Going shopping? Our reviewers recommend the year's best books.


Let's face it: Real life's a drag. It's the 21st century and we still don't have any rocket cars. But things could still be a lot worse -- as revealed in these science fiction and fantasy novels, which prove that we really do live in the best of all possible worlds. Women aren't allowed to join the military (or do much of anything) in the backwards fantasyland of Borogravia depicted in Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment (HarperCollins, $24.95), but one innkeeper's daughter knows it's the only way to find her lost brother at the front: Gender-bending comic mayhem hides kernels of astute social commentary. Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies (New American Library, $24.95) offers an alternate history in which Nazi Germany won WWII, as a Jewish man hides in plain sight as a bureaucrat in the globe-spanning Third Reich government in this chilling "What if ...?" yarn. Death isn't the setback it used to be when your personality can be downloaded by computer and inserted into a new body. In Richard Morgan's cyberpunk thriller Altered Carbon (Del Rey, $13.95), a "dead man" hires an equally dead private investigator to track down his killers. But things get messy when death takes a holiday. Future Earth might be a paradise -- but it won't last. John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons (Baen, $25) deftly mixes fantasy and sci-fi elements (elves fight alongside robots) in this tale of a high-tech Utopian civilization's slide into barbarism and subsequent struggle to rebuild itself. The Fall of the Kings, by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman (Bantam, $13.95), presents a new kind of fantasy world: one without magic. Delicious intrigue abounds in this courtly, aristocratic world, where magic -- that old fantasy staple -- is long forgotten. Only one historian still believes that it once existed, a belief that brands him as a dangerous heretic. -- Mike Rosen-Molina


The songs remain the same no matter how many times you hear them, but the deeply researched studies and tell-all autobiographies of classic rockers are multiplying faster than ever. And sometimes, they even tell us lots we didn't already know. Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, by Jeff Tamarkin (Atria, $27), is a definitive bio of the Bay Area's greatest rock band -- one that, as this crossfire of feisty recollections reveals, was fueled as much by creative dissent as utopian harmony. Far more scholarly than Grace Slick's recent autobiography, and a darn sight more entertaining. Clinton Heylin's new Van Morrison biography, Can You Feel the Silence? (A Cappella, $28) makes you wonder how such a thoroughly unpleasant fellow can have built his career upon music that quests for the highest form of mystic, spiritual redemption. No author can answer that question, but a mine of perspectives on Van the Man packs this five-hundred-page tome, even if Heylin didn't get firsthand interviews with his notoriously cranky subject. In Wouldn't It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (A Cappella, $15.95), Charles L. Granata didn't get to interview his principal subject either, but he seems to have talked to most of the other important survivors involved in the making of the band's landmark album, from other Beach Boys to Brian Wilson's songwriting collaborator Tony Asher to unheralded session musicians. In the hefty and lavishly illustrated coffee-table style of The Beatles Anthology comes According to the Rolling Stones, by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood (Chronicle, $40). This story of the world's most popular still-touring rock 'n' roll band, told in its members' own words, includes some fascinating stories from the early days -- particularly from the always-quotable Richards. Still, it can't overcome the impression that much is being left unsaid, for which a better book by an ex-Stone not involved in According to... serves as a satisfying alternative: Rolling with the Stones, by Bill Wyman with Richard Havers (DK, $50) is even more lavishly illustrated, even bigger, and considerably franker, wisely concentrating on the group's first and greatest decade. -- Richie Unterberger


When flesh-and-blood famous people are turned into fictional characters, it saves readers the hassle of having to tackle books with footnotes. It saves novelists the hassle of having to invent people. Historians call it blasphemy, but it sells. Tobias Wolff's Old School (Knopf, $12) employs a believable Robert Frost, a textbook Hemingway, and an appalling Ayn Rand as each is involved in visiting a boys' school in the early 1960s: It's a Dead Poets' Society in which no one passes the sugar. British singer Morrissey proves elusive in Marc Spitz' How Soon Is Never? (Three Rivers, $13) in which music journalist Joe Green, as jaded as he is debauched (in other words, not very), attempts to reunite the Smiths. The remaining musicians -- guitarist Johnny Marr and the other two -- appear in this light-hearted paean, which wears Hornby-rimmed glasses. The troubling relationship between Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Dodgson) and young Alice Liddell is explored in Katie Roiphe's ethereal Still She Haunts Me (Delta, $12.95). It chronicles an obsession with a muse that inspires as it undoes, revealing a man banished to his own demons. Cinematic demons and Wild West icons dot the American landscape circa summer 1976 in Arthur Winfield Knight's Blue Skies Falling (Forge, $22.95) as director Sam Bonner (an obvious stand-in for Sam Peckinpah) travels with his dying young wife, Sara. This is no bloodbath maniac redressing his old ways, but a man who wants to believe in something as his lover slips into "the empty air of existence." Vanished, too, in a way is actress Allegra Coleman in Martha Sherrill's My Last Movie Star (Random House, $23.95). Reporter Clementine James is in the car with Coleman when it crashes and as James recuperates, she meets Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, and other vintage screen sirens who offer up a cautionary tale or two. -- Susan Compo


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