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Books To Look For
BLACKBERRY WINE - Joanne Harris
Last year at this time I found myself writing about Harris's enchanting novel Chocolat, which since then got itself nominated for the Whitbread Award in England (though sadly it lost, but not to the Harry Potter books, which would at least have made Harris's daughter happy) and is being filmed in France with Juliette Binoche playing the lead. I'm hopeful they'll do a good job on the film and because of it, hordes of people will seek out the original book to find out where that story came from.
But in the meantime, you and I, more in the know, will have moved on to her new novel Blackberry Wine.
It's the story of Jay Mackintosh, an author who wrote one bestselling novel, Three Summers with Jackapple Joe, and then was never able to repeat that success. The book was based on his experiences as a boy when he was sent to live in Upper Kirby with his grandparents for the summer holidays while his parents went through their divorce. Playing the model grandson at home, whenever he was able, Mackintosh snuck off to nearby Nether Edge, a no man's land by the railroad tracks, filled with refuse and wood thickets. There when he wasn't exploring, he'd play his radio, smoke cigarettes, and read comics--just waiting for the summer to end.
Until he meets Jackapple Joe, an old man who seems filled with magic and lives in nearby Pog Hill, growing vegetables and making wine and telling endless stories of his travels around the world.
Summer now becomes a wonderful adventure, but eventually Mackintosh grows up, Joe disappears, and all that magic seems like no more than a cruel joke.
When the books opens, with a lovely chapter told from the point of view of a bottle of wine in Mackintosh's cellar (trust me, this works), Mackintosh is much older, living in London and making a living writing bad sf novels. On a whim he opens one of the six bottles of "Specials," a wine that Jackapple Joe made and all that Mackintosh now has to remember him by.
There is magic in the wine, as there is in much of this book--secret, subtle enchantment. Inspired by that magic, Mackintosh ups and buys a rundown vineyard near the village of Lansquenet (an unknown place to him, but familiar to those of us who have read Chocolat) and leaves the next day to take possession.
The novel switches back and forth between the two Mackintoshs--the boy spending his summers in Upper Kirby and the man making a new life for himself in Lansquenet where he rediscovers his ability to write the kind of book he wants to write. The thread between the two is Jackapple Joe who is as large as life in the boy's life, and reappears in the man's as a ghost.
Glancing back on what I've written above, I realize that there's no easy way to do justice to the curious mix of simplicity and complexity that is a Harris novel. What we have here is a coming of age story combined with a mid-life crisis. There is high drama in the boy's life--all events are drama in adolescence--as he combats bullies and learns to make friends. There is a rich sensual feast in the man's story as he strives to make a new life for himself in a small French village, renovating the farmhouse, planting gardens, and trying to adjust to the slower pace of country life, and the curious lack of privacy that is part and parcel of small towns everywhere. And then there's the ghost of Jackapple Joe, who when he was alive, helped the boy to grow and then apparently deserted him, and with whom Mackintosh must now complete unfinished business.
And with all that said, I realize I haven't even begun to talk about the mysterious woman renting the vineyards next door, shunned by the villagers, but to whom Mackintosh is quickly attracted. Or the commercial intrusion of Mackintosh's old life in London. And remember those magical bottles of wine I mentioned earlier on in this review? Well, they have parts to play as well--both Jackapple Joe's Specials and that occasional narrator, a bottle of Feleurie, 1962. But I'll let you discover all of that on your own. You won't regret it.
The language and the spell of Harris's characters are such that this, like Chocolat, is a novel one will return to again and again, as we do with those books that become our old and dear friends.
CONSPIRACIES - F. Paul Wilson
Conspiracies turns the Repairman Jack books into a trilogy, although you don't need to have read either The Tomb (1984) or Legacies (1998) to be able enjoy it.
This time around Jack--the adjective is attached to his name because he "fixes" people's problems--is hired to find a missing woman whose husband received a message from her through his TV set telling him that, "Only Repairman Jack can find me. Only he will understand." Though he thinks his client is flaky, and he's never heard of the woman before, Jack's intrigued and takes on the case.
