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Books To Look For
Joyland by Stephen King, Hard Case Crime, 2013, $12.95.
The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce, Gollancz, 2013, £12.99.
The owners of physical bookstores were annoyed, perhaps understandably so. For many of them, there were only a handful of authors with King's clout who could bring readers into their stores in such numbers that a new title by one of them could be the difference between solvency and having to close their doors. The thought that someone like King might decide to bypass the middleman didn't make them happy.
Many stores did end up going under, from small independents to the whole Borders chain—not, I hasten to add, because of anything King did. He soon returned to having his books appear in the traditional way: hardcover, followed by a paperback edition, with an ebook available but not really expected to sell that many copies.
No, those bookstores failed for many of the same reasons that a lot of record stores did a few years before that (which is a whole other conversation we're not going to get into here). The bottom line is that even if there had been a new King novel published every month, it still wouldn't have saved those stores.
Instead, let's fast-forward to the present day when ebooks are a thriving business. The publishers—big and small—put them out. Independent writers publish them on their own. It's now a given that every new book has a digital edition, and many backlist titles are only available as ebooks.
So what does King do?
He puts out a paper-only edition. Not just that, but it's only available as a trade paperback, not even a hardcover.
And some people are mad at him all over again because now that they have their Kindles and Nooks and smart phones, they expect to be able to read every new title on one of these devices, dammit.
King's reasoning is twofold. He wants to get readers back into physical bookstores. And he's also paying homage to the pulp-styled paperbacks that were so popular in the middle of the last century.
I'm guessing there are a lot of readers of a certain age (King's, mine, for example) who got their start as readers with those pulp novels. Mysteries, thrillers, westerns, spy novels, sf. Mickey Spillane, Richard Prather, John D. MacDonald, Nick Carter, Louis L'Amour, Ian Fleming, Isaac Asimov, E. E. "Doc" Smith…the list is endless.
For me, these were books that got me to love reading, unlike the dusty tomes by old dead white guys that were shoved down my throat in school. And before you write in to tell me how worthy those classics are, let me assure you that in later years I went on to get satisfaction from a number of those books. But it never would have happened if the pulps hadn't sparked my love of reading in the first place.
This is one reason that I never feel the need to criticize anyone who gets caught up with the current book flavor of the day (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc.) Because I know that for many of those readers these are the first books that allow them to fall in love with a story told using only words on paper. And the best part is, many of them retain that love and continue to read long after their particular introductory series has ended.
But I digress.
The point is, the pulps have a fond place in my heart, as they do in the hearts of many. And also, apparently, in King's. So kudos to him for this little tribute to them.
That said, however, Joyland's wonderfully garish cover is pretty much where the novel's resemblance to the old pulps ends. If I came across this book as a teenager, I might well have found it too slow and put it aside to read the new Doc Savage novel instead.
Which isn't to say it's a bad book. Far from it. But before we get to talking about it, we need to take one more small digression.
Nobody has only one thing that defines them. We can be a plumber and a husband and a golfer and a cat lover and…well, you get the idea. We're still who we are no matter how many hats we wear. The best artists can't be defined by only one sort of identity either, artistic or otherwise. They evolve and change. Sometimes—let's stick to writers here—they simply have wildly different stories to tell in wildly different styles.
King is an excellent example of such a writer. I'm not going to get into the wide variety of stories he has tackled in his career—some of which I love, some of which I find interesting, a few of which I actively dislike. What I will say is that while I admire his diversity, what I really love are the heartfelt quieter pieces embodied by stories such as "The Body" (filmed as Stand by Me), The Green Mile, and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (filmed as The Shawshank Redemption).
I'm sure that long after we're all gone, these are the stories that will stand the test of time and still be read by future generations. These books will be read for the simple beauty of their language and the clarity of their themes, for how they bring to life the times in which they are set and how they take us right under the skin and into the hearts of the characters.
And now we can add Joyland to that short list.
