Last-Minute Christmas Presents for Book Lovers

For fans of Arthurian literature:

Le Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory’s epic prose poem, is the primary source for almost every Arthurian tale written since the 16th century.

It’s the same case here, with The Death of King Arthur, a new retelling in modern English and dramatically restructured, by novelist Peter Ackroyd.  Ackroyd is a hell of a writer and historian, and he’s taken the best parts of Malory’s dense prose and smoothed it into a story that both reflects the essence of Malory’s 15th century prose and updates it for our contemporary, attention deficit disorder audience.  In other words, Ackroyd has done well.

T. H. White’s classic retelling of the legend of Arthur is once again in print.  The Once and Future King was the basis of Disney’s 1964 The Sword in the Stone, and White’s adaptation of Malory remains, perhaps, the best, and certainly the most dramatic.  Arthur — Wart — and the major figures of Arthurian legend have never been fleshed out more charmingly, and it deserves its place high among the chronicles of the King.

For fans of Sherlock Holmes:

A new and innovative anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories has been needed for years.  But this isn’t a traditional anthology continuing their adventures — many of these stories don’t even have Holmes as Watson as characters.  Instead they use Doyle’s oeuvre — the very concept of Holmes and his literary legacy — as the primary idea.  The authors here range from mystery writers, thriller writers, fantasists — all sharing their unique perspectives on the Master Detective.  There’s even a story told in graphic form.  With stories by Neil Gaiman, Lee Child and Jacqueline Winspear, you can’t go wrong — and each tale looks at Holmes from a point of view you’ve probably never thought of.  The tale’s afoot!
For fans of Chris Van Allsburg:

When The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was published in 1984, author/artist Chris Van Allsburg probably had no idea that his slim little children’s book would be so inspirational.  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick takes the mysterious art from the first volume, and allows writers to explore exactly what happened in each beautiful black and white sketch.  There are no bad stories here, but my favorite — and perhaps the best of the bunch — is the final story, by Stephen King.  For me, the art and their enigmatic captions will remain, and I can still write my own stories for each drawing.  Highly recommended.
For Horror fans:

I think I’m giving up on horror from now on.  Not that Those Across the River or The Night Strangers are bad — they aren’t at all — but I am a fan of a type of horror story that just doesn’t get written any more, except by King and a few others.  I like horror.  I like scares.  I like ghost stories and roller coasters and Hammer horror.  I like King’s 3 Rules: Blood must be spilled; The innocent must suffer; and Evil shall be punished.  But these two new novels are way too . . . I guess unsettling is the word.

These are way too nihlistic for me.

Those Across the River takes a while to build, but when it does, the astute reader will realize it’s a new and savage take on an old horror trope.

The Night Strangers also takes a standard trope of supernatural horror and twists it in a way where nature becomes supernature.

Both novels are well-written, almost literary.  Both are filled with auras of unease and ancient terrors — and while I certainly recommend them for horror fans today, these two books are not for me.  They’re for the generation raised on gore and splatter, who laugh at ghosts and goblins instead of hiding under the covers with a flashlight.  This is horror for the iPod generation.

For fans of space opera and hard sf:

McDevitt is still the best at what he does — serious space opera that evokes the wonder of the stars.

Firebird is the latest in the Alex Benedict series, where Alex, an antiquities dealer 11,000 years in the future, and his Watson, Chase Kolpath, solve outer space mysteries and seek galactic artifacts.  Like most Benedict novels, this one starts out with a MacGuffin — which is never solved.  But it serves the reader in that this intro propels us into the story, starting with the past disappearance of a starship and how it relates to the disappearance of Christopher Robin forty years before the events of this novel.

Firebird is superior to McDevitt’s 2010 Benedict novel, and I anxiously await the next installment in 2012. 

For Dexter fans:

I don’t get Showtime, so I’ve never seen an episode of Dexter; but the show began with the Dexter books by Jeff Lindsay, about a serial killer who hunts serial killers.

Dexter’s world is in Miami, a very real and suburban Miami, yet is filled with unseen evil and weirdness living on the fringes.  There are hints of supernatural forces in the books, especially in the second book; but in the new novel, Double Dexter, reality is in the forefront when Dexter is seen making one of his kills . . . and it turns out the witness is a fledgling serial killer who wants Dexter to pay for his crimes.  The books are different than the show, so the author says, but the basics are the same, which is why I believe tv viewers like the show so much:  They’re graphic, darkly funny and highly recommended.

