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Host: Scott LaMar

Radio Smart Talk: Books for holiday gifts

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Dec 6, 2012 8:38 AM

Radio Smart Talk for Thursday, December 6:

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The American Booksellers Association reports brisk sales of books this holiday season.  And why not?  Books have always been a thoughtful and treasured gift.  Almost everyone enjoys and can appreciate a book -- whether it be paper or an ebook -- as a gift.

On Thursday's Radio Smart Talk, we'll discuss the books that would make great gifts.  They may or may not be new or on the bestseller list, but our panel will recommend and describe several titles to think about.

Joining us will be Catherine Lawrence, co-owner of the Mid Town Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg and a writer herself, Todd Dickinson, co-owner of Aaron's Books in Lititz, and Jon Walker, who blogs book reviews at

We'd like to hear your suggestions as well.  What books do you think your friends or loved-ones would enjoy or what books are on your wish list this year?

Listen to the program:

Book recommendations from Catherine Lawrence:

HISTORY recommendations
1. Favorite history book of 2012: Scott Weidensaul's THE FIRST FRONTIER (Hougton Mifflin Harcourt) Combines appreciation of the natural environment with great story-telling abilities, and situating the history of the early Pennsylvania frontier within the larger framework of Eastern colonial "contact" between native Americans and European settlers.

2. African-American history: A SLAVE IN THE WHITE HOUSE: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor (Palgrave Macmillan)

3. Civil rights: Harvard Law Professor (originally from the Harrisburg area) Kenneth Mack's “Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer,” a collective biography of a group of black lawyers who worked in the era of segregation. (Harvard University Press)

For Jane Austen or Downton Abbey fans:
4. Classic country-house mysteries and romance novels by Georgette Heyer - the full series of 50+ books recently reissued as individual paperbacks (Sourcebooks)
5. A fun collection called Mischief and Mistletoe - holiday-themed historical romance short stories from bestselling authors including Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly, and 2012 RITA-award-winner Joanna Bourne & other writers known as the Word Wenches (Kensington Press).

6. Anna Lee Huber, The Anatomist's Wife (Berkely Prime Crime). Debut novel getting lots of attention. A mystery set in early 19th century Scotland, with meticulously researched historical details and a bit of romance.

7. Just out in paperback - the first novel by Stella Tillyard, better known as the historian who wrote Aristocrats, which was a Masterpiece Theater production several years ago. Her new novel is called "Tides of War" set in the Napoleonic Era, with a great cast of supporting characters drawn from real-life figures like the Duke of Wellington, the financier Nathan Rothschild and the painters Goya and Girodet, interwoven with the fictional story of a scientist's experimentally-minded daughter and the British soldier she marries.

YOUNG ADULT recommendation
8. (middle-school/tweens) Newbery Award winning book for middle-grades by a PA native, of a boy growing up in a small PA town: Jack Gantos's “Dead End in Norvelt” takes place in the small Pennsylvania town where the author grew up. He mixes some real incidents from his childhood in this town named for former first lady EleaNOR RooseVELT and adds in some fantastical adventures to create a funny, sweet novel for kids age 9 or 10 and older.

9. Poet Marjorie Maddox's A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry. A dramatically illustrated collection of poetry to read to children, written by an acclaimed regional poet - who is also co-editor of the COMMONWEALTH poetry book that was the WITF Pick of the Month in October. In this charming picture book, she offers thought-provoking poems about things you might expect like "a school of fish" and "an army of ants" and also more unusual animal groups like "a rumba of rattlesnakes" and "a crash of rhinos," in lovely wordplay.

10. Kerry and Matt Royer's Nightbear and Lambie picture book series. Mount Gretna author-illustrator couple, with national recognition for this sweet pair of books about a boy and his stuffed animals. The latest release in the series is about A Christmas Ride in Santa's sleigh.
* BONUS: You can meet the Royers at a special storytime and booksigning at the Midtown Scholar on THIS SATURDAY December 8th, at 11 am, in Harrisburg!

Book recommendations from Todd Dickinson:

The Absolutist
John Boyne
Young British soldier at the end of World War I, dealing with loss and betrayal. It's from the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He is coming from Ireland in the spring and Aaron's Books arranged Lancaster as one of five stops on his U.S. tour.

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
This novel is an homage to Harry Potter and Narnia for adults, starring a group of slackers at a college for young wizards. Brilliant, witty, unforgettable. The sequel, The Magician King, is even better.

Hearse & Buggy
Laura Bradford
A "cozy" mystery set in the fictional town of Heavenly, PA (very much like Paradise) in Lancaster County. Includes descriptions of Amish life that feel authentic, not idealized. The second in the series comes out in March.

