Friday, December 19, 2014

Books in Their Stockings?

Don't hate me, but I'm almost done with my Christmas shopping. I like searching for the perfect gift, especially if it's a book. It's even more fun to talk with my book-loving friends about books for giving. Here are some gift books I've been buying, along with some I've been talking about for presents with my friends.

I have a World War II veteran in my life who had what they call a "good war." He never had a serious injury, was never under fire (he was a radio operator) and he went to a lot of places in the world that a midwestern farm boy never expected to see. He loves revisiting his war years and most enjoys getting books about the war and about science, his postwar career.

This year, he's getting (hey, buddy, if you're reading this post, quit reading now––and pay no attention to that book cover over there!) The New York Times Complete World War II: All the Coverage From the Battlefields to the Home Front (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2013). The coverage starts from before the war, and you can read articles in which pundits confidently assert that Hitler won't become a dictator. Because these are reproductions of newspaper articles, there aren't as many photographs as you see in a lot of these popular history books, but it's hard to beat that time-traveling "you are there" feeling of contemporary newspaper articles.

The book's articles (in 612 pages) were selected by the respected historian Richard Overy. But if you don't want to be selective, never fear. It also comes with a DVD of almost 100,000 WW2-related articles from The New York Times.

My veteran's science book present this year is Randall Munroe's What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Here's one question: "What if the earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?" Munroe spends several pages explaining the horrific results in a scientifically rigorous, but blithely humorous tone. To give you an idea, he begins: "Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting." The more I look at this book, the more I think I might need extra copies.

This vet has been married for 70 years to a woman who, sadly, has dementia. The effect for her is a loss of the ability to make new memories. She was an avid reader, and I bought her books for most of the 40-plus Christmases I've known her. Now, she can't remember what she reads, so I've had to find other presents over the last few years. But she still has a wonderful memory for the old days and enjoys reminiscing, so this year I'm going to see if she likes revisiting landmark moments through this book: Life: The Classic Collection (Life, 2008).

There is relatively little text in this volume; it's mostly just large-format reproductions of the iconic photographs that appeared in the 20th century in Life magazine; photos like President-elect Truman holding up the newspaper with the famous "Dewey defeats Truman" headline, the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach, that sailor kissing that nurse in Times Square at the end of WW2, athletes giving the heads-bowed black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe. One of the bonus features is that some of the photographs are reproduced a second time, so that the buyer can remove the second photo and frame it.

I was hanging out with a longtime friend last weekend, and her daughter and son-in-law were visiting from the UK. He has a fellowship at Cambridge University. He's an Oxford University graduate and was enjoying telling stories about Cambridge. One was about the arcane rules for visiting Trinity College, and how condescending its staff were when they explained that of course there could be no visitors to the college when the chapel was closed.

Since we had also been talking about books to read over the holiday break, that gave me the perfect opportunity to recommend my absolute favorite read of 2014, Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Crown, 2014). Not only is this a fantastic read, I told him, it has an added particular benefit for you. Next time some Trinity College staffer gets uppity, you might remind him that Trinity College was the breeding ground for the members of the Cambridge Spy Ring, the greatest traitors in English history!

We also had a good long chat about the English, which was great fun for me, since I'm an anglophile. They both recommended a book they'd been reading, Kate Fox's Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior (2nd Edition, Nicholas Brealey America, 2014). The fine gradations of social class and the dizzying array of behaviors that identify whether someone is working class, lower middle, middle middle, upper middle, upper class, and when/where/why it matters is mind-boggling to an American. But I figure if this couple, one American and one English, both enthusiastically recommend this book, I had to pass it on to my personal Santa, to put on my "nice" list.

Speaking of my personal Santa (not to mention photography books and World War II), he's also been informed that my list includes Berlin 1945: World War II: Photos of the Aftermath, by Michael Brettin, Peter Kroh and Eva C. Schweitzer (Berlinica Publishing LLC, 2014). I remember, many years ago, seeing the movie The Big Lift, with Montgomery Clift, filmed in the ruins of Berlin, and being completely distracted from the story because it was stunning to see the utter devastation and how the lives of Berliners had become primitive struggles just to get water and food enough to survive.

According to the publisher, most of these photographs, taken by Red Army personnel in the immediate aftermath of their overrunning the city, have never before been published in the US. Der Spiegel says: "These photos depict a grotesque normalcy, beyond the well-known iconography of heroic liberations and optimistic rebuilding." I'm sure it will be fascinating.

Remember my longtime friend I mentioned earlier? Her mother turned 100 years old this year. Her greatest pleasure is reading, and her favorite genre is romance––traditional, not the new stuff with all that graphic sex. For her, I'm suggesting some D. E. Stevenson books published back when she was about half her current age. My favorite Stevenson novel is Miss Buncle's Book, about a young woman in a village who is in dire financial straits. She thinks writing a book might be a way to make money, but all she knows about is her village and the people in it. So, using a pseudonym and changing the name of the village and the people, that's what she writes about. When the book is published and becomes a runaway success, though, people in the village soon figure out it's about them, warts and all, and they want to know just who wrote it. This is a delightful comedy, and a sweet romance with Miss Buncle and her publisher.

For a traditional romance reader, I think other good D. E. Stevenson choices would be the paired books Sarah Morris Remembers and Sarah's Cottage. These are stories about a young woman who, in the first book, grows up in an English village with her mother, vicar father, two brothers and one sister, enjoys visiting her grandparents in Scotland, and falls in love with a visiting scholar from Germany with whom she loses contact during World War II.

In the sequel, Sarah is working during the war at a large London department store as a top customer service assistant, dealing with customers who speak only French or German. There are many amusing moments with a wide variety of these customers. Sarah is also challenged by her younger sister, Lottie, a beautiful, but spoiled young woman who has married extremely well and thinks of nothing but her social life, not her young daughter. So why is it called Sarah's Cottage? Well, because Sarah's life changes radically and she moves to Scotland, to a cottage on her grandparents' land. The rest of the book describes her life there. Both books transport you to a simpler time, but one with just as many trials and joys as we have today. Oh, and these books are available in audiobook form, which may be convenient if your recipient has vision problems.

Yes, I noticed that there are no mysteries in this post. You can't have everything!

And not everybody wants books in their stockings, hard to accept as that may be. Get them the usual sweaters, scarves, video games, toys, electronics and what have you. If you're looking for good stocking-stuffers, what would be better to put in a stocking than socks? And if you ask me, the best ones come from Darn Tough Vermont.

I have these
and these
I don't have these . . . yet

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What if You Just Can't Wait

So for the past several weeks we have been tempting and tantalizing readers with exciting new books soon to be published. These will be on the market shelves soon.

But it's a little bit like having a package sitting under the tree with a tag warning not to be opened until Christmas. What if we need something to read now? My way of coping includes a little pile of seasonal reads that are just the thing to put me into a festive spirit.

There are a few things that you can enjoy throughout the holiday season that help make up for the hustle of the holiday preparations and cut off the feelings of bah humbug that can creep up on the over-stressed.

One of my favorite––but slightly guilty––pleasures is eggnog. Every year, we wait for our favorite dairy to put out their version of smooth, creamy, sweet frothy goodness. This may not be on your diet, but there is a literary substitute and that is the heart-warming holiday stories written by Debbie Macomber. Macomber is an extremely prolific New York Times best-selling author whose novels embrace the best things in life: home, family, community and friendship laced with a soupçon of romance.

This year's offerings include Mr. Miracle. It's about an impractical relationship. Intrepid, headstrong Addie Folsom left home to follow a rainbow to a pot of gold in Montana. Like most pots of this sort, it was a mirage and Addie struggled to make a living without letting anyone at home realize how bad things had gotten.

When her father died, she thought she would come back to Tacoma, Washington to spend Christmas with her mom and to restart her college education. Like many plans, this one goes awry and fate has a double whammy in mind for Addie. Not only is her mother going on a longed-for cruise, but her next-door neighbor, Erich, has been in an accident that has broken both his arms––and some of his spirit. This is a disaster in many ways; I know someone this happened to.

