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Books To Look For
A Bridge of Years, by Robert Charles Wilson, Orb Books, 2011, $16.99 (reissue).
I tend to choose such books when I'm putting away others. I'll be filing a book on the shelf and its neighbor catches my eye. So I pull it out, glance at the first few pages, and the next thing I know I'm either sitting on the floor by the bookshelf, or have wandered off to some chair, deep into the story.
But it's rare when I actually think of rereading an old treasure. There are so many books on the shelves, so many new titles arriving.
Digital "bookshelves" only make it worse. I don't mind reading electronic texts—I've been doing so for years. I just find the file system on most digital readers less than conducive to cover browsing—especially when one has acquired a large number of titles.
One of the best reminders, I find, is a reprint. A shiny new package catches your eye, stopping you long enough so that not only do you remember the book, but it also reminds you that it's something you'd like to reread.
Robert Charles Wilson's A Bridge of Years, originally published in 1991, is the latest old friend to make it off the top of the to-be-read stack.
The first thing that struck me about it is that it hasn't aged at all. It still feels as fresh now as it did over two decades ago. The second thing—and this is kind of a sad commentary on the world in general—is that it's also still timely.
The book starts in 1979, when the U.S., recovering from one recession, is about to enter another in 1980. Our main character, Tom Winter, is a little better off than some, but emotionally, worse off. He has lost his wife, turned to alcohol for a bender that lasted more than a few months, lost his job. But he does have a little money and he uses that to buy a house back in his hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Here he hopes to rebuild his life.
But fate has other plans. At first suspecting the house to be haunted, he discovers it's actually the entrance to a time machine that has only one destination, Greenwich Village in 1962.
After a visit of a couple of days, the idea of going back and staying there becomes very seductive. Sure, the world isn't perfect back then. But it's untouched by the Vietnam War, the Cuban Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, AIDS, and any number of other ills.
The big difference between 1979 and 1962 is that if he moves to the past, he'll know what the next thirty years will bring. He'll know that neither Russia nor the U.S. will drop the bomb. He knows that though there will be disasters—natural and manmade—the world will survive them.
For someone going through such a bad time as he is, it's very seductive indeed.
There's much more to the book than that, of course. Yes, there's the fun of wandering about in '60s NYC, but Wilson is always capable of juggling many narrative balls, and A Bridge of Years is no exception. There is a fully realized cast—in the present and the past: characters to really care about. And even the bit players have gravitas.
It's just chockfull of good stuff. I liked it in 1991 and I like it just as much now. If it's one you've missed, or simply haven't read it in a while, you should definitely give it a try.
Oh, and while I have your ear. This combination of time travel and the Village in the '60s reminds me of a story that I've been trying to track down for years—for so long, in fact, that I'm beginning to think I must have imagined it. Naturally, I can't remember the author or title. But it was about a fellow who went back to that time with a crate full of seminal music recordings from the same era (Dylan, etc.) and then proceeded to pawn them off as his own.
If that rings a bell, could you drop me a line and let me know what the story is?
Changer, by Jane Lindskold, Obsidian Tiger Books, 2011, $4.99 (reissue).
And speaking of reprints, I won't take up a lot of your time here discussing another (especially since I already reviewed the book in the February 1998 installment of this column), but I figure many of you got Kindles or some kind of ebook reader in December and you're probably looking for things to read on it.
Might I suggest this book by Jane Lindskold, a heady blend of Coyote banging up against King Arthur in New Mexico? It's a real favorite of mine, and if you like it as much as I think you will, look for her Firekeeper series of fantasy novels also.
The Bedlam Detective, by Stephen Gallagher, Crown, 2012, $25.
Over the years I've become less and less interested in novels set in secondary worlds, or those with historical settings. I'm not sure why. I think it's partly that I've read so many of them and they simply don't feel fresh to me anymore. What's more likely is that I'm happy enough to read books set in the times in which I live and I have yet to run out of new titles, or get bored with the stories of those with whom I share this contemporary world.
But of course I haven't made some unbreakable rule for myself against such books. When I pick up a historical or secondary world fantasy, it's usually because a writer I already admire has ventured into these less-than-ideal (for me) territories. And even though I trust the authors enough to follow them into styles of stories I normally don't read, I have to admit that I still approach such books with a little trepidation.
That was certainly the case with Stephen Gallagher's newest novel, The Bedlam Detective. I've loved everything I've read by him, though usually his books are a little hardboiled and set in the United States rather than his native England. One of the things that keeps me reading is that I'm fascinated by how a Brit controls a Stateside voice so flawlessly, but mostly they're just damn fine books.
So how was he going to handle a novel set in his homeland around the turn of the last century?
Perfectly, it turns out.
