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Book Attack

Even though it doesn't officially start for a few more weeks, all the signs suggest that summer's finally arrived. Our usually pasty-faced colleagues (sorry guys, but it's the truth) are sporting lobster-red sunburns, the battle for control of the office air conditioning unit has once more begun, and the lengthening days and balmy nights have got us fantasizing about renting a cabin deep, deep in the woods and far from the madding crowd. OK, so, maybe we can't leave town, but there's nothing stopping you or us from escaping into great books, which, as bibliophiles the world over well know, are some of the cheapest time-, attitude- and space-traveling options around.

With that in mind we present our summer book issue. We've highlighted some of the best new picks around in the genres of fantasy, science fiction and mystery--not to mention an interview about horror fiction with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.

So, slap on the sun block, pour yourself a long, cool drink and rediscover the world of books. You won't regret it.

A special thanks to our book issue model Natasha the cat, who proved to have an insatiable appetite when it came to defacing, clawing and sitting on piles of books, especially those with the word "dog" in the title.


Believe us, there's more to look forward to in the world of fantasy fiction than Harry Potter

By Terry Weyna

Ever since I was a kid, summer meant reading to me. I'd climb a tree with a book and not come down till I was finished. This summer I plan to do the same thing, only under the tree instead of in it. Then as now, I'll be reading big thick fantasies that will sweep me away.

Steven Erikson's series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is filled with war, sorcery and empires clashing in lyrical language with a fast-moving plot full of strong characters at all societal levels. Gardens of the Moon (Tor; 494 pages; $7.99 paper) and Deadhouse Gates (Tor; 604 pages, $14.95 paper), the first two in the series, are available now, and Memories of Ice, House of Chains and Midnight Tides follow soon.

Steph Swainston is one of the most exciting new fantasy voices on the scene. Her The Year of Our War (Eos; 384 pages; $13.95 paper)--featuring an anti-hero with wings and a drug addiction fighting mysterious hordes of man-sized, man-eating insects as well as a fearsome group of immortals--is comparable to China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels in its weirdness. This means its sequel, No Present Like Time (Gollancz; 344 pages; U.K. 9.99 paper) is something to anticipate.

Stephen Donaldson has started his third trilogy of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In The Runes of the Earth (Putnam's; 532 pages; $26.95 cloth), there are signs that Donaldson's anti-hero has once again returned to the Land--or perhaps, never left it. If you've not previously been introduced to the Unbeliever--a fantasy figure who does not himself believe in fantasy--now is the time to start; all of the earlier six books have been reissued by Del Rey in mass market paperback.

There probably isn't any fantasy reader who isn't looking forward to George R.R. Martin's A Feast for Crows (Spectra; 704 pages; $28 cloth), Book Four of A Song of Fire and Ice, due in bookstores on July 26.

This saga, based loosely on the War of the Roses, has a cast of characters the size of a small town, all fully realized. Even the loathsome figures often prove to be less so, and it is uncommonly difficult to tell where the truth lies. (All three of the earlier books are available in mass market editions from Spectra.)

For those who prefer duologies to trilogies or trilogies of trilogies, there are more good choices than ever. First, modernity meets the Dark Ages in The Merchant Princes books by Charles Stross. The Family Trade (Tor; 320 pages; $6.99 paper) and The Hidden Family (Tor; 304 pages; $24.95 cloth) involve characters able to worldwalk, that is, to leave modern-day Boston or New York and arrive in a land of unheated palaces without flush toilets. It's a story of criminal capitalism, royal intrigue, assassination attempts and a hard-headed idealism.

The seductive cover of the first of Hal Duncan's The Book of All Hours, a lovely tome called Vellum (Pan Macmillan; 600 pages; U.K. 17.99 cloth, due in August) is enough to justify a purchase all on its own. The book itself is utterly strange and beautiful, with compulsively readable writing that manages to be both literary and transparent. In Duncan's world, time is three-dimensional and our perception of it is but a scratch on the Vellum. The second book, Ink, is due next year.

