Sunday, December 6, 2015

Books to give, or get, for holidays.

Giving a gift book is a risk if you don't know someone's reading taste. A gift card is always an answer to this quandary, but if you can find out ahead of time, through a friend, spouse or quick browse in their house, so much the better. Here are a few new books I'd consider a good gift:


These days, World War II-era books are practically a genre by themselves. That time frame is the setting for Sara Gruen's latest, "At the Water's Edge," a very readable novel about a young woman dragged across the Atlantic to Scotland, only to discover her marriage is a sham and no one can—or will—help her escape from the threats she faces. The flavor of Scotland and small village life is rich throughout the book, spiced with a bit of romance and fantasy—in the form of a search for the elusive Loch Ness Monster. Gruen is the author of "Water for Elephants."
For the young man in your life—especially if he's still in the rebel and revel stages, the 20s, 30s, 40s, dare I include 50s?—Chuck Palahniuk is a can't-go-wrong choice. His latest is "Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread." He means it. For original voices and blunt thinking, Palahniuk ("Fight Club," "Choked") has earned a mighty reputation.
One of the most popular club reads lately, Lauren Groff's "Fates and Furies" is the story of a quarter century of marriage, told from "his," then "her," point of view. You just know they aren't going to match. This one must be prompting raging reveals during club meetings. More than that, however, it's the story of how a marriage is kept intact through the good days, and those "other" times.
Gregory Maguire of Concord is author of the legendary "Wicked" series, as well as several other seminal, magical versions of storybook tales like Cinderella ("Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister") and Snow White ("Mirror, Mirror"). He has released another unique retelling. "After Alice," his take on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," was published the last week of October.


Maybe you have an eclectic friend, who is interested in many subject areas, listens faithfully to National Public Radio, is old enough to appreciate the good stuff in life and enjoys good writing. Here's a nice choice: Roger Angell's "This Old Man: All in Pieces." Angell is a baseball fiend and a fiercely good thinker and writer. His work, published frequently in The New Yorker (so you know it's first rate) consists here of a series of profiles, essays and interviews ranging across a broad subject area (Derek Jeter and Vladimir Nabokov? Really.) And guess, guess, guess his step-father? The famous E.B. White, himself a grammar and writing guru ("The Elements of Style").
"Gumption," by entertainer/humorous philosopher Nick Offerman ("Parks and Recreation"), is a collection of earthy, amusing essays about people he considers fighters or changemakers with gumption. I started out reading about Yoko Ono, who changed John Lennon's life (and the Beatles'), then stayed to read about Willie Nelson and Ben Franklin.

Willie Nelson, whose recent Library of Congress award ceremony included a musical reminder about what this country represents to immigrants, has released "It's a Long Story." Strictly for fans of the man—a hero to many for his courageous stance in favor of marijuana when it wasn't popular to do so—this book is direct. I enjoyed Willie's plain-spoken style and revelations.
I haven't read it yet, but "Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill" has me intrigued. Surely, someone who strategized with her husband amid the insane pressures of World War II has to have experienced a lot. Churchill played a role in both World Wars I and II and the book captures these situations, as witnessed in the family. I look forward to reading Sonia Purnell's biography. Purnell is said to be honest as well about Mrs. Churchill's maternal inadequacies.
We all hear about Mark Twain's youthful and mid-age writings, his Tom Sawyers, his witty essays. For the writer or Twain buff, I suggest two Twain-related books, both by the author: "How to Tell a Story and Other Essays," about writing, and Volume 3 of his "Autobiography of Mark Twain." This volume, the final in a series released in 2010 and onward,  deals with crises in his later years, but also includes much about the writing life—"a procession of episodes and experiences which seem large when they happen, but which diminish to trivialities as soon as we get perspective upon them." Not so his own legend.

