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Books To Look For
Tillie Madison vs Reality, by P.L. Winn, P.L. Winn, 2017, $2.99, ebook.
A kindred soul, I thought, except Tillie Madison vs Reality isn't so much an instructional tract as it is a diversion. But these days that works for me, too.
The book belongs to that sub-sub-genre of urban fantasy wherein a secret agency (in this case the RDA—Reality Defense Agency) is protecting humanity from the things that go bump in the night, or just the things that will let us know that we're not alone in this world and never have been.
The titular Tillie Madison works for the RDA. Her partner, Donovan MacDonnell, doesn't look like he's of legal drinking age, but he's at least 150 years old, and they don't exactly share confidences with each other. Her boss seems to hate her. One of her coworkers is a misogynist. Her mother is still a bit of a helicopter parent. She even has one of the Fates on her speed-dial.
Regardless of the soap opera that is her life, Tillie's a top agent and can handle everything her weird job throws at her.
Except then she begins dreaming of her own death—with elements of the dreams showing up in her day-to-day life—and things unravel rather quickly.
(The book has a strong opening, by the by: "I died last Monday. It hurt. A lot. Then I sat up in bed and thought that the afterlife looked quite a bit like my apartment in Dallas.…")
Tillie Madison vs Reality is a light, entertaining read. It doesn't give us anything new, but it plays well with the tropes it has in hand. Tillie's first person POV—breezy with a little edge of snark—pulls the reader through the same way you'll lean in to hear the story of a charismatic stranger you just met in a bar.
I could have done with a few fewer dreams (because, you know, we get it, she's dreaming that she's being murdered) but overall it kept me entertained and thinking of something other than the circus that has become contemporary North American reality.
In Times Like These, by Nathan Van Coops, Skylighter Press, 2013, $10.79, tpb.
The Chronothon, by Nathan Van Coops, Skylighter Press, 2015, $13.99, tpb.
The Day After Never, by Nathan Van Coops, Skylighter Press, 2016, $12.99, tpb.
When I reviewed a pair of time travel books by Rodney Jones in the last issue, I might have inadvertently given the impression that I don't really care about the "facts," just the characters and story. I probably should have added that was only for those particular books. I actually get a kick out of well-thought-out speculative fiction.
Now I know time travel has no more basis in reality (or at least my own experience with reality thus far) than elves or dragons or vampires. But a good author can still make anything feel plausible and, really, that's all we're asking for in a novel, to be able to suspend our disbelief while we're in the pages of a book.
In Times Like These starts in 2009, when Benjamin Travers and his friends get caught in a big thunderstorm that washes out their baseball game. They're hit by lightning, and the next thing they know, it's 1985, although it takes them a little while to figure that out and then adjust to their new reality.
Where do they sleep for the night? Their money looks counterfeit, since it comes from another time. How do they even get back to their own time? And it doesn't help that a serial killer was cast back into the same timeline by the storm.
Luckily, they soon run into Dr. Quickly, the man who discovered time travel, and he trains them in preparation to make their way back to 2009. But it's complicated. They can only make short jumps—what happened to send them twenty-four years back was a fluke. And time travel is a finicky business that takes lots of planning and forethought.
You have to have an anchor—something that exists in the time you want to go to. You have to make sure that said anchor is in a place where you won't accidentally try to occupy the same space as something else. A table, say, or a chair. Another person. Even returning in a rainstorm can have dire consequences, as the water droplets fuse with your body. You have to have an understanding of the movement of the Earth on its axis.
And on and on.
This wasn't a negative to me. I love time travel stories. Usually they involve a simple device that you switch from on to off, or something along similar lines. The focus is often on the paradoxes of time travel rather than any sort of detailed mechanics. This is my first time reading a story that uses the best elements of speculative thinking to create a thorough exploration of the basics of what those mechanics might hypothetically be. And like a great magic system in the best of fantasy books, Van Coops keeps it all consistent.
And every time the characters think they're getting the hang of things, some new wrench gets thrown into the works. You can meet a version of yourself. Time travel creates new time lines.
