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March/April 2019
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Elevation, by Stephen King, Scribner, 2018, $19.95, hc.

 

I wasn't planning to review this new Stephen King book. I've covered enough of his books in this column, and the idea that anyone would need me to point out that he has a new one at this point in his career is patently ridiculous. No, I was just reading it because he's an author I like to follow for the sheer pleasure of good storytelling. But as I was reading it—and once I'd turned the last page—I found myself thinking about some things that made me feel it was worth a few paragraphs here.

King writes books I love and also ones that don't appeal to me. The latter are as well written as the former; the difference is that either the premise or characters in them don't interest me. I usually can't tell which a book will be until I try it, but one thing I know for sure: There's a certain sweet spot in King's work, and that's the story told at novella length.

Novellas are curious creatures. Longer than a short story, sometimes quite a bit longer, shorter than a novel (and in King's case a lot shorter than most of his novels). I can't tell you why he writes them, but I know why I'm drawn to them.

I'm hardly the first person to make this observation, but one of King's biggest strengths—one might even say gifts, since it's a rarity among even the biggest and most popular writers—is his ability to bring a character to life in only a sentence or two. That character might only have a walk-on role, showing up for a page or so in the story and never returning, but the reader is left with an indelible understanding of who they are. And they're almost always individuals, not stock characters.

I call this a gift because it's not something that can be taught or learned. I believe that anyone can learn to be a writer if they put in the time and practice, just as anyone can learn to play, say, the piano. But it's only a chosen few who have that extra something that an Art Tatum or Thelonious Monk brings to their music or as a Stephen King does to his writing. The rest of us do the best we can.

A novella gives its author the opportunity to focus on a character's story and motivation with a little more room than in a short story and without the broad sweep that a novel requires wherein that one character can be overshadowed by the rest of the cast and various subplots.

(I'm generalizing here, of course. There are fat novels that zero in on one character with breathtaking intensity and you only have to read Andrew Vachss to see how an author can successfully distill the scope of a novel into three or four pages. Something that narrative songwriters do all the time in a handful of stanzas, but I digress.)

(Oh, and allow me one more digression. I'm not talking here about the current crop of "novellas" I see with too much regularity that are only vignette bridges that fit in between installments of a series.)

King has proved many times over that some of his most moving stories clock in at novella length. Just consider "The Body," "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," or "The Long Walk."

Which brings me to something else I found myself considering. We all make assumptions about books and movies and TV shows, deciding what something's like without actually experiencing it firsthand. I'm as guilty of this as the next person. So if you ask most people to describe King they'll tell you he's a horror writer—this is especially true if they've never read him.

A better description might be that he's a Brand Name in that while he writes every sort of book you can imagine (I'd guess perhaps only half of his large body of work could be considered horror), what his dedicated readers expect and find in his books are great characters and their compelling stories, regardless of genre definitions.

Elevation is a good example. This is a book that anyone would enjoy, though a fair number of people will never give it a try because of the by-line (which in King's case usually takes up half the cover). Ostensibly it's about a man named Scott Carey who, if I may quote the cover copy, is "losing weight, without getting any thinner, and the scales register the same whether he is in his clothes or out of them, no matter how heavy they are."

It's a bit of a gimmicky premise, the kind we often run across in a King story, and King certainly delivers on its narrative pull. You do want to keep reading to see how it all turns out. But I don't feel it's really the point of the book. It's not the curiosity itself so much as how it affects the characters that seems important, and the impact of the strange or the unknown upon a person's life is where King always shines.

In this case it allows him to explore issues we all face, such as the aging process or the different results that happen when we meet each other with either kindness or hostility.

Or how we deal with homophobia.

Reading is a way for us to experience other people's lives by living inside their skin through the course of the story. These characters can be different genders, have different religious beliefs, different colored skin, or different sexual orientations. We might have strong opinions about these people who are Other from us in real life but through fiction from their points of view—when we see the world through their eyes, with their hopes and fears revealed—we come to understand that these Others aren't really strangers. They're just us in a different package.

