Also in this summer lit issue: check out a conversation with white-hot 'Absurdistan' author Gary Shteyngart and dozens of annotated recommendations from your local booksellers. This summer's 'most emo,' 'most prescient' and 'most transformatively sensual and deeply healing' reads are all right here at your soon-to-be-singed fingertips.
Life's a Beach
So skip those turgid potboilers steaming up suburban kitchens and come fishing for some books with hooks
By Rick Kleffel
We love to read outdoors, to take our books to the beach, to the forest, to the top of the world, where we'll sit ourselves down and open them and ourselves up to another world entirely. The problem is that when you live in Santa Cruz, it takes a powerful set of words on the page to distract us from the beauty--of all varieties--that surrounds us.
That's why so much literature touted as "summer reading" proves to be page-turning pulse pounders, or attention-grabbing gossipmongering. But this sort of book is the literary equivalent of bad Chinese food. Read some, and an hour later your mind is hungry again.
There's no such problem with The Swarm by Frank Schatzing (HarperCollins; 896 pages; $24.95 cloth). Schatzing serves up a massive, nearly 900-page platter of continental-style potboiling adventure that fires off when whales begin sinking ships. We're marine-friendly here on the edge of the Monterey Bay, and that's a good thing, because in Schatzing's thriller, the denizens of the deep turn against humanity at the behest of something certifiably not human. Every summer needs one of these back-busting book-bricks, chocka-block with pseudoscientific hand-waving that a good science fiction reader can see coming from miles away. A bestseller for over two years in Germany, The Swarm is one of those lose-yourself books that offer a truly green world tour for readers who are staying put.
Genre fiction--mystery, science fiction and horror--is always fun to read in the sun, and this summer there are a variety of delights from voices not often heard. For more than 20 years, Vernor Vinge has led the pack of science fiction writers. Whether he's really inventing the cyberpunk genre with True Names or publishing scientific treatises (The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era) that become the foundation of schools of both science and science fiction, Vinge has been first and foremost an original. You'll have to look carefully for his latest novel, Rainbows End (Tor; 368 pages; $25.95 cloth), but it is worth the search. In the first five or so pages, Vinge kicks off his tale of life 19 years hence with a wildly thrilling vision of advertising, terrorism and electronic surveillance combined to create a new form of very deadly technology. But the human element is every bit as compelling as the toe-tapping thriller that unfolds here. As for the science fiction, Vinge once again demonstrates the power of the genre by presenting ideas that reinvent our world. As our lives unravel in the bad science fiction novel that is this world, you can at least enjoy a great science fiction novel that offers an alternative.
Lurking in the literary shadows is a sleeper almost-bestseller that truly lives in two worlds. The Stolen Child by Keith Donohoe (Nan A. Talese; 335 pages; $23.95 cloth) is like the changelings that come to life within, a novel that looks like one thing but is truly another. Donohoe reinvents the world of faerie with a single-minded unsentimentality that is chilling and compelling. Like all great and original novels, it begins quite simply. Henry Day falls asleep in a giant tree. (Yes, you'll find plenty of those not so far from the Tyrolean Inn, but don't try this in our forest.) He's taken away, and someone, something else is left in his place. What follows is a tale of changelings and changed lives, an unaffected look at our search for self-definition. Donohoe doesn't minimize the fantastic. He scrutinizes it, categorizes it, studies it. Compelling human and inhuman drama are swirled in a naturalist's version of the supernatural.
A new publisher out of Texas is making things fun for science fiction readers. Monkeybrain Books has a variety of titles to titillate not only your brain but also your eyes. Since we all judge books by their covers, why not get Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio (Monkeybrain; 200 pages; $39.95 cloth)? With exactly 200 pages of full-color illustrations, Picacio's book is more than a bunch of pretty pictures--though there are certainly enough of those! Picacio gives us the process and the insights into how he does what he does. Fascinating to read, beautiful to look at, engaging in every sense.