Set in 1973, it tells the story of a college student named Devin Jones who takes a summer job at Joyland, an indie amusement park on the North Carolina coastline. He goes there with a broken heart, having been dumped by his girlfriend. First love, first heartbreak.
This being a King novel, of course the Haunted House is actually haunted. But that's not the main point of the book, though it does provide a narrative thread on which the various parts of the story hang. The book is published by Hard Case Crime, but it's not much of a hardboiled mystery. Through most of the book the feeling I got was similar to that of one of my favorite novels, Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck: a quiet, plainspoken character study and social commentary of its times with the hidden depths that make a great book great.
Joyland's language is straightforward, but it rings with a resonance that's almost poetry. And it tells the truth.
I don't see as much of that in books as I'd like. Devin's observations, the friends he makes, the trials he faces, are delivered with immediacy and a veracity that makes this short novel feel more like a story that grows out of a late night conversation between friends than a made-up narrative.
And oh did I love the setting of Joyland—one of the last of the amusement parks to eke out a living before the corporations took them all over, or drove them out of business. Joyland is as much of a character as the people in Devon's story, and King's obvious love for the place shines through.
Now interestingly enough, Joyland wasn't the only book I read recently that deals with the themes of fading seacoast amusement parks and young men coming to them for a summer job.
In The Year of the Ladybird, a student named David Barwise takes a job at a rundown holiday camp in Skegness on the east coast of England. Unlike Devin, he's not nursing a broken heart, but escaping the job his stepfather has planned for him. David's younger and a little more cynical than Devin, but there were a number of similarities between the two books, from how they both have ghosts to how amusement parks/holiday camps past their glory days are as much a character as the people.
Now before you think I'm saying that Joyce got his inspiration for The Year of the Ladybird from Joyland, I know that both books were in production at the same time, so neither author could have been influenced by the other. And for all their similarities, what was fascinating to me were the different takes on a comparable theme as seen from an American and a British perspective.
And even more interesting to me is, how for all the endless talk of King being the "Master of Horror," The Year of the Ladybird is actually the darker book. It has nothing to do with plot and everything to do with tone. Joyland is like an underdog, the sort of place we want to see survive; Joyce's holiday camp is like a sore that you just want to sweep into the sea and let the waves wash it away.
There's drama in both—the serial killer in Joyland fuels some plotlines, but it's not the point of the book. The Year of the Ladybird takes a tough look at '70s England, touching on the influence of the National Front and the hard men born of unemployment and a lack of future prospects who amuse themselves with drinking and cracking heads.
And while there's a love interest here as well, it's presented with a harsh reality as well as sweetness.
But I loved both books and I'm eager to reread them. Joyland for the quiet joys that permeate every page, even when things get tense, The Year of the Ladybird for its unflinching look at a troubled time and the big heart—the story's soul—that never gets lost in the darkness.
Both are highly recommended.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County by Stephen King, John Mellencamp & T Bone Burnett, Concord Music Group, 2013, $49.99.
And since we were speaking of King's diversity a few paragraphs ago, how about this for a shot right out of left field?
Back in the mid-nineties, King was approached by musician John Mellencamp about the two of them doing a play together. Now all these years later we have the results of that labor: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, with music and songs by Mellencamp, libretto by Stephen King, and musical direction by T Bone Burnett.
It's a good ghost story, based on events that occurred at a haunted cottage Mellencamp owns, but not a particularly innovative one. What makes the project so good is its presentation.
It comes in a slipcase with King's libretto taking up just over a hundred pages in a 12" X 12" book. Tucked into the back cover is a pair of CDs and a DVD. The latter is pretty much like an extras disc from a movie DVD or Blu-ray with a behind-the-scenes documentary and Mellencamp playing a song in the studio. The real gold is in the CDs.
Burnett has made some outstanding casting choices, including Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Roseanne Cash, and Sheryl Crow. My favorite casting is having the often-feuding Alvin brothers—Dave and Phil—portray the ghosts of Jack and Andy, the brothers in the story who set off the whole chain of unfortunate events.
