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Books To Look For
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, by Seanan McGuire, Tor.com, 2017, $15.99, tpb.
There's a thing that sets Seanan McGuire apart from her peers, and it's the same thing that we all look for as readers. Lots of people have good narrative skills. They can bring a character to life, they understand pacing and plot, they have a little something extra in how their prose lies on the page and then climbs into our ears.
But McGuire is one of a select few who give us the sorts of stories we've never read before. She doesn't grab one great idea and run it into the ground (because no matter how much fun a series is, they all have an expiry date, a point at which it's borrowing from itself rather than forging new territory). Time and again she finds that one unconsidered, often quirky, element that makes our imaginations sing. It's often so simple a concept that it's hard to imagine no one else had thought of it before.
(Having said all that, I realize that McGuire has a long-running series set around a character named October Daye which might contain all the weaknesses that many series eventually accrue. I don't know because I haven't read it. Nor have I read much of her InCryptid series. But I stand by what I've said above when it comes to her standalone books and duologies, because I have read them.)
Now I don't really get the title Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, even after having read the story through, but everything else about the book is wonderful.
This time out McGuire explores the idea of ghosts.
It's 1972. Jenna's sister Patty left their little hometown of Mill Hollow to go to New York City, where she died. In her grief, Jenna went running into the woods behind their house during a storm. A misstep sends her to her own death down a steep ravine.
Now it's 2015, and it's Jenna who lives in Manhattan, albeit as a shade of the dead, and she becomes tasked with unraveling the mystery of why the ghosts of New York City are vanishing.
McGuire's take on ghosts is fascinating but I'm not going to tell you what it is because it's better if you experience the gradual reveal of ghosts and witches, stolen time and mirror traps for yourself. What I will tell you is that she delivers a story that will pull you in and linger long after the last page has been turned.
One of the things I really appreciate about McGuire is how much she obviously cares about her characters, which translates into a deeper experience for the reader. Their lives are strange, to be sure, but at the same time, we believe in them and become as invested in them as though they were a part of our lives outside the book.
Another plus for me is that she isn't afraid to tell the smaller story, one that puts the world of just a few characters in jeopardy rather than the whole world. The perfect little touches that she brings to her work would simply be lost in the grand sweep of an epic.
Of Lips and Tongue, by A. G. Carpenter, Falstaff Books, 2016, $2.99, eBook.
Of Shade and Soul, by A. G. Carpenter, Falstaff Books, 2017, $2.99, eBook.
Sometimes a book's copy is so succinct and to the point that there really isn't any good reason to try to rephrase it for a review. The description for Of Lips and Tongue goes:
"Delaney Green is one of them that don't burn. Possessed of the Touch—with the ability to not only see the future, but manipulate it—she's been kept in an institution for most of her life. When the Salesman, a murderous entity with a connection to Delaney's past, starts burning girls to death, FBI Agent Percival Cox gives her the chance to leave the asylum behind. But he presents an even greater threat and she must risk flesh and bone in order to keep him from becoming a Power more destructive than the Salesman."
Regular readers of urban fantasy that leans to the dark side will either be intrigued by that description or feel that they've heard some variation on it a dozen times before. Or perhaps, like me, they'll feel a mix of the two.
But here, in one word, is the reason to give this series of novellas a try:
Some writers have the ability to convey it 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. Neither of them feels short, and each is satisfying unto itself while still building the overall story arc. That said, I wouldn't recommend reading Of Shade and Soul, the second, without having read the first, simply because the underlying resonances (not to mention some plot movement) is so much deeper when you have a reading of Of Lips and Tongue under your belt. At the end of that first book, I genuinely didn't know where Carpenter was going to go with the next book, and that's a feeling I enjoy in my fiction.
You might notice that I'm giving very little detail regarding plot points beyond reprinting the cover copy blurb above. That's because Carpenter does such a wonderful job of letting her story play out that I don't want to spoil your enjoyment and I really can't talk about the second book without giving away far too much about the first.
I've found with the current state of the world that I'm not very interested in reading much horror fiction anymore. Too much of it seems to be inspired by the SAW franchise, and my intake of the daily news already gives me more than enough darkness. Mind you, there are graphic and disturbing scenes in these novellas, but the overall mood is that of disquiet rather than shock.
I miss Charlie Grant.
But at least we have A. G. Carpenter.
Totalitopia, by John Crowley, PM Press, 2017, $14, tpb.
John Crowley's newest book is a collection in which the nonfiction feels like fiction, the fiction like nonfiction, with all of it held together by his wry and literate authorial voice. I was enamored from start to finish.
In the title piece, Crowley uses the tropes of science fiction as building blocks to consider possible utopian futures, positing that the opposite of what we think will happen is what will actually happen. Although that does lead you into a kind of Möbius strip line of thinking because, if you expect the opposite of what you're expecting, aren't you then expecting the opposite of that? Which brings you back to where you started. But the whole concept is fascinating and very well laid out.
