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Blindfolds and Cigarettes : Confessions of a General Bookseller
© Peggy Hailey
September 18, 2003

As some of you may remember, in my day job, I'm a bookseller. And even though I was sworn to secrecy, I think the time has come to blow the lid off bookselling's Big Secret: They hide fabulous books that SF/Fantasy/Horror readers would love all over the store in other sections.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of great books to be found in your local bookstore in the Science Fiction section. But there's a whole wide bookstore world out there. You don't have to limit yourself to one or two sections of the store. Sometimes the coolest stuff is nowhere near the Science Fiction section.

With that in mind, I put together a list of some favorites of mine from the rest of the store. Some of them you've heard me talk about before. Others will be new to you. But every one of them is a worthwhile read from an author who may not be familiar to the general SF/Fantasy/Horror fan.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster -- If you like Jonathan Carroll's books, particularly The Land of Laughs, you should check out this tale of a man who writes a book about a dead man, only to be contacted by his widow, claiming that the deceased loved the book and wants to meet the author.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail -- A beautiful dreamlike atmosphere pervades this near-fairy tale. A man plants hundreds of different varieties of eucalyptus trees on his property and declares that only the man who can correctly name them all can marry his daughter. A stuffy academic arrives and begins to name them, but the daughter is tempted by a storytelling stranger who woos her with his quirky tales.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry -- Hilarious and horrifying satire of a near future where American corporations literally rule the world.

Death is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics, and Let's All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury -- Bradbury's forays into the mystery genre are not to be missed. Funny, sad, and lyrical, these books are meditations on death and loneliness harnessed to Bradbury's gift for quirky yet believable characters.

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges -- One of the premiere fantasists of the 20th century, Borges' influence on modern literature is incalculable. Read this collection to see the foundations underpinning the work of a whole lot of writers on this list.

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino -- Calvino writes fantasy in the Borges tradition, often breaking down the 'fourth wall' to address the reader directly.

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier -- If you like the (adult) stories of Roald Dahl, you owe it to yourself to check out this recently re-printed collection of John Collier's wild tales.

The Devil's Larder by Jim Crace -- 64 short fictions about food delivered as only Jim Crace can -- innocent, creepy, and just plain weird.

Pfitz by Andrew Crumey -- (from the Atlantic Monthly review by Phoebe-Lou Adams) An eighteenth-century prince, presumably in Central Europe, designs a series of imaginary cities, the last of which he proposes to create in actuality, devoting his entire country to the project. His people are real, as is the work they do on the dream city. Eventually real and unreal merge, interact, and form a tale that is part quirky amusement and part sly satire on governments, bureaucracies, and the reader's expectations.

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres -- If you're a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his brand of magic realism, you've got to check out these books. They're funny and sad and horrifying and tragic and, well, magical.

Under the Skin by Michael Faber -- A woman drives around the Scottish Highlands looking for hitchhikers, accepting some, rejecting others. The author creates an atmosphere and main character that are creepy, unsettling, and utterly compelling. I should mention that this is not for the weak of heart (or stomach).

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde -- In an alternate 1985 in England, Special Agent Thursday Next of the Literary Division of Special Operations is called upon to try and rescue Jane Eyre (yes, that Jane Eyre) when Jane is kidnapped. Time travel, literary references and allusions and puns flying fast and furious are just a tiny bit of what makes these two books a scream.

Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare by Mark Finn -- Recently, a group of writers who called themselves Clockwork Storybook created a shared world called San Cibola. San Cibola is Anytown, USA on the surface, but if you look closely, there's more going on than meets the eye. A hotel manager has to deal with a convention of Gods. A demon visits the local SF Convention. And Cupid and an Elvis-look-alike take a road trip to Texas in a pink Cadillac convertible.

