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Ask a Book Buyer: Gritty Westerns, Coastal California, and More

Ask a Book BuyerAt Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident experts. Need a gift idea for a fan of vampire novels? Looking for a guide that will best demonstrate how to knit argyle socks? Need a book for a vegetarian who loves Radiohead and Flight of the Conchords? Email your question to We'll be posting personalized recommendations regularly.

Q: I love true crime and gritty (but not cheesy) Western outlaw stories. My recent favorite books are Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, Michael Capuzzo's The Murder Room, and Murder in the Yoga Store. I haven't been able to find anything similar to the above. Any recommendations would be appreciated! –Cheylane

A: If you're not already familiar with the works of Cormac McCarthy, his novels may well satiate your thirst for Western noir. Blood Meridian or the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) are good places to start.

Also, the fiction of Don Berry is fantastic! His books are not quite Westerns, per se, but focused on the early settlers of the Oregon Territory instead. They are compelling and beautifully written. He has three books that loosely form a trilogy (but are easily read as stand-alone volumes, too): Trask, Moontrap, and To Build a Ship. –Jeremy

Q: I want memoirs or memoir-ish novels to read. I read a lot of psych and religion for work, and I need a break. I've enjoyed the faith-centered memoir writing of women like Sara Miles, Barbara Brown Taylor, Anne Lamott, and Nora Gallagher. I've also enjoyed the classic, slightly erotic writing of gay men from the '50s on — Edmund White, Hollinghurst, Holleran, etc. I'm usually pleasantly surprised when I find someone new from that genre. –James

A: I'd suggest Mary Karr's memoirs, especially Lit, which details her return to Catholicism as well as her struggles with alcohol. There's also Joan Didion, but those memoirs may be too depressing. Jonathan Ames is one of the funniest American essayists this side of David Sedaris. Another favorite of mine is Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty. –Kevin

Q: I have been obsessed with Big Sur and Coastal California lately, along with the late '60s social revolutions in the Bay Area. Recommendations would be awesome! –Christa

A: Check out Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte; Stonewall by David Carter; and a biography of Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts, for your '60s Bay Area revolutionary fix.

The novel that stands out in my mind when I think of Coastal California is Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. The story is set in Monterey, with haunting imagery. Like all great writers, he is able to distill joy and suffering into a singular emotion on paperLike all great writers, he is able to distill joy and suffering into a singular emotion on paper through his depictions of the characters. Put on some Tom Waits while you read it. –Aubrey

Q: My mother (age 85) is recovering from a months-long hospitalization and has just started reading again. She recently devoured The Shoemaker's Wife. She does not like narratives that switch between different characters' first-person voices or those that go back and forth in time (e.g., Beautiful Ruins). What other large-print titles might you suggest that would engage and entertain her? –Nicole

A: Perhaps she'd enjoy Alexander McCall Smith. His stories are charming with a strong sense of place, whether it is The Lost Art of Gratitude or The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. –Tom

Q: Works of fiction set in Nazi Germany fascinate me. Some examples of books set in this era that I loved are: Those Who Save Us, Sarah's Key, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, The Invisible Wall, and The Book Thief. Can you suggest some great fiction books based on these? –Brooke

A: Two excellent novels set in Nazi Germany are The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. What I especially like about these novels is that they're from the perspective of German civilians, which is unusual, and allows the writers to explore the moral ambiguity of being a witness to evil. –Rhianna

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