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Books To Look For
Nightbird, by Alice Hoffman, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2015, $16.99.
I could go on.
But the people asking usually don't want a list. They want one name. So after giving it some thought, I decided I should go with an author who's never disappointed me. Who, in fact, has written more perfect books than pretty much anyone else I can think of—you know, those books where you wouldn't change a word because everything about the story is just right? Most writers are lucky to get one of those in a career.
So now when I get asked, I just say Alice Hoffman.
No, she's not my actual favorite (see above), but she comes pretty darn close, and Nightbird's as good an example why as anything else she's written, because it's another one of those perfect books.
At least it is for me. I'll allow that all art is subjective but, nevertheless, I'll stick to that description.
Nightbird's being marketed as a middle-grade book—ages ten and up, in case you're wondering—but I think of it as more of a timeless tale. There's no sex, violence, or swearing, but you know, if an author can get her readers to invest themselves in the characters and their story, that lack is pretty much irrelevant. Too many books—regardless of the age to which they're being marketed—forget that and let "edginess" be the selling point.
Edgy is only good if it has the characters and story to back it up. It shouldn't be the reason one reads a book. A sense of wonder, however, is an entirely different thing, and Nightbird has that from its opening lines:
You can't believe everything you hear, not even in Sidwell, Massachusetts, where every person is said to tell the truth and the apples are so sweet people come from as far away as New York City during the apple festival. There are rumors that a mysterious creature lives in our town. Some people insist it's a bird bigger than an eagle; others say it's a dragon, or an oversized bat that resembles a person.…
The mysterious creature is, in fact, Twig Fowler's brother James. When the Fowler family returns to the family home from New York City, they come back at night so that no one can see the boy with the wings that is Twig's brother. The Fowler family live under a curse laid upon them two hundred years ago by the witch Agnes Early. Their mother makes sure they live their lives "in the corners of everyday life," where they can be unnoticed, because if the world ever found out about James, living in the attic.…
But then new neighbors move in next door—just an orchard away from their house. Worse, they are descendants of the Earlys. The family seems pleasant: a doctor and his wife with two daughters, one Twig's age, the other the same age as James. Their mother forbids the kids to have anything to do with the new family, but for the first time the Fowler children disobey. Twig becomes best friends with Julie. James and the older girl fall in love.
And then it seems inevitable that the tragic events of the past that set the curse in motion are about to be repeated all over again.
Nightbird is set in contemporary times but it reads like a timeless fairy tale. The prose is a little simpler than in Hoffman's adult novels, and that simplicity enhances its lyric flow. But unlike fairy tales, which are often distilled down to only their sense of wonder, Nightbird is rich in motive, deep in characterization.
It's a charming book, which in this age with its fascination with post-apocalyptic worlds, zombies, and the like, might seem like a disparaging remark. But if you like Jane Yolen's fables, or Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, you will not be disappointed with the magic that Hoffman has brought to the page here.
Highly recommended for any age.
Don't Look Now, by Michelle Gagnon, HarperCollins, 2013, $9.99.
Don't Let Go, by Michelle Gagnon, HarperCollins, 2014, $17.99.
If nefarious pharmaceutical companies make a good antagonist in your mind, then this is the series for you. In the first book, a young hacker named Noa wakes up in a makeshift laboratory/warehouse run by a drug company to find that she's been experimented on for something called Project Persephone. But at least she's alive. Others in similar circumstances haven't survived. Together with another hacker named Peter, Noa manages to get away from the company and decides to get proactive.
That first book—Don't Turn Around—is a terrific, fast-paced read.
Don't Look Now opens with Noa leading a bunch of runaways, all of whom were experimented upon by Project Persephone before being rescued from their labs in the southwestern states. They are one of several small guerrilla groups targeting Project Persephone labs across the country, each group working to bring the Big Bad down. We go on a couple of the raids with Noa's group, there are betrayals and a big dramatic event at the end, but somehow the whole book just felt like it was marking time until volume three. There was a flatness to the characters and to what should have been the exciting moments, so much so that it took me a long time to finish it. I just didn't feel compelled to pick it up whenever I put it down. The only reason I kept at it was that I enjoyed the first book.
