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Choices stack up for holiday books

Nothing tops curling up Christmas night with a new novel
by: , For the short-story lover, high school debater and mystery fan on everyone’s gift list, 
offerings from the literary world include “The Unfinished Novel,” “Cross-X” and “Echo Park.”

Some of my best holiday memories involve curling up in front of the Christmas tree with a new book. Or watching the joy on family members' faces when they unwrap a novel they had been dying to read.

This year gift givers have a bevy of choices, particularly in the fiction arena. Consider the latest from Suzanne Berne, 'The Ghost at the Table' (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), which focuses on the dynamics between two sisters and their distant father as the family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner.

Berne, the author of two previous novels, is an adept and talented writer who deserves to be touted more often.

Heidi Julavits, on the other hand, is often noted as a young author to watch. And with good reason. Her third book, 'The Uses of Enchantment' (Doubleday), is a multilayered, bewitching drama about a teenage girl, Mary Veal, who may or may not have been kidnapped and mysteriously released. Years later the question of what really happened haunts the adult Mary as she returns home to bury her mother.

If it's a straight mystery you're after, consider 'Echo Park' (Little, Brown) by Michael Connelly. LAPD detective Harry Bosch receives new information on a case that has haunted him for more than a decade. It also brings up the possibility that Bosch and his partner may have missed a clue that could have prevented several murders.

While Connelly is known as a master of crime fiction, Julia Spencer-Fleming is quickly becoming a mystery author who straddles the boundaries of 'cozy' versus 'hard-boiled.'

Her engaging heroine, Clare Fergusson, is a former Army helicopter pilot turned Episcopalian priest. 'All Mortal Flesh' (Thomas Dunne Books), the fifth in her series, finds the good reverend caught up in an innocent but devastating love affair with murderous overtones.

Affairs of the heart abound in 'Dark Angels' (Crown) by Karleen Koen. This is a book for which her fans have waited 20 years, since the publication of 'Through a Glass Darkly.'

Set in the rowdy era of Charles II, the prequel centers around Alice Verney, a young woman who becomes caught up in scandal, romance and intrigue. If your best friend devoured 'Forever Amber,' this is the book for her.

On the other hand, if your scholarly sister scoffs at light fiction, buy her the latest book by Daniel Mendelsohn, 'The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million' (HarperCollins). This is a fascinating and heartbreaking journey into the lives of six of Mendelsohn's relatives who disappeared during the Holocaust.

In a lighter but no less absorbing vein, there's 'Cross-X' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Joe Miller. The wordy subtitle does a superb job of summing up the subject matter: 'The amazing true story of how the most unlikely team from the most unlikely of places overcame staggering obstacles at home and at school to challenge the debate community on race, power and education.'

Think Rocky meets your high school's debate team.

Some of my friends appreciate books they can dip into. Gift givers can't go wrong with 'Housekeeping vs. the Dirt' (McSweeney's) by Nick Hornby. This lucky author has a column in the Believer magazine where all he does is chat about the books he's been reading.

Part book review, part musing on whatever strikes his fancy, Hornby's collected essays are a joy to read.

Short-story lovers will enjoy 'The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories' (Vintage) by Valerie Martin. Released in paperback, it's a tribute to Martin's unerring sense of what makes an artistic person tick.

Although it was published more than two decades ago, I have to make mention of the best book I have read this year.

'Fools of Fortune' (Penguin Classics), by the inimitable William Trevor, takes place in Ireland shortly after World War I and centers on the midnight torching of a wealthy family's estate. It is a mesmerizing story of love and revenge that begs for multiple rereadings. Be sure to include this novel on your personal wish list.

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