It's impossible to isolate a mystery, as there are many good ones and as many tastes in styles. I will mention Kate Morton's "The Lake House," because she is such a master of complex, layered mystery. It's well written.
Boston news celebrity Hank Phillippi Ryan has become an award-winning mystery writer. Her latest is "What You See," the story of a child abducted by her father.
Know any music lovers who read mysteries? Tess Garritsen just released "Playing with Fire," uniquely combining her musical ability (she's a violinist) with a knack for raising goose bumps on readers' arms. This story, from the creator of Rizzoli & Isles novels, follows a young Boston violinist whose family refuses to believe that her daughter becomes violent each time she plays the passionate, mysterious "Incendio Waltz," from sheet music purchased in Europe. A sub-plot revolves around a musical prodigy who falls in love during World War II—when Christian-Jewish marriage was not permitted and became grounds for incarceration. There's a review at

Science fiction
Not sure if this is sci-fi or reality, but Paolo Bacigalupi has an idea what life will be like in the Southwestern states if drought dries up all the water for good. This novel explores desperation and real possibilities.
Sci fi writers tend to produce series upon series, and I don't like to recommend that someone start in the middle. So instead, try Emma Newman's "Planetfall," a combination of science fiction mystery and an introspective look at mental illness, and "The Martian," by Andy Weir—the book behind the movie starring Matt Damon.

Marilynn Robinson is famous for insightful portraits of human spirit in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead" and in "Lila," both familiar to book clubbers. Now, she has released "The Givenness of Things," in which she defines what is still inspirational and humane in our society amid its technological and big business obsessions. It's a stirring critique, drawing attention to what we remain as humans.

I like Brandon Stanton's series of photographed tales about New Yorkers he meets on the streets, randomly profiled on his blog of the same name. Now, they're captured in a book, "Humans of New York: Stories." It's very readable and occasionally moving. Gives one a good perspective on what it's like to be human, period.
"The New Tsar" by Steven Lee Myers. Readers don't mind a downer now and then, and those with political interest will find this biography of one of the most frightening Russians since Rasputin: Vladimir Putin. The former KGB agent has built a complex system of autocracy around him as Russia's president. He'll probably be around for a long time, might as well bone up on him.

Classics—Book club suggestions:
Sterling Library's book club members sent in a few suggestions for timeless good reading, all of them good choices.
"We found that "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Great Gatsby" were tops in our group, followed by "Jamaica Inn" by Daphne Du Maurier. "Jamaica Inn" was perhaps the most surprising classic we read," said Lisa Perry. "None of us expected it to be as good as, and perhaps even better than, Du Maurier's best known work: "Rebecca." 
What are your group's suggestions for great classics—the old stuff—you've read? Send them to
Meetings in the area:
Leominster's Reading, Sharing and Laughing will meet Dec. 3, 7 p.m., at Chiabo in Fitchburg to discuss "Go Set a Watchman," Harper Lee's much-discussed early novel.
The Friday Morning Book Club in Northborough plans a discussion of Camus' "The Stranger" at its 10 a.m., Dec. 11 meeting.
Heywood Library's group, in Gardner, will meet at 4:30 p.m., Dec. 23, to view a video of "The Orphan Train," which they read about in Christina Baker Kline's book of the same name during November.
The Women's Issues Book Club will meet Dec. 14 for its annual celebration of Worcester-area women poets. The public is welcome to listen, or read, at an informal 7 p.m. gathering, being held this month at Frances Perkins Branch of Worcester Public Library, 470 West Boylston St. (Greendale). The Jan. 11 selection is "Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey.
Off-Track Bookies from Lancaster is reading Jodi Picoult's "The Storyteller" for its Jan. 14 meeting, and has slated a potluck/gift exchange for its 6:30 p.m., Dec. 10 meeting, during which upcoming selections will be made.
At Haston Library, North Brookfield, readers will consider Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" on Dec. 8.
Speaking Volumes, an audio book group ( will discuss Louise Erdrich's "The Roundhouse" during its 8 p.m., Dec. 1 meeting.
Mendon Library Book Club plans to discuss "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," by Rachel Joyce. Meeting is at 7 p.m., Dec. 1. January's selection is Kristin Hannah's "Comfort and Joy."
In the classics vein, members of Pearl L. Crawford Memorial Library Book Club will discuss Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" at their 6 p.m. Dec. 3 meeting. Up for Jan. 7 is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. The Group meets in Dudley.
Ann Connery Frantz is a fiction writer and co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster. A career-long journalist, she is also a freelance writer and editor. Send comments or questions to This column was originally published in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette.