Book Passage: ’Tis the Season to Read

Just in time for the holidays, Alta’s partners at Book Passage in the Bay Area recommend a short list of fiction and non-fiction books by California authors and on California subjects

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The holidays are a great time for books —to give, to receive, and to read them. Here are 10 fiction and non-fiction recommendations by Elaine Petrocelli and Luisa Smith of Book Passage. These must-reads range from page-turner to heartbreaking fiction to poignant memoir. Happy reading.



No one is more skilled at writing a police procedural than Michael Connelly. In “Dark Sacred Night,” we once again meet Renee Ballard, a smart, tough cop whose career veered off course when she resisted sexual harassment at work. Renee may be unappreciated by her superiors, but that doesn’t stifle her drive to find the answers wherever they may lead. Her path crosses Connelly’s most famous detective, Harry Bosch, who is looking into a cold case of a murdered girl. Renee finds herself drawn into the investigation. As the layers of the mystery are unearthed, the trust between the two detectives grows. From the spot-on dialogue to the surprising twists and turns, this is Michael Connelly at his best. — Luisa Smith


When Austria entered World War I, Lucius, a medical student, volunteered for service. He was sent to a field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains, where despite his inexperience and scant training, he was made the doctor in charge. The only nurse at the hospital, Sister Margaret, taught him to be a surgeon. When a shell-shocked, frostbitten, uncommunicative patient arrived, Lucius became obsessed with finding a cure for this man he called the Winter Soldier. Mason brings us a sweeping tale of war, love, and obsession, yet it’s the intimate scenes that make “The Winter Soldier” such a treasure. — Elaine Petrocelli


Khaled Hosseini’s profound book was inspired by the three-year-old, Alan Kurdi, whose body was brought from the waters off the coast of Turkey after his family attempted to escape the horrors in Syria. Instead of emphasizing the nightmare, Hosseini’s poem is a letter from a father to his child, recalling the beauty of the Syrian town where they had lived. He tells why they had to turn to the sea to escape the war that destroyed their country. The love of the father for his child and the recollection of nature, family, and life connects this child to all humanity. — Elaine Petrocelli


This is a beautiful and shocking tale of two college students, Will and Phoebe, who are grappling with loss and seeking redemption. As they attempt to control the narrative of their unforgiving pasts, their differing visions of a better future tempt them to relinquish the best parts of themselves. There is an intimacy to R.O. Kwon’s prose that balances the unquenchable longing that consumes these characters. Thoughtfully addressing the big questions while never losing sight of the small details, The Incendiaries is a captivating debut. — Luisa Smith


Join single mother, Romy Hall, as she starts two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in the California Central Valley. Her crime, murdering a stalker. Romy tells us of her not so lovely past in San Francisco where she worked in a sleazy strip club called The Mars Room. With Romy, we meet the other incarcerated women as well as the well-meaning writing teacher and some not at all well-meaning officials. In any other hands, this could be depressing, but Kushner, who wrote Telex from Cuba and Flame Throwers, brings us a riveting tale of a woman we come to respect. — Elaine Petrocelli

(For more on “Mars Room”, read the Alta Review.)


The heartbeat of the Urban Indian finally has a voice in Tommy Orange’s astounding debut, “There There,” which illustrates the many paths members of this community must travel as they find their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. The powerful voices of these characters are perfectly balanced with Orange’s lyrical prose, allowing us to see them as whole individuals, struggling with both the past and the present. Orange never shies away from showing both the sadness and beauty contained within the story, allowing the tension to build until we are hit with the unforgettable climax. “There There” is not just a remarkable debut, it is an important addition to the American voice. — Luisa Smith

(For more on “There There,” read the Alta Review.)


Barbash captures the last golden moments of the ’70s. After a soul-searching journey abroad, Anton Winters returns to the celebrated N.Y. residence of his youth. His father’s nervous breakdown has forced him to stay grounded, but being surrounded by celebrities, both approachable and mythologized, make reimagining his life a little more interesting. Barbash has an ear for the time and an eye for detail, bringing to life some of The Dakota’s most famous residents. With humor and affection, Barbash opens a door to the past and reminds us just what a remarkable time it was. — Luisa Smith



There is no one better at investigating stories hiding in plain sight than Susan Orlean. The vivid descriptions of the fire that engulfed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 are burnished by her meticulous research on the history of libraries. The mystery of who would start such a massive fire is woven between stories of eccentric librarians and the transformation of Los Angeles in the 20th Century. Orlean has crafted a love letter to the importance of the written word and those that devote their lives to its preservation. — Luisa Smith


Sally Field worked on her memoir for seven years. The result is a gorgeous, honest, illuminating, and at times heartbreaking book. We learn about her lonely, and at times terrifying, childhood. She became the beloved and celebrated actor who started in film at 17 as Gidget. Her career could have ended with the Flying Nun, but Sally persisted and against the predictions of the powerful, she went on to play such complex roles as Sybil, Norma Rae, and Mary Todd Lincoln. She found her way as an actor, a daughter, and a mother. It is the honest portrayal of her relationships, especially with her mother, that make “In Pieces” so powerful. — Elaine Petrocelli


He’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. He’s an esteemed filmmaker and founder of the media non-profit, Define America. At great personal risk, Jose Antonio Vargas told the world that he was brought here from the Philippines at age 12 as an undocumented immigrant and now faces deportation. “Dear America” is riveting and courageous. I was taken by the gentility and humor that Vargas brings to the telling of his own experience and how, without preaching, he illuminates the lives of the undocumented. Our country is fortunate to have such a citizen. — Elaine Petrocelli

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