As it happened, Erich had been a pest of a boy with a slightly malicious streak, and Addie would have rather have dealt him a backhand than lent him one. Now he is merely a curmudgeon who feels that Scrooge got a bum rap. But Addie has an angel on her side.

Voilá, all the ingredients for a heart-warming tale of the kind Macomber excels at. I have enjoyed her books in the past but my take on this one is––bah, humbug.

Maybe you like your eggnog with a jolt. Consider breaking out one of Anne Perry's annual Christmas treats. She includes betrayal, greed and murder with the warming of the cockles in the heart. This year, her tale takes place in a New York City that is still young, sparkling and full of life in 1904, but also still hiding menace around the corners. In A New York Christmas, Thomas Pitt's daughter, Jemima, is traveling with a friend across the north Atlantic. Her friend, Delphinia, is getting married in NYC to a scion of a fabulously rich and aristocratic family.

The snake in this particular garden is a Delphinia's mother, Maria, who mysteriously disappeared many years ago. For some very obscure reason, the family expects Maria to jump up like a jack-in-the-box and ruin the festivities. We have to leave it to Jemima with the help of a handsome New York cop to make things calm and bright.

Both of these writers have produced scads of these holiday stories, so if in either case one is not enough, there's plenty of backup to get you in the mood.

Fruitcake is another favorite that is mostly seen at this time of year. It is loved, hated or ignored and put aside until it hardens into a grand doorstop. I do get a kick out of those recipes calling for the freshest of ingredients. Is there such a thing as fresh dried and candied fruit? One important feature of all fruitcakes is the variety of textures and flavors.

The best literary comparison to this culinary extravaganza is Otto Penzler's collections of mystery stories. Penzler, who looks a little like Santa himself, is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, and each year for about 17 years, Penzler asked leading crime writers to pen an original Christmas story. These stories were reproduced in pamphlet form and given to the customers of the bookstore as a Christmas present. The stories were collected in Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop.

Some of the authors included are Lisa Atkinson, Lawrence Block, Mary Higgins Clark, and Ed McBain. The stories range from humorous to pure detection, and the anthology covers all aspects of the festive season. There are unscrupulous Santas, poisonous puddings, and deadly deeds, which combine to make luscious yuletide terror––just like fruitcake. I admit I really loved my mom's fruitcake, which was highly anticipated every year. That could have been because it had been doused in Cognac for weeks.

Penzler has a second collection that includes 60 of his all-time favorite Christmas crime stories. There are mysteries from Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy, written long ago, and some written a century later by modern writers like Sara Paretsky. It is The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. These are keeper books and they join Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith, in my Christmas reading basket year after year.

I have never had the opportunity to skim along the snow on a sleigh ride. The closest thing I ever came to it was in Chris Grabenstein's Slay Ride. It's about a young man, Scott Wilkinson, who hops into a car-service Lincoln expecting an enjoyable dash through the snow. But, in minutes, he's far from laughing, because his chauffeur drives like a maniac with menace on his mind. Scott gets home safely, but he opens Pandora's box when he decides to complain. He has no idea what events he has just set in motion because of his bell ringing. This story introduced Christopher Miller, aka "Saint Chris," an FBI legend, and he returns in another ride from Grabenstein in Hell for the Holidays.

Lastly, references to angels pop up a lot at this time of year. "Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings" is how that memorable Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life ends. To get another perspective on angels you should try Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel. None other than the archangel Raziel has come to earth seeking a small child who needs a wish granted.

Little Joshua Barker desperately needs a holiday miracle. It's not that that he dying of cancer, or that he has a miserable life or even that he has lost his dog. It's worse. He had seen someone whack Santa Claus with a shovel and his wish is that Santa come back from the dead.

Raziel has lost his touch in the good works department, and before he's done, he has caused more than enough Christmas chaos and hilarity. This might be hard to forgive. Will he lose his wings? I was laughing enough that I had to dry my eyes to find out.

Many of my favorite authors have books that take place in December and occasionally incorporate the seasonal holidays. The best lists around of Christmas crime literature can be found on the blog Mystery Fanfare starting here: Christmas mysteries: Authors A-D

Monday, December 15, 2014

Winter Preview 2014-2015: Part Thirteen

Let's face it, mystery fans, we can't preview 'em all. Let's just tease you with the covers of yet more books you might curl up with on the short days and long nights of winter.