But there's more to Monkeybrain than art. Look no further than The Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman (400 pages; $15.95 paper) and Adventure, vol. 1 (400 pages; $14.95 paper), edited by Chris Roberson, for your pound of pulp fiction done right. Newman has been pounding this beat since he introduced the Diogenes Club in Anno Dracula, where Jack the Ripper was killing the vampire hookers of Whitechapel, with Doctor Jekyll performing the most exciting autopsies you're likely to encounter this side of the Thames. Now it's the swinging '70s and Agent Richard Jesperson is taking haunted trains to utopian communities and London's ever-thriving vice district. Thirty pages of notes detail the pulp and pop origins of Newman's stories.
Chris Roberson's Adventure and Joe R. Lansdale's Retro Pulp Tales (Subterranean Press; 235 pages; $40 cloth deluxe) know how to take their pulp fiction seriously without taking the fun out of it. Roberson tells us that Adventure has "the desire to publish stories of any stripe, so long as they have healthy dose of adventure." With titles like "The Island of Annoyed Souls" by Mike Resnick and "The Unfortunate Gytt" by Kage Baker, it's clear that humor is also part of the equation. In his intro to Retro Pulp Tales, Lansdale says, "My rule for the writers as their editor was simple. Write a story in the vein of the old pulps, or digest magazines, something you think might have gone into a magazine back then. Something that takes place before 1960, and with the restrictions of those times." Lansdale's writing stable includes talent like James Reasoner ("Dead Wings Over France: A Dead-Stick Malloy Story"), Bill Crider ("'Zekeil Saw the Wheel") and F. Paul Wilson ("Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong").
Literary Martinis and Spiked Punch Bowls
Those who seek the astringent taste of a literary martini can get themselves both shaken and stirred by The Futurist (Doubleday; 272 pages; $23.95 cloth). No, James P. Othmer's first novel isn't science fiction, other than by virtue of the fact that we're all living in a bad science fiction novel. Othmer is in the midst of living the American Dream and writing it up as the American Nightmare. He rose to the top (like, uh, cream) of the advertising heap, sold his first novel and clearly he's not looking back. Yates, the protagonist of The Futurist, is the kind of talking head who walks through this world with a Teflon shield, a lecturing expert on anything that neither requires nor rewards deep thought, the kind of consultant who has as many golden parachutes as he does girlfriends. His declaration of himself as the leader of the "Coalition of the Clueless" ends his career and starts the book. Othmer sprinkles the book with many amusing moments, including the firing of a man on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Some of us will love this book to death; everyone should order another martini.
Two collections from Northern California publishers drop a tab into the punch bowl of literary fiction. Paraspheres: Extending beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan (Omnidawn; 636 pages; $19.95 paper), and Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (Tachyon Publications; 320 pages; $14.95 paper), show that writers--lots of great writers--can take The Twilight Zone very, very seriously and still have one hell of a lot of fun. Paraspheres is something of a literary manifesto, a 636-page declaration that there is a genre between the genres, a literature that is not literature as we know it. Wild original fiction of every stripe finds its way between the covers and thence between your eyes. Feeling Very Strange will leave you just that, and with no long-term side effects other than a tendency to disregard boundaries of any kind. Come to think of it, this could have a deleterious effect on your ability to drive.
Of course, when the rest of the world is sunning itself on the beach, here in Santa Cruz we're just as likely to find ourselves enshrouded in fog. And that's when the mysteries come off the shelves. For your classic butt-kicking good guy, look no farther than Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Child's latest novel, The Hard Way (Delacorte; 384 pages; $25 cloth), finds Reacher employed by someone as nasty as those he's been hired to find. He's not the kind of man to take this kindly. Meanwhile, Dale Bailey and Jack Slay Jr. team up to bring readers Sleeping Policemen (Golden Gryphon; 280 pages; $24.95), in which Nick Laymon heads out for some good times with his good ol' boys, Finney Durant and Reed Tucker. Bad luck, bad ideas and a bad turn leave him standing over the body of a lone pedestrian they run down on a stretch of mountain highway. The man has cash, and worse, a key. In a classic Hitchcock escalation, things go from bad to worse even as Nick and his friend think they've struck pay dirt. This is one of those all-nighter books, so plan on having takeout.
The next morning, bleary eyed, you'll rise up and the fog will be gone, the sun will be shining and you'll still have a sizable stack of books to enjoy. Better yet, the beach and the forests will be waiting with the promise of just enough quiet in this world to allow you to lose yourself in another. Reading on the decline? Not in Santa Cruz!
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