That's the gift of fiction. Not to lecture—save that for an op-ed piece. But to allow us inside another's skin and understand them just through following their journey in the story on the pages we read. And then hopefully we'll be a little more empathetic when we meet similar people outside the context of fiction.

King does a beautiful job of that in this book. And if Elevation changes just a few minds, then the writing of the book was well worth the while.

Highly recommended.

 

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The Vampire Gideon's Suicide Hotline & Halfway House for Orphaned Girls, by Andrew Katz, Lanternfish Press, 2018, $16, tpb.

 

I was unhappy when I finished Andrew Katz's debut novel, but that was only because I enjoyed both story and characters so much I wasn't ready to let them go. That kind of surprised me, since I'm somewhat over-read when it comes to vampires (as I am when it comes to dystopias and secondary world fantasies), but the title seduced me. The Vampire Gideon's Suicide Hotline & Halfway House for Orphaned Girls. How can you not love it and want to find out more? In fact I was in the middle of a really good book when Katz's novel showed up for review and once I started the first few pages I had to finish it before returning to what I had been reading.

So what's it about?

Well, first of all, the title's a bit of a misnomer. There is only one orphaned girl. Gideon is a vampire, however, and he does operate a DIY suicide hotline from the basement of his house on a hill, which is how he meets Margie. And she's an orphan only because Gideon killed her abusive foster father, after which, and somewhat against his better judgment, Gideon takes her in.

The book is from Gideon's first-person point of view. As might be expected from someone who's been around as long as he has, the tone of his narrative and dialogue has a formal ring. Margie's a foul-mouthed sixteen-year-old who's obsessed with tech and doesn't suffer fools gladly. The back and forth interaction between the two and the dichotomy of their world views is both humorous and gives the book its heart.

But while there are smiles aplenty, Katz also tackles the serious issues of alienation, depression, and mental health in his novel and does so in both a sympathetic and honest manner. He doesn't sugarcoat problems and offers no easy solutions. But simply writing about them does help to normalize the issues, removing the sense of otherness that many feel toward those struggling with their mental health.

The Vampire Gideon's Suicide Hotline & Halfway House for Orphaned Girls is a hugely satisfying book on many levels. and I can't wait to see what Katz writes next.

Recommended.

 

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The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, by Ursula K. Le Guin and Charles Vess, Saga Press, 2018, $59.99, hc.

 

If there was ever a time to reread Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, this would be it. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition recently published by Saga Press not only presents all the books and stories in Le Guin's preferred reading order but is also enhanced by some fifty color and black & white illustrations by Charles Vess.

To say it's a thing of beauty would be an understatement.

For most writers, a series like The Books of Earthsea would be the high point of their career, but for Le Guin it was one more example from an exemplary body of work that ranged into every aspect of the f/sf genre, and beyond. That said, for many, especially in the fantasy field, these books were their entry into the wealth of worlds brought to life by her gifted pen. In fact, for many it was their entry into fantasy and science fiction, period.

From the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, which is basically a coming-of-age story of the young would-be wizard Ged, through to The Other Wind, in which we encounter him again as an old man after meeting many other memorable characters, the series runs the gamut of emotions and narrative. What first appears to be an epic fantasy becomes so much more: a treatise on magic versus mundane, on common folk versus royalty, on women put upon an equal footing with men, and finally on the balance between life and sex and death.

The physical book is mammoth, the illustrations gorgeous, the world building on a par with and then some.

It's a shame that The Books of Earthsea never attained the popularity of something like The Lord of the Rings because it easily deserves as much love and recognition. It's also a shame Le Guin didn't live long enough to see this special edition in all its glory. And it's a real shame that we no longer have her in the world with us, telling stories and sharing her observations on publishing and literature and the world in general.

The final entry in the book, "Earthsea Revisioned," was originally a lecture that she presented at Worlds Apart held at Oxford University. In it she takes us through the journey she embarked upon while writing the books and hones in on their subversive elements and the growing feminist themes that took hold once she'd introduced Arha/Tenar.

