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Santa’s Book List

We recently met with Santa Claus at the North Pole to work on a list of possible presents for book lovers.   Here’s what we came up with.Santa Claus

For the Fiction Reader

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing), and Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria).

Two of the best novels of the year, both dealing with loss.   A man’s life is irrevocably changed when his young son dies, and a wife and mother is lost when her husband drives the babysitter home and never returns.

Sacrifice Fly: A Mystery by Tim O’Mara (Minotaur Books)

This may be the best debut crime novel by anyone since Think of a Number by John Verdon.   A disabled NYPD cop turned public school teacher decides to solve a crime that involves one of his former students.

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A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks (Henry Holt)

A story is told through the lives of five different human beings who live in different times, including the past and the future (2029).   Those who loved the innovative novel American Music by Jane Mendelsohn may be drawn to this one.

Blackberry Winter: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume)

A perfect cold case story for cold weather reading.   As a late-Spring snowstorm hits Seattle, a reporter tries to get to the bottom of an 80 year-old kidnapping.

Forgotten: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow)

A young female Canadian lawyer, presumed to have died while visiting a village in Africa destroyed by an earthquake, returns home to find that everyone’s moved on without her.   From the author of Spin and Arranged.

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell)

Four women with legal and personal issues are required to attend weekly group counseling sessions with a rather unconventional counselor.   Serious issues covered with a “wry sense of humor” (The Sacramento Bee).

For the Music Lover

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman (Thomas Dunne Books)

The story of the musicians who anonymously played on most of the biggest-selling rock songs recorded between 1962 and 1975.   This book provides “Good Vibrations” for the music fanatic.

Bruce by Peter James Carlin (Touchstone)

The author of Paul McCartney: A Life shows us the very human side of The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock (Da Capo)

Fans of the late singer-songwriter will be enthralled by this overview of his all-too-short life.

Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury & Queen by Mark Blake (Da Capo), and Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones (Touchstone)

These well-written biographies of the late Queen front man will make readers revisit their Queen music collections, or purchase new ones.Mercury 2

For Those with Special Diets

You Won’t Believe It’s Salt-Free!: 125 Healthy, Low-Sodium and No-Sodium Recipes Using Flavorful Spice Blends by Robyn Webb (Da Capo Lifelong Books), and Gluten-Free On a Shoestring Quick & Easy by Nicole Hunn (Da Capo Lifelong Books)

It’s not easy to cut down on either sodium or gluten in our diets, but these two authors illustrate how you can do so and still enjoy eating.

For the Sports Fan

Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy by Adam Lazarus (Da Capo)

If you think the San Francisco 49ers have a quarterback controversy now, Lazarus reminds us of what happened on the team between 1987 and 1994.

The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open by Neil Sagebiel (Thomas Dunne Books)

The amazing story of when an unknown golfer by the name of Jack Fleck beat his idol, the great Ben Hogan, at the U.S. Open major tournament.   Truth is stranger than fiction, and in ’55 the Open was played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco (just like this year’s U.S. Open).

For the Animal Lover

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan (William Morrow)

An overweight man’s health is saved, and his life is rescued by a small mountain-climbing miniature schnauzer named Atticus M. Finch.   A fine, touching memoir.

Following Atticus (audio)

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Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers and/or publicists.   A Possible Life will be released on Tuesday, December 11, 2012.

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You’ve Got Your Troubles

The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg (Crown; $23.99; 325 pages)

“It was as if Gloria was sabotaging herself, Sam thought.   Well, they were both sabotaging themselves, just going about it from opposite directions.”

Debra Ginsberg has populated her latest novel with a score of self-sabotaging and dysfunctional characters.   This is the story of Diana, a young pregnant woman who is thrown out of her mother’s home and forced to live with the father she’s never known.   Dad Joe lives in the suburbs of San Diego near the ocean with his second wife, Allison.   Joe made Allison abort her only pregnancy years earlier, and Allison knows nothing about the existence of Diana.   Therefore, when she appears on Joe’s driveway the marriage is suddenly in serious trouble.

But it turns out that everyone in the neighborhood is in trouble as the fires of late October and early November 2007 approach.   Fourteen people died and at least 70 were injured when a half-million acres burned.   One million San Diego County residents were evacuated, the largest evacuation in California history.   This is the not-so-pleasant back-drop for Ginsberg’s troubled tale.

It appears that all of the neighbors in Joe’s suburban community have their serious quirks and troubles.   There’s a sometimes-happy and sometimes-bickering lesbian couple, Sam and Gloria, and a heterosexual married couple, the Werners, whose son Kevin is a lazy weed smoker with no intellectual or athletic skills.   This is a ‘hood that is seemingly over-populated with drug users and abusers.   One has to wonder how accurate a reflection this is of America’s Finest City and its residents.

The one exception to the group of losers is an Asian couple, whose quiet son shoots hoops and practices the piano for hours on end.   This is a stereotype of sorts, although it’s one that was likely not meant to be offensive.   However, Ginsberg includes a highly troubling reference to Diana, who happens to be half African-American.   Early on, Kevin’s mother refers to Diana as “an uppity pregnant girl who had no business even being in the neighborhood in the first place.”   This is offensive on two counts – first, in using a term that is knowingly offensive to African-Americans, and also in the implication that there’s a “place” within which people of a certain color are not welcome.

Perhaps Ginsberg intended this non-P.C. reference to serve as a reminder of the destructiveness of racism, but she could and should have adopted a more subtle and temperate way of expressing that notion.   Another flaw with the telling is that Ginsberg chooses the rather unfortunate name of Joe Montana for Diana’s father, which makes it seem like some kind of inside joke.   “Joe Montana, like the football player?”   Yes.

One of the key problems with Neighbors is that the story is made needlessly complex.   When Diana surfaces with disastrous consequences for her father’s and stepmother’s marriage, the storyline seems logical.   But then Ginsberg takes it further – Joe suddenly has an affair with a young neighbor and Diana hooks up with Kevin, the worst possible choice for her.   More is not always better.

There’s this dividing line…  A dividing line between the fictional account which feels to a reader like real life, and the feeling that it’s a good effort but there’s a sense of magic that’s lacking.   Ginsberg produced a fine attempt in this novel but it struck this reader as a manuscript rather than as a fully developed work.   It needed some editing, trimming and rethinking.   All in all, the author seemed to be sabotaging herself like the characters in her dysfunctional fictional neighborhood.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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