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Books To Look For
Relentless, by Dean Koontz,
A Big Little Life, by Dean Koontz,
RELENTLESS is the new Dean Koontz, a fast-paced thriller about what happens when a writer lets a bad review get to him. It has great characters and writing, mixes humor with drama, and goes at a rollercoaster pace in places. But we've talked a lot about Koontz's novels in this column and I don't know that we need to discuss another at this time except to say that if you enjoy his style of thriller, Relentless won't disappoint you.
At the moment I'm more interested in talking about A Big Little Life, a nonfiction love letter to the memory of his golden retriever Trixie. Trixie was an assistance dog, trained by Canine Companions for Independence in California, who was retired after three years due to an injury. She went on to live with Koontz and his wife Gerda for another nine years before succumbing to cancer.
Any dog lover is going to appreciate Dean's memories of Trixie, though how many readers of this magazine will do so purely on the basis of its subject matter is up for conjecture since most people in the f/sf field appear to prefer cats. Perhaps it's because cats are completely content to spend long periods of time sleeping while you read or watch a movie—so long as you absently scratch it behind the ear, or let it sprawl out beside or on top of you while you're doing so. Dogs require a larger commitment of time.
I'm generalizing, of course. I grew up in a rural setting where we always had cats and dogs, and we have one of each as I write this. My cat's content to spend hours sleeping on her bed on one of the bookcases in my office while I work. The dog would rather go for a walk or play, and gives me mournful looks when I can't do either.
But I'm drifting away from the real reasons I want to talk about A Big Little Life in this column.
For one thing, it's a wonderfully positive book, without being saccharine—something that's a bit of a rarity in this cynical age in which we find ourselves. And if you catch yourself groaning as you read that, well, point made (if not necessarily taken).
But the reason A Big Little Life should be of particular interest is for the insight it gives into the mind and heart of one of the major writers of the f/sf field.
Wait a minute, you might say. Isn't Koontz a horror writer?
Well, he's written books that might be considered such, but he started in this field by writing sf, and most of his novels fit under the somewhat larger umbrella of speculative fiction. The stories take a simple scientific principle, something we might see in the newspaper, or it was given a passing reference on the evening news, which Koontz then spins out in the best tradition of "what if?"
Even referring to his books as thrillers is somewhat of a misnomer since they tend to contain a lot of humor without sacrificing "the ticking clock" that a thriller requires.
I like the mix, but having followed Koontz's work for a long time now, one of the things that's intrigued me in reading his more recent books is the spirituality that has come to underlie many of the stories in the past six or seven years. It has its basis in Christianity but bears little relation to the more strident elements that are usually presented to us by way of radio shows, TV evangelists, and the news whenever some particularly provocative quote can make a headline.
The truth is that the followers of most religions go about the practice of their faith in a much less confrontational manner. It's the militant element that gets the press because they make better headlines. Unfortunately that leaves those of us on the outside with a distorted view of what it's actually about. And probably embarrasses the believers who follow their religion's actual tenets, rather than distortions pulled out of context from their holy texts.
The spirituality that has begun to work its way into Koontz's books is of the quieter sort, embracing rather than judgmental. Koontz tells us in A Big Little Life that he had drifted away from the Church, but all it took was a single dog—which both science and the Church have decided doesn't have a soul—to remind him that there's more to the world than what can be seen and measured and catalogued.
The whole trick to writing something that will be meaningful to your readers is to write about what's meaningful to you. Koontz has always done this, but much of what he's chosen to write about has been on the outside. Now he's looking inside—a parting gift from the remarkable dog who came into his life one fateful day in 1998—and his books are the richer and more resonant for doing so.
I'm not saying A Big Little Life is a religious tract. First and foremost, it's a wonderful story about an extraordinary dog. The insight it gives into Koontz's novels is simply a bonus.
Here After, by Sean Costello,
Sean Costello made a bit of a splash in the late eighties/early nineties with books such as Eden's Eyes and The Cartoonist. He penned one more horror novel and a couple of thrillers before he kind of faded from the public eye. This tends to happen in the publishing field for any number of reasons, so when it did, I did what most readers do: I found other things to read.
But I remembered liking those books, so when Here After showed up in my P.O. box, I was happy to give it a try.
Peter Croft is an anesthesiologist. At the beginning of the book he's just lost his ten-year-old son, David. Grief makes it hard for him to let go and he spirals into an understandable depression that makes him unable to do his job properly. Instead, he sits in his empty house, just marking time. But then he starts to get what seem to be messages from David with clues to children who have gone missing.
Suddenly, Croft has a purpose again.
It doesn't matter that people think he's crazy—he thinks he might be a little crazy—but it gives him a chance to connect to his boy once more and maybe help others from having to go through what he did.
Costello hasn't lost his touch over the years. The prose is still sharp, the characters well drawn. That said, I found this a hard book to read—particularly the first third—and I imagine it would be even more difficult for anyone who has lost a child. Croft's grief is so deep, and it's so realistically portrayed, that it leaves one feeling emotionally drained.
I'm not saying it's a bad book—not by any means. But it's not one that I would ever reread.