Now, I'll be honest. I'm not a big fan of the concept album, which this basically is, because I usually can't follow the story and there's often a lot of filler material. But between being able to read King's text and the high quality of Mellencamp's songwriting—not to mention the great performances—this hangs together better than most, with many high points.
I just wish there was a DVD of the performance with this cast—including the high quality of the actors who take on the task of the spoken bits between the songs (hello Meg Ryan, Matthew McConaughey, and Samantha Mathis). The actual touring cast will be different, but I'm guessing it'll still be worth catching if it comes through your town.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, William Morrow, 2013, $25.99.
If we have a rock star in the fantasy/horror/sf genre, it's Neil Gaiman: handsome in his black leather jacket and shades, married to Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls). When he's doing a public appearance (convention, book signings) he travels with an entourage.
It would all be a little amusing except Gaiman's deserving of the fervent admiration of his faithful readers. He has created worlds either dark or charming, and sometimes both, that resonate with those readers in a way that no other writer's work has done for them. I dare say, his work has also saved a number of them, in the way that art can save the lonely, the disaffected, the outsiders. I don't doubt that in Gaiman's own youth art saved him as well and it appears that he now dedicates his creative life to paying back that gift.
I've written before in this column that how you appreciate Gaiman's work will depend on your reaction to his narrative voice. It's singular and either draws you in or pushes you away. Happily for Gaiman and his readers, there are enough of the former to appreciate its nuances so that each new title with his by-line is met with the same high anticipation of—well, a new album from one's favorite band.
It does put a lot of pressure on the books. They can't be good, they have to be great, and even then there are those will find fault with them because there are always those who find fault with the work of a successful artist.
I'll be interested to see what the naysayers have to write about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, because when I finally closed the last page of this slim volume it was with the realization that I'd just finished one of those uncommon perfect books that come along all too rarely in a reader's life.
The story is simplicity itself. An unnamed narrator has returned to Sussex, England, for a funeral. On a whim, he decides to go by the house where he grew up. It's long gone now and the quiet lane is filled with strangers' houses, but as he continues to drive he finally reaches a familiar and unchanged landscape at the end of the lane. And he begins to recall his childhood, starting with his seventh birthday party, to which no one came.
Things go from bad to worse for our young narrator. He finds the dead body of the man boarding in his home; a monstrous governess takes up residence, driving apart the family, and making his life hell; and he learns that evil is not only real, but it has its sights set on him.
His saving grace is meeting with the Hempstock women who live at the end of the lane. There's eleven-year-old Lettie who has been eleven for a very long time and insists that the duck pond behind her family house is an ocean; her mother, who appears as a kind matronly figure; and her grandmother who can remember when the world began.
If there is a more remarkable group of women in fiction, I'd love to meet them. They are down to earth at the same time as being impossibly mythic in stature, a contradiction that Gaiman is especially adept in portraying. One has only to consider the cheerful young punk girl personification of Death from the Sandman series.
There is a fairy tale cadence to the narrative, but it's also very British. And while most of the book is about a seven-year-old boy, this is an adult novel that only uses that youthful perspective to tell a timeless, adult story.
As in all the best fairy tales, wonder comes with a price, which our narrator discovers as the full impossibilities of his youth return to him.
How could he not remember these things? he asks the Hempstock mother, only to discover that this isn't the first time he's returned to the house at the end of the lane. I'll leave the whys and wherefores for you to discover, saying only that this is a deeply satisfying and engaging novel that answers big questions we didn't know enough to ask before reading it.
I don't adore each and every thing that Gaiman has written over the years, but he's always an entertaining writer with a fertile imagination and a distinctive, likeable writing voice. I did adore this book, from the very first page to the last.
Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose, Improper Books, 2013, £12.99.
On a winter's night, in a world much like our own, a gang of street urchins stand in the wind and snow outside the walled estate of a wizard. The place is supposed to be guarded by monsters. The leader of the gang sends the youngest and smallest girl—referred to as only Child throughout the text—over the wall to bring back something "shiny" to sell for food. Child's other option is to be killed by the leader and sold for body parts.