Gould's Book Of Fish by Richard Flanagan -- A prisoner locked in a cell carved into a cliff that overlooks the sea (and floods when the tide is high) is assigned to illustrate a book about the sea life found in the area. What follows are brutal descriptions of prison life as well as dreamy stories recounted by the prisoner. Illustrations of the sea life are included.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford -- A clever premise -- a bored and unhappy portrait painter is hired by the mysterious Mrs. Charbuque to paint her portrait, with one catch; he can't ever see her. From behind a screen she will answer any question, but no peeking. If he manages to capture her image, he will win enough money to free him from the necessity of portraiture and allow him to be an artist again -- masterfully written.

Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia -- This is the beginning of a quirky little hard-boiled detective series, with one major difference from other mysteries. It's set in a world where the dinosaurs never died off; they just got smaller and very, very good at costuming.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold -- A rollicking tale of a stage magician in the 1920s. Well-drawn fictional characters rub elbows with historical personages like President Harding and Francis 'Borax' Smith. Magic, wild animals, pirates, a disappearing president -- Gold's story starts with a bang and never lets go.

Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer -- Argentian fabulist Gorodischer's first time in English (translated by Ursula K. LeGuin) is a collection of stories about an empire that may or may not have existed told in dreamlike prose.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon -- A 15-year-old autistic boy is accused of murdering his neighbor's dog. He resolves to solve the crime, and this book is the journal of his investigation.

Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, and Club Dead by Charlaine Harris -- Light mysteries featuring psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse and her vampire lover Bill. Interesting alternate reality where vampires are a fact of life, and the vampires are no worse than (nor any better than) their human counterparts.

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera -- The Whale Rider is a dream-tale set in modern New Zealand among a tribe that traces their lineage back to the legendary Whale Rider -- the original human to settle New Zealand. The aging chief has no male heir and refuses to see the spiritual aptitude of his granddaughter. In alternate chapters, the original, ancient whale is lonely and forgotten and brings his tribe back to where he last saw the Whale Rider to beach himself. Fabulous melding of Maori legend and modern storytelling.

Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century by Rick Klaw -- Compulsively readable essays on SF, bookselling, the publishing business and most anything else you can imagine. Reading these essays is like siting down and chatting with Rick,and trust me, that can be a heck of a lot of fun.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle -- A tremendously funny satire of the publishing world. A bear finds a briefcase in the woods that contains a manuscript. He takes a pseudonym and turns in the book under his new name. It's an overnight hit, and no one seems to notice that the author isn't human.

A Grand Complication and A Case of Curiosities by Allen Kurzweil -- A mechanical genius in 18th Century France, automatons, a pornographic book shop, a drunken abbot -- what's not to love?

High Cotton by Joe R. Lansdale -- If you only know Lansdale from his novels, you have to give this collection a try. A gamut of genres and styles that all manage to be pure Joe, including a couple of stories destined to be read and studied for decades to come.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem -- Lethem gives us a fabulous evocation of 70s-era Brooklyn, complete with graffiti and the birth of punk and hip hop, then asks the question,"Now what would happen if a superhero came to the neighborhood?"

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link -- Link's debut collection is a treasure. Horror, fantasy, myth, and fairy tales combine with a postmodern storytelling style to create a true original.

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert R. McCammon -- A magistrate and his clerk are summoned to a town to investigate a woman accused of being a witch. Reams of historical detail combine with strong characters to create a compelling read.

Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore -- Nathan Quinn studies whales. He's spent 25 years trying to figure out the song of the humpback whale, and unbeknownst to him, he's getting close. One day while photographing a specimen, he thinks he sees the words 'Bite Me' written on the whale's flukes, and then everything goes to hell, with whales who profess an affinity for hot pastrami sandwiches, an undersea city where people don't age, and some sentient pink goo that may be as old as life on this planet.

Everyone in Silico by Jim Munroe -- Munroe's futuristic satire is a hoot. San Francisco is gone, but people are flocking to the virtual reality 'Frisco,' eager to leave their bodies behind in the meat world. Advertising is a major target (as you would expect from the former managing editor of Adbusters),but economics, genetic engineering and other targets take their lumps as well.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami -- Surreal, dreamlike atmosphere mixed with a hard-nosed, hard-boiled detective story. I'm always lost when I read Murakami, but somehow that doesn't take away from my enjoyment of the story.

