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Books To Look For
Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli, Clarion Books, 2017, $17.99, tpb.
Fish Girl is certainly one of the more charming graphic novels I've read in a while, a retelling of The Little Mermaid, except instead of being a romance, it's a story of empowerment.
Fish Girl's home is a tank in Ocean Wonders, a boardwalk aquarium in an unnamed town. She lives mostly underwater (although she can also breathe air), has a mermaid tail, and she's the principal attraction. She's been trained to only let people gets glimpses of her so that they'll be intrigued and keep coming back, hoping for a better look. Her only friend is an octopus until a human girl named Livia catches a good look at her and becomes determined that they be friends.
Ocean Wonders is run by a man who calls himself Neptune and has a whole spiel for visitors that includes his magically calling up waves and storms in the aquarium. He's told Fish Girl that he rescued her and that she's only safe with him. If her existence ever became known, they'd take her away and her life would be over.
This whole business with Neptune and his control over Fish Girl is a bit creepy—as I guess it's supposed to be—because of the way it echoes too many real world situations where women and girls are locked up physically or emotionally by some man. One can't help but cheer each small rebellion Fish Girl undertakes, including her acceptance of the name Livia gives her: Mira, short for Miracle.
When Mira finally realizes that Neptune's a fraud, that he's not her protector but her captor, she becomes determined to escape.
Fish Girl is a truly captivating modern fairy tale. The art is gorgeous throughout and hits all the marks for good narrative storytelling while retaining a singular beauty in each individual panel. Wiesner also does a wonderful job with expressive faces, especially those of the two girls. It reminded me a little of Terry Moore's work (Strangers in Paradise among others, including the current Motor Girl), Moore also having the gift of showing expressive features in just a few lines.
There's so much I love about this book. The friendship of the girls, Mira's bravery, that lovely loyal octopus, the sweeping images as Mira swims with fish from "room" to "room" in the aquarium. All the art throughout, actually.
I wish the dialogue and captions were as strong. They're all a little simplistic and flat—which makes sense from the captions in Mira's point of view since she has so little life experience beyond the confines of the aquarium, but I would have loved the rest to have some of that timeless lyricism writers such as Jane Yolen or Patricia A. McKillip can bring to a modern fairy tale.
But the prose is sufficient to fill in the gaps that the art can't, and the art's the star here. And really, one couldn't ask for more than what Wiesner has given us.
The Silent Corner, by Dean Koontz, Bantam Books, 2017, $28, hc.
It's been a while since this column had a look at what Dean Koontz has been up to, so I thought his new series might be a good time to check in.
The problem with Koontz is that his work is so consistent. In book after book, his heroic characters are likeable, the antagonists despicable, but both are also very believable in that none of them are only one thing. The plots are well-considered, perfectly paced, and while firmly set in the here and now, they're invariably driven by some near future sf-related concept. The prose is straightforward but contains erudite and lyrical elements that enhance its storytelling flow.
So what's the problem?
Finding something new to say about his books without becoming repetitive.
The Silent Corner is the first in a series featuring FBI agent Jane Hawk, and although Koontz tends to write standalone books, it isn't his first series. Previous to it there were his Odd Thomas books and the unfinished Moonlight Bay trilogy that included Fear Nothing (1998) and Seize the Night (1999) (a series I wish he would finish; I can't be the only reader still interested in how it all turns out).
The novel opens four months after the suicide of Jane's husband Nick. His death, with its cryptic suicide note, was so out of character that she felt compelled to investigate further, discovering that her husband was only one of a growing rash of similarly out-of-character suicides. She realizes she's on to something when she gets a chilling threat to stop. If she doesn't, her five-year-old son Travis will be kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Unwilling to leave Travis vulnerable, but unable to stop her investigation, Jane sells her house, takes Travis, and goes off the grid. Which is where the book gets its title. As Koontz says in an epigraph, "Those who are truly off the grid and cannot be tracked by any technology, yet are able to move about freely and use the Internet, are said to be in the silent corner."
Leaving Travis with trusted friends who have no apparent connection to her, Jane ups her investigation, which causes her opposition to up their pursuit of her. And this is the point where Jane realizes just how widespread their reach is.
