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Getting together with relatives at a family reunion can be one of life's greatest pleasures, if you like your kinfolk well enough.

Even the ones you aren't crazy about can be worth catching up on if their life stories have turned out to be interesting - or if there is juicy gossip to hear.

"The Godfather Returns," Mark Winegardner's sequel to Mario Puzo's 1969 best-seller, is an opportunity to catch up on a family that many Americans feel they know intimately, even if they wouldn't like to live next door to them: the Corleone clan, Sicily's best-known export. Although Don Vito, the original Godfather, and his blood(y) relatives are fictional, they have come to seem at least as real as John Gotti.

Winegardner's novel fills in a number of gaps in Puzo's book, and the movies that followed it, concerning the don, his family and their circle of murderous, and murdered, associates.

Set in the Cold War years between 1955 and 1962, "The Godfather Returns" answers "where are they now?" questions about characters such as Don Vito Corleone's weak son Fredo. He has changed his name to Fred and hosts a television show in Las Vegas. This unlikely career move gives Winegardner the opportunity to have Fredo interview Sinatra-simulacrum Johnny Fontane about topics such as the state of rock 'n' roll during the Elvis Presley era.

Personally, I had always wondered what sort of lives the women within the Godfather's circle endured, besides being perpetually kept in the dark about their menfolk's business. At last, Kay, Don Michael Corleone's wife, has more to do than stand in a hallway while a door shuts in her face.

In fact, we find out that she has formed an interest in modern art - Rothko, Pollock and Warhol in particular - along with Theresa, who is married to Tom Hagen, Michael's legal adviser and de facto adopted brother. This intellectual pursuit adds some much-needed depth to women whose opinions on anything else are never welcomed by their husbands.

However, no one picks up a book about the Mafia, fictional or otherwise, to read about music or art. True to its genre, "The Godfather Returns" begins with a gangland murder and keeps up the pace for more than 400 pages. The violence and intrigue sweep through dozens of lives from New York to Las Vegas, and from the nation's capital to Cuba.

The first killing is committed by one of Michael's top soldiers, Fausto Dominick "Nick" Geraci Jr., who remains one of the key characters throughout the novel. As the years roll by, he and his boss are, depending on the situation, working together or attacking each other. The friction between these two men, who need each other in order to achieve their power-grabbing goals, provides much of the suspense.

So do the actions of many other characters - so many, in fact, that I was grateful to Winegardner for providing a two-page list of them before launching his story. On just the first page of the opening chapter, he mentions six characters, and it takes some concentration to keep everyone straight as more and more people enter the tale and leave (often feet-first).

The comparisons to Puzo's original novel and its prose style are inevitable, and readers will differ in their opinions. Winegardner has his tough-guy narration down pat, including the vulgar vocabulary, but some fans of pure action may become annoyed at the attention to unnecessary detail that he occasionally provides.

"The Godfather Returns" is worth reading by anyone who wants to see how one novelist envisions the later years of these murderous Mafiosi. But at some point in the future, will there need to be any more installments in the Corleone chronicles? Fuggedaboutit! (Random House; $26.95)

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