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Tom's picks

Tom's Picks

I used to read a lot of books before I opened a bookstore.  Then in 2008 we had our first baby.  Good news is, I'm reading a lot more; bad news is the books I'm reading now are targeted for toddlers.  When I do have time to read, I'm fond of literary novels and short stories, balanced by noir mysteries.  I don't read a whole lot of non-fiction-- that's what NPR is for.  If you enjoyed some of the better-known books I've listed, I hope you will take a chance on some of the more obscure ones-- they deserve a chance.

Tom's GoodReads

L.A. Confidential

by James Ellroy

You should read this book, this summer.  It's a modern classic if I may say so.  How do you pack nuance and pathos into rat-a-tat dialogue that reads like a police blotter?  I don't know, but Ellroy does it in this book.  It's enough like the movie that you know you'll like it (if you liked the movie, and how could you not?), but it's also substantially different, which makes it rewarding reading even if you've seen the film.

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The Architect of Flowers

by William Lychack

Great short stories, ranging from the very dark to the very hopeful.  These pieces are very spare, and rely on tone and rhythm to illuminate meaning, rather than the other way around.  What I mean to say is, there's a lot left out, and that works out beautifully.  If the short and powerful first story, Stolpestad, doesn't grab you than, well, you'd better leave off there.

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Gregor the Overlander

by Suzanne Collins

Before The Hunger Games ruled the world Collins wrote this great little series about a boy from New York he finds himself in a strange Underworld poplulated with giant bats, spiders, and cockroaches.  His search for his father turns into a mythic quest in which Gregor needs to rely on his wits, his bravery, and his sense of decency to survive.  Great for 8 and up!

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A Visit from the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan

I just read this for the second time and loved it even more.  These loosely connected stories function as a kind of concept album, or perhaps a mix tape.  Each chapter is different in tone and style, taking a fragment or detail from the chapter before it and heading off in another direction.  This book is intense and insightful, yet has a certain lightness of touch that I really appreciated.

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The Snowman

by Jo Nesbo

Everyone told me to read Redbreast, and I did, and it was great.  So here is the new Harry Hole novel (yes, that's the detective's name) and this one is also great.  Scarier than Redbreast, if a little less nuanced.  Still, the narrative has a tricky little complexity that adds interest without distracting from the storytelling.  A great recommendation for all you cold climate mystery lovers.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson

by John Green and David Levithan

I will be devastated if you don't like this book!  Written for older teens (I would say at least 15 and up) this book has wit and charm to burn.  And, oddly, it has a lot of heart.  At times it seems downright sentimental, but still edgy-- is that even possible?

This is a book about two high school kids who are both named Will Grayson.  Both live in suburban Chicago but they go to different schools.  The chapters of the book alternate between Will Grayson (who's reluctantly falling in love with Jane while his best friend Tiny Cooper is staging a gay stage musical about his own life called Tiny Dancer which also features a character called Gil Wrayson, much to Will's embarrasment ) and will grayson, a depressed loner grappling with his own sexuality.

One of the reasons I love this book is that it has several gay characters without really being a book about gay issues.  It's a book about being comfortable with yourself, and risking embarrassment and failure (which, in High School, is everything) in pursuit of what you desire.

And oh man I though it was funny, and I'm forty years old. 

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The Passage

by Justin Cronin

There's an incredible amount of hype about this book, and I have to agree it's pretty great.  It's an adventure novel at heart, but a particularly well written one with great character development and much better prose than one usually finds in fantasy adventures.

When a military experiment goes horribly wrong, men treated with a virus designed to make them super srong become bloodthirsty predators, spreading the virus quickly across the planet.

Decades later, a small group of human survivors, who have been living in an isolated community, set out into the unknown to look for other survivors and to find the source of, and perhaps the cure for, the original virus. 