Three Days to Dead, by Kelly Meding,
What a terrific opening: Evangeline Stone wakes up on a cold morgue table, in a stranger's body, with a big gap in her memory that includes how she ended up there in the first place.
She's one of a Triad of bounty hunters whose job is to get rid of all the murderous creatures that exist just out of sight: vampires, trolls, and the like. Stone's Triad were the best at their job, but something happened and now all three of them are dead, except Stone has come back, stuck in the body of a recent suicide that has none of the motor skills Stone once took for granted.
She needs to find out what happened, but every Triad, every monster, even the mundane police are after her. She's on the run and on a deadline because it also turns out that the reincarnation spell is going to wear off in three days. When it does, she'll die again, but this time it's for good.
Three Days to Dead is a fun, fast-paced book, with a likable lead and a lot of energy. I liked pretty much everything about it, though I could have done without the complete Hollywood ending. The first rule of magic is that there should be a cost, otherwise it becomes too much like pulling a rabbit out of a hat as opposed to something with resonance. But hey, there's already a second book in the series on the publisher's schedule, so it's not like we didn't know how it would turn out.
Street Magic, by Caitlin Kittredge,
I have one big problem with this book, and I'll get to it in a moment. First, let me tell you this is a great addition to the ever-expanding sub-genre of Urban Fantasy.
Pete Caldecott (a woman, never mind the distraction of the name) is a Detective Inspector with the London police. While investigating the kidnapping of a young girl, she follows a tip only to come face-to-face with a mage named Jack Winter whom she saw killed before her eyes twelve years previously. Winter is still the bleached-blond, punk rock reprobate she knew, except now he has a heroin habit. Otherwise, he's very much alive.
Kittredge reveals their history before Winter's "death" in bits and pieces throughout the text as a determined Caldecott and reluctant Winter track down the kidnappers. The latter are from "Black London," a dangerous hidden world where supernatural creatures live, magic is real, and life is cheap.
Winter is completely at home in Black London, respected and feared, with a running Escape from New York joke where the first thing everyone says when they see him is, "I thought you were dead." Caldecott has connections to the hidden realm as well, something that surprises and frightens her, but not enough to stop her from tracking down the kidnappers who, by this point, have snatched more than one child.
Now I've heard that some British readers find that the Brit idioms in Street Magic don't entirely ring true to their ears, but I, and I'm sure most North American readers, won't pick up on that. The dialogue worked for me. I liked the back and forth between Caldecott and Winter and how Caldecott doesn't suffer fools. She's bright, smart, full of attitude, but with the wherewithal to back it up. Black London succeeds in being both quirky and dark, and includes a great updating of the Green Man theme. And the story itself works as a bewitching combination of fantasy, punky mainstream, horror, and noir detective.
I even liked Jack Winter.
All in all, it's a terrific debut of a new series except for one thing: I've met Jack Winter before.
Now I understand offering up a homage to another creator's work. It's part of the conversation of art where one work inspires another. But there's no indication anywhere in the text that Kittredge is paying tribute to John Constantine, the character Alan Moore created in Swamp Thing. Constantine went on to be featured in his own series, Hellblazer, which is still being published on a monthly basis.
Kittredge's Winter is more like Constantine than Keanu Reeves was in the movie Hellblazer, and that was an official adaptation. The similarities abound: their punk rock beginnings, the London setting (okay, Constantine is from Newcastle, but he's best known for being based in London), the disastrous spell gone wrong in their past, the bleached hair, the self-centered personalities that rub everybody the wrong way until they turn on the charm, the hodge-podge magic that gets them out of one scrape after another, but with an underlying understanding that they also carry a bigger and more dangerous magical heritage.
Sure, there are little differences, but they're inconsequential. The only real difference is that Winter is a junkie (something the cover artist or art director missed with the buff Winter on the book's cover, but that isn't Kittredge's fault.)
I really wanted to like this book. I really did like it, but I kept getting kicked out when one more thing would remind me of how this could just as easily be a novelization of a Hellblazer story, though of course it isn't.
What's disappointing about this is that Kittredge has the writing chops and imagination to spare. She shows flare and originality throughout Street Magic, except with this one character. Unfortunately, this character is a major one, and unlike borrowing from folklore or mythology, he's not up for grabs.
Dark Entries, by Ian Rankin & Werther Dell'edera,
And speaking of John Constantine, crime writer Ian Rankin takes a turn penning a story that sees Constantine coming up against the horror of…reality television.
Haunted Mansion is a new British reality show and a huge success until the house actually starts attacking the contestants. Constantine is called in as a consultant and is put into the house and on the show to see if he can find out what's going on from the inside. The problem is, the whole thing's a trap set especially for Constantine, and there's no way out.
Rankin brings a new spin to the character, placing him in a far different setting than the usual seedy London streets where we would expect to find Constantine. But while Dark Entries proves to be effective as a new Hellblazer adventure, it also works as a telling commentary on the current state of popular culture without even a hint of a lecturing tone.
The art is in black and white, courtesy of Werther Dell'edera, best known before this as the artist on Vertigo's Loveless series. His art is spare, with a lot of vigorous linework, mostly composed of many widescreen panels per page, which I'm assuming is to mimic the experience of watching widescreen TV.