The way the characters, and especially our lead, Ben, react to their problems reminded me of classic Heinlein or Zelazny, with their smart, MacGyver-ish solutions. They're likable, well-meaning, and realistic characters. Van Coops has an easy narrative style when dealing with both character interaction and explanations of how time travel works, but there's plenty of action as well.
I loved the first book. It wasn't just a matter of wanting to find out what happens next (although I did). While reading Ben's solutions to his problems, I often found myself thinking about what I'd do in a similar situation, and when that happens, you know you've become invested.
The Chronothon and The Day After Never retain that balance of narrative drive and character ingenuity, but I was a little disappointed with The Chronothon. A chronothon is a kind of "time marathon," and much of the book is very one dimensional as the characters go from one challenge to another. The challenges are interesting, requiring whole new levels of improvising on Ben's part, but it got to feel samey rather quickly.
It doesn't pick up until the race is over, and then the novel turns into a real thriller, the plot elements of which carry over into the third book, which has shifting POV perspectives between two versions of the same character. Van Coops did a terrific job with the challenge of still keeping those POVs distinct.
The first book is a standalone, and I recommend it highly. I wasn't able to put it down. The other two had my interest drifting and I had to keep coming back to them. Finishing all three paid off in the end, but I'd only reread the first one.
Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti & Omar Rayyan, Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., 2017, $35. hardcover.
What do you do when you're asked to produce a new illustrated edition of a classic work that has already been interpreted by any number of fine artists before you? And not just any artists. The first was Rossetti's brother, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and that number also included a sublime version by Arthur Rackham. In the sf/fantasy/comics field it was tackled by Kinuko Craft for Playboy Magazine and as a graphic novel by John Bolton.
If you're Omar Rayyan, you opt to illustrate what's happening in between the lines of Rossetti's poem, using it as a springboard to what can only be described as a collaborative effort.
Rayyan digs deep between the lines to find his own visions. The art is multi-layered and textured, each page allowing for contemplation and discovery. I love how he plays with the themes of some famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and honestly, his craftsmanship is impeccable. Painterly yet still precise. But mostly I love the sheer explosion of his imagination that runs rampant across every page.
I might also note that all this layering and texturing is done with watercolors—an unforgiving medium unless it's handled just so. But Rayyan's an obvious master. The reproduction of his art on these pages is gorgeous, as you might expect from a Donald M. Grant book. That said, I still look forward to one day seeing some of the originals.
If I had a niggle, I'd have liked to have seen more of his pencil work only because of the beauty of his lines.
If you're unfamiliar with Rossetti's story, it's about two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, and their encounter with a sinister group of goblin merchants. Laura, against her sister's warning, buys some of their enchanted fruit with a lock of her hair. But the problem with goblin fruit is that it's addictive. Once tasted, the victim wastes away unless they can have more of the fruit.
Lizzie realizes her sister is dying, so she returns to the market and wears the goblins down with her resistance to the fruit. They eventually try to force it upon her but she keeps her mouth resolutely closed. She returns to her sister with the juice smeared all over her face from the struggle. When Laura kisses her sister, this second taste removes the goblin curse, and she's restored to health.
Charles Vess provides an introduction to this edition, and I should note that while Rayyan has written out the verses by hand to accompany his art, the full poem is also reprinted at the end of the book in typeset.
Silence Fallen, by Patricia Briggs, Ace Books, 2017, $27, hardcover.
I took Patricia Briggs a little to task in my review of her last novel, Dead Heat, because I felt too much of the research was on the page, slowing down the story. Dead Heat is part of her Alpha and Omega series, which has ties to the Mercy Thompson books, and had the characters travel to Arizona to buy a horse. There was a lot about buying horses in that book.
Silence Fallen takes place mostly in Europe, with all sorts of opportunities to let the research take over the story, but in this case there was just the right amount of background woven into the plot. That made me happy, because you always want your favorite writers to be at the top of their game. We might joke about liking a writer so much that we'd read their shopping lists. The truth, however, is that we love them for their fiction, the special blend of character, story, and skill as a stylist that only they can bring to the table. Not simply because they can put words on paper.