Koontz's books are usually penned in the style of thrillers ruled by the ticking clock. X must be accomplished by such-and-such a time or a disastrous Y will ensue. The Silent Corner is more of a blend of thriller and police procedural, a mystery that must be unraveled step by painful step, but the stakes are high, time is running out, and it's difficult for Jane to see the end game.
I don't want to go into too much more detail because half the pleasure of this sort of book is the surprise and suspense of what happens next. I will say that although there is an overall arc that remains ongoing, The Silent Corner has a satisfying conclusion while still whetting the reader's anticipation for the next installment.
As I mentioned above, it's hard to find something fresh to say about Koontz. Happily, Koontz himself has no trouble delivering stories that are fresh, cutting-edge, and utterly satisfying.
Of Flesh and Bone, by A.G. Carpenter, Falstaff Books, 2017, $2.99, eBook.
I was really curious if A.G. Carpenter could pull a hat trick with this final entry into her Powers trilogy. If you read my review of the first two novellas, you might remember that what drew me into the story was the mood. In that review I wrote:
"Some writers have the ability to convey [mood] with lyricism and a delicious sense of foreboding and dread. The late Charles L. Grant was one of them. In these novellas, A.G. Carpenter is obviously another.
"Of course things happen. The plot moves forward. The characters are fascinating and might seem a little understated but the same sense of mood that lies over the story as a whole also permeates them so that while we aren't necessarily given a great deal about them, we still know them. The small rural southern town and the forest around it which serve as the setting ooze humidity and gravitas.
"I got more out of each of these novellas than I do from a lot of full-length novels."
And the above all still holds true.
It could be argued that the three novellas are basically just a regular-length book, published in parts, but with all three of them now out (and an omnibus probably on the way), that fact is moot, since you don't have to wait to read the complete story.
I'd like to talk more about the plot of this third entry but I really don't want to spoil how Carpenter lets the story play out. I can tell you that she pulls more inventive tricks and concepts out of her bag and I was utterly satisfied with how it all came to fruition.
These novellas were my first introduction to Carpenter, and on the strength of them, I will certainly be seeking out more of her work.
The Book Club, by Alan Baxter, PS Australia, 2017, $20, hc.
I haven't kept up on the horror field as much as I once did, so my touchstones are pretty much pre-nineties. I do know that it remains as popular as ever in novels and short stories, film, TV, and comics, though the genre lines have become a little blurred since many of its iconic tropes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, monsters, psycho killers—have been co-opted by other genres. These days you're more likely to run across a vampire in an urban fantasy.
What hasn't been co-opted yet, however, is cosmic horror. Many of my generation and earlier were introduced to it through the work of Clark Ashton Smith, where we were brought face-to-face with the unspeakable and unpronounceable entities that exist in the depths of the ocean, the deeps of space, or some other plane of existence. Smith's concepts were honed by H. P. Lovecraft to such an extent that Lovecraft could be considered the grandfather of this kind of horror.
It's not something I've run across in contemporary fantasy, but apparently it's still alive and well in the horror field.
However, Alan Baxter's novella The Book Club opens with a different kind of horror.
Wednesday night is Kate Wilkes's time to herself. She goes to a martial arts class after work, and from there to her book club, usually getting home around eleven-thirty.
At quarter past twelve, her husband Jason begins to worry because she still isn't home and her cell phone just goes to voice mail. He calls the contact number he has for her book club but the man named Dave who answers says she left the same time as always and should have been home by now. He suggests that Jason start calling around to hospitals and the police.
Jason does without positive results. And now he realizes he's considered a suspect in his wife's mysterious disappearance.
At this point, and through pretty much the first half of the book, you might be forgiven for thinking you're reading a mystery thriller of some sort. The prose is matter-of-fact—one might even consider it a little flat—but the puzzle was what kept me reading.
The book club, as you might suspect, is not as benign as it sounds. The truth of it and the people in it soon drop Jason into a world he never suspected could exist.
The cosmic horror, when it begins to rear its head, is more subtle than in a Lovecraft story. The novella also doesn't end abruptly in ellipses as the horror shambles through the door, or rises from the depths. In fact, the sense that this might all be imagined remains a very real possibility as well.
The Book Club proves that there's still new terrain to explore in even such an old trope as Lovecraftian horror. Baxter does an excellent job of bringing it into contemporary times, and better still, throws in a few twists and surprises that are based on the characters rather than the supernatural elements they encounter.
