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Best fiction, nonfiction reads for your winter pleasure

11 picks sure to keep you riveted

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‘Manhunt’ was one of the most memorable reads of 2022.

It happens every year.

The decorations come down. The last of the Christmas leftovers have been eaten. Errant bits of ripped wrapping are found and discarded. You have no more holiday candy or cookies, you look around at your empty hands, and you wonder now what?

Now it’s time to settle in and read for the rest of the winter season. For your pleasure, here are the Top Five Bookworm Picks for the Best of 2022.

Fiction

Lovers of fairy tales are in for a big surprise with The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (Tor, $26.99). It’s a dark, dark legend filled with evil dragons that look like men, princesses that are worse than second-class citizens within their realms, and a chase that will chill you. Book lovers will adore this tale, especially if you don’t necessarily need a happily-ever-after.

Pick up a copy of Dot and Ralphie by Amy Hoffman (University of Wisconsin Press, $16.95) and it doesn’t look like much. But aren’t you glad you don’t judge a book by its cover?  This is a sweet tale of two elderly women, partners in life and love, and aging. It’s sweet and grumpy and charming, somewhat like a lesbian Honeymooners episode, only better.

Readers who are familiar with the thrillers that James Lee Burke writes will absolutely be stunned by Every Cloak Rolled in Blood (Simon & Schuster, $27) because in this book, the thrill is secondary to the main plot. Here, retired detective Aaron Broussard has lost his beloved daughter and it’s cut him to the core. Fiery, glass-sharp grief doesn’t stop crime, though, and so he still has crime to solve – whether real, or imagined. Read this book with an open heart and tissues at hand. It may be Burke’s best.

Lovers of clever, clever stories will love Sign Here by Claudia Lux (Berkeley, $27). It’s the tale of Peyote Trip, whose job on the Fifth Floor of Hell is to recruit new souls for eternity. But Pey has a plan to get out of his purgatory, which turns this funny, sharp-witted story into a shady mystery that will make you laugh a lot and squirm even more. 

Here’s a book that’s absolutely not for everyone: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin (Macmillan Nightfire, $17.99) is a lesbian feminist dystopian thriller, which sounds like a lot and it is. A virus has hit every corner of the world, making men into wolf-like killing machines and sending the women into hiding. When two young women – one of them, trans – learns that a “healer” might be able to save her from the inevitable, they head out to find the woman but a makeshift band of warrior women get in their way. Again, this isn’t a book for everyone but if you’re looking for something very, very different, this is it.

BONUS: “Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams (Amistad, $25.99) is a novel of the memories of a 112-year-old former slave, who was also a pirate’s woman, a healer, and someone reaching for things her soul needed. It’s an adventurous book with the tiniest touch of fantasy and you shouldn’t miss it. 

Non-Fiction

You have questions. And All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99) has answers. When someone dies, what happens next? A wide variety of things, that’s what, and it’s someone else’s job to see that it’s done right. This book is careful not to be (too) gruesome but it is compellingly fascinating.

Charlie’s Good Tonightby Paul Sexton (Harper, $27.99) is on this list because it could be the biggest surprise of the year for readers. It’s the story of the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, a man who really never wanted fame and often actively shunned the limelight. If you think you know all about the debauchery of your favorite rock ‘n roll band, think again and be totally charmed by one man’s life.

There are two business books on this list because they don’t at all read like business books; in fact, Think Like a Horse by Grant Golliher (Putnam, $28) and Meet Me by the Fountain by Alexandra Lange (Bloomsbury, $28) both seem more like snuggle-up-in-front-of-the-fire kinds of books. Golliher’s book is pure cowboy – he was a rancher and worked extensively with horses – and there are western-novel tones in his book on getting the most out of people. Lange’s book is a trip to the mall throughout history, including a good look at stores you may have visited through the years. These books are both great for the business-minded reader, but could be enjoyed by anyone.

And finally, an obsession: To Walk About in Freedom by Carole Emberton (W.W. Norton, $28.95) is a jaw-dropping memoir that hides in a history book. In the earlier part of the last century, the government paid writers to interview people for a WPA project. One of the interviewees was a former slave woman who offers up not only her life, but a real-life account of the end of slavery and how it impacted everyday, average people. This is a book you’ll be talking about well into the new year.

If these 11 books don’t fit your mood, then be sure to check with your favorite bookseller or librarian. When it comes to books, (s)he is a superhero.

Happy reading!

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Books

‘On Bette Midler’ is a divine new read

Part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate

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(Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press)

‘On Bette Midler: An Opinionated Guide’
By Kevin Winkler
c.2024, Oxford University Press 
$29.99 232 pages 

Superb.

That word’s appropriate in this situation. Fantastic, that’s another. Transcendent or celestial, if you’re of that mind, or perhaps anointed. There are many adjectives you can use for a performer who transports you, one who sings to your soul. Sensational, breathtaking, outstanding, or – as in the new book “On Bette Midler” by Kevin Winkler – another, better word may be more suitable.

Born in Hawaii a few months after the end of World War II, Bette Midler was named after film star Bette Davis. It was a perhaps auspicious start: despite a minor disparity (Midler’s mother thought the movie star’s first name was pronounced “Bet”), young Midler seemed at a young age to want to follow in her almost-namesake’s footsteps. By age 11, she’d won accolades and prizes for her performances and she “yearned to be a serious actor.” As soon as she could, she headed for New York to seize her career.

Alas, her “unconventional” looks didn’t help win the roles she wanted but she was undeterred. Unafraid of small venues and smaller gigs, she “just blossomed” in New York City. Eventually, she landed at the Improv on 44th Street; the owner there helped her negotiate some minor work. Another man became her manager and secured a job for her at the Continental, a New York bath house strictly for gay men. She was hired for eight summer nights, Friday and Saturdays only, for $50 a night.

Almost immediately, her authenticity, her raunchy language, and her ability to relate to her audience made her beloved in the gay community. Midler’s tenure at the Continental expanded and, though legend points to a longer time, she worked at the bath house for just over two years before moving on and up, to television, recording studios, movies, and into fans’ hearts. Still, asks Winkler, “Did it really matter what stage she was on? She touched audiences wherever she performed.”

In his earliest words – and, in fact, in his subtitle – author Kevin Winkler reminds readers that “On Bette Midler” is a book that’s “highly opinionated, filled with personal contemplations…” He is, in other words, a super-fan, but that status doesn’t mar this book: Winkler restrains his love of his subject, and he doesn’t gush. Whew.

That will be a relief to readers who wish to relish in their own fervor, although you’ll be glad for Winkler’s comprehensive timeline and his wide look at Midler’s career. Those things come after a long and fascinating biography that starts in 1970, takes us back to 1945, and then pulls us forward through movies, television appearances, stage performances, and songs you might remember – with appearances from Barbara Streisand, Barry Manilow, and Cher. It’s a fun trip, part confidential, part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate.

Despite that this is a “personal” book, it’s great for readers who weren’t around during Midler’s earliest career. If you were and you’re a fan, reading it is like communing with someone who appreciates Midler like you do. Find “On Bette Midler.” You’ll find it divine.

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Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

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(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

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Books

‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash

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(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

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