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Local Booksellers Suggest Best Gift Books

There are numerous reasons to support a local, independent bookstore, the plucky David going up against the online Goliaths (although they, too, have their place), but during the holiday season one of the best reasons to go into a bookstore, apart from the pleasure of perusing books, is that the people who own and work in them know and love books in a way that feels less tied to the commercial interests of the publishing industry. When they are enthusiastic about a book, it’s because they’ve read it and have a considered opinions about it, and can nudge you one way or another when you’re looking for a present to give someone. The independent bookseller can recommend the books that don’t always make it onto the New York Times best-seller list or into the pages of the Times, Post, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, Atlantic or New York Review of Books.

In case you haven’t noticed, and anybody has who is in the business of writing books or about them, the space devoted to book reviews in the print media is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. Thousands of books are published each year, but only a few get noticed.

The publications that are most sought after for reviews that can really push a book, like the New York Times, too often review the same writers from the same publishers over and over again, without venturing into new territory. There’s logic to this: You’re going to review the new mystery by George Pelecanos or novel by Zadie Smith. And they should be reviewed, but that doesn’t always leave room for the rest, unfortunately.

Here’s where an independent book seller can make a big difference. In calling local independent bookstores for a list of recommendations for holiday gifts, I was struck by the fact that while there were old favorites and big names who made their lists (Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to Wolf Hall is high on a lot of reading lists) many of the books selected weren’t always the obvious ones anointed by the literary establishment, but were still prized for their literary style, their stories, or the ingeniousness of their illustrations. (For the record, the Dartmouth Bookstore was unable to respond in time for deadline.)

Morgan Hill Bookstore,
New London

Peggy Holliday, a co-owner of Morgan Hill Bookstore, speaks highly of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, the new novel by Scottish-born writer Margot Livesey that is, she said, “a modern take on Jane Eyre. It’s so good. It takes place in Scotland and Iceland. It’s wonderful and is one of my favorite novels of the year.” Also recommended is the novel Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, about the making of a film in Italy during the early ‘60s, which features as, they used to say, a cast of thousands, or at least hundreds, including a dying starlet and Richard Burton.

Also on her list: novelist Richard Russo’s memoir Elsewhere, about growing up in upstate New York, Dear Life, the latest collection of stories from Alice Munro; Ian McEwan’s latest, Sweet Tooth; and in non-fiction, Thomas Ricks’ The Generals, a history of American military command from World War II to the present; and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham.

For children, Holliday picked books from two of New Hampshire’s best-known writers: Christmas at Eagle Pond by Donald Hall, with illustrations by Vermont’s Mary Azarian, and Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola.

Norwich Bookstore

Liza Bernard, co-owner, put together an eclectic short-list of books for adults and children. First up, The News from Spain, a collection of short stories by Joan Wickersham about the ecstasies and disappointments of love. Each story has in it somewhere the phrase “The News from Spain,” which sounds gimmicky but, said Bernard, is “not contrived at all.” She called them “beautifully crafted stories, each one ... a little gem.” The point, she said, is that love, like storytelling, is “ultimately a work of the imagination.”

In Susanna Moore’s latest novel, The Life of Objects, a young Irish woman goes to 1930s Berlin to work for a wealthy family but confronts life in Hitler’s Germany as the war nears. Bernard praises its evocation of the period and Moore’s style.

On the non-fiction front, Bernard gives high marks to The Appalachian Trail, a photographic appreciation of the trail published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that commemorates its 75th anniversary. It’s written by Brian King, has a foreword by Bill Bryson, and includes maps and stories. “It’s a gorgeous book,” Bernard said.

A Hundred Diagrams that Changed the World, by Scott Christianson, begins with the cave paintings from 30,000 C.E., ends with the iPod in 2001 and along the way zips its way through plans, sketches and drawings that have rewritten how we look at life. Kepler’s Law of Motion, the Double Helix, the Aztec calendar are all here. “It’s pretty powerful stuff,” Bernard said.

For children, Bernard picked out local author S.S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners, (which was written about recently in this paper), for its fun story and clever pairing of prose and pictures. She also named a book for younger kids about the different properties of ice: Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed, with drawings by Barbara McClintock. It’s a “little gem,” she said.

