Give & Keep (a holiday book guide)

We’re not doing a “Ten Best” list this year — it’s too frustrating having to leave out so many good titles. Instead, below, you’ll find cool new books that’ll make great holiday gifts.

Merry Reading!

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SONDHEIM

ON SONDHEIM: An Opinionated Guide
by Ethan Mordden
Oxford University Press

Here’s a smart (and, yes, highly opinionated) guide to the master’s works. Stephen Sondheim is, of course,  the brilliant lyricist-composer who has redefined American musical theatre. Mordden’s guide is an illuminating introduction to the man and his work.

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A

A IS FOR ARSENIC: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
by Kathryn Harkup
Bloomsbury Sigma

OK, here’s a fun one for Christie fans. Clearly,  Christie’s cup of tea was tainted; that is to say, she preferred using poison to kill off her characters than other messier methods. This penchant for the deadly dose is, in part, explained by the author’s education  and knowledge of lethal chemicals. Kathryn Harkup explores the poisons used by the murderer in fourteen Christie mysteries, and illuminates  the science behind the author’s fiction.

Drink up!

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trolley

THE TROLLEY PROBLEM MYSTERIES
(The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
by F. M. Kamm
Edited by Eric Rakowski
Oxford University Press

For the budding philosopher on your list,  Kamm’s work poses the  classic “trolley problem” that asks the reader to confront a moral dilemma. “A train is ripping down the track at full speed, headed straight for five unsuspecting workers. If you could push the person walking next to you onto the track and save those men, would you do it?” Hmm. Those two sentences lead us to a variety of complex questions and scenarios. Indeed, a ride on this trolley won’t soon be forgotten.

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fil

GRAPHIQUE de la RUE: The Signs of Paris
by Louise Fili
Princeton Architectural Press

If you love Paris (and who doesn’t?) then this love letter to French lettering is for you. Graphic designer Louise Fili has been photographing street signs in the city for over 40 years and her  book is filled with glorious color reproductions of distinctive typography. Includes  classic gold-leaf and dimensional Art Deco, Futurist, and Art Nouveau architectural lettering.

It’s a visual delight!

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brit

And speaking of France…

DEATH IN BRITTANY
A novel by Jean-Luc Bannalec
Minotaur Books

A new mystery series,  introducing Commissaire Georges Dupin, a slightly cranky detective who solves his cases via injections of coffee and fine  food. In fact, it’s his frequent pauses to partake during the murder investigation that make  this novel such a delight.

Bannalec’s  descriptions of this quaint coastal region will have you booking a flight there. DEATH IN BRITTANY was our favorite mystery of the year. A most promising debut and  we can’t wait for Dupin’s next case.

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calm

COLOR ME CALM: 100 COLORING TEMPLATES FOR MEDITATION AND RELAXATION
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y Lacy Mucklow
Race Point Publishing

Last but not least, when the stress-filled holidays come to a roaring end on New Year’s Eve, chances are you’ll be left feeling wiped out and jittery. If so, here’s a gift you can give yourself— an adult coloring book designed to erase the stress and, perhaps,  send you into a Zen-like trance. You’ll not only feel relaxed, but you’ll have a book filled with your own colored art. It’s soothing, fun to do, and lovely to look at.

Heck, coloring ain’t for kids anymore!

Color Me Calm

example by Carla M. Wilson

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GekkoPod; for Shots that are Tricky & Odd

gekA brainy stocking stuffer for anyone shooting snaps with a smartphone. Instead of a tripod, attach your phone to the GekkoPod and twist the bendable legs  around an overhead branch, a bench, a chair – anything you can think of.  Want to take a selfie at a skewed Noirish angle? With GekkoPod it’s a snap (no pun intended!). I also discovered another handy use for this little critter. I will often be out at a coffee shop without my laptop and want to catch up on the news while I sip and snack. I use the Gekkopod as a secure stand, so I don’t have to lean the phone against a sliding salt seller. Nice!

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The Gekkopod comes with an adaptable mount for phones, GoPro mount, and standard screw for cameras.

Check it out at gekkopod.com

Deck the Halls with P.G. Wodehouse

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This season, if you want to give the gift of laughter and a cozy escape from these dark days, you can’t go wrong with a novel by the humorist P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of Bertie Wooster and his valet extraordinaire, Jeeves. In the past, I’ve had to make do with uninspired dog-eared paperbacks found in secondhand bookshops but, now—thanks to the great Overlook Press — we have The Collector’s Wodehouse editions. This uniform series in hardcovers is handsomely crafted, designed by Peter B. Willberg, with wonderful cover illustrations by Andrzej Klimowski.

By my count, there are 46 titles in the series, which is more than enough to keep the merriment flowing throughout the New Year.

Furthermore, these novels need not be a “guilty pleasure” since, in between the chuckles and guffaws, one can savor the sentences of a master stylist. Here, for example, is Bertie’s take on a violin solo at a local concert hall in The Mating Season:

Except for knowing that when you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all, I’m not really an authority on violin solos, so cannot state definitively whether La Pulbrook’s was or was not a credit to the accomplices who had taught her the use of the instrument. It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos, of seeming to last much longer than it actually did.