A Blaze of Glory
Jeff Shaara
Bestselling historical novelist Jeff Shaara returns with the first in a new Civil War trilogy. This book focuses on the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

A Study in Sherlock
Laurie R. King (editor)
A truly entertaining collection of short stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes. The list of contributing authors includes Neil Gaiman, Lee Child, Michael Connolly, Jacqueline Winspear.

End Of Your Life Book Club
Will Schwalbe
Moving true story of Schwalbe and his mother after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. They decide to form a two-person book club for the months she has left to live.

Soldier Dogs
Maria Goodavage
The author presents moving stories of modern soldier dogs, from the trenches of WW I through the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, and the amazing bonds that develop between the dogs and handlers.

Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures
Paul Lukacs
This is the 8,000 year story of how wine, as enjoyed by millions of people today, came to be. Mr. Lukacs was featured on Fresh Air on Tuesday, and was the speaker at an Aaron's Books wine event that night.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Tom Reiss
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is one of my favorites from the "classics" shelf. It’s a fast-paced revenge thriller, with a prison break, secret identities, and a fortune hidden on a deserted island. Reiss’ new book uncovers the equally exciting true story that inspired Dumas.

How To Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting To Kill You
The title says it all, doesn’t it? Funny, unless your cat really is trying to kill you.

The Stella Batts series
Courtney Sheinmel
These are sweet chapter books for early-reader girls. Stella overcomes the mean boy, gum in her hair, and other crises of third grade with help from her friends.

14 Cows For America
Carmen Agra Deedy
When members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya hear about the tragedy of 9/11, they decide to contribute their most valuable possessions - their cows - to the people of America. It includes beautiful illustrations of the Maasai and is an excellent way to begin talking to young children about 9/11. NPR fans may recognize the author from her regular appearances as a storyteller.

Let’s Do Nothing
Tony Fucile
Two friends try to do "nothing" but it turns out that no matter how hard they try, they’re always doing something. It makes Aaron laugh out loud every time.

Ask the Passengers
A.S. King
Another stellar novel from one of the nation's best writers for teens - and she's from Reading. This is the story of Astrid Jones, who sends her love to passengers in airplanes flying overhead, because she feels stifled by gossip, family dysfunction, and narrow-mindedness in her small town, and her confusion about her feelings for another girl.

The Brick Bible
Old Testament
New Testament
No kid can resist this Bible, as the stories are told with LEGO characters.

Book recommendations from Jon Walker:

Tinkers, by Paul Harding –a novel about a man on his death bed who ruminates about his life, the life of his dad, and the life of his dad’s dad. Sounds a bit grim, but it is truly life affirming, with descriptions and visions of New England’s back woods that will knock your socks off. It’s Harding’s first novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize. (See my full review posted January 6).

State of Wonder, by Ann Platchett – it’s a modern re-make of Conrad’s classic The Heart of Darkness, but better! It’s a sci-fi thriller (but plausible enough to think it could really happen) set in the Brazilian jungle. The book is so good I skipped evening TV for a week (including college basketball which I’m hooked on) to get back to the jungle to see what happened next! (See my full review posted Feb 12).

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach – I initially only gave this novel 4 stars out of 5 but I find myself still thinking about it. It’s a coming of age story with baseball as a metaphor for life set on a small college campus in the Midwest. You don’t need to like baseball to like this book. My wife, who throws a fit every time I switch over to a ballgame, LOVED it! It’s got memorable characters. Very easy reading. (See my full review posted March 10).

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell – it is six novellas rolled into one big science fiction novel that takes you from the South Pacific in the 19th century to the South Pacific in the far distant future, long after we’ve destroyed civilization as we know it. It’s a difficult book to read (or more accurately, six separate difficult books to read) but well worth the effort. The movie with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry just came out to mixed reviews, but don’t let that dissuade you – the book is so complex and sweeping it’s hard to imagine making it into a decipherable movie! (See my full review posted July 19).

1861, by Adam Goodheart – a history about what was in the minds of some famous and not-so-famous people in the run up just before the Civil War. This book is especially timely with the movie Lincoln just out (go see it!) It will enrich your appreciation of the movie and leave you with additional insights about that tumultuous age you probably haven’t ever considered. (See my full review posted March 31).

Holy War, by Nigel Cliff – if you only read one book to get a background perspective on the Islam-Christian conflict that started with the Crusades and continues to this day, this is the one you should read. If you think Al Qeada is bad, wait until you read about Vasco da Gama! (See my full review posted June 28).

