Diana Gabaldon is the kind of person you really want to hate but can't. She's talented and rich and brain-surgeon smart, but she also posts fudge recipes on her Web site.

Wait, there's more. She has a master's in marine biology from Scripps, once wrote comic books for Walt Disney Productions, and created a better scientific computation mousetrap between teaching classes at ASU's Center for Environmental Studies.

Then she decided, "Aw, what the hell! I think I'll sit down for a few hours and write a New York Times bestseller." (Okay, not really. She toiled as a freelancer for 15 years before tackling long form, but we still think she's a smarty-pants.)

Gabaldon's first book-length project was named Outlander, a moody tale about an 18th-century Scotsman and his time-traveling wife, Claire. That book blossomed into five more — so far. The Outlander Series, as it's known, is the historical fiction/romance version of Harry Potter, and is idol-worshipped in much the same way by the author's loyal legions. Her latest in the series, Outlander, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was published in 2006 by Bantam Dell. And her latest novel, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade — the second entry in her "Lord John Grey" series — was published in August by Delacorte Press.

The Flagstaff native lives in Scottsdale with her husband, Douglas. We're hoping he has a robust self-image.

BEST AUTHOR ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN

James Nulick

National Book Award-winning author William T. Vollmann called Nulick's 2006 book Distemper a "beautifully written catalog of various kinds of unhappiness." High praise, indeed, and a sublime understatement. The literary debut by the Iowa-born, Valley-based Nulick is a hallucinatory, pitch-black love story — set in Phoenix — that incorporates references as far afield as Hitler, Marilyn Manson, Warhol, Nabokov, Kafka, skateboard culture, beekeeping, the old let's-put-LSD-in-the-municipal-water-supply trick, and tow-truck drivers who've been driven to drink by hellcats on wheels.

"I tell people it's a love story," Nulick says. "It's about people who get obsessed with other people in ways that are unhealthy, plus there's kind of a riff on schizophrenia in there."

Ya think?

Suddenly, it seems, Arizona is home to some of the trendiest children's authors around. Stephenie Meyer, author of the oh-so-addictive vampire romance series that begins with Twilight, lives here. Robin Brande, whose Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature inspired Changing Hands bookstore to have its first-ever book-launch party, hails from Tucson.

Brande and Meyer write books for young adults. There's another notable local writer who sets her sights a little lower, age-wise at least. Barbara Park created the character Junie B. Jones, a little girl who — as in her fictional home and kindergarten/first-grade classrooms — inspires both love and dread among her followers.

Thing is, Junie B. is a first-class brat. She's not rotten to the core, she's just a troublemaker — and she's got bad grammar (well, the grammar of a kindergartener), which is the real sticking point for a lot of parents and teachers, who have raised such a ruckus about her they made the pages of the New York Times, not long ago.

We're sticklers for proper talk (in fact, we've been known to "fix" Junie's errors as we read them to our own 6-year-old), but we're also here to say that we loooooooove Junie B. Jones. The reason is simple. Our kid loves her. She'll pick Junie B. over TV, for crying out loud. How often does that happen in your house?

So keep up the good work, Barbara Park! (A little bird tells us you're just as mischievous as your character, so maybe you get a kick out of all the controversy.) We hope Junie B. makes it to second grade before our kid does, so we can continue to follow her antics 'til we're ready for Meyer and Brande — with some early Judy Blume tossed in for good measure, in between.

It's not every day you see an entire bedroom cruising down the I-10 at 60 miles per hour. True, we've all seen our share of beds and dressers dangling and dropping from pickup trucks on crowded Valley freeways. But we mean an actual entire bedroom here, folks, cruising intact down the freeway and not chunking into pieces on the asphalt.

A growing handful of lucky drivers have seen what is certainly the best advertising ploy of 2007: IKEA's promotion of their new catalog includes a black truck (actually not made of compressed wood) with a glass, greenhouse-like bed that features an entire bedroom.

Our sources tell us the experts at IKEA bolted down "the lighter objects" (i.e., all the objects), so as to keep them from shifting during the bedroom's eye-catching jaunt about the Valley. The truck amounts to a driving glass bubble, magnifying the company's product and reminding all gazers to pick up the new IKEA catalog. For this we give our "well done" to our favorite cardboard furniture factory.