If you haven't tried Hellblazer before, Dark Entries is an excellent entry point.
Locke & Key #1: Welcome to Lovecraft, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez,
Locke & Key #1: Head Games, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez,
There are so many comics published these days that it's impossible to keep up on them all—not to mention, who can afford to? But there are shining examples of the genre that shouldn't be missed and this is one.
Readers of this column will be familiar with Joe Hill. He's an acclaimed short story writer and novelist with a handful of awards under his belt and an impeccable lineage for a writer of dark fantasy and horror. Gabriel Rodriguez is best known for his work on Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show. Together they have created one of the more fascinating and original fantasies I've run across in some time.
In volume one we meet the Locke children, teenagers Tyler, Kinsey, and their younger brother, Bode. Their father was a teacher and in the opening pages we learn that he has been killed by an ex-student. To get them away from all the attention and hoopla surrounding their father's gruesome death, their mother, Nina, moves them from out west to their father's old family home in New England, to a house named Keylocke in the town of Lovecraft. (You have to ask yourself, if you were in a situation like this, would you move to a place called Lovecraft? But I digress.…)
Keylocke is a big rambling house full of secrets, some of them quirky and kind of cool, some of them deadly. It all hinges around these magical keys. There's the Anywhere Key that allows you to open a door and step through to anyplace you want to be. The Head Key which, when inserted into the back of the head (where a keyhole magically appears), allows you to take out things that you don't like (like the ability to feel sad, or a specific incident) or put in things (such as a textbook from school so that you don't have to study because you know everything in the book now). There's the Ghost Key that when you turn it in a lock, makes you fall down—for all intents and purposes, you're dead, but your ghost can go anywhere. And there are others, their abilities not yet described in the book, like the Gender Key, and the Echo Key.
Young Bode finds the first of them and that sets into motion a whole string of events that just go from bad to worse. I don't want to tell you too much because the joy of inventive series such as this is in your discovery of each new marvel and danger. Let me just say that Hill never goes exactly where you think he will, and therein lies much of the pleasure.
I mentioned earlier that the three principal characters are a child and two teenagers, but there's a large cast of all ages and this definitely isn't a book aimed at young adults, though I'm sure they'd enjoy it. I don't know how I missed this series previously, but I'll be checking it out on a monthly basis from now on.
Hunting Ground, by Patricia Briggs,
Mercy Thompson: Homecoming, by Patricia Briggs, David Lawrence, Francis Tsai, & Amelia Woo,
I'm not going to spend a lot of column space on these two books. It's more to let you know that the second "Alpha and Omega" novel is just as strong a contender as any of Briggs's previous Urban Fantasy books.
As for Homecoming, Del Rey's done a fine job of collecting the first arc in hardcover. We talked about some individual issues in a previous column, but to recap quickly, this tells the story of Mercy's arrival in the Tri Cities and shows us how she first met many of the familiar characters from the prose series. At the time we last looked in on them, only a couple of issues were out, showing lots of promise. I can tell you that all involved did a fine job of bringing the story to a satisfactory conclusion. And it's a handsome, if slender, book.
If you're a fan of the prose series, you don't want to miss this.
From the Pen of Paul: The Fantastic Images of Frank R. Paul, edited by Stephen D. Korshak,
I'm a big fan of old pulp magazine art, especially the covers. The big bright colors; the inventive machines, space ships, aliens, and monsters; the glorious imagined landscapes of other planets and the deeps of space. These artists had no access to the resources we have today, yet their depictions remain iconic.
Tastes in art have changed over the years. What was once commercial and a selling point is now considered quaintly old-fashioned. But for those of us interested in the history of the field, the art from the old pulps are still eye-popping signposts along the way of biographies and bibliographies—gateways into a world that never was, but remains alive in our imaginations.
One of the first practitioners in the field was a young Viennese artist who arrived in the States in the early part of the twentieth century, bringing with him the more mundane artistic skills of calligraphy and architectural and mechanical drafting, all of which he used to underpin the subsequent fantastic flights of imagination that he created for the early pulp magazines.
Frank R. Paul is rightly called the father of science fiction illustration, as he was the cover artist for Hugh Gernsback's first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926, for which he also designed the magazine's iconic logo. He went on to do more than 200 published covers and five times that many black and white interior illustrations. His art illustrated stories by the likes of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Williamson, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Perhaps more importantly, his art on the cover of magazines first attracted to the field young men who would later become giants: authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, the artist Chesley Bonestell, and even the ultimate fan, Forrest J Ackerman. When you consider how many young creative minds were stimulated to go on to do their own work after reading their books, viewing their cover art, or in the case of Ackerman, flipping through the pages of Famous Monsters, Paul's influence on our field becomes quite astonishing.
This collection reprints a wide range of Paul's early cover art from various sources—bright, fantastic paintings that leap off the page. There's a short biography and some other text, but mostly it's simply page after page of these wonderful pulp covers and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in both the history of our field and the art that brought the stories so vividly to life.
There's also a deluxe edition available for an additional $20 that contains an index of all the covers and black and white illustrations.
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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