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February 2006
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

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt,
Bantam, 2005, $12.

WHAT AN absolute delight this book is.

Marzi McCarty is the night manager of Genius Loci. This Santa Cruz café is the favorite hangout of the local bohemian community and houses wall murals by Garamond Ray, an artist who disappeared mysteriously some fifteen years or so before the story opens. It's those murals that bring a young man named Jonathan to stay in the tiny apartment above the café while he works on his thesis about Ray, Ray's work, and his mysterious disappearance.

Marzi is also the creator of the independent comic book The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, in which her character steps through a magical door from our world into a strange and somewhat Dalí-esque version of the Old West that's based not so much on the real West as the mythical one created by decades of pulp stories and novels, Hollywood movies and TV shows. There Rangergirl wages an endless struggle against a dark and strange creature, a nightmare god of earthquakes and desolation that she knows only as the Outlaw.

In the real world, Marzi is slowly recovering from a breakdown she had a couple of years ago that left her with a bad case of agoraphobia. The problem is, it appears that the incident that set off her bout with mental illness wasn't born in her own overactive imagination.

It turns out there really is a door in the storage room of the café that leads into a version of the Old West—just like in her comic. And there really is a nightmare god of earthquakes trapped behind that door trying to get out. So far, all he can do is whisper to those most susceptible to his dark charms, convincing them to destroy the café and set him free.

Marzi doesn't twig immediately to what's going on (we wouldn't have a story of novel length if she did, now would we?), but after a number of decidedly weird encounters with customers bent on destroying her workplace, she finds herself standing alone against the Outlaw with only her best friend Lindsey and new friend Jonathan at her side.

Pratt's novel doesn't read like the debut it is. He writes with the assured prose of a seasoned pro, creating one of the more likable casts of characters it's been my pleasure to encounter. But what really has my admiration is his ability to balance perfectly the various elements of lightheartedness and melodrama, and make it all unfold in a manner that's seamlessly believable.

The heart of his book turns around loyalty and friendship, but Pratt also serves up a fascinating study into ideas of the creative impulse: where it comes from and how it affects not only our art, but also our lives.

This has been a great year for books from both established and new authors, and as far as I'm concerned, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl ranks right up around the top of the list. Kudos to Bantam's art department for a great cover, too, one that subtly but perfectly captures the two worlds in which the story takes place.

What could have made the book better? An appendix featuring a couple of issues of Rangergirl.

*     *     *

Roads, by Seabury Quinn,
Red Jacket Press, 2005, $29.95.

Children of the Atom, by Wilmar Shiras,
Red Jacket Press, 2005, $39.95.

Judgment Night, by C. L. Moore,
Red Jacket Press, 2005, $39.95.

I know that it's the words that are important—the story and how it's told—but, like most readers, I'm often seduced by cover art and packaging. So I was delighted when this little handful of books showed up in my P.O. box. And what a wonderful imprint Red Jacket Press is to be publishing these books: facsimile editions of old, long out-of-print classics from publishers such as Gnome Press and Arkham House.

There's something utterly charming about the garish covers and old-fashioned feel of the typesetting and production of these books. I'd love to have the original editions, but since they're undoubtedly far beyond my budget at this point, these are certainly the next best thing.

There's great ad copy on the back of the Gnome Press books: "For the most modern [their italics] reading of today, you'll want to read every title on this list." And there was actually a time when we could do just that. A reader could keep up with everything in the field.

But with all that said, I'm still a reader, and the question that's more important than a nostalgic glimpse into the production values of old is, do the stories still hold up?

I'd read the Moore and Shiras books, way back when, in cheaper editions. Judgment Night (original Gnome Press pub. date, 1952) is Moore's first book, a collection of five novellas that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, while Children of the Atom (original Gnome Press pub. date, 1953) is a novel set in the "distant future" of 1972.

Both books are still very readable today, although I have to admit that at times the characterization and language feel a bit quaint.

I'm familiar with Seabury Quinn, but I'd never read Roads (original Arkham House pub. date, 1948). It's a terrific retelling of the Santa Claus legend, staying true to both Christian and Norse/Teutonic traditions. While it's a somewhat brutal story (Mel Gibson wasn't the first to explore the dark side of Christ's life), it's ultimately a very positive and hopeful novella. I don't think it will necessarily make everyone's Christmas reading list—it doesn't have the universal appeal of, say, A Child's Christmas in Wales or A Christmas Carol—but I know many readers will be able to appreciate this timeless, somewhat heroic fantasy take on the origins of the season.

All three books are wonderful productions, and I can't wait to see what Red Jacket Press plans to resurrect next.

*     *     *

Just Like Heaven, by Marc Levy,
Pocket Star Books, 2005, $7.99.

So I was in an airport and I didn't bring a book because I have any number of them on my PDA. But then I remembered that they make you turn off all electronic devices during takeoff and landing, so I wandered into a book store to see if they had something I might enjoy.

The premise behind Just Like Heaven seemed interesting: a man haunted by the ghost of a woman who isn't dead, but in a coma. They build a relationship, but then her family decides it's time to take her off medical support. What will happen to her and their relationship when she actually dies?

I was a little leery, seeing that this edition was a tie-in to a romantic comedy film, but after assuring myself that the film was based on the book, and not vice versa, I made my purchase and went to catch my plane.

Now the story's as intriguing as the back cover premise made it out to be, but I found the prose and dialogue a little stiff, so I took a closer look at the fine print. Originally appeared as If Only It Were True. Okay. But then I got to the telling line: "Translated by Jeremy Leggatt."

I don't normally read translations. Now before all of you start to tell me how many wonderful and classic books I'm missing with an attitude such as this, let me explain. The reason I don't read them is because I know I'm not reading the author's book. I'm reading somebody else's version of the author's book.

It would be like taking a classic English novel and have someone rewrite it. There'd be no point in reading that edition because all you'd get is a version of the book, not the real thing.

(Although there doesn't seem to be the same line of reasoning in the film world, does there, or why would people bother to remake classic films? They were classic for a reason, and jazzing them up with contemporary cinematography and special effects doesn't make them better, only different.

(But I digress.)

I know how much time an author can spend making each word count. Making the characters' names resonate, the dialogue flow, the story unfold with just the right turn of phrase and significance.

Translators filter this and come up with their own versions, better perhaps, or worse, but I doubt it's what the original author intended, because much of what makes a book work is between the lines, the "how" of how the story's being told that an author creates with instinct, and it can't be copied.

In this case, Levy was poorly served by his translator. Or at least I think he was. I wish I could read the book in its original French edition to see, because while I wanted to like the material and just fall into the story, I kept stumbling over awkward exchanges of dialogue and descriptions.

And it reinforced my desire to stay away from translations.

In a perfect world, I'd have the time to learn a few more languages and be able to read foreign classics in their original form. But the world's far from perfect and I don't have that time.

But, happily, there are more English books being published than I can ever read. And what makes me even happier is that the choice of cultural voice is wide now, and getting wider, because these days, many authors who come from a different ethnic background are choosing to write in English. So I still do get to experience those different world views.

*     *     *

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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