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix, Quirk Books, 2017, $24.99, tpb.
Speaking of eighties horror, as I was above, here's a history art book for the aficionado of the same.
For a modern reader, the garish covers of the books discussed in Paperbacks from Hell, not to mention their over-the-top plots and gleeful gore, might seem the antithesis of one's more refined contemporary literary palette. But while these days such books are relegated to the dollar bins of used book stores and thrift shops, there was a time when they ruled the spin racks of drug stores, airports, and wherever else popular paperbacks were sold.
What they had going for them was their authors' unbridled imaginations and enthusiasm. With their roots in the pulps (where the one true law was deliver Story) they rampaged through the seventies and eighties with gusto and a lack of any sort of self-restraint. Nazi leprechauns, were-sharks, killer slime, Satanists, and the like.
Grady Hendrix does a fantastic job of capturing the mood of the times when these pulpy horror books had their heyday. And I especially appreciated how he weaves in the history of those decades with the ebb and flow of the subject matter of the books under discussion, tying it all together with a prose style that feels like you're sitting together with a bunch of friends, riffing on popular culture.
And then there's the art of the covers. Is it garish and in your face, gruesome and twisted? Yes it is. Is it fine art, something you'd want hanging on your wall? Probably not. But it grabs your attention, and you can no more look away than you can from the scene of an accident.
Fans of today's genre fiction probably look on these books with the same disdain that "serious" fantasy and science fiction writers looked upon the pulps. But these books opened doors in terms of what writers could write about, and how they wrote about it.
Was it all wonderful plots and stories, delivered in prose that sang (albeit to a heavy metal soundtrack)? Not really. But there were gems, just as there are in any genre. The difficulty is always to find the grain in amongst all the chaff.
As an aside, I find it interesting how in certain circles it's decried that indie publishing bypasses the gatekeepers (editors, publishing houses) who keep the fiction we read to a high standard. The truth is there's always been a lot of crap out there, vying for our reading time. Whenever a certain subgenre becomes popular, publishers fall over themselves to get a piece of the action, which results in a lot of bad books, even from our so-called gatekeepers.
Indie publishing fills a gap in a time when traditional publishing is more concerned with bestsellers and quarterly increases for their corporate bosses. Most indie authors are writing books that they'd like to read that aren't being published, which means there are others out there who might be looking for similar stories.
In the end, it's readers who decide what they want to read. The popularity of any style of book lives or dies on the interest of readers, regardless of what the gatekeepers think they should like.
For a time a lot of them loved these books, and I'm grateful to Hendrix for reminding us of that, delivering his message in a style worthy of his subject matter. I remember this time in publishing fondly and came away from Paperbacks from Hell with a long list of books I need to reread, from early King and Charles L. Grant to James Herbert, Kathe Koja, Dennis Etchison and so many more.
I just loved this book.
Killfile, by Christopher Farnsworth, William Morrow, 2016, $25.99, hc.
Flashmob, by Christopher Farnsworth, William Morrow, 2017, $26.99, hc.
So unbeknownst to me before I started Killfile, Christopher Farnsworth is the author of a popular thriller/horror series centered around Nathaniel Cade, the President's Vampire. It's an intriguing premise, postulating that in 1867, after the vampire Cade was captured, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him in exchange for service to the United States. A blood oath, administered by voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, binds him to protect the president and the nation for as long as he exists.
Beginning with Blood Oath, there are three novels and two novellas set in the present day chronicling Cade's adventures. If you're a fan of supernatural thrillers, the kind that involve conspiracies like the Illuminati, then I highly recommend the series to you.
But I only discovered all of this after I'd finished reading Killfile and went looking to see what else Farnsworth had written.
Killfile is another style of thriller centering around a man named John Smith who can read minds. The cover flap sums it all up well: "John Smith has a special gift that seems more like a curse: He can access other people's thoughts. He hears the songs stuck in their heads, knows their most private traumas and fears, and relives the painful memories they can't let go of. The CIA honed his skills until he was one of their most powerful operatives, but John fled the Agency and now works as a private consultant, trying to keep the dark potentials of his gift in check—and himself out of trouble."