I recently went on a Wodehouse binge, reading in quick succession the delightful A Damsel in Distress, The Mating Season, and Meet Mr Mulliner.  That trio simply whets my appetite for more, and you can bet I’ll be toasting P.G. on New Year’s Eve.

Cheers!

Be careful what you wish for….

BLOCKDon’t be deceived by the cool retro cover art (courtesy of Glen Orbik), this is not a reprint. It’s a brand new novel by the Grand Master himself, Lawrence Block. It’s as dark and hard-boiled as they come, but what else would one expect from the publisher Hard Case Crime.

I’d hoped  to avoid using the phrase “I couldn’t put it down…” but I can’t and I couldn’t. That is, I couldn’t put it down, and I’m betting neither will you. I read it straight through, from its opening line (“The phone woke him from a dream.”) to the ironic last three words.

In a nutshell, the story involves a ex-NYPD cop who has relocated to a small town in Florida, where he works as a private eye. Not a lot of exciting job ops from the local sheriff, but plenty of time to nurture his fantasy of meeting the girl of his dreams. And then one day he’s hired to pose as a hitman and meets a dame who wants hubby dead. It’s a simple set-up that yields some unexpected and downright devious twists. So you’re hooked from the start, and when the tale turns creepy & nasty at the midway point… well, you won’t be sitting still.

Block is at the top of his game here. He is a master plotter and his  dialogue is authentic —  sharp, smart, and wry. And did I mention there’s a lot of sex in this novel? There’s a helluva lot of sex in this novel!

Since  I’ve already dropped one cliché,  I might as well end with another. THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES is killer.

So go ahead, shoot me.

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Dark Drama

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That novel on the nightstand isn’t hers. Its main character, however, is too familiar. Catherine has no idea who left the book, but she soon recognizes the villain. Her own past. The pages are mirrors, reminders of the secret she has kept from her family all these years, even though they, too, are part of the story. She has gotten away with it. Or at least that’s how the mystery-book’s author, fixated on her unsavory role in a tragic death, sees it. They’re here to make sure her family reads it, too.

Disclaimer is a fast-paced read with dark drama at every turn. It weaves in two families whose lives are twisted by misunderstandings. Told in alternating characters, short addictive chapters, with surprises all the way.

 

DISCLAIMER: A NOVEL
Renée Knight
Harper

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Get Lucky

In case you haven’t noticed, the world is awash with Gillian Flynns i.e., Gillian Flynn wannabes. Further down the food chain you’ll find the same phenomenon – writers who think they’ve found a different shade of grey but, sad to say, they haven’t. Sadder still, more than a few get reeled in by commercial publishers and are not thrown back.

luckBut there’s some good news, too. The success of GONE GIRL (which I read and enjoyed long before the hype) has also inspired a few writers with original voices to persevere and tell their tales.

A case in point is Jessica Knoll. Her edgy voice is a mix of cleverly demonic observation, acidic wit, and relentless intensity. Even if her novel, LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE (Simon & Schuster) had no plot, I’d stop reading only at gunpoint.

You can dip inside the book’s 300+ pages and find lines with a life of their own.

Here’s an example:

“I spotted her right away when I stepped off the elevator—slouchy leather pants (if fake, good ones) perfectly balanced with a crisp white button-down and sharp silver heels, a Chanel purse dangling from her forearm. If not for her round beer face, I might have turned right around and pretended I didn’t see her. I don’t do well with competition.”

Knoll didn’t need to open the novel with a hook like “I inspected the knife in my hand.” She could just as easily have begun with the next two sentences:

“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wüsthof?”

So right from the git-go (notice I didn’t say “gone-go”) you know there’s wicked stuff ahead. And something wicked is what I reach for on muggy summer nights.

No plot summary here, I don’t want to spoil the fun. It is not a book of constant twists. There are definite shades of the film “Heathers” here, and Knoll nails  the voice and glib cruelty of teens. I urge you to avoid reading jacket flaps, descriptions on Amazon, online reviews, and all those blurbs that drop Gillian Flynn’s name.

This novel walks on its own.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER

Summer Mysteries

What would summer be without a good crime novel, noir, or whodunit?  An empty hammock, as far as we’re concerned. So here’s a round-up of titles that’ll keep you awake nights this summer.

sleepingThe Spike Sanguinetti series by Thomas Mogford is new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading SLEEPING DOGS, just released by Bloomsbury. The opening is so good I dare anyone to put the book aside once they’ve opened it. Murder on Corfu, perfect.

signwaveHot off the press comes the thriller SIGNWAVE by Andrew Vachss (Pantheon Books), part of the popular “Aftershock” series. Vachss has made quite a name for himself (even if it looks like a typo) and for good reason. He knows how to make the reader jump. Assassins and murder abound in SIGNWAVE.