Happily, Don't Let Go picks up the pace—but that only comes after a slow start with the characters trying to get some information from the hard drives that they acquired in the previous book. They believe that the information on them will be enough to bring down the pharmaceutical company—if only the mercenaries hired by the company will give them the breathing room to do so. Complicating matters, Noa's health has begun to deteriorate from whatever was done to her in the lab when she was captured.
This time the pacing—especially for the first third—feels more like a slow build. The characters are depicted with greater depth and the story gains more and more momentum as it progresses. The last section of the book is full of surprises that come together in a satisfying climax.
Considering how so many trilogies suffer from a sagging middle book, I often find myself wishing authors and/or publishers would either go for one big book, or at most a duology. That would certainly have made this a better read.
Hunter's Trail, by Melissa F. Olson, 47North, 2014, $14.95.
Hunter's Trail brings to a conclusion the three-novel story arc that started with Dead Spots. Just to bring you up to date, the viewpoint characters in the three books focus on Scarlett Bernard and Jesse Cruz.
Scarlett is a "null," which means that magic doesn't work in a certain radius around her. Witches' spells fizzle out, werewolves and vampires become human again. It's a lovely concept that hasn't gotten old over the three-book run. Scarlett also has a day job as a "cleaner," removing any evidence of a supernaturally related crime, up to and including dead bodies. This puts her in direct conflict with Jesse, who's a homicide detective, co-opted into helping her out—and thereby breaking the law—by Scarlett's bosses.
In book two (Trail of the Dead), Scarlett discovers that she can use her null ability to permanently "cure" a supernatural being when she saves Eli, a werewolf and her booty-call buddy. Eli is now permanently human, and it seems like a happy ending of sorts at the end of that book. But we soon discover in Hunter's Trail that Eli's conversion creates a power vacuum in the L.A. pack because Eli was the second in command to his Alpha, Will.
Scarlett's been keeping this new ability under wraps but there are those who—with Eli's sudden absence from the pack hierarchy—suspect what she's done and are demanding she help them in the same way. Things get even more complicated when you add in an unknown rogue who's killing pack members, dumping the bodies on the Alpha's front porch, and a French hit team with a monstrous supernatural creature specifically trained to take down werewolves.
The three-novel story arc comes to a very satisfying conclusion with Hunter's Trail. I especially liked how Scarlett comes into her own, even standing up to her vampire and werewolf bosses to renegotiate their relationship. We're left with a few unanswered questions, but Olson showed that her characters had lives before these books started, so we can assume that—somewhere—they will have lives after.
And also, unlike the Michelle Gagnon trilogy discussed above, each book in Olson's series is as strong as the one before it.
I've read that Olson plans to write more books in what she calls her Old World series, the setting being the connective thread with different characters taking center stage. I have to admit that this is the way I like a series, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does with hers.
The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated & edited by Jack Zipes, Princeton University Press, 2014, $35.
Mention fairy tales to many folks and they immediately get a picture of dancing mice performing to Broadway-styled numbers sung by a chorus of cheerful birds—in other words, Disney.
For some, Disney is the personification of all that's wrong with the way fairy tales have been introduced to generations of kids. Personally, I don't have a problem with how they watered down the original stories. The company still found a way to infuse the material with a sense of wonder and fun, and I'm sure that many of those kids went on to delve deeper into the treasure trove of stories that Disney used as source material.
I'm certainly one of those who did. My first knowledge of Snow White was the Disney film, complete with the seven dwarves hi-ho hi-hoing themselves off to their mine. I didn't know anything about the original and how at the end the evil queen was put into iron shoes that had been heated in a fire, then was forced to dance in them until she died. (That version is in this collection, as well as many other "grimmer" versions you might think you know well.)
