The gift giving holiday season is upon us, and Constant Reader has a list of possible presents for the readers on your shopping list. Almost all of these books are available from Barnes and Noble or from Amazon.com.
One of my most enjoyable reading experiences the past year was discovering The Dresden Files, a series of books about Harry Dresden, sort of a cross between the magic of Harry Potter and Raymond Chandler's detective novels. The first book in the series is Storm Front ($9.99, paperback, Roc Publishing, 372 pgs) and the author is Jim Butcher. A series of mysterious murders are happening and the police reach out to warlock/magician Harry Dresden to solve the crimes. Perfect for friends or family who enjoy noire fiction or fantasy.
And as long as we're discussing murder mysteries, Constant Reader highly recommends the novels and stories of detective master Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep & Farewell My Lovely ($20, hardcover, Modern Library, 544 pgs) is a good place to start.
Chandler, along with detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, pretty much created the modern murder mystery and private eye fiction. Chandler is one of my favorite authors, and you really can't go wrong with any of his fiction, but his most famous novel is The Big Sleep, which was made into a classic detective film starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe.
Which brings us to the novels of Spenser author Robert B. Parker. Mr. Parker passed away, leaving his thousands of fans mourning the loss of the Spenser series of stories, as well as three other series he was writing, one of them a Western.
Mr. Parker's fans will be happy to know that his widow, Joan (who he dedicated all of his novels to) has made arrangements to have other authors continue these series, and the first, Robert B. Parker's Lullaby, written by Ace Atkins ( $26.95, hardcover, Putnam Adult, 320 pgs) is an excellent read and promises to continue the adventures of Spenser, his lady love Susan Silverman and his unforgettable comrade in arms, Hawk.
Constant Reader recommended George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the source of the great HBO series Game of Thrones) in 2011's gift guide. It's still a great gift idea for fans of the series that haven't read any of the books. There is a nice four-volume paperback set available for a list price of $36, but you can find it for almost half that price on Amazon. And the fifth and latest book in the series, A Dance with Dragons ($35, Bantam, 1040 pgs) is available in hardcover.
For readers with an interest in World War Two non-fiction, the past year produced two very interesting tales of wartime achievements. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman ($28, hardcover, Random House, 428 pgs)is the story of how President Roosevelt reached out to industry CEOs to convert peacetime factories into the greatest military weapon-producing machine the world had ever seen.
Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day by Stephen Talty ($28, hardcover, Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pgs) tells the intriguing tale of the secret agent who almost single handedly created the deception that the Allies were landing their main invasion force in the North of France, not at Normandy, as they were planning. Hitler held his main forces in the North, being fooled by Agent Garbo, but the story of D-Day would have had a much different ending had Garbo not convinced the Nazi high command with his spycraft and trickery. Amazing tales, both of them.
Civil War buffs might enjoy an anthology of Civil War fiction, Murder Most Confederate: Tales of Crimes Quite Uncivil ($20, hardcover, Cumberland House Publishing, 274 pgs). The collection includes a short story by Montrose mystery author and short story master Doug Allyn, The Hessian.
Constant Reader was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Allyn for the Bookmarks book talk show and he is as accomplished an author as Michigan has ever produced, having won an Edgar (the mystery writer's most coveted award) and the Ellery Queen Readers Award several times.
Downton Abbey holds the honor of being the most acclaimed series produced by the BBC and has many loyal followers in the States. Fans of the series will certainly enjoy my good friend Michael Gerber's parody of the show, Downturn Abbey. Mr. Gerber's comic take on the series will hit the spot for humor lovers (Constant Reader is a great fan of humor, parody and satire) and will be available in time for the holidays via www.downturnabbey.com as both a print and digital download.
And it is with great joy that I pass along the news that humor legends Christopher Cerf and Henry Beard have collaborated on a new book: Encyclopedia Paranoiaca ($25, hardcover, Simon and Schuster, 400 pgs.). Their PR release warns: “IGNORE THIS BOOK AT YOUR PERIL! Did you know that carrots cause blindness and bananas are radioactive? That too many candlelight dinners can cause cancer? And not only is bottled water a veritable petri dish of biohazards (so is tap water, by the way) but riding a bicycle might destroy your sex life?”
This volume, meticulously researched and alphabetized for easy reference, lists the many everyday foods and items that could very well kill you and probably are at this very moment. Mr. Cerf and Mr. Beard are veteran humorists, both having written and edited The Harvard Lampoon and National Lampoon, and both gentlemen have several humor books to their credit.
Another Lampoon veteran writer, Michel Choquette at long last delivered The Someday Funnies ($55, hardcover, Abrams Comic Arts, 216 pgs), a collection of comics written and drawn by such famed contributors as Brian McConnachie, Doug Kenney, Chris Miller, Henry Beard and Michael Gross from the National Lampoon, Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics, Sergio Aragones from MAD, William S. Burroughs, Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit comic, Dirty Duck writer/artist Bobby London, comic legend Gahan Wilson and Frank Zappa, to name just a few of the 169 writers and artists who contributed.
These comics were created in the early Seventies as Mr. Choquette commissioned the writers and artists to create a comic strip for a planned insert for Rolling Stone. But as he travelled the world collecting writing and art for the project it grew to gargantuan proportions and Rolling Stone backed out as publisher. It finally found a home with the fabulous publishing company, Abrams Comic Arts. Abrams had much success with its National Lampoon anthology edited by Rick Meyerowitz last year (reviewed by Constant Reader in this publication with that article available in the online version of Review's archives.)
Many avid readers enjoy taking part in book clubs that read a book and meet to discuss it. Constant Reader was introduced to the brilliant and groundbreaking novelist Virginia Woolf in one such group. Therefore it with great joy that I recommend Mrs. Woolf's terrific stream of consciousness novel Mrs. Dalloway ($6, paperback, Aziloth Books, 122 pgs). The book was published about the same time as James Joyce's masterpiece, the virtually unreadable Ulysses, which is famous for its stream of consciousness narrative also. Mrs. Woolf's story is much more accessible to the average reader, and tells the story of a British wife preparing for a dinner party and a veteran of The Great War (as WWI was known at the time) who suffers terribly from post-traumatic shock. The story all takes place in one day and it is a very pleasurable and satisfying read.
Reclusive author Rod Whitaker, who published several books under the pseudonym Trevanian, is a particular favorite of Constant Reader, and so he suggests two of Trevanian's best novels. Shibumi ($19, paperback, Headline Publishing, 512 pgs) is his epic espionage/revenge saga as master assassin Nicholai Hel is drawn out of retirement to settle a few scores. While it is Constant Reader's favorite Trevanian novel, he has seen the strongest favorable reaction when lending The Summer of Katya ($15, Three Rivers Press, paperback, 288 pgs)to friends. The novel is a gothic tale of a young doctor in pre-WWI France, who falls for an enigmatic young woman with a mysterious past.
During this holiday season, many gift givers are looking for a special book for friends and family who are deeply religious. Two books come to mind as excellent reads: A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam ($17, paperback, Ballantine Books, 496 pgs) is written by NY Times bestselling author and religion authority Karen Armstrong. Also worth considering is Grand Rapids minister Rob Bell's bestseller Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived ($15 paperback, HarperOne, 224 pgs), an exploration of Christianity's concept of heaven and hell and what the afterlife is like.
Constant Reader and several of his friends are great comic book lovers, and enjoy graphic novel trade paperback and hardcover collections of our favorite comics. There were a few graphic novels that gave adult credibility to comics in the 80's, and one of the best was Watchmen ($20, trade paperback, DC Comics, 416 pgs) written by the great British writer Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons. Watchmen follows the lives of a former superhero team, most of who are in retirement, all of whom are being targeted for murder by an unknown villain. Both Time and Entertainment Weekly named it one of the best novels of the last century, and it is a must have book for any comics lover.
Along with Mr. Moore, the comics industry reached for a more adult readership with the books written and drawn by Frank Miller. Honing his writing and art while working on the Daredevil comic, Miller broke loose of DC Comics (he wrote the epic Dark Knight Returns for them) and Marvel (which published Daredevil) and began creating original work for Dark Horse Comics. His glorious tale of the Spartan battle at Thermopylae in 300 ($30, hardcover, Dark Horse, 88 pgs) is as beautiful to look at as it is thrilling to read. Readers who don't enjoy comics can read the story of the Spartan's legendary stand in the great novel by Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire ($15, paperback, Bantam, 400 pgs).
Some very fine books are available only as digital downloads, and Michigan author Lev Raphael (who has written several books in the Nick Hoffman mystery series) has penned a novel that will please fans of Edith Wharton and other writers who chronicled life in New York City's gilded age at the start of the 20th century. Rosedale in Love ($6, Kindle digital download, 253 pgs) takes the character of Jewish financier Simon Rosedale from Ms. Wharton's The House of Mirth and puts him center stage in a tale of pride and prejudice among the swells.
One final comment for book lovers: The Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook have changed the way thousands of readers get and read their books. While Constant Reader has yet to decide which digital reader is the right choice, many of his friends own a device and love that they can travel with hundreds of books without lugging around book bags and suitcases filled with their favorite reading material. Many (but not all) of these devices have wi-fi capability, and a basic reader goes for between $50 and $100. Color readers with extra features are more expensive, but a basic reader will get you started and you can always upgrade later if you want those features.