car.
And that's where the story really begins.
Taking a page from Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Scrimger has Jim pulled into the afterlife where three ghosts make him revisit significant points in his past. That might sound a little dreary, but Scrimger's a funny guy, so even though he's dealing with serious issues, his touch is light, and the afterlife he presents is certainly different. The part Jim sees—when he isn't being dragged into the past—is an old, rundown hotel peopled with quirky characters.
Now the thing is, Jim's not completely dead. He still has a chance to fix his life. Presented with variations on himself "when he was a piece of crap," and striking up a friendship with a young girl who, like himself, is almost dead, he's determined that if he's given a second chance he'll fix the mistakes he's made and live a better life.
That's easier said than done, since working against him are the gangsters he used to admire, a creepy neighborhood child abuser, an even creepier older sister, and one of the ghosts. But whereas at the beginning of the book we might have thought, who cares if he makes it?, by now (the second part of the book is called "Me Doing a Little Better") we've come to care for Jim. When everything falls apart, we're rooting for him to get through it all in one piece.
What makes the book work so well is the pitch-perfect tone of voice that Scrimger gives his first person narrator. This is a serious, funny, and moving book that will appeal to readers of all ages, except maybe some teenage girls looking for romantic vampires.
The Samantha Granger Experiment: Fused, by Kari Lee Townsend,
This is another Middle Grade book, but in this case it's definitely for its targeted demographic of tween girls.
The book opens with Samantha Granger lost in the Adirondack Mountains near her new home. She runs across a meteorite and foolishly touches it. When she does, she becomes fused with the new super-duper cell phone her mother has given her, and now she's got built-in GPS, a hand that rings or vibrates when she gets a call, and the Internet viewable inside her head.
On the one hand she wants to be a normal girl again. On the other, this strange fusion seems to be pushing her into becoming a superhero, because it keeps forwarding 911 calls to her, and she kind of likes that. It doesn't help that mysterious strangers have descended on their small town looking for this new "superhero."
The book is a mix of tween school life and Samantha's more adventurous heroics. The prose is straightforward and there's no character development. But it's a fun little book that its projected audience should enjoy and would probably make an entertaining movie for that same demographic.
Dorothea Dreams, by Suzy McKee Charnas,
While the copyright page gives Charnas a 2010 copyright, this novel first came out in 1986. But it doesn't really matter how old it is since it's a terrific book that deserves a new audience. Or to be revisited by those who remember it from the first time around.
Dorothea Howard is an artist who came to her art later in life. She's reclusive, living in the Southwestern desert where she's been secretly working on an immense new work: a collage built onto a cliff face on her property. Though she's been plagued by bad dreams of late, she's content enough with living as she does, avoiding all the politics of the world beyond her haven.
But everything changes with the arrival of an old friend, Ricky Maulders, a travel writer dying of cancer, which is followed by a home invasion by—while they're on the run from the police—some Mexican teenagers who have taken a school bus full of kids as hostage. The teens didn't set out to be in their present situation. They were backed into a corner after a disastrous protest against the corporation that is buying up their neighborhood, house by house, and now they can't see a way out that isn't going to end in disaster.
So there's certainly sadness and drama in this book, but the tone throughout remains positive.
I loved the setting: both the wild desert around Dorothea's home, and urban Albuquerque where the teenagers come from. I loved the voices of the characters, too: again, both the older characters and the teenagers, but also the distinctive voices of the Anglos and Mexicans. And Charnas gives none of them short shrift. Whether it's one of the principals, or someone only on stage for a few pages (like the smarmy art dealer George), they're all fully realized.
And then there's the art. Throughout the novel it has such a strong presence, from how Dorothea and Ricky see the world to the amazing wall Dorothea has created out in the desert and can't seem to let go.
Dorothea Dreams is written with prose that sings from the page. It's filled with growth and change, acceptance and the struggle to make the world a better place, starting with oneself and one's immediate neighborhood. There is regret, but also joy. And ultimately, there is understanding, no easy state of mind to acquire.
This edition of Dorothea Dreams is well-designed, easy to read, and has a nice heft. Combined with its rich content, it's a treat from start to finish and I highly recommend it.
As Lie the Dead, by Kelly Meding,
Last time out (in Three Days to Dead), Evangeline Stone woke in somebody else's body and had three days to find out who had killed her and her bounty hunter friends before she died a second time. I liked the book a lot, but felt the ending was a bit of a cop-out since the author found a way around that premise and Evy survived. I understood why: Kelly Meding wanted a series with this character and without having her be a vampire or a zombie, it's hard to base a series around a character who's dead. And it wasn't that I didn't like Evy. I just felt that in the context of the story it would have been a more powerful ending if Evy had had to sacrifice herself the way she was prepared to.
But I'm going to let that pass. I'm supposed to review the book in hand, not the one I wanted to read.
So it didn't happen, and Evy's back, trying to clean up the mess that resulted at the end of the last book. In fact, As Lie the Dead starts only minutes after the end of the first book. But while the world was saved, and both Evy and her handler/now lover Wyatt survived, there's no time to rest and make sense of things. Like the fact that Evy now has to live in the body of the suicide victim in which she woke at the beginning of the first book. And how she has some of the feelings of that other girl, rising up in amongst her own.
Almost immediately Evy discovers a new conspiracy that is set to create a war between all the various supernatural creatures with whom humans share the world. Naturally, she's the only one who can stop it, but the odds are stacked against her because not only does she have enemies known and hidden with which to contend, her own superiors appear to be trying to bring her down as well.
What I like about Meding's book is that it's fast-paced without being frivolous. There's meat in the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, and Meding has a knack for snappy dialogue—between characters as well as in her first person point-of-view narrator's head. And this time (not being hobbled with a cool but confining premise as was the first book), the ending makes sense within the context of the story.
In the flood of urban fantasy titles that greet you when you go into your local bookshop, Meding's novels are stand-outs.
Visions of Tomorrow, edited by Thomas A. Easton & Judith K. Dial,
I like an anthology with a good theme, and once you get past the generic title, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better one than Visions of Tomorrow's look into "Science fiction predictions that came true."
Science fiction is often touted as the genre that foretells the future. The good writers take what we know now and extrapolate that information to give us a peek into what is to come.
It's a nice theory, but let's face it, sf writers get it wrong far more often than they get it right. (And to be fair, the good writers are trying to tell a story, not be oracles.) But sometimes they get it so right it's eerie.
What the editors of Visions of Tomorrow have done is collect a group of stories that did get it right. It starts with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Balloon Hoax" in which a hot air balloon crosses the Atlantic in three days, all the way through to Charles Sheffield's 1979 story "Skystalk" which describes a space elevator (a long cable extended from Earth to orbit) that NASA is currently researching. In between are stories about tanks, cyberspace, personal computers, cloning, solar power, and more, all published before such things existed.
Granted the prose of some of the stories in the first part of the book might seem a bit quaint, but they all have worth if you take the time to get past that older style of storytelling, and the book as a whole is a fascinating and entertaining collection.
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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