I saw the film in the theater, and then again many times over two or three nights when it appeared on Disney's Sunday night show. But I wasn't disappointed later when I found the darker original version in a book. I reveled in the more traditional versions I found, at the same time as I was exploring folklore from all around the world.
With all of that said, Jack Zipes's new translation of the original two volumes of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales is a revelation. I don't know how his versions compare to the originals in German, and I have to admit I'm not a big fan of translations, but these stories have the ring of authenticity with all their strange variations, such as how the Bluebeard story appears here with the Virgin Mary taking the place of Bluebeard and the holy trinity being behind the forbidden door.
I don't go back to the Disney films anymore, even though they're readily available on DVD and as downloads, but I know I'll be going back to this book, time and again in the years to come.
Night Post, by Benjamin Read & Laura Trinder, Improper Books, 2014, £12.99.
I love this book. There's nothing to read. It's basically a picture book without words, or maybe it's a comic book without words. Regardless, it's so full of story and charm that it makes me smile every time I reread it. And I've reread it several times since it first arrived for review.
It opens in a suburb in the evening with a man reading his child to sleep, then watching some TV with his wife before he sets off to work. It stays grounded all the way through his walk to work on dark windy streets until he finally arrives at his destination. That's when the wonders begin.
Turns out our protagonist is a postman, but not a regular one. He delivers the night post: letters and packages addressed to the creatures that haunt the night. My favorite delivery is the first one which goes to some ghosts in an old haunted house. Unfortunately, they can't interact with the physical world, so they can't read their letter. The night postman's solution is to burn the letter whereupon they're able to read the "ghost" of it.
From there he goes on to deliver mail to merfolk and ogres, vampires and ghouls, the billy goats gruff and gargoyles…basically a complete rundown of monsters and beasts and beings from folklore and fairy tales. There are cameos of everything from Baba Yaga's hut and the Borrowers to a hobbit's round door. There's a hellhound, a doorway from a fairy ring that leads into the fairy realms, a visit to the gingerbread house. On and on he goes until the night's deliveries are done and he finally gets to go home where he makes his last delivery to the monster under his daughter's bed.
The book purports to be "Suitable for Children of all ages," according to the back cover, and there's certainly nothing particularly graphic in it. However, you still might want to vet it before reading it with a very young child, or one susceptible to night terrors.
But for everyone else, Night Post is a pure joy from start to finish. Even without words, writer Benjamin Read shows a sly wit and a storytelling flair while artist Laura Trinder matches his whimsy and good humor in each panel she paints and draws.
Black Wolf, by Steph Shangraw, Prysmcat Books, 2014, name your own price.
I'm fascinated with the proliferation of independently published books. But before I get into the whys and wherefores, let me first say that I don't dislike offerings from what's coming to be referred to as legacy publishing (i.e., books printed and distributed by the big publishing houses). I just think there's room for everybody. The more voices writing their own stories there are, the more choices there are for readers. And a lot of voices from a lot of different sources are a good thing, especially since I'm not all that sure that the legacy publishers will be around for that much longer.
Or at least not in their current state. Ebooks haven't completely overtaken paper books yet, but the writing seems to be on the wall. It'll be especially interesting to see what happens as the coming generations of readers—more accustomed to reading everything on a screen, from texts to websites to magazines and books—become the main consumers.
Which doesn't mean I think paper books will disappear. I see them becoming more like physical pieces of art, lovingly designed and published by small presses that will celebrate the physical aspect of a book as well as what lies inside its pages. But the days certainly seem to be numbered for the cheap mass market paperback—the kinds of books that most people read once, then dispose of. Ebooks fit that bill as well, but the delete button on your reader is a lot easier to utilize than having to box up a bunch of physical books and then haul them down to your local thrift shop.
