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February 2005
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Good Girl Wants It Bad, by Scott Bradfield,
Carroll & Graf, 2004, $13.

I RAN across an article in the newspaper recently (recently being late August, 2004) that just left me shaking my head. It seems that researchers at King's College in London, England, have boiled the elements of a perfect scary film down to a science, putting together an actual equation that genre filmmakers can follow.

The first question it begs is, what brain trust put up the money for a research project such as this? Couldn't the money used to fund a project this moronic have been put to better use? Disease research, perhaps, or simply used to help alleviate world poverty and hunger?

I like the way the article put it: "Actually, the only equation that seems relevant here is nerds + too much funding any and all accountability + no women stupid formulas for horror movies." Because really, isn't the whole point of storytelling that we (either readers or viewers) don't know what's coming next?

I mention all of this because at the same time as the article appeared, I was reading Scott Bradfield's Good Girl Wants It Bad, which is about as far from formula storytelling as you can get.

To start with, it's not told in a traditional linear fashion. Mostly, it's the diary of Delilah "Lah" Riordan, a nineteen-year-old convicted serial killer awaiting her execution at the West Texas Women's Penitentiary, with the narrative jumping around from her current situation to events in the past.

Lah considers herself to be an innocent, good girl who's had some bad breaks and is basically misunderstood. And oh yes, she's had to kill a few people, but it was never really her fault. But her actions, whenever one of these incidents is recounted, don't jibe with her protestations of blamelessness.

The truth is, she's completely self-absorbed, and listening in on her diary entries is like watching a train wreck. You don't want to look, but you can't look away.

Bradfield has done quite a wonderful job with Lah's voice—it's often warm and genuinely funny (though the humor is rather mordant at times). The real horror of the novel is how you find yourself sort of liking this seemingly vacuous but well-meaning young woman—and then she throws in some brutal comment that jars you back into the realization that she is, in fact, a serial killer, without much to redeem her since she doesn't feel one iota of remorse. All she has is excuses, the most prevalent one being that the majority of the killings were done by her ex-boyfriend, a motorcycle-riding Mexican boy named Manuel who's been stalking her ever since they broke up.

There isn't much evidence that he exists, although (according to her diary) she has conversations with him, even in prison, and claims that he fathered the daughter she had to give up when she entered prison.

For a book about a serial killer, there's little graphic description of her deeds, which is fine with me, because do we need more of that? When one of the murders is recounted, it's usually in the clinical text taken from a police report.

No, as I mentioned above, the real horror of this book is the amorality of the character. But it makes for a fascinating read, morbid and, at times, uncomfortably funny.

* * *

Through Violet Eyes, by Stephen Woodworth,
Dell, 2004, $6.99.

It strikes me that there are two kinds of books that we like ("we" being readers in general): those with stories and characters we care about, and those that feature remarkable prose. They can all be found in one book, of course, but it seems to me that as soon as you start admiring the way the author is using his or her prose, you're no longer in the story.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it sort of defeats the whole idea of a good story where the prose is supposed to support the characters and their stories. On the other hand, how often do you go back and reread a book where all the prose does is support the characters and plot? I know I don't, even though I certainly enjoy those books when I'm reading them (and when they get it all right—characters I care about, a plot that keeps me guessing).

So perhaps it's a backhanded compliment to say that Stephen Woodworth's Through Violet Eyes has a great cast of characters, a smooth-flowing plot, and a great premise, with prose that's invisible and calls no attention to itself (which is not an easy trick, by the way).

Woodworth purports a time when a certain small segment of the population (physically noticeable by their violet-colored eyes) has the ability to allow the dead to borrow their bodies. The dead come knocking at a violet's mind and, depending on the violet's amount of control, they can either be kept out or let in.

Woodworth doesn't get heavily into all the ramifications of this (there is a story to be told, after all), but the teasers that don't relate to the main plot are tantalizing. Such as Beethoven entering the mind of a musician violet and writing new work now that he can hear again. Or the heavy-handed tactics of the government agency that trains and hires out violets. What we see mostly is how the violets are used in crime detection, where victims can enter the mind of a violet and relate how they were killed, and by whom.

Of course, if you don't get to see your murderer, that's not much help, and that's the problem facing our characters as an FBI agent and a violet work to stop a masked serial killer who is systematically killing violets.

I had a great time with this book, and will most likely read Woodworth's next (you get a preview of With Red Hands in the back of the current novel). But, like a good TV show, while it was diverting, and I certainly appreciated the diversion it gave me, I doubt I'll return to it for a second reading.

* * *

Fantasy Life, by Mario Milosevic,
Ruby Rose's Fairy Tale Emporium, 2004, $13.

Animal Life, by Mario Milosevic,
Ruby Rose's Fairy Tale Emporium, 2004, $13.

Every so often the perfect, if unexpected, book shows up in my P.O. box. Or in this case, the pleasure was doubled because two collections by Mario Milosevic made their appearance one morning.

I've been a great fan of Milosevic's writing for years now, tracking his poems down in on-line publications and literary journals, and always hoping for a collection to bring them all together. So, having no idea that collections were finally forthcoming, I was both surprised and delighted to come upon this pair of books.

The reason for this is simple. Unlike prose (especially such as discussed in Through Violet Eyes above), poetry requires remarkable language. That language might be warm and beautiful, it might be hard and harsh, but whatever else it does, it must make us sit up and take notice.

Poetry also doesn't require a narrative structure, nor even characters. But it does need to present us with views of the world, or an emotional state, that we had never considered before. The words and the view they present must surprise us, or move us. It must make us angry, or sad, or content, or give us a sense of hope or peace.

In other words, poetry requires an emotional investment both from the writer and the reader, and where we meet is where the magic happens.

Milosevic has done this for me in poem after poem that I've come across in the aforementioned, sometimes obscure, sources. But still I'll admit to a touch of worry that reading each book through might lessen the impact of the individual pieces. That I might grow too accustomed to his voice, or his way of viewing the world, and what seemed fresh and alive in small bites wouldn't affect me in the same way if I had a whole meal placed before me.

I shouldn't have worried. If anything, I'm even more enamored with his work after finishing these two books.

Fantasy Life seems the most appropriate of the two for discussion in this column, with its science fictional, fantasy, or simply disarmingly strange views of both inner and outer landscapes. I'll probably never view a phone the same again after reading "The Secret Life of Telephones," while "Upon a Star," in its few brief words, evokes a resonating blend of folklore, alienation, and one simple, bittersweet image.

But with its mythic undertones and curious combinations of the natural world with the one inside our heads, the companion collection proves as rewarding for those of us who appreciate a sense of wonder.

Milosevic is the author of one of my all-time favorite poems, and happily, it's available in Animal Life. It's called "When I Was" and part of what makes it work so well for me—beyond the simple yet gorgeous language and its mythic substance—is how the verses lead so perfectly into each other. Quoting from it really wouldn't do it justice, so let me direct you instead to the wonderful Endicott Studio site where you can find the poem in its entirety:

Click on the "Coffeehouse" link and you'll find it, as well as two or three others by him. If you look around the site, you'll find two or three more by him as well.

I know that poetry is highly subjective. What works for one reader leaves another cold. But all I can say is that, in this household, any new Milosevic verse is a happy find; these two collections have proved to be a treasure trove.

There are thirty worthy reprints here and one hundred thirty-three new poems. If your local book store can't get you copies, you can order them on-line from:

Or if you like reading on a PDA (and what better way to spend some time waiting in a line than to read a few poems?), direct your browser to:

* * *

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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