BEST USE OF A VALLEY FREEWAY IN A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

The Kingdom

Traffic on Loop 202 can be a major bitch sometimes. On any given workday, our commute along the East Valley artery is plagued with rampant gridlockery and loads of dumbass drivers who cause our blood pressure to shoot skyward. We've come dangerously close to road rage a few times but, thankfully, we've never resorted to tossing grenades into the gas-guzzling SUVs that cut us off. We'll leave that up to the magic-makers in Hollywood, who transformed a portion of Loop 202 in Gilbert last summer into an orgy of vehicular violence for the recently released Middle Eastern action thriller The Kingdom.
With its barren desert setting, the two-mile stretch of the Santan Freeway between Higley and Power Roads served as a passable stand-in for a Saudi Arabian expressway where an elite team of FBI agents (including Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper) are attacked by terrorists, resulting in an explosive-drenched, car-crunching action sequence. It packs such a pulse-pounding wallop that we're willing to forgive the fact you can spy a few saguaros in the background.
Now that we've all grieved over the paved paradise where the old Ciné Capri used to stand in Phoenix, and moved on to newer pastures in North Scottsdale, Dan Harkins surprises and delights us once again. In the new Tempe Marketplace at Rio Salado and Loop 202, a second star is born. Nearly identical to the theater complex at the Harkins 101, the Ciné Capri part deux in Tempe offers nothing surprising, but that doesn't mean we're not still enchanted by the grandiosity of the spectacular gold curtains that open before each performance, the 70- by 30-foot screen, and the pomp and circumstance you just don't find much anymore, at the movies. Makes even a summer guilty pleasure like Superbad seem almost classy.
We've finally figured out what downtown Phoenix really needs: a good old-fashion repertory film house. Some kinda old school theater à la the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin or the Loft in Tucson, where we can kick back and screen cult classics, Russ Meyer's outrageous oeuvre, vintage cinematic epics, or other trashy filmic gems that can only be fully appreciated when viewed on the silver screen.

Since the chances of this dream theater being built are as likely as the Cardinals winning the Lombardi trophy, our celluloid thirst is gonna have to be slaked by the "Midnite Movie Mamacita," Andrea Beesley-Brown. Having nursed a lifelong love affair with sleazy cinema since her teenage years, the 28-year-old native New Zealander has brought the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) in B-movies to Valley audiences over the past two years. The second Friday of every month, Beasley hosts "Revenge of the B-Movie Babes" at the Paper Heart, which has featured a host of gory slasher and horror titles, while over at the Chandler Cinema, on the last Friday of the month, she presents "Grindhouse Redux," a double-feature pairing of a seedy sexploitation flick like Jailbait Babysitter with a carnage-laden film such as Death Race 2000.

Save a seat for us, Andrea; we'll bring the popcorn.

There are several free, outdoor film series in the Valley every year, so why Reels & Wheels? Two things: 1) demo, 2) environment. Tempe, at least around ASU, is cool. It's the only place in the Valley other than downtown Phoenix that has street people, which lends a certain urban savoir-faire to the area — like Times Square before Giuliani. And while families do live nearby, they're seriously outgunned — and their damping-down cultural influence negated — by the sheer force of Gen X will.

Long story short: The films, in general, play to more mature audiences, though the city of Tempe will occasionally throw neighborhood nuclears a G-rated bone. As for environment, we don't mean the surroundings, however charming the Sixth Street/Mill Avenue microregion might be. We're talking about the City's laudable "green" policy of encouraging attendees to get to the park via alternative means of transportation: bicycle, skateboard, foot, or shopping carts for the residence-challenged. Only in Tempe.

On the rare occasions when our elected officials get something right, they nail it — as with Concerts Under the Stars. The monthly live-music hoedown provides a cultural oasis in our Sargasso Sea of summer, offering up casual, Bic-flickin' outdoor performances by some of the Valley's best pop and rock bands at a very nice price.
With global warming shortening monsoon season and the urban heat island forcing storms out of central Phoenix, we've had to get creative in order to feed our storm-chasing fever. Until we're all carbon neutral, we'll head to the Burton Barr Library on Central Avenue to watch the monsoons unfold.

Take the elevator to the fifth floor of Will Bruder's architectural masterpiece. Walk past the computers and stacks until your nose presses against the glass facing north. To the left is the west side, to the right Camelback Mountain. From here, you can see 180 degrees of nature's fury and some of the best electrical storms this side of Twister. While everyone else is rushing home to avoid the storm, we'll revel in the flashes of light, whip-cracks of thunder and haze of a quick desert rain. Lightning really does strike twice. We've seen it.

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