"Everything That Rises" explores the idea of Russian cosmism, something that is described in a quote by George Young that defines it as a blend of "activist speculation, futuristic traditionalism, religious science, exoteric esotericism, utopian pragmatism, idealistic materialism—higher magic partnered to higher mathematics," or, as Young also puts it: "oxymoronic." You just know Crowley is going to have fun with this, and he does, to our benefit.
The short story "Gone" is one of the strangest, and therefore most "realistic" alien invasion stories I've read, because, after all, the motives of the invaders would naturally be incomprehensible to us.
The other stories—"And Go Like This" and "In the Tom Mix Museum"—are equally strange, but also satisfying in their strangeness. The book is rounded out with an interview (both erudite and funny), a bibliography (oh dear, I'm missing a few of his books), and a more traditional essay in the form of a review of Paul Park's collection "Other Stories" (in which the subject matter of Park's fiction connects with the other material in this book of Crowley's currently under review).
The best reviews don't explain everything, but they do leave you with the desire to read what's being reviewed. Crowley's essay does just that.
Totalitopia is a challenging, invigorating read. Short enough to read in one gulp, but you'll be considering Crowley's themes for many days thereafter.
Cosmic Commandos, by Christopher Eliopoulos, Dial Books, 2017, $13.99, thc.
It can sometimes be hard when describing a book—whether to a friend or for a review or even a book blurb—not to use a lazy shorthand: It's the next Tolkien. It's like Lovecraft mixed with noir. It has the sweep of George R. R. Martin.
And sometimes it's not even laziness so much as plugging into one obvious element. A book has vampires, so let's cite Anne Rice. It's sf with a young protagonist, so we reference Heinlein, or maybe Andre Norton.
All that said, I'm still going to use Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes comics as a touchstone for this new illustrated novel by Christopher Eliopoulos, even though it's an obvious comparison.
In many ways they occur in the same landscape. Eliopoulos's art isn't as good as Watterson's, or perhaps I should say it's simpler. The lines are thicker and don't have as much character, the backgrounds are rather basic. But there's a similar exuberance, and Eliopoulos has Watterson's knack of capturing a young protagonist's flood of expressions.
The real touchstone for me, however, was the effortless gift both authors have for voicing such young characters. Jeremy isn't Calvin, and he doesn't have a Hobbes, but he does have an identical twin brother named Justin who's the stinkiest part of his stinky life.
The sibling dynamics are the underpinning of Cosmic Commandos. The twins are polar opposites. Justin keeps his room tidy, listens to their parents, likes to read, and does well in school. Jeremy can't manage any of that, a fact of which he's constantly reminded by parents and teachers. He resents his brother for all of this, but mostly for the fact that they look the same. Jeremy's "Stop looking like me" comes at the end of every argument between the twins.
The story starts when Jeremy finds a decoder ring in his cereal ("Healthy Cardboardy-O's—Now in Rust Flavor") that is actually a magic ring that grants wishes. Before you know it, Jeremy is in a real life version of his favorite video game and going through the levels. He thinks it's all good fun until he begins to approach the final level, which he's never solved. His only hope is to turn to his stinky twin brother for help, but that's the last thing he wants to do.
Cosmic Commandos is a funny and entertaining story, suitable for both younger readers and the young at heart. Jeremy being such a grumpy little brat wouldn't work as well in a prose novel, but it works just fine in a visual medium, the same way that Dennis the Menace did. If there are kids in your household who love Judd Winick's Hilo books (another obvious touchstone, sigh) they'll probably enjoy this one as well.
Playing with Fire, by R. J. Blain, Pen & Page Publishing, 2017, $8.99, mm.
Playing with Fire reads a bit as though R. J. Blain took whatever mythical and magical ideas she had on hand, added in the kitchen sink, and tossed the whole lot at her word processor program.
I don't mean that in a bad way.
Because what she ended up with is a fun, silly, ribald romp of a story that serves as an excellent palette cleanser in between courses of more serious reading.
And again, I don't mean that in a bad way either. Sometimes the best thing to read is a book that takes nothing seriously, least of all itself.
Some quick touchstones: Thorne Smith for how she handles deities, mixing the mundane with the mythic (as in Smith's irreverent The Night Life of the Gods). Christopher Stasheff (The Wizard in Spite of Himself) and Robert Asprin with his MythAdventures series for how one madcap thing piles on top of another. But perhaps most of all, the screwball comedies of the forties for the sharp back-and-forth dialogue. Think of something like His Girl Friday, only ramped up for the MTV generation.
The book's subtitle is "A Magical Romantic Comedy (with a body count)" and it lives up to that. There's a lot of flirty bickering between our protagonist Bailey Gardner and Police Chief Samuel Quinn, who loathes her because she broke up his marriage. There are action scenes. There are gorgons and angels, incubi and succubi, old Egyptian gods and glass coffins that serve as containment cells for viral contaminations. There's pixie dust that creates a high, and a purple unicorn that breathes fire. There's…
Well, you get the idea.
There's a lot going on, some of it absurd, some of it sexy, some of it high drama (tempered with more absurdities and steaminess), none of it really graphic.
Of course this only works if the author has the skills to pull it all off. Happily, Blain is up to the task, making sense out of all the disparate elements and providing a highly entertaining journey that brings the puzzle of madcap contradictions together by the time we get to the end.