LOCKEDIf you’re in the mood for short stories packed with puzzling scenarios, I again recommend THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF LOCKED-ROOM MYSTERIES edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard). It’s loaded with genre luminaries: Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dorothy L. Sayers, Georges Simenon, and many others. There’s even a locked-room tale by P.G. Wodehouse — “Death at the Excelsior”— holy Jeeves!  Bet you didn’t know the esteemed humorist began his career writing detective stories. I didn’t. Since this book is 900+ pages, you probably won’t be lugging it to the beach. Instead, keep it on your bedside table.

SD NOIRIf the ‘spirit of place’ is your thing, grab one of the anthologies in the Akashic Noir Series. My favorite is SAN DIEGO NOIR edited by Maryelizabeth Hart – 15 stories and not a lemon in the bunch. If you don’t know what city to choose, try their USA NOIR —  a selection of the best American noir. Cape Cod? Yes, and also Richmond, VA and other places you might not associate with the genre. In fact, the only location that seems to be missing is Disneyland Noir, but that’s probably in the works.

GHOSTSThe one city that screams noir and mystery is, of course, San Francisco. Regular readers of this blog know my favorite series set there is Kelli Stanley’s Miranda Corbie mysteries. To date, there are three, the most recent being CITY OF GHOSTS. Not only does Stanley bring SF in the 40’s to life, her female PI is an unforgettable character — you’ll fall in love with Miranda. So here’s the deal: buy all three and start with CITY OF DRAGONS. You’ll thank me.

oldAnd while I’m on the subject of San Francisco, I have to mention Jim Nisbet — a writer of hard-bitten noir novels that go where few writers dare travel. I recently got around to reading OLD AND COLD (Overlook Press) and let me put it this way: only Nisbet could get away with two nonstop interior monologues in the head of a homeless, schizophrenic hitman addicted to martinis. Yes, this book’s beyond “offbeat.” It has strains of black humor and enough suspense to keep you flipping through its 160 pages in a single sitting. Thumbs up to Overlook for keeping Nisbet’s seedy San Francisco within reach.

crime-lbIf you want a fab overview of American crime fiction, there’s Lawrence Block’s THE CRIME OF OUR LIVES which covers the best & the brightest Chandler, Hammett, QueenMacDonald, Marlowe, Westlake, and many more. Makes for a bracing chaser when you’re between novels.

 

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SUMMER CHILLS

SAVOYMillions of mystery lovers know the best way to beat the heat is with a Swedish crime novel—preferably a series like the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö  (available from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard). If you’re one of the few people on earth who haven’t discovered this quintessential Swedish series, you’re in for a thrill – ten books! While I’m thinking of it, let me add a  word of caution. When you get to #6,  MURDER AT THE SAVOY, DO NOT READ THE INTRODUCTION.  It’s a perfectly fine introduction, but it reveals the ending of the final book in the series THE TERRORISTS (#10).  May I suggest to the publisher this simple remedy: in the  next printing  add the words “Spoiler Alert. Readers can then go back and read the intro once they’ve finished the series.

But what does one do when – like me – you’ve read all the Martin Beck books twice?

pyramid1The answer: lose yourself in the 13 Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell. All are available in paperback from (you guessed it) Vintage Crime / Black Lizard. Don’t think because you watch the popular BBC series based on the books that you don’t have to read them.  Good as the TV productions are, they only scratch the surface tension. If you want the real deal, you’ve got to eyeball the words.

I’m spending my summer vacation with Wallander and I invite you to join me with the first in the series, THE PYRAMID. (Watch this page for a future review.)

9781616956264-398x600Another sure thing for summer is Peter Lovesey’s DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN (Soho Crime), part of his Peter Diamond Investigations. I’ve read them all except for UPON A DARK NIGHT  but I’ll fix that soon enough. See my previous post for more on Lovesey.

mountainLooking ahead to the dog days of August, don’t miss TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by Arne Dahl from Vintage Crime / Black Lizard. This novel is part of the Stockholm Intercrime series. I received an advance “uncorrected proof,”  so I’m not at liberty to quote from it. But I love the first sentence and since it doesn’t have a typo and gives nothing away, I’ll reveal it here:

‘I didn’t see anything.’

That’s what I call a hook. Now you can look forward to August.

DEADWATERAs you can see from this selection, exotic, atmospheric locations are what readers crave. Crafty escapism… a mystery that takes us away from the familiar. Two series titles that will help you “get away from it all” (except from crime, of course) are Ann Cleeve’s DEAD WATER (Minotaur Books), part of her popular Shetland singaIsland series, and William L. Gibson’s new Detective Hawksworth novel, SINGAPORE YELLOW (Monsoon Books). The former has plenty of  island atmospherics going for it, while the latter takes us back in time to Singapore and Malaya in 1892.

NEW-ANGEL-for--order-pageFinally, let me recommend a book published under an imprint of my own small press: ANGEL OF EVERYTHING by Catherine D’Avis (New Urge Editions). It’s not a mystery, per se,  but erotic suspense. If that’s your cup of tea, drink up.

Happy reading!