For true bibliophiles--those who can't go more than two weeks without going into a bookstore without feeling short of breath--Ramsey Campbell's The Overnight (Tor; 396 pages; $24.95 cloth) is just right. It's set in a bookstore called Texts, which bears a not-so-surprising resemblance to Borders, where Campbell, a modern master of the dark fantastic, worked for a year. What could be better than a horror novel set inside a modern, brightly lit, warehouselike chain bookstore?

Anyone who has read Neil Gaiman's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning American Gods knows that anything he writes is worth reading. Anansi Boys (Morrow; 432 pages; $26.95; Sept. 1) is one of the most highly anticipated books of the year. Exactly what does happen to the children of the gods when the gods die? We'll find out.

Younger readers have more to look forward to than the new Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic; 672 pages; $29.99 cloth; due in July). There are strange stories available from Margo Lanagan in Black Juice (Eos; 201 pages; $15.99 cloth), stories that don't tell everything there is to know about them. In Justine Larbalestier's Magic and Madness (Razorbill; 271 pages; $16.99 cloth), magic and reason collide, with strange and wonderful results for the teenager caught between an ailing mother and an odd grandmother. Scott Westerfield continues his Midnighters saga in Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness (Eos; 330 pages; $15.99 cloth), in which Jessica Day, having now discovered her power, must learn how to use it. Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (Scholastic; 534 pages; $7.99 paper) is finally available in paperback, allowing all of us with young imaginations to find out what happens when an evil ruler escapes the pages of a favorite book and threatens our own world.

For those who like their fantasy in the smallest doses, the annual "best of" books are perfect for outside lunches in the sun in the middle of a busy workday. Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan have already published Fantasy: The Best of 2004 (ibooks; 353 pages; $7.99 paper), and it is full of gems like Jeffrey Ford's "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," which won the 2004 Speculative Literature Foundation's Fountain Award. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer will publish their Year's Best Fantasy 5 (Eos; 512 pages; $7.99 paper) on July 1; this collection keeps getting better every year. And the reliable Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighteenth Annual Edition, edited by Ellen Datlow, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link (St. Martin's; 608 pages; $19.95 paper), due on Aug. 1, will offer up the final word on the subject, together with exhaustive analyses of developments in the field during the past year.

Sci-Fi Guys and Gals

Behind the blockbusters, sci-fi writers' lives are as fascinatingly fantastic as their writing

By Rick Kleffel

This summer, prepare to be inundated by science fiction. Resistance, as they say, is futile. With George Lucas completing his Star Wars series and Steven Spielberg remaking War of the Worlds, the movie screens in months to come will be pretty much all science fiction, all the time.

Backing them up, the bookstores will be sporting novelizations that you can buy to support the real science fiction novels out there. But for those who want to go beyond and behind science fiction, there's a well hidden group of biographies--both actual and fictional--that offer the thrills and the rich imaginary landscapes of science fiction as experienced by the authors who create it. These books have a lot to offer readers who prefer nonfiction and mainstream literary fiction as well-- in other words, just about anybody who reads.

Philip K. Dick is certainly the most familiar science fiction writer to moviegoers. You should take the time to pick up his novel A Scanner Darkly out of all those novelizations, as the film is coming out later this year. Since Ridley Scott's seminal adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Blade Runner, Dick has been one of the most frequently adapted science fiction authors. But the man himself was every bit as unusual as his fiction, and his life story is particularly weird.

You can start with the authoritative biography from Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (Carroll & Graf; 368 pages; $15.95 paper; Aug. 9). Sutin has gone through Dick's letters, his novels and nearly every bit of paper that Dick wrote upon to chronicle his marriages, his writing, his encounters with drugs and even God (or perhaps just the Ultimate) in February of 1974.

You can walk a mile in Dick's shoes with French biographer and true-crime writer Emmanuel Carrère. I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (Picador; 336 pages; $15 paper; June 1) depicts Dick's life from the inside. It's a page-turning, surreal exploration of a mind more unusual than most of its own creations.

What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick (Overlook Press; 204 pages; $16.95 paper) gets even closer to the man himself, offering readers the final recorded conversations with the author. Straight from the tapes, you can hear what PKD thought of the first 20 minutes of Blade Runner, and hear firsthand his thoughts on his mystical encounters. Given Dick's peculiar perceptions of space and time, you may feel as if he's speaking directly to you.