This is a book that is genuinely scary and exciting, but it still takes the time to develop characters and add nuance.  I was especially impressed by Cronin's depiction of two FBI agents who could easily have been flattened in to a two dimensional "Men In Black" stereotype.  Instead they were sympathetic and engaging.  Cronin does this consistently with minor characters, and it is this kind of attention to detail that makes you care about the story all the way past page 700.

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Hound

by Vincent McCaffrey

Here's a book that could be a case study for the importance of independent bookstores.  McCaffrey himself has been a bookseller for more than thirty years, and Small Beer Press is the kind of publisher that you probably won't find in the airport bookstores.

The book centers around Henry Sullivan, an antiquarian book dealer who seems to be stuck in another era.  In fact, nostalgia floats over Henry's life like a fog.  When a long time friend and client is murdered, Henry shakes off his apathy and sets out to get to the bottom of the crime.

Quieter and more contemplative than your average mystery, Hound is also a lovely tribute to the beauty and solace of reading.

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The Anthologist

by Nicholson Baker

OH oh oh what a great book--that is, if you are into the quirky, thoughtful, non-plot-driven world of Nicholson Baker.  In this new one his hero, Paul Chowder, spends countless hours sitting in his white plastic chair actively not writing the introduction to an anthology of rhyming verse.  I loved Baker's unique insight into poetry, mice, sorrow, procrastination, and the unique pinks and greens of unripe blueberries.

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Jar City

by Arnaldur Indridson

Iceland is the setting for this detective series (Jar City is the first) featuring Erlendur.  If you like your mysteries cold and dark (Mankell, Rankin, etc) than this if for you.  A murder scene investigation turns up clues to an unsolved death from decades ago, and the grumpy detective becomes convinced that the cases are connected.  Meanwhile, he tries to form a relationship with his estranged, angry daughter and get along with his younger, hipper colleagues.

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Bangkok 8

by John Burdett

For me, this was like a science fiction novel, because the terrain (both physical and psychological) is so unfamiliar to a Yankee like me.  Buddhist detectives, transvestites, poisonous snakes, corrupt officials, oh my!  The back of the book makes it sound like a kung-fu action movie, but it is much more cerebral, subtle, and funny than I thought it would be.

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The Feast of Love

by Charles Baxter

The title refers to the name of a perfect painting by a man who knows he will never make another as good.  Baxter cycles through half a dozen different first person narratives to tell the story of love and life in the university town of Ann Arbor.  The writing is very fine, and the characters are engaging, disparate, and well-drawn. A quiet, beautiful book.

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Jennifer Government

by Max Barry

In the not-to-distant corporate future your last name is the name of the company you work for.  John Nike is an evil executive who thinks he’s bigger than the law, (how Max Barry published this without being sued I have no idea).  Jennifer Government, once a high powered marketing executive herself (she was Jennifer Mattel), is intent on bringing John Nike down.
This books is very fast, very funny, and very smart.  A great summer read.

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White Noise

by Don DeLillo

Gladney teaches Hitler Studies but doesn’t speak German.  He’s leery of rampant American Consumerism and worried about losing his fourth wife, and alienating his alienated children. Now, as if he isn’t lost enough, there is an “Airborne Toxic Event” headed for his quite college town, and everyone must evacuate.

Never mind all that.  Read this book for some of the best dialogue sequences ever written, and you will not be sorry.

And remember, just because you are paranoid...

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Among the Missing

by Dan Chaon

I haven’t read this in ages, but now Chaon has a new novel coming out, I’m meaning to read it again.

These stories feel effortless, and real, even when the events are improbable.

If you like Tobias Wolff, or Charles Baxter, you will most definitely like Dan Chaon.

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The Air We Breathe

by Andrea Barrett

I can’t get enough of Andrea Barrett.  I’m not generally a big fan of historical fiction, but she always gets it so, so right that I get sucked in. Set during the start of World War I, the story highlights the ways in which America at that time was still had an extremely rigid class structure (one that held almost no status for immigrants), and this was made very clear by the Tuberculosis epidemic. 

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Regeneration

by Pat Barker

If you’re against the war, you’re obviously insane, even if you’re a hero. If you are a doctor, your job is to get soldiers ready to go back to the front, even if it means their certain death.

Did I mention this is  World War I.  It’s a shame things don’t change.

This is the war novel for people who don’t like war novels.  The war novel with no battle scenes.  The writing is gorgeous.

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Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett

Andrea Barrett makes historical fiction look so easy.  Each story in this book completely inhabits its time period, yet they all find ingenious ways to connect with each other.

If you like stories of exploration, science, and longing, all rolled together, you can’t do better than this.

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The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

We love books about books!  This novel is set just after the Spanish Civil War and has a looming, gothic feel to it.  I call it Umberto Eco Lite because it seems European high brow but is actually a steamy thriller.
Julian Carax is the author of a book called The Shadow of the Wind, and someone is trying to destroy all the existing copies, one of which belongs to young Daniel, who is determined not to give it up.
This is a big hit with our customers— and a great summer read. 

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The Rules of Deception

by Christopher Reich

Reich begins a new series with a classic “wrong man” story-line worthy of Hitchcock. When Dr. Jonathan Ransom, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, loses his wife in a skiing accident he is devastated.  However, he has little time to grieve because suddenly everyone is trying to kill him. There was something his wife was keeping from him, and now everyone thinks he has it. The clock is ticking as Ransom goes on the run to find out the truth.

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Flicker

by Theodore Roszak

One of the best books you’ve never heard of, custom made for movie (and conspiracy) buffs.

What if all of movie history were a tool for something else,
something sinister that we never even knew existed?

What happens in the flicker between the frames?

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The Manual of Detection

by Jedediah Berry

NEVER SLEEPING!!

The Agency keeps its watchful eye on the city’s evil doers: Enoch Hoffman has been in hiding for several years.
But when The Agency’s best P.I. goes missing, his
reluctant clerk Charles Unwin is thrust  reluctantly into his shoes to stop the newly active Hoffman.
Knowing that the only way to get his old job back is to find his missing boss, Unwin sets off to untangle a very tangled mystery with no one to trust and only his
umbrella and a copy of The Manual of Detection.

This is a dreamy, fun mystery that is sure to please those who like their Hammett with a side of Kafka.

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The Children's Hospital

by Chris Adrian

Chris Adrian is a doctor who is studying at divinity school and is also a fiction writer.  Overachiever, sure, but also the perfect person to write a novel about a Second Great Flood and the hospital that survives it.
Left to bob on an endless expanse of water, the staff of the children’s hospital do their best to go on caring for their patients as life gets stranger and stranger.  It’s a big, strange book, but it kept me enthralled all the way to the last page.

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This Means This, This Means That

by Sean Hall

What do we really see when we look at signs, symbols, or advertisements?  How does our brain interpret these signals and draw meaning from them.  This great book takes a playful look at these questions.  Each page presents an idea or a conundrum, and then expains the concept in more detail on the next page.  A great party book for total geeks.

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Last Orders

by Graham Swift

Despite winning the Booker Prize, this is a lesser known book that will appeal to fans of Ian McEwan's Atonement.  It's a British retelling of As I Lay Dying, featuring alternating first person narrators.  As Jack's friends and family take his ashes from London to be thrown into the sea, each recalls their somewhat tortured relation to the dead man.  The emotional insight that Swift packs into this book is absolutely amazing, and he is completely convincing in his portrayal of each of the characters.  One of my all-time favorites.

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My First Movie

by Stephen Lowenstein

This is a gem of a book for fans of modern independent film.  First person accounts of how directors made their first films.  Highlights include Kevin Smith enrolling at NYU for one day to get a student discount on film stock, the Coen brothers making Blood Simple (Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld was their cinematogapher) Ang Lee, James Manglold, and Steve Buscemi.

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The Americans

by Robert Frank

This book was actually out of print for awhile.  Ridiculous!!  It stands as one of the most important photography books ever published.  It's hard today to understand its impact, but when Frank traveled America taking pictures of empty bars, run-down store fronts, sad elevator operators, and lack-luster parades it was a side of our country that the post war pro-America economic boom had tried to hide.  Even today, the photos carry an emotional depth and a sense of melancholy that is undeniable. 

