Summer books, like summer movies, are generally widely promoted and easily found. Here are the books not so easily found that provide the pleasures of summer reading and leaven them with more than a frisson of the unusual.
From the San Francisco steampunk ghost huntress to the true story of the mother and daughter behind feminism and Frankenstein, these ARE the books you were looking for – but might not otherwise have found.
Let's start with Vermillion by Molly Tanzer, a trade paperback from Petaluma publisher Word Horde. This is the epitome of the weird Western adventure, featuring Elouise "Lou" Merriwether, a 19 -ear-old "psychopomp" keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades and the undead. Jung tells us the psychopomp is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms. For Tanzer she's a supernatural troubleshooter. For the readers, she's one hell of a lot of thought-provoking Taoist heroine fun.
As it happens, British publisher Egaeus Press recently published Tanzer's collection of recipe-driven short stories Rumbullion. Their latest book is Bastards of the Absolute by Adam Cantwell. Egaeus crafts books as art on all levels. Bastards looks like an ancient volume of forbidden lore, and happily it reads like that as well. From prisoners entombed in murals to stories narrated by classical composers, this is deeply bent high literature. You may think that the author needs therapy while reading these, and you might seek the same tre afterwards.
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She's a founding figure of feminist philosophy and action. In 1797, she gave birth to her second daughter, also named Mary, who grew up to become Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Charlotte Gordon examines the lives of these two literary and philosophical ground-breakers with the passion and intensity of a literary thriller. Gordon has the gift of great characters to work with, and she tells their story with verve. A great pairing with Tanzer's novel.
We're all about the water shortage, and what better way to enjoy it than reading The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi? Bacigalupi's novel looks out about say, fifteen years? – and finds "water knife" Angel Velasquez as the man who "cuts" water for Nevada arcology boss Catherine Case. He makes sure she gets plenty even if California goes to dust. Rumors of a new tech surface, and the bodies follow on. This book will not re-assure you. This is not a happy adventure dystopia. This is a day-after-tomorrow novel of intense suspense. Like most knives, this one cuts both ways, in that it is both engrossingly entertaining and deeply disturbing.
It's always a good idea start a series after the third book is released. To that end, you can now start reading The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye, knowing the follow-up Seven for a Secret, and now the third book, The Fatal Flame and the author, are showing up in local bookstores. The first introduces us to Timothy Wilde, a barkeeper in 1845 New York who is pulled into the just-formed police force after a fire destroys his bar and part of his face. Crisp but filled with gritty details, The Gods of Gotham sends Timothy in pursuit of a child killer; the newest book has him after a serial arsonist. It's nice to know just how much worse things were back then.
The alien invasion novel seems as if it must be by definition limited; creatures show up, attack and conquer, almost. Robert R. McCammon turns in one of the year's best under-the-radar novels, The Border, and proves this is not the case. He immerses us in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a war between two alien races, the Cyphers and the Gorgons, fought on earth. We're collateral damage. Ethan, a teenage boy finds himself recovering from amnesia with a set of powers that may tip the balance of power. McCammon offers a big cast, great characters, and dialogue that rings true even in circumstances that demonstrate his horrifically vivid imagination. Subterranean Press makes a beautiful book, illustrated with color plates. Snap up a copy while you can and make the world go away before the Cyphers and Gorgons do it for you.
You can hardly walk through a bookstore without seeing a dozen spins on the "Year's Best" genre fiction anthologies. But visit Borderlands Books, which does still exist, and ask for Strange Takes V, from Tartarus Press, edited by Rosalie Parker to find a book worth keeping. Parker has a very eclectic sensibility, and here you'll find all original stories you'll not find anywhere else. This is wild variety defined, from Mark Valentine's "Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore" to Jacarutu:23's "Bardo Thodol Backup File." Northern California's L. S. Johnson's story "Julie" reads like a great Anne Rice novel in miniature. This is a lovely book with a silk bookmark and a gorgeous frontispiece by artist Stephen J Clark. Read with care so you can show it off later.
Who are you? You look in the mirror and there's no answer. But Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty is an excellent place to start looking. She's a Bay Area literary icon for a very good reason well beyond her work in the publishing world. She writes sparse, tense novels that are thrilling to both read and think about. Here, her unnamed narrator goes to Morocco, where she loses her backpack and slowly, her sense of self. Vida expertly captures the sense of a bureaucratic, life-changing nightmare. Perhaps there's a reason that she lost the backpack. Memory plays tricks on the mind. We are ever our own worst enemies. All it takes is a great book, an unexpected find, to help us remember why we read. To help us remember who we are, and why.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED