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A bookstore can be bliss or abyss, depending on your visit's purpose. And when it comes to late-in-the-game holiday shopping, it's more often the latter.

For help, the Independent turned to four local authors who published books this year. Below, presented in their own words, are quick descriptions of their favorite recent reads. And though we wouldn't let these authors suggest their own tomes, we've read most of them and can give our own unbiased gift-giving approval.

Lyrical loves via David Mason

Too much of my reading is assigned — either for book reviewing or teaching preparation, so it's a pleasure to stumble onto books that take me out of my usual patterns. Here are three of the more remarkable productions from the last year — each of them celebrating the literary life, the life of books. They remind me why I am a reader and a writer.

Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John MacIntyre (Counterpoint, $25/hardcover). One of America's best living prose writers, author of Light Years, Burning the Days and other books, James Salter is revealed here as a man with a genius for friendship. This book's protagonists are devoted to reading, films, food and the variables of human relationships. Salter writes, "We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available."

Nox, by Anne Carson (New Directions, $35/hardcover). Carson brings her classical training and postmodern wit to bear on her most personal story — about her family's disintegration and the alienation and death of her brother. This book is also a remarkable artifact, a set of folded leaves you pull like an accordion from a box. Carson's playful etymologies add surprising layers to the wrenching story.

First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010, by H.L. Hix (Etruscan Press, $27.95/hardcover). One of the most prolific and challenging of all contemporary poets, Hix rearranges work from all his previous collections, allowing us access to his uncanny philosophical and lyrical precision: "Your life looms over my life. / I hear you, but I can't find you. / Everything I make I make as gifts."

David Mason is author of News From the Village (Red Hen Press, $20.95/paperback), published in April, and poet laureate of Colorado.

Laura Reeve's paranormal presents

If you'd like something new and different for the reader who loves vampires and werewolves, try the books in The Parasol Protectorate (Orbit, each $7.99/paperback), written by Gail Carriger. The first book, Soulless, came out in 2009, while the next two, Changeless and Blameless, were published this year. They're funny, witty, with a romantic subplot and a unique voice, which I can only describe as Terry Pratchett channeling Jane Austen.

The setting is an alternate Victorian England that accepts vampires and werewolves but not, of course, bad manners. I'd recommend reading these books in order, as Soulless provides the best background for Carriger's world, and Changeless ends in a cliff-hanger resolved in Blameless. The plus side: The books are in paperback, so you can give all three and still not break the bank.

Laura E. Reeve's Pathfinder (Roc, $7.99/paperback), the third in her Major Ariane Kedros novel series, was published in July. Find out more at ancestralstars.com.

Romantic readers from Angel Smits

It's so hard to narrow down my reading list, but three great titles pop to mind. I just finished The First Love Cookie Club (Avon, $7.99/paperback) by Lori Wilde, and have to say it was one of the cutest holiday books I've read. It was warm and fuzzy with a character who goes back home and makes good. Exactly what I wanted.

Monica McCarty's Hawk (Ballantine, $7.99/paperback), which came out this summer, is another great option. It's a historical romance, set in Scotland at the time of Robert the Bruce. I really felt like I was there — and the hero is to-die-for. The next book in the series comes out in a couple weeks and I'm hoping to find it in my stocking.

Finally, for me, J.R. Ward is always a guaranteed good read. Her stuff is very dark and wicked ... but deliciously so. Crave (Signet, $7.99/paperback) is her fallen angel that's out now. (It follows the first in the series, Covet from 2009.) I finished it in only a couple days.

Angel Smits' A Message for Julia (Harlequin, $5.50/paperback) was published Dec. 7. Learn more at angelsmits.com.

A mixed bag by Kirk Farber

My 2010 recommendations are actually based on the past two years — I'm a stacker of books and a terribly slow reader, which creates quite a gap. But here are a couple of books I think you might really enjoy this holiday season.

One of my favorites this year has been Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (Scholastic Press, $8.99/paperback), a young adult novel which was published in 2008, and re-released in paperback this year. The third in the trilogy, Mockingjay, came out in August, and since Hunger Games hooked me real good, I'm well on my way to the rest of the series. The story follows Katniss, a modern-day Theseus, as she tries to survive a killing game created by the totalitarian government that rules her dystopian world. It's an engaging adventure novel with excellent plotting and pacing. A true page-turner.

Another book I enjoyed reading this year was Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life (Scribner, $15/paperback) by Steve Martin. I worshiped him as a kid, doing the King Tut dance with a plastic arrow through my head, trying to be a wild and crazy guy. Reading about his journey from magician to stand-up comedian to literary novelist was fascinating and entertaining stuff.

Happy reading and happy holidays!

Kirk Farber's first novel, Postcards From a Dead Girl (Harper Perennial, $13.99/paperback) was published in February. He plans on reading it sometime in the next two years. Find him at kirkfarber.com.



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