December 8th, 2013

BOOKS – Great Reading For The Season

Culling The Bookshelves For Past Favorites…

With the holidays soon upon us, don’t forget that books often make the best gifts for friends and loved ones who like to read. The season of giving brings no shortage of suggested titles, including top picks from book critics and personal favorites selected by popular authors.

This time of year, I like to cull my bookshelves for choice past reads to recommend to fellow avid readers. Following is a short list of favorites that you may find of interest for yourself or a special someone on your gift list, including one work from a celebrity not well-known for the craft of fiction writing. The selections also include three crime novels — two set in San Diego and one in London — a weird and mesmerizing love story, and a great work of historical fiction by a master of the genre.

Each pick is accompanied by a brief write up from the dust jacket of the book and a link to Amazon.com, where you’ll find several reviews. Happy reading, and happy holidays!

The Confessions of Max Tivoliby Andrew Sean Greer

“We are each the love of someone’s life.”

booksunlightSo begins The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a heartbreaking love story with a narrator like no other. At his birth, Max’s father declares him a Nissea creature of Danish myth, as his baby son has the external physical appearance of an old, dying creature. Max grows older like any child, but his physical age appears to go backward — on the outside a very old man, but inside still a fearful child.

The story is told in three acts. First young Max falls in love with a neighbor girl, Alice, who ages as normally as any of us. Max, of course, does not; as a young man, he has an older man’s body. But his curse is also his blessing: as he gets older, his body grows younger, so each successive time he finds his Alice, she does not recognize him. She takes him for a stranger, and Max is given another chance at love.

Greer (The Path of Minor Planets) writes marvelously nuanced prose; with its turn-of-the-century lilt and poetic flashes, it is the perfect medium for this mesmerizing and heartbreaking tale.

Bone in the Throat, by Anthony Bourdain

bookswoodsA wildly funny, irreverent tale of murder, mayhem, and the mob from popular Food Network star Anthony Bourdain, whose hilarious and top-selling memoir Kitchen Confidential in 2000 set the stage for an avalanche of foodie oriented volumes by a stable of top chefs. What sets Bourdain apart from the others, aside from his charm and wit, is that he is also a gifted writer of fiction, which you’ll see with this book.

When up-and-coming chef Tommy Pagana settles for a less than glamorous stint at his uncle’s restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy, he unwittingly finds himself a partner in a big-time crime. And when the mob decides to use the kitchen for a murder, nothing Tommy learned in cooking school has prepared him for what happens next.

With the FBI on one side, and his eccentric wise guy supporters on the other, Tommy has to struggle to do right by his conscience, and to avoid getting killed in the meantime.

Bone in the Throat is a thrilling Mafia caper mixed with wry humor and entertaining characters, tossed together to make an exciting, satisfying feast of a novel.

The Miracles of Santo Fico, by D.L. Smith

After twenty years, Leo Pizzola has come back to his native village of Santo Fico, still single and still looking for a way to get rich. Sitting high above the sea in a remote part of Tuscany, the town is as poor as it was on the day Leo left. No tourist buses stop there. No guidebooks mention the miracle, and the mystery of their blessed little church, which once held so much promise as a tourist attraction. Instead, the broken fountain in the center of the small piazza is as dried up as the town’s hopes.

bookwintertreeYet some things have changed. Of Leo’s childhood companions, only one, little Guido, whom everyone calls “Topo,” embraces him. His best friend Franco is long dead. And Marta, whose beauty has haunted his dreams, inexplicably refuses to talk to him at all. Worst of all, the town’s kindly old priest, father Elio, seems to have lost his faith.

What Santo Fico needs is a miracle…a miracle to help them overcome the disaster threatening to destroy what little hope is left in this tiny village that the world has overlooked. Yes, a miracle would do the trick — even if Leo and Topo, scheming together, have to manufacture one themselves.

Leo’s quixotic schemes to restore the spirit of the town and, not incidentally, fill his own pockets will unravel with unforeseen results. Long kept secrets surface, baffling mysteries are resolved, and the overwhelming beauty of life itself emerges when wonders indeed begin to happen in this Italian town by the sea.

This is a truly hilarious tale with an endearing but hapless protagonist played out in a colorful Tuscan locale. It resonates with the Italian spirit of Il Postino and Life is Beautiful.

The Winter of Frankie Machineby Don Winslow (Set in San Diego)

bookrainFrank Machianno thought he had quit the mob for good. The 62-year-old Vietnam vet has settled into a quite life in his native San Diego, operating a bait shack on Ocean Beach Pier and running three other local businesses (all on the up-and-up).

A hard working entrepreneur, passionate lover, part-time surf bum, and full-time dad, he is a pillar of his waterfront community in San Diego. But Frank’s past life and sharpshooting skills are legendary, and when the head of the Los Angeles syndicate calls in a favor, he finds himself back in the game. Turns out Frank was set up and he is the actual target. But it’s too late to change course; he’s already neck-deep in the world of the thick-necked.

With the mob on his heels and the cops on his tail, Frankie hatches a plan to protect his family, save his life, and escape the mob forever. Then things get really complicated.

Cold Pursuit, by Jefferson Parker (Set in San Diego)

A hard hitting thriller of murder, vengeance, and secret passions.

bookbedHomicide cop Tom McMichael is on the rotation when an 84-year-old San Diego patriarch named Pete Braga is found bludgeoned to death. Not good news, especially since the Irish McMichaels and the Portuguese Bragas share a violent family history dating back three generations. Years ago Braga shot McMichael’s grandfather in a dispute over a paycheck; soon thereafter Braga’s son was severely beaten behind a waterfront bar (the Waterfront bar on Kettner!) — legend has it that it was an act of revenge by McMichael’s father.

McMichael must put aside the old family blood feud and find the truth about Pete Braga’s death. Braga’s beautiful nurse is a suspect. She claims — conveniently — to have stepped out for firewood at the time of the murder, but key evidence suggests otherwise. The investigation soon expands to include Braga’s business, his family, the catholic diocese, a multimillion-dollar Indian casino, a prostitute, a cop, and, of course, the McMichael family.

Cold Pursuit is steeped in the winter chill of the San Diego waterfront and the hatred and passion of family grievances.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

A spellbinding true story of two men, an architect and a serial killer, whose fates were linked by the greatest fair in American history: The Chicago world’s fair of 1893, nicknamed “The White City.”

booklook2The two men, each charming and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century.

The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of the works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds — a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and a 3000-degree crematorium.

Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he transformed swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book, the smoke, romance and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

booklampHenry Perowne is a contented man, a successful neurosurgeon, the devoted husband of Rosalind and the proud father of two grown-up children, one a promising poet, the other a talented blues musician. Unusually, he awakes before dawn, drawn to the window of his bedroom and filled with a growing unease. What troubles him as he looks out at the London night sky is the state of the world, the impending war against Iraq, a gathering pessimism since 9/11 and a fear that his city, its openness and diversity, and his happy family life are under threat.

Later, Perowne makes his way to his weekly squash game through London streets filled with hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters. A minor car accident brings him into a confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive young man, on the edge of violence. To Perowne’s professional eye, there appears to be something profoundly wrong with him.

Towards the end of the day rich in incident, a Saturday filled with thoughts of war and poetry, of music, mortality and love, Baxter appears at the Perowne home during a family reunion, with riveting and extraordinary consequences.

This work is dramatically compelling, showing how life can change in an instant, for better or for worse.

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