So over the wall she goes, to find that everything there is just how she imagined it would be, and completely different. There is a wizard, only he calls himself an artificer, and an occasional alchemist. He has figured out a way to make porcelain beings that can move and think. He's also lonely and takes a liking to this spunky little ragamuffin of a girl and offers to let her be his ward and live on the estate with him.
Part Bluebeard, part Pygmalion & Eliza Doolittle (from My Fair Lady), Porcelain is a timeless fable of mystery and enchantment and human relationships, flavored with a little steampunk and a whole lot of wonder.
The growing friendship and respect between the two is a delight to follow…and make the eventual betrayal that follows all that much harder. And no, I'm not going to tell you who gets betrayed.
I'd never heard of writer Benjamin Read or artist Chris Wildgoose before coming across Porcelain, but you can bet I'll be searching out their work from this point on.
Read is that rare writer in the comics medium who allows the art to carry the story, only inserting dialogue when it's needed. The story is inventive, self-contained, and by the time you get no more than a few pages in, utterly believable. His grasp at awaking a sense of wonder in his readers is genuinely moving—though the kudos must be shared with Wildgoose, the artist.
Because oh, the art. There is so much expression in the characters' features and body language, such a great panel-to-panel flow, and Wildgoose's linework is utterly gorgeous. I also liked the way that some panels were very sparse, others thick with detail, but always to further the story. Colorist André May also deserves props for how the colors become another part of the storytelling.
From start to finish, an utterly captivating work. Highly recommended.
The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pulp Pin-up Art by Stephen D. Korshak & J. David Spurlock, Vanguard Productions, 2013, $24.95.
I think this is the first time I've liked the text in an art book more than the reproductions of the art—which is normally the purpose of a collection such as this.
Margaret Brundage's art will be forever associated with the lurid covers she did for Weird Tales, with the bat woman on the cover of the October 1933 issue (which also serves as the cover for this collection) being one of the most iconic images in the early history of our field. I really like that piece, and many of the others to be found in these pages, and I'm particularly enamored with her use of soft pastels in much of her art.
Pastels are an intriguing medium since the artist is working with sticks of pure color, which gives the final work a luminosity and richness that can't be captured quite the same in any other medium. The process is so hands-on (literally so!) that probably only sculptors work in a closer relationship with their art—the complete opposite of today's digital artists who are manipulating line and color on a computer screen. And then we have the delicacy of the final work, which can be completely ruined with inappropriate handling.
Brundage was obviously a master of the medium and I'd love to see some of these works in their original form, rather than as reproductions.
The reason that I haven't warmed to many of the pieces in this book is due to their subject matter: bondage, scantily clad women being threatened by various monsters and maniacs wielding knives or scimitars. The fetishism isn't as extreme as we might find in contemporary work, but it makes it hard for me to appreciate Brundage's artistic gift, since I don't particularly feel like looking at such material.
Much more appealing is the text. It turns out that Brundage was a bit of a mystery woman and the authors really had to dig to find information about her. In the end they augmented the spare biographical detail with reflections of the times in which she lived.
Starting in the twenties and thirties, this retrospective is an utterly absorbing exploration of American history, politics, social mores, and artistic endeavors in the early part of the last century. Brundage and her husband Slim were at the heart of many of the changes sweeping across America. They were radicals and bohemians, living at odds with the world in which they found themselves. Long before the hippies and the Beats, even before women could vote, there was a counterculture holding anti-war rallies and speaking up about free love, civil rights, and free speech, and the Brundages were at the center of it. At least in Chicago.
The book brims with fascinating stories, expanded on or simply touched upon, from a young Walter Disney submitting art to a school paper where Brundage was the de facto art director (in everything but name), to hobo philosophies and the effects of McCarthyism on the arts community.
Because of the text, this book is highly recommended.
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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