Sunday, May 30, 2004

May 29, 2004, 10:08PM


Bill Clinton memoir promises to be the biggest read on the beach
Houston Chronicle Books Editor

HARRY Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the big book of summer 2003. Bill Clinton, the phoenix of politics, stands poised to dominate the book world this summer.

Publishing house Knopf has announced a whopping 1.5 million first printing — the largest in the company's history — for Bill Clinton's My Life,the ex-president's long-awaited memoirs. That figure shrivels in comparison to the 8.5 million copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that swamped us last June, but it's still huge for a nonfiction title. By contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs, Living History, had a 1 million first printing.

Knopf isn't saying much about the book and hasn't released galleys. We know it's long — some 900 pages — priced at $35, and will arrive in bookstores June 22. Knopf reportedly paid Clinton between $10 million and $12 million for his efforts.

On June 3 the former president will deliver the keynote address at BookExpo America in Chicago, the annual convention of booksellers and publishers. That will be the first time he talks publicly about the book.

Although it may seem so, My Life won't be the only book published this summer. Here are other titles that should give warm-weather readers a shiver of excitement. This week we survey fiction, next Sunday nonfiction.

Stephen King, James Patterson, Helen Fielding, Jimmy Buffett: All have new books. King's The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (Scribner, $30; set for release in June) is the penultimate volume in his Dark Tower fantasy series.

The equally prolific Patterson, who started out writing blood-drenched thrillers but has gotten warmer and fuzzier in recent years, delivers Sam's Letters to Jennifer (Little, Brown, $24.95; June). It will appeal to "the million-plus readers who laughed and wept through James Patterson's first love story, Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas," promises the publisher.

Mate James Bond with Bridget Jones and, voilà, you get the heroine of Helen Fielding's Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination (Viking, $24.95; May). Could the wealthy, elegant Pierre Ferramo be a terrorist, or is Olivia once again a victim of her own O.I.? I'm guessing I know.

While we're on the subject of Chick Lit, newcomer Jardine Libaire's Here Kitty Kitty (Little, Brown, $22.95; May) looks like an edgy contribution to the party-girl-in-the-Big-Apple genre. Sex and the City meets Bright Lights, Big City, says the publisher.

Meanwhile, Sex and the City meets Misery — publishers love their analogies — in Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys by Eric Garcia (ReganBooks, $24.95; May). You gotta love the concept: Cassie, a young L.A. lawyer tired of dating Neanderthals, locks men up in her basement for instruction on matters ranging from color coordination to sex.

The Psycho Ex Game (Villard, $22.95; June) is another high-concept comedy. A writer, Lisa, meets a rock musician, Grant. The novel consists of he said/she said chapters in which the two vie with each other over "Whose ex was crazier, yours or mine?" Emmy Award-winning writer Merrill Markoe and singer/songwriter Andy Prieboy are authors.

For more laughs, pick up Carl Hiaasen and Jimmy Buffett. Hiaasen's Skinny Dip (Knopf, $24.95; July) features a villainous marine scientist who doesn't know which way the Gulf Stream runs. He tries to murder his wife by pushing her off a cruise ship. She lands on a bale of Jamaican pot, and, well, the tale takes off from there.

In A Salty Piece of Land (Little, Brown, $26.95; May) Buffett brings back Tully Mars from the best-selling Tales From Margaritaville for a "madcap quest" involving a lost lighthouse lens. The flamboyant supporting cast includes an American Indian shaman and a onetime country music star known as Tex Sex.

Olivia Goldsmith's Dumping Billy (Warner, $24; May) is a lighthearted battle of the sexes in which a woman who thinks she's immune to the charms of a handsome cad learns otherwise. Soon to be a movie near you.

Englishman Peter Mayle writes feel-good novels set in Provence, his adopted home. A Good Year (Knopf, $24; June) has a London businessman inheriting a vineyard that doesn't lack for rival claimants even though it produces execrable wine.

Another English author, Jane Green, whose books are huge in her native country, has To Have and to Hold (Broadway, $21.95; May) about a woman who must decide how long to put up with a dashing but chronically unfaithful husband. Cosmopolitan (U.K.) called the book "a deftly humorous and insightful take on modern marriage."

"Style, sexiness and a bit of grit" are promised ingredients of Drive Me Crazy (Dutton, $23.95; July), from best-selling African-American novelist Eric Jerome Dickey.

Summer is traditionally not a strong season for literary fiction. That said, those looking for heartier fare needn't go hungry.

Louise Erdrich brings back characters from a 1988 novel in Four Souls (HarperCollins, $22.95; July). "The story of anger and retribution that begins in Tracks becomes a story of healing and love in Four Souls,"says the publisher.

Patrick McGrath's Port Mungo (Knopf, $24; June) is a "story of art and love, and a family cursed by both." The Master (Scribner, $25; June) by Colm Tóibín centers on a writer rather than a painter, fictionalizing the inner life of Henry James, a man of unresolved sexual identity in search of human connection.

Another famous writer, Russia's Alexander Pushkin, figures tangentially in Alice Randall's Pushkin and the Queen of Spades (Houghton Mifflin, $24; May). Windsor Armstrong, Harvard-educated African-American professor of Russian literature, discovers that her pro-football-playing son, Pushkin X, has become engaged to a lap dancer — a white one at that. This sends her on a journey of discovery into her past. (Footnote: How many people know that Pushkin, Russia's most beloved writer, was the great-grandson of an African slave?)

Readers may remember Randall as the author of The Wind Done Gone, the controversial parody of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

A newcomer, Latvia-born, Canada-based David Bezmozgis, hit the radar last May when Harper's, Zoetrope and the New Yorker all published stories by him. Russian-Jewish immigrants living in Toronto people his debut collection, Natasha (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18; June).

Another newcomer getting the big push from his publisher is George Hagen. The Laments (Random House, $24.95; June) is both the title of a book and the name of the dysfunctional family whose search for a place in the world begins in South Africa and carries across three continents.

Hari Kunzru also taps into the immigrant experience in Transmission (Dutton, $24.95; June), about an Indian computer programmer whose fantasies of life in America collide with reality after he accepts a job in California. Kunzru's 2002 novel The Impressionist was much-praised. Granta magazine named the author one of the "20 Best Fiction Writers Under 40."

In Eventide (Knopf, $24.95; May), Kent Haruf returns to the Colorado high plains of his 1999 best seller Plainsong for another foray into the intertwined lives of small-town characters.

Concept-wise, Sabrina Murray's A Carnivore's Inquiry (Grove, $23; July) is about as different from Eventide as can be imagined. Its narrator is a 23-year-old woman whose obsession with cannibalism may be more than academic. Murray won the 2003 Pen/Faulkner Award for The Caprices.

Veterans Thomas Keneally and Julian Barnes have new books. Keneally's The Tyrant's Novel (Doubleday, $25; June) is set in an invented future in which a man is tapped to ghost-write a book by Great Uncle, his country's Saddam-like dictator. Barnes' The Lemon Table (Knopf, $22.95; July) is a collection of stories.

A story collection also is due from David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest fame. Expect slightly manic self-absorption from the narrators of Oblivion (Little, Brown, $25.95; June).

The Summer Guest (Dial, $24; June) is new from Justin Cronin, whose novel-in-stories Mary and O'Neil won the Pen/Hemingway Award. Cronin now teaches at Rice University. The Summer Guest centers on an aging financier who arrives at the rustic Maine fishing camp he's visited for 30 years with "an astonishing bequest that will forever change the lives of those around him."

Finally, for those seriously committed to literary self-improvement, there's The Guermantes Way (Viking, $29.95; June), the third volume in a new translation of Marcel Proust's seven-volume epic In Search of Lost Time.

Christopher Pendergast headed the team that translated Proust's portrait of Parisian life in the late 19th century; Mark Treharne did the Guermantes volume. The translation "brings us a more rich, comic and lucid Proust than American readers have previously been able to enjoy," claims the American publisher. Heretofore, English-language readers have had to be content with C.K. Scott Moncrieff's version, 80 years old and twice updated.

All seven volumes have been published in the United Kingdom. The first three are out in this country and volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah, will appear this fall. But because of copyright laws, the last three can't be published here until 2019, 2020 and 2022, respectively — by which time I, for one, may well be dead.

Thrillers, mysteries and crime novels are perennial favorites for summertime reading. Expect lots of familiar names this season.

James Lee Burke delivers another featuring Texas lawyer-turned-crime-fighter Billy Bob Holland. In the Moon of Red Ponies (Simon & Schuster, $24.95; June) is the title. Janet Evanovich's high-spirited bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, returns in Ten Big Ones (St. Martin's, $25.95; June).

Sharon McCone, the sleuth in Marcia Muller's popular series, is back in The Dangerous Hour (Mysterious Press, $25; July), as is Maisie Dobbs, the beguiling English maid turned "psychologist and investigator," in Jacqueline Winspear's second novel Birds of a Feather (Soho, $25; June).

In Hark! (Simon & Schuster, $25; August), another in his 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain revisits one of his best-known villains, Deaf Man. Edna Buchanan launches a new series featuring a special homicide unit that investigates unsolved crimes with Cold Case Squad (Simon & Schuster, $22.95; June).

Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosley's most popular series character, returns in Little Scarlet (Little, Brown, $24.95; July), set during the height of the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Publishers Weekly calls it "Mosley's best novel to date" — high praise indeed.

The popularity of Spain's Arturo Pérez-Reverte has grown in this country on the basis of such literate thrillers as The Club Dumas and The Flanders Panel. The Queen of the South (Putnam, $25.95; June) centers on a young woman who rises to the top of the international drug trade.

Robert B. Parker's Double Play (Putnam, $24.95; May) isn't a crime novel at all — it's about baseball and the menace that surrounded Jackie Robinson when he broke the game's color barrier in 1947. The main character is Robinson's (fictional) bodyguard.

Lisa Scottoline's Killer Smile (HarperCollins, $25.95; June) has a young female lawyer discovering that a case involving a suicide in a World War II internment camp may not be ancient history after all.

Among the debuts, Michael Simon's Dirty Sally (Viking, $23.95; July)merits note. It features Austin police detective Dan Reles, a New Yorker who fled south as a teenager when his father got crosswise with the mob. Reles "searches for justice in the mansions and ghettos of corrupt, post-oil-boom Texas," says the publisher. James Ellroy gives the book a big plug. (Simon used to live in Austin.)

Expect two-fisted thrillers from Jeffery Deaver and Dale Brown. Deaver's Garden of Beasts (Simon & Schuster, $24.95; July) is set in the 1930s and deals with an American mobster who can escape a life sentence only by participating in a government plot to assassinate one of Hitler's henchmen. Brown's Plan of Attack (Morrow, $25.95; May) is set in a future that sees Russia and the United States again on the brink of all-out war.

And remember, if you get desperate, you can always reread Harry Potter. - THE BOOKS OF SUMMER

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