If you want to know about the social politics behind the series, you really should read this lecture, which is a perfect example of why I love Le Guin's nonfiction as much as I do her fiction. But if you want to read one of the finest epic fantasies in our field, then immerse yourself in the actual prose and delight in Vess's beautiful art.

Highly recommended.

 

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Hollywood Dead, by Richard Kadrey, Harper Voyager, 2018, $26.99, hc.

 

Reading a Sandman Slim novel is something like a palette cleanser for me, except instead of being a little slice of pickled ginger, it's more like a mouthful of full-on wasabi garnished with slivers of a Carolina Reaper pepper. The series is fierce and brutal, and the protagonist, James "Sandman Slim" Stark, appears to be so nihilistic he makes most antiheroes seem like choir boys. But for all the bloody mayhem, the series has a moral center, and that's what raises it from noise to art.

Hollywood Dead is the tenth outing for Sandman Slim. Having read the series from the start, I really can't tell if you can jump in with this book or need to read the series through from the first one. I was thinking about that as I was reading. It feels as though Kadrey gives all the background you need when you need it. I just can't tell if that's a valid objective view or if I'm simply filling in a lot of blanks from my previous experience.

What I can tell you is, if you decide to start from the beginning, you won't be disappointed.

And this latest entry doesn't disappoint either.

Now here come a few spoilers, so if you're new to the character and think you'll give the series a go, skip on to the next review.

Still with me?

What I liked best about Hollywood Dead is that it takes place in L.A.—or at least the L.A. of Kadrey's creation, which is a little twisted and a lot darker than the one we all know. Two books ago, Sandman Slim was killed and the next book took place entirely in Hell. The series has been there before, but not for an entire book, and personally I prefer an interaction with the "real world" rather than everything taking place in a secondary one.

So it was good to have him back. Except he's not entirely back. He had to make a deal with the evil Wormwood Corporation to return, which entails him doing a favor for them. When he completes his task, they'll bring him fully back to life, because at the moment he's only half alive and on a time limit. He can actually feel the onset of rigor and his body breaking down.

It seems there are two Wormwoods now—the one that brought him back and a new faction—and they're at war with each other. All Stark has to do is stop the new faction and he gets his old life back. Except his old life seems to be going along quite well without him. His friends appear to be better off without the toxic chaos that tends to follow him around. They've actually prospered in the year he's been away. Plus the old Wormwood isn't any better than the new one, and he quickly realizes that his involvement is only going to make things worse. Plus this is Wormwood, so he knows they're going to welch on the deal and screw him.

But by now he's in too deep and he can't back out.

Considering my description of the book in the first paragraph of this review, it might seem a stretch to say that Stark does a lot of soul-searching (in amidst the mayhem) and ends up having a heart-to-heart with God (known in this series as Mr. Muninn) at a bus stop as his body begins to completely shut down. But this ability to mix high-test violence and weirdness with tenderness and compassion is where Kadrey shines, and it's why the series is not only worth reading, but rereading.

 

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The Good Demon, by Jimmy Cajoleas, Harry N. Abrams, 2018, $18.99, hc.

 

Ever since her dad died, Clare's best friend has been a demon living inside her that she refers to simply as Her. As the copy says, She "…was like a sister to Clare. She comforted Clare, made her feel brave, and helped to ease her loneliness." But when her stepfather finds out about Her, he gets a preacher and his son to perform an exorcism, driving Her away forever.

This happens before the book starts. We pick up with Clare a month after the exorcism, where she's kicking around the small Southern town where she lives, desperately unhappy. All she manages to do is loll around her room, make occasional forays to Uncle Mike's (the local used book store and thrift shop), and sit around on the front porch, smoking cigarettes. Not even her favorite book, a biography of John Dee, can pull her from what she feels is the meaninglessness of her life.