Creepy Susie by Angus Oblong -- Fans of Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy take note. If you enjoyed Burton's twisted stories, you'll love Creepy Susie and the gang. These very short illustrated stories are foul-mouthed, borderline obscene, and hilariously funny.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk -- Palahniuk gives us a song that can kill when spoken or even thought in someone's direction. What would you do if you had access to that kind of power?

Buddha's Little Finger by Viktor Pelevin -- Pyotr Vovd, a poet from St. Petersburg, has a problem. He might be charting a treacherous path through the Russian Revolution. But he also might be in a psychiatric hospital circa 1990. It's inventive and disturbing and very, very funny.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest -- (from The Washington Post) "a dizzying magic show of a novel, chock-a-block with all the props of Victorian sensation fiction: seances, multiple narrators, a family curse, doubles, a lost notebook, wraiths, and disembodied spirits; a haunted house, awesome mad-doctor machinery, a mausoleum, and ghoulish horrors; a misunderstood scientist, impossible disappearances; the sins of the fathers visited upon their descendants."

Dating Secrets of the Dead by David Prill -- It's small, but it packs a wallop. Prill's latest collects 2 short stories and a novella that run the gamut from sweet and funny to horrifying. The keynote is the fabulous 'The Last Horror Show,' which is positively Bradbury-an.

Set the Seas on Fire by Chris Roberson -- Chris is another of those Clockwork Storybook guys, and if you compare his book to Finn's, you get a good idea of just how wide their scope was when creating their shared world. Set the Seas on Fire is Horatio Hornblower meets Lovecraft, a fabulous and unique melding of historical sea-faring fiction with horror/fantasy elements.

Things That Never Were: Fantasies, Lunacies and Entertaining Lies by Matthew Rossi -- Man oh man, this book is amazing. It's a collection of speculative non-fiction: the old "What if" game played to perfection. Rossi references history, philosophy, religion, science, mythology, literature and much, much more, and he does it in such a folksy style that it's a treat to read. If you're looking for something new and different, you've come to the right place; every idea sparkles.

Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia by George Saunders -- George Saunders is a strange, strange man. His stories show us a bleak near-future which he manages to explore with dignity and humor.

Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years by Bruce Sterling -- One of the keynotes of Science Fiction has always been extrapolation from the now. Sterling has done this better than most, setting a lot of his fiction in the near future rather than the far future. Now he does the same thing in a non-fiction book, giving us his predictions of what our world will be like in the next 50 years.

Meet Me in the Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich -- I just can't get enough of those books from Small Beer Press. If you're a fan of the surreal and the absurd, you need to get acquainted with Ray Vukcevich.

Salamander by Thomas Wharton -- (from the back cover of the book) Nicholas Flood, an unassuming eighteenth-century London printer, specializes in novelty books -- books that nestle into one another, books comprised of one spare sentence, books that emit the sounds of crashing waves. When his work captures the attention of an eccentric Slovakian count, Flood is summoned to a faraway castle -- a moving labyrinth that embodies the count's obsession with puzzles -- where he is commissioned to create the infinite book, the ultimate never-ending story.

Quin's Shanghai Circus by Edward Whittemore -- Originally published in the 70s, Whittemore's works have been brought back into print by Old Earth Press, and I'm mighty glad they did. This is a huge, sprawling thicket of a novel, with action, espionage, atrocities, prostitution, pornography, and the oddest cast of characters you'll ever likely run across. Although the story is confusing at first, with each chapter you gain a new layer of understanding. By the end, Whittemore had left me breathless.


As well as being the Books Editor for Revolution SF, Peggy Hailey is also the head buyer for Book People, the largest independent bookstore in Texas.

 
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