Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Reads of 2014: Part Two

2014 has been a good year for reading. It began with an extra-long serving of miserable winter weather, which kept me inside with a book in hand, followed by one of those cruel Aprils that T. S. Eliot beautifully described, and the showers for the flowers were also best avoided by hiding in a good story. But whom am I kidding? I don't need an excuse to read, whatever the weather.

I reviewed many of my highly valued reads after I read them; books like The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac, I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni, One Last Hit by Nathan Walpow and The White Magic Five & Dime by Steve Hockensmith.

Here are some more of my most memorable reading choices.

Top Mystery Reads

This Private Plot, by Alan Beechey (Poisoned Press, May 2014), is the third in the Oliver Swithin mystery series. Oliver is a nice fellow who is not always the brightest bulb on a string of lights. He writes children's books about a sneaky ferret, but wants to take a break and compile a book of trivia. In pursuit of the trivial, he comes across a murder, which he intends to solve. The story is perfectly balanced with wit, literary references, and plenty of humor and loose ends. I did a little happy dance when this book was finally published.

Joyland, by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime, 2013), is a wonderful tale about the summer a young college student traveled to the South to live and work at an amusement park. It has got everything––some love and loss, some coming-of-age, a bit of mystery and a nice spoonful of Stephen King horror. Nobody does it better.

Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri (Penguin, 2013), starts as a barrage of bullets rains down on a piazza. Salvo Montalbano is hailed as a hero as he clambers up a ladder to discover that the snipers are an elderly pair of siblings who have been going slightly nuts for decades. Montalbano has a double-barrel case going on as he searches for the answer both to the riddle of what happened to the treasure found in the shooters' apartment and to a slightly more sinister treasure hunt created by a malevolent secret admirer.

The Death of Friends (Putnam Adult, 1996) is a Henry Rios mystery by Michael Nava. It's the fifth in a series featuring Rios, a lawyer working in Los Angeles. While mourning for a close friend and lover who is succumbing to AIDS, he takes on the case of the murder of a friend and judge who was deep in the closet. Rios is a wonder, both a complex and very likable character. Maybe it would be more specific to say a very admirable character. This series is way too short!

The Glass Room, the fifth book in the Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan, 2012), was short-listed for the Specsavers Bestseller Dagger. Author S. J. Bolton put it well when she said this story has all the elements of a Golden Age Mystery––a windswept landscape, isolated country house, disparate people thrown together, crime scenes mimicking their fictional counterparts and a plot liberally strewn with blind alleys, red herrings and misdirection.

Top Non-Mystery Fiction Reads

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott (FSG, 1997), is a beautifully told story about a man who led the sad life of unrelenting alcoholism, only redeemed by the fact that so many people loved him.

The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, 2004), is literary rather than crime fiction. It features a once-famous octogenerian detective who is caring for a nine-year-old child, who is mute since he escaped from Nazi Germany. This is a short book, but I found it a gem of a story. It was brilliant, faceted and valuable.

Mike and Psmith (Penguin, 1998; first published 1909) and Psmith in the City (first published 1910), by P. G. Wodehouse, gave me the most laughs I had all year. Mike Jackson is a serious cricketer whose father has pulled him from public school because of his abysmal grades and has installed at a local high school where he meets one Rupert Eustace Psmith. The P is silent, as in Psychotic and Pterodactyl. This pair has riotous adventures and both end up working at a city bank after graduation where Psmith's genius for understanding and manipulation comes to fruition.

I can't imagine how I missed the talents of Robertson Davies after so many years of haunting bookstores and libraries. There is no explaining it. Robertson Davies was a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor. He was one of Canada's best-known and most popular authors. I began with The Deptford Trilogy. Davies is my best find in years.

The first in the series is Fifth Business (Penguin, 2002; first published 1970). Davies defines fifth business as "Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business."

Fifth business in this case is Dunstable Ramsay, a history professor with a wooden leg and many interests in mythology, magic and the lives of saints. The story begins with a badly thrown snowball that defines the lives of the five people involved in the incident.

In The Manticore (Penguin, 2006; first published 1972), the stories of these individuals continues. It is told by David Staunton, the son of Boy Staunton, as he tries to discover who killed his father.

Fortunately for me Davies has written several series, which will entertain me as well as enrich me in the years to come.

Top YA Reads

Paper Towns by John Green (Dutton, 2008) is a change from dark dystopian societies and post-apocalyptic scenarios. It led me to read several other John Green books.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (HMH Books, 1993) is about a futuristic society that has refined itself into a utopia by eliminating pain and pleasure as well as individuality. This is a great springboard for spirited discussion if you are around kids who would actually read a book!

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2001) is haunting, poignant and heart wrenching. The story is a short but powerful tale about rising out of despair.

I Didn’t Kill Your Cat by R. Stim (2011). This was one of those books I read because the cover caught my eye. I loved heroine Frankie Jackson, who must solve the case of a murdered cat and clear her own name. There is a wonderful cast of characters who live on houseboats in the Sausalito area.

Top Audio Listening

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony (Thomas Dunne, 2009) is a fascinating story about how South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony accepted a herd of "rogue" elephants on his Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa and kept them from being annihilated. Anthony says: "This is their story. They taught me that all life forms are important to each other in our common quest for happiness and survival. That there is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind." The narration by Simon Vance won the 2014 Audie Award for Biography/Memoir.

When the author of this book passed away, the elephants he interacted with for many years instinctively walked many, many miles to come and visit him at the place near where he died.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Reads of 2014: Part One

Here at Read Me Deadly, we're conflicted about doing a roundup of the year's best books. It isn't easy looking back and whittling it down, is it, Georgette? Deciding what is "best" is subjective and changeable from one hour to the next. Yesterday, I decided to make it a little easier for myself by focusing only on fiction published in 2014 and not ranking my picks. By evening, my erasures had created holes in the list. No NFL coach has agonized more over substitutions, but at least I didn't have a playoffs berth at stake!

After we've posted our favorites this week, we'll discuss them as a group next week. I have no doubt I'll be ready to amend my picks then. But for now, here's the 2014 fiction I enjoyed most this year.

"By the end of his second month at Hitode Station, Rob Freeman had already come up with 85 ways to murder Henri Kerlerec." How's that opening sentence for a hook? Game designer James L. Cambias's A Darkling Sea (Tor, January 2014) is fun sci-fi set on the frozen moon of Ilmatar. Far below the ice-covered surface live blind, lobster-like Ilmatarans. Hitode is manned by a group of human scientists who are bound by an agreement between Earthlings and their first extraterrestrial contacts, the Sholen. The six-legged Sholen, far more technologically advanced than humans, demand Hitode scientists in no way make contact or interfere with Ilmatarans.

The scientists' investigation of the Ilmatarans is stymied so Henri, a media-darling Hitode archaeologist, insists on starring in a clandestine research mission to be filmed by nature photographer Rob. The old TV series Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom never featured anything approaching Rob's filmed disaster. The Ilmatarans, who have their own scientific curiosity, naively capture and dissect Henri. This brings the Sholen to Ilmatar and three species' politics and cultures collide.

I read A Darkling Sea after spotting it on Publishers Weekly's list of best 2014 sci-fi. I love books in which humans interact with extraterrestrials and Cambias has created species with both striking differences and interesting similarities. The author is excellent in his use and description of technology, but his book is more than a geeky vision of future tech. It's a comic coming-of-age story and an examination of identity, culture, imperialism and colonialism. I'm glad it's the first book of a series because I look forward to returning to Cambias's strange world.

We don't have to leave Earth or even the United States to find the mysterious Area X. It's a pristine wilderness created by unknown forces, constrained by invisible borders and investigated by a shadowy governmental agency in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Annihilation (see the review here), Authority and Acceptance were all published by FSG Originals/Macmillan in 2014. (In November, FSG Originals published Area X, a hardcover edition that contains the complete trilogy.) These beautifully written books combine elements of sci fi, fantasy, dystopian fiction, and horror. Some spooky scenes and unsettling imagery appear. VanderMeer does a great job with themes of authority and identity (specifically, what makes us human). The books must be read in order.

Toby Clements' Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims is historical fiction that runs riot through the War of the Roses. Kingmaker, first in a new series, was published in February 2014 by Century, a Random House UK affiliate, and arrived at our house after its original purchase in London by a friend.

It begins with events in 1460 that lead Sister Katherine and Brother Thomas to be evicted from their religious orders. As they flee, they are caught up in the English civil war fought by the royal houses of Lancaster and York. Real-life figures such as the future Yorkist monarch, Edward, Earl of March, and his adviser, the Earl of Warwick, appear, but it's Clements' ordinary men and women like Katherine and Thomas who give this book a vivid authenticity. It's cinematic and very appealing.

Have you watched the HBO TV series True Detective? The 2014 season consists of an eight-part crime drama set in the coastal plains of southern Louisiana. I was repulsed by the serial killer's staged tableaux at the series' center, but riveted by the performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. I felt much the same way when I read Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters (Mulholland, September 2014), a thriller/horror genre-bender laced with comedy.

A serial killer's first "artistic" tableau, staged in an abandoned warehouse in the decaying city of Detroit, is half-boy, half-deer. And that's just for starters. The multi-threaded story is told from several points of view, including investigating detective, Gabriella Versado, her teenage daughter, an itinerant artist, a journalist and the killer. Blood and gore don't spill from the pages but the book is as twisting and weird as you'd expect from South African writer Beukes, who also wrote 2013's The Shining Girls, featuring a time-traveling serial killer. I read Broken Monsters on a night I was the only one awake and experienced what true dread feels like.

I had fun reading David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Mulholland, August 2014). It features an international media/industrial cabal called the Committee, natch, that wants to create a "New Alexandria" in which all information is privatized so they can take over the world. Playing David to the Committee's Goliath is the underground online group Dear Diary. Joining the fray is a trio in their 30s: Leo Crane, who uses his trust funds to abuse drugs and get paranoid in Portland, Oregon; his former school buddy, Mark Deveraux, a cynical self-help guru living lavishly in Brooklyn; and the good woman who brings the friends back together, Leila Majnoun, an increasingly fed-up worker for a global nonprofit agency.

Of course, Shafer isn't the only one to write about an unscrupulous Big Data conspiracy. Last year, there were Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge and Dave Eggers' The Circle, but this topic is important (NSA, anyone?) and this book is different. Shafer has an original voice that's darkly comic, paranoid and compassionate (if you can imagine that) and his characters are fully developed. I guess the best way to describe this is a cyber-techno thriller driven by its sympathetic characters rather than adrenalin.

I read Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad books for her stylish writing, characterization, meticulous plotting and Irish setting. The murder investigation in The Secret Place (Viking Adult, September 2014) begins when 16-year-old Holly, daughter of Det. Frank Mackey, gives a photo to Det. Stephen Moran, who's working cold cases. In the photo is Chris Harper, a rich and popular boy who was found dead a year ago on the grounds of Holly's school, St. Kilda's. Written across the photo is the sentence, "I know who killed him." The photo was posted on a St. Kilda's bulletin board called "the Secret Place." Stephen, who is ambitious to become a member of the Murder Squad, joins the Squad's tough Det. Antoinette Conway to investigate the now-hot case at the exclusive girls' school.

This fifth series book differs from the previous books, which are told from the lead detective's point of view. In The Secret Place, Tana French toys with the time frame and varies the point of view. One story line follows the course of the investigation by Stephen and Antoinette, while the other follows two competing groups of four St. Kilda's girls in the year leading up to Chris's murder and its aftermath. If you find teenage girls unbearable, you probably won't like this book. I enjoyed seeing French's police again and the book's focus on relationships.

What would the reading year be like without TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it)? My favorite 2014 dystopian novel is Station Eleven (Knopf, September 2014), by Emily St. John Mandel. The story centers around three characters: Hollywood star Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during King Lear in the book's opening pages; Jeevan Chaudhary, the good Samaritan who tries to save him; and a child actress, Kirsten Raymonde. Later that night, the Georgia flu begins wiping out most of the world's population. Years later, Kirsten is a member of a troupe of Shakespearean actors traveling through the Great Lakes area, which looks like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. They are on their way to a cultural center, and a group of stranded survivors, at a former airport.

Mandel travels back and forth in time, weaving together the stories of these three people and their associates and adding intrigue in the form of a sinister figure, the Prophet. The strength of Mandel's writing and the journey of her survivors brought to my mind the nameless narrator's walking tour of Suffolk in W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. Mandel's artists and musicians believe that simply surviving isn't enough. Station Eleven made me think about the world's beauty and its future.

Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, February 2014) is a portrait of Aalyia Sohbi, a 72-year-old divorced and godless woman whose family considers her worse than an unnecessary appendage. She's an obstacle because they lust after her apartment. Aalyia loves her city, Beirut, and she loves her books. After her divorce, she began working at a bookstore, where she was paid so poorly she stole books from time to time to make up for it. For more than three decades, Aaliya has begun the New Year by translating one of these books into Arabic. When she's finished, she simply puts it away. The quiet Aaliya needs for these translations is threatened by the war and her family.

Aalyia's thoughts about various books and writers are a treat to read. For example, here's Aalyia on Spanish writer Javier Marías, author of The Infatuations:
In one of his essays, (Javier) Marías suggest that his work deals as much with what didn't happen as with what happened. In other words, most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.
How can a person read this book and not fall in love with Aalyia? I have Alameddine's The Hakawati, "an Arabian Nights for this century," on my 2015 reading list.

Earlier, I told you about the interspecies culture clash found in James L. Cambias's A Darkling Sea. In Okey Ndibe's Foreign Gods Inc. (Soho, January 2014), the culture clash is experienced by a Nigerian who immigrates to America. Ikechukwu "Ike" Uzondu drives a New York City cab despite his economics degree from Amherst. After his green-card marriage ends, Ike is overwhelmed by debt. His plan to deal with it involves stealing the statue of the god Ngene in his native Nigerian village and selling it to Foreign Gods, Inc., a New York gallery specializing in religious artifacts from Asia and Africa. Needless to say, his trip to Nigeria and the scheme don't go as planned.

Ike's life is fragmented as he straddles two countries. He doesn't feel completely at home in either of them. Foreign Gods Inc. has elements of a satire but it's a poignant portrait of a man who immigrated to America and got lost trying to find the American dream.

In Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 2014), Lily King re-imagines the 1933 presence in New Guinea of a trio of young anthropologists: Margaret Mead, her then-second husband, Reo Fortune, and her future-third husband, Gregory Bateson. Her fictionalized anthropologists are Nell Stone, an American; Schuyler "Fen" Fenwick, an Australian; and Andrew Bankson, an Englishman.

We learn Bankson has been alone in New Guinea, studying the Kiona river tribe, for several years. He's lonely and depressed when his narration begins, "Three days earlier, I'd gone to the river to drown myself." He's saved from another attempt by his chance meeting with plucky Nell and her tightly-wound husband, Fen. Nell and Fen are ready to leave New Guinea unless they can come up with a suitable tribe to study. Bankson, already smitten with Nell, hastens to locate a tribe, the Tam, along the Sepik River, an hour boat's ride away. The trio's involvement with their work and the love triangle's growing passion are revealed through Bankson's narration and Nell's writing. (One smokin' scene involves the three poring over an unedited copy of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture!)

King's prose manages to be taut and lush, restrained and sensual––all at the same time. She keeps her focus on the three anthropologists during this moving story but our glimpses of the New Guineans are fascinating. I'd particularly suggest this book to readers who liked Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, Hanya Yanigahara's The People in the Trees or Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork.

There you have it, my for-now favorite 2014 fiction. We'll have more favorites this week.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Happy Boxing Day!

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas Day, whether it included church or Chinese food. Around here, it was deeply religious––we watched the NFL Game Rewind marathon on NFL Network.

I did put it on pause long enough to open presents, enjoy a delicious dinner (prepared mostly by my husband, though I made dessert and was in charge of monitoring the new temperature probe in the roast), and take a couple of walks. I stayed seasonal on my walk, listening to Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca, her second Inspector Hemingway mystery, which has a Christmas theme.

Audible has been insisting for months that I'd like Georgette Heyer's mysteries, but I resisted until last week. I'd never read her stuff before, but I thought of her as a romance writer and I didn't feel like reading some goopy thing. In a weak moment, probably brought on by shopping fatigue and seeing way too many commercials for jewelry and luxury cars with giant bows on them, I tried out Heyer's first Hemingway mystery, No Wind of Blame. It was a hoot!

I had no idea Heyer was so slyly clever. I figured out the whodunnit right away, but it was still a pleasure to listen to because of the amusing characters and writing. Inspector Hemingway is a talented young detective who pats himself on the back a lot, but his pool of suspects include a couple of women so batty and histrionic that he almost despairs.

In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and cued up the second book right away. Envious Casca is a country house mystery in which the rich and extremely grouchy Nathaniel Herriard is persuaded by his jolly brother, Joseph, to host a party of his business partner and his relatives and their wives/fiancées/associates over Christmas. Nathaniel is a real Grinch, but anyone would be with this crew on hand. Nearly everybody wants something from Nathaniel; specifically, a big wad of cash, and they are unendingly rude and cutting to each other as they maneuver. Since Nathaniel is a Grinch, though, all their machinations are for naught. When Nathaniel is found murdered on the floor––in his locked bedroom!––it looks like one of these greedy guests might have decided to go to Plan B.

So today is Boxing Day. There seem to be different stories about the derivation of the name and the holiday, which is celebrated in the UK and some of its former colonies. The most common story is that servants were traditionally given a box of food and gifts from their masters on the day after Christmas, since they would all have been required to work on Christmas Day. In honor of Boxing Day, then, I suppose you could read a book involving English country house servants, like Jo Baker's Longbourn, which reimagines Pride and Prejudice from the point of views of the servants.

Or, if you want something more mystery-oriented, you could watch the movie Gosford Park, with its star-studded cast: Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Charles Dance, Laurence Fox, Michael Gambon, Jeremy Northam, Ryan Philippe, Tom Hollander, Richard E. Grant and Stephen Fry as the spectacularly dense Inspector Thomson.

The only mystery book I know of that is specifically a Boxing Day tale is the Golden Age classic, Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death. You probably already know that Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was Britain's Poet Laureate and the father of noted actor Daniel Day-Lewis. As Nicholas Blake, he wrote a cracking good series of 16 mysteries featuring amateur detective Nigel Strangeways.

Thou Shell of Death is the second Strangeways mystery, and the one in which he meets Georgia Cavendish, the woman who will become his wife. But it's notable for more than that. This is a fiendishly clever story and well worth reading at any time of year. The setup is that World War I flying ace Fergus O'Brian has received a series of poison-pen letters saying he will be killed on Boxing Day. O'Brian decides to host a house party and invite Strangeways and everyone he thinks might have written the letters. Despite Strangeways' presence, O'Brian is killed in a way that suggests suicide. Strangeways must persuade the police to investigate it as a murder and then do all the legwork necessary to prove their theories to be completely wrong.

In the US, Boxing Day isn't celebrated by name, but boxes are involved, as in returning Christmas boxed gifts to the store, in exchange for something more pleasing. I will be taking one box to the UPS store, because my gift of Watching the English (which I mentioned last Friday) arrived with what looked like a reindeer bite out of 20 pages.

If you received an ugly Christmas sweater as one of your gifts, my advice is to keep it. The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party seemed to be everywhere this year, and I'm willing to lay odds this will be a phenomenon for at least one more season. This year, the stores––even Goodwill––were charging a premium for particularly egregious examples. So you'll be ahead of the game if you can just pull yours out from the back of your bureau drawer next year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

No Need to Hit the Panic Button Yet

"A beautiful way to say". . . . Riiiight
I've known Sister Mary Murderous for years now. She's organized and meticulous, so I didn't panic when she mentioned last Friday she had pretty much completed her holiday shopping. It's when my not-so-well-organized husband told me he's done that I started getting very nervous about not being finished myself.

Fellow how-the-heck-did-we-get-ourselves-into-this-last-minute-predicament shoppers, it's not down to the wire yet, but we do need to get cracking. Let's muster our self-discipline and seriousness of purpose. No more starting to do online research into a gift for little Susie and getting side-tracked somehow into winter bird irruptions in North America, because that leads to wondering what a Bohemian Waxwing looks like, and before you know it, you're looking at a map of the Czech Republic, which has nothing to do with a Christmas present for 10-year-old Susie.

Okay. I'm going to tell you about some gifts I'm giving this year and share some strategies in case you're running out of time to shop.

Don't get sidetracked by looking up "Antsy Pants"
My husband is one of those people who is easy to shop for once you've figured out the hopeless gifts––clothes––and the sure bets based on his interests––movies, post-World War II history, sports, science, and rock 'n roll. Past presents for the man whose favorite movie is 1947's Out of the Past include a subscription to Netflix tucked into Foster Hirsch's The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. He enjoyed that book and Eddie Muller's jauntier Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Another hit was nonfiction about American workers in all walks of life, oral historian Studs Terkel's Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. It was published in 1974, and many of the jobs it describes are greatly changed or no longer exist; however, existential questions involving what it means to work at your job remain the same, people are still people, and this book is wonderful.

The book I'm giving Hubby this Christmas is Rock Covers, by Jon Kirby, Robbie Busch, and Julius Widemann, published earlier this month by Taschen. Time Magazine describes this 550-page book as "inclusive a selection of great, influential, bizarre, unsettling and, quite often, downright eye-popping rock and roll album covers that any fan is ever likely to find in one place." The more than 750 covers range from Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph for Patti Smith's Horses to the surreal collage designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth from a Paul McCartney ink drawing for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I can't wait to see my husband open it––and to look at all these album covers from rock 'n roll.

Note: Do not get distracted by investigating the Kitten Covers (here), which substitute kittens (what else?) for people on albums such as Nirvana's Nevermind, the Clash's London Calling, and Tom Waits's Swordfishtrombones. We could get even further off the tracks by checking into the possibility of animals other than kittens on covers, but we won't do that, will we? People, we're at the serious task of completing our holiday shopping.

Say you have a crime fiction-loving friend, but you're unsure what he or she has read. Think in terms of combinations. You can buy a vintage book cheap at a used bookstore, and then give it with something else. For example, an old Agatha Christie featuring Jane Marple, such as A Murder Is Announced, could be gift wrapped with some knitting needles and gorgeous yarn for a winter scarf. (Staff at yarn shops are always friendly and will be happy to help you add a simple how-to pamphlet if your mystery lover doesn't yet know how to knit. Trust me, anyone can knit a beautiful scarf.) Give Jim Thompson's gritty The Killer Inside Me with a lovely mirror or a bottle of really good hard stuff. Michael Innes's 1938 Lament for a Maker needs a bottle of Scotch, but Dashiell Hammett's charming The Thin Man needs martini glasses and fixings. Combine a Lord Peter Wimsey book by Dorothy L. Sayers (it's hard to go wrong with Murder Must Advertise or The Nine Tailors) with a tea pot and/or tea.

Gift wrap a tin of hot chocolate and a pretty mug or a box of chocolates with a fun Golden-Age classic (i.e., Anthony Berkeley Cox's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca or Behold, Here's Poison!, or Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel or Overture to Death). Give a book with the movie made from it (Robert Bloch's Psycho, Stephen King's The Shining) or present a book with something appropriately useful (a Simenon book with a bottle of French perfume; Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and a nice pair of gloves; John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides or another locked-room mystery and a lockable box for jewelry or other treasures; Dorothy L. Sayers's Have His Carcase and a Swiss Army knife; Halloween, by Curtis Richards and John Carpenter, and a chain saw). Or pick any old mystery and add a jig-saw puzzle. You get the picture.

You should be able to find the following books in a local bookstore so you can meet the Christmas deadline without ordering online and paying for one-day shipping.

Have kids or grandkids around 8 to 10 years of age yourself or looking for a family gift for someone who does? This one is for you. A couple of years ago, writers Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen came up with an antidote to boredom and a way to get kids off their electronic devices––for a break, at least. One of my friends loved their Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun. Now there's Unbored Games: Serious Fun for Everyone (Bloomsbury USA, October 2014), which combines informative how-to's with entertaining things to do. Activities such as geocaching, board-game hacking, code-cracking, and classic science experiments are combined with "best-of" lists, trivia, and Q&A's with experts. These lavishly illustrated books are highly rated by reviewers and deserve a place on a shelf––or in your favorite 10-year-old's backpack.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco, May 2014) takes a look at America's rural poor, specifically, those in Tenmile, Montana, and the cultural issues of the 1980s as Carter was leaving office and Reagan was stepping in. Henderson wrote the Super Bowl commercial "Halftime in America" narrated by Clint Eastwood, and his first novel involves Pete Snow, a long-haired social worker better at helping others than himself, a half-feral 11-year-old boy named Benjamin Pearl, and Ben's dad, "Tribulation-ready, Race War-ready" survivalist Jeremiah Pearl. If your gift recipient likes the bleak worldview, moral ambiguity, and flawed characters found in books by Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone) or Pete Dexter (The Paperboy), he or she would probably like this beautifully written novel, which made the New York Times list of 100 notable 2014 books.

I'm giving Marlon James's novel, which is making many favorite-books-of-the-year lists, including mine, to an avid-reader friend who had the sort of year that, in the retelling, makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry. It's not an easy read at the beginning because writer James doesn't let you wade in, he just dumps you headfirst into events (the first bit is written by a ghost), and while you're trying to get up to speed on what's been happening, you're dealing with the multiple narrators' dialects, free associations, and the whole shebang.

Ask yourself before you buy it, "Does my recipient have the patience to fall under a spell?" I hope the answer is yes, because the acclimation process itself is pleasurably head-spinning (don't worry, there's no need to write anything down, it all becomes clear through a process kinda like passive osmosis), and after you're acclimated, the book is mesmerizing. A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Hardcover, October 2014) is a fictionalized treatment of the 1976 attempted assassination of Jamaican Reggae singer Bob Marley (never mentioned by name). The 700-pager spans decades, hops continents, and features many characters, ranging from drug dealers and assassins to journalists, politicians, and ghosts. I'd suggest an accompaniment of Jamaican rum or something else Jamaican if you live in Colorado or Washington State, but really, this imaginative book is a gift that makes it on its own.

One of my young relatives will soon move into an apartment with friends. They all love good food, which means they'll need a good general cookbook. One of the best is The New Best Recipe by Cooks Illustrated Magazine. I recently bought it for myself after reading Powell's Books staffer Suzanne G.'s review, "If I have to pick one book, I want it to be the book that explains in detail how it tested multiple versions of each recipe, what the results were, why the authors picked the one they decided was best, and what variations they suggest. At a thousand fully-explained recipes, this dictionary-size reference book is the first one I consult for everything from eggplant Parmesan to steamed mussels to carrot cake. Much more authoritative than Googling, it's the Consumer Reports of classic recipes." Yeah, I agree, it's great, and it can be someone's only or most-used cookbook.

Someone on your gift list like my sister, who has a sweet tooth and loves to bake? I'm oohing and aahhing over Zoe Nathan's scrumptuous-looking Huckleberry: Recipes, Stories, and Secrets from Our Kitchen (Chronicle, September 2014). The Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe is one of Santa Monica's favorite breakfast places, and its recipes cover both the sweet and savory sides. Right now I would kill for a piece of what's on the cover and a good cup of coffee.

Let's finish up with one last gift suggestion, so we can finish our coffee and get to the bookstore. A friend on my gift list is an environmentalist who loves the desert country of north-central New Mexico. One year I gave her Edward Abbey's comic-adventure masterpiece, The Monkey Wrench Gang (Harper Perennial, September 2014; first published 1975), featuring Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find it threatened by industrial development. He joins forces with a motley crew to fight it.

This year I'm giving her a book of nonfiction: Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt, February 2014). Kolbert is a New Yorker staff writer who consulted scientists in a variety of disciplines, such as botany, geology, and wildlife biology. She uses thirteen chapters, focusing on individuals from a dozen species, to explore the disquieting story of their threatened extinction. This is nonfiction at its suspenseful best. With its wittiness, historical perspective, and field reporting, it reads like a novel. It's a depressing, but ultimately inspiring book. I highly recommend it for the science- or natural history-lover on your list.

Okay, folks, it's off to the bookstore. Good luck, and happy holiday shopping!