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich – actually, I just finished this novel and will be posting my full review soon. It’s a great book recommended to me by my cousin that just won the National Book Award for Fiction. It’s a crime thriller and coming of age story set on a modern day (although made up) Indian reservation out west somewhere. With Faulknerian echoes. I give it 5 stars out of 5.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich – I liked The Round House so much, I can’t wait to give Erdrich another try. This one delves more deeply into the characters I’ve just met along with some more doses of American Indian stories and lore.

Heft, by Liz Moore – it’s about this 500lb recluse who meets up with one of his promising ex-students back when he was a community college professor. Sounds a little weird, but I’m going for it. The morning book lady on NPR really likes it!

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff – set on a hippy commune before jumping to a dystopian future after we’ve managed to melt the ice caps. I’m hoping to finish it before the flood.

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver – I really liked The Poisonwood Bible, but couldn’t get through some of her other books (too much mushy sex for my tastes). This one though, sounds really good. It’s about a woman in Appalachia who gets involved with saving monarch butterflies. The main character will undoubtedly manage to have extra-curricular sex with somebody at some point, but I’m going to try and make it through to the butterfly bits.

Enchantments, by Kathryn Harrison – an historic novel about Rasputin centering on his daughter and the czarevitch Alyosha. I don’t know much about Russia’s most famous kook. I figure it’s time to see what all those White Russians saw in him.

A Hologram for the King, by David Eggars – a parable about America competing in the global village. I like this author and some are saying this latest book is his best.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers – a novel about the War in Iraq written by an Army machine gunner with a degree in literature. The entire gang on the Joe in the Morning Show flat out raved about it. That’s good enough for me.

Non Fiction
The Sound and the Noise, by Nate Silver –I am looking forward to getting into the head of a guy who can so accurately analyze and pick election winners year in and out. If his book is half as good as his Fivethirtyeight Politics Done Right blog, I’ll be satisfied.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity , by Katherine Boo – the title says it all. I figure this might expand my comfortable middle class horizons a bit. People all over are raving about this one.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss – I really liked the not-real Count of Monte Cristo depicted in the movie, so why not go for the genuine article?

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott – it turns out that Darwin wasn’t the first guy to dream up the theory of evolution, just the first guy to stick his neck out for it. Apparently, even Aristotle believed the earth was older than what it says in the Bible. (Try telling that to some of the people around MY hometown!)

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: a Reflection on Art, Family, and Survival, by Christopher Benfey -- I kept thinking that this is the book that I have waited for: where place, objects, and poetry intertwine. Just wonderful and completely sui generis … Actually, those aren’t my words. Some fancy-pants critic who knows what “sui generis” means wrote them. But he pretty much sums up what others are saying.

The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson – he’s an evolutionary biologist with something of importance to say about humans being linked with bugs. Why not?

Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power, by John Meacham – I really enjoyed his book about Andrew Jackson and that other one about Roosevelt and Churchill. Meachum’s an excellent writer and Tom Jefferson was a political hard-baller with lessons for our present age.

Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz – this highly acclaimed biography about the abolitionist John Brown was on my list last year and I haven’t yet gotten around to it. Now that he movie Lincoln is out, the time seems right to revisit the raid on Harper’s Ferry.

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  • Jennifer Storm img 2012-12-06 09:17

    I love that you are doing a story on books, as an author this makes me beyond happy. I will give a shameless plug for my own books.

    Two of which are memoirs of my personal survial of child sexual abuse and addiction.

    Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out in America
    Leave the Light On: A Memoir of Recovery and Self-Discovery

    I then went on to write two more self-help books for those who are victims or have loved ones who are victims on how to get survive, get through the criminal justice system and how to heal in the aftermath of abuse.

    Picking Up the Pieces Without Picking Up
    Echoes of Penn State: Facing Sexual Trauma

    All these books can be found anywhere books are sold, a percentage of the proceeds goes to Victim/Witness Assistance Program!!!

  • Luna img 2012-12-06 09:30

    I have to echo Jon... I recently read both "The Round House" and "Flight Behavior" and really enjoyed both. I'd recommend everything by both Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver, actually.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2012-12-06 09:34

    Email From James:
    I always run into the problem with gift certificates because I feel like they are highly impersonal and that I gave up trying to get someone a present and took the easy way instead! What are your panel's thoughts on the issue?

  • Colette Clarke img 2012-12-06 09:35

    I added Mo Yan to my holiday wish list after he won the Nobel. I'm looking forward to reading some of his work and am wondering if your guests could recommend any of his pieces in particular to start with.

  • bobbard98 img 2012-12-07 18:33

    Both of these picture books were written and illustrated by a local author. (Reviews are from a retired librarian in Texas)

    'When I Grow Up'

    'Beware Of The Teacher'