Our point-of-view character is Sebastian Becker, an ex-Pinkerton agent and policeman who has come back to England and taken on the job of a special investigator to the Masters of Lunacy, an agency that looks into the sanity of any man of property who is suspected of no longer being able to take care of his estate on his own.
The focus of Becker's investigation is Sir Owain Lancaster, an inventor and explorer who, after a disastrous trip to the Amazon where he lost his wife, son, and all of his party, has retired to his country estate outside the small town of Arnmouth. Lancaster claims that the reason the expedition became such a catastrophe was due to their being attacked by monstrous creatures that from his descriptions appear to be what one might more readily find in fiction like Doyle's The Lost World, or Burroughs's Pellucidar books.
He also claims that the creatures followed him home and it is they that are responsible for the recent death of two young girls.
Becker finds himself investigating Lancaster's state of mind as well as the murders, with the help of a young woman who, along with her best friend, survived a similar attack when they were young. Unfortunately, neither she nor her friend can recall any of the details.
The characters and story are riveting, but I was surprised to find myself just as fascinated by how ably Gallagher brings to life the setting and times of both small town Arnmouth and London in the early nineteen hundreds. We follow Becker's investigations, certainly, but we also learn more about the Masters of Lunacy, criminal investigation in those days, hospital care, and even the burgeoning suffragette movement.
The pace might feel slow to some readers, but I felt it only added to the mood of the times and Gallagher's storytelling.
The Future of Us, by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler, Razorbill, 2011, $18.99.
This is one of those terrific books that will probably have a short shelf life. At this point in time, it's fresh and opportune in how it plays with current social media and technology. But considering how quickly things change in the on-line world, in a few years it's likely to seem dated.
The year is 1996. Josh and Emma have lived next door to each other all their lives and they've been best friends for just about as long. Or at least they were up until a few months ago when Josh messed up and things have been awkward ever since.
When the book opens, Emma has just gotten a new computer. A free America Online CD arrives in the mail next door and Josh's mother makes him bring it over so that Emma can use it on her new computer. After she's installed it and signs into AOL, she finds herself logged onto her Facebook page. Except, as I said, this is 1996 and Facebook hasn't been invented yet.
It takes them a while to realize that this isn't some elaborate hoax and that they're actually getting a glimpse of themselves fifteen years in the future.
The fun of the book is these two kids trying to figure out what Facebook is and why people are saying the inane things that people tend to say as they post about the everyday things they do. And even those everyday things can be baffling. Someone mentions texting and they have no idea what that means.
But eventually they figure out how to navigate the pages. They can see pictures of their older selves, track down what their friends are doing, and that sort of thing.
They also discover that if they do things differently—even small things—it can make for large changes fifteen years down the road.
Josh is appalled by the idea of making changes. His future looks great. He's successful, married to the hottest girl in school, has a family, a nice home. Things aren't so rosy for Emma. Her future self is unhappy in her career, her marriage, in pretty much everything.
So she keeps changing things now in hopes of a better future. But it doesn't help. And her rekindled friendship with Josh is put into jeopardy because he's scared that her fiddling around with things is going to screw up his future.
I won't tell you how it works out. I'll just say that this is a smart, fun, and timely book that will be especially appreciated by anyone involved in current social media.
But read it now while it feels fresh.
Claws & Saucers, by David Elroy Goldweber, Lulu Books, 2012, Trade paperback, $47.95; eBook, $8.95.
Subtitled "Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film: A Complete Guide, 1902—1982," the physical edition of this book is one hefty tome. It's self-published, which, for a book such as this with its relatively small target audience, is actually a good thing. The author cuts out the middleman and doesn't have anyone interfering with his artistic vision. How many editors have the same expertise? How many publishers would even care?
Just look at the time frame: 1902—1982. Most publishers would want to focus on more current movies to pull in the audience that flocks to the theaters for each new blockbuster and its sequel. These films? Many of them in black and white? Probably not so much.
But you know, books on current films aren't hard to find. Claws & Saucers covers the early history of genre film and it will prove a treasure trove for any fan of the medium, because David Elroy Goldweber obviously knows his stuff.
The entries are relatively short (one to three paragraphs in length for the most part), but each one contains a wealth of material. Director, length, whether it's in color or black and white. That's followed by a couple of categories: "What's happening" (basically the movie's hook) and "Famous For." So something like Armand Mastroianni's 1980 He Knows You're Alone has:
What's Happening: Stalker kills brides just before their weddings.
Then you get a brief plot description, which will also include information about the actors and perhaps reactions to the film, followed by a rating bar, which has separate ratings for Action, Gore, Sex, Quality, and Camp.
Two more categories follow. "Don't Miss," which points out something viewers should watch out for, and lastly my favorite, "Notable line," which grabs a quote from the film. The latter are fun to browse through the book and read at random:
"It wasn't a nightmare—I was there!"
