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
|
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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Dark Drama

disclaim

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!

 

 

BARRY FUNNY

barry

Dave Barry is a very funny guy. I’ve been told I’m funny, too, but nobody has ever said I’m as funny as Dave Barry. That’s because I’m not as funny as Dave Barry. Dave Barry is LOL funny.

I’m reading his new collection , LIVE RIGHT AND FIND HAPPINESS (ALTHOUGH BEER IS MUCH FASTER)  – published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.  While reading Barry’s introduction, I laughed out loud seven times. (Yes, I kept count.) Now that’s what I call a good start. But it gets better.  For example,  there’s his  letter to his 16-year old daughter who is about to get her driver’s license. It’s a full-tilt guffaw-for-all. There’s alos a wonderful witty piece on the “Greatest Generation.”  I put that in quotes because I’m not convinced it was the greatest, although in the hands of this humorist it seems like  the “Funniest.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, but this is a funny book. I’m not crazy about the title…it’s not as amusing as his earlier collection,   YOU CAN DATE BOYS WHEN YOU’RE FORTY. But then, so what? Nobody buys a book for it’s title. If they did, my book NAKED LUNCH AT TIFFANY’S would be #1 on the bestseller list. OK, that plug was uncalled for, so shoot me.

Bottom line, if you’re in the mood for laughs…you can’t go wrong here.

Barthelmeville & other odd places

MISTAKEHaven’t read anything by Frederick Barthelme in ages, but  have fond memories of MOON DELUXE and SECOND MARRIAGE. Here, in his new novel, THERE MUST BE SOME MISTAKE, he’s up to his old minimalist tricks. Hard to describe what he does exactly, like grains of sand shifting under one’s feet. He captures the weirdness of the mundane, of lives hunkered in condos, and the strange way we talk when there’s nothing to say. This novel is consistently funny, strange and touching…  with an eerie ending that will definitely haunt you.

A trio of novels of suspense worth your time. I’ve already raved about Beatrice Hitchman‘s PETITE MORT which is an astounding debut.  For fans of GONE GIRL,  THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by  Paula Hawkins  is worth the ride and full of twists. And speaking of twists, Harriet Lane‘s novel HER  keeps you guessing the whole way through. It  draws you in slowly and then doesn’t let go.  It’s sure to be a hit at the beach this summer.

riverhead booksHERmort

PLEASANT

 

After reading Michel Houellebecq‘s relentlessly depressing novel PLATFORM, I found myself in need of some comic relief. Thankfully I had a copy of S.J. Perelman‘s THE RISING GORGE within reach.  After devouring that, I went searching for some contemporary  sources and was rewarded by CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?  — a deliciously grim & very funny  memoir by cartoonist Roz Chast.

 

herbieSince Donald Westlake isn’t around anymore to satisfy my periodic craving for comic crime.  I’ll turn to Timothy Hallinan and his Junior Bender series. Right now I’m reading HERBIE’S GAME.

 

 

crime-lbOh, and I can’t forget my friend Lawrence Block who remains as prolific as ever. Just received a Kindle edition of his THE CRIME OF OUR LIVES (what a terrific title!) —a collection of his introductions, appreciations and observations on some of the genre’s greatest, from Poe to Westlake. This one goes to the top of my reading list. I’m taking Block to the beach, eat your heart out.

 

 

Finally, you’ll have to forgive me for tooting my own horn here, but I have a new book coming out May Day from JEF Books: NAKED LUNCH AT TIFFANY’S. This is a collection of parodies and satire I’ve written over the years that takes a poke at erotic literature. It covers pretty much everything from the KAMA SUTRA to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and takes no prisoners. It also features an outrageous introduction by the one and only Nile Southern—author of THE CANDY MEN: THE ROLLICKING LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NOTORIOUS NOVEL CANDY.  I hope you’ll have a chance to check it out.

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