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Mary Jo's Picks

 

Mary Jo is that rarest of creatures, a true Portland native. Before she came to Powell's, she worked for a panoply of small presses, doing everything from making editorial decisions to feeding the cats. In her four and a half years at Powell's she has worked in a wide variety of sections, including Children's Books, Poetry (why she gave up that peach remains a bit of a mystery; Mary Jo is after all a published poet), and finally Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror. She also currently orders for Romance, Westerns, Large Print, and, eh-hem, Erotica. When she's not getting her poetry published, Mary Jo likes drinking merlot by the bucket, playing softball, eating molasses cookies (a nice old fashioned girl), and hanging around with her many merlot buddies.

 

Science Fiction / Fantasy

Last CallLast Call by Tim Powers
Generations of Powell's Science Fiction Team members have read and loved this book, and it is one of my favorites to sell science fiction-reading customers who are looking for something new. Powers combines Arthurian mythology, chaos theory, tarot, and poker in an adventure set mostly in Las Vegas. Only a writer of Powers's skill could combine these ideas successfully into such an unforgettable plotline. This is the first volume of a trilogy, and by far the strongest. Expiration Date is the second volume, followed by Earthquake Weather. Trust me, you'll never experience a ringing telephone, the smell of coffee, or a deck of cards the same way after you read this book.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
We keep this title in our Mystery section, but it was once nominated for a World Fantasy Award (though it was thrown out on a technicality). It was later made into a very bad movie, The Ninth Gate, which should be avoided at all costs. Club Dumas is the story of Lucas Corso, a slightly shady bookdealer, and his search for an ancient rare text said to contain the secret of summoning the devil. He finds three copies of it. He also discovers there is a beautiful, mysterious woman following him. But who she is and what exactly her reasons are for getting involved with him aren't quite clear to Corso, or to the reader. The atmosphere throughout the novel is dark and brooding, a world haunted by elusive facts and people. Club Dumas is stuffed with antiquarian book lore, but watching Corso make his way through the mazes that surround him is the true pleasure of reading this work.

Two by Sean StewartMockingbird and Galveston by Sean Stewart
Mockingbird is the story of a young woman who grudgingly inherits her mother's psychic powers. This book reads like a shot of whiskey – sweet, fiery swirls in the throat that linger on. Galveston centers around two different characters and their response to the flood of magic that divided the town in two. Half of Galveston is the Carnival, presided over by Momus and full of magic. In the other half, magic is strictly forbidden and those caught succumbing to its influence are sent off to Carnival. The book deals with trying to reconcile the two halves of the town, the halves of the main characters' lives: what is pieced together is an entirely new creation.

Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll
"It took me less than half a lifetime to realize that regret is one of the few guaranteed certainties. Sooner or later everything is touched by it, despite our naive and senseless hope that this time we will be spared its cold hand on our heart." Not bad for an opening paragraph, eh? A friend of mine once said of Carroll's work, "He writes from his soul," which sums it up rather nicely. Sleeping in Flame is the story of Walker Easterling and his rather unusual ancestors. The story of Rumplestiltskin figures largely in the plot, but Carroll does unexpected things with it. Walker falls in love with a woman, and the first third of the book is about how they meet. The rest of the book centers around Walker's unusual ancestors and how he comes to terms with his inheritance. Carroll's work is mostly out of print, but well worth the extra effort it takes to seek it out.

Two by James P. BlaylockAll the Bells on Earth and The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock
"..what was obvious was probably lies; the truth lay hidden, and you got at it by ignoring what passed as common sense," writes Blaylock in The Last Coin, neatly summing up the thematic structure of the book, as well as of All the Bells on Earth – though these novels were written seven years apart, they share a very similar structure. Taken together they provide the reader with a fascinating look at how an author's powers develop over time. The Last Coin centers around the thirty pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot received for betraying Jesus. Some of the characters want those thirty pieces of silver gathered together again, and others do not. Whoever possessed them would have great power. All the Bells on Earth revolves around a glass jar with a preserved bluebird inside. This object also confers unusual powers. In both cases, the protagonist has no idea what power the object he possesses has, and there are all sorts of people trying to take it away from him. Full of eccentric characters, a protagonist who is well-meaning but a bit of a bumbler, and a wife who sees her husband exactly as he is and likes him that way – both novels have essentially the same cast. All the Bells on Earth is much darker, infused with a deliciously realized sense of menace.

Skull Session by Daniel Hecht
Paul Skoglund gets a call from his aunt. She wants him to come repair her damaged home in the country. Paul has Tourettes syndrome and a spotty history of employment. Paul is horrified at the extent of the damage: no human could have done it – or could they? Paul's girlfriend Lia is addicted to risk: skydiving, exploring caves, basking in adrenaline's fierce glow. Lia may end up with more than she bargained for this time. Skull Session explores the dichotomy between our conscious, rational selves and the instinctual, unconscious layer below. The relationship between Paul and Lia is engrossing and accurately portrays the kind of struggles we know only too well.

The Tooth FairyThe Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce
The Tooth Fairy is a particularly subtle literary horror novel. It is dark, erotic, filled with adolescent passions and nightmares. Joyce manages to capture the agony of unrequited love and its compensations in prose that is both freshly revealing and all too familiar. You won't ever think about the Tooth Fairy in quite the same way after you read this novel: here she is a feral, darkly erotic, willful creature. Set in the English countryside in the early sixties, The Tooth Fairy is that dreadful thing – the coming of age novel – but Joyce does not wax nostalgic. There is nothing tame and pedestrian about these characters, or what happens to them.

 

Popcorn Vampire Fiction

I am thoroughly sick of the whole vampire fiction craze. Unfortunately, I keep discovering more and more of it that I find truly entertaining.

I vant your popcornPoppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls and Drawing Blood started me off. These novels are packed with memorable characters and luscious prose. Lost Souls is set largely in New Orleans, and while these vampires are a little bit too Goth for me, the characters of Ghost and Steve are people I would happily drink beer with. Drawing Blood doesn't exactly have vampires, but it certainly has a haunted house that craves blood, not a unique thing, but this novel is so well done that the idea of a vampire house will seem quite believable. When Travis McGee was a child, his cartoonist father murdered his mother and brother, then hanged himself. Travis has inherited his father's drawing ability, and comes back to the house where the murders took place to better understand his past.

Last summer I made my way through all of Laurel Hamilton's Anita Blake series, which begins with Guilty Pleasures and hasn't ended yet. These are what I call popcorn novels – kind of lightweight, but as satisfying and addictive as a bowl of buttery popcorn. Be forewarned: if you read one, you'll want the rest soon after. Anita Blake mixes it up with all sorts of vampires, werewolves, and other beasties that go bump in the night.

If you've already read Laurel Hamilton, you'll probably enjoy Tanya Huff's Victoria Nelson series. She isn't a vampire, but her partner in crime-solving, Henry, is. Victoria Nelson is an ex-policewoman who has lost all of her night vision, so an ally that can see in the dark is a useful addition. Both the Hamilton and Huff series can loosely be described as supernatural detective fiction.

Get me away from these trashy books!Nancy Collins's Sonja Blue novels are the darkest and spookiest of the lot. Sunglasses After Dark introduces Sonja Blue and several of the characters that frequent her world. She is not a tame vampire. She will as happily rip your head off as she will save your life – it just all depends. In the Blood finds Sonja taking revenge on her creator, Morgan. Paint it Black is a continuation of events in the previous two novels. One of the ongoing themes in the series is Sonja Blue's identity – there seem to be at least three different personalities living in her head, and she struggles to keep them in balance.

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