For fans of Hugo:

If you enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret — or Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, Hugo — you’ll probably like Brian Selznick’s newest illustrated novel, Wonderstruck.  It’s just as heavily illustrated and as evocative as Selznick’s Hugo, this time telling the story of a deaf girl who falls in love with museums and Cabinets of Wonder.  Hugo has a little more action and more of a solid story, but Wonderstruck is embued with a sense of awe and fairy tale wonder that Hugo lacks.  Both books are absolutely magnificent, and are Highly Recommended.
For fans of Steven Spielberg:

I think I have all the books written so far on the making of Spielberg’s Jaws back in 1974, but this one is wonderfully unique.  It’s a coffee table book, filled with photos taken by the residents of Martha’s Vineyard, that captures the intense few months of filming that basically involved the entire island.  There are so many photos here that I’ve never seen before — it blew me away.  This book is a must have for film fans and Spielberg junkies.
For fans of Stephen King:

I saved the best for last.

11/22/63 is Stephen King’s finest novel in fifteen years.  It’s a time travel novel where everything goes right and everything goes wrong, and it’s a story only Stephen King could tell.

I’ll say no more and just let King’s writing do its job.  Forget Christmas presents — go out now and get this book for yourself.

From the Outer Rim #4: ECHO by Jack McDevitt

If you read a lot of mysteries, then you already know what a MacGuffin is.

MacGuffin (n.)

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”.  The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.  In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.  Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.  (Wikipedia)

There are MacGuffins in a lot of science fiction novels, too, and in Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Echo, the MacGuffin is a stone tablet engraved with indecipherable characters, found abandoned in a yard on a human-colonized planet thousands of years in the future.  At this time, our endeavors throughout space have uncovered only one other intelligent alien species, the Muties.  So if the tablet wasn’t engraved by us or by the Muties, then . . . there’s someone else out there.  (By coincidence, this story is breaking right now…)

The origin of the tablet is the mystery that propels Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, antiquities dealers and accidental adventurers, into deep space, and Echo offers us a classic, if not near perfect, MacGuffin — mysterious, impenetrable, and deeply evocative of the unknown.

Echo is space opera for the 21st century — a Star Trek that’s much less militaristic and where the wonders of future technology are less technobabble than they are the normal workings of everyday life.  Homes come with AI valets who answer the comm, read your mail, turn your lights on and off, and do research for you on the interstellar Web.  The superluminal starships in McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series — as in his Priscilla Hutchins series — are also operated via AIs, and require a minimum amount of crew to maintain their operational integrity.

This is a space-faring future where we have attained the stars, and the Milky Way is just a galactic neighborhood.

McDevitt, as a writer, is clear and precise, and his prose is polished and clean.  Stephen King has called him “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.”

He’s wrong.  McDevitt is a far better prose writer than Asimov ever was, but not yet as visionary as Clarke.

Echo is McDevitt’s 2010 novel — he gets one published once a year, and each one is welcome.  But if his books have any one single problem — especially nowadays — it’s that they have become very comfortable, like a mystery series one comes to depend on for the usual murders, thrills, chills, and satisfying and moral conclusion.

This disappoints me a great deal.  I see in McDevitt’s sentences a James Lee Burke of science fiction just waiting to burst out.  Why Burke?  He’s a noir writer, and his descriptive passages bring magic into our mundane, crime-ridden world.

Burke creates a world that comes alive through his tactile sense of description.  McDevitt writes with almost scientific prose, and is short on evocative description.

He writes SF Noir.

I could be wrong, but I think that a novel a year actually hinders McDevitt’s growth as a writer.  Don’t get me wrong — having an annual McDevitt story is wonderful.  But for all his awards and accolades, I think McDevitt has an epic science fiction tapestry inside of him that could far surpass Asimov and Clarke, if he could nurture it properly.  His most recent novels — Chindi, Omega, Polaris, and the non-series Time Travelers Never Die — are impeccably written and great space operas.  But on a conceptual level they feel . . . minor.  Good stories, but somehow missing hugely dramatic heart.  Scale.

I’d love to see McDevitt write a huge, sprawling, self-contained epic, whether one book or four.

Echo is a MacGuffin — just the latest MacGuffin from Jack McDevitt that keeps us rolling with each novel.  I think it’s time for his next MacGuffin to lead us to realms unknown, galaxies undiscovered, alien races undreamed of and magnificent destinies unexplored.

McDevitt is, I think, better than he knows — and much deeper and richer than his recent books.

Jack, I say: Time to bring it on.