If he is, then you're ready to take the next step. British author Steve Aylett's Lint (Thunder's Mouth Press; 226 pages; $14.99 paper) is a psychedelic chronicle of the life of science fiction writer Jeff Lint. The fact that Jeff Lint exists only in his imagination doesn't stop Aylett from offering readers a gloriously weird mirror with which to view the past 60 years. Lint's time with the Beats, his embrace of pulp science fiction, his flirtation with drugs and his disastrous but hilarious scripts for Star Trek and Patton will keep readers wondering whether this is all a dream.

Aylett's prose is spectacularly strange, but his story of a downtrodden, marginalized writer is surprisingly sweet. The mock book covers created for Lint are loving reminders of the paperbacks of yore and so perfectly executed that you'll be looking for Lint's I Blame Ferns in the stacks at Logos. Don't miss the website dedicated to Lint's work at www.jefflint.com.

Jan Lars Jensen achieved a science fiction writer's dream in 1999 with the American publication of his acclaimed first novel Shiva 3000 (Harcourt; 248 pages; $24 cloth), a dystopian tale set in a future India. But his own imagination undid him, and he became convinced that his novel was bringing about the Apocalypse. After attempting suicide, Jensen found himself in a psych ward, slowly groping his way back to reality.

His memoir Nervous System, or Losing My Mind in Literature (Carroll & Graf; 280 pages; $14.95 paper) is a poignant and strange tale of recovering from madness. Reading was his guide back to sanity. He struggled to understand James Herriot's animal stories through a fog of anti-psychotics, tried to decipher his psychiatrist's references to Patrick O'Brian's novels and even read a history of logging to put himself asleep at night. His experience will have rather the opposite effect on readers, who will have to turn the pages to find out whether or not he keeps his copy of Silence of the Lambs. Is it an aid or detriment to one's sanity?

With Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the movie theaters, what better time to hitch a ride in the mind of this most obsessive of writers. With access to excess and a droll sense of humor, Nick Webb's Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams (Ballantine Books; 368 pages; $25.95 cloth) offers an unvarnished look at a man both painfully shy and undeniably brilliant.

And those anticipating Superman Returns can get to the roots of this iconic character in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones (Basic Books; 384 pages; $26 cloth), the story of the pornographers, bootleggers, socialists and geeky teenagers who created the Man of Steel.

H. P. Lovecraft has been the subject of many biographies, none more outrageously fun than French author Michel Houellebecq's H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (Believer Books; 150 pages; $18 paper). Prone to statements like, "Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore to write new realistic novels," Houellebecq's critique and biography is a wild manifesto that's amazingly blunt. It's the sort of book that you'll feel compelled to read aloud to those around you for the sheer fun of provoking a response. You'll be sure to get one. Be ready to duck.

M. G. Lord's Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science (Walker Books; 272 pages; $24 cloth) takes on science, not science fiction, but the sunny, spacey '60s vibe of this quirky writer will certainly speak to the same audience. Lord was the daughter of an actual Jet Propulsion Laboratory rocket scientist, who built the Mariner Mars 69 space probe. Astro Turf is her story of growing up under the remote eyes of a man who was remotely piloting vehicles in space. Through her own story, she traces the history of JPL and the effects of the culture of engineering that still speaks so clearly in the nuts-and-bolts world of so-called "hard science fiction."

You'll have to sift through heaps of spin-offs featuring airbrushed actors' faces to find it, but there's plenty of great original science fiction to be found. Written space opera puts any movie version to shame, as it plays on the big screen in your mind with the clarity and special effects that only reading can provide. Hidden in the paperback racks is the Dread Empire's Fall series by Walter Jon Williams. The Praxis (HarperTorch; $7.99 paper), The Sundering (HarperTorch; 448 pages; $7.99 paper) and the forthcoming finale, The Orthodox War, offer space opera adventures as they might have been penned by P. G. Wodehouse; witty, droll, arch and filled with compelling characters.

