Winnipeg Free Press column, December 2012

If you’re looking for something for a book-lover’s Christmas stocking, start with Michael Crichton and Richard Preston’s Micro (HarperCollins, 536 pages, $11).

The novel was unfinished when Crichton died in 2008. Preston, who lives in New Jersey, completed it, but the collaboration is seamless: this reads like Grade A Crichton all the way.

Without blowing any surprises, the scientific hook here is probably Crichton’s most fantastic, more even than the time travel in Timeline or the nanoswarms of Prey; but he makes it plausible enough to make us suspend our disbelief and enjoy the ride (in which a group of young scientists is stranded in an incredibly hostile environment with virtually no means of defending themselves).

It is a reminder that nobody made techno-thrillers quite like Michael Crichton.

— — —

In When Elves Attack (William Morrow, 194 pages, $15), by Florida’s Tim Dorsey, genial local historian and serial killer Serge A. Storms and his doped-up sidekick, Coleman, decide to get a house and have a good, old-fashioned Christmas.

Along the way they meet up with some old friends (devoted readers will recognize a feisty bunch of elderly women who call themselves the G-Unit and the long-suffering Davenport family of Triggerfish Lane), and Serge finds clever solutions to a domestic situation and a disagreement between a couple of mall employees, foils an attempted kidnapping and deals with a disrespectful vandal.

Dorsey fans will probably start laughing, just out of habit, before they’ve even opened the book. Serge is one of the most unique characters you’re likely to meet, a cheerful fella operating under the influence of a handful of seriously conflicting mental illnesses, an unrepentant psychopath with an encyclopedic knowledge of Florida history and a skewed sense of justice that gives him the moral high ground no matter how, um, creatively he’s meting it out.

— — —

For comic fiction of a different sort, here’s Sacre Bleu (William Morrow, 403 pages, $19), by San Francisco’s Christopher Moore. It offers a new solution to the mystery surrounding the death-by-gunshot of Vincent van Gogh. (Was it suicide? An accident? Depends whom you listen to.)

Van Gogh’s fellow painters Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Lucien Lessard are determined to uncover the reason for their friend’s death, but they can scarcely believe it when it begins to look like their friend’s death is linked somehow to a unique shade of ultramarine and to a mysterious paint dealer known as the Colorman.

It’s a weird and wonderful story, not as surreal as some of Moore’s comic fantasies (A Dirty Job, say, or Bloodsucking Fiends), but just as beautifully written. Moore’s greatest gift — and he has many gifts — is his ability to make his readers believe the most wildly unbelievable stuff. For the author’s fans, a must-read.

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