Friday, December 9, 2011

We're Making a List and Checking It Twice

No matter what winter holiday you're shopping for, it can be difficult to find the right gift for a special someone. Here at Read Me Deadly, we're debating books to give a noir films-loving spouse, a 14-year-old niece who loves historical fiction, and our mystery-loving friends like you.

Crowd of Motivated Shoppers Outside Book Store
To escape hordes of grimly determined shoppers like those pictured, you might order online. Please don't forget to support independent bookstores. You can find one devoted to mysteries and thrillers by checking the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Here are a few suggestions from the Material Witnesses:  Powell's Books (free shipping in U.S. with no minimum purchase and guaranteed arrival by December 24 (offer ends at noon Pacific time, December 13th); will ship worldwide), Book Depository (free shipping worldwide), Fantastic Literature Limited, Murder by the BookSeattle Mystery Bookshop, M Is For Mystery, Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Partners & Crime, the Rue Morgue Press, Felony and Mayhem, and the Mysterious Bookshop. We'd love to hear your favorite source for books in the comments section below this blog post.

Here are some book ideas from Sister Mary Murderous and Georgette Spelvin.  Check back for more suggestions during the next several weeks because we'll be posting more.

It's hard to find books for our friends who read a lot of mysteries. But I have a few lesser-known gems that just might suit.

Jonathan Coe is a British novelist whose nine books are all very different, but are generally politically oriented and satirical. The first book of his I read was The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up! This unusual book is almost indescribable. It's a pastiche of detective story, farce, gothic and savage satire of Thatcherism. Weird, huh? This story of the old, powerful, corrupt and bizarre Winshaw family plays out from 1940 to 1990 and is one heck of a roller-coaster ride. I'd recommend it to somebody like Georgette, who enjoys non-linear storytelling.

Do you know somebody who enjoys watching House on television, or who is a fan of Hugh Laurie's from his many appearances in British television programs like Jeeves and Wooster and Blackadder? Impress that person by presenting him or her with Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller. In this entertaining spoof of espionage fiction, Thomas Lang, a freelance operative, is so morally offended when he is offered an assassination job, that he decides to warn the would-be victim. Not surprisingly, complications ensue. This is a book not just for Hugh Laurie fans, but for anybody who enjoys a British sense of humor. Here's just a tiny indication of the kind of writing I'm talking about: "'Vodka martini,' I said. 'Incredibly dry. Powdered, if you've got it.'"

I'm not at all sure why Don Winslow isn't better known. Over the past 20 years, he's written 13 mysteries, most of them PI novels set in California or New York. My introduction to him was his A Cool Breeze on the Underground, the first in his Neal Carey series and a finalist for both Edgar and Shamus awards. Neal is a grad student in English literature at Columbia when the story begins, but his back story is that he was a kid from the streets who was informally adopted by a one-armed dwarf named Joe Graham. Graham works for Friends of the Family, which is not a charity, but a mysterious organization that protects the interests of clients of a bank in Providence, Rhode Island. Over the years, Graham taught Neal a lot about sleuthing, and now Graham calls on Neal to find a client's teenage daughter, who has run away to London. I'd give this book to anybody who likes quirky characters, snappy patter and hard-boiled mystery stories.

I've been warily eying my fellow Material Witnesses since August, when Sister Mary Murderous reminded us of the passage of time. At the end of the year, she said, it will be time to compose lists of our favorite books read in 2011. I detest list-making in general because it's foreign to my disorganized nature, and favorite-books lists specifically because, as Annie Proulx says, "Lists, unless grocery shopping lists, are truly a reductio ad absurdum." I dearly love reading other people's lists, however. You're probably wondering why I'm bringing this up now, but there is a reason: Della Streetwise is reading The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, edited by J. Peder Zane, and when I saw that, I hurried to buy it.

I love it. Yes, many of the books listed aren't a surprise, but this is still a book well worth owning, or you can check it out of the library. There's a section describing the books listed that is wonderful reading. There are lists of top ten fantasy and science fiction (in Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson, "after a nuclear war devastates the planet, residents of what had been the Florida Keys try to rebuild their lives and communities in a landscape where shards from the obliterated past–religious stories, Jimi Hendrix records, parking decks–remain but are barely understood"); comic works (Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse includes "perhaps the funniest scene in the Wodehouse canon–Gussie Fink-Nottle's drunken speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School–this madcap farce once again finds Bertie Wooster and his brilliant manservant Jeeves working to point Cupid's arrows toward other hearts." Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward is "a gay and witty farce about death. The sublime silliness begins when a writer holds a séance to research his novel on a murderous fake psychic. Who should appear but his first wife, dead these six years and none too happy about wife number two."). By American authors (if someone you know over age 12 hasn't yet read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, there's his or her gift), by Russian authors (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a complex book that would make a great gift for your satire-loving friends who like brain food), by British authors, etc. Given her love of straightening drawers and making lists, Zane's The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books would be a good gift for lawyer Sister Mary Murderous or other readers who are intimidatingly well-organized brainiacs but otherwise wonderful people.

The Top Ten's top ten mysteries and thrillers include some fine gift ideas. Before you gift-wrap John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for your espionage-loving friend, include a note inside the front cover inviting him or her to see the just-released movie of the same name starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. If movie night is drizzling rain, so you can wear a rumpled raincoat and pull the brim of your hat down, all the better. Sneak home after the movie (take a roundabout route if you're driving and look in the rear-view mirror a lot). Once home, serve hot tea and homemade English shortbread cookies or a hot toddy or hot buttered rum and dry biscuits. Our British readers will have to help me in refining these plans, or tell me what to do next. Maybe change into ratty bathrobes and retire to the library for a polite discussion about whether the book, new movie, or BBC production starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley is the best? You could also discuss le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the other George Smiley books, which are among the best espionage books ever written.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain also appears on the top ten mysteries list. It is about a woman "with two fatal flaws–an attraction to weak men and blind devotion to her monstrously selfish daughter Veda. These weaknesses join to form a perfect storm of betrayal and murder in this hard-boiled tale" set in Depression-era California, where you can smell the heat and watch people's dreams disappear. This book would make a classic hard-boiled fan happy. Watch Joan Crawford as Mildred and Ann Blyth as the vicious Veda in the 1945 Michael Curtiz movie based on the book. Eat plenty of popcorn and wash it down with that American classic, Coke.

We hope you're enjoying plenty of cheer as you prepare for the holidays. We'd love to hear about your suggestions for bookstores and gift books for people on your list. What are you reading now, and are you going to treat yourself to a new book for the holidays?

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