This new Mercy Thompson novel is a strong book in the series. It contains ties to the ongoing backstory, but everything feels fresh because the characters are thrust into an entirely different situation and setting.
It opens with Mercy being kidnapped, and soon splits between the storyline of her on the run across Europe at the same time as her husband Adam is trying to bring her back while juggling the complex politics of the supernatural creatures in Mercy's world.
This is one of the things I've always liked about this series. Yes, Mercy's a great character, and I always enjoy watching her try to extricate herself from complex situations. But the Machiavellian politics that underlie, and sometimes dominate, the storylines are what set this series apart from so many others that have a similar look on the surface.
Briggs has werewolves and vampires and witches and fey in her stories, but the way they interact with each other and the human world always feel fresh and—dare I say it?—natural to me.
There's enough jockeying for political position in Silence Fallen to do Dorothy Dunnett (of the Lymond Chronicles) proud. Add a long-term plan by Coyote into the mix and you get a deliciously complex story that—to Briggs's credit—never leaves the reader behind.
Briggs has already written a number of books in the series with Mercy going up against a Big Bad, so this reader really appreciates her pushing the boundaries on the sorts of stories she feels she can tell with these characters.
Silence Fallen isn't a great entry point for the series but it's a strong and satisfying installment for readers who have been with Briggs from the earliest books.
Gods & Goddesses: The Fantasy Illustration Library Volume Two, edited by Malcolm R. Phifer and Michael C. Phifer, Michael Publishing, 2016, $125, slipcased hardcover.
It took me a little while to figure out why this book exists, because at an initial glance, it's hard to pin down its intended audience. It seems like an art book, with its full-color plates on almost every second page and the little artist bios accompanying each painting. Or it could be an encyclopedia of gods and goddesses with a write-up of the major players in pretty much every pantheon.
But then I twigged to the area reserved for a signature on the opposite page of each painting and realized it's a high-end souvenir book to take around to conventions where one can collect the signatures of the various artists attending. Sort of what happened with Patti Perret's Faces of Fantasy (1997), with paintings rather than photographs. There was a time when many authors attending the World Conventions for Fantasy and Science Fiction signed significant numbers of those books.
For its part, Gods & Goddesses is a handsome book, approximately 12" X 9", the hardcover and slipcase sporting faux green leather with a gold ribbon for a bookmark. The paper stock is heavy (an accompanying note says it's silk) with an excellent printing job on the paintings. The bright colors really pop while the subtler shades are distinct, one against the another.
The write-ups on the various deities are short but informative and to be commended for their inclusion of many pantheons one doesn't normally see represented, with excellent sections on those of Slavic, Inuit, and Hawaiian origin to name only a few. The artist bios each include a note from the artist explaining their connection to the god or goddess they've chosen to paint.
So it has all of that going for it. Unfortunately the art itself isn't always up to the overall production values—at least not to my taste. There are some gorgeous paintings here, without a doubt. They feature sometimes challenging takes on their subjects (and I mean that in a good way), while the skill of those artists is nothing short of breathtaking.
But there are also many paintings here that are garish and cartoony, with poses that seem more suitable to the splash page of a comic book or the cover of a video game. Some aren't rendered very well at all and seem amateurish.
Happily, art is subjective, and what doesn't appeal to me might well be your favorites in the book. And while the cover cost's a little pricy, its production gives you bang for your buck. I can certainly see the entertainment value in trying to collect signatures from all of the represented artists.
So not for everyone, but I know there are people out there who are going to love it.
Creaking Staircases: Gothic Tales of Supernatural Suspense, by James E. Coplin, EMP Publishing, 2016, $14, trade paperback.
My dad didn't have a lot of fiction in his library. There were books about history and archaeology, the Middle East, Africa and the Arctic, navigation and planes—none of which interested me much as a kid, though they certainly do now. But we didn't have a lot of money to buy books, the public library wasn't close, and the school library was closed during the summer holiday. So since I loved to read, after I'd reread the few books I had of my own, I would find myself poring through his shelves looking for something, anything.