What I liked about Killfile was the thought Farnsworth put into what this ability would actually be like. For one thing, Smith can't read minds, only thoughts, so you have to be thinking of the information he wants for him to be successful in pulling it from your head. But that's the easy part. Most of us, when asked a question, have the answer pop into our heads even if we refuse to say it aloud.
He can also put suggestions into people's heads. He can make them think they're in a different situation from the one they're actually in. For instance they might think they're aiming a gun at him, but drawing from a Rolodex of experiences, Smith can make them think that they're having an acute appendicitis attack, that they're on fire, that they're about to be attacked by a giant shark, that they've been shot pointblank.
The down side of this is that Smith feels it, too. He can postpone his own reaction but eventually it all catches up. On a busy day this can leave him debilitated. To cope he ends up drinking to excess and using a lot of painkillers.
In Killfile Smith takes on a job from billionaire software developer Everett Sloan to get close to a rival and retrieve some valuable intellectual property the man stole from him. It seems straightforward enough, except that just as Smith's about to get what he needs, it all goes sideways and he's on the run for his life, with Sloan's young associate Kelsey in tow.
The forces lined up against them point to a vast conspiracy, and their only hope to get out of it alive is to stay off the grid and for Smith to use his gift to an extent he never has before.
In Flashmob, the most recent book (and I suppose its existence is an obvious spoiler since Smith survives the events in Killfile to feature in this sequel), Smith is at the wedding of a reality TV star he recently rescued when the wedding is attacked by gunmen, their shots hitting the bride and some of her guests. Smith manages to stop her from being killed, but some of the attackers get away.
After the father of the bride asks Smith to find out who's responsible, Smith's investigation leads him to a site called Downvote on the Dark Web where visitors vote to have the people that annoy them harassed. The site also has a top-ten list of celebrities and offers a hefty bounty for anyone who can kill them.
It's a dark twist on the usual idea of a flashmob where a group will assemble in a shopping mall to play a piece of music, or gather on the street for what appears to be an impromptu dance number. And the sad thing—given the level of anger and hate that seems to be constantly percolating on the Internet—is, the idea of Downvote doesn't seem as far-fetched as one might hope.
These two John Smith novels are taut thrillers with a good lead character voice in the first person point of view of Smith. They're fun, but also tackle current issues while giving us excellent entertainment value.
Waking in Time, by Angie Stanton, Switch Press, 2017, $17.95, hc.
I like a suspense book as much as anyone, a thriller in which the lives of everyone in a city, or even the world, hang in balance. But I probably enjoy a smaller story more, one that affects only a few people. A traumatic event can have just as much impact on their lives as a big widescreen, surround sound event can have on the lives of many. In fact, the latter is only really successful for me when it focuses on a few amongst the many.
And I do like a time travel story.
So Angie Stanton's Waking in Time intrigued me, because not only does it involve traveling through time, it focuses on only a couple of characters and how being lost in time impacts them and the people in their lives.
Present day Abbi is still mourning the loss of her grandmother when she begins her classes at UW Madison for her freshman year. On her second morning, she wakes in her dorm room to find that the year is now 1983 and everything except for what was on her bed when she fell asleep the night before belongs to a different time. Worse, this turns out to be just the first step of her inexplicable journey back through time.
Coming from the year 1927, freshman Will's journey is the opposite of Abbi's, as he's moving forward through time. Whenever they meet, one knows more about the other. Tying the two together on campus and trying to help them make sense of what's happening to them is Professor Smith from the physics department, although when Will first meets him he's just another student.
Needless to say, Abbi and Will are quietly freaking out. The fact that they're sharing the experience makes each the other's anchor.
The characters are wonderful. I really enjoyed how Abbi got to meet her grandmother as a young woman and the other connections that abound as the two travel forward and backward through time. The story hangs together well and I think any alumni will really enjoy the peeks into the different time periods of UW Madison, though I've never been on the campus and I was intrigued so the appeal is wider.
The why of the time traveling gets more mileage than the how, but that didn't trouble me. There were other puzzles and mysteries that did keep me guessing (and are resolved) and I was invested in the characters enough that even their quiet moments kept me wanting to find out what happens next.
This isn't necessarily for the diehard sf fan, but it's a warm book with charming characters that I enjoyed from start to finish.
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