His search takes him to a convention of conspiracy theorists in New York which provides some comic relief as Jack meets a few of the attendees and hears their theories. But to be fair, while Jack provides a cynical point of view to the proceedings, Wilson writes the characters straight and presents their cases without mockery.
All of which is fascinating to Jack, except it's not bringing him any closer to finding his client's wife. It's around this point that the threads of conspiracy theories start leading back to the rakoshi demons of the first book and the broadcast power technology of Legacies and Jack finds himself confronting a literal black hole in a small New Jersey town that threatens to swallow not only him, but the rest of the world while it's at it.
Conspiracies doesn't really build on the Repairman Jack mythos, by which I mean we're not given much new about the character and he doesn't really go through any changes. But it's an entertaining read, with engaging characters and a plot that twists and turns, though it all makes sense in the end.
Sometimes, that's all we need from a novel, and Wilson delivers it here.
LORD OF EMPERORS - Guy Gavriel Kay
Lord of Emperors is the second of a two-book series entitled The Sarantine Mosaic.
In the first novel, Sailing to Sarantium (1998), we meet Crispin, a mosaicist whose mentor Martinian was invited to the imperial capital of Sarantium to create a mosaic on the dome of a new cathedral raised in honor of the Emperor. Martinian felt too old to make the trip himself, so Crispin assumed his identity and went in his mentor's place.
After a long, perilous journey, Crispin finally arrived in the capital. Hoping to immerse himself in the challenges of the immense mosaic to be created upon the dome, he was, instead, drawn into the deadly intrigues of the court and the ongoing rivalry between the factions of the Blues and Greens, opposing teams of charioteers that divide the city in a way that Crispin had never seen before and didn't understand.
When Lord of Emperors opens, Crispin is still in the royal city, working on the mosaic of the emperor's magnificent sanctuary. He remains far more concerned with his art than the ambitions and intrigues surrounding him, but events conspire to steal him away from his precious mosaic, involving him once again in the political maneuverings of emperors and kings.
While Crispin remains the central character, Lord of Emperors sports as large a cast as the earlier book. There are returning characters such as the young Queen Gisel from Crispin's homeland of Varena, the Emperor Valerius and his wife, and Crispin's old travelling companion, Carullus. But one of the most intriguing is a new one: the physician Rustem of Kerakek, who plays the part of the innocent amongst the ever-increasing confusion and violence that comes to a head in Sarantium. He survives as much as by luck as anything else, making him a fine counterpoint to Crispin who, albeit reluctantly, faces up to his challenges decisively, with a clever wit and a strong sense of honor.
It's a curious beast that Kay has created here. Lord of Emperors isn't a fantasy novel, though a small handful of supernatural elements do make it on to the stage at various points in the narrative. And since the entire story is set in a world that never was, it's not exactly an historical novel either.
His Sarantium is based on the East Roman Empire of Byzantium (the Greek word for Constantinople) in the early-to-mid-sixth century, an era Kay also mined for The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) which was set in alternate medieval Spain. The culture, the customs, the architecture, the chariot racing, the complicated courtly intrigues, all echo our own world's Byzantium during the reign of Justinian and Theodora and I doubt any history buff would be disappointed by his take on it.
By setting his novels in a world strongly reminiscent of Byzantium, rather that the actual historical empire, Kay has freed himself and his readers from the expectations with which we might otherwise have come to the book. It allows him to rewrite history as we know it so that he can play out the struggle of his characters as best suits the requirements of his story and imagination, and it allows us to approach the era with a fresh gaze.
As Kay says in a recent interview in Locus, "What I've been specifically interested in is how the examination of themes and trends, moments in history, can be intensified by dealing with them through fantasy. Not softened, not fudged, but sharpened."
Looking back on his career, it's easy to see how Kay has come to concentrate on fantasies based upon themes of history. Like many authors drawn to the literature of the fantastic, he wrote the obligatory Tolkienesque novel, in his case a fantasy trilogy called The Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986).
