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Still Searching for a Gift? Try Books This Year
December 10, 2015 -- The holidays are upon us again and it's the time of year when many of us are faced with the recurring crisis of gift-giving.

If you're still searching for something to give--by choice or obligation--to family, friends, neighbors, business associates or clients, it's never too late to consider the perfect present: a book. With so many print, electronic and audio formats, the convenience of online ordering and the speed of last-minute delivery, it's easier than ever to select and quickly send a "book."

Here are three of my favorites from this year's reading list. The two novels and one popular-history title make perfect gifts for any business traveler facing another year of delays and cancellations.

SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE
John Rebus, the soft-spoken detective with a Scottish burr and quiet sarcasm, is back for a 19th time in Ian Rankin's 2014 novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible.

This time, however, there are critical differences in both Rebus' personal life and career. Having retired not too long ago, he is allowed to return to the Edinburgh police, but with a reduction in rank. Now a Detective Sergeant, he's a notch below his longtime ally on the force, Siobhan Clarke, a detective inspector. He also teams up, however reluctantly, with Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox. Fox has been assigned to investigate some long-ago questionable behavior by a clique of young detectives, including Rebus, who had taken a loyalty oath to a fraternity under the name of Shadow of the Bible.

One of Rebus' new duties is to assist in the investigation of the coterie, which means possibly probing himself and testing his loyalty to aging former colleagues, all of whom are retired from the force. There is the mandatory murder, which took place decades ago and, naturally, involves the Saints in their earlier years. Another complication? Rebus had a long-ago romantic interlude with the wife of one of his Bible mates. What else is new?

As usual, Rankin's story is well-plotted. The characters, both good and evil, are clearly etched although there are times when you question who is on the side of the "saints" and who is on the side of the "sinners." There are subplots that testify to Rankin's solid reputation as a master mystery storyteller--or are they more accurately characterized as police procedurals? Dive in and investigate for yourself.

By the way, the next Rebus novel in the series, Even Dogs in the Wild, was published last month.

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE
Julia Orringer's The Invisible Bridge was one of The New York Times top books of 2010. It's another novel of the Holocaust, but it seems more like a biographical saga of a Hungarian family and its offshoots who are painfully and directly involved. Orringer, after all, is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor whose experiences strongly influenced her storyline. She refers to the family's history in the book's acknowledgements and in various interviews. However, the novel's main love story, per the author, is entirely fictional.

This expansive work of more than 600 pages becomes an absolute page-turner as it moves along, often beautifully written and always compelling. The story moves from Budapest to Paris and back to Hungary. There are also chilling descriptions of all-Jewish forced labor camps known as Munkaszolgalat, created during World War II by Hungary's right-wing, Nazi-aligned government. Despite the camps and the government's antipathy, the Hungarian Jewish community moved about in relative safety until the final months of the war. That's when the Nazis invaded, primarily for two reasons: to slow the Soviet advance on Austria and to launch a frenzied drive to dispatch as many Jews to the extermination camps as they could possibly round up.

Orringer's story begins in the late 1930s, when the three Levi brothers make their way into an uncertain world with a conviction that war is inevitable. Andras, 19 and a recent gimnázium graduate, travels from the family's small town home to Budapest before he heads to Paris with a scholarship in architecture. An upper-class Jewish family in the Hungarian capital asks him to carry a letter to Paris to a mysterious C. Morgenstern. She eventually turns out to be Klara, daughter of the family back in Budapest. She was forced by circumstances to flee some years earlier and now runs a successful ballet school. She is nine years older than Andras but they fall in love and their romance forms the critical foundation of this absorbing tale. Not only does Klara have a secret past, including events back in Budapest and a longtime romance with a married impresario in Paris, but she also struggles with a particularly difficult teenage daughter.

The fates threaten Andras' scholarship and, more important, his French visa runs out and he must return to Budapest to get it renewed. Somewhere along the way, he and Klara married and, despite his opposition, she accompanies him to Hungary at great risk to her freedom. Instead of getting his visa renewed, the war starts and Andras is drafted into a Munkaszolgalat, the first of several detentions.

Another subplot involves the older brother, Tibor Levi. He falls head over heels for a young lady from an Italian family, but she runs away from home, goes to Paris and marries one of Andras' closest friends. Tibor is studying medicine in Modena, Italy, but he has left his heart in Paris. The third and youngest brother, Mátyás, has begun to pursue a career as a dancer. He is swallowed up early in the war and considered lost by his family.

Orringer's plots and subplots are expertly interwoven, but I'll say no more. You'll have to decide for yourself whether to cross this particular invisible bridge.

KILLING PATTON
Bill O'Reilly, the controversial Fox News commentator, has been mining history for years. His bestselling books include Killing Lincoln (2011), Killing Kennedy (2012), Killing Jesus (2013), Killing Patton (2014) and this fall's Killing Reagan.

Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General, coauthored with historian Martin Dugard, is a perceptive overview of the four-star general's turbulent military career. It also offers insights into the general's private life. Perhaps the Allies' most daring and imaginative field commander, Patton remains the epicenter of ongoing controversy and criticism decades after his death.

As the subtitle implies, O'Reilly delves into the speculation surrounding Patton's death in a car accident in December, 1945. The most popular theory suggests that there was a conspiracy to kill the general at the behest of Russia's Joseph Stalin. But there is still no firm evidence, even now, that Patton's demise was anything but a tragic crash.

I found the conspiracy discussions interesting, but they weren't what carried the story along for me. Rather, it was the many battlefield sagas including the Battle of the Bulge on the one hand and Patton's sometimes irrational behavior on the other hand.

The Bulge campaign in December, 1944, ultimately revolved around the small, strategically located Belgian community of Bastogne. Vastly outnumbered by Germany's motorized divisions, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division holds out until Patton, almost miraculously, brings the U.S. Third Army to the rescue. Patton's 48-hour drive had been deemed impossible by the U.S. High Command under Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Born a Catholic, Patton visits a local church at the start of his maneuvers toward Bastogne and asks God to clear the stormy and snowy skies so that he can get the air support he so desperately requires. Among other things, he asks God, "Whose side are you on anyway?"

Once the war is won--and Patton seems lost without conflict--Eisenhower names him military governor of Bavaria. It was a poor choice and a post from which he was famously dismissed because of his controversial statements on denazification. (One of Patton's main functions is to work with the displaced survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, a role for which he is singularly ill-suited. He seems to have little sympathy for the plight of others and appears to be a dedicated anti-Semite.)

There's also a gripping and unsettling window into Patton's views on war and peace, as well as heroism and cowardice, in a speech he delivers to troops after the war. The speech is included in the book's epilogue.

Although much of this history is familiar thanks to George C. Scott's bravura performance in the sprawling, Oscar-winning 1970 movie, there's an element of suspense woven into O'Reilly's prose. That may explain all of the weeks that O'Reilly's book spent on bestseller lists and lend credibility to the rumors that it will spawn a new Patton movie.

This column is Copyright © 2015 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.