If you're prudish and don't like to laugh, avoid Playing with Fire. Otherwise, you'll have a ball.
Gemina: The Illuminae Files 02, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016, $19.99, hc.
So I have good news and bad news about the second volume in The Illuminae Files.
The good news is that if you liked the first book, Illuminae, a novel told entirely in interview transcripts, IM messages, surveillance camera logs and other ephemera, then you'll like Gemina just as much. The bad news is the same as the above but seen from the perspective of those who might have gotten tired of the gimmick two thirds of the way through Illuminae and don't really need more. The latter are frustrated because they know the authors have a great story to tell and feel that the gimmick is getting in the way.
It reminds me a little of the Nick Bantock Griffin and Sabine books published in the early nineties. They were epistolary stories told in an exchange of letters and postcards by the titular characters. That in itself wasn't particularly innovative. Bantock's addition to the mix was that the material could be removed from the book as though readers were looking through the actual correspondence, and since both characters were artists, the cards and letters were profusely, and beautifully, illustrated.
It was a fun concept that got spun out through a pair of trilogies. But it was still a gimmick that began to lose some of its charm by the second trilogy. After a while some readers didn't want to be pulling letters out of envelopes and just wanted the author to get on with the story.
That's the case here. The ephemera distances the readers from the characters, and I have to wonder if anyone besides the authors really studies the schematics of the space ship or the photo lineups of the invaders that are repeated throughout, with an X through the pictures of the ones who have died.
So. Lots of negatives.
But it's nevertheless a fascinating story of a space station being invaded by an elite strike team, the only ones standing against them being Hanna, the pampered daughter of the station's captain, and Nik, the youngest member of a crime family that runs illegal operations on said station.
And the stakes are high. Not only does the strike team intend to wipe out the space station; their other goal is to destroy an incoming ship that holds all the survivors of the first book.
I loved the characters, their pluck and resourcefulness, their playful banter with one another. I just wish I could have known them without the distancing filter of how the story was told.
I know it's not right to review a book I wish the authors had written rather than the one that was published. But the frustration factor was high for how they did present their story. Just as with Illuminae, I wasn't convinced that Gemina's presentation is anything more than a gimmick. As I said reviewing the first book, every time I got absorbed in the story, I was kicked out of it again by the insertion of some memo or email, or a bit of extraneous data included for color.
I think I'll pass on the final volume of the trilogy and wait for the authors to tell a story in a more traditional style before I try them again.
Blood Gamble, by Melissa F. Olson, 47 North, 2017, $14.95, tpb.
When I was a teen, I read one to two books a day. And still had time for a million other things. These days I might get through one to three books a week if I'm lucky. So it's a little difficult to get enough reading done and still fulfill my personal mandate for this column, which is to present new (or new to me, so perhaps to you) authors as much as I'd like, because I also read outside the genre and have favorites I want to keep up with inside it.
Reading time becomes precious.
I've mentioned this before, so I'll only touch on it briefly. I read everything that shows up for review. Or at least I start it. As soon as I lose interest (could be bad writing, flat characters, plot's not working for me), I put it aside and try another. It's my firm belief that the author's job is to grab our interest from the beginning and then keep it. If they can't do that, I won't read it. And if I don't finish the book, I don't review it.
This means a lot of my reading time gets taken up with starting books that aren't worth finishing, which in turn, reduces my time to experience the Good Stuff, by a new author or an old favorite.
I tell you all of this to explain why you might see certain authors pop up with more regularity than others.
Case in point: Melissa F. Olson.
Olson's one of those authors who, when I receive a new book of hers, it goes straight to the top of my to-be-read list. In fact, I usually put aside whatever I am reading at the time until I'm done, because I know, with her work, it's going to be everything I love about good storytelling: prose that sings, characters I love, and a twisty plot that keeps me guessing.
And as expected, this new novel ticked all the boxes.
Five books into her Scarlett Bernard series, Olson does the smart thing to keep her character fresh, and that's to take her out of her comfort zone. Blood Gamble has Bernard travel from L.A., where she has a support network of her employers and friends, to Las Vegas, where she's all on her own as she looks into the mystery of why vampires would put on a Vegas show that reveals their magical abilities for all the world to see.
Complicating matters, her cover story is that she's in Vegas with her sister-in-law's bridesmaids for some girl bonding, which means that her sister-in-law is in real danger when the inevitable problems arise, as they do whenever Bernard gets involved in Old World business, Old World being the term Olson uses for the shadowy goings-on that exist just beyond most people's attention.
That's part of Bernard's job but usually she's cleaning up messes. Here she's trying to figure out why vampires are going missing. She also needs to keep her sister-in-law safe without ever letting on that the Old World exists. It's a balancing act that starts to fray and come apart despite all of Bernard's best efforts.
While it's crowded with many voices, this whole subgenre of vampires/werewolves/witches existing on the fringes of the world we all share, Olson's books are on another level. She writes the kinds of stories that will appeal beyond the regular readers of the paranormal, elevating genre elements to the point where it's simply first class storytelling, regardless of its subject matter.
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. EBooks may be sent as an attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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