I found six little hardcovers by Edgar Rice Burroughs—three Tarzan, three John Carter of Mars—and two fat books published by Hutchinson & Co., a UK imprint that later merged with Century Publishing. They were both anthologies: A Century of Ghost Stories and The Evening Standard Book of Strange Stories. The authors represented were an interesting mix. Some were those you might expect, authors anyone would know: Sir Walter Scott, M. R. James, Walter de la Mare, Bram Stoker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the like. Others became familiar to me through subsequent reading in our field, such as Algernon Blackwood, Marion Crawford, George Meredith, Ambrose Bierce, and Ernest Bramah. Still others I never ran across again.
I can't tell you how many times I reread those Burroughs books and the stories in those anthologies.
That was in my formative reading years, so it's probably not surprising that I've maintained a lifelong fondness for science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction. In my teen years I read a lot of westerns, mysteries, and spy novels, but I always came back to the weird fiction.
Roll ahead a few years and we come to the seventies, when I discovered the small press and all these little 'zines, a great many of which featured what was now being called horror stories, though a lot of them were really the same kinds of ghost stories and weird fiction that I'd read as a kid, albeit filtered through the perspective of writers who'd grown up on Alfred Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone as well as the classics.
It was in 'zines like Escape! and Fantasy Crossroads that I first ran across stories by J. E. Coplin, as he was known back then.
I probably didn't think too much about who he was after the first couple of stories of his I read, but he soon became a name I looked for whenever I got a new issue of some 'zine. I especially enjoyed a series he had featuring a wandering pair of adventurers called Monk & Minstrel (who were—yes, you guessed it, a monk and a minstrel).
What I liked about Coplin's work was that while everybody else was trying to be the next Robert E. Howard or H. P. Lovecraft, he was content being himself. His stories and poems ranged through every sort of fantasy, weird tale, and ghost story. Rather than using a distinct, singular voice across all his work, he was like a method actor serving the particular needs of whatever story he was writing.
In the late seventies, when I started publishing my own small press magazines with my partner Charles R. Saunders (author of the Imaro books), Coplin was one of the writers I was especially keen to represent in their pages. I ended up having a correspondence with him over the years. We even collaborated on a story, although it never saw print. And then, as could happen too easily in the days before the internet, we lost touch.
But I always had fond memories of him and his work, so I was especially delighted when I ran across Creaking Staircases, a 2016 collection of his work, with a byline expanded to James E. Coplin.
I was delighted, but also a little anxious, because what if the new stories didn't stand up to the ones I remembered loving some forty years or so ago?
I shouldn't have worried. Coplin still writes with a voice that serves each individual story. Except for a couple with contemporary settings, the material in Creaking Staircases could easily rub shoulders with the stories in that pair of Hutchinson & Co. anthologies I mentioned earlier.
One of Coplin's gifts is how he can inhabit different historical time periods as a narrator, conveying an uncanny sense of setting and mores, while giving it to us in prose that feels very current. We start in Massachusetts in 1823 with a man who makes his living painting portraits of the recently deceased, travel to 1872 in the Southwest with a search for the fountain of youth, over to London in 1888 where a governess accepts a position with a dangerous charge, up to the Yukon in 1897 for an encounter with a spirit who just wants to be left alone to sleep away the winter, to Barbados in 1900 with a haunted skull, to 1921 Mississippi and a possessed scarecrow, and many other places with strange doings.
I read collections and anthologies slowly, dipping into them to read a story here, another there, rather than barreling straight through. Creaking Staircases is perfect for this sort of reading, with its many different voices. I enjoyed every story and always looked forward to the next time I'd sit down for another until—alas—the book was done.
I've no idea if Coplin is working on another book, but I certainly hope so. I didn't realize how much I missed the flavor of stories such as these until I immersed myself in Creaking Staircases.
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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