Dan Simmons made his mark with The Hyperion Cantos, a science-fictional version of The Canterbury Tales that lived up to its model. Now in Ilium (HarperTorch; 752 pages; $7.99 paper; July 1) and its sequel Olympos (Eos; 576 pages; $25.95 cloth; July 1) readers can enjoy Simmons' take on The Iliad, as played on the surface of Mars in a future populated by resurrected English scholars and godlike artificial intelligences. Simmons science-fictional tour of literary history is gripping, funny, mind-boggling and a remarkably readable achievement.

Accelerando by Charles Stross (Ace; 400 pages; $24.95; July 1) paints a powerful and often hilarious portrait of a dysfunctional family across three generations during which technological change renders humanity obsolete. Nobody puts together a lucky-bag of wild ideas like Stross. Remember back in the 1980s when somebody told you about a novel titled Neuromancer? Now, somebody's telling you about Accelerando; take heed.

And finally, readers can get out of the sun and into the cool shadows of a Century Rain (Ace; 420 pages; $25.95; June 1) with astrophysicist Alastair Reynolds. What starts off as an atmospheric Maigret-like mystery rapidly escalates into a surreal tale of words that aren't what they appear to be. Reynolds offers a hard-boiled PI pounding the mean streets of Paris and interstellar shenanigans worthy of Philip K. Dick. Finely turned prose helps lure the reader into a world turned inside-out.

And if readers' minds aren't inside-out by this time, there are plenty of other genre pleasures to enjoy. Science fiction may be big at the movies, but that's only a fraction of the genre fiction out there, and by most accounts, the smallest one. Yet, like the durable Tardis of Doctor Who, the genre somehow manages to be bigger from the inside than it seems from the outside. Prepare to be inundated. At the bookstore!

Everything Is a Mystery

But Not to Laurie R. King.

By Rick Kleffel And Terry D'Auray

If science fiction is only just achieving mainstream success, then it's following in the footsteps of the mystery genre, which has long been a center of literary attention. Indeed, no small number of writers will contend that all fiction is in a sense mystery fiction; every character is, after all, trying to solve a problem.

To winnow down the playing field, lets keep our eyes on what writer George Pelecanos calls crime fiction, which began with the exploits of one Sherlock Holmes. Doyle's stories and novels are timeless pleasures, and readers can still enjoy them as much as, or even more than, when they first appeared. Our local used bookstores have plenty of great copies of these books in lavish versions that duplicate the original printings in The Strand Magazine, which is once again publishing original mystery fiction.

But Holmes has never really left the stage since his creation by Doyle. Other writers have taken up his adventures, none more successfully and entertainingly than local writer Laurie R. King. With her novel The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Bantam Books; 448 pages; $6.99 paper), she introduced Mary Russell, who has, in the course of the series that follows, become a fully engaging wife for the Great Detective. Last year's romp in India, The Game (Bantam, 480 pages; $7.99 paper), is now in a beach-ready paperback format. It's a wonderful adventure that draws from Doyle's Professor Challenger stories and The Avengers all while adhering to King's extension of the Holmes canon. Her latest novel, Locked Rooms (Bantam; 415 pages; $24 cloth; June 21), brings Mary and Sherlock to San Francisco, where they undertake the very personal investigation into Mary's inheritance. Holmes enlists the aid of Pinkerton's agent Dashiell Hammett to help untangle a backstory set during the 1906 earthquake. King's humor is delightful, and her sense of the city is impeccable. This is quite possibly her best outing yet with Mary Russell, and not to be missed.

But she's got some stiff competition. Caleb Carr, who jump-started the historical mystery genre with his 1994 blockbuster The Alienist, brings readers his own addition to the Holmes canon with The Italian Secretary (Carroll & Graf; 264 pages; $23.95 cloth). Carr's foray into Holmes pastiche is not as weighty as his other novels, but offers all the authentic details that one could hope for. Add to this mix Michael Chabon's wonderful The Final Solution (Fourth Estate; 132 pages; $16.95 paper) and Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind (Nan A. Tales; 272 pages; $23.95 cloth): both offering compelling literary visions of an aging Sherlock Holmes, and you could spend the entire summer reading about Holmes.

