1. “The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd.
Is there any fictional setting more delicious than the seamy underbelly of Victorian England? Lynn Shepherd dives deep under the prim-and-proper surface of 1850s London with this superbly atmospheric tale of a young detective on the hunt for a missing child and a mysterious killer who might just be a young Jack the Ripper. Street urchins, Whitechapel prostitutes, powerful men with depraved secrets, not-so-insane patients locked up in lunatic asylums, and a Dickensian Bleak House twist make this one a winner—and better yet, the first in a series. Shepherd's young detective goes on to star in at least two more adventures.
Buy for: your mother, if like mine she is pining for the return of “Penny Dreadful.”
2. “Praetorian” by S.J.A. Turney
Delicious unpredictability is what sets “Praetorian” apart from the rest of the guts-and-glory Roman HF out there. A villain looks like he's shaping up to be a long-term adversary, only to be suddenly killed off. Emperor Commodus comes onto the scene, trailing hints of madness, hubris, and Joaquin Phoenix, but is unexpectedly . . . a nice guy? You never quite know where the twisting path of the plot will take you, so all you can do is follow along with stalwart and endlessly likable legionary Rufinus as he is promoted from simple legionary to Praetorian guard, and thrust into a world of plots, shadows, assassinations, and heart-stopping swordplay.
Buy for: that teenage boy in your life, be it son or grandson or nephew, who doesn't like history. He'll be sucked into Rufinus' adventures before he knows it, and probably beg for a gladius. Settle for getting him “Rome: Total War” and the sequel to Praetorian which is already out.
3. “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” by Beatriz Williams
A charming, quirky, witty dual narrative that snaps back and forth between Vivian, a '60s career girl struggling to make a name as a journalist, and Violet, her scientifically-minded aunt struggling to be accepted as a physicist in pre-WWI Berlin. Vivian's narrative as she tries to untangle her aunt's long-buried secrets is flippant, funny, and delightful.
Buy for: the most irreverent member of your Girl Squad. She'll see herself in Vivian.
4. “Defending Jacob” by William Landay
Read about teen killers in the media, and we all shake our heads. “How could their parents not have known?” William Landay dives into that question in this tense and terrifying tale where a teenage boy is accused of murdering a classmate, and quickly becomes the town pariah as the court case grinds on. The boy's staunchest defender is his powerhouse lawyer father, who wrestles legal demons and personal ones as he comes to face the question: what if his son is guilty after all? An unputdownable book that screams to a breathtaking climax.
Buy for: your legal beagle cousin. Watch him switch his dreams from prosecution attorney to family law.
5. “Rodin's Lover” by Heather Webb
Camille Claudel would not have been an easy woman to know, but she sure was a fascinating one to read about. The daughter of French bourgeoisie, she has zero interest in marriage or domesticity—zero interest in anything, really, except becoming a sculptor. Prickly, proud, disciplined, and obsessed, Camille pushes away friends, alienates suitors, and uses family, all in the fierce pursuit of art. Her partner in art and love is Rodin, who understands Camille's drive because he shares it. Powerful, poignant, beautifully written.
Buy for: your niece going off to art school. Tell her that if she starts hearing voices like Camille, for God's sake go to a doctor.
6. “Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen
The first in a fascinating new fantasy series revolving around a young queen struggling to protect her country from a terrifying neighboring empire which demands monthly Hunger-Games-like slave tributes. There is magic and mayhem and battle, but the real draw here is the young Queen herself: refreshingly plain, resolutely blunt-spoken, headstrong and compassionate and brave. She's a real girl who dreams about romance but has no time for it with a new throne and an incipient invasion on her hands—I look forward to the next installment in her adventures.
Buy for: that smart-as-a-whip little girl in your life, whether sister or daughter or just the kid down the block who you babysit. Promise you'll take her to the upcoming movie of this book once it comes out, starring Emma Watson.
7. “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey
Space opera for the ages by an author team who knows how to turn up the tension like almost no other writers I've ever read. The world-building is impeccable, the science is sound without drowning the story in techno-babble, the space-battles are thrilling, and the characters solid: an idealistic ship captain and his shattered crew running from a lethal secret in a world where humanity has colonized the solar system but not yet the stars. There are four books following “Leviathan Wakes” in the Expanse Series, and a Sy-Fy TV show airing this month.
Buy for: your geek buddy at work who hates how women in sci-fi/fantasy so often fail the Bechdel Test. She'll be in agony which Expanse character to cosplay next: tough-as-nails Marine Bobbie, brilliant engineer Naomi, or foul-mouthed little politician Avasarala.
8. “The Conqueror's Wife” by Stephanie Thornton
Stephanie Thornton is rapidly becoming my favorite author for badass women of the ancient world, and this is her best yet. The focus here isn't really on Alexander the Great, but on the people who surrounded him and shaped his legacy: his tomboy sister Thessalonike who yearns to be a warrior; scientifically-minded Persian princess Drypetis who seethes in captivity after her father is dethroned; ruthless beauty Roxana who craves power as Alexander's wife; and the lovable Hephaestion who is the conqueror's boyhood companion and lover. All these narrators are fascinating, and their voices interweave in a gorgeous chorus of stirring battles, opulent feasts, luxurious palaces, and a never-ending web of intrigue.
Buy for: that old college history professor you still meet now and then for coffee. He'll swoon for the lush historical detail. If you're feeling really evil, buy an extra copy for that anti-gay-marriage drone you drew for Secret Santa at work, and watch their heads explode as they read about all these sexually-fluid Greeks.
9. “Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy.
A tortured, beautiful, moving story of the friendship between four boys attending an elite Southern military academy, surviving brutal hazing and the agonies of first romance even as the school goes through its own growing pains with integration, institutional racism, and the looming threat of the Vietnam War. Betrayal and tragedy will strike one of the four before graduation, but the ending is full of a savage and gorgeous payback.
Buy for: your ex-Army dad. Ask him if all officers really had to go through hazing this horrible.
10. “The Tudor Vendetta” by C.W. Gortner
The third in Gortner's rip-roaring series about Tudor spy Brendon Prescott, who has his hands full this time around: a poisoning attempt on on the newly-ascended Queen Elizabeth, a missing lady-in-waiting, and a dire Spanish plot—not to mention a deadly adversary come back to haunt him. Tudor fiction can feel tired, but the Spymaster trilogy is fresh, fast-paced, and delightful.
Buy for: your uncle, the one whose wife made him sit through all of “The Tudors” and now consequently thinks the whole era is bodice-ripping and leather pants and pouty-lipped kings. Brendon's sword fights and spy games will balance the scales.
11. “Medicis Daughter” by Sophie Perinot.
This is Renaissance France meets Game of Thrones: dark, addictive historical fiction that coils religious strife, court intrigue, family hatred, and betrayed innocence like a nest of poisonous snakes. Princess Margot, daughter of the infamous Catherine de'Medici, is our guide to the heart of her violent, incestuous family: a French Sansa Stark who transforms from naive beauty to accomplished game player to woman of conscience.
Buy for: your sophisticated older sister, because she reminds you of Margot's worldly, witty, and hysterically funny mentor the Duchesse de Nevers. We all need such women in our lives.
And we all need these books in our lives, too. Hurry outside, go buy them--and Merry Christmas!