Author and Rice University Professor Justin Cronin, who had previously written literary fiction, wrote one of this year's most anticipated books, The Passage, in answer to his daughter's request that he write a book where a girl saves the world. Cronin's response was a 766-page science fiction novel set in the postapocalyptic near future. A military experiment that was meant to extend the human lifespan has instead created immortal killing machines that have a ravenous thirst for blood (read: vampires), and the fate of humankind is in the hands of one little girl who might be the key to a cure. Before Cronin was done with the book, a bidding war broke out among publishers, with Ballantine eventually winning the rights for a three-book deal for about $3.7 million. Filmmaker Ridley Scott ponied up another $1.75 for film rights, and suddenly Cronin was sitting on almost $5.5 million in advances for a book no one had even seen yet. So while there's no question that Justin Cronin richly deserves the nod as best local author, we do have one inquiry for him: Dude, you're a millionaire, why are you still working?

Walter's On Washington
"Decor?" you may well be thinking. "At Walter's? What decor?" Normally, you might have a point — usually the decor at Walter's is limited to the sign above the stage bearing the club's name. But this award is for atmosphere and decor, and the atmosphere at Walter's is as laid-back and unpretentious as its relatively new Washington Avenue neighbors are snooty and velvet-rope/dress-code restrictive. Just don't act like a jerk at the scrappy live-music venue and you'll be okay; do, and you can fully expect Walter's more-than-capable security staff to suggest (firmly if need be) you seek your entertainment and adult refreshments elsewhere. And as for the decor, the blank walls and generous sightlines make an ideal milieu for the talent's flights of artistic fancy, whether it's hometown favorites the Wild Moccasins turning the club into a confetti-strewn carnival at one of their tour kickoff shows, or visitors like Baltimore's Beach House stringing enough Christmas lights to make Walter's resemble an undersea prom in the lost city of Atlantis.

Houston Center for Photography

Every gallery can count on striking out from time to time, but Houston Center for Photography swings for the bleachers with each show. A small space in comparison to the nearby Menil Collection and Lawndale Art Center, HCP makes the most of its walls by hanging only select images (there is a definite "less is more" feeling here). From magical, misty scenes shot from the deck of a tugboat as it makes its way through the Houston Ship Channel, to Texas landscapes, to portraits of vivacious older individuals, HCP finds talented photographers with fresh, smart viewpoints.

Blue Lagoon
David Rozycki

You'd have to drive all the way to the seedier backstreets of Galveston to find a hive of villainy as delectable and Star Wars cantina-like as the Blue Lagoon, the dean of Witte Road dives. Beyond the deceptively folksy latticework entryway in this old Spring Branch strip-mall hole-in-the-wall is a bare-bones main room with a full bar. On a recent visit, we found three customers — a long-bearded guy who looked like the ghost of a Confederate general; a skinny, late-fortysomething dude with an enormous growth on the bridge of his nose; and a fortysomething woman in a boater cap, linen pants and a cotton blouse who fucking loved Elton John and didn't care what you or any other fucker thought about it. "This is a B-side of some great Elton John," she was telling the Rebel Ghost as we made our drink orders. "I don't want any fuckers talking over my fucking Elton John." There is also an amazing little smoking patio out behind the place. An old oak draped in white Christmas lights adorns the tiny backyard; a couple of picnic tables sit under a tin roof hard by an antique wood-burning stove right by the back door.

Here at the Press, we're pretty proud of what we've done with our Rocks Off music blog. But even we can't be everywhere, so we turn to blogs like Jeremy Hart's Space City Rock as a tip sheet, especially for Houston music matters. Drawing on more than ten years of experience in the local music scene, Hart heads up a team that rarely lets a local CD release or tour kickoff show pass by unremarked, with insightful commentary that's supportive but doesn't pull any punches. Add a constantly updated show calendar and the "H-Town Mixtape" bank of MP3s that are invaluable resources for not just industry pros but anyone interested in keeping up with local music goings-on, plus occasional diversions like a recent thoughtful examination of the Twilight phenomenon, and we are proud to not only list Space City Rock — which underwent a spiffy makeover at the beginning of the summer — at the top of our bookmark banner, but link to the site whenever possible.

King Biscuit Patio Cafe
Paul Knight

Jazz clubs usually bring to mind dim lights, linen tablecloths and softly clinking martini glasses, not to mention steep cover charges and/or pricey two-drink minimums. Houston has plenty of those places. But jazz has another side — a spontaneous, free-swinging and earthy one — and there's no better place to see this than King Biscuit's no-cover Tuesday-night jam sessions. Some of Houston's best players descend on the homey Heights bar and cafe not for the money (but please tip), but for the sheer thrill of improvisation and collaboration. Before it got all cultured and highbrow, jazz was party music, and here it still is. But if it makes you feel better, go ahead and order that Manhattan.

Houston Ballet

They were dancing as fast as they could over at Houston Ballet this year. And we mean both onstage and off. Not only did they just wrap up their 40th anniversary season with a fabulously fun La fille mal gardée, but the troupe is also making remarkable headway on the $53 million Center for Dance. The six-story building boasts nine studios for rehearsals and classes, executive offices and a black box theater. When it opens next spring, it will be the largest center in the country devoted just to dance. It's hard to say whether the topping-off ceremony in March was the high point of the season or Artistic Director Stanton Welch's version of Petipa's 19th-century classic La Bayadère. It was pure spectacle, with great dancing — and live snakes. It doesn't get much better than that.

Bimbo's Beer & BBQ

Bimbo's is a ramshackle old cabin-like structure set among a grove of Christmas light-draped oak trees in the middle of nowhere on the far northwest side of town. There's seating on the front porch, but you don't have to sit out there to legally light up as Bimbo's is beyond the city limits and not subject to Houston's antismoking statute. Once inside, you'll likely find a bulwark of leather-clad bikers pounding Buds and Millers and occasional sidecars from the full bar like there's no tomorrow. They will probably also be singing to each other, to jukebox tunes like Dr. Hook's "Cover of the Rolling Stone." Meanwhile, the barmaid and another employee will be trying to reassemble the pieces of the night before: which of them, if in fact it was either one of them, took whom home, and what happened after that? And there is some priceless graffiti here, such as the one my wife found scrawled on the wall in the ladies' room: "Don't eat hot wings then pussy!" That's the kind of hard-won advice bikers go out and live for us so we don't have to.

In these contentious times, it's downright refreshing to see a band that seems willing to reach out across the great divide. Tax the Wolf's name not only nods to the iconic status of los lobos both within the young quintet's Mexican-American heritage and the annals of indie-rock (Wolf Eyes, Wolf Parade, Peter & the Wolf, etc.), but the ever-present issue of rendering unto Caesar. Whether Tax the Wolf's moniker has helped raise the group's standing among Houston-area Tea Partiers we have no idea, but we imagine it certainly can't hurt. More important, it's an accurate reflection of the music they make: catchy, mysterious and vaguely threatening.

Inprint!

Many of us grew up hearing the slogan "Reading is FUNdamental." Well, the Cool Brains!, InPrint Reading Series for Young People didn't invent the saying, but they certainly do embody it. Cool Brains! has brought reading and language fun to thousands of kids by hosting established as well as up-and-coming authors for readings and discussion sessions. Recently, the series featured René Saldaña Jr., the creator of the newly launched series of children's books starring Latino Mickey Rangel, a fifth-grade sleuth who's out to solve The Case of the Pen Gone Missing.

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