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Daybreak's Highlights of 2011: Books

Published December 27. 2011 4:00AM

"I'LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE"

Steve Earle

It shouldn't have surprised me but it did. I mean, Steve Earle the musician is a wonderful storyteller, so why wouldn't Steve Earle the novelist be the same? Maybe it just doesn't seem fair that one guy has so much talent. In his debut novel, Earle brings together an interesting mishmash of characters, most notably Doc Ebersole, a morphine-addicted doctor who hangs out with the ghost of Hank Williams. Things changes when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, comes to Doc for an abortion. I won't say more because you should just pick up the book and enjoy Earle's telling of it.

- Tim Cotter

"BASKETBALL JUNKIE: A MEMOIR"

Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds

Chris Herren's ability to play basketball takes him away from Fall River, Mass., to play for Boston College, University of Nevada, the Boston Celtics and then all over the world. Wherever he goes, he's a star - and a junkie. Herren, now clean, has told his story in gyms, prisons and meeting rooms all over the country, and in a riveting ESPN special. If you're a basketball fan or you've ever been touched by addiction, this is a must read.

- Tim Cotter

"CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE CITY OF THE DEAD"

Sara Gran

Here's a dark and mystical turn in the ranks of private detective fiction. The titular DeWitt has been a detective since her teen years in Brooklyn, is a disciple of the existential French sleuth Jacques Silette and studied under the great New Orleans PI, Constance Darling - until her mentor was murdered. Post-Katrina, DeWitt returns to NOLA when she's hired to find a district attorney gone missing in the storm. An enthusiastic believer in drink, drugs, voodoo and dream interpretation, DeWitt follows a murky path into the DA's connections with the city's notoriously violent gang culture. She cultivates an uneasy relationship with gangsta Andray Fairview, who certainly has answers. But can he be trusted? Wild and irresistible.

- Rick Koster

"THE DEVIL'S LIGHT"

Richard North Patterson

On the surface, this is another CIA-operative-must-stop-Al-Qaeda-maestro-from-nuking-America thriller. The lead characters are fairly typical despite Patterson's well established skills in the genre. What sets this apart and makes the book extraordinarily valuable - required reading, perhaps - is the research the author did on the insanely complex alliances and/or enmity between different countries and religions in the Middle East. Those who tend to regard the whole region as a unified threat - in an "us versus them" context - have no idea what a fragile and uneasy honeycomb it is over there. This book will educate and scare the hell out of you.

- Rick Koster

"THE RANGER"

Ace Atkins

FRIEND ALERT: Atkins is godfather to our dog, Gumbo, whom he rescued 10 years ago. He could be Satan, though, and he's still a master, from his Nick Travers books to best-selling historical crime novels to being selected by Robert B. Parker's estate to carry on the immortal Spenser series. This year, Atkins introduced Army Ranger Quinn Colson, back in northeast Mississippi on leave from Iraq to attend the funeral of his favorite uncle, the local sherriff who committed suicide. The problem: Quinn knows his uncle wouldn't kill himself. Another problem: his hometown is under seige from a socipathic, meth lab warlord. With stunning and evocative detail of fictional Tibbehah county, wonderful characters who span the human condition, and a subtle wit that counteracts the grim realities of the story, "The Ranger" is a triumph.

- Rick Koster

"11/22/63"

Stephen King

Stephen King is hardly the first guy to speculate on what might happen if you could go back in the past and alter a historic moment - you know the idea: you could stop Hitler or somehow short-circuit the goofball who gave the green light to have television shows about the Kardashians. In this absolutely mesmerizing and flash-fire novel, King explores what would happen if he someone traveled back to Texas in time to halt Lee Harvey Oswald - or whomever - from assassinating John F. Kennedy. The assumption, of course, is that things would be much better today. But would they? And what if King's wonderful hero, Jake Epping, decides he prefers life in the past better than the present? Just a marvelous achievement.

- Rick Koster

"NIGHTWOODS"

Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier dreams of sumptuously elegant ways to describe things - particularly nature. The "Cold Mountain" author works that magic in his latest novel, waxing rhapsodic about landscapes and sky and flakes of snow. His main character finds solace and sees glory in nature, and Frazier manifests those emotions beautifully. That character is a young woman whose hermitic existence is upended by the arrival of her withdrawn niece and nephew. These young twins have been traumatized: their stepfather abused them and murdered their mother. The plotline does eventually sink into a rather pedestrian thriller tale, but, by that point, Frazier has you under his spell, and that's where you're content to stay.

- Kristina Dorsey

"UNBROKEN: A WORLD WAR II STORY OF SURVIVAL, RESILIENCE, AND REDEMPTION"

Laura Hillenbrand

This is a little bit of a cheat. "Unbroken" was released in November 2010. But I read it this year, and the important fact is: it's simply the best book I've read in a long time. The story is real - and stunning. Louis Zamperini is superhuman. At least his tale of survival is. The one-time Olympic runner became an Air Force lieutenant in World War II. His plane crashed into the Pacific, but he made it onto a life raft and drifted for 47 days. He was saved, or so he thought; it was the Japanese, who took him to a series of prisoner of war camps, where he was subjected to absolute torture. Zamperini's ability to remain, well, unbroken is astonishing. I don't necessarily want to give away the ending, but I will: on Jan. 26, Zamperini will turn 95. Author Laura Hillenbrand writes beautifully, yet never lets her way with words take attention away from the story she's telling.

- Kristina Dorsey

"FOLLOWING ATTICUS"

Tom Ryan

Show me a book/movie/TV show/greeting card with a dog in it, and it's likely I'm going to like it. Show me a book about the unlikely inspiration a sturdy Miniature Schnauzer provides a lonesome newsman, and you've got me at "Schnauzer."

Tom Ryan's "Following Atticus" is more than a story of a man and his dog, Atticus M. Finch. Ryan says it's a story about friendship - a friendship that brings the duo up and down each of the highest peaks of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, first for the sheer joy of it, and later to honor the memory of a friend.

Atticus proves a natural-born mountain climber, and Tom, spurred on by his rugged friend, chases adventure, peace and fellowship on the trail, with Atticus leading the way. Before long, man and dog leave the rat-race behind and start a new life closer to the mountains they love.

As harsh reality intrudes on the pair's blissful days, they press on like they would on any snowy trail and develop a deeper bond that inspires thousands of people.

Need your faith in humanity restored? Read this book. It's lovely to learn about our higher selves from an unlikely source like Atticus M. Finch.

PS. You can follow Tom and Atticus on Facebook.

-Marisa Nadolny

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