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Between the Lines: I'll Trade You
By David Pitt (December 2005)

Time once again for another big batch o' those oversized softcovers sometimes called trade paperbacks. They make lovely Christmas gifts.

For quite a while, Owen Slot's The Proposal (Hodder & Stoughton) feels like a nice, gentle romantic comedy. Way back when they were in university, Dominic and Lucy, motivated more by inebriation than affection, make a pact: if neither of us is married by the time we're thirty-five years old, we'll get hitched. Now they're thirty-five, and Dominic has come a-calling. Somewhere along the way the novel takes on a different tone. It's something you can't put your finger on, and I'm certainly not going to spoil any surprises here, so let's just leave it at this: what happens in the book is far more emotional, and far more dramatically satisfying, than you're likely to be expecting.

FrameshiftFrameshift, the 1997 novel by Robert J. Sawyer, has been reissued in a large-format edition (Tor). Sawyer, for those of you who aren't familiar with his work - and if you aren't why the heck aren't you? - is one of the smartest, most imaginative science fiction writers working today. Or any day, for that matter. Frameshift is about a geneticist who may be facing his own imminent death: Pierre Tardivel has just learned that his estranged father died of Huntington's chorea, and that there's a fifty-fifty chance that Pierre, too, has the degenerative and murderous disease. Meanwhile Pierre's girlfriend, a telepath, has attracted the attention of Pierre's boss, who may, or may not, be a Nazi war criminal. Yes, it all sounds a little disorganized. But Sawyer is in the very top ranks of the genre, and his novels, including this one, are well-crafted stories based on solid research and a sprinkling of high-flying imagination.

The Bad Seed (HarperCollins), by William March, is another reprint. Originally published in 1954, it's the shocking story of a charming little girl with a startling hobby: murder. I know, you've heard this story, or one like it, a dozen times. But take my word for it: until you read this genuinely spine-tingling novel, you really haven't heard it at all. March's sharp, straightforward prose pulls you right into the story, and little Rhonda Penmark is one of those unforgettable characters who don't come along all that often, but it's the way March writes about Rhonda's family - and especially what happens to her family, in the end - that is downright chilling. He asks the one question no one else has asked: what is life like for the parents of a serial killer?

Eric Garcia writes offbeat novels. He wrote Matchstick Men, about an obsessive-compulsive con artist, and he's put out a wonderful series of novels featuring a modern-day dinosaur detective. They're written for adults, not kids, and so is Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys (ReganBooks). It's a delicious spoof of chicklit novels, in which 29-year-old Cassandra struggles to contend with a boss she doesn't like, some friends she can't really relate to, a less than fulfilling love life ... oh, and the three men she has chained up in her basement. To tell you more would be criminal, so let's move on.

Wake Up, Sir!Speaking of spoofs, here's Jonathan Ames' Wake Up, Sir! (Scribner), a deliciously perverse take on P.G. Wodehouse's comic masterpieces about Bertie Wooster, the upper-class twit, and his faithful manservant, Jeeves. In place of Bertie we have Alan Blair, author of one published novel, possessor of an affection for certain kinds of liquid refreshment, and recent recipient of a large amount of cash following the settlement of a lawsuit. Struggling with his second novel, Alan is booted out of his aunt and uncle's apartment, where he has been wearing out his welcome. He and his faithful manservant, coincidentally named Jeeves, hit the road for an odyssey that threatens to expose Alan to a number of less than flattering truths about himself. It must have been devilishly hard to tweak Wodehouse's near-perfect comic prose, but Ames succeeds brilliantly. And pay close attention to what's going on between the lines: you'll find revealed there an entirely different, altogether darker story. Sheer genius.

Christopher Dawes' Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail (Sceptre) - yes, you read that right, "Rat Scabies" - is a thoroughly rebellious story of a washed-up rocker-and-roller, his music journalist friend, and the quest for the most sacred of sacred relics. The washed-up rocker, the aforementioned Scabies is one of those fictional creations who, by sheer force of will, uproots himself from the page and joins the real world. (If Rat did actually become a real man, he'd be Bill Nighy. Nighy played the aging rock singer in the movie Love Actually.) Funny in that offbeat way that the British do so well, and the rest of the world can almost never quite manage, the novel is just a lot of fun.

Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited DiseasesThe Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (Bantam), edited by Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts, looks like a regular ol' medical guide, an alphabetical list of ailments: their histories, symptoms, and treatments. But it doesn't take long to realize that none of these ailments actually exist, and then you start laughing, and you don't stop until long after you've finished the book. The book's editors have accumulated a stellar cast of contributors, some of them - like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow and Brian Stableford - familiar names to fans of speculative fiction. The book is so well done, and so darned clever, that even the table of contents is funny.

Here's a book that you expect to be funny, because it's written by Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick on the hilarious British comedy series Blackadder, but it isn't. The Worst Jobs in History (Pan) is actually quite serious, not to mention downright fascinating. Who knew there was such a job as - I'm sorry - puke collector? Well, there was, in Roman times. (Not today, thankfully.) Also not a thriving vocation today is stone picker, although in Victorian times it was a popular way to keep the kiddies occupied. The book is a delightful, if somewhat ooghy, reminder that your day-to-day tedium is nothing compared to what some people used to go through.

Kong UnboundIn case you haven't heard, there's a new big-screen remake of King Kong, the 1933 groundbreaker that (among other things) virtually launched the special-effects industry. Kong Unbound (Pocket Books), edited by Karen Haber, is a collection of articles about the original film, written by people who love the movie with a passion that is, at times, a little creepy. But, if you know someone who's a fan of the big ape, this'll make a perfect gift. The contributors, who include such notables as Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, and Harry Harrison, explore the film's impact on pop culture, its basis in science, and the way it revolutionized the art of moviemaking.

So You Want to Be a Producer (Three Rivers Press), by veteran moviemaker Lawrence Turman, is a smart, entertaining tour through the often bewildering world of film production. It's all here, everything from raising the financing to developing the script to picking the right actors and director. Turman introduces us to some of the industry's giants, like director Mike Nichols and screenwriter William Goldman, and his nut-and-bolts approach to the material will leave movie fans spellbound. (Quick! That's a pun. Explain for extra credit.)

William Goldman won an Academy Award for his screenplay for All the President's Men, the film adaptation of the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who, against staggering odds, broke the Watergate story. The book has been reissued in a '30th anniversary edition' that, in truth, seems to be nothing more than a standard reprint. Maybe the publishers wanted to capitalize on the release of Woodward's latest, The Secret Man (which tells the story of Deep Throat, the world's most famous anonymous source), but who cares? It's a brilliant book, suspenseful and endlessly informative, and if someone on your Christmas list is into politics, or journalism, they'll be thrilled to find this under the tree.

From the big screen to the small screen, here's Billion Dollar Game (TimeWarner Books), Peter Bazalgette's absorbing look at the reality show phenomenon. He concentrates on a handful of hits, like Survivor and Big Brother, and explores how their creators have truly transformed the television business. Transformed it for the better? Well, I'll leave that one up to you. Just be warned: if you're expecting a glossy, celebratory look at reality TV, you're in for a big surprise.

Planet SimpsonIf you want celebratory, you simply must read Planet Simpson (HarperCollins), Chris Turner's enthusiastic, erudite, perceptive, provocative look at the long-running animated series. If you haven't already realized that The Simpsons is much more than a television show, let Turner explain it to you. Even if you're not a fan of the show, you won't be able to deny that the series has influenced not just pop culture, but all levels of culture, in a deep and massively significant way. Yes, I said deep and massively significant. Think I'm exaggerating? Just read the book.

When Jayson Blair resigned from the New York Times in 2003 (some of his stories were not, shall we say, entirely what they represented themselves to be), it was just the beginning of an earthquake that shook the venerable paper so hard that you can still feel the aftershocks. Hard News (Random House), by Seth Mnookin, explores not just the Blair scandal - which is captivating all by itself - but its impact on America's most trusted newspaper, and on journalists around the world. Hard-hitting and insightful.

Also insightful, and unexpectedly eye-opening, is Emotional Design (Basic Books), Donald A. Norman's look at the rather strange relationship between people and the things we use. Do products we find attractive really work better than their uglier, clunkier counterparts? Yes, says Norman, they do ... sort of. This is a surprisingly philosophical (not to mention enlightening) book. It tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the things we surround ourselves with.

Similarly, here's James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds (Anchor Books), which somehow manages to prove, despite our common-sense resistance to the idea, that large groups of people are actually smarter than smaller groups. Say goodbye to your outmoded notions of crowd mentality - the author dips into a wide assortment of fields, from psychology to economics to pop culture, to prove that crowds are where it's at.
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