Finally Bernard recommended the latest book from Vermont writer Karen Hesse, Safekeeping, which takes place in Haiti and Vermont. “It’s a chilling novel about a possible, very near future when there’s a political breakdown,” Bernard said. A teenage girl, Radley, must make her way home from Haiti to Vermont during a period of unrest. What does she do? How does she cope? The book is illustrated with Hesse’s own photographs of the road between southern Vermont and Canada.

Shiretown Books, Woodstock

Employee Akankha Perkins has some old favorites and some unpredictable picks. Readers of children’s books will be familiar with the prolific Jan Brett, who’s written about a variety of cultures by looking at how they depict animals (and other creatures) in their folk tales. In Home for Christmas, Brett turns her attention to Scandinavia. Rollo the troll would rather play than do his chores and sets off through the snow and ice, befriending a moose along the way. Perkins particularly admires the way Brett gets another story into the secondary illustrations that wrap around the main illustrations.

Perkins also recommends an older classic children’s book from Pearl S. Buck, who is best known for her novels set in China. Christmas Day in the Morning, which was published in 1955, takes place not in China, but on an American farm. With little money to spend on presents, a boy wonders what he can give his father for Christmas. The solution is to give his father a rest on Christmas morning by taking over his father’s most onerous chore. No spoilers here! You’ll have to read it to find out what he does.

Perkins also likes the Irish country doctor series by Patrick Taylor, the latest of which, An Irish Country Wedding, was released this fall. Jan-Philipp Sendker’s novel The Art of Hearing Heartbeats follows the travels of a young Burmese-American woman from New York City who goes to Myanmar to see whether her father, a Burmese immigrant-turned-lawyer who’s disappeared, has returned there. Readers have fallen for the book’s love story.

Last up is Bernd Heinrich’s The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy, which was published last year and examines why birds mate and nest, and in so doing illuminates our own human behavior when it comes to picking a mate and starting a family. Heinrich lives in Vermont and Maine, and is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. His book Ravens in Winter is a classic of natural history.

Yankee Bookshop, Woodstock

Owner Susan Morgan has high praise for Let’s Pretend this Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, a blogger turned memoir writer. By email, Morgan wrote that Lawson’s book is a “laugh-aloud, you will not believe she actually did that, memoir.” One chapter is titled “A Series of Angry Post-It Notes to My Husband,” which gives you a good idea of what you’re in for.

Also on Morgan’ list is Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a novel about, she wrote, “a surprising and contemporary world of bibliophilia and technology, secret sects and global conspiracy. ... This one will grab you and not let you go until you finish the book wanting more.”

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson has an intriguing backstory. Wilson, an American convert to Islam, began writing music criticism in Boston when she was just 17. In 2003, she moved to Egypt and began writing about life there for American national publications; in 2010 she wrote a highly-praised book about her conversion to Islam, The Butterfly Mosque. This is her first novel.

Writes Morgan: “Set in an unnamed Arab emirate, computer hacker Alif provides systems security to protect against government censors. A cyber-thriller that combines enigmatic characters, fantasy, romance and spirituality in a thoughtful and page-turning read.”

Morgan also turns to an old favorite by David McCullough, Great Bridge, his history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge which has been reissued with new material.

For kids she recommends the young adult novel, See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles, which looks at the always trenchant issues of family, identity, death and grief.

Mark Frost’s Paladin Prophecy is, Morgan wrote, “a fast-paced novel about exceptional teenagers who just also happen to have superpowers.” The plot turns on a secret society, kidnapped parents, a high school for gifted children and loads of action and mystery.

Ruby Redfort Look Into My Eyes by Lauren Child is about a perspicacious, prodigious detective named Ruby Redfort who is the teenage equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, with a dash of Harriet the Spy thrown in for good measure. The first of a trilogy, the book revolves around 13-year-old Ruby Redfort and her mystery-solving prowess.

Morgan liked the fact that it is “packed with action, puzzles and code breaking.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.


This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Friday, Dec. 14 edition of the Valley News:

Akankha Perkins is an employee of Shiretown Books in Woodstock. An article in Friday's Valley News incorrectly stated her position.