The godfather of Mafia books portrays 15th-century Rome as an underworld of a different kind.
Without Mario Puzo and his masterpiece, The Godfather, a whole library of Mafia books might never have been written. Dozens of films (including, but certainly not limited to, the Coppola versions of the book) would never have been made. Hundreds of television shows including — heaven forbid — The Sopranos would never have been aired. Puzo made the mythic mob.

The secret to the enormous success of The Godfather was the high-church gravity of its tone and the elegant architecture of its plot. Puzo could have been writing about Renaissance princes. Which, in fact, he does in his post-humous novel, The Family (ReganBooks/HarperCollins, $27), an epic of 15th-century Rome featuring such real-life characters as the Borgias, Pope Alexander, Machiavelli, Savanarola, and other wonderfully corrupt giants out of history.

Puzo’s book was finished by his longtime companion, Carol Gino, who is the best-selling author of The Nurse’s Story and Rusty’s Story. The story is simply too full of plots, betrayals, assassinations, and such to synopsize. Enough to say that Don Corleone would have had his hands very full doing business with this bunch, and that there is a certain, peculiar kind of fun in reading about hit men who wear vestments, and in casting the inevitable movie. — G.N.

OUR READ Seamless and rich; same Puzo, new family.
EMPIRE SETTINGS
By David Schmahmann, White Pine Press, $21.95


A young white immigrant from South Africa, riding a bus in Boston, meets a vivacious young woman. He is studying the official papers that might grant him political asylum. Seemingly on a whim, she offers to marry him so he can stay in this country. He accepts, but he does not tell her that he is in love with a young black woman back home.

In this brilliant first novel, a South African-born Boston lawyer examines the forces that combine to bring lovers together and, often, to keep them apart.
Several voices weave the tale together, each of them strong, clear, canny, and passionate — the young man, his imperious mother, his radical sister, the African girl, and an old family servant.

We like to think that when, with whom, and under what circumstances we fall in love are determined by fate. This moving story suggests personal-ity and even politics play the greater roles. —

OUR READ Lives up to the buzz it's been generating.
DIXIE
By Curtis Wilkie, Scribner, $26


Much has been written about the civil rights struggle in the Old South, most of it by Yankees. Here, a true son of Dixie tells what it was like to be a Southerner in those decades starting in the mid-1950s when sit-ins, marches, burnings, beatings, and murder finally gave way to what is sometimes called the New South (a phrase the author detests).

Native Mississippian, descendant of Confederate soldiers, and Ole Miss graduate, Wilkie saw change coming, and became first a witness and finally a participant. For nearly 40 years, he covered the South, in the words of his Boston Globe editor, “like a foreign country.” Foreign no more, he has returned to a home he finds vastly changed, yet somewhat the same.

“We deliberately set ourselves apart from the rest of America during the Civil War,” he writes, “and continue, to this day, to live as spiritual citizens of a nation that existed for only four years in another century.” —

OUR READ An eloquent window into the true South.

MIST ON THE RIVER
By Michael Checchio, St. Martin's Press, $23.95

The steelhead is, in the minds of certain devoted anglers, the noblest fish that swims. A rainbow trout that goes from fresh water to salt before returning to the river to spawn (but not necessarily die, as salmon always do), the steelhead is both strong and beautiful. Fishing for it in the big, wild rivers of the Pacific Northwest, you’re dwarfed by the landscape and might even find yourself sharing a bank with a grizzly. Steelhead fishing is the antithesis of the willow creel, English chalk stream, dainty dry fly vision of angling.

Mist on the River is a chronicle of Checchio’s own pursuit of the steelhead and a meditation on the fish, angling, and the ineluctable appeal of the world’s remaining wild places and creatures. Without seeming at all the pedant, he tosses off references to Joseph Conrad and F. Scott Fitzgerald in an account of a trip to one of the great steelhead rivers of British Columbia.

A writer who fishes, rather than a fisher-man who writes, Checchio is, mercifully, more concerned with literary standards than with descriptions of big fish and how he caught them, and has written a book that will appeal even to those who have never cast a fly or dreamed of catching a steelhead just out of the salt — still bright, strong, and incomparably wild. — G.N.

OUR READ Checchio casts a compelling and beautiful tale.


writer for the dallas morning news. norman is the author of nine novels and several nonfiction books.