But one could already see Kay's need to explore other literary terrain when his next novel Tigana (1990) appeared. By the time A Song for Arbonne was published in 1992, obviously based upon a medieval Provence that never was, it was apparent that Kay had done what the best writers always do, and that was stake out his own territory in the landscape of literature.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Kay's ambitious novels might easily be an embarrassment, a few more awkward alternate histories, thinly disguised as fantasy since the author either didn't, or couldn't, be bothered to do his research. But Kay's books ring with authenticity. They are literate and imaginative, and work on many levels. History aficionados will delight in all the small and telling insights Kay brings to the era and its cultures, while other readers will simply delight in the grand sweep of the story, the rich characterization, and Kay's sheer gift with language.
The conclusion of The Sarantine Mosaic is very satisfying and no exception to the success of the rest of Kay's body of work.
FOREVER FREE - Joe Haldeman
I don't read nearly as much science fiction as I probably should. I'm not sure why. But I do know that, when the urge strikes me, I tend to gravitate towards the masters of the field. Being as far behind as I am, I might as well read the best when I'm doing my catch-up.
Which is what had me pick out Forever Free from the pile of review books that leans precariously against a bookshelf in my office that's already stuffed to overflowing with more of the same.
Haldeman isn't prolific, and he rarely returns to a previous book's setting, so each new title of his is to be anticipated and approached with the knowing that this will be something new. Such remains the case with Forever Free, for all that it's a sequel to his classic The Forever War (1974). The connection between the two is almost beside the point, the books are so dissimilar. The latter is a science fictional portrait of the Vietnam experience while the new book is from the viewpoint of a middle-aged veteran to whom the war is still an immediate memory where for most people it is now old history.
Our viewpoint character is William Mandella who, along with a number of other veterans of the Forever War, has settled on the planet known as Middle Finger. The war is long over. The enemy, the Taurans, are now allies. And most humans are choosing to become a new, "improved" form of humanity known as Man, who look normal, but are connected to a group mind and all look and act the same, always calm and unstressed.
Because the Taurans and Man have control over the humans, Mandella can't help but feel like a captive, for all that their rule appears benign. He hatches a plan to hijack an antiquated shuttle and take a long-term trip, right out of the galaxy. To tell you more would spoil far too many surprises, but rest assured that Forever Free is everything good science fiction should be but so often isn't: a grand adventure into what it means to be human, told through rich characterization and thoughtful scientific (not to mention religious) speculation that doesn't lag for a moment.
Most people have a need to make sense of this existence we all share, an existence that, in the long run, often doesn't appear to have any real meaning. Haldeman lets his characters in on a possible explanation and the ensuing argument is riveting.
THE FRANK COLLECTION - Jane and Howard Frank
POSSIBLE FUTURES - edited by Dorit Yaron
The publication of these two books, both centering around the collection of fantasy and sf art of Jane and Howard Frank, are a perfect example of the sharp contrast between academic and commercial views of the same subject.
Possible Futures, the book, is the catalogue for an exhibition called Possible Futures: Science Fiction Art from The Frank Collection that will be touring through various US cities during 2000. It features six thoughtful essays, placing sf art in the context of the larger art world, as well as reproductions of many of the paintings in the exhibition.
The Frank Collection also features that art, but here the paintings themselves are the focus. Where most of the reproductions in the other book are quite small, nesting in pages thick with text, here the paintings spread out on the pages, often taking them over completely. The text is a breezy walk-through of the Frank home, describing the various paintings, where they hang, how they were acquired.
The art itself, taken as a whole, is schizophrenic to say the least. It ranges from old pulp and paperback covers that can seem quaint through to the super-realism of contemporary work. There are also some wonderful monochromic drawings. The subject matter too is catch-as-catch-can: hard sf, high and heroic fantasy, horror.
Which book is better? It depends upon your own interests and perspectives, I suppose. I find they seem to complement each other. I was more interested in reading what the academics had to say than where in the Frank home a painting hung, but I appreciated the larger reproductions in the Paper Tiger edition more than the smaller, less-vibrant versions to be found in The Art Gallery edition.
But the best thing would be to take in the show at a gallery, or finagle a way into the Franks's house to see the paintings once they've finished their wanderings as part of the exhibition and have returned once more to the walls where they are normally to be found.
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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