In 2004, Carolina authors and publishers produced a bounty crop of fine books. After reading many of them, I finally selected the following 10, all wrapped liberally with wishes of peace and good cheer, to top my holiday gift book recommendations.
North Carolina Lighthouses: A Tribute of History and Hope by Sheryl Shelton-Roberts and Bruce Roberts (Our State Books, $29.95) tops the list of recommended coffee-table books.Though the publisher, sister company to Our State magazine, has been publishing for only two years, it has produced several remarkable works, including this one. Filled with photographs of lighthouses and spectacular scenic views of sea, sandy beaches and the towns that surround them, this hefty tome will surely take your breath away.
The authors, both lighthouse experts, also provide ample history and intriguing bits of sea lore.
Ryan Newman: Engineering Speed by Deb Williams (Sports Publishing LLC, $24.95). This dramatic coffee-table offering will appeal to NASCAR racing fans. The author, former editor of The Mountaineer newspaper in Waynesville, has followed the popular driver's career for many years. Though the book's central subject is Newman, other racing greats, such as Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt, smile from its pages. Most charming of all, the book includes glimpses of Newman's childhood.
North Carolina 24/7 by Rick Smolan and David Elliot Cohen (DK Publishing Inc., $24.95). From Ashe County to Wrightsville Beach, this book provides a varied view of our state. The work of more 150 photographers - some professional, some amateur - are included. Their task: Capture a week of activity in the large and small towns where they lived. Similar books picturing the other American states were simultaneously produced by the publisher.
String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont by Bob Carlin (McFarland & Co., $39.95). This large paperback would be perfect for anyone interested in North Carolina pickers and grinners. The author, a musician and writer who lives in Lexington, examines many of the best known and a few lesser known bands in the area. He thoroughly explores both the history and culture of stringed band music. African Americans and their musical influence are covered.
He also includes the whys and wherefors of fiddlers' conventions. Carlin has left no note unsung in his exhaustive research. Many black-and-white historical photographs add to the book's appeal.
Now that I've covered the "large" books, here are other noteworthy nonfiction offerings. The first is an indispensable "how-to"; the second, a mystery involving a famous ship; and the third, a pictorial book commemorating a well-known institute.
Nothing's Too Small to Make a Difference: Simple Things You Can Do to Change Your Life and the World Around You by Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering (John F. Blair, Publisher, $21.95). In this self-help guide produced by a Winston-Salem publisher, the authors offer beneficial suggestions for simplifying life. Urbanska's and Levering's own histories give credence to their message: In 1986 they left high-powered jobs in Los Angeles and relocated to the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia where, seeking a more tranquil existence, they established an orchard. In their popular PBS series, "Simple Living," as well as in several of their previously published books, they have sung the praises of environmental stewardship. Continuing their vision, this well-written guide advises how to wisely use money and time, guide children, build a strong community, and love your life.
Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks (Ballantine Books, $25.95). On Dec. 4, 1872, a 100-foot brigantine was seen drifting through the Atlantic, no crew on board. Yet the vessel appeared free of damage.
As Brian Hicks thoroughly explores the ship's sad history and the mysterious disappearance of crew and passengers, readers will feel they are reading a contemporary thriller. The suspense will keep you interested, and the exhaustive documentation will convince you that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. The author, recipient of the S.C. Press Association's award for Journalist of the Year, lives in Charleston, S.C.
Sedalia and the Palmer Memorial Institute: Black America Series by Tracey Burns-Vann and Andre D. Vann (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99). This attractive book depicts in vintage photographs and brief text the history of The Palmer Institute in Sedalia. The school, now a noteworthy Guilford County landmark, became a famous African American preparatory school during the early 1900s. Young people from well-to-do African American families in the United States and six foreign nations were educated there by Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a woman determined to "create a mecca of education for black youth." The successful lives of her students provided a lasting legacy. Tracey Burns-Vann is the historic site manager of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, located on the Palmer Institute site. Her co-author (and husband), Andre Vann, is assistant dean of students at N.C. Central University.
My fiction selections include two first-rate novels and one collection of sharp-witted short stories.
Hissy Fit by Mary Kay Andrews (HarperCollins, $34.95). In this hoot of a book, the protagonist, sassy Keeley Murdock, frequently has hissy fits. She loses it when she catches her groom-to-be making out with her maid of honor at her rehearsal dinner. She loses it again when she uncovers what really happened to her mother. And she loses it when Will Mahoney, her knight in a shiny yellow Cadillac, criticizes her interior decorating skills. Both a love story, a mystery and a gentle satire, "Hissy Fit" is great fun to read. This is the third published novel for Andrews, who lives in Raleigh. An added bonus is that the author gives us her Grits n' Greens Casserole recipe.
The Full Matilda by David Haynes (Harlem Moon/Random House, $14). This warmhearted novel introduces Matilda Housewright who "hails from a long line of African American retainers." Following in her father's footsteps, she works in the Washington household of a powerful U.S. senator. But after her father's death, Matilda, rethinking the years she has spent serving others, prepares to make a change. Using multiple points of view from the men who know Matilda best, the author produces a portrait of a captivating women ready to change herself and the world. Haynes, who perfectly captures the voices of his characters, has written several novels. He teaches writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program here in North Carolina and also at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Another Perfect Catastrophe and Other Stories by Brad Barkley (St. Martin's, $22.95). Barkley, a native of Greensboro, now lives in Maryland, where he teaches writing at Frostburg State University. Though he has moved away, many of his stories are still set in North Carolina. Most of his characters, if judged by the way they think and speak, also have tar on their heels. Though the author's work has been compared to that of Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford, these stories are uniquely his own. His words thrill, chill and amuse.
He writes most frequently of families: how they drive one another crazy; how they form unbreakable bonds. Barkley has previously published two novels. One of them, "Money, Love," was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.\ \ Sandra Redding regularly writes about books with Carolina connections. Reach her at email@example.com.