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Birds of America

by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore is a writer I come back to again and again.  She just wrote a great tribute to John Updike on his passing, and if you like Updike, but wish he had added a little stand-up comedy to his work, you will love Lorrie Moore.  I think it is the gallows humor that I find so appealling.  Her stories can be appallingly sad, yet her characters do their best to entertain: they dance, the play charades, they make really bad puns.  The pain and humor exist together, sometimes in the same paragraph, and her characters are very real.  Oh, read this and everything else she's written too.  If only she would write faster, for we need more.  More, more, more.

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Still Alice

by Lisa Genova

If a book about a Harvard psychology professor with early onset Alzheimer's sounds unbelievably depressing, you're right.  It is.  However, the first person narrative really sets this novel apart, as we see Alice's deterioration from her point of view, and her families struggle to deal with it.  The book is not mushy or overly weepy, which gives it a great strength.  Genova is a neuroscientist, so it was easy to feel like her observations of the disease were accurate.

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Spade & Archer

by Joe Gores

This is what happened in the years before onThe Maltese Falcon, and the great thing about this book is that you'd swear it was actually written before Hammett's famous book was.  This tale of Sam Spade lacks the post-modern knowingness of some modern day re-writes of famous fictional characters.  Gores plays it straight and lets us sink in to a long, complicated noir story that satisfies on its own merits, as well as providing a fitting tribute to the legacy of The Maltese Falcon.

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The Three Button Trick

by Nicola Barker

Don't get too comfortable!  That could be the underlying message of these tight, diverse stories from the Booker nominated British author Nicola Barker.  She's virtually unknown here in the U.S., which is too bad.  The stories are wickedly funny, and swerve from science fiction to drawing-room drama to teen angst.  The title story, perhaps the best in the book, centers around a man who purposely mis-buttons his sweater in order to appear vulnerable and cute to women.  And it works...

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

by Stieg Larsson

More Swedish mysteries...

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made Larsson a household name in Sweden, and now the english language version is doing very well.  Sadly, Larsson died recently, so his career here is probably stalled.  The book features a newspaper reporter who has lost his credibility by printing an inflammatory story that later turns out to be untrue.  Dejected, he takes up an offer to write the history of a wealthy Swedish industrial family.  Slowly, (because hey, it's Sweden) the two story lines come together with the unexpected help of a young computer hacker (tattooed).  While slow moving, the characters are well drawn and I found myself thinking about the book whenever I was away from it, which is the sign of a good read.  And, I didn't figure out whodunit until the last minute.

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Roseanna

by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Lovely new edition by Black Lizard.  This Swedish writing duo wrote ten mysteries featuring detective Martin Beck in the sixties and seventies.  Henning Mankell, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Donn Leon and countless others owe a debt of gratitude to these writers.  These books are about character, and about the social and personal ramifications of crime.  In Roseanna, the first of the series, Beck becomes obsessed with a seemingly unsolvable crime-- a naked, unidentifiable woman dredged up from the bottom of a lake.

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Companies We Keep

by John Abrams

Sure it's a business book and generally I don't like business books; and sure, RiverRun is not employee owned (the phrase "cold dead hands" comes to mind, but Abrams has an important message about the meaning of work.  His design/build firm on Martha's Vineyard has consistently gone against conventional wisdom and won every time.  If you are a small business owner or just an optimist, you will find a lot to think about in this book.

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The Big Sleep

by Raymond Chandler

While not actually inventing the genre, The Big Sleep was a Noir breakthrough, and people have been copying it for the last 65 years, from Chinatown to LA Confidential to Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the character of Philip Marlowe has been lampooned, homaged, and carbon-copied near unto death.  And yet, the original somehow still stands, remarkably compelling, which is why many today count Chandler as one of the great fiction writers of the 20th century. He shows us an inhospitable world, and an inhospitable man in that world, who somehow becomes a figure of virtue and even heroism.