Jane A. Adams: Paying the Ferryman (A Naomi Blake Novel) (Severn, December 1, 2014)

Ursula Archer: Five (translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle; Minotaur, December 9, 2014)

Jo Bannister: Perfect Sins (Minotaur, December 9, 2014)

Alex Barclay: Harm's Reach (Harper, February 24, 2015)

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: Jam on the Vine (Grove, February 10, 2015)

Quan Barry: She Weeps Each Time You're Born (Pantheon, February 10, 2015)

Alex Berenson: Twelve Days (Putnam, February 10, 2015)

David Riley Bertsch: River of No Return (Scribner, January 6, 2015)

Parker Bilal: The Burning Gates (Bloomsbury USA, February 24, 2015)

Sara Blaedel: The Forgotten Girls (translated from the Danish by Signe Rød Golly; Grand Central, February 3)

Sandra Block: Little Black Lies (Grand Central, February 17, 2015)

Matt Burgess: Uncle Janice (Doubleday, January 6, 2015)

Shannon Burke: Into the Savage Country (Pantheon, February 24, 2015)

Armand Cabasson: Memory of Flames (translated from the French by Isabel Reid; Gallic Books, December 2, 2014)

Peter Carey: Amnesia (Knopf, January 13, 2015)

Tania Carver: The Doll's House (Pegasus, December 15, 2014)

Barbara Cleverly: Enter Pale Death (Soho, December 2, 2014)

Rachel Cusk: Outline (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, January 13, 2015)

Cecilia Ekbäck: Wolf Winter (Weinstein/Perseus, January 27, 2015)

Jan Ellison: A Small Indiscretion (Random House, January 20, 2015)

Loren D. Estleman: You Know Who Killed Me: An Amos Walker Novel (Forge, December 9, 2014)

Jamie Freveletti: Robert Ludlum's (TM) The Geneva Strategy (Grand Central, February 3, 2015)

Daniel Galera: Blood-Drenched Beard (translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin; Penguin, January 22, 2015)

John Gapper: The Ghost Shift (Ballantine, January 20, 2015)

Nelson George: The Lost Treasures of R&B (Akashic, February 3, 2015)

Tess Gerritsen: Die Again: A Rizzoli & Isles Novel (Ballantine, December 30, 2014)

Shari Goldhagen: In Some Other World, Maybe (St. Martin's, January 13, 2015)

James W. Hall: The Big Finish: A Thorn Novel (Minotaur, December 2, 2014)

Barbara Hambly: Crimson Angel: A Benjamin January Novel (Severn, December 1, 2014)

Kristin Hannah: The Nightingale (St. Martin's, February 3, 2015)

Sophie Hannah: The Carrier (Putnam, January 8, 2015)

Gail Hareven: Lies, First Person (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu; Open Letter, February 10, 2015)

Cora Harrison: Condemned to Death: A Burren Mystery Set in Sixteenth-Century Ireland (Severn, February 1, 2015)

Rashad Harrison: The Abduction of Smith and Smith (Atria, January 6, 2015)

Tami Hoag: Cold Cold Heart (Dutton, January 13, 2015)

Anthony Horowitz: Moriarty (Harper, December 9, 2014)

Helen Humphreys: The Evening Chorus (Mariner/Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, February 3, 2015)

Gary Inbinder: The Devil in Montmartre: A Mystery in Fin de Siecle Paris (Pegasus, December 15, 2014)

Bill James: Disclosures: A Harpur & Isles British Police Procedural (Creme de la Crime, December 1)

Rebecca James: Sweet Damage (Bantam, December 2, 2014)

T. Geronimo Johnson: Welcome to Braggsville (Morrow, February 17, 2015)

J. Sydney Jones: The German Agent (Severn, January 1, 2015)

Lene Kaaberbøl: Doctor Death: A Madeleine Karno Mystery (translated from the Danish by Nicola Barber; Atria, February 17, 2015)

M. R. C. Kasasian: The Curse of the House of Foskett (Pegasus, January 15, 2015)

Stephanie Kegan: Golden State: A Novel (Simon & Schuster, February 17, 2015)

Jim Kelly: At Death's Window: A Shaw and Valentine Police Procedural (Creme de la Crime, February 1, 2015)

Thomas Keneally: Shame and the Captives (Atria, February 24, 2015)

Jayne Ann Krentz: Trust No One (Putnam, January 6, 2015)

Harriet Lane: Her (Little, Brown, January 6, 2015)

Reif Larsen: I Am Radar (Penguin, February 24, 2015)

M. A. Lawson: Viking Bay (Blue Rider, January 2, 2015)

Andrew Lovett: Everlasting Lane (Melville House, January 13, 2015)

Greer Macallister: The Magician's Lie (Sourcebooks Landmark, January13, 2015)

Stephen Marche: The Hunger of the Wolf (Simon & Schuster, February 3, 2015)

Phillip Margolin: Woman with a Gun (Harper, December 2, 2014)

Elisabeth de Mariaffi: The Devil You Know (Touchstone, January 13, 2015)

Andrew Marr: Head of State (Overlook, February 5, 2015)

Janina Matthewson: Of Things Gone Astray (The Friday Project/HarperCollins, February 3, 2015)

Colette McBeth: The Life I Left Behind (Minotaur, February 24, 2015)

Tom McCarthy: Satin Island (Knopf, February 17, 2015)

Val McDermid: The Skeleton Road (Atlantic Monthly, December 2, 2014)

Ben Metcalf: Against the Country (Random House, January 6, 2015)

James Morrow: Galapagos Regained (St. Martins, January 6, 2015)

Erwin Mortier: While the Gods Were Sleeping (translated from the Flemish by Paul Vincent; Pushkin, February 10, 2015)

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star (Ecco, February 10, 2015)

Chris Nickson: Gods of Gold: An Inspector Tom Harper Novel (Severn, December 1, 2014)

Joyce Carol Oates: The Sacrifice (Ecco, January 27, 2015)

Dennis O'Flaherty: King of the Cracksmen (Night Shade, January 20, 2015)

Tim O'Mara: Dead Red (Minotaur, January 20, 2015)

George Pelecanos: The Martini Shot: A Novella and Stories (Little, Brown, January 6, 2015)

Thomas Perry: A String of Beads: A Jane Whitefield Novel (Mysterious Press, December 23, 2014)

Vladimir Pištalo: Tesla: A Portrait with Masks (translated from the Serbian by Bogdan Rakić and John Jeffries; Graywolf, January 6, 2015)

David Poyer: The Cruiser (St. Martin's, December 9, 2014)

Romain Puértolas: The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Knopf, January 27, 2015)

Frederick Ramsay: The Wolf and the Lamb: A Jerusalem Mystery (Poisoned Pen, December 2, 2014)

Kate Riordan: Fiercombe Manor (Harper, February 17, 2015)

Rosemary Rowe: The Fateful Day (Severn, January 1, 2015)

Laura Joh Rowland: The Iris Fan: A Novel of Feudal Japan (Minotaur, December 9, 2014)

José Saramago: Skylight (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa; Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, December 2, 2014)

Tina Seskis: One Step Too Far (Morrow, January 27, 2015)

Miranda Sherry: Black Dog Summer (Atria, February 10, 2015)

Liv Spector: The Beautiful and the Wicked (Morrow, December 2, 2014)

Adam Sternbergh: Near Enemy: A Spademan Novel (Crown, January 13, 2015)

F. R. Tallis: The Voices (Pegasus, December 14, 2014)

David Treuer: Prudence (Riverhead, February 5, 2015)

Helene Tursten: The Beige Man (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy; Soho, February 3, 2015)

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, February 10, 2015)

Jo Walton: The Just City (Tor, January 13, 2015)

Ian Weir: Will Starling (Steerforth, February 3, 2015)

Irvine Welsh: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (Doubleday, February 3, 2015)

Michael Wiley: Blue Avenue (Severn, December 1, 2014)

Timothy Williams: The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe (Soho, January 13, 2015)

Tim Wirkus: City of Brick and Shadow (Tyrus, December 5, 2014)