"Aim at the brain."
"Six senseless murders committed in a row is really getting to be rather alarming."
"It's sort of a bigfoot. Only it's uglier."
"We are robots…yet we are in love."
I could go on with these forever.
Goldweber's love and knowledge of these movies shines through, and I really enjoyed his authorial voice. I looked up a bunch of old movies I remember from watching Shock Theatre on Friday nights when I was growing up, or the all-night marathons at local movie theaters, and while I didn't necessarily agree with Goldweber's every assessment, it's obvious that he's watched each one of these films and has something pertinent to say about it. It's a subjective study, but the facts are all there. And the movies are out there to be watched.
As I mentioned above, the physical edition is large, and carries a rather hefty price tag, but the ebook will have all the same text at a much more affordable price. It's also something that will be nice to carry around on your phone (or whatever portable reading device you have) and read an entry or two at random while you're waiting in line at the grocery store or bank.
If you have any interest in the old films of our genre, you have no excuse not to grab a copy of this when it comes out.
The Shattering, by Karen Healey, Little, Brown, 2011, $17.99.
The New Zealand coastal town of Summerton is an idyllic tourist destination with stunning scenery and a popular New Year's celebration that brings in large numbers of people every year. But it's not so idyllic for teenager Keri, whose older brother and best friend Jake killed himself a couple of months before the book opens. She can't get past the loss. Completely broken-hearted, she doesn't know what to do with herself.
That is, she doesn't until old childhood friend Janna and a visiting tourist named Sionne contact her. They're an unlikely trio. Keri is super-organized and into sports, Janna is easy-going and a rock 'n' roller, while Sionne is a quiet-spoken computer nerd. But what they have in common is that each of them had an older brother commit suicide. Sionne shows her some research he's been doing: spreadsheets that detail how every year an older son of some family visiting Summerton has committed suicide. It has been happening for years.
Keri realizes it's no longer a personal tragedy. Someone is killing these boys and she puts all her organizational skills into coordinating a plan to figure out who the serial killer is. And then she plans to deal with him.
The novel has a slow build, but it's never boring, and there are some real surprises as it progresses to its bittersweet end. There's also a strong supernatural element, but I don't want to spoil it for you. And I'd just like to add that Karen Healey isn't being exploitive with her subject material. She treats the subject of teen suicide with respect throughout and provides a number of resources for troubled teens in the back of the book.
Healey does a great job getting across the very different personalities of the teens as she tells the story from each of their points of view, including the different ways they cope with the loss of an elder sibling. And the modern New Zealand setting, with its glimpses of Maori and Samoan culture, raises an already terrific book to even higher levels.
The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins, Free Press, 2011, $29.99.
I've always subscribed to the notion that it's a poet's job to present the commonplace in such a way as to make us marvel and pay attention to it with a new perspective. Turns out it's the scientist's job as well.
At least that's one of the things I've gleaned from Richard Dawkins's new book.
He also cleared up a misconception, mostly fueled (for me) by the evil or closed-minded scientist found in so many films and books. If Dawkins is to be believed, most scientists are actually open-minded and welcome new information. At least he certainly does. What he doesn't suffer is fools. Particularly those who refuse to accept scientific evidence when it's laid out in front of them.
Dawkins is, of course, the author of controversial books such as The Selfish Gene, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The God Delusion, which, like the late Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, is probably one of the most reviled books in America.
And now he's writing a book aimed at younger readers.
How nervous you should be in letting your kids read it will depend on your worldview. If you subscribe to the validity of the scientific method (which this book, by the way, lays out in easy layman's terms), then I recommend The Magic of Reality to you wholeheartedly.
The book comprehensively covers the workings of the natural world and the history of our planet and the life on it. Dawkins writes in prose that is easy to read, but he doesn't dumb anything down. Instead he concentrates on projecting an enthusiasm for his subject and clarity in presenting it.
I do have a slight bone to pick with him. Throughout the book he debunks mythology, folk tales, and the like, espousing instead the magic and wonder to be found in the real world in which we live. I have no complaints about that. This world of ours is a fascinating place, full of wonder, and the more we understand about its workings, the greater our appreciation of it.
But I think he misses the point of mythology and folklore. Perhaps at one time it was a way for our ancestors to explain the mysteries of the world around them, but these days its validity lies in how it illuminates our inner landscapes. Religious contemplations can do much the same, both methodologies forming a basis for our mores and spiritual growth.
Problems arise only when we try to impose the magical and/or miraculous elements of such on the real world around us. I think Dawkins and I are basically in agreement on that.
This is a wonderful book for readers of all ages, its impact made even more powerful by Dave McKean's gorgeous art.
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