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The End of Vandalism

by Tom Drury

Dan, Louise, and Tiny are an unlikely love triangle.  Dan is the beleaguered, quiet town sheriff who may or may not be re-elected.  Louise is an aspiring photographer who feels unmoored and adrift.  And Tiny, well, Tiny is the town vandal and oh yeah, Louise’s ex-husband.  Described as a cross between Raymond Carver and Garrison Keillor, Drury is deadpan funny, lone-prairie sad, and smarty-pants astute.

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The Long Emergency

by James Howard Kunstler

We are all doomed!  That’s the gist here from the author of The Geography of Nowhere, which told us that the growing Suburbia was going to stultify American life and culture.  What did he know, huh? You thought it was just the end of fossil fuels that was going to get us, but don’t forget climate change and the fact that we’re overdue for a serious plague (bird flu anyone?). This would seem like fear-mongering if it weren’t so well thought out and reasoned.

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The Ministry of Special Cases

by Nathan Englander

Combining a story of crushing heartbreak with a light, vivacious style, Englander treads a fine line and does it well.  No matter how much you want them to, these characters will not fall into the roles you want them to play, and watching from the sidelines becomes nerve wracking as disaster looms and forgiveness and resolution slip further and further away.

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Prince of Thieves

by Chuck Hogan

So I’m here to tell you that Prince of Thieves is a great, great read.  It is a gritty Boston crime drama, it is a deep and searching character study about friends, love, hope, and despair.  Oh, and it has a couple of rocking good heists, an obsessed FBI agent, mobsters, hockey players, children, mothers, and a cheesy CD called AM Gold.

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Big-Box Swindle

by Stacy Mitchell

Knowledge is power, but it can also be scary.  If you don’t want to know where your money goes when you spend it at a chain store like Walmart, steer clear.  However, if you want to shake up your intended recipient and make them think twice about where they spend their cash, this is the clearest, best researched book on the topic.  Think Fast Food Nation for the Mall of America world.

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Sacred Games

by Vikram Chandra

Give the gift that lasts all year long with this 900-page epic.  It is disguised as a crime novel, but sprawls in all directions as it paints a multilayered portrait of India.  Cops, gangsters, families, religions, capitalism and class-consciousness all collide in this incredibly impressive novel.

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Specimen Days

by Michael Cunningham

The author of The Hours presents this novel; 
actually it’s three novellas that layer, one atop the other, and span 150 years.  Issues of faith and fanaticism, beauty and desire, and politics and poetry interweave as the stories play out in three different versions of New York City.  Cunningham writes wonderfully, and uses the poetry of Walt Whitman as an underlying framework for the three tales.  A great book group book.

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The Story of Film

by Mark Cousins

This book, which makes an outstanding gift, includes a global look at film, giving Hollywood an important, but not central position.  Well written and fun at the same time, this book is more suited for the real film buff (especially foreign films) than the novice.
   Try to ignore Johnny Depp.  They’re trying hard to sell the book.

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To the Wedding

by John Berger

This deeply powerful novel is a very contemporary story told in a rich, painterly style reminiscent of Kundera or Calvino. Family and friends cover long distances to attend the wedding of Gino and Ninon, a young
couple whose great love for each other, though doomed, transcends fate and illuminates the lives of all who know them. This book is just ridiculously well-written.

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

If you liked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay then you won’t be disappointed. The book is easy to sink into and by page 50 you feel you’ve known Meyer and Berko forever. It’s his ability to write fully alive characters, but set them in a world of pure imagination that sets Chabon apart, and in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union he tosses Tlingit, Yiddish, Hebrew, Smart-Alecky Detective and the Verbal SAT in a blender without ever losing the thread of the fast moving plot.

A book about such an alien culture shouldn’t be so clearly visual to me, but as I followed Meyer Landsman through a few very hard days I felt I was right there with him.

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