All of which certainly helps indie ebook publishers, many of whom are of that same generation cited above: they matured with technology as a normal part of their lives. There's a growing movement among these young authors—savvy with technology in a way that their elders aren't—to do it all on one's own. In the beginning they saw the way the music business had gone and were emulating musicians who've decided to take full control of their work and careers. Now so many of their peers are doing it, that for a lot of new writers, it's simply becoming the norm.
The authors who decide to go the indie route do so for a number of reasons other than the fact a legacy publisher isn't interested in their work (if they even submitted their book to one of them in the first place). Rejection from a publisher doesn't automatically mean a book is crappy. While, it's true that some of those authors have no writing skills, or write dull books, sometimes the subject material is simply too edgy—too violent, perhaps, or dealing with sexual/political/social elements that don't fit the philosophy or style of the legacy publisher.
But sometimes, like the book in hand, it's simply that it's not the kind of book a legacy publisher would be interested in. The pacing doesn't match that of titles currently doing well in the marketplace. There might be too much description, or the plot moves in odd directions, lacking the strong forward momentum that's come to be expected in pretty much every genre.
If an editor did work on a book like this, they'd probably cut a lot of what some might consider unnecessary description, subplots, and backstory. They'd rearrange the plot elements into a more linear narrative, with more forward drive.
Which makes me glad there's now a ready outlet for authors with a more idiosyncratic way of telling a story.
The key word here is idiosyncratic. Steph Shangraw's Black Wolf is not a badly written book. Her prose is lovely in parts, she's good at bringing her characters to life, and her dialogue is excellent. But she has her own way of telling a story. And there's a lot of story.
Ostensibly, it's an urban fantasy featuring mostly twentysomethings and kids in their late teens. Most of them are of a preternatural leaning which Shangraw has divided into: dryads (healers), elves and witches (magic users), and shapechanging wolves (protectors). They live in small towns throughout the world (I'm assuming) but she focuses on one particular town north of Toronto called Haven, which is mostly made up of these magical folk.
Much of the story is about a runaway kid named Jesse whose early life is a blank. He ended up on the street after a number of foster homes and lives a hand-to-mouth existence. When he gets thrown in with a number of college-age kids from Haven, his life changes. For the better, most would say, but he doesn't trust it and keeps sabotaging himself.
There are real characters in this book. They screw up royally at times. But their hearts are in the right place. And they band together when the outside world—and otherworld—comes to take on one of their own.
Black Wolf reads as though it was written by someone who loves books—particularly fantasy books—and wanted to put everything she had to say about the genre in hers. It will seem long to some readers but I enjoyed it from start to finish—though first I had to accept that it was going to be told at Shangraw's own pace. Would a legacy editor's hand have made this a better book? Possibly, depending on your criteria of better. Mostly it would have made it a different book.
Personally, I'm happy it's come out the way it has.
I see more and more of these idiosyncratic visions being published as indie books. Some work for me, some don't. Most readers will feel the same, finding new authors they love and others they won't return to. The important thing for these indie authors to remember is that no matter how you decide to tell your story, make sure your writing—the prose, the characters, the sense of wonder—is stellar.
Or else they'll go the same way as mass market books.
Of course I could be completely wrong about the longevity of paper books. If we take another page from music with the record companies' push to CDs and then digital downloads, paper books could well come back the same way that vinyl has.
The other question that arises in this equation of present day publishing practices (particularly since the book under discussion is a "name your own price" book) is: Does it devalue literature if an author offers their book for free, or as a name your own price book? I don't think so. It's no different from musicians doing the same with their music on Bandcamp, YouTube, or allowing it to be streamed. It's a way to be read/heard amongst all the voices—literary and musical—that are clamoring for our attention. The writers are hoping that readers who like their free book will go on to try other books they've written that do have a price tag.
Which brings me to a good point on which to end this column. If you like a book—legacy or indie published, ebook or paper, free or with a price tag—leave a review of it at the online bookseller where you bought it. Tell your friends about it. Word of mouth helps more than you can imagine to bring a little attention to a deserving book or author. And your support will help ensure that the author can keep writing more books for you to enjoy 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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