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March 2000
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

Scribner, 1999; 523pp; $28.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-684-85351-5

Stephen King's first novel for Scribner (Bag of Bones) was touted a his break-out book--the one that would put him on the literary map, a step or two removed from his genre roots (though as King himself has put it, he's a brand name author; he's in his own genre).

I'd say that this is the novel that should do it, if any can.

Not that King needs to be taken seriously by the literary world. He already has millions of readers who care only that he promises and delivers a good story, with great characters and plots that keep them turning the pages as fast as they can read them. But for long-time fans it always seems unfair that he's not taken as seriously as he should be. Yes, he's entertaining. But when he's at the top of his form, as he certainly is here, he can be as provocative and inspired as <insert your favorite literary author here>.

Hearts in Atlantis is the Great American Baby Boomer novel. It focuses on the generation that came of age during the turbulent sixties, the days of hippiedom and the Vietnam War, exploring their roots as well as what became of them when the love-beads and Purple Hearts were put away in boxes and the future arrived. There is a small fantastical element in the novel's connection to his Wastelands series that might prove a little perplexing to those unfamiliar with those books, but happily it doesn't play a major role and is soon swallowed by other, more pertinent matters.

The novel--and I insist on calling it that--unfolds in five stand-alone sections ranging in length from novella to short story. The reason I call it a novel is that while each piece does work on its own, reading them in order creates all the undertows and resonances that make the best novels so engaging. The protagonists change from story to story, but the characters reappear throughout, following disparate threads that, by the last story, prove to have been meant to be braided together from the very start.

I'm being more than vague in what the novel's actually about, but that's because I don't want to steal away one iota of the pleasure you'll find as you delve into these pages. Let me just say that I'm pleased, and I have to admit, even a little surprised, that an author such as King with so many books already under his belt, can still surpass himself the way he has here.

So if you've passed on King's work before because he's that horror writer and you don't read horror, do yourself a favor and give this book a try. It sings. It has heart. And it won't disappoint you for a moment.

Yes, he's written some gruesome horror novels and--I'll be the first to admit--some truly grotesque books. But he's also an author who has proven throughout his long career that he isn't afraid to take chances, to stand naked on the stage there in front of us and push his own boundaries. And it's because of this, because of all the times he is successful, that I have as much admiration for him as I do.

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OPUS VOLUME ONE - Barry Windsor-Smith
Fantagraphics Books, 1999; 176pp; $39.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56097-367-6

First a quick summary of Barry Windsor-Smith's career for those who might be unfamiliar with his art. Primarily known for his work in comic books, Windsor-Smith is the artist--along with Michael Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Charles Vess, and a handful of others--who brought the sensibilities of the Pre-Raphaelites and turn-of-the-century book illustrators to a field of art that, before the early seventies, was best known for ludicrously-proportioned, spandex-wearing superheroes drawn in a simple, if energetic fashion. (Sadly, in many cases, the field hasn't changed at all, except that the focus now seems to be on "bad girls" with big swords or big guns, still ludicrously-proportioned, but exchanging the spandex for leather and latex outfits.)

From his work on the early issues of Conan the Barbarian, where his art provided a shimmering, magical vision that the sometimes pedestrian plotlines didn't always deserve, to current projects, such as the recent "Storytellers" series and the hardback graphic novel Adastra in Africa (also available from Fantagraphics), Windsor-Smith's art has constantly pushed the boundaries of the field. And if some of his earlier work didn't have the narrative flow of, say, a Jack Kirby, each panel, taken by itself, was still a tiny masterpiece in its own right.

These days, he's mastered the storytelling flow from panel to panel without sacrificing any of the detail and complexity of the art itself.

Now to the book in hand.

I was a little surprised, once I began to read the text of what I thought was simply a new book focused on his art. Rather than the usual commentary/biographical material that would ordinarily accompany a monograph, I found, instead, the first installment of Windsor-Smith's autobiography. Sort of.

Let me explain. While the text is autobiographical, it details only a few weeks in the beginning of Windsor-Smith's career, focusing on a trio of extraordinary events that occurred to him while living in New York City: two precognitive, one visionary, all three described in great detail. Did these events actually occur? I don't think that's really the point. Windsor-Smith appears more interested in discussing the boundaries of perception than he is in convincing us as to whether or not the events actually happened, while his descriptions of them, and his additional commentaries, present the visual artist as a man who is also a skilled writer.

As a prose stylist he proves to be thoughtful and lyrical, yet also humorous and down-to-earth, and the text allows a glimpse into the fertile mind that has been creating such wonderful art for more than three decades now. One begins to understand where some of the imagery in his drawings and paintings originates when the art is viewed through the prism of his life experience. Side trip observations on consensual reality and simplified discussions on some of the theories of modern physics only make the dialogue all that more fascinating.

But you're not interested in that sort of thing? You're only interested in his art? Well, Opus, Volume One fulfills the role of a traditional monograph at the same time, providing just as much of a visual feast for the eyes as the text does for the mind. Almost every page presents examples of gorgeous art--rendered in pencil, pen & ink, watercolors, and even oils. The production values are superb--although this observation comes from someone who can't compare the originals to what appears here on the page, so I can't vouch for how true the reproductions are. Still, considering Windsor-Smith's attention to detail as it comes out in the text, one assumes he was involved in all parts of the publication process, and that what we get here are approved versions.

Each piece of art--much of it previously published, but with a good sampling of sketchbook material and other rare items included--comes with a full commentary considering the art's inspiration, initial appearance, and odd little tidbits of information. They're both entertaining and informative, showing that, had he wished, Windsor-Smith could easily have gone the usual route for this sort of collection with great success. Personally, I'm glad he chose the more adventurous course.

All in all, Opus, Volume One is a wonderful glimpse into the mind and art of one of the field's more talented individuals. And best of all, from that "Volume One" in its title, we can only assume that there are further installments still to come.

* * *
THE FAIRIES - Suza Scalora
Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins, 1999; no page count; $19.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-06-028234-7

Readers of this column might already be aware of photographer Suza Scalora's work, if only inadvertently, since her photographs have adorned the book jackets of the last few books by Francesca Lia Block (reviewed in previous column installments). In fact, the cover of I was a Teenage Fairy is reproduced here in a much more vibrant print than was used on the dustjacket.

How you'll react to the text of the book depends on your temperament. Much like the Brian Froud/Terry Jones collaboration, Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, Scarola's The Fairies purports to be a quest to investigate the denizens of faerie, though Scarola doesn't squish them between a book's pages the way Lady Cottington did. Instead, we're given these clever, and often quite evocative, photographs with their accompanying text of what sort of fairy it depicts, a bit of its history, and where and how Scarola managed to take the picture.

It's all quite harmless fun, really. And even if the text leaves you cold, the photographs are quite stunning.

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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.

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