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Books To Look For
Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King,
EVERY writer has strengths and weaknesses. I won't say excess verbiage is one of Stephen King's weaknesses because often those long novels of his need every word (The Stand, say, or Duma Key), but I will say that over the course of his career, his greatest strength appears to lie in the novella form.
At this length King has enough space to stretch out and really bring his characters to life, but the stories are succinct and often pack more of a punch. One only has to consider pieces like "The Body" or "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (Different Seasons, 1982), two of my favorite stories by any author.
So when I realized that Full Dark, No Stars was another novella collection, I looked forward to picking up a copy.
I read the first story, "1922," and as expected, the execution was terrific. It's set in the dustbowl, just before the Great Depression. In it a hard-working farmer decides he has to kill his wife and enlists the help of his teenage son. The story is related in the matter-of-fact first-person voice of the farmer, and he makes no bones about what a terrible thing it is that he has done.
He takes us through the build up, the execution of the crime, and then its aftermath. And the more I read, the more uncomfortable I felt. It wasn't that the farmer was a sympathetic character. He's not. It was more that by reading the story I felt I was in collusion with him, whether I wanted to be or not.
I know, I know. It's just fiction. But King has done such a good job with the character that it was like I was at a traffic accident and couldn't look away.
When I finished the story, I flipped to the back of the book and read King's afterword, which he begins with "The stories in this book are harsh." By the time I finished the afterword, I realized that the title of this collection was all too apropos and I knew I didn't want to read any more of the book.
I understand that fiction can take us into uncomfortable territory, and sometimes that's a good thing, but I don't find an unrelenting series of stories to be an entertaining prospect. I have little enough time to read these days as it is, and while I'm not exactly a Pollyanna, I also want to read stories that have at least some sympathetic characters and don't make me feel like crap when I'm done—no matter how well written they might be.
King's afterword promised more of what I'd already felt reading "1922" and I decided to forgo the experience.
Now let me add before concluding that "1922" is King really writing at the top of his form and I don't doubt that the rest of the stories are of the same high caliber. So if the subject matter isn't something that would trouble you, I can certainly recommend it to you.
As for me, I'll just wait for his next novel, where I hope to find some sense of hope. You know, full dark, but maybe a few stars to light the way?
Kill the Dead, by Richard Kadrey,
Contrary to what the last review might seem to tell you, I'm not a complete wuss. I'll read a dark book, but it has to have more going for it than just an exploration of how despicable people can be to each other. I get all I need of that from the daily news. It's not presented as artistically, I'll admit, but there's so much of it out there that I don't need to augment it with fictional takes, no matter how compelling they might be.
I think the best analogy I can give comes from horror cinema. I don't watch psychological thrillers or films with psychopaths/sociopaths. But I will watch the Creature Feature kind of movie with their vampires and werewolves and such. The former's too real, too much like the news; the latter's more like a cartoon and usually far less mean-spirited.
Kill the Dead fits easily into the latter category.
Our viewpoint character is Stark, who, in a previous book (Sandman Slim, which is also the name by which most people know him), spent a decade or so in Hell. Now he's back in L.A., trying to scrabble a living as a bounty hunter and bodyguard, with a sidekick that looks like a chain-smoking centipede.
I haven't read the first book, but apparently, Stark is indebted to Lucifer, so when the devil comes to town to oversee a bio-pic being made about him, Stark is his bodyguard. General mayhem ensues. Actually, general mayhem starts from page one and continues pretty much to the end of the book. It even has zombies in it—lots of zombies once they show up about halfway through—but I didn't find them boring the way I usually do. That's probably because Kadrey doesn't take the usual zombie route (introduce us to a group of people, then kill them off one by one).
If you like Charlie Huston or John Connelly, you'll probably like Kill the Dead. The book has a quicker pace than Connelly's work, and it's not as relentless as Huston's, and there's time for humor, albeit dark humor. It might not be great literature, but Kadrey knows how to spin a story, his prose is crisp and effortless, and the entertainment value is high.
Of Blood and Honey, by Stina Leicht,
Mind you, sometimes a book can be dark and serious and I'll still read it. I think it comes back to having characters one can care about. I need someone I can root for as the story unfolds, rather than feeling complicit in whatever awful things they might do.
Of Blood and Honey is a Celtic fantasy set in a time that such books usually aren't: Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was the time of the Troubles, of car-bombings and hunger strikes, abject poverty and curfews, cruel British soldiers and cruel IRA rebels. A time when the innocent were thrown into internment camps along with the guilty.
That's what happens to our protagonist Liam. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in the hellhole that is Long Kesh. Much of the book follows his slow fall from being an innocent, just wanting to marry his girlfriend Mary Kate and scrabble out a life for the two of them in a place with little hope, to his descent into criminal activity.