All of that would make for a depressing book except for Clare's acerbic and spunky first-person point of view. And things do pick up. First the son of the preacher shows up at her front porch to make some awkward conversation, which Clare realizes is him trying to make friends with her. She describes him:

 

He seemed like one of those homeschooled kids who had never been let out of church for more than an hour, the kind who had no friends and couldn't talk about anything except Jesus and the weather. He was probably the most naive person on earth, you could tell just by looking at him. It was almost endearing.

Almost.

 

Then she finds a cryptic hidden message from Her that reads: Be nice to the boy, June 20, and Remember the stories.

The first one seems easy. It has to be Roy, the preacher's son, and she was sort of starting to like him anyway, but the other two have her baffled. Still, she keeps at it, and the more she learns, the more she realizes there's a current of darkness lying under the town, something she knows she shouldn't investigate too much. But if stepping into the darkness is the only way she can get Her back, that's what she'll do.

I liked this book a lot, although mostly the first half rather than the latter. Getting to know Clare, her voice, the flashbacks with Her, her rambling about the town looking for clues…were all enchanting, if a little caustic (though still endearing). But the latter half, once she begins to understand what's going in town, felt a little too familiar. Cajoleas does a fine job in the telling and I enjoyed the book through to the end, but I did find myself wishing he'd bring something new to the mix, but unfortunately he didn't. The first half feels fresh and original, the latter is only saved by Clare's voice.

 

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The Writer's Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, by Huw Lewis-Jones, ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2018, $45, hc.

 

I love maps. I want to say "Doesn't everybody?" but I've met enough people who consider them meh—unless they're looking up directions—to realize that doesn't hold true. They're not seduced by the endless possibilities that a map offers the way that those of us who do appreciate them are.

There are also people who don't like maps because they have trouble reading them. For them, GPS apps are a godsend, and they'd have as little interest in a book such as this as I would playing a video game (sorry, all you gamers out there).

But if you're like me, we've hit the jackpot with The Writer's Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by the historian Huw Lewis-Jones. It's a delightful collection of all sorts of literary maps—ones from books, ones that have inspired the writers of books, ones that they sketched while they were writing their books that never made it between the boards upon publication.

Favorites of mine show up, ones that I clearly remember poring over as a kid. The voyages of the Walker children from Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons books. Thoreau's survey map of Walden Pond. Ernest Shepherd's depictions of Pooh's 100 Acre Wood and the Riverbank from The Wind in the Willows. Those last two are in a style that I particularly enjoy because they show actual scenes and characters scattered throughout the otherwise two-dimensional representation. I think they're the reason that I love going to a new city or finding an advertising map for a neighborhood with particular buildings highlighted through being drawn onto the grid.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I really enjoy topography in a map. I have rolls stuffed with such acquired from various topographical organizations, the kind you have to spread out over a table where you can follow the courses of rivers, mountain ranges, peaks and valleys.

There's an excellent selection of them in The Writer's Map as well as every sort you can imagine. Maps from Moby-Dick and Treasure Island. Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Kerouac's rough plans for the trip he took in On the Road, and "The Marauder's Map" from the Harry Potter books. Tolkien's Middle Earth, of course, but also visual delights such as Bernard Sleigh's An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, though unfortunately the reproduction here is printed a little too small to appreciate properly.

I could spend paragraphs citing them all, so let me just say that they will provide hours of enjoyment for map lovers.

There's also plenty to read, with essays by various authors and illustrators. From Philip Pullman to Joanne Harris, Roland Chambers to Miraphora Mina and so many others. Their pieces are well written and informative and filled with personal reminiscences. Chris Riddell closes the book with a wonderful memoir/essay about libraries that had me smiling and nodding in agreement throughout.

But the art is the star here, pages and pages of every sort of map you can imagine, reproduced on oversized pages to delight and confound the viewer with their detail and imaginative depictions of a three-dimensional world reduced to two.

Completing the book is an excellent section on recommendations for further reading and an index, always useful in this sort of a book.

Recommended.

 

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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. EBooks may be sent as an attachment to cdelint@gmail.com.

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