But let's not. There are plenty of great contemporary mysteries. In Drama City (Little Brown; 304 pages; $24.95 cloth) George Pelecanos sticks to his Washington, D.C., urban wasteland setting, and focuses on an ex-con dog-catcher and his Hispanic parole officer. He delivers urban reality with soul, written in no-cal prose with take-your-breath-away action. Dead Run (Putnam; 336 pages; $23.95 cloth), by P.J. Tracy, finds the mother and daughter writing team leading the infamous Monkeywrench gang into terrorist territory with a well-plotted story, engagingly eccentric characters, and wit--make that high humor--for a certifiably great read. The Power of the Dog (Knopf; 560 pages; $25.95) by Don Winslow is the book on the drug culture by a writer who combines complex plots, believable, unique characters, and lots of them, with prose that sizzles and action that sizzles hotter. This is a mini-book-brick that's guaranteed to be worth the investment. Of course, the real mystery is how much money and time you'll have to invest in all of these books.

Sweet Pills and Bitter Truths

Chuck Palahniuk on horror fiction

By Rick Kleffel

Chuck Palahniuk is best known for writing the novel Fight Club, upon which the movie was based. Now he's both a fan and a writer of horror fiction. His readings of his short story "Guts" have caused more than 60 listeners to pass out in bookstores around the world. This story is included in his latest novel, Haunted, in which writers trapped in a theater try to control the truth by telling the strongest stories.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: I'm wondering if you would talk to us about works of horror that we should be reading this summer.

PALAHNIUK: You know, one of my favorites is Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. I believe that it came out in the [early] '50s, at a time when we were sending people to die in the Korean War after having just sent a lot of people to die in the Second World War. I would argue that it was probably dealing with that terror of the draft, but dealing with the terror of the draft in yet another war where we were going to be choosing certain people among us to go off and die so the rest of us could continue driving two hours to work every day. And when Shirley Jackson's The Lottery was originally published in The New Yorker, hundreds of people were so offended and outraged that they canceled their subscriptions to The New Yorker for The Lottery ... And so, I really thought, what would it take to write a story that would be the modern equivalent of The Lottery, and that's really why I wrote "Guts." What would it take to write a story that it would be so offensive, that people would be so upset about, that they would cancel their subscriptions? And when it came out in The Guardian in Great Britain, a huge newspaper, hundreds of people canceled their subscriptions to The Guardian. So, Shirley Jackson's books, are, I think, just extraordinary. I tend to always fall back on her, Stephen King ...

I want to talk a little bit about what you call transgressive fiction. In a way, you write transgressive fiction, but you also appreciate the sugarcoated pills that writers like Ira Levin slip to us. Tell us a little bit about the contrast and the process that you call narcotization.

I forgot about Ira Levin, and that was a real oversight, because I love his books. He is such a smart guy.

Narcotization, we studied that in college. People who were shown slightly damaged gums and teeth, brushed a little bit more and flossed a little bit more, and people who were shown moderately damaged gums and teeth brushed and flossed a little bit more than the first group. But people who were shown severely damaged teeth and gums, really horrible rotted out mouths, they quit brushing and they quit flossing. They just gave up. They called it narcotization, and they created the theory that if we're shown something too horrific, too overwhelming, then we give up all hope, and we don't see that we have any cause in the matter. We just sort of roll over and allow it to happen, and we live a resigned life.

So people like Ira Levin could take a social issue and put it inside of a very entertaining story and get us to deal with a social issue, like The Stepford Wives, and through this metaphor, deal with things like the backlash and the culture's resistance to the feminist movement, to women's liberation, acknowledge the things that the culture is not ready to acknowledge, and in a way, deal with them 20 years before they're even recognized by someone like Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash. So that is the sweet, incredible little pill that Ira Levin could do.

Well, in this series of gradations, then, you're the super-rotting teeth that just make people want to give up hope, aren't you?

Well, I am in the short stories, certainly, but for the bridge stories, where people are constantly arguing for who is going to be the authority, who's going to have the final word, who's going to be "The Truth," I think that's something in Haunted that's still not recognized by the culture, and maybe someday in the future, they'll go, "Oh, that was what that book was really about."

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From the June 1-8, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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