He's a product of his circumstances and the times he's living in, with all his choices stolen from him. Because of his record, the British are watching him. The only help he was given in the camps was from the IRA, so he feels indebted to them, even though he doesn't care for all of their methods. But he still lets them set him up as a cab driver, and when they call in their marker, he can only do what they ask.
All of this would make an excellent novel as it stands, but it would hardly fit the scope of this column. However, there's more: while the events described above are taking place, there's another struggle going on at the same time, one that involves Liam, although he doesn't know it for some time.
It turns out his father is one of the Irish fey, who have been in a long war with fallen angels. Complicating their struggle is a militant arm of the Catholic Church, which is killing both sides, not realizing there's a difference.
Of Blood and Honey is a rich and complex book. Leicht balances it all with a deft touch, the dark and the light, the supernatural and the regular world. There is a lyric sense of wonder, and because of the age of Liam and his friends, a definite punk sensibility (this was the time of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, after all). Gritty scenes of life in the camps and the helplessness the Irish felt under British rule play out against eerie supernatural moments. The prose, the characterizations, the dialogue, are all impeccable and firmly rooted in their setting, which is no small undertaking for an American author living in Austin, TX.
In short, it's the freshest take on Celtic fantasy I've read in years.
In Between, by R. A. MacAvoy,
I know this is an older title (though it is still available for purchase). It's also a rather slim volume with a hefty price tag. But it's like a precious little jewel, and I'm reviewing it not only because I think you'll enjoy it, but also to drum up some interest in MacAvoy's upcoming novel, Death and Resurrection, which is due out this December.
Why? Well, since this novella is R. A. MacAvoy's first publication in twenty years, many of you might not know who she is, or why her return to publishing should be celebrated. Simply put, she was one of the innovative writers of the early eighties who helped to create the urban fantasy subgenre that's become so popular these days. Books like Tea with the Black Dragon (1983) and The Book of Kells (1985) helped reshape the way a fantasy story could be told.
Instead of all the magic and adventure taking place in some otherworld, it happened here, in ours. Her characters could have been you or me, or the person living next door. She combined Celtic and Eastern mysteries into a seamless blend that to this date has still not been duplicated as well or with as much resonance.
In Between is the story of a young painter named Ewen Young who was recently dumped by his girlfriend. It opens with him being attacked by three men on the way home from an art show opening. The beating they plan to give him is a message to Ewen's Uncle Jimmy, a martial arts instructor and compulsive gambler who owes them money. But Young isn't only an artist. He also studied for years with his uncle and soon puts the attackers to rout.
That only delays the confrontation between the thugs and Uncle Jimmy and Ewen's involvement in their struggle. The next day Ewen finds himself in the hospital fighting for his life.
But Ewen has a third, secret skill. He can go to an "in between" place and take others with him. It's like a pocket universe, where nothing from the "real" world can intrude. His sister is a therapist, and he uses this ability to help her patients. Now he has to use it to try to help himself.
MacAvoy has lost none of her authorial skills in the two decades since The Third Eagle (1989). If anything, she's that much better. This is a short novel, but it has the feel of something much larger. The prose sings. The characters are alive. Ewen's world is rich with interaction and resonance. All of which is a good thing, since I've heard that his story continues in the novel I mentioned earlier, Death and Resurrection.
That book will go straight to the top of my to-read list when it comes out. In the meantime, I think I'll go back and reread some of her earlier novels.
Bloodthirsty, by Flynn Meaney,
Zombies are still popular—that wave has yet to crest—but they have nothing on the continuing popularity of vampire books. It's a brave writer who will wade into the fray with what they hope is a fresh take. Meaney and Van Diepen have no worries along those lines, but what makes their novels intriguing—beyond their entertainment value—is how the authors are riffing on the popularity of vampire books while still telling their own stories.
Flynn Meaney's Bloodthirsty doesn't even have a vampire in it. It has instead Finbar Frame, a gawky, sensitive guy who's allergic to the sun and nothing like his fraternal twin Luke, a popular jock who never has trouble making friends. Having just moved from the Midwest to New York, Finbar is hoping to change his bad luck and reinvent himself as a popular kid.
Among the teen girls in his school the most popular book is a badly written but immensely successful novel called Bloodthirsty. So they seem ripe for Finbar's plan, which can easily be summed up in the blurb copy on the galley cover: "Some vampires are good. Some are evil. Some are totally faking it to get girls."
It's to Meaney's credit that Bloodthirsty doesn't just play the one-note, and while it's quite funny in places, the humor isn't at the expense of the characterization or the story. There's room for drama and angst among the laughs, and Meaney balances it all with an easy skill.
The vampire book in Allison Van Diepen's The Vampire Stalker is The Otherworld Series by Elizabeth Howard. It's set in an alternate Chicago where vampires run wild, technological innovations stalled around the 1920s, and there's a strict curfew between nightfall and dawn. The penalty for not obeying usually means you're a vampire's meal.
Unlike Meaney's made-up book, The Otherworld Series would probably be a great success if it existed (and was the work of a good writer). The main characters are Alexander Banks, a brooding vampire hunter, and his pacifist cousin James. The villain is Vigo Skarr, the leader of the Otherworld Chicago coven. After Vigo killed all of his family, Alexander has been unsuccessfully tracking Vigo for years. The fourth lead is Hannah, Vigo's sister and James's true love.
Teenage girls in our world are mad about the series, splitting into Alexander and James camps as they line up at bookstores to pick up the latest installment in the series. Which is where we are introduced to first-person narrator Amy (Alexander camp) and her best friends Luisa and Katie (James camp).
A week after she's devoured the new book, Amy's heading home after a school dance when she's attacked by a man who looks disturbingly like Vigo, and is rescued by an Alexander look-alike. Preposterous as it seems, it turns out that they're real, having stumbled through a portal from Otherworld Chicago into the Chicago we all know.
The very cool school librarian, Mrs. P.—who's also Amy's confidant—says that it's a matter of literary physics (love that term!). Elizabeth Howard wasn't making up Otherworld Chicago; she was channeling the events that took place there into her writing.
There's lots of good bits here, from a reader's wish-fulfillment of actually meeting the characters from a book they love, to the consternation of those same characters finding out that someone has been writing about their most private thoughts and deeds.
Van Diepen doesn't forget Story, however. The problems of the characters unfold against a backdrop of action as Alexander tracks down Vigo before the coven leader's first few killings grow and turn our Chicago into a bloodbath.
Bloodthirsty and The Vampire Stalker are both smart, entertaining books that you can readily pass on to your favorite teen reader—after you've read them yourself, of course.
Fairy Tales in Electri-City, by Francesca Lia Block,
After reading Fairy Tales in Electri-City, Francesca Lia Block's new slim collection of poetry, I just wanted to give her a hug because the characters in these verses are going through some tough times. I know, I know. What a writer writes doesn't necessarily reflect her own life, but I suppose if you do your job well enough, and write such heartfelt verses in the first person, the edges seem to blur. So if I ever meet Block, I will refrain.
This is a terrific little collection: gritty and earthy, but it soars on the wings of fairy tale and folklore motifs combined with Block's gift of the perfect phrase and her lyrical use of language. Poetry's very subjective, so I can't guarantee what you'll get out of the book, but I loved it from the first page to the last, going back many times to reread particularly evocative phrases or whole poems.
In fact I really enjoy this whole series of little poetry collections that A Midsummer Night's Press has been quietly publishing since 2007. It reminds me of the sixties, when I'd always be on the lookout for a new City Lights publication.
The Uncertain Places, by Lisa Goldstein,
Has it really been nine years since The Alchemist's Door, Lisa Goldstein's last book under her own byline? It's been a long wait, but The Uncertain Places is one of those delightful books that are worth the wait. It combines all the things that I like best about Goldstein's work: great, believable characters; a well-defined setting (this time it's 1970s Berkeley); and subtle magic that plays by the rules. It doesn't hurt that her prose is so readable: comfortable as an old friend even as the story takes odd or dangerous turns.
Will Taylor's best friend Ben is dating Maddie, one of three daughters of the Napa Valley Feierabend family. When Ben convinces Will to accompany him to their family home, Will quickly falls for Maddie's sister Livvy, a relationship that continues long after Ben and Maddie have broken up. But while Ben is no longer close to the Feierabends, Will discovers that his friend has been researching the family.
The reason for this has its ties to a lost fairy tale, collected by the Brothers Grimm but never published. Called "The Bondsmaid," it tells of a family who make a bargain with faerie in which they give up one of their children to seven years of sleep; in return, this sacrifice ensures the family's prosperity. Ben wants a piece of that luck for himself.
Will would have relegated this to nothing more than folklore except for a growing list of oddities he's encountered in and around the Feierabends's home: conversations overheard in the woods when there's no one about except for some crows; short-statured handymen who appear exactly at the moment when the family needs help; ghostly servants who are only around at night and get berated by tall scary butlers who aren't around in the day either.
But he doesn't fully believe until Livvy falls into an enchanted sleep.
What follows is a wonderful mingling of this world we know with the dangers and enchantments of the otherworld as Will tries to find a way to rescue Livvy from the family curse.
Goldstein does a wonderful job mixing the two worlds. Faerie is strange and weird and dangerous; ours has its own challenges. I love the idea of a lost fairy tale, and Goldstein handles its history and the curse itself with a deft, sure hand. The Uncertain Places isn't a particularly long book, but it has weight and resonance and only a diehard realist won't get any pleasure from it.
I like a lot of the new writers and their takes on fantasy set in the contemporary world, but their books rarely make me feel the way I do when I'm in the sure hands of someone like Goldstein or R. A. MacAvoy, with a lifetime of writing behind them